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The Mystery of the Phoenix

Updated: May 22

“Even thus by the great sages 'tis confessed

The phoenix dies, and then is born again,

When it approaches its five-hundredth year;


On herb or grain it feeds not in its life,

But only on tears of incense and amomum,

And nard and myrrh are its last winding-sheet.”


This is how Dante, the renowned Italian poet described the mythical bird “Phoenix” in is work Inferno Canto XXIV.


Like Dante, throughout the ages, not only the great writers like Herodotus, Pliny, Solinus, and Philostratus describe the phoenix as similar in size to an eagle, but a reference of it was also made in the in the Gnostic manuscript ‘On the Origin of the World’ from the Nag Hammadi Library collection.


The phoenix is commonly pictured as a big and powerful bird like an eagle. It is usually coloured in reds, oranges, and yellows. The Egyptian phoenix was said to be as large as an eagle, with brilliant scarlet and gold plumage and a melodious cry. It builds its own funeral pyre or nest, and ignites it with a single clap of its wings. After death it rises gloriously from the ashes and flies away.


In the ‘The Phoenix in Egyptian, Arab, & Greek Mythology’, Tina Garnet writes, “When it feels its end approaching, it builds a nest with the finest aromatic woods, sets it on fire, and is consumed by the flames. From the pile of ashes, a new Phoenix arises, young and powerful. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and flies to the city of the Sun, Heliopolis, where it deposits the egg on the altar of the Sun God.” The phoenix was compared to undying Rome, and it appears on the coinage of the late Roman Empire as a symbol of the Eternal City.


While there are differences as regards the physical attributes of the bird as described in the texts, there are many features of its life and activities which remain consistent. Further, although there is no physical proof of its existence, it’s alluring mythic character has survived the ages. It has been referred to in variant themes in the Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, Persian, Chinese, Russian and Christian. Not limited to cultures, even cities have adopted the phoenix which include Atlanta; Phoenix Arizona, San Francisco; London; and institutions in Chicago and Coventry, England.

The timeless allure of the phoenix its its allegory of resurrection and life after death, the hope of renewal. A bird that dies in its nest and rises, reborn, from its own ashes.


One wonders whether it is possible to decode the mythology of the Phoenix to apply its secrets to our own lives ?

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