The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast

The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast

by Joseph Nigg

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Arising triumphantly from the ashes of its predecessor, the phoenix has been an enduring symbol of resilience and renewal for thousands of years. But how did this mythical bird become so famous that it has played a part in cultures around the world and throughout human history? How much of its story do we actually know? Here to offer a comprehensive biography and engaging (un)natural history of the phoenix is Joseph Nigg, esteemed expert on mythical creatures—from griffins and dragons to sea monsters.

Beginning in ancient Egypt and traveling around the globe and through the centuries, Nigg’s vast and sweeping narrative takes readers on a brilliant tour of the cross-cultural lore of this famous, yet little-known, immortal bird. Seeking both the similarities and the differences in the phoenix’s many myths and representations, Nigg describes its countless permutations over millennia, including legends of the Chinese “phoenix,” which was considered one of the sacred creatures that presided over China’s destiny; classical Greece and Rome, where it can be found in the writings of Herodotus and Ovid; nascent and medieval Christianity, in which it came to embody the resurrection; and in Europe during the Renaissance, when it was a popular emblem of royals. Nigg examines the various phoenix traditions, the beliefs and tales associated with them, their symbolic and metaphoric use, the skepticism and speculation they’ve raised, and their appearance in religion, bestiaries, and even contemporary popular culture, in which the ageless bird of renewal is employed as a mascot and logo, including for our own University of Chicago.

Never bested by hardship or defeated by death, the phoenix is the ultimate icon of hope and rebirth. And in The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, it finally has its due—a complete chronicle worthy of such a fantastic and phantasmal creature. This entertaining and informative look at the
life and transformation of the phoenix will be the authoritative source for anyone fascinated by folklore and mythology, re-igniting our curiosity about one of myth’s greatest beasts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226195520
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/04/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Since publication of The Book of Gryphons in 1982, Joseph Nigg has explored the rich cultural lives of mythical creatures in a variety of styles and formats for readers of all ages. His books have garnered multiple awards and have been translated into more than twenty languages. His most recent book, Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World’s Most Beguiling Map, was also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Denver.

Read an Excerpt

The Phoenix

An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast

By Joseph Nigg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19552-0


Egyptian Beginnings

Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.

— D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse

The creator sun god, in the form of a benu-bird, stands on a mound of land rising out of the primordial sea, divine light emerging from infinite darkness. The first cry from the benu's throat sets time in motion.

That is a current version of the most influential cosmology adopted by the high priests of Heliopolis, Egypt. Their Temple of the Sun, the earliest Egyptian center of sun-god worship, rose on what they believed to be the exact site of Creation. Millennia later, the Western Phoenix, too, would be born in Heliopolis — in Herodotus's seminal account of the bird in his fifth-century BCE History. As chapter 3 shows, the "phoenix" that Herodotus describes is a different species of bird than the Egyptian benu, and few of the details the historian relates match traditional lore of the sacred bird of Heliopolis. What the two mythical birds most obviously have in common is their place of origin, making the benu a shadowy precursor and possible ancestor of the classical Phoenix.

After nineteenth-century Egyptologists recognized a similarity between the Egyptian and Greek birds, many translators have rendered the Middle Egyptian word benu as "phoenix." But the extent of identification has long been controversial among scholars. By citing depictions of the benu through millennia of Egyptian religious texts and art we can begin to delineate the complex nature of the bird worshiped at Heliopolis before and after Herodotus arrived at that City of the Sun. Given the great span of time covered and the diversity of beliefs, translations, and critical interpretations, even glimpses of the benu are problematic as we follow the Phoenix to its Heliopolitan beginnings.

Funerary Texts

The daily rising of the sun and the seasonal flooding of the life-giving Nile were the basis of Egyptian belief in regeneration and an eternal afterlife. Over more than three millennia, the ancient civilization developed complex methods of assuring immortality. Belief in the necessary preservation of the physical body led to mummification and entombment with supplies and funerary texts to enable the physical dead's spiritual double, the ka, and the disembodied ba, soul, to achieve ankh, immortality, among the gods.

