The Lowdown on the Phoenix

Alice Leiper has posted a introduction to the phoenix of Greek mythology over at Mythic Scribes. Hurray!

The rebirth from the ashes has become a fundamental part of the modern perception of the phoenix. It is the reason that cities like Chicago – which suffered from several large destructive fires in the 19th century and most famously in 1906 – and Coventry – which was bombed heavily in World War Two – use the phoenix as an emblem; these cities and many others were literally turned to ash, and the people of them then rebuilt, were reborn into a modern era. The rebirth from ashes has become central to the phoenix myth, while elements which were fundamental to the ancients were left behind – the nest filled the spices, the dedication of the parent’s body on the altar of the sun god. Even the phoenix’s uniqueness is discarded by some, making it a species instead of a singular bird that is eternally alone.

This is one of my favourite things about mythology: the way it changes. In the ancient world, the phoenix was about the sun, about dealing with the body of a parent appropriately, and about cycles that repeat. It came from the sun (or at least, from the east) and returned its parent body to the sun god at his altar, every five hundred years. Pope Clement I brought two elements mentioned in different accounts, frankincense and myrrh, to draw a parallel to Jesus, who had received these spices as gifts upon his birth and who had risen from his grave. The idea of the phoenix being reborn not merely from its parent’s body, but from ashes, was added at a time when the Roman empire was tearing itself apart with civil wars, coups, assassination attempts on successive emperors, and was repeated as the Roman empire continued to decline. This imagery was also used in the modern world by cities which had quite literally burned to the ground as a result of wars and natural disasters.