Egyptian mythological bird of gorgeous plumage, sacred to the sun, reborn from the ashes of the funeral pyre which it made for itself when each life span of 500 or 600 years was over.
"At the top of a palm tree a bird's nest catches fire. It has been ignited by a spark struck from the hooves of celestial steeds drawing the chariot of Ra, the Egyptian sun god. Amid the flames a beautiful Arabian bird extends its golden neck and purple wings, but instead of flying off, it dances. Eventually, it is consumed by the fire and reduced to ashes....but this is not the end. Indeed, it is only the beginning for 500 years later a new bird is reborn from the ashes. It seals the remains of the nest in myrrh, wraps it in aromatic leaves, and molds it into the shape of an egg. This it carries as a sacred offering to the temple of the sun at Heliopolis, then flies away to paradise. Five hundred years later it returns to earth, where it begins again the cycle of self-immolation and resurrection a process that continues forever."
The phoenix, originating in the mythology of ancient Egypt, has become a universal symbol of rebirth and the most famous of all fabulous birds. Clad in feathers of red and gold, the color of the rising sun, it had a melodious voice that became mournful with approuching death. Other creatures were then so overcome by its beauty and sadness that they themselves fell dead. According to legend, only one phoenix could live at a time.
The Greek poet Hesiod, writing in the 8th century BC, said that the phoenix lived nine times the lifespan of the long-living raven. Other estimates went up to 97,200 years. When the bird felt death approaching, it built itself a pyre of wild cinnamon and died in the flames. But from the ashes there then arose a new phoenix, which tenderly encased its parent's remains in an egg of myrrh and flew with them to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, where it laid them on the Altar of the Sun. These ashes were said to have the power of bringing a dead man back to life. The profligate Roman Emperor Elagabalus (AD 205-22) decided to eat phoenix meat in order to achieve immortality. He dined off a bird of paradise, sent in place of a phoenix, but the substitute did not work. He was then murdered shortly afterward.
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Scholars now think that the germ of the legend came from the Orient and was adopted by the sun-worshipping priests of Heliopolis as an allegory of the sun's daily setting and rebirth. Like all great myths, it stirs deep chords in man. In Christian art the resurrected phoenix became a popular symbol of Christ risen from the grave. Strangely, its name may come from a misunderstanding by Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC. In his account of the bird he may have mistakenly given it the name "phoenix" because of the palm tree (Greek: phoinix) on which it was customarily pictured sitting in those days. In their attempts to identify the gorgeously plumed phoenix of Egyptian myth with a real bird, scientists tended to discount New Guinea's birds of paradise otherwise likely candidates because of the island's great distance from Egypt.
In 1957, however, Australian zoologists discovered that New Guinea tribes had exported bird of paradise plumed skins for centuries and that among those visiting the island, as long ago as 1000 BC, had been traders from Phoenicia in the Middle East. Another significant discovery was that the tribespeople used to preserve the skins for export by sealing them in myrrh, molding them into an egg shape, and wrapping this in burned banana skins a procedure that tallies almost exactly with the mythical bird's reputed treatment of its destroyed nest. Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that the brilliantly colored males of Count Raggi's bird of paradise are adorned with cascades of scarlet feathers that, during their courtship dance, they repeatedly raise aloft, while quivering intensely a spectacle reminiscent of the phoenix dancing in its burning nest. On reaching the Middle East, descriptions of this spectacle, combined with the egg-like parcels of skins, may well have been sufficient to inspire the myth of the phoenix.
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Sources: Article is scheduled to be reviewed.
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