The mysterious phoenix

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Phoenix in 13th century manuscript courtesy of British Library collection

There are magical birds in many cultures, but the most famous in western Europe is probably the phoenix. This is the bird that would elect to set itself alight when it was old, but would rise again from the ashes. The bird was said to live a very long time. The Greek poet Hesiod was perhaps the first to mention the bird, and he described its great age in about 700 BC:

The chattering crow lives nine ages of youthful men; the stag lives four times as long as the crow; the raven three times as long as the stag; but the phoenix nine times as long as the raven.

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15th century depiction

Another Greek writer, Herodotus, gave a more detailed account of the phoenix. In the 5th century BC, he described the bird as being partly gold and partly crimson and similar to an eagle, but he admitted to having only ever seen pictures. The phoenix was said to be arrive in Egypt every 500 years or so. When he appeared it was to inter his parent by sealing him in a ball of myrrh and then carrying him to the temple of the sun. There is no mention of being destroyed by fire.

As with many legends, the story grew and grew over time. What began as simply a long-lived bird, eventually became the more complex tale of the bird that burned itself alive. The first century Roman writer, Pliny, provides a more familiar account of the phoenix in his Natural History:

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-coloured 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. 

By the seventh century, Isidore, the Bishop of Seville, wrote down the legend as it was then known. The phoenix built not a nest by a funeral pyre for itself. Then, facing the rising sun, he ignited a fire and fanned it with his wings, and was consumed but rose again from the ashes.

lr Phoenix on St Pauls

The legend of the phoenix was to inspire people for centuries. It was a symbol of rebirth which was utilised by early Christians, and it particularly inspired the building of one famous place of worship. Christopher Wren was given the task of building a new St Paul’s Cathedral after the previous building had been destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. When stones from the wreck of the previous building were being moved, Wren spotted a fragment of an old memorial bearing the word resurgam – Latin for ‘I will rise again’. This was symbolic of the new church rising from the flames of the old one, and it inspired him. As a result, he depicted a large phoenix above the south door of the Cathedral.

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It is often said that the story of the unicorn might have its origins in early European reports of the rhinoceros. Similarly, might the story of the phoenix have been inspired by a real bird? Well, perhaps. The Latin word for flame is flamma, from which the word flamingo is derived. This association with flames, these birds’ pink-red colour, and the hot climates in which they live, has led some to suggest that  flamingos were a potential inspiration for the legend of the phoenix. Yet clearly the flamingo doesn’t look anything like the bird depicted by Christopher Wren, or even the one described by Herodotus, and flamingos live in large flocks: they are not solitary.

The phoenix may be entirely the creation of someone’s fertile imagination many centuries ago, but perhaps it was inspired by a recollection of this long-legged flame-coloured bird that an ancient traveller described after returning from some far-flung territory… We will never know.

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