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Phoenix, the

Phoenix, The

In ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, the phoenix is a mythical bird associated with the Egyptian sun god Ra and the Greek god Phoibos Apollo. The bird symbolizes resurrection and immortality and has retained its symbolic connotation of life arising anew from the ashes of death. The Romans compared the phoenix with the Eternal City, and even put it on a coin as a symbol of the undying Roman empire. The phoenix as a symbol of resurrection might have appealed to early Christians as well.

According to the Egyptians, the phoenix was as large as an eagle or as a peacock, with brilliant plumage and a melodious cry. According to the Greeks, the bird lived in Arabia. Each morning at dawn the phoenix would bathe in the water and sing so beautifully that the sun god would stop to listen. Both the Egyptian and the Greek traditions mention that only one phoenix could exist at any time and that it had a long life (from 500 to 1,461 years). Upon sensing its approaching death, the phoenix would build a nest of aromatic wood, set it on fire, and allow itself to be consumed by the flames. From the ashes in the pyre a new phoenix would spring to life that would then embalm the ashes of its father in an egg of myrrh and fly with them to Heliopolis ("the city of the Sun") in Egypt. There it would deposit the egg on the altar of the sun god.

See also: Osiris; Reincarnation


Bonnefoy, Yves. Greek and Egyptian Mythologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Burkert, Walter. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Lançon, Bertrand. Rome in Late Antiquity: Everyday Life and Urban Change: A.D. 312609. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Sissa, Giulia, and Marcel Detienne. The Daily Life of the Greek Gods, translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.


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