Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Phoenix from the Flame

But I will rise
And I will return
The Phoenix from the flame
--Troy, Sinead O’Connor

I have left the poor blog desolate, dusty and seemingly dead.  But there’s still some life left.

Perhaps I can coax something to spring from the ashes.

The Phoenix is a fitting mythical beast for me these days.  For ancient scholars, it was the feathered embodiment of rebirth and immortality.  For current theologians (myself included), the idea of a personal rebirth keeps the mythology of the Phoenix alive.  Not to mention that whole Harry Potter character thing.

Fawkes, the bird that saves the day.

The earliest reference to a Phoenix-like bird is found in The Book of the Dead and involves the purple heron. The ancient Egyptians believed this bird sprung from the chest of Osiris, the god of death and the afterlife.  The heron, aka the benu, represented the soul of the rising sun--an entity that could never be entombed.  As the heron took flight every morning, the ancients believed it brought the light for both life and consciousness.  As it dived into the fiery sunrise, it brought the chance to be reborn.  So is a purple heron Fawkes’ long lost ancestor?
The purple heron.

When the Greeks came along, they put their own spin on the myth of the bird of the rising sun.  They dubbed it “phoenix”, a word that can mean either crimson or palm tree.  Greek historian Herodotus claimed the sacred bird was a real species that lived in a well by Phoenicia on a nest of palms.  He described it with crimson and gold feathers, resembling an eagle.  The Greek Sun god Helios was rumored to stop by each morning to hear the beautiful song of the Phoenix as it bathed in the well.  Let’s hope the people of Phoenicia had an alternate water source.  

The Roman poet Ovid also wrote about the Phoenix, claiming it ate nothing but air and frankincense.  Ovid gave detailed accounts of the bird’s fiery demise, although given that sort of diet, my professional opinion is that the bird died of starvation instead.  Especially since spontaneous combustion cases usually are linked to the more corpulent birds among us.

The Greek Phoenix had a 500-1000 year lifespan and was said to be a solitary creature (generally male).  So perhaps the spontaneous combustion gig is actually a consequence of being lonely and sexually frustrated for a millenia.  Then again, maybe he was just tired of having Helios stop by every day for a little cheap voyeurism.  
"Yeah, wash that wing a little longer."
Raphael Mengs "Helios as Midday"

According to ancient historians, at the end of its life, the Phoenix built its nest from oak branches or palm trees, anointed its wings in spices and aromatics in a disturbing sort of self-basting, and then settled in for the big bang.  Fear not though, after the parent bird bit the proverbial dust, a new Phoenix arose.  As a last tribute to its predecessor, the young Phoenix gathered the remains of the funeral pyre into a sacred egg and took them to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, depositing it in the temple of the Sun.  This cycle of adult to egg was a symbol of the cycle of life and its continual flow.

Tacitus, a Roman historian, supported the claim that the Phoenix was indeed a real animal in his Annals of Imperial Rome, citing that one was seen during Claudius’s reign.  He espoused the healing powers of the ashes of the Phoenix--although certainly with a 500 year production wait, probably not the best pharmaceutical out there.  

The poet Martial also included the phoenix in his works as a symbol of Rome’s eternity.  From there, some early Christians used it as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection before the cross caught on.
Roman fresco showing Christ with a Phoenix

Of all the myths of the Phoenix, I find the Chinese myth of the Feng Huang the most intriguing.  In Chinese mythology, the Phoenix is the symbol of sacred power granted to the Empress--a symbol of the female power.  It is often pictured together with the dragon, a symbol of the male power.  Together they represent the merger of the yin and yang (male and female).  It is a bird of grace and elegance, with courage, wisdom and was seen as a sign of good luck and justice.

The Feng Huang has been described with a cock’s head, a snake’s neck, a swallow’s beak and a tortoise’s back.  However, in most artists’ renditions, the creature is transformed into a magnificent bird reminiscent of a peacock.  The colors in its feathers (red, white, yellow, green, and black) represent the qualities of virtue, duty, integrity, humanity, and dependability.  The symbol was so well known in Chinese culture that Confucius used it in his philosophical teachings, saying that "the phoenix appears no more,”  when he spoke of corruption in the Chinese government.

