The Curious Symbolism of the Phoenix in Literature and Myth

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

The symbolism of the phoenix ought to be a straightforward matter. There are two things most people know about the phoenix: that it’s a mythical bird, no more real than dragons or unicorns; and that it’s famous for rising from the ashes of its own funeral pyre, symbolising resurrection.

However, there are a number of other symbolic details associated with the phoenix, details which are less well-known. Let’s take a closer look at the symbolism of this legendary bird.

The phoenix in ancient times

Curiously, phoenixes are said to resemble herons, but we might almost call them ‘super-herons’, because the phoenix, a bird of legend, symbolises resurrection and, by extension, immortality. Unlike the mortal heron, the phoenix can never die.

The word phoenix is ultimately derived from the ancient Greek for ‘red’: that fiery hot colour. However, it’s also linked to ‘purple’, perhaps suggesting the bird’s rare qualities (purple having a longstanding association with royalty). When the bird was placed on its funeral pyre, the flames were said to have a purging and purifying effect, which enabled the bird to arise from its own ashes and live again.

However, although the word phoenix is Greek, the myth of the phoenix actually goes back to the ancient Egyptians: the holy bird Benu (sometimes Bynw) was a heron that the Egyptians believed to have been the very first bird in the world. In the city of Heliopolis (literally, ‘City of the Sun’), Benu symbolised the Egyptian sun god: fire again.

The sun, of course, also ‘dies’ every day and then rises again the following day: a symbol of resurrection and the eternal cycle. Unfortunately, Benu only manifested himself once every half a millennium, so you had to be fortunate to catch him.

According to the ancients, the phoenix didn’t have a big appetite, subsisting on dew, of all things. The phoenix fashioned its own funeral pyre from aromatic twigs and herbs before climbing on top of it. The heat from the bird’s own body consumed it. Three days after its death (compare the Christian story of the Resurrection), it rose again from its ashes.

After the Egyptians and Greeks, the ancient Romans revered the phoenix, seeing it as a symbol of their glorious empire: enduring and immortal (though the Roman Empire, of course, proved to be anything but). And then, after ancient Rome and with the rise of Christianity, the symbolism of the phoenix – much like the bird itself – took on a new lease of life, symbolising the immortal soul, and Christ’s Resurrection. By contrast, the pelican came to symbolise Christ’s human nature.

The phoenix in fiction

In his 1952 story ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges describes a fictional sect whose members are found the world over. They have no holy book and belong to various ethnicities; their cult has just one rite, which is the way they pass the mysterious Secret to each other.

Borges does not reveal what this Secret is in the story itself, but he later responded to requests from readers, and stated that the Secret is procreation or copulation. The symbolism of the Phoenix once again comes into play here: procreation is, after all, the way human beings ‘regenerate’, or pass on their genes.

The phoenix in poetry

A number of poets have written about phoenixes, drawing on these features of the mythical bird’s symbolism. Indeed, phoenixes in English poetry are almost as old as English poetry itself: an anonymous ninth-century Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Phoenix’ is a 677-line work included in the glorious Exeter Book. It’s a loose translation of a Latin poem and has been attributed (tentatively) to Cynewulf.

Much like the Christian symbolism of the phoenix mentioned above, this Old English poem links the mythic properties of the bird to Christianity: the second half of the poem is essentially a long allegory drawing parallels between the phoenix’s immortal properties and those same qualities in Jesus Christ. You can read a modern translation of the poem here.

Indeed, even the most famous poet in English literature even wrote a poem about them, although it’s not one of his most famous poems. ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (it’s been called the first published metaphysical poem), William Shakespeare describes the funeral for the Phoenix and Turtledove (which represent perfection and devoted love respectively):

Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.

The phoenix represents perfection, but note that it is dead and placed in a funeral urn at the end of Shakespeare’s poem: there’s no rising from the ashes for the Bard’s phoenix.

However, most poets of the Renaissance, including the metaphysical poets, focused on the Christian application of the phoenix myth. The Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1621-95) wrote a translation of a Latin poem, published as ‘The Phoenix out of Claudian’, which treats the immortal symbolism of the bird:

This the blest Phoenix Empire is, here he
Alone exempted from mortality,
Enjoys a land, where no diseases raign;
And ne’r afflicted, like our world, with pain.

But in more recent times, poets have used the phoenix to denote more personal love for someone rare and precious: see ‘His Phoenix’, W. B. Yeats’s poem about his Muse, Maud Gonne:

There’ll be that crowd to make men wild through all the centuries,
And maybe there’ll be some young belle walk out to make men wild
Who is my beauty’s equal, though that my heart denies,
But not the exact likeness, the simplicity of a child,
And that proud look as though she had gazed into the burning sun,
And all the shapely body no tittle gone astray,
I mourn for that most lonely thing; and yet God’s will be done,
I knew a phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day.

That last line acts as the recurring refrain throughout Yeats’s poem, enacting the same idea of resurrection the phoenix symbolises; while Yeats’s reference to the ‘burning sun’ reminds us that, as well as embodying immortality, the phoenix is also, perhaps, the ultimate fire-bird.

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