In Europe there lived a glorious mythological bird named the Phoenix, which resembled an eagle and a peacock. Its wings were iridescent, with feathers of red and gold on its body and head, like flames. The Phoenix was a large, elegant creature that fed only on air and spices and lived for 1,000 years.

When it knew that it was about to die, it flew around gathering spices in its wings and went to Phoenicia to build its final nest. In the morning when the sun rose, the Phoenix would sing in a magnificent voice as its nest, and itself, would burst into flames. Nine days later, out of the ashes a baby Phoenix is born. When it is strong, the new bird gathers the ashes of its mother and flies them to Egypt to place in the Temple of the Sun. Afterward, the Phoenix heads east for another thousand years, and sheds magical tears whenever it thinks of its mother.

The Phoenix is mentioned throughout history by some of the world’s most gifted thinkers:

Hesiod, Precepts of Chiron Fragment 3 (from Plutarch de Orac. defectu 2.415C) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic 8th or 7th century B.C.):  “A chattering crow lives out nine generations of aged men, but a stag’s life is four times a crow’s and a raven’s life makes three stags old, while the Phoenix outlives nine raves, but we, the rich-haired Nymphai (Nymphs), daughters of Zeus the aigis-holder, outlive ten Phoinixes (Phoenixes).”

Herodotus, Histories 2. 73 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian 5th century B.C.):  “There is another sacred bird, too, whose name is Phoenix. I myself have never seen it, only pictures of it; for the bird seldom comes into Aigyptos (Egypt): once in five hundred years, as the people of Heliopolis say. It is said that the Phoenix comes when his father dies. If the picture truly shows his size and appearance, his plumage is partly golden and partly red. He is most like an eagle in shape and size. What they say this bird manages to do is incredible to me. Flying from Arabia to the temple of the Helios (the Sun), they say, he conveys his father encased in myrrh and buries him at the temple of Helios (the Sun) [i.e., in the temple of the Egyptian god Ra]. This is how he conveys him: he first molds an egg of myrrh as heavy as he can carry, then tries lifting it, and when he has tried it, he then hollows out the egg and puts his father into it, and plasters over with more myrrh the hollow of the egg into which he has put his father, which is the same in weight with his father lying in it, and he conveys him encased to the temple of the Sun in Aigyptos.”

Aelian, On Animals 6. 58 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history 2nd century A.D.):  “The Phoenix knows how to reckon five hundred years without the aid of arithmetic, for it is a pupil of all-wise nature, so that it has no need of fingers or anything else to aid it in the understanding of numbers. The purpose of this knowledge and the need for it are matters of common report. But hardly a soul among the Aigyptoi (Egyptians) knows when the five-hundred-year period is completed; only a very few know, and they belong to the priestly order. But in fact the priests have difficulty in agreeing on these points, and banter one another and maintain that it is not now but at some date later than when it was due that the divine bird will arrive. Meantime while they are vainly squabbling, the bird miraculously guesses the period by signs and appears. And the priests are obliged to give way and confess that they devote their time ‘to putting the sun to rest with their talk’; but they do not know as much as birds. But, in God’s name, is it not wise to know where Aigyptos (Egypt) is situated, where Heliopolis whither the bird is destined to come, and where it must bury its father and in what kind of coffin?”

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 3. 49 (trans. Conybeare) (Greek biography 1st to 2nd century A.D.):  “‘And the Phoenix is the bird which visits Aigyptos (Egypt) every five hundred years, but the rest of that time it flies about in India; and it is unique in that it gives out rays of sunlight and shines with gold, in size and appearance like an eagle; and it sits upon the nest; which is made by it at the springs of the Nile out of spices. The story of the Aigyptoi (Egyptians) about it, that it comes to Aigyptos, is testified to by the Indians also, but the latter add this touch to the story, that the Phoenix which is being consumed in its nest sings funeral strains for itself. And this is also done by the swans according to the account of those who have the wit to hear them.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses 15. 385 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic 1st B.C. to 1st century A.D.):  “These creatures [other races of birds] all derive their first beginnings from others of their kind. But one alone, a bird, renews and re-begets itself–the Phoenix of Assyria, which feeds not upon seeds or verdure but the oils of balsam and the tears of frankincense. This bird, when five long centuries of life have passed, with claws and beak unsullied, builds a nest high on a lofty swaying palm; and lines the nest with cassia and spikenard and golden myrrh and shreds of cinnamon, and settled there at ease and, so embowered in spicy perfumes, ends his life’s long span. Then from his father’s body is reborn a little Phoenix, so they say, to live the same long years. When time has built his strength with power to raise the weight, he lifts the nest–the nest his cradle and his father’s tomb–as love and duty prompt, from that tall palm and carries it across the sky to reach the Sun’s great city [i.e., Heliopolis in Egypt], and before the doors of the Sun’s holy temple lays it down.”

Claudian, The Rape of Proserpine 2. 78 ff (trans. Platnauer) (Roman poet 4th century A.D.):  “All the sweet airs of Panchaea’s incense-bearing woods, all the honied odours of Hydaspes’ distant [Indian] stream, all the spices which from the furthest fields the long-lived Phoenix gathers, seeking new birth from wished-for death.”

Read the entire poem by Melanie Dellas:

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