In literature, the Phoenix is a popular piece of symbolism.  Shakespeare and Hans Christian Anderson both have poetry dedicated to the creature.  Eudora Welty’s character Phoenix represents the regeneration of the South in the short story, The Worn Path.  Sylvia Plath in
Lady Lazarus alludes to the Phoenix in the line “Out of the ash, I rise with my red hair.  And I eat men like air.”
Terri Rosario's interpretation of the Phoenix

There’s even a flower with the moniker, and is connected to a Chinese folktale.  The Phoenix fairy flower came to be after Ling-Li, a virtuous woman sews herself a beautiful wedding robe.  Unfortunately, her evil neighbor steals the robe and destroys it out of spite.  The scraps are blessed by fairies, and begin grow in Ling-Li’s garden.  The story is a tale of the triumph of a pure soul and its ability to rise above devastation.  In the states, the Phoenix fairy flower is related to a wildflower called jewelweed.
Jewelweed, a relative of the Phoenix fairy flower

Spring is a time of renewal for me.  The miracle of watching the seasons change fills me with inner unrest--a demand that I clean out the closet of my soul.  This year, I’ve hit a wall.  The hard fact that the things I want are not materializing as I had hoped.  I have to create something from the ashes, so you may not hear much from me until I’ve filled my feathers with spice, laid on my nest of palms and let go of the past.  Let's hope I'm more successful than these dudes doing the cinnamon challenge.

I will return.  Like the Phoenix from the flame.

How do you rise from the ashes?



  1. Didn't realize there was so much to the Pheonix.
    Good to hear from you, Julie!

  2. Yes, grow those feathers and rise!

    Also, I love that Sylvia Plath quote. Beautiful.

  3. Where there is hope, we rise again.

  4. Anoint those gypsy wings in spices and aromatics in a disturbing sort of self-basting and rise!

    You have been missed.

  5. That self-basting phrase was too good. I guess if you're gonna go up in flames, you might as well smell good. Cover the yucky burnt feather stench, right?

    Wishing you lots of good fortune in your coming reincarnation. :)

  6. What a perfect post to describe our souls' needs for rebirth after crappy stuff happens (or no good stuff happens like we want it to!). I'm right there with you. Staying open and trusting the universe can be the hardest thing in the world, but it's a daily choice that we become aware of when we're sitting in our ashes. I have no doubt you will rise and continue to be beautiful. I love that image of the phoenix as the soul of the rising sun. Perfect.

  7. The line from Harry Potter where Fawkes catches fire and Harry is like (There was nothing I could do to save it...) had me laughing so hard.

    The self-basting line was equally funny.

  8. I love the Phoenix myth. What a great post about rebirth Julie :) Take care and we'll be here when you're ready.

  9. Your blog post made me think of this saying that I learned in Chinese: "望子成风," which is supposed to mean to grow up and be successful haha. :)

    I love the idea of rising from the Fawkes! When I feel like I need to mentally start over, I usually take some time for myself by walking in the arboretum at my school and thinking, writing in my journal to take any overwhelming feelings off of my shoulder. It just takes a couple days for me to get that stage of motivation and inspiration to begin again.

    ~Wendy Lu

    The Red Angel Blog

  10. Beautiful pictures and amazing story about the Phoenix! Best of luck on your quest, and you'll come back stronger than ever! Julie

  11. After our short getaway at the start of the week, I'm taking the rest of this week to clear clutter in my head and around me. I'm feeling more refreshed by the day. You'll find your way, too.

  12. As always, fascinating with a dash of humor. :)

    (Maybe the phoenix didn't spontaneously combust but Helios got too close from his tom-peeping and roasted the bird accidentally? Just a thought. Hehe!)

  13. Just now stumbled upon your Blog,what a happy accident ha! About 6 yrs.ago while researching for a piece I was writing, that Great Mystical Firebird found it's way into my world.
    And like discovering your rich & inspiring post, this creature has been turning up(always unexpectedly)ever since.
    So be for-warned brave heart, this winged one is more power than myth!

    "the time is now,the power is YOU"
    ~ take flight......

  14. Phoenix Myth collection and the ancient belive with image is awesome idea!The Roman poet Ovid thought also wonderful.

  15. Good luck to you, Julie!
    All of us have slumps in various aspects of our lives. But we prevail. Hope to see you on here sooner than later, girl!

  16. Babe, I loved getting your comments on back posts while I was in Hawai'i. G. Wiz misses the gypsy.

  17. Wishing you the very best. You will rise! When you want to, you will.

  18. Missing you - you reborn yet - WAITING!

  19. One theory about the phoenix is that it was a now extinct bird which used to incubate its eggs by burying them on the slopes of volcanoes. The heat from the ash and fumaroles would hatch the eggs and the chicks would emrge 'from the ashes'. There are birds today who use this method.

  20. Hi Julie! hope things are going well with you. When you return, here is an award for you:



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