The image of a colorful bird rising from the ashes is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word phoenix, and people usually derive different meanings from it. Some see it as a symbol of hope, while others take the inspiration never to give up. But what does the phoenix bird really mean and represent? Join us in today’s post as we explore this mythical creature.
What is a Phoenix?
Phoenix is a large, legendary, mythical creature that looks like a mix between an eagle and a peacock. Since no single universally accepted image or the phoenix bird real photo exists, several different versions of the bird exist around the world with slight variations. However, it is usually depicted as a large bird with colorful wings and a long, feathery tail. The wings of the phoenix have gorgeous hues of red, orange, yellow, and purple. Its eyes are blue and shine bright like sapphires.
What Does a Phoenix Represent?
The phoenix bird appears in literature and artwork in many cultures and has remained one of the most popular mythical birds even in the western world. To most people, it represents immortality and rebirth, but some also view it as a symbol of life after death. It is also considered a symbol of eternity.
Phoenix also symbolizes healing as its tears are believed to have the power to heal anything they come in contact with.
A phoenix rising from the ashes is also considered a symbol of hope by many around the world, giving them the strength and courage to stand tall in the face of adversity and rise again after being crushed down.
The Origin of the Phoenix Symbol
It is difficult to trace the exact origin of the phoenix symbol, but researchers have made estimations based on its appearance in legends, art, and literature. Some associate it with Greek mythology, while others trace the phoenix’s origin to Herodotus from ancient Egypt. However, a few scholars believe differently. According to them, Egyptian literature was likely influenced by classical folklore, which means the symbol of the phoenix bird existed before it appeared in Egyptian texts.
There is also evidence of the phoenix bird in stories and artwork from as far back as 1500 BC.
What is the Legend behind the Phoenix? The Phoenix Bird Mythology & Symbolism
Although stories and legends about phoenixes appear in several cultures, the exact origin of it remains a mystery. However, it is most strongly linked with ancient Egypt and Greece.
In both Egyptian and Greek mythologies, the bright-colored giant bird is associated with the sun god.
Phoenix in Greek Mythology
According to Greek legend, the phoenix was a bird that lived in Arabia nearby a cool well and would sing a beautiful song while bathing in it every morning. The bird would sing so beautifully that the sun god would stop his chariot and listen to it.
The ritual continued for thousands of years. During this time, whenever the bird feared its death was near, it would build a wood nest, sit in it, and set it on fire. When the old phoenix was consumed by the flames, a new one emerged from the ashes. It would then collect the remains of its predecessor in a myrrh egg, take it to the city of the sun (Heliopolis), and deposit it on the sun god’s altar.
This whole death and rebirth process of the phoenix would happen about every 500 to 1000 years. Greeks also believed that only one phoenix bird existed at a time.
Phoenix in Egyptian Tradition
In Egyptian texts, the phoenix was typically shown as a heron. In old literature, however, it was depicted as an eagle or a peacock with gold and scarlet plumage. It is also described as having a melodious cry.
In the Egyptian myth of the phoenix, the bird is also believed to be inspired by an avian creator deity called Bennu. According to the folklore, Bennu was once flying over the chaotic waters of Nun and stopped for a while on a rock in the midst of it. As he landed, Bennu let out a loud cry, marking the beginning of the end of the chaos.
Ancient Egyptians associated Bennu with the gods Osiris (the God of death and rebirth), Ra (the sun God), and Atum (the chief God who created all the other Gods). They believed that he had the power of self-creation or self-generation. There is also a belief that Bennu carried the sun god Ra’s soul.
According to one narrative, the very word Bennu comes from Egyptian words that literally translate to ‘rise and shine.’ This explains why Bennu has been associated with the legend of the phoenix bird.
Some historians also believe that the Greek legend of the phoenix was actually inspired by its position in Egyptian culture, where the whole story of the phoenix living near a well first originated from the flamingos or cranes that lived along the River Nile. These birds would lay their eggs in salt flats along the sandy banks of the Nile, and the heat rising from them would give an impression that the birds’ nests were on fire.
