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The Phoenix: The Fire Bird of Greek Mythology

From ancient myths to modern movies, the Phoenix has captured people’s imaginations for thousands of years. Keep reading to learn more about the legendary fire bird!

The Phoenix is one of the most famous birds of ancient mythology. A beautiful and noble creature, it was known for both its long life and the unique way in which it was born.

There was, according to most accounts, only one Phoenix. It lived a remarkably long life and was blessed with constant rebird.

When the Phoenix reached the end of its extraordinary lifespan, it was said that it burst into flames. From the ashes was born a young Phoenix, both a new life and a continuation of its predecessor.

While the ancient Greeks and Romans described the amazing Phoenix in many works, they acknowledged that it was not a native part of their own mythology. For the origins of the Phoenix, both ancient and modern historians looked far beyond Greece to cultures that worshipped the sun.

The Greek Description of the Phoenix

The Phoenix was not a prominent part of Greek mythology, but it was a long-lasting one.

Hesiod mentioned the Phoenix in the 7th or 8th century BC, at the dawn of Greek literature. Hesiod did not write about any specific myths associated with the bird, however.

Instead, he focused on the legendary longevity of the Phoenix. In a list of long-lived creatures including stags and ravens, Hesiod claimed that only the nymphs lived longer than the Phoenix.

Herodotus went into more detail about the life and origins of the legendary fire bird. He claimed to have learned about the bird from the people of Heliopolis in Egypt.

Helios: The God of the Sun

According to Herodotus, the Phoenix appeared in Egypt once every five hundred years. It flew from Arabia to the temple of the sun god Helios.

Herodotus said that the Phoenix was roughly the size of an eagle. It was far more brightly-colored, though, with bright red and gold plumage that shone in the sun.

When the Phoenix arrived at the Temple of Helios, Herodotus said that it carried a large egg made of myrrh. The egg, in a confusing turn, contained the Phoenix’s father.

The fire bird buried its egg in the Temple of Helios so that its father could be reborn. While Herodotus did not say exactly how the Phoenix hatched its own father, later writers filled in the blanks of the story.

The Roman poet Ovid made it clear that the Phoenix was reborn every five hundred years. When it went to Egypt, it gave its own life so a younger Phoenix could be reborn.

Ovid also made the relationship between the Phoenix and the sun more clear. It ate no food, he said, but lived off the light of the sun and its eyes flashed with golden fire.

In the 4th century AD, the Roman poet Claudian completed the legend of the Phoenix as we know it today. He wrote at length about not only the bird’s longevity, which he claimed was a thousand years instead of five hundred, but also about how it was reborn.

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The Phoenix, he claimed, built a pyre when it felt old age come upon itself. It prayed to Apollo for renewed strength and vigor.

The Phoenix willingly offered itself to be burned by Apollo. The god of light rewarded the bird by allowing it to be reborn into full youth and vigor as the flames burned.

Claudian claimed that the fire bird was native to India, not Arabia, and flew to Egypt every thousand years when it was reborn. It carried the ashes of its previous incarnation and placed them with reverence in the great temple at Heliopolis.

The image of the Phoenix as a legendary and rare bird that is born from its own funeral pyre is one that has lived on in art, literature, and folklore.

My Modern Interpretation

The Phoenix was written about often in both Greek and Roman mythology, but it did not figure into any of the common myths. While Claudian made the god Apollo a central part of the Phoenix’s mythology, none of the other gods or heroes factored into the fire bird’s legend.

The Phoenix was not a monster that had to be defeated. It was one of many fantastic creatures that lived in distant lands but was not at odds with the gods and values of Greece.

The Phoenix was portrayed not only as a non-threatening creature, but also as a noble one. Over time, it was given more and more attributes that allied it with the Greek gods.

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Claudian made the Phoenix a favored creature of Apollo, who granted it renewed life. Even before that time, however, the Phoenix had been described in terms that evoked the sun.

Even its supposed migration site in Egypt was connected to the sun. Heliopolis was named for the sun god Helios, who was often conflated with Apollo.

Of course, the native Egyptians of Heliopolis did not worship the sun god of the Greeks. While Greek visitors and settlers in the area called the city Heliopolis, its main temple was originally dedicated to an Egyptian god.

The Greeks believed that foreign gods were the same as their own. Although their forms, names, and legends differed, they believed that the Olympians were the true gods of every land.

They likened the sun god Helios with the Egyptian god Ra. The temple of Heliopolis was one of Ra, although the Greeks claimed it was dedicated to Helios.

Ra was one of the Egyptian sun gods but, like many Egyptian deities, he also had a close connection to the Underworld. Each night he sailed through Duat to rise again as the dawn sun.

The Greeks took this idea of resurrection with the sun and applied it to the Phoenix. Rather than the god himself descending into the Underworld, the fire bird died and was reborn again in flames.

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Ra was often depicted as a falcon, which may have led to the association of a great bird with the temple at Heliopolis. Archaeologists have found, however, that the imagery of the Phoenix existed outside of both Greece and Egypt.

Similarly marvelous birds can be found in the mythologies of Persia, India, and other ancient cultures. Around the word, solar birds were revered as embodiments of the sun or its heralds.

The Phoenix may have arisen from any of these myths. The classical Greek creature was a relic of more ancient beliefs.

This may be reflected into the varied origins given for the bird in Greek and Roman writings. While it appeared in Egypt, they said it came from farther east just as the original myth may have.

In fact, the Egyptians near Heliopolis worshiped a solar bird they called the Bennu. Because such imagery is so ancient and widespread, however, historians are divided on whether the Bennu inspired the Phoenix or the other way around.

In Summary

The Phoenix was a mythical bird that was written about by many Greek and Roman authors. From some of the earliest Greek narrative writing through the height of the Roman Empire, the legend of the Phoenix continued to expand.

It was described as a noble and beautiful bird that lived somewhere in the East. Every five hundred years, or one thousand according to a later source, it would journey to the temple of the sun god in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis.

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The bird flew to the Temple of Helios to complete its unique life cycle. After a long life, the Phoenix would die in the sun temple and be reborn anew.

While early Greek writers commented on the Phoenix’s long life, the legend grew and more details were added. The fire bird became increasingly identified with the sun and was eventually said to die in flames and be reborn from its own ashes.

Greek and Roman writers identified the Phoenix specifically with Heliopolis, a city noted for its connection to the sun god. While the Greeks called this god Helios, the Egyptians worshiped him as Ra.

Ra was a falcon-headed god who emerged from the Underworld each morning as the rising sun. The bird imagery and themes of resurrection may have been the inspiration for the Phoenix.

The origins may also have been older than even Ra’s temple. Solar birds are common around the world and are attested in parts of Persia and India.

The Greeks acknowledged that the Phoenix had a connection to Egypt but came from an even more foreign place to the East. Like the myths that inspired it, the Phoenix had its origins far beyond the Greek world.

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My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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