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The image of a magnificent bird that bursts into flames periodically, only to rise from the ashes, has captured human imagination for thousands of years. What is it about the phoenix that continues to endure? We explore these questions and more in this guide on the phoenix symbol.
History of the Phoenix
There are many variations of the phoenix across the globe, such as the simurgh of ancient Persia and the feng huang of China. These birds were of great significance to their cultures, just as the phoenix was to the Ancient Greeks.
The myth of the phoenix comes from Ancient Greece, and has been mentioned by Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Pope Clement I, among others. However, some believe that the origins of this mythical figure are rooted in Ancient Egypt, where a heron bird called the bennu was worshipped as part of their creation myths.
Bennu was an avatar of Osiris, one of the most important gods of ancient Egypt. One of the first mentions of the bennu comes from the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in the 5th century. He sceptically details the Egyptians worship of a sacred bird, stating that the bird:
- Dies every 500 years
- Is fiery-colored
- Is similar in size to the eagle
- Brings the dead parent bird in a ball of myrrh from Arabia to Egypt
There is some speculation that the bennu may have influenced the Greek myth of the phoenix, but this hasn’t been substantiated.
The phoenix was believed to be a colorful bird that stood out from all others. However, the numerous accounts of the phoenix don’t agree on its appearance. Some general points relating to the phoenix appearance include:
- The phoenix was a colorful bird and stood out from other birds because of its coloration
- It may have had the colors of a peacock
- Herodetus states that the phoenix has the colors of fire – red and yellow
- Some sources state that the phoenix had sapphire-blue eyes, while others mention them to be yellow
- The phoenix had yellow gold scales on its legs
- Its talons were pink in color
- Some say it was similar in size to an eagle while other accounts mention the size of an ostrich
Symbolic Meaning of the Phoenix
The life and death of the phoenix make for an excellent metaphor for the following concepts:
- The Sun – The symbolism of the phoenix is often associated with that of the sun. Like the sun, the phoenix is born, lives a set period of time and then dies, only to repeat the whole process. In some ancient depictions of the phoenix, it’s portrayed with a halo as a reminder of its connection to the sun.
- Death and Resurrection – The symbol of the phoenix was adopted by early Christians as a metaphor for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Many early Christian tombstones display phoenixes.
- Healing – Recent additions to the legend of the phoenix claim that it’s tears have the ability to heal people. The simurgh, the Persian version of the phoenix, could also heal mortals, with some claiming that it should be adopted as the symbol of medicine in Iran.
- Creation – Within its decline and death is embedded the seed of the new. Thus, the phoenix represents creation and eternal life.
- Fresh Beginnings – The phoenix dies, only to be reborn, rejuvenated and young. This holds the concept that the end is just another beginning. It’s a symbol of fresh beginnings, positivity and hope.
- Strength – In modern use, the phrase ‘rise like a phoenix’ is used to denote overcoming adversity, emerging from a crisis stronger and more powerful than before.
Phoenix in Use Today
The phoenix is an enduring metaphor that continues to appear in modern popular culture, including in books and movies like Harry Potter, Fahrenheit 451, Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek and also in music.
In terms of fashion and jewelry, the phoenix is often worn on lapel pins, in pendants, earrings and charms. It’s also popular as a motif on clothing and decorative wall art. The phoenix is typically depicted with large widespread wings and long tail feathers. Because there’s no single accepted image of the phoenix, there are many versions and stylized designs of the bird. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the phoenix symbol.
The legend of the phoenix appears in many cultures, with slight variations. In the Western world, the phoenix remains the most popular of these mythical birds. It continues to be a metaphor for new beginnings, the cycle of life and overcoming adversity. It’s a meaningful symbol and one that most people can relate to.