A few ancient Egyptian sources provide a slightly different version of the Greek legend of the phoenix bird. According to that narrative, the sun god Ra spotted the phoenix while the bird traveled around the world. He was so mesmerized by its beauty that he made it immortal. However, as time went by, the bird’s body eventually began to weaken and deteriorate. Upon seeing this, Ra told the bird to fly to Heliopolis, where he told it to build a nest on the top of the Temple of the Sun using a specific kind of wood. When the bird completed the nest, the sun god set it on fire, along with the phoenix. A few days after this, a new phoenix was born from the ashes.
According to some ancient Egyptian sources, the phoenix also helped Isis (also called Aset), the great goddess of magic and healing, find Osiris, who had been killed by his brother, and resurrect him.
The phoenix bird mainly appears as a protective force in Egyptian mythology. And while the prominent belief was that it was immortal, a small segment believed it could die permanently if it lost all its beautiful plumage.
Phoenix in Persian Mythology
Two phoenix-like mythical birds can be found in Persian mythology. These are Simurgh and Huma.
According to folklore, the Simurgh looked like a peacock but had claws like a lion and the head of a dog. It was a giant bird that could carry a whale or an elephant. It was considered a messenger between the skies and the earth, just like a hawk, and was also believed to have universal wisdom and the power to purify the earth, including both land and water.
The other bird found in Persian mythology with properties similar to the phoenix is the Huma. It resembled the phoenix in that it would also burn itself in fire and then remerge from the ashes. It was also called the ‘bird of paradise’ and was considered auspicious and a symbol of good fortune with the capability of bestowing human beings with kingships. According to various narrations of Huma in Persian mythology, the phoenix-like bird never touched the ground.
Phoenix Symbolism in Ancient Rome
The Romans seemed to be the most bedazzled by the phoenix bird. They saw the immortal bird as the perfect symbol of their everlasting reign and even put its picture on their coins. The Roman emperor Elagabalus was particularly obsessed with the phoenix, so much so that he wanted to eat the bird because he believed it would make him immortal.
Legend has it that Elagabalus sent his servants in search of a phoenix. The servants could not find the bird but were afraid of returning to their master empty-handed, so they got the exotic Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise from New Guinea and brought it to the emperor as the phoenix. Elagabalus ate the bird, but it did not make him immortal, and he died a few years later.
More Cultural Representations of Phoenix
Phoenix-like birds appear in some Asian mythologies as well. It is very similar to the Chinese mythological bird Feng Huang, which is a sacred creature embodying both feminine and masculine characteristics and traits and representing the balance of Yin and Yang.
There is also a Japanese equivalent of Feng Huang. It is called Hou-ou and is considered an auspicious symbol representing the birth of a virtuous ruler.
In Hinduism, the closest representation of the phoenix is the avian deity of the god Vishnu. Named Garuda, it is a sunbird with fiery colors of red, yellow, and orange, just like the phoenix.
Legend has it that Garuda’s mother was enslaved by snakes. When he learned about it, Garuda went on a challenging quest for ‘amrit’ – the magical potion of immortality – to use as a ransom to free his mother.
Garuda’s selfless act and sacrifice for his mother (not drinking the potion himself when he could) impressed the god Vishnu so much that he made him immortal.
The mentions of a phoenix-like bird also appear in Native American tales. They called it the thunderbird and believed that the large, colorful bird had such powerful wings that flapping and beating them could cause rain and thunder. Early Native Americans would use thunderbird feathers to make it rain when needed and to grow their crops. They also considered them to have healing and magical powers.
The Phoenix Bird Symbolism in Christianity and Judaism
In addition to various historical cultures and societies, the symbolism of the phoenix is also found in Judaism and Christianity.
In Judaism, the bird is believed to represent God, who can survive for eternity without eating and cannot be killed or destroyed by fire.
Early Christians associated the phoenix with the immortality and resurrection of Christ.
Some historical Christian interpretations of the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden also portray the chol or milcham bird as similar to the phoenix.
