h Phoenix Qi: October 2007

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Phoenix Legends

A few legends of the Phoenix from Arabia, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Japan, the Jewish tradition, Native American, Roman, and Russian folklore.

Astronomy: Phoenix in the Sky

Phe (Phoenix) is a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere near Tucana and Sculptor. Phoenix was named by Johann Bayer in 1603 in his catalog, Uranometria. It lies between Grus and Eridanus.


The Arabic Roc

In Arabic legends, the roc, or rukh, was a gigantic bird with two horns on its head and four humps on its back. It is mentioned in the Arabic tales, The Thousand and One Nights. The Venetian explorer Marco Polo referred to the roc in describing Madagascar and other islands off the coast of Eastern Africa. According to him, Kublai Khan inquired in those parts about the roc and was given what was claimed to be a roc's feather, which may really have been a palm frond. Sinbad the Sailor also told of seeing its egg, which was "50 paces in circumference." The roc is associated with strength, purity, and life.


The Phoenix lived in Arabia. According to the legends, only one Phoenix lived at a time for 500 years. At the end of its life-cycle, The Phoenix built a nest as it was dying and set the nest on fire and was consumed by the flames. After its death, a new Phoenix would then arise from the ashes and the new Phoenix was reborn. This cycle was repeated over and over. The Phoenix was the symbolic representation of the death and rebirth of the sun.


The Chinese Phoenix

The legendary phoenix was a symbol of high virtue and grace to the Chinese. The phoenix, representing power and prosperity, reflected the empress, and only she was allowed to wear its symbol. The "phuong" is the male phoenix, and the "hoang" is the female. As conceived by the Chinese imagination, the phoenix has a large bill, the neck of a snake, the back of a tortoise, and tail of a fish. It carries in its bill either two scrolls or a square box that contains sacred books. According to tradition, the phoenix's song includes all the five notes of the traditional musical scale; its feathers include the five fundamental colors and its body is a composite of the six celestial bodies: the head symbolises the sky; the eyes, the sun; back, the moon; the wings, the wind; feet, the earth; and the tail, the planets. The phoenix appears only in peaceful and prosperous times, and hides itself when there is trouble. Therefore, the phoenix is both a sign of peace and a symbol of disharmony. In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is represented by the feng-huang, a bird symbolizing the union of yin and yang.


In China, Feng-huang, a bird that symbolizes the union of yin and yang, a sign of both peace and disharmony [sic].


The Phoenix from another of the Chinese Mythology offers another description. Under another name, Feng - it’s depicted as a bird of shining colors, very much like a pheasant. In remote times, The Feng supposedly frequented the gardens and palaces of righteous Emperors. As with all mythological creatures the versions, significance and the characters tend to vary according to culture and their belief.


The Chinese have a group of four magical creatures that represented the primodrial forces of the feathered, armored, hairy and scaly animals. These beasts are Bai Hu (tiger) or Ki-Lin (unicorn) for the West, Gui Xian (the turtle or the serpent) for the North, Long (dragon) for the East and for the South, Feng, the phoenix. Feng represented power and prosperity and was an attribute of the Emperor and Empress, who were the only people in China allowed to bear the symbol of Feng. It is the personifications of the primordial force of the Heavens, and is sometimes represented with the head and comb of the pheasant and the tail of the Peacock. However, the Chinese wanted to give Feng the best attributes of all beasts, and so it has the crane's forehead, the fowl's bill, the swallow's throat, the neck of a snake, the shell of a tortoise, the dragon's stripes and the tail of a fish. In its bill it carries two scrolls or a square box that contains sacred books. It is also said that its song contains the five notes of the Chinese music scale, that its feathers include the five fundamental colours (green, red, yellow, white and black), and that its body is a mixture of the six celestial bodies: the head symbolises the sky; the eyes, the sun; back, the moon; the wings, the wind; feet, the earth; and the tail, the planets. Feng is sometimes pictured with a fireball, representing the sun, and is called the "scarlet bird". It is the emperor of birds.


Feng (or Feng-huang) lives in the Kindgom of the Wise which is to the east of China. It drinks the purest water and eats bamboo. When it sings, all the roosters in the world accompany it in its five-note song. It only appears in time of peace and prosperity, and disappears in times of trouble. Unlike the European Benu, Feng can be male or female and live as a couple. This couple represents marital happiness. The Feng delivers the soul of the infant to the mother's womb, once she conceives it.


