The Phoenix

The phoenix is a mythical bird who is reborn from its own ashes.

The phoenix is one of the few mythical creatures in the world that is seen throughout almost every culture from Ancient Egypt to China. Though there are slight variations from one mythos to the next, most of its characteristics stay the same. It is always portrayed as a bird that either is the color of fire or made from it. The one characteristic that is the same for all of them is the creature's ability to resurrect. The phoenix can live a long life, how long varies from culture to culture. When the bird dies, it burns itself into a pile of ashes and from these ashes, a new phoenix is born. The Phoenix represents the cyclical path of life and death and because it is reborn from its own ashes, is seen as a symbol of reincarnation and immortality.

The earliest account of the phoenix is a bird called Bennu that comes from Ancient Egypt. The birds name means "to rise brightly" or "to shine". Some believe that a large extent heron was the inspiration for the Bennu. In one myth, the Bennu burst forth from the heart of Osiris, the Egyptian God of life and death. A different myth says that the Bennu created itself from a holy tree that was on fire. When its lifecycle reached its end, it would build a nest of cinnamon that would ignite and burn along with the bird. When it was reduced to ashes, a new young phoenix would arise.

In Persia, the phoenix is known as the Huma, which means bird of paradise. It is similar to the Egyptian phoenix, it will consume itself every few hundred years and of rise anew from the ashes. The Huma is said to be a compassionate bird whose touch will bring great fortune. It is believed that it spends its entire life flying, only coming to the ground to be reborn. It is said that great blessings come to anyone upon whom the Huma’s shadow falls.

The Greeks adapted the Egyptian Bennu and gave it their own name, the phoenix, meaning crimson. The Greeks and the Romans pictured the bird more like an eagle or a peacock. It is said that only one phoenix can exist at any one time. In Greek mythology, the phoenix lives in Arabia next to a well. Every morning as the sun rises, it bathes in the cool water and sings a song that is so sweet the sun god Apollo stops his chariot to listen. After 500 years, the phoenix will build a pyre with sweet smelling woods and spices for itself. It will light the wood on fire and be consumed along with the nest. After three days, it will be reborn from the ashes.

In China, the phoenix is called Feng-huang and is a symbol of grace, virtue, prosperity, and power. It is a representation of the union of yin and yang. It is a gentle creature that when it lands, it crushes nothing and when it is hungry, it eats only dewdrops. The phoenix represented the Empress while the dragon represented the Emperor. Only the Empress was allowed to wear the symbol for the phoenix. The Chinese phoenix has the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish. Unlike other phoenixes, the Feng-huang is truly immortal but will only appear in times of peace and prosperity.

The Japanese have a version of the phoenix as well. It is called the Hou-Ou, which means immortal bird. The Hou is the male phoenix and the Ou is the female. The Hou-Ou resembles the Chinese phoenix in appearance. It is often depicted as nesting in a paulownia tree and is thought to only appear at the birth of a virtuous ruler. Other traditions say it will only appear in peaceful and prosperous times. The Hou-Ou has been adopted as a symbol for the royal family. It represents the sun, fidelity, obedience, and justice.