Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Phoenix from the Flame

But I will rise
And I will return
The Phoenix from the flame
--Troy, Sinead O’Connor

I have left the poor blog desolate, dusty and seemingly dead.  But there’s still some life left.

Perhaps I can coax something to spring from the ashes.

The Phoenix is a fitting mythical beast for me these days.  For ancient scholars, it was the feathered embodiment of rebirth and immortality.  For current theologians (myself included), the idea of a personal rebirth keeps the mythology of the Phoenix alive.  Not to mention that whole Harry Potter character thing.

Fawkes, the bird that saves the day.

The earliest reference to a Phoenix-like bird is found in The Book of the Dead and involves the purple heron. The ancient Egyptians believed this bird sprung from the chest of Osiris, the god of death and the afterlife.  The heron, aka the benu, represented the soul of the rising sun--an entity that could never be entombed.  As the heron took flight every morning, the ancients believed it brought the light for both life and consciousness.  As it dived into the fiery sunrise, it brought the chance to be reborn.  So is a purple heron Fawkes’ long lost ancestor?
The purple heron.

When the Greeks came along, they put their own spin on the myth of the bird of the rising sun.  They dubbed it “phoenix”, a word that can mean either crimson or palm tree.  Greek historian Herodotus claimed the sacred bird was a real species that lived in a well by Phoenicia on a nest of palms.  He described it with crimson and gold feathers, resembling an eagle.  The Greek Sun god Helios was rumored to stop by each morning to hear the beautiful song of the Phoenix as it bathed in the well.  Let’s hope the people of Phoenicia had an alternate water source.  

The Roman poet Ovid also wrote about the Phoenix, claiming it ate nothing but air and frankincense.  Ovid gave detailed accounts of the bird’s fiery demise, although given that sort of diet, my professional opinion is that the bird died of starvation instead.  Especially since spontaneous combustion cases usually are linked to the more corpulent birds among us.

The Greek Phoenix had a 500-1000 year lifespan and was said to be a solitary creature (generally male).  So perhaps the spontaneous combustion gig is actually a consequence of being lonely and sexually frustrated for a millenia.  Then again, maybe he was just tired of having Helios stop by every day for a little cheap voyeurism.  
"Yeah, wash that wing a little longer."
Raphael Mengs "Helios as Midday"

According to ancient historians, at the end of its life, the Phoenix built its nest from oak branches or palm trees, anointed its wings in spices and aromatics in a disturbing sort of self-basting, and then settled in for the big bang.  Fear not though, after the parent bird bit the proverbial dust, a new Phoenix arose.  As a last tribute to its predecessor, the young Phoenix gathered the remains of the funeral pyre into a sacred egg and took them to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, depositing it in the temple of the Sun.  This cycle of adult to egg was a symbol of the cycle of life and its continual flow.

Tacitus, a Roman historian, supported the claim that the Phoenix was indeed a real animal in his Annals of Imperial Rome, citing that one was seen during Claudius’s reign.  He espoused the healing powers of the ashes of the Phoenix--although certainly with a 500 year production wait, probably not the best pharmaceutical out there.  

The poet Martial also included the phoenix in his works as a symbol of Rome’s eternity.  From there, some early Christians used it as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection before the cross caught on.
Roman fresco showing Christ with a Phoenix

Of all the myths of the Phoenix, I find the Chinese myth of the Feng Huang the most intriguing.  In Chinese mythology, the Phoenix is the symbol of sacred power granted to the Empress--a symbol of the female power.  It is often pictured together with the dragon, a symbol of the male power.  Together they represent the merger of the yin and yang (male and female).  It is a bird of grace and elegance, with courage, wisdom and was seen as a sign of good luck and justice.

The Feng Huang has been described with a cock’s head, a snake’s neck, a swallow’s beak and a tortoise’s back.  However, in most artists’ renditions, the creature is transformed into a magnificent bird reminiscent of a peacock.  The colors in its feathers (red, white, yellow, green, and black) represent the qualities of virtue, duty, integrity, humanity, and dependability.  The symbol was so well known in Chinese culture that Confucius used it in his philosophical teachings, saying that "the phoenix appears no more,”  when he spoke of corruption in the Chinese government.

In literature, the Phoenix is a popular piece of symbolism.  Shakespeare and Hans Christian Anderson both have poetry dedicated to the creature.  Eudora Welty’s character Phoenix represents the regeneration of the South in the short story, The Worn Path.  Sylvia Plath in
Lady Lazarus alludes to the Phoenix in the line “Out of the ash, I rise with my red hair.  And I eat men like air.”
Terri Rosario's interpretation of the Phoenix

There’s even a flower with the moniker, and is connected to a Chinese folktale.  The Phoenix fairy flower came to be after Ling-Li, a virtuous woman sews herself a beautiful wedding robe.  Unfortunately, her evil neighbor steals the robe and destroys it out of spite.  The scraps are blessed by fairies, and begin grow in Ling-Li’s garden.  The story is a tale of the triumph of a pure soul and its ability to rise above devastation.  In the states, the Phoenix fairy flower is related to a wildflower called jewelweed.
Jewelweed, a relative of the Phoenix fairy flower

Spring is a time of renewal for me.  The miracle of watching the seasons change fills me with inner unrest--a demand that I clean out the closet of my soul.  This year, I’ve hit a wall.  The hard fact that the things I want are not materializing as I had hoped.  I have to create something from the ashes, so you may not hear much from me until I’ve filled my feathers with spice, laid on my nest of palms and let go of the past.  Let's hope I'm more successful than these dudes doing the cinnamon challenge.

I will return.  Like the Phoenix from the flame.

How do you rise from the ashes?