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There are two similar versions of the account of the phoenix. In the first, it is a bird that lives in India. When it reaches the age of five hundred years, it flies to a frankincense tree and fills its wings with spices. In early spring a priest at Heliopolis covers an altar with twigs. The phoenix comes to the city, sees the altar, lights a fire there and is consumed by it. The next day a small, sweet-smelling worm is found in the ashes. On the second day the worm has transformed into a small bird, and on the third has the form of the phoenix again. The bird then returns to its place of origin.

The second version says that the phoenix is a purple or red bird that lives in Arabia. There is only one living phoenix in the world at any time. When it is old, it builds a pyre of wood and spices and climbs on to it. There it faces the sun and the fire ignites; it fans the fire with its wings until it is completely consumed. Some say it is the sun that ignites the fire; others say that the phoenix starts it by striking its beak against a stone, or that stones gathered with spices in the pyre rub together to create a spark. A new phoenix rises from the ash of the old.

Other versions of the story combine parts of the above accounts. The tale of the phoenix is very old and was widely known throughout antiquity, with many variations.


Textual References

"There is another sacred bird, too, whose name is Phoinix (Phoenix). I myself have never seen it, only pictures of it; for the bird seldom comes into Aigyptos (Egypt): once in five hundred years, as the people of Heliopolis say. It is said that the Phoinix comes when his father dies. If the picture truly shows his size and appearance, his plumage is partly golden and partly red. He is most like an eagle in shape and size. What they say this bird manages to do is incredible to me. Flying from Arabia to the temple of the Helios (the Sun), they say, he conveys his father encased in myrrh and buries him at the temple of Helios (the Sun) [i.e. in the temple of the Egyptian god Ra]. This is how he conveys him: he first molds an egg of myrrh as heavy as he can carry, then tries lifting it, and when he has tried it, he then hollows out the egg and puts his father into it, and plasters over with more myrrh the hollow of the egg into which he has put his father, which is the same in weight with his father lying in it, and he conveys him encased to the temple of the Sun in Aigyptos (Egypt). This is what they say this bird does."
--Aelian, On Animals 6. 58 (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.)

Modern Culture

A Phoenix (named Fawkes) appears in most of the Harry Potter series with the exclusion of the first and seventh books.

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