1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Phoenix
PHOENIX (Gr. φοῖνιξ), a fabulous sacred bird of the Egyptians. The Greek word is also used for a date-palm, a musical instrument like a guitar, and the colour purple-red or crimson. According to the story told to Herodotus (ii. 73), the bird came from Arabia every 500 years, bearing his father embalmed in a ball of myrrh, and buried him in the temple of the sun. Herodotus, who had never seen the phoenix himself, did not believe this story, but he tells us that the pictures of it represented a bird with golden and red plumage, closely resembling an eagle in size and shape. According to Pliny (Nat. hist. x. 2), there is only one phoenix at a time, and he, at the close of his long life, builds himself a nest with twigs of cassia and frankincense, on which he dies; from his corpse is generated a worm which grows into the young phoenix. Tacitus (Ann. vi. 28) says that the young bird lays his father on the altar in the city of the sun, or burns him there; but the most familiar form of the legend is that in the Physiologus (q.v.), where the phoenix is described as an Indian bird which subsists on air for 506 years, after which, lading his wings with spices, he flies to Heliopolis, enters the temple there, and is burned to ashes on the altar. Next day the young phoenix is already feathered; on the third day his pinions are full grown, he salutes the priest and flies away. The period at which the phoenix reappears is very variously stated, some authors giving as much as 1461 or even 7006 years, but 500 years is the period usually named; and Tacitus tells us that the bird was said to have appeared first under Sesostris (Senwosri), then under Amasis (Ahmosi) II., under Ptolemy III., and once again in A.D. 34, after an interval so short that the genuineness of the last phoenix was suspected. The phoenix that was shown at Rome in the year of the secular games (A.D. 47) was universally admitted to be an imposture.
The form and variations of these stories characterize them as popular tales rather than official theology; but they evidently must have had points of attachment in the mystic religion of Egypt, and indeed both Horapollon and Tacitus speak of the phoenix as a symbol of the sun. Now we know from the Book of the Dead, and other Egyptian texts, that a stork, heron or egret called the benu was one of the sacred symbols of the worship of Heliopolis, and A. Wiedemann (“Die Phönix-Sage im alten Aegypten” in Zeitschrift für ægyptische Sprache, xvi. 89) has made it tolerably clear that the benu was a symbol of the rising sun, whence it is represented as “self-generating” and called “the soul of Ra (the sun),” “the heart of the renewed Sun.” All the mystic symbolism of the morning sun, especially in connexion with the doctrine of the future life, could thus be transferred to the benu, and the language of the hymns in which the Egyptians praised the luminary of dawn as he drew near from Arabia, delighting the gods with his fragrance and rising from the sinking flames of the morning glow, was enough to suggest most of the traits materialized in the classical pictures of the phoenix. That the benu is the prototype of the phoenix is further confirmed by the fact that the former word in Egyptian means also “palm-tree,” just as the latter does in Greek. The very various periods named make it probable that the periodical return of the phoenix belongs only to vulgar legend, materializing what the priests knew to be symbolic. Of the birds of the heron family the gorgeous colours and plumed head spoken of by Pliny and others would be least inappropriate to the purple heron (Ardea purpurea), with which, or with the allied Ardea cinerea, it has been identified by Lepsius and Peters (Alteste Texte des Todtenbuchs, 1867, p. 51). But the golden and purple hues described by Herodotus may be the colours of sunrise rather than the actual hues of the purple heron. How Herodotus came to think that the bird was like an eagle is quite unexplained; perhaps this is merely a slip of memory.
- Some other ancient accounts may be here referred to. That ascribed to Hecataeus is, in the judgment of C. G. Gobet (Mnemosyne, 1883), stolen from Herodotus by a late forger. The poem of the Jew Ezechiel quoted by Eusebius (Praep. ev. ix. 29, 30) appears to refer to the phoenix. Here the sweet song is first mentioned—a song which, according to the poem on the phoenix ascribed to Lactantius, accompanies the rising sun. The bird is often spoken of in Latin poetry, and is the subject of an idyll by Claudian. See also Solinus, Collectanea, ch. xxxiii. 11, with Salmasius's Exercitationes; Tertullian, De resur. carnis, c. 13; Clemens Rom. Epp. ad Corinthios, i. 25 and the (? Clementine) Apostolical Constitutions, v. 7.