As the Phoenix nears the end of its life it builds a nest of aromatic branches and spices – cinnamon twigs and myrrh were the most popular materials. It then ignites the nest and is consumed in the flames. Some Arabic legends claim the Phoenix rose from the ashes three days later, while others state the Phoenix was reborn and emerged from the still burning flames. The Phoenix features in mythology from several Middle Eastern countries.
The traditional Phoenix lived near a cool well, and every morning would appear to sing a song to greet the new day. So enchanting was the song the Greek sun god Apollo would stop to listen. It was thought only one Phoenix existed at any one time. The young Phoenix would gather the ashes of its predecessor into an egg made from myrrh and deposit them upon the sun god’s altar at Heliopolis, the city of the sun. The Phoenix lives on the morning dew, and nobody has ever seen one eat. It kills nothing and crushes nothing it touches. When injured the Phoenix can regenerate itself, so it is immortal and invincible and a mystical symbol of divinity. A Phoenix is also a healer, because its tears can heal wounds. Jewish folklore claims the Phoenix was the only animal not banished from the Garden of Eden with Adam.
The Ancient Egyptians’ fascination with the Phoenix arose from their own yearning for immortality and eternal life. They named the bird Benu (or Bennu), and it was depicted in the shape of a heron, with long legs and two long white feathers on either side of its head. The Benu wears either the god Osiris’ crown of Atef (white with ostrich feathers rising up from the sides) or the disc of the sun god Ra. The sacred bird of Heliopolis, the Benu is associated with the sun, and its image has came to represent Ra. The Egyptian Phoenix is credited with the creation of the Nile river, and was the first life form that appeared on the isolated rocks and islands after the floods that gave birth to the river. Its call is the cry that marked the beginning of time, and it is the god of time – and thus of the hours, days, nights, weeks months and years.
In Chinese Mythology the Phoenix is known as Feng Huang (or Fung), and is the second most respected creature after the dragon. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace, of power and prosperity, representing the union of ying and yang. It is described as having the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish – surely an unusual looking bird! The Feng Huang’s feathers are coloured in the five fundamental colours: black, white, red, green and yellow, representing the Confucian virtues of loyalty, honesty, decorum and justice.
The Japanese Phoenix is named according to gender: Hou-Ou or Hoo-Oo – Hou is male and Ou is female. It resembles its Chinese counterpart in looks, and is often depicted nesting in the paulownia tree. It only appears at the birth of a virtuous ruler, and marks the new era by flying down from the heavens to perform good deeds for people before returning home to await the birth of a new era. Some traditions claim the Hou-Ou only appears during times of peace and prosperity – in other words very rarely!
Persian mythology tells of the Huma, also known as the “Bird of Paradise”. “Huma” is Persian for “fabulous bird”. Considered an extremely compassionate bird, the Huma’s shadow brings great fortune to anyone it touches. And if it alights upon an individual’s head, even for just a moment, that person will become king. The Huma has the power to free the mind, breaking all limitations so the person will be a wise and considerate king. It does not kill for food, choosing instead to feed upon carrion. Both genders are contained in the Huma’s body, with each sharing a wing and a leg.
Another Arabian mythological bird is the Cinomolgus or “cinnamon bird”, which builds its cinnamon nest at the top of the cinnamon tree. Aeons ago cinnamon was a very rare spice, and much sought after. People would throw rocks or shoot arrows at the Cinomolgus’ nest in an effort to dislodged the cinnamon sticks when the poor bird took flight. Another tale claims the Arabians would scatter pieces of oxen or other beasts of burden at the bottom of the nest. The Cinomolgus, unable to resist such a tasty treat, would swoop down and carry the meat back to the nest. The weight of the meat would break the nest, leaving the joyful Arabians to gather the cinnamon sticks from the ground. This is why the Cinomolgus began to nest in cinnamon trees far from Human settlements, and sightings became extremely rare.
The Avalerion is an extremely rare bird from Indian mythology – there is only ever one pair of these birds. Every sixty years they produce two eggs. When the eggs hatch the parent birds drown themselves. An interest myth… unfortunately I’ve not been able to find much more information on these birds.
Russian folklore’s Zhar-Ptitsa is a magical, glowing bird from a faraway kingdom. Better known as the Firebird, its name means “heat bird”, and it is both a blessing and a curse to any captor. A large bird with a fiery crest and glowing eyes, the Firebird’s plumage glows red, orange and yellow plumage, giving the illusion of firelight. When removed the feathers continue to glow, and one feather has the power to illuminate a large room. The Firebird has been a staple of many fairy tales, usually based upon a quest to find the bird or one of its tail feathers. The hero finds the feather, and sets out to capture the bird – usually after a request from a parent or his king. The hero begins his quest with noble thoughts about the Firebird, but as his search becomes more difficult he begins to blame the bird for his problems. Many fairy tales use this quest to introduce a myriad of fantasy characters, many of whom are willing to help the hero capture the bird and return with him to his home.
There are other stories about the Firebird. One of the most popular beliefs is that the Firebird flies around giving hope to the hopeless. Legends say during flight the Firebird’s eyes sparkle and he drops pearls fall from his beak. Peasants gather the pearls which are traded. Some claim the mystical Firebird spends its days flying around the king’s castle, swooping down at night to eat the king’s golden apples. The most popular legend tells of a tsar who, fed up with the Firebird stealing his golden apples, tasks his three sons with capturing the bird. The tsar’s apples were very special, empowering all those eating them with youth and strength. The sons tried really hard, but were unable to capture the elusive Firebird. However, they did come close, and seized a few tail feathers. Sadly they brought the feather back to their father, whose disappointment turned to joy when he saw how the feathers lit up the palace rooms.
They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follow:- The plumage is partly red, partly golden while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does: he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry; then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first; so he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird.
from – Herodotus, History of Herodotus