Bird of Paradise: Phoenix Redivivus

Thomas P. Harrison

Isis, 51:2 (Hune), 1960, 173-180

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"From the time of Hesiod in the eighth century B.C. until the scientific awakening of the Renaissance the Phoenix lived undisputed in the beliefs of the literate. Though aspects of the legend were altered by Herodotus, Ovid, Pliny, Lucian, the Physiologus, Lactantius and others, this bird of surpassing beauty remained the symbol par excellence of renewal through rebirth from its ashes. But the New Science, casting miracles aside, was concerned with actual identification in the vernaculars of those birds named by the Ancients. Yet, having lived in men's minds many times its allotted span, the Phoenix was not yet to die. For a time it was reborn as a real bird, the Bird of Paradise, whose flowing plumes were brought to Europe by spice traders from the Moluccas. ... How this real but mysterious bird came to be identified with the imaginary one of venerable tradition may be understood by a glance at certain attributes of the Phoenix. ... It is uncertain how long before Magellan's expedition the bird of paradise was known in Europe or even on the Asiatic mainland - perhaps for centuries. Whatever the date, it is not in the least surprising that this real bird from the East was for a time identified as the Phoenix. Contradictory though ancient authority was found to be - even erroneous on occasion as, for example, in its opinion that there was only one in the world - respect for this 'authority was absolute. To the reality of this reverence add the new birds with their marvellous plumage now arriving from the Indies and the conclusion is inevitable: this is the Phoenix! The very errors with regard to this distorted bird as well as the reports of its unique life above earth conspired to fix the delusion in the popular mind."

Language: English


Last update December 6, 2021