The Phoenix in Egypt

In Egypt the phoenix was usually depicted as a heron, but also as a peacock or an eagle. The brilliantly red and golden plumed Bennu was the sacred bird of Heliopolis. Identified as a heron with its long straight back and head adorned at the back with two erect feathers, the Bennu was later named Phoenix by the Greeks. The Bennu lived on the ben-ben stone or obelisk within the sanctuary of Heliopolis and was worshipped alongside Ra and Osiris. It was said to create itself from the fire that burned on the top of the sacred Persea tree in Heliopolis. The sun rose in the form of the Bennu each morning. Bennu was also considered a manifestation of Osiris, said to spring from his heart as a living symbol of the god. The Bennu symbolizes rebirth as it rises from the ashes, just as the new sun rises from the old.


Although it’s a common legend to many ancient civilizations, the origin of the myth of The Phoenix is attributed to the Egyptians, a civilization that was obsessed with eternal life. Phoenix is the Greek name given to a mythological bird offered in sacrifice to Ra, god of the Sun in ancient Egypt. This bird was similar to an eagle and possessed a splendid golden-red plumage that made it look like it was wrapped up in flames. In some versions, The Phoenix was shown in flames rather than in feathers.


The Egyptians were the first to speak of Benu, which later became the Phoenix in Greek legends. Benu is mostly depicted as a heron, with a long straight back, a head adorned with two erect feathers, and its plumage red and golden. It was the sacred bird of Heliopolis, city of the Sun, where it stayed on the ben-ben stone or obelisk, inside the town's sanctuary. Its true home was however the Arabian desert, it only came back to Heliopolis to die/be born. Benu was associated with the Sun god Ra and with Osiris, god of the Underworld, who is said to have given the secret of eternal life to Benu. It symbolises rebirth, as it rises from its ashes like a new sun rises when the old has died. It also symbolises a new period of wealth and fertility, when the Nile flooded the earth each year.


It is said that Benu had created itself from the fire that burned on the top of the sacred Persea tree in Heliopolis. Another story says that the heron Benu was the first life form to have appeared on the mound which rose from the watery chaos of the first creation, which links Benu to the nile and its periodical floods. The mound was called the ben-ben, and was the origin of the town of Heliopolis. Benu is, one way or the other, the personification of creation and life-force. After 500 years, according to Herodotus, Benu flew to the Sun temple in Heliopolis to build its funeral pyre with incense twigs. It then climbed onto it and waited for the sun's rays to consume it, singing a song of rare beauty as it did so. According to Pliny, from the ashes emerged a small worm that the sun's rays turned into a new Benu at the end of the day. It is also said that a new Phoenix rose immediately from it's father's ashes and flew with it's predecessor's emblamed remains to Heliopolis, accompanied by a flight of turtledoves.


The planet Venus was called the 'star of the ship of the Bennu-Asar' (Osiris), and is mentioned as the Morning Star in this invocation to the sacred sun bird, Benu:

I am the Benu, the soul of Ra, and the guide of the gods in the Douat *,

Let it be so done unto me that I may enter in like a hawk,

And that I may come forth like Bennu, the Morning Star.

* the Douat is the Egyptian Underworld.


The Phoenix in Greece

Greek mythology places the phoenix in Arabia, where it lives close to a cool well. Every morning at dawn it bathes in the water and sings a beautiful song. So beautiful is the song that the sun god would stop his chariot to listen. There only exists one phoenix at a time. When the phoenix feels its death approaching (every 500 or 1461 years) it builds a nest, sets it on fire, and is consumed by the flames. A new phoenix springs forth from the pyre. It then embalms the ashes of it's predecessor in an egg of myrrh and flies with it to the City of the Sun. There the egg is deposited on the altar of the sun god.


The Greek poet Herodotus wrote in one of his passages from his writings of The Phoenix’s legend that the Phoenix comes back every 500 years in order to search the body of its predecessor. After making a myrrh egg, The Phoenix puts the body of its predecessor inside it, and takes it to the Temple of the Sun located in Egypt.

500 years later, Tacitus and Plinius agreed that many of the ancient myths were confusing so they investigated the chronology of The Phoenix. Through their studies, they concluded that The Phoenix lived an equivalent to a Platonic year, a calculation determined by the alignment of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets known at that time needed to return to their original positions which in our time represents a period of 12.994 years.


The ancient ones believed that this enormous astronomical cycle was complete provided all conditions of the planetary influence were the same. In other words, The Phoenix was considered similar to a mirror of the universe. By the end of the IVth century, Claudianus had written some verses about an immortal bird, able to reborn from its ashes, an heir to itself, and a witness of that time.


