Phoenix
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Source: Heritage Image Partnership Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 49v


 

Phoenix

Latin name: Phoenix

Other names: Feniex, Fénis, Fenix, Phénix

A bird that rises anew from the ashes of its funeral pyre

 

 
General Attributes

There are two similar versions of the account of the phoenix. In the first, it is a bird that lives in India. When it reaches the age of five hundred years, it flies to a frankincense tree and fills its wings with spices. In early spring a priest at Heliopolis covers an altar with twigs. The phoenix comes to the city, sees the altar, lights a fire there and is consumed by it. The next day a small, sweet-smelling worm is found in the ashes. On the second day the worm has transformed into a small bird, and on the third has the form of the phoenix again. The bird then returns to its place of origin.

The second version says that the phoenix is a purple or red bird that lives in Arabia. There is only one living phoenix in the world at any time. When it is old, it builds a pyre of wood and spices and climbs on to it. There it faces the sun and the fire ignites; it fans the fire with its wings until it is completely consumed. Some say it is the sun that ignites the fire; others say that the phoenix starts it by striking its beak against a stone, or that stones gathered with spices in the pyre rub together to create a spark. A new phoenix rises from the ash of the old.

Other versions of the story combine parts of the above accounts. The tale of the phoenix is very old and was widely known throughout antiquity, with many variations.


Allegory/Moral

The story of the phoenix is taken as an allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ, who had the power to lay down his life and to take it back again. The Aberdeen Bestiary adds that "The phoenix can also signify the resurrection of the righteous who, gathering the aromatic plants of virtue, prepare for the renewal of their former energy after death. ... Faith in the resurrection to come is no more of a miracle than the resurrection of the phoenix from its ashes. ... See how the nature of birds offers to ordinary people proof of the resurrection; that what the scripture proclaims, the working of nature confirms."


Sources (chronological order)

Herodotus [5th century BCE] (History, book 2): They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follow:- The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible: that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry; then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first; so he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird. (The History of Herodotus (London, 1858/1997) Rawlinson translation)

Ovid [1st century CE] (The Metamorphoses, Book 15, 391-417): "... there is one, a bird, which renews itself, and reproduces from itself. The Assyrians call it the phoenix. It does not live on seeds and herbs, but on drops of incense, and the sap of the cardamom plant. When it has lived for five centuries, it then builds a nest for itself in the topmost branches of a swaying palm tree, using only its beak and talons. As soon as it has lined it with cassia bark, and smooth spikes of nard, cinnamon fragments and yellow myrrh, it settles on top, and ends its life among the perfumes. They say that, from the father's body, a young phoenix is reborn, destined to live the same number of years. When age has given it strength, and it can carry burdens, it lightens the branches of the tall palm of the heavy nest, and piously carries its own cradle, that was its father's tomb, and, reaching the city of Hyperion, the sun-god, through the clear air, lays it down in front of the sacred doors of Hyperion's temple."

Lucan [1st century CE] (Pharsalia, book 6, verse 791-805): "Then copious poisons from the moon distils / Mixed with all monstrous things which Nature's pangs / Bring to untimely birth ... nor ashes fail / Snatched from an altar where the Phoenix died".

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 2): The phoenix, of which there is only one in the world, is the size of an eagle. It is gold around the neck, its body is purple, and its tail is blue with some rose-colored feathers. It has a feathered crest on its head. No one has ever seen the Phoenix feeding. In Arabia it is sacred to the sun god. It lives 540 years; when it is old it builds a nest from wild cinnamon and frankincense, fills the nest with scents, and lies down on it until it dies. From the bones and marrow of the dead phoenix there grows a sort of maggot, which grows into a bird the size of a chicken. This bird performs funeral rites for its predecessor, then carries the whole nest to the City of the Sun near Panchaia and places it on an alter there.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:22): The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, which gets its name from its purple (phoeniceus) color; or because it is singular and unique in the world and the Arabs call singular and unique phoenix. It lives for 500 years or more. When it sees that it has grown old it builds a pyre for itself from spices and twigs, and facing the rays of the rising sun ignites a fire and fans it with its wings, and rises again from its own ashes.

