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. 

The phoenix appears in the Judaic tradition in the Garden of Eden and on Noah’s Ark and was popularised by Roman authors. Pliny the Elder describes the phoenix, ‘as large as an eagle, [with] a gleam of gold round its neck and all the rest of it is purple, [and] the tail blue picked out with rose-coloured feathers … and a feathered crest adorning its head’. This was possibly the inspiration for the splendidly plumaged phoenix by the Japanese artist Hokusai, pictured here.

The phoenix as a symbol of rebirth and redemption gained currency in medieval bestiaries, where it was commonly representative of Christ’s Resurrection. It was one of the personal emblems of Elizabeth I and several contemporary poets linked the virgin queen’s attributes to those of the mythical bird. More recently, the phoenix has been used by countries and cities that have been ‘reborn’ out of the ashes – just a month after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, a giant papier mâché phoenix appeared in a defiantly positive procession through the city.