The Greek believed that the Phoenix lived in Arabia, in a cool well. At dawn, each morning, it sung a beautiful song, so beautiful that the Sun god would stop his chariot to listen. The Phoenix is a unique bird, there may only exist one at a time, which makes it a solitary bird. It does not reproduce, which adds to its loneliness, as only its death will bring on another of its race. When it feels its end approaching (between 500 and 1461 years, depending on the legend), it builds a nest with the finest aromatic woods, sets it on fire, and is consumed by his own flames. From the pile of ashes, a new Phoenix arises, young and powerful. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and flies to the city of the Sun, Heliopolis, where he deposits the egg on the altar of the Sun god.


The Indian Garuda and Japanese Karura

In the Hindu and Buddhist culture, the phoenix is called Garuda, or Karura in Japan (see lyrics of "You Are Phoenix"). Garuda in some legends has an eagle's beak and wings, and a human body, with a white face, scarlet wings and a golden body. In others, especially in Japan, he is an enormous fire-breathing eagle with golden feathers and magic gems crowning its head. Garuda is the mount or avatar (earthly embodiment) of the god Vishnu (Hindu tradition), and is one of the supreme seers of infinite consciousness.

Kadru, mother of all serpents, had picked a fight with the mother of Garuda, that she locked away. Garuda then went to fetch the Soma, which gave him immortality, to free his mother from Kadru. Vishnu, impressed, chose him as his avatar or mount. However, Garuda kept a great hatred towards the Naga (family of serpents and dragons), and killed one every day for his meal. But a Buddhist prince taught him abstinence, and Garuda brought back to life the bones of many serpents he had killed.


The Jewish Milcham

In Jewish legend, the phoenix is called Milcham. After Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she became jealous of the immortality and purity of the other creatures in the garden of Eden. She managed to persuade all the animals in the garden to eat the forbidden fruit and share her fallen state. All except for the phoenix gave in to her. God rewarded the bird by setting him up in a walled city where he could live in great peace for 1000 years. And at the end of every 1000 year period, the bird was consumed and reborn from an egg found in its ashes.


The Native American Thunderbird

In the legends of native North Americans, the thunderbird is a powerful spirit in the form of a bird. Lightning flashes from its beak, and the beating of its wings is creates the thunder. It is often portrayed with an extra head on its abdomen. The majestic thunderbird is often accompanied by lesser bird spirits, frequently in the form of eagles or falcons. The thunderbird petroglyph symbol has been found across Canada and the United States. Evidence of similar figures has been found throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.


Roman Phoenix

In Greek and Roman legends, the Phoenix is the symbol of immortality and resurrection. It is associated with the Sun god Phoebus (Apollo). Its name "Phoenix" is the Greek word for "red", which links this magical bird to fire and the sun. It is said to resemble an eagle or a peacock.

The following is a text by a Roman author, Claudian, which tells the story of the Phoenix. This poetic version is translated by Henry Vaughan.


He knows his time is out! and doth provide

New principles of life; herbs he brings dried

From the hot hills, and with rich spices frames

A Pile shall burn, and Hatch him with his flames.

On this the weakling sits; salutes the Sun

With pleasant noise, and prays and begs for some

Of his own fire, that quickly may restore

The youth and vigor, which he had before.

Whom soon as Phoebus * spies, stopping his rays

He makes a stand, and thus allays his pains......

He shakes his locks, and from his golden head,

Shoots on bright beam, which smites with vital fire

The willing bird; to burn is his desire.

That he may live again; he's proud in death,

And goes in haste to gain a better breath.

The spice heap fired with celestial rays

Doth burn the aged Phoenix, when straight stays

The Chariot of the amazed Moon; the pole

Resists the wheeling, swift Orbs, and the whole

Fabric of Nature at a stand remains.

Till the old bird anew, young begins again.

* Phoebus another name for Apollo, but is also a poetic word to describe the sun.


The Russian Firebird

The Russian Firebird

by Cyril Korolev


In Russian folklore the Firebird (Zshar-ptitsa) is a miraculous bird. Its feathers shine like silver and gold, its eyes sparkle like crystals, and it is usually been seen sitting on a golden perch. At midnight this bird comes to gardens and fields and illuminates the night as brightly as a thousand lights; just one feather from its tail could light up a dark room. The Firebird eats golden apples which give any who eat them youth, beauty and immortality; when the bird sings, pearls would fall from its beak. The Firebird’s chants can heal the sick and return the vision to the blind.