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): There is a bird named the phoenix, which dwells in India and is never found elsewhere. This bird is always alone and without companion, for its like cannot be found, and there is no other bird which resembles it in habits or appearance. At the end of five hundred years it feels that it has grown old, and loads itself with many rare and precious spices, and flies from the desert away to the city of Leopolis. There, by some sign or other, the coming of the bird is announced to a priest of that city, who causes fagots to be gathered and placed upon a beautiful altar, erected for the bird. And so, as I have said, the bird, laden with spices, comes to the altar, and smiting upon the hard stone with its beak, it causes the flame to leap forth and set fire to the wood and the spices. When the fire is burning brightly, the phoenix lays itself upon the altar and is burned to dust and ashes. Then comes the priest and finds the ashes piled up, and separating them softly he finds within a little worm, which gives forth an odor sweeter than that of roses or of any other flower. The next day and the next the priest comes again, and on the third day he finds that the worm has become a full-grown and full-fledged bird, which bows low before him and flies away, glad and joyous, nor returns again before five hundred years. (Bestiaries and Lapidaries (London, 1896) Kuhns translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): Phoenix is a bird, and there is but one of that kind in all the wide world. Therefore lewd men wonder thereof, and among the Arabs, there this bird is bred, he is called singular--alone. The philosopher speaketh of this bird and saith that phoenix is a bird without make, and liveth three hundred or five hundred years: when the which years are past, and he feeleth his own default and feebleness, he maketh a nest of right sweet-smelling sticks, that are full dry, and in summer when the western wind blows, the sticks and the nest are set on fire with burning heat of the sun, and burn strongly. Then this bird phoenix cometh willfully into the burning nest, and is there burnt to ashes among these burning sticks, and within three days a little worm is gendered of the ashes, and waxeth little and little, and taketh feathers and is shapen and turned to a bird. Ambrose saith the same in the Hexameron: Of the humours or ashes of phoenix ariseth a new bird and waxeth, and in space of time he is clothed with feathers and wings and restored into the kind of a bird, and is the most fairest bird that is, most like to the peacock in feathers, and loveth the wilderness, and gathereth his meat of clean grains and fruits. Alan speaketh of this bird and saith, that when the highest bishop Onyas builded a temple in the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, to the likeness of the temple in Jerusalem, on the first day of Easter, when he had gathered much sweet-smelling wood, and set it on fire upon the altar to offer sacrifice, to all men's sight such a bird came suddenly, and fell into the middle of the fire, and was burnt anon to ashes in the fire of the sacrifice, and the ashes abode there, and were busily kept and saved by the commandments of the priests, and within three days, of these ashes was bred a little worm, that took the shape of a bird at the last, and flew into the wilderness. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Sir John Mandeville [14th century CE] (Travels, chapter 7): In Egypt is the city of Heliopolis, that is to say, the city of the Sun. In that city there is a temple, made round after the shape of the Temple of Jerusalem. The priests of that temple have all their writings, under the date of the fowl that is clept phoenix; and there is none but one in all the world. And he cometh to burn himself upon the altar of that temple at the end of five hundred year; for so long he liveth. And at the five hundred years' end, the priests array their altar honestly, and put thereupon spices and sulphur vif and other things that will burn lightly; and then the bird phoenix cometh and burneth himself to ashes. And the first day next after, men find in the ashes a worm; and the second day next after, men find a bird quick and perfect; and the third day next after, he flieth his way. And so there is no more birds of that kind in all the world, but it alone, and truly that is a great miracle of God. And men may well liken that bird unto God, because that there ne is no God but one; and also, that our Lord arose from death to life the third day. This bird men see often-time fly in those countries; and he is not mickle more than an eagle. And he hath a crest of feathers upon his head more great than the peacock hath; and is neck his yellow after colour of an oriel that is a stone well shining, and his beak is coloured blue as ind; and his wings be of purple colour, and his tail is barred overthwart with green and yellow and red. And he is a full fair bird to look upon, against the sun, for he shineth full gloriously and nobly. (The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1900) Macmillan edition of 1900)


Illustration

The phoenix is usually illustrated preparing its pyre, sitting in the flames, or rising from them. Several manuscripts show all three scenes; British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix (f. 49v) has the phoenix building its pyre and burning as successive episodes in the same painting; British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii (f. 93v & 94r) shows the phoenix gathering twigs and rising from the ashes in two separate drawings. Some manuscripts merely show a crested bird, not doing anything.


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