What is a Phoenix?

Niki Foster

A phoenix is a legendary bird based in Egyptian mythology that burns itself at the end of its life, followed by a new bird rising from the ashes. It is also extremely long-lived and able to heal itself spontaneously, and the bird is a symbol of immortality, resurrection, and regeneration. In ancient times, it was incorporated into the mythologies of many cultures, and in the medieval period, it became a symbol of Christ.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

According to legends, the lifespan of a phoenix is either 500 or 1461 years. It differs in appearance in different cultures, but the Egyptian version is gold and red, symbolic of fire. At the end of its life, the phoenix constructs a nest of cinnamon branches, sits in it, and spontaneously bursts into flame. After the entire nest is reduced to ashes, a new bird is born fully-formed. The new phoenix inters the ashes in an egg made of myrrh and brings the remains to the ancient city of Heliopolis.

Other cultures have traditional firebirds that informed the mythology of the phoenix, such as the Hindu Garuda and the Chinese Fenghuang. Some speculate that the Egyptian phoenix was actually a native African bird that constructed a raised nest for its eggs in order to protect them from the heat of the ground. The wavy lines around the nest created by the severe heat may have appeared to be fire. Alternatively, the myth may stem from the appearance of the sun during an eclipse, which resembles a winged sphere. The disappearance and reappearance of the eclipsed sun mirrors the regeneration of the dying bird.

Today, references to the phoenix abound in popular culture. It remains a symbol of resurrection or rebirth and is often used to represent cities or institutions that underwent some sort of destruction and regrowth. For example, in the United States, four cities that suffered from fires feature the phoenix on their flags and seals: Atlanta, GA; San Francisco, CA; Lawrence, KS; and Portland, ME. The bird can be found in popular songs, literature, television, and video games. Since ancient times, its mysterious and dramatic rebirth has inspired the public imagination.

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Discussion Comments

@jholcomb - I was going to mention Fawkes, too! I think that a lot of the symbolism attached to Fawkes is unique to the Harry Potter universe rather than being from the myth, like the idea of the phoenix as rescuer. (Wikipedia just says that they were "usually benevolent.")

The scene in which Fawkes flies away at the end of Book 6 was very moving. I don't know about other readers, but I found it really hard to believe that Dumbledore was actually dead. I think J.K. Rowling went out of her way to convince the readers that he really had died; there was emphasis on how the spells he had cast were broken when he died, and then Fawkes flew away because his owner was dead.

Now, I guess, we can't talk about a phoenix without mentioning the one from the Harry Potter novels with the whimsical name of Fawkes (presumably meant to invoke Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the House of Lords with King James I and his heir inside, thereby creating a new government from the ashes).

There's a cute little scene in one of the novels where Fawkes bursts into flame and Dumbledore, his owner, says it's about time - he was looking "dreadful" lately!

Fawkes also has a near-magical ability to come to Harry's rescue when Dumbledore can't in person. When Harry is facing the basilisk, for instance, Fawkes brings him the sorting hat, from which Harry pulls the sword of Gryffindor. He uses the sword to slay the giant snake.


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