1902 Encyclopedia > Phoenix


PHOENIX. Herodotus (ii. 73), speaking of the animals in Egypt, mentions a sacred bird called "phoenix," which he had only seen in a picture, but which the Heliopolitans said visited them once in five hundred years on the death of its father. The story was that the phoenix came from Arabia, bearing its father embalmed in a ball of myrrh, and buried him in the temple of the sun. Herodotus did not believe this story, but he tells us that the picture represented a bird with golden and red plumage, and closely resembling an eagle in size and shape. The story of the phoenix is repeated with variations by later writers, and was a favourite one with the Romans. There is only one phoenix at a time, says Pliny (JV.LT., x. 2), who, at the close of his long life, builds himself a nest with twigs of cassia and frankincense, on which he dies; from his corpse is generated a worm which grows into the young phoenix. The young bird lays his father on the altar in the city of the sun, or burns him there, as Tacitus has it (Ann., vi. 28). The story of the birth and death of the phoenix has several other forms. According to Horapollo (ii. 57) he casts himself on the ground and receives a wound, from the ichor of which the new phoenix springs; but the most familiar form of the legend is that in the Physiologus, where the phoenix is described as an Indian bird which subsists on air for 500 years, after which, lading his wings with spices, he flies to Heliopolis, enters the temple there, and is burned to ashes on the altar. Next day the young phoenix is already feathered; on the third day his pinions are full-grown, he salutes the priest and flies away. The period at which the phcenix re-appears is very variously stated, some authors giving as much as 1461 or even 7006 years, but 500 years is the period usually named; and Tacitus tells us that the bird was said to have appeared first under Sesostris, then under Amasis, again under Ptolemy III., and once more in 34 A.D., after an interval so short that the genuineness of the last phcenix was suspected. The phcenix that was shown at Rome in the year of the secular games, A.TJ.C. 800, was xmiversally admitted to be an imposture.

The form and variations of these stories characterize them as popular tales rather than official theology; but they evidently must have had points of attachment in the mystic religion of Egypt, and indeed both Horapollo and Tacitus speak of the phoenix as a symbol of the sun. Now we know from the Booh of the Dead and other Egyptian texts that a bird called the "bennu" was one of the sacred symbols of the worship of Heliopolis, and Wiedemann (Ztsch. f. Aeg. Sprache, xvi. p. 89 sq.) has made it tolerably clear that the bennu was a symbol of the rising sun, whence it is represented as " self-generating " and called "the soul of Ra (the sun)," "the heart of the renewed Sun." All the mystic symbolism of the morning sun, especially in connexion with the doctrine of the future life, could thus be transferred to the bennu, and the lan-guage of the hymns in which the Egyptians praised the luminary of dawn as he drew near from Arabia, delighting the gods with his fragrance and rising from the sinking flames of the morning glow, was enough to suggest most •of the traits materialized in the classical pictures of the Phoenix. That the bennu is the prototype of the phcenix is further confirmed by the fact that the former word in Egyptian means also "palm-tree," just as the latter does in Greek. How far the Egyptian priests translated the symbolism of the bennu into a legend it would be vain to conjecture; that the common people did so is only what we should expect; and it is to be observed that the monu-ments have not yet shown any trace of the element in the classical legend which makes the phoenix a prodigy instead -of a symbol—its actual appearance at long intervals. The very various periods named make it probable that the periodical return of the phcenix belongs only to vulgar legend, materializing what the priests knew to be symbolic. The hieroglyphic figure of the bennu is that of a heron ( bennu, or "^T* ball), and the gorgeous colours and plumed head spoken of by Pliny and others would be least inappropriate to the purple heron (Ardea purpurea), with which, or with the allied Ardea cinérea, it has been identified by Lepsius and Peters (Aelteste Texte des Todten-bachs, 1867, p. 51). But it must be remembered that the bennu in the Egyptian texts is really a mere symbol, hav-ing the very vaguest connexion with any real bird, and thb v golden and purple hues described by Herodotus may be the colours of sunrise rather than the actual hues of the purple heron. How Herodotus came to think that the bird was like an eagle is quite unexplained; perhaps this is merely a slip of memory.

Many commentators still understand the word chol, in Job xxix. 18 (A. V. " sand ") of the phcenix. This interpretation is per-haps as old as the (original) Septuagint, and is current with the later Jews, whose appetite for fable, however, is often greater than their exegetical sagacity. Compare Eisenmenger's Entdecktcs Juden-thuni, vol. i. passim. Among the Arabs the story of the phcenix was confused with that of the salamander; and the samand or samandal (Damiri, ii. 36 sq.) is represented sometimes as a quad-ruped, sometimes as a bird. It was firmly believed in, for the incombustible cloths woven of flexible asbestos were popularly thought to be made of its hair or plumage, and were themselves called by the same name (comp. Yakut, i. 529, and Dozy, s. v.). The 'anká (Pers. simwgh), a stupendous bird like the roc (rukh) of Marco Polo and the Arabian Nights, also borrows some features of the phoenix. According to Kazwini (i. 420) it lives 1700 years, and when a young bird is hatched the parent of opposite sex burns itself alive. In the book of Kalilah and Dimnah the sfmúr or 'anká is the king of birds, the Indian gañida on whom Vishnu rides.

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