Over millennia, Egyptian texts were inscribed in hieroglyphs on the chamber walls of royal pyramids, on private coffins, and on papyri placed with the dead. The major bodies of texts — Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead — roughly correspond to the Old Kingdom (c. 2700–2100 BCE), Middle Kingdom (c. 2100–1600 BCE), and New Kingdom (c. 1600–1100 BCE) and later periods of Egyptian history, with many texts being derived from earlier ones. The oldest surviving Pyramid Texts are inscribed in the step pyramid of Fifth Dynasty Unas, in Saqqara. The priests of Heliopolis are credited with preparing such texts for royal tombs, to assure the pharaoh safe passage to the afterlife. The use of Coffin Texts, derived from the older Pyramid writings, extended beyond the king to the highly privileged. The "democratization" of funerary texts continued with the Book of the Dead, a collection of nearly two hundred hymns, prayers, and spells that were often accompanied by illustrative vignettes. Private citizens who could afford to do so commissioned scribes and artists to personalize particular chapters on papyrus for burial with themselves or with a deceased relative. The name of the honored dead was incorporated into the text. Because they evolved by accretion, in which much was added to existing material and little eliminated, texts from the total body of funerary writings contain concepts and details that are often contradictory. Among these texts are references to the sacred benu of Heliopolis and its roles in Egyptian mythology.

Benu (bnw) is thought to have derived from weben, "to rise" or "to shine." Egyptologist R. T. Rundle Clark notes that forms of another related word, bn, mean "circle" or "revolution," and "to depart" and "to return." Thus, bnw is "the shining one" or "he who goes round." All these terms relate to the sun as well as to the bird. Perhaps portrayed originally as a yellow wagtail, the benu was later depicted as a species of heron with a crest of two long feathers. The Middle Egyptian word for the benu is completed by the determinative figure of the benu heron (fig. 1.1).

At the Creation

Pyramid Texts

The first extant reference to the benu — and the only one in the oldest body of Egyptian religious literature — appears in the Pyramid Texts. Utterance 600, which evokes the Creation and establishes connections between the creator god and the benu, opens a prayer for the king and his pyramid. The translator, Raymond O. Faulkner, renders benu as "Phoenix," albeit within quotation marks:

O Atum-Khoprer, you became high on the height, you rose up as the bnbn stone in the Mansion of the 'Phoenix' in On, you spat out Shu, you expectorated Tefenet, ...

While the self-generated god is not directly presented in his benu form, this standard translation contains a cluster of interrelated elements essential to the benu story.

Atum ("to be complete") is the creator god and solar deity. In the enigmatic Egyptian assimilation of divine powers, he is here syncretized with Khoprer ("the Becoming One," Kheprer, later Khepri), another creator god. In the form of what the Egyptians believed to be a scarab beetle, or dung beetle, Khepri daily pushes the dung-ball of the sun across the sky. Atum soon after assimilates the supreme sun god, Ra (Re), becoming Atum-Ra.

The "height" is land rising from the primeval sea of Nun, the divine emerging from the cosmic abyss. Priests of Egypt's major religious centers all affirmed that this Primordial Mound was the site of their god's temple. Also, ancient Egyptians regarded the annual inundation of the Nile and the surfacing of fertile earth from the receding waters as a reenactment of Creation. The gray heron (Ardea cinerea), model for the later benu, typically stood on the first dry land. Egyptian art frequently depicts the benu upon a vertical perch extending from a pyramidal base representing the original hill.

The "bnbn-stone" (benben, related to benu, also derived from weben) is a sacred stone symbolizing the Primordial Mound. This cult object, housed in the sun-temple, represented the point the rays of the rising sun first touched. A cone or pyramidon whose very shape suggests the sun's rays, the stone is now generally considered to be the prototype for the capstones of obelisks and possibly even for the pyramids themselves. All are associated with the sun (ra) and solar deity Ra. Along with the inundation of the Nile, the sun's daily rising in the East following its night voyage through the netherworld reiterates the act of Creation.

Mansion of the "Phoenix" in On is a temple dedicated to the sun god, one of whose manifestations is the benu. "On" was the biblical name of Egyptian Iunu, now most commonly referred to as Heliopolis, which the Greeks named after their sun god, Helios. Egypt's earliest great religious center, it was the site of the first known Egyptian temple of the sun, constructed about 2600 BCE during the Old Kingdom. Centuries later, Sesostris I (Sensuset I, 1965–1920 BCE) built in the city a new sun-temple in whose courtyard was said to be an acacia or willow tree in which the divine benu perched. An obelisk erected in front of the temple contains an inscription saying that the monument was made at the beginning of a Sed festival, a royal celebration held at thirty-year intervals to honor the renewal of a king's office. The benu is said to have been the Lord of the Sed, Lord of the Jubilees. The revered bird of Heliopolis was also honored at new-year celebrations of the inundation of the Nile. In the Late Period (c. 712–332 BCE), when Herodotus said the people of Heliopolis told the story of what he called the "phoenix," the sun-temple was the center of calendric rites.

