21 April 2017


Joseph Nigg. The Phoenix; An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Herodotus, who coined the term ‘history’ with his survey of the then known world, with particular reference to the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, introduced the Phoenix in his chapter on Egypt. The word had previously been used to mean ‘date-palm’, but here it was a bird that lived in Arabia. Extraordinarily long-lived, a new one was born only once every five hundred years, just at the time that the old one died.
It would inter the body of its parent in a ball of myrrh, carry it to Egypt, and deposit it at the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis. Herodotus remarked that ‘I myself have never seen [it], except in pictures.’ He concluded that this tale ‘does not seem to me to be credible’.

Later authors added other details. The Roman poet Ovid versified that, after living five hundred years, it made itself a nest of bark, spices and incense, and as it expired a new Phoenix arose from its breast. Pliny the Elder gave its life cycle as 540 years, and said that one was brought to Rome in the reign of the Emperor Claudius, ‘although nobody would doubt that this Phoenix was a fabrication’. The historian Tacitus reported that some people said that the Phoenix was seen at intervals of fourteen hundred and sixty-one years, that is, a so-called Sothic years, caused by the use of a calendar of exactly three hundred and sixty-five days (no leap years), so that it took that long to coincide again with its original relationship to the physical year. Other writers gave its place of residence as India or Ethiopia, whilst Gaius Julius, Solinus, circa 200, said that it lived for 12,954 years.

Whether the Phoenix is mentioned in the Bible has been a matter of contention for centuries. Job 29:18 reads, in the Authorised Version, ‘I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the sand.’ The word ‘sand’, as a translation of the Hebrew hol, is not as illogical as it might appear at first sight: in Genesis 22:17 Abraham is told that his future offspring will be ‘as the sand’, meaning, ‘as numerous as the grains of sand on the sea shore.’ But it seems quite inappropriate when paired with ‘nest’; some people have therefore rendered it as ‘palm tree’ or ‘Phoenix’. Another possible solution, though is that qini, ‘nest’ was a copying mistake for zoqini, ‘dotage’, which would make sense. That would mean, however, that there was a scribal error in the text of the Bible, which until recently was unthinkable.

It might have been expected that belief in the Phoenix would abate with the suppression of Paganism, but the Christians adopted it as emblematic of the resurrection of Christ, and what every one else could expect. It was the Christian poet Lactantius, circa 300, who introduced what is now thought of as the standard detail, that at its death it burst into flames, the new Phoenix arising from its ashes. It is remarkable that the story was put forward specifically as an argument to win people to the faith, implying that it was easier for many of the ancients to believe in the Phoenix than in the Christian religion.

The Middle Ages had a big fad for bestiaries. These were not so much zoological treatises as illustrated sermons that drew morals from the lifestyles of various animals. For this purpose the unicorn and the griffin were as useful as the ant and the grasshopper, so naturally the Phoenix found a place. It was stated that, just as there is only one Phoenix, so is there only one God.

In the seventeenth century scepticism set in, but initially not for the reasons one might expect. The problem came from two verses in the Book of Genesis: ‘There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female’. How, the sages of the Enlightenment asked, could the Phoenix have gone in two by two, when there was only one? Moreover, after the waters of the flood had subsided, God ordered Noah: ‘Bring forth with the every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth’. Obviously, the Phoenix could not be fruitful and multiply when there was only one, and that one reproducing only once every half millennium.

The matter came to a head with Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, which is a classic of scepticism, though some of his conclusions were quite different to those that are held today. He doubted, for instance, whether painters were right to depict Adam and Eve with navels, as God had created them fully grown. On the other hand, he rejected the widespread belief (‘common conceit’) that men have one fewer ribs than women, because Eve was created from Adam’s rib. As a physician, he had examined male and female skeletons, and knew that hey both had the same number. It is a pity that this book is currently only available in the heavily abridged version in the Penguin Major Works.

He had quite a number of arguments against the Phoenix, including: ‘there is not any ocular describer’, i.e. no-one personally claims to have seen it. Writers disagreed on important details: ‘for some affirm it liveth three hundred, some five, others six, some a thousand, others no lesse then fifteene hundred yeares; some say it liveth in Aethiopia, others in Arabia, some in Aegypt, others in India and some I thinke in Utopia’. This produced a lengthy response from one Alexander Ross, point by point, but here is just one: ‘so many Writers ... proving by the Phoenix the incarnation of Christ … their arguments would have been of small validity among the Gentiles, if they had not believed there was such a bird.’

In the long term Browne was the victor, of course, but the Phoenix (appropriately) made a comeback, both in studies of mythology, and as a general metaphor. Nigg offers the admirable definition of ‘myth’ – ‘both a fiction and a traditional story embodying its own psychological truths’’. James Legge (1815-97), who held the first chair in Chinese at Oxford University, used the word ‘Phoenix’ to translate fenghuang, a legendary oriental bird. The analogy is not too close, as there are two fenghuang, male and female, and they are not regenerated in fire, but simply live forever. Nevertheless, the association has caught on to the extent that Chinese restaurants in the West now often have names like ‘The Golden Phoenix’. (Conversely, Phoenix has become fenghuang when Harry Potter has been translated into Chinese.) The Phoenix was included in the ‘Seal of the City and County of San Francisco’, after the city had been repeatedly ravaged by fire.

There are many things that the eighteenth century rationalists supposed to have been relegated to the past, such as ghost, witchcraft, and astrology, which are nowadays once again the subject of many popular books. This has not been the case with the Phoenix, but I might mention one rather surprising example which Nigg, understandably, has overlooked. Raymond Fowler, The Andreasson Affair, describes how in 1977, whilst being hypnotically regressed to Christmas 1966, when she had undergone a period of ‘missing time’, which inevitably turned out to have been caused by an alien abduction, Betty Andreasson recalled some of the things that have become standard in such accounts, such as a medical examination by Greys, but there were also several things that one would not expect to see in an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Among these was a huge bird, surrounded by a bright light, which was replaced by a fire, which eventually reduced to a pile of grey ashes, out of which came a large grey worm. No explanation was apparent for this, which seems to have puzzled the intrepid UFO investigators. – Gareth J. Medway.

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