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Apart from the primordial deities who participated in the creation of the world in Egyptian mythology, the Bennu Bird was an animal-deity also with a primordial role and was associated with the deities Ra, Atum and Osiris. The Bennu bird was associated with rebirth, creation and the Sun and had close links with the phoenix, another famous bird from Greek mythology.
What is the Bennu Bird?
The Bennu Bird was a sacred animal from Ancient Egypt that had associations with the gods of creation, Ra and Atum. The Bennu Bird was said to have been present at the dawn of creation. It was worshipped in the city of Heliopolis, where the most important solar deities of Ancient Egypt were worshipped.
Some scholars believe that the Bennu Bird had the form of a grey heron, a type of bird that was prominent in a series of myths, including Greek ones. This heron might have been the inspiration for the depictions of the Bennu Bird in later times. However, in earlier times, the bird may have been a yellow wagtail, a symbol of the god Atum with whom the Bennu bird had close associations.
The Bennu bird was often depicted with the following characteristics:
- It was sometimes portrayed with a two-feathered crest
- The bird was often shown sitting on a benben stone, symbolizing Ra
- The Bennu Bird has been portrayed sitting in a willow tree, representing Osiris
- Due to his associations with Osiris, the Bennu Bird appeared in some cases with an Atef crown.
- In other portrayals relating to his connections with Ra, this creature appeared with a sun disk.
The Role of the Bennu Bird
- As the Ba of Ra – In Egyptian belief, several features formed the soul. The Ba was one aspect of the soul and represented the personality. When a person died, it was believed that their Ba would continue to survive. The Ba was featured as a bird with a human head. In some accounts, the Bennu Bird was the Ba of Ra. In this sense, the myth of the Bennu Bird had close links with that of Ra. Together with Atum, they were responsible for the creation of the world as we know it. Due to this connection, the hieroglyphic name of Ra featured a Bennu Bird in the Late Period of Egypt.
- As a Symbol of Rebirth – According to some sources, the Bennu Bird also had to do with rebirth, which enhanced the bird’s association with the sun. The name Bennu comes from an Egyptian word meaning ‘to rise’. Another one of the names of this animal was The Lord of the Jubilees, which came from the idea that the Bennu birth renewed itself each day, much like the sun. This connection with rebirth linked the Bennu bird not just to the sun, but also to Osiris, the god who returned from the dead with the help of the goddess Isis.
- As a God of Creation – The Heliopolitan myth of creation proposed that this creature was not a companion of Ra but of Atum, another god of creation. In this myth, the Bennu Bird navigated the waters of Nun at the dawn of the world, poised itself on a rock, and called for creation to take place. The cry of the bird set about the beginning of the world. In some accounts, this sacred animal also had to do with the inundation of the Nile, making it a necessary characteristic for life to exist. Depending on the sources, the Bennu Bird did this as an aspect of Atum; in others, it did it as an aspect of Ra.
The Bennu Bird and the Greek Phoenix
The Bennu Bird shared similarities with the Greek Phoenix. It is not clear which one preceded the other, but some scholars believe that the Bennu Bird was the inspiration for the Phoenix.
Both creatures were birds that could resurrect periodically. Like the Bennu Bird, the Phoenix took its power from the heat and fire of the sun, which allowed it to be reborn. According to Herodotus, the Phoenix died every 500 years, and then was reborn from its own ashes. However, the Egyptian sources don’t mention the Bennu Bird’s death, mainly because the death of gods was a taboo subject for them. However, the idea prevailed that the Bennu Bird was reborn from its own death.
So significant was the Bennu Bird that the Greeks took him as the base for one of the most famous mythological creatures of Western culture.
Symbolism of the Bennu Bird
As a symbol, the Bennu Bird had a variety of meanings.
- The Bennu Bird represented the rebirth of Osiris and the overcoming of death.
- It also portrayed the daily resurrection of the sun and the power of Ra.
- Its role in the creation and the existence of life was highly important, making it a symbol of creation.
- The Bennu Bird was also a symbol of regeneration, much like the phoenix who was said to die and be reborn from the ashes.
The Egyptians had a myriad of sacred animals in their mythology. Yet, the Bennu Bird might have been among the most important ones. The fact that people worshipped this deity in the same place they worshipped deities of the likes of Horus, Isis, and Osiris is a clear example of the central role this creature had. Although the Bennu Bird had some changes throughout history, its significance continued throughout the different Egyptian kingdoms.