Phoenix (mythology)

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A phoenix depicted in a book of mythological creatures[citation needed] by FJ Bertuch (1747–1822)

In Greek mythology, a phoenix or phenix (Ancient Greek φοίνιξ phóinīx) is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. The phoenix was subsequently adopted as a symbol in Early Christianity. While the phoenix typically dies by fire in most versions of the legend, there are less popular versions of the myth in which the mythical bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again. [1] Herodotus, Lucan, Pliny the Elder, Lactantius, Ovid, and Isidore of Seville are among those who have contributed to the retelling and transmission of the phoenix legend.

In his study of the phoenix, R. van der Broek summarizes, that, in the historical record, the phoenix "could symbolize renewal in general as well as the sun, time, the empire, metempsychosis, consecration, resurrection, life in the heavenly Paradise, Christ, Mary, virginity, the exceptional man, and certain aspects of Christian life".[2]


The modern English noun phoenix derives from Middle English phenix (before 1150), itself from Old English fēnix (around 750). Old English fēnix was borrowed from Medieval Latin phenix and, later, from Latin phoenīx, deriving from Greek φοίνιξ phóinīx.[3]

During the Classic period, the name of the bird, φοίνιξ, was variously associated with the color purple, 'Phoenician', and the date palm.[4] According to an etymology offered by the 6th- and 7th-century archbishop Isidore of Seville, the name of the phoenix derived from its purple-red hue, an explanation that has been influential. This association continued into the medieval period, albeit in a different fashion; the bird was considered "the royal bird" and therefore also referred to as "the purple one".[4]

With the deciphering of the Linear B script in the 20th century, however, the ancestor of Greek φοίνιξ was confirmed in Mycenaean Greek po-ni-ke, itself open to a variety of interpretations.[5]

Relation to the Egyptian benu[edit]

Classical discourse on the subject of the phoenix points to a potential origin of the phoenix in Ancient Egypt. In the 19th century scholastic suspicions appeared to be confirmed by the discovery that Egyptians in Heliopolis had venerated the benu, a solar bird observed in some respects to be similar to the Greek phoenix. However, the Egyptian sources regarding the benu are often problematic and open to a variety of interpretations. Some of these sources may have been influenced by Greek notions of the phoenix.[6]


In terms of physical appearance, the phoenix, when pictured or described in antique and medieval artwork and literature, will sometimes have a nimbus (a physical feature that emphasizes the phoenix’s connection with the sun).[7] Quite often, the oldest images of phoenixes would have nimbuses with seven rays, just like Helios (the embodiment of the sun in Ancient Greece).[8] Pliny also described the bird as having a crest of feathers on its head[7] and Ezekiel the Dramatist compared it to a rooster. [9] The phoenix is also commonly associated with royalty and the color purple.[10]

The phoenix was, generally, believed to be colorful and vibrant; Tacitus claimed that this was one aspect of the bird that made it stand out from all other birds.[11] Some thought it had peacock-like coloring, although there was no official consensus about the mythical bird's coloring in antiquity (although Herodotus' claim of a red and yellow theme was popular in many versions of the story).[12] Ezekiel the Dramatist claimed that the phoenix had red legs and striking yellow eyes, [9] but Lactantius claimed that its eyes were blue like sapphires[13] and that its legs were covered in scales and yellow-gold with rose-colored talons.[14] The anonymous poet of "The Phoenix (Old English poem)," the Anglo-Saxon poem describes the bird to be both like an eagle (as a fledgling) and like a peacock, (in terms of its plumage and coloring).

In terms of size, according to R. Van den Broek, Herodotus, Pliny, Solinus, and Philostratus claimed that the phoenix was similar in size to the eagle,[15] while Lactantius and Ezekiel the Dramatist both claimed that the phoenix was larger (Lactantius wrote that the phoenix was larger than the ostrich).[16]


Scholars have observed analogues to the phoenix in a variety of cultures. These analogues include the Persian anka, the Hindu garuda and Gandaberunda, the Russian firebird, the Persian simorgh, the Turkish kerkes, the Tibetan Me byi karmo, the Chinese fenghuang, and the Japanese hō-ō.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Van der Broek 1972, p. 146.
  2. ^ Van der Broek 1972, p. 9.
  3. ^ Barnhart 1995, p. 564.
  4. ^ a b Van der Broek 1972, p. 51.
  5. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 62–66.
  6. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 14–25.
  7. ^ a b Van der Broek 1972, pp. 233.
  8. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 246-247.
  9. ^ a b Van der Broek 1972, pp. 257.
  10. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 254.
  11. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 253.
  12. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 259.
  13. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 256.
  14. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 257-258.
  15. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 251.
  16. ^ Van der Broek 1972, pp. 252.
  17. ^ Garry & El-Shamy 2005, pp. 84–87.


External links[edit]