What was once the renowned City of the Sun is now a suburb of Cairo. An inscribed obelisk representing one from the temple of Sesostris I stands in a park on the site of the ancient religious center. Among the temple's many other obelisks are two that Augustus moved to Rome and two known as Cleopatra's Needles, now in London and New York. As recently as the 1990s, the archeological team of Jean-Yves Empereur discovered Heliopolitan obelisks and sphinxes in the harbor of Alexandria.

Shu (god of the dry air) and his sister, Tefenet (goddess of moist air), are the first offspring of Atum. By spitting or sneezing (in other versions masturbating), Atum fathers the pair who, in turn, produce Geb and Nut, god of the earth and goddess of the sky, parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Atum and the three generations of his progeny comprise the Ennead group of nine early gods.

Coffin Texts

An explicit reference to Atum's emergence from the abyss in the form of the benu occurs in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom. Shu declares that at his birth from the self-generating Atum-Ra, he was enveloped by "that breath of life which emerged from the throat of the Benu Bird, the son of Re in whom Atum appeared in the primeval nought, infinity, darkness, and nowhere." An assimilated form of the original creator god, the benu is thus both the manifestation of Atum and the "son" of Ra. With its breath, the divine bird bestows life on Shu.

The Coffin Texts also contain what is perhaps the best-known reference to the benu in Egyptian literature. In Coffin Text no. 335, the deceased identifies with the omniscient gods, beginning with Atum at the Creation and proceeding to Atum's assimilation of Ra and their manifestation in the benu, which is translated as "Phoenix." This text is the basis for the famous chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead.

    I am Atum, I who was alone;
    I am Re at his first appearance.
    I am the Great God, self-generator
    Who fashioned his names, lord of gods,
    Whom none approaches among the gods.
    I was yesterday, I know to-morrow.
    The battle-field of the gods was made when I spake.
    I know the name of that Great God who is therein.
    'Praise-of-Re' is his name.
    I am that great Phoenix which is in Heliopolis.

Guiding Souls to the Afterlife

Associated with the Creation, the gods, the sun, rejuvenation, and immortality, the benu is an integral part of the Book of the Dead. Called by the Egyptians "The Chapters of Going Forth [or 'Coming Forth'] by Day," these popular writings guided the deceased on its perilous passage to eternity. The body's death and the deceased's journey in the nether regions reiterate the sun's voyage through night and its rebirth in the East. As a manifestation of the sun-gods, the benu, too, is a divine guide that the deceased evokes during his or her spiritual transformation.

Karl Richard Lepsius is credited with coining the term "Book of the Dead" for the collections of New Kingdom papyri, and he and others numbered the texts. Similar or identical spells sometimes appear under different numbers, and spells do not always follow a strict numerical order in different papyri. Many translators' use of "chapters" with spell numbers misleadingly suggests a narrative order that is approximate at best. (Nevertheless, I use "chapter," the more common term, and "spell" interchangeably throughout this Book of the Dead section of the current chapter.) The numbered spells are often grouped by subjects such as repelling demons, going out into the day, and being transformed into other shapes. From this disparate collection, commoners could select a chapter or chapters to be buried with them. No single papyrus contains them all.

To follow the benu throughout the disparate spells of the Book of the Dead, we can look to chapters that might have been commissioned by an Egyptian who felt a special affinity with the divine sunbird — especially if the individual happened to bear a benu feast name (literally, "the benu has come") such as had been given children in ages past. I have taken the liberty of presenting such chapters, from different papyri, in a loose narrative order that sometimes varies from the numerical order established by Egyptologists. The quoted passages are from Raymond O. Faulkner's acclaimed translation of the Book of the Dead, in which he renders benu as "phoenix."

Chapter 17

The first benu text that our hypothetical Egyptian selects might be from the Book of the Dead version of Coffin Text no. 335. Chapter 17 is one of the oldest, most lengthy, and most frequently copied of all Egyptian funerary spells. It was inscribed in a shrine of Tutankhamun. Appearing at or near the beginning of many papyri, it can be regarded as a spell of initiation, an introduction to the gods whose natures the deceased must understand to survive passage to the afterlife. This interpretation is reinforced by the scribes' didactic glosses, most of which are an addition to the older Coffin Text spell. At the same time, the incantation is spoken by the deceased, identifying with the gods, preparing for the tests he or she will undergo.

