The phoenix is one of my favorite mythological creatures. The power of fire as both destructive and regenerative is mesmerizing. The myth is essentially the same across cultures–the phoenix is a firebird who bursts into flame at death every 100 to 1,000 years and is reborn from the ashes. But there are some interesting varieties.
The Egyptian phoenix was called the Bennu, and was thought to be the soul of Ra, the Sun-God. It was not depicted in the traditional colors associated with the phoenix, but instead was a grey, purple, blue, or white heron. At the end of its life cycle, it would make a nest of cinnamon twigs and ignite, thereby burning completely to ashes. Once the new phoenix emerged, it would embalm the ashes of the old phoenix into an egg and deposit it in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis. The Greeks adapted the same myth to their own liking, making the colors more bright and fiery, and associating the bird with their Sun-God, Apollo.
The Huma bursts into flame every few hundred years. It is said that the Huma spends its life flying above the earth, never to land. To be touched by its shadow alone is said to bring good fortune, and should the bird alight on your shoulder, it foretells kingship. Catching the Huma is impossible, but just the sight of it will bring happiness to a person for the rest of their days. The Huma bird contains both male and female attributes, one on each wing/leg. It is also said to be large enough to carry off a whale!
Originally, the feng were the male birds and the huang female, but tradition later blended the two into a single entity, the Fenghuang, and made it female. The phoenix then became the symbol for the Empress and could be paired with the male Chinese dragon, who symbolized the Emperor. Unlike Western traditions, the Chinese phoenix is more like a chimera, and is said to be made up of various different types of birds. Phoenix are pure, and are said to only dwell where there is peace and prosperity, loyalty and honesty.
This is the mythology I chose to base my novel, Phoenix Feather, on. The firebird’s majestic plumage glows brightly like flames; even after a feather falls, it continues to glow. The firebird is a symbol of blessing and doom. It signals a difficult quest, usually inspired by the finding of one of those illuminated feathers. The finder, mesmerized by the bird, then embarks on a journey to catch it, but the journey usually ends in woe. The phoenix is also said to cry tears of pearls.
There are more legends and variations, not to mention popular modern day interpretations of these fascinating creatures (Fawkes in Harry Potter), but I didn’t want to get too encyclopedic on you.
While the feather by itself seems innocuous, there is a deep power associated with it. Like fire, it is neither good nor evil, but has the power to either destroy or refine. It’s entrancing by its beauty, and the potential to blaze with glory, yet it is also dangerous because of those very qualities. This feather and what/who it represents is both a catalyst for darkness and destruction, and the vessel of love and hope. In a world full of joy and sorrow, love and misery, this agent is a light seeking a balance between two inevitable realities in a sinful world, and is ultimately the final hope for something better.
I love the idea of the phoenix, and it’s so interesting to see how each culture views it. I wonder if the idea came seperately to each, or if one culture spread it to the others. (I’m assuming the Egyptian version was shared with Persia and Russia, or maybe Persia’s came first?)
Egypt is credited as being the origin of the myth that spread West. I think it’s interesting how different the perspectives are between Western and Eastern cultures when it comes to myths that are more or less global. Like dragons. Benevolent in the East. Monstrous demons in the West.
Always been a mystical creature in my mind. And you forgot the Harry Potter phoenix:D Great, informative post. Interesting to see how each culture represents the phoneix. Keep writing!
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Thanks for stopping by! I do a fair amount of research for each of my books, and thought it might be fun to share some of the mythologies I delved into. Glad some people liked it! 🙂
Speaking of, I bought ‘Phoenix Feather’ the other day and am so looking forward to reading it!!
Feel free to let me know what you think, the + and -. Learn to write another day, I say.
I shall for sure!
Thanks for compiling and sharing this! It’s fascinating to see how phoenixes are portrayed in different cultures. Great point about the different perspectives between East and West. Something I encounter all the time, haha.