The Phoenix

A symbol of rebirth and redemption, the phoenix itself has been born and reborn – from ancient Egypt to New York. 

Phoenix by Hokusai, Japan, c.1835 © Bridgeman Images.
Phoenix by Hokusai, Japan, c.1835 © Bridgeman Images.

In the Western tradition the phoenix is born triumphantly from the flaming nest of its predecessor and lives for 500 years. This dates back to Herodotus’ Histories (c.430 BC), but has ancient analogues in the fenghuang of the Chinese imperial court and the Egyptian benu, which was believed to have first risen from the primordial sea at Creation. 

Although Herodotus’ eagle-like phoenix bears little physical resemblance to the Egyptian benu, which looks like a crested heron, he tells us that he first learned of it while travelling in Egypt, probably from priests at Heliopolis, the ‘City of the Sun’, where it was worshipped. 

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