According to them, when Eve fed the forbidden fruit to all the animals in the Garden of Eden, after trying it herself, there was a bird on the Tree of Knowledge who refused to eat it. That bird, as the story goes, was granted immunity from the Angel of Death for his refusal to eat the forbidden fruit. It lived for a thousand years and was consumed by a fire only to be born again from a non-perishable egg.
Early Christians also drew the image of a phoenix on tombstones.
The mentions of the phoenix in the book of Ezekiel and Isaiah are often interpreted as a metaphor for the destruction of Jerusalem and also a prophecy that it will rise again one day.
The crest on the phoenix’s head is also believed by some followers of Christianity as the symbol of spiritual resurrection after death from sins.
Phoenix as a Spirit Animal
As a spirit animal, the phoenix is an auspicious symbol that represents healing, self-regeneration, and new beginnings. It also symbolizes the eternal flame, which can mean passion, faith, or will in practical life. To many, a phoenix rising from the ashes serves as a representation or reminder of the fire one has within and the capability to heal and rise again after a setback.
Phoenix Totem Meaning
Totems are talismans that exemplify the special powers and characteristics of the creatures they represent. A phoenix totem is considered the symbol of good luck. It represents healing, regeneration, and renewal.
Phoenix Tattoo Meaning
Getting a phoenix tattooed on the body is a portrayal of one’s renewal and rebirth in any way. It denotes that you have risen again as a stronger, more courageous, and enlightened person from whatever problems you were faced with. It is a symbol of being a survivor.
While this is the most common meaning associated with a phoenix tattoo, some may also use it to symbolize the eternal fire within themselves. Different people can associate different meanings to that fire. For some, it can mean self-respect and love, while to others, it represents love for others. It can also symbolize dedication to a person, cause, or craft.
What Does a Phoenix Symbolize Spiritually?
In the spiritual context, the phoenix is believed to represent the cycle of life. Those who believe in the afterlife also consider it to denote eternal life after death.
Many people also associate it with faith and one’s unwavering commitment to it. For some, it also represents spiritual resilience, while others believe the phoenix is a symbolic representation of the cosmic fire that created the world and will also destroy it.
The rise of the phoenix from the ashes is also considered the symbolic representation of the idea that the end of something marks the beginning of another or that the end is only the beginning of another life.
Phoenix Symbolism in the Modern World
The US’ first Great Seal, issued in 1782, had the phoenix symbol on it. It was later replaced by the image of an eagle.
It is also the official symbol of the city of Phoenix in Arizona because it is believed to accurately represent the town’s history. The modern Phoenix city was developed on the ruins of an ancient civilization, just like a phoenix rises from the ashes of its predecessor.
According to historical accounts, a tribe of Pueblo Native Americans occupied the area that is now the city of Phoenix sometime between 700 and 1400 AD. The entire population vanished during the 15th century, likely due to the drought and/or attacks from other tribes. Historians are not exactly sure what happened to them, but the entire civilization vanished.
The area remained uninhabited for the following four centuries. Only during the middle of the 19th century did pioneers of the modern Phoenix city begin to inhabit the area. They expanded the canal system built by the Native Americans and started farming.
When it came to naming the town, one of the pioneers of the new establishment suggested calling it Phoenix to honor both the old and new civilizations.
The symbolism of the phoenix also appears in modern popular culture, from music to books to movies. Some of the most well-known appearances of the mythical phoenix include Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Fahrenheit 451, and Star Trek. It is also popularly used in art and jewelry.
Is the Phoenix a Real Bird?
With so many mentions of the phoenix in art, literature, and folklore, it is not unusual for people to ask – are phoenixes real? The truth is that they are not.
Phoenix is a mythical creature. Its description may be inspired by real birds, but it does not exist in reality itself.
The real birds the giant mythological phoenix creature is believed to be inspired by include the hawk, eagle, flamingo, crane, peacock, and/or heron.
Is Phoenix a Symbol of Good or Bad?
The vast majority of symbolism attached to the phoenix bird is positive. It is considered an auspicious symbol characterizing healing, rebirth, and hope. However, in some cultures, the bird is also linked to evil due to its association with fire, along with a positive symbol. They see the phoenix as a symbol of both good and evil, representing the duality of humans.