The phoenix comes from Greek and Egyptian mythology where the original was a fabulous bird spiritually related to the sun.
Only one phoenix lived at any time. Just one. A male. Semi-immortal, he lived for a very long time. How long is uncertain. Ancient scribes say 500 years, or 1,461 years, or even 12,954 years.
Whatever his lifespan, he knew when he was dying. Then, in the highest reaches of a palm tree, he’d build a nest of aromatic gums and spices — cinnamon, myrrh, frankincense. The phoenix would settle onto these spices and sing a sweet song to the sun while that heavenly body ignited the nest. The phoenix died in his burning retreat, singing until nothing remained of him or his nest, except ashes.
Then, miraculously, a worm emerged from the ashes and grew into a new phoenix.
The fledgling was faced with the onerous task of gathering his parent’s remains. According to the Roman poet Ovid: “When it has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent’s sepulchre), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun” (The Age of Fable, Thomas Bullfinch).
At Heliopolis, priests of the Sun met and welcomed the new phoenix and its now mummified burden. With great ceremony, they escorted the bird while he laid his parent on the Temple of the Sun’s altar.
Afterward, the phoenix returned to Phoenicia. On both journeys, he was accompanied by hundreds of other birds; birds of every species, size and colour.
This story appears first in the literature of ancient Greece. The historian Herodotus (c.480 BC to c.425 BC) writes of phoenix as does Ovid (43 BC to AD 17). Many others before and after Ovid have tried to describe the phoenix. Most decided he was gloriously coloured and at least the size of an eagle. Some said his feathers were iridescent and seemed to flame.
Although stories of the phoenix arose long before Christianity, belief in the legend was widely held during the Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, this story of rebirth after death became linked to Christ’s resurrection.
Even the song of the dying bird was thought to show that man has a duty to praise God.
In English, we first find the word phoenix as fenix in Middle English. It came to us from Old French, but is from the Greek phoinix. No one knows whether the phoenix was named for Phoenicia or if it was the other way around.
Phoenix has had scant impact on English vocabulary, although it’s sometimes used as a synonym for someone of unsurpassed excellence or beauty — a paragon.
In astronomy, a southern hemisphere constellation is called Phoenix. There’s a phoenix palm tree. The capital of Arizona is Phoenix.
Phoenix is the registered trademark of some companies, a few of which have pursued trademark infringement court cases over the ownership of this ancient word.
In heraldry, we find the phoenix in the family crest of the House of Tudor where it symbolizes the resurrection.