Here is the benu reference from the Coffin Text, accompanied by the New Kingdom commentary that indicates the rise in importance of Osiris, the lord of the underworld:

I am that great phoenix which is in Heliopolis, the supervisor of what exists.

Who is he? He is Osiris. As for what exists, that means his injury. Otherwise said: That means his corpse. Otherwise said: It means eternity and everlasting. As for eternity, it means daytime; as for everlasting, it means night.

Dismembered by his jealous brother, Seth, and the pieces gathered by his sister/wife, Isis, Osiris is the supreme Egyptian god of resurrection. The merging of the benu with the god thus prefigures the Early Christian allegory of the Phoenix as resurrection of the faithful and the Resurrection of Christ.

In the vignette from the Hunefer papyrus (fig. 1.2), the deceased kneels in adoration of the benu, which is now the ba soul of both Ra and Osiris. A large mural of that vignette once graced the British Museum's Egyptian Hall, with the words "Hunefer before a table of offerings and the Benu-bird, the sacred bird of the Sun god (the Phoenix of later legend)." In the papyrus of Ani vignette, the benu stands beside the bier of the mummified dead.

Spell for a Heart-Amulet of Sehret-Stone

In a sequence of spells protecting the organ regarded as the center of life, "Spell for a Heart-Amulet of Sehret-Stone" (Chapter 29b) precedes the famous "Weighing of the Heart" (Chapter 30b). As the title of the earlier spell indicates, the text is to be inscribed on a heart amulet. Such amulets, carved from stone or faience, were placed on the breast in mummy wrappings of the dead to ensure that the heart would not betray the deceased when he or she appears before the gods and the scales of justice. The dead will be judged on actions in life and fitness to undertake the spiritual journey through the underworld. In this chapter, the deceased seeks a safe passage by identifying with the benu, the manifestation and ba soul of the sun-god Ra:

I am the phoenix, the soul of Re, who guides the gods to the Netherworld when they go forth.

Judgment of the Dead

Traditionally known as "The Negative Confession," and more recently called "The Declaration of Innocence," Chapter 125 is part of the Book of the Dead's judgment sequence. Numerical order notwithstanding, it is often paired with Chapter 30b, in which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Maat, goddess of divine order and universal justice. These judgment chapters sometimes occur together near the beginning of longer papyri. The Declaration of Innocence logically precedes the Weighing of the Heart.

Before forty-two gods in the Hall of Justice, the deceased declares that he or she is innocent of earthly crimes. "I have not," the dead repeats throughout a long litany of transgressions, from causing others pain to poaching birds in the preserves of the gods. The deceased prefaces his "negative confessions" by declaring:

I am pure, pure, pure! My purity is the purity of that great phoenix which is in Heracleopolis, because I am indeed the nose of the Lord of Wind who made all men live on that day of completing the Sacred Eye in Heliopolis in the 2nd month of winter last day, ...


Excerpted from The Phoenix by Joseph Nigg. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Cultural Transformations of the Phoenix
Prologue: Sacred to the Sun
Chapter 1 Egyptian Beginnings
Chapter 2 Royal Bird of China
Part I. Classical Marvel
Chapter 3 Birth of the Western Phoenix
Chapter 4 Early Roman Sightings
Chapter 5 Later Roman Variations
Part II. Bird of God
Chapter 6 The Judaic Phoenix
Chapter 7 The Early Christian Phoenix
Chapter 8 The Phoenix in Old English
Chapter 9 The Bestiary Phoenix
Chapter 10 Beyond the Bestiaries
Part III. Renaissance Transformations
Chapter 11 Innovations and Renewals
Chapter 12 The Elizabethan Phoenix
Chapter 13 The Emblematic Phoenix
Chapter 14 The Philosopher’s Stone
Chapter 15 Metaphorical Variety
Part IV. Challenged and Discredited
Chapter 16 Rising Doubts
Chapter 17 Battle of the Books
Chapter 18 Fading into Fable
Part V. Modern Rebirth
Chapter 19 Mythical Bird
Chapter 20 Poetic Fire
Chapter 21 Literary Distinction
Chapter 22 From Literal Ashes
Selected Bibliography

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