Mythological bird from Egypt. The Egyptian mythology and its Greek interpretations
must be distinguished.
In Egyptian mythology, the bird benu (or purple heron) played an important
role. During the flood of the Nile, this beautiful, bluish bird rests on high
places and resembles the sun floating over the waters. Therefore this bird, sometimes
called 'the ascending one', was associated with the sun god Ra, whose ba (soul)
it was thought to be. The benu was especially venerated in the town that is usually
called Heliopolis ('city of the Sun').
According to the Heliopolitan myth, the benu had created itself from
a fire that was burned on the holy jsd-tree in one of the sacred precincts of
the temple of Ra. It had rested on a pillar that was known as the bnbn-stone.
The priests showed this pillar to visitors, who considered this the most holy
place on earth. In another myth, it was associated with the god Osiris, who had
once renewed itself. The bird had sprung from the god's heart.
Because the benu was associated with creation and renewal, it was
easily connected with the calendar. Indeed, the temple of the benu was well-known
for its time-keeping devices (clepsydrae) and the priest who was responsible for
The first Greek known to have mentioned the phoenix ('the 'brilliant
one'), was the poet Hesiod (c.700 BCE), who in The precepts of Chiron stresses
the phoenix's longevity of almost 100,000 years.
A chattering crow lives out nine generations of aged men, but a stag's life
is four time a crow's, and a raven's life makes three stags old, while the phoenix
outlives nine ravens, but we, the rich-haired Nymphs, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder,
outlive ten phoenixes.
The next step in the development of the myth can be found in section
2.73 of the Histories of the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus.
There is also another sacred bird called the phoenix, which I did not myself
see except in painting, for in truth he comes to the Egyptians very rarely, at
intervals, as the people of Heliopolis say, of five hundred years. They say that
he comes regularly when his father dies; and if he be like the painting, he is
of this size and nature, that is to say, some of his feathers are of gold color
and others red, and in outline and size he is as nearly as possible like an eagle.
This bird, they say (but I cannot believe the story), contrives as follows.
Setting forth from Arabia he conveys his father, they say, to the temple of the
Sun plastered up in myrrh, and buries him in the temple of the Sun. He conveys
him thus. He forms first an egg of myrrh as large as he is able to carry, and
then he makes trial of carrying it, and when he has made trial sufficiently, then
he hollows out the egg and places his father within it and plasters over with
other myrrh that part of the egg where he hollowed it out to put his father in,
and when his father is laid in it, it proves (they say) to be of the same weight
as it was; and after he has plastered it up, he conveys the whole to Egypt to
the temple of the Sun. Thus they say that this bird does.
Later sources tell us that the phoenix burned itself, and was born
again from the flames. This is the Greek myth that became most popular in our
own time; we can still say that something rises "like a phoenix from the
flames". The Jewish playwright Ezekiel (second century BCE) mentions the
bird in his play about Moses.
Another living creature we saw, full wondrous, such as man has never seen;
'twas near in scope to twice the eagle's size, with plumage iridescent, rainbow-hued.
Its breast appeared deep-dyed with purple's shade, its legs were red like ochre,
and its neck was furnished round with tresses saffron-hued; like a coxcomb did
its crest appear, with amber-tinted eye it gazed about, the pupil like some pomegranate
seed. Exceeding all, its voice pre-eminent; of every winged thing, the king, it
did appear. For all the birds, as one, in fear did haste to follow after him,
and he before, like some triumphant bull went striding forth with rapid step apace.
The Roman author Tacitus mentions an appearance of the phoenix in
34 CE, and during the reign of Nero (54-68), a phoenix was shown in Rome.
A generation later, the poet Martial used the phoenix as symbol of Rome's eternity.
Jona Lendering, ed.
This text is cited July 2003 from the Livius Ancient History Website URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks.