The phoenix bird is an ancient mythical bird whose symbolism and mythology still intrigue us today. The inspiration for stories and artwork that date back to at least 1500 BC, the phoenix symbolizes rebirth, renewal, immortality, healing, and the eternal fire.
In this post, you’ll learn about phoenix mythology and origins, phoenix symbolism, the phoenix spirit animal, and more.
Table of Contents
- What does the phoenix symbolize?
- What is a phoenix?
- Is the phoenix bird real?
- Etymology of the Name Phoenix
- The Story of the Phoenix
- Phoenix Mythology
- The Phoenix, or Bennu, in Ancient Egypt
- Phoenix in Persian Mythology
- Phoenix in Greek Mythology
- The Phoenix in Ancient Rome
- Phoenix Meanings in Judaism and Christianity
- Mythical Birds in Asia
- Phoenix in Hindu Mythology
- How the City of Phoenix, Arizona Got Its Name
- Phoenix Spirit Animal
- Phoenix Power Animal
- Phoenix Totem
- Phoenix Dream Meaning
- Phoenix Tattoo Meaning
What does the phoenix symbolize?
- The Eternal Fire
What is a phoenix?
A phoenix is a mythical bird that likely originated in ancient Egypt or the Middle East. However, other cultures, including the Greeks, Chinese, Hindus, and others, have similar stories about supernatural birds.
The phoenix is as a large bird that has flame-colored purple, orange, and gold feathers and a crimson-red breast. In addition, it is often described as having a long tail and a crest of feathers on its head that are silver and blue. Furthermore, the phoenix is described as a bird of prey who is larger than an eagle but also resembles a peacock or a crane.
Is the phoenix bird real?
In fact, archaeologists discovered the remains of a massive heron that was as tall as a human being in United Arab Emirates. They believe the bird went extinct around 1500 BC.1
Etymology of the Name Phoenix
Etymologists believe the name phoenix shares roots with the name for the ancient people of the Mediterranean called the Phoenicians. The word phoinix in Greek refers to a purple-red color. The Phoenicians were known for making a coveted purple-red dye.2 So, the name for the bird may be attributed to the description of its colorful feathers.
The Story of the Phoenix
As the legend goes, the Phoenix is a one-of-a-kind bird that lives for 500 years. When he is nearing the end of his life, he makes a nest for himself. The nest is made with aromatic plants, such as myrrh, cassia, sage, frankincense, and cinnamon.
The phoenix then strikes his beak against a rock, which sparks flames. Then, he flaps his wings like a bellows, setting his nest and then himself on fire.
The magic of the phoenix is that as soon as he perishes in the flames, he is born again in his nest. Thus, as the saying goes, the phoenix rises from the ashes. He then collects the ashes, rolling them into an egg wrapped in myrrh. Next, he flies to Heliopolis, Egypt and delivers the egg to the Temple of the Sun, which honors the solar god Ra.
According to the legend, the phoenix possesses so much power that his tears heal anything they touch and his ashes can bring the dead to life.
A number of cultures have stories about phoenix-life birds. These mythical birds may have common or totally separate roots. However, historians believe the phoenix was inspired by an Egyptian avian deity named Bennu or the mythical Persian bird called the simurgh. While the origins of the phoenix may forever remain a mystery, here are some of the stories about this magical bird in various cultures:
The Phoenix, or Bennu, in Ancient Egypt
In the 5th century BC, after visiting Egypt, the Greek historian and writer Herodotus described learning about a phoenix-like bird from the Egyptians:
“There is also another sacred bird called the phoenix, which I did not myself see except in painting, for in truth he comes to them very rarely, at intervals, as the people of Heliopolis say, of five hundred years. And these say that he comes regularly when his father dies; and if he be like the painting he is of this size and nature, that is to say, some of his feathers are of gold color and others red, and in outline and size he is as nearly as possible like an eagle.
This bird they say (but I cannot believe the story) contrives as follows:
Setting forth from Arabia, he conveys his father, they say, to the Temple of the Sun (Helios), plastered up in myrrh, and buries him in the Temple of the Sun; and he conveys him thus: He forms first an egg of myrrh as large as he is able to carry, and then he makes trial of carrying it, and when he has made trial sufficiently, then he hollows out the egg and places his father within it and plasters over it with other myrrh that part of the egg where he hollowed it out to put his father in, and when his father is laid in it, it proves (they say) to be of the same weight as it was. And after he has plastered it up, he conveys the whole to Egypt to the Temple of the Sun. Thus they say that this bird does.”3
Historians believe the ancient Egyptian story of the phoenix was inspired by cranes or large flamingos who lived along the Nile River. Some surmise that the heat rising up from the sandy banks along the Nile where these shorebirds laid their eggs appeared like flames.
According to Egyptian legends, Bennu was a creator deity. As the stories go, he flew over the waters of Nun, which were the waters of total chaos, and landed on a rock. Upon landing on the rock, Bennu let out a primordial cry, which marked the beginning of the end of the chaos. The stories say that Bennu had the power to self-generate – or create himself. In addition to being associated with the gods Ra and Atum, Bennu was also associated with the god Osiris, who ruled death and rebirth. In fact, some believe that Bennu’s name comes from the Egyptian words to, literally, rise and shine.4 Thus, it’s easy to see how Bennu may have been the inspiration for the legend of the phoenix.
Phoenix in Persian MythologyIn Persian mythology, there are two mythical phoenix-like birds. The simurgh was a massive bird that was said to be large enough to carry an elephant or whale. According to Persian legends, the simurgh looked like peacock yet had a dog’s head and a lion’s claws. According to the myths, the simurgh was so ancient that she possessed universal wisdom.
The huma was another mythical Persian bird who had phoenix-like qualities. According to Persian legends, the huma never touched the ground. In addition, like the phoenix, they consume themselves in fire and then regenerate. An auspicious bird, the huma was also called the bird of paradise. They were seen as creatures of good fortune who possessed the ability to bestow kingships on human beings.7
Phoenix in Greek Mythology
The ancient Greeks were inspired by the ancient Egyptians, and vice versa. So, it’s likely that the Greeks based their myths about the phoenix on Bennu or other stories of supernatural Egyptian birds. For the Greeks, the phoenix symbolized immortality and regeneration. However, the magical bird was not as powerful as the gods themselves.
In the 6th century BC, the poet Hesiod wrote the epic poem The Precepts of Chiron. The poem is written in the voice of Chiron – a centaur who trained the great warrior Achilles. Chiron describes the power of the phoenix in context to other animals and the gods:
“A chattering crow lives out nine generations of aged men, but a stag’s life is four times a crow’s, and a raven’s life makes three stags old, while the phoenix outlives nine ravens, but we, the rich-haired Nymphs, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder, outlive ten phoenixes.”8
The Phoenix in Ancient Rome
The phoenix dazzled the Romans. They saw the immortal phoenix as an ideal symbol for the interminable reign of the Roman empire. In fact, Rome came to be known as the Eternal City. Thus, the phoenix was an apt symbol. The Romans even put phoenixes on their coins.9
One Roman emperor in particular, named Elagabalus, was so obsessed with the phoenix that he wanted to eat one. As the legend goes, Elagabalus was convinced that eating a phoenix would grant him immortality.
So, he sent some of his servants out to catch one. The servants went on the quest but they were terrified of their master’s ire if they didn’t find the mythical bird. So, they went to great lengths to procure an exotic bird from New Guinea, the Raggiana bird of paradise. And they fed the hapless bird to their master. Unfortunately, this failed to give Elagabalus immortality as died a few years later.10
Phoenix Meanings in Judaism and Christianity
According to some historical interpretations, the bird in the Garden of Eden, who is sometimes referred to as the milcham, the bird of chol, or the hol, is similar to the phoenix. As the story goes, Eve fed all of the animals some of the forbidden fruit after trying some herself. However, one animal refused to partake – a bird who was perched in the Tree of Knowledge.
This bird was said to live for 1,000 years. And like the phoenix, it died in a fire only to be reborn from an egg that did not perish. In Jewish mythology, the bird represents God, who does not have to eat and who cannot be destroyed in fire.11
Early Christians were also intrigued with the story of the phoenix. They came to associate it with the resurrection and immortality of Christ.
Mythical Birds in Asia
The closest comparison to a phoenix-like bird in Asian mythology is the Chinese Feng Huang12 or its equivalent, the Japanese Hou-ou.13 According to the legends, this mythical bird was beautiful and had the head of a pheasant and the tail of a peacock. However, it also had parts of other animals, including the neck of a snake and the back of a turtle.
The sacred bird embodies both masculine and feminine traits. Thus, in China it is representative of the balance of Yin and Yang.
In Japan, the Hou-ou is an auspicious symbol who appears when a virtuous ruler is born.
Phoenix in Hindu Mythology
In Hindu mythology, the phoenix is often compared to the avian deity Garuda. As the mount for the god Vishnu, like the phoenix, Garuda is a sun bird. He is also depicted as having the fiery coloring of red, orange, and yellow.
According to Hindu mythology, Garuda became immortal through an act of selflessness. His mother was enslaved by snakes. And to free her, Garuda had to go on an epic quest to capture a vessel filled with amrit, the potion for immortality. Garuda would use the potion as a ransom with the snakes in exchange for setting his mother free. While Garuda could have drunk the amrit himself, he didn’t. Vishnu was so impressed by his selflessness that he granted Garuda immortality anyway.14
A note about the phoenix in other cultures: The Native Americans also tell stories of a phoenix-like bird, whom they call the thunderbird. Look for a separate post on this mythical bird coming soon!
How the City of Phoenix, Arizona Got Its Name
This post would not be complete without mention of how the city of Phoenix, Arizona got its name. As the story goes, sometime from 700 – 1400 AD, the area that is now Phoenix was the home to a tribe of Pueblo Native Americans. The Pueblos built an irrigation system to bring water to their area from the Salt River.
The canal system was extensive, spanning over 130 miles. However, at some point during the 15th century, the population disappeared. Historians are unsure of what happened to the people who lived there. However, they surmise that they left the area due ongoing drought or hostile tribes who drove them away.
By the mid-19th century, white pioneers began to settle in the area. They expanded the existing canal system, which enabled them to farm. Eventually, after some going back and forth for about a new name for the settlement, a pioneer named Darrell Duppa suggested Phoenix in honor the previous civilization that had been there and the new one that emerged.15
Phoenix Spirit Animal
The phoenix spirit animal is a powerful archetype for new beginnings, self-regeneration, and healing. You may already feel a strong connection to this mythical bird or one may suddenly appeared in your life in art, literature, or some other medium. Either way, the phoenix is always an auspicious sign for healing and renewal in an area of your life.
The phoenix symbolizes the eternal flame, which can mean faith, will, or passion in your life. No matter how many times you get set back, the phoenix reminds you that you have within you the fire and wherewithal to heal and be new again.
In addition to the phoenix, you might have other spirit animals who can help to guide you on your life path. In fact, according to Native American traditions, you can have more than one spirit animal. If you’re curious about other animals who might be your spirit guides, you can take UniGuide’s spirit animal quiz in my overview post about spirit animals.
Phoenix Power Animal
As the name implies, a power animal can empower you with their most dynamic traits. So, the phoenix power animal is a helpful symbol when you feel you need to regenerate an area of your life. This can mean your health, a relationship, a creative endeavor, your environment, or even your attitude and the way you view the world. At the heart of phoenix symbolism and meaning is faith and the knowing that you can begin again.
Animal totems are helpful talismans that embody the special gifts and protective powers of the animals they represent. Thus, a phoenix totem is a good luck symbol for healing, renewal, regeneration, and becoming new again.
Phoenix Dream Meaning
If you have phoenix dreams, you are lucky indeed. While many of us have animal dreams, few of us dream of mythical animals.
Dream meanings and interpretations are personal to every individual. However, one thing we all have in common is that our subconscious emotions don’t lie to us. Analyzing the emotions you felt in your dream can provide clues into what the dream is telling you.
While you can interpret dreams about animals in any number of ways, as a mythical animal, the phoenix has very specific meanings. In general, you can view a dream about a phoenix can as an opportunity for transformation, renewal, and continuity.
Phoenix Tattoo Meaning
A phoenix tattoo is a wonderful symbol that shows the world you have risen from the ashes in some way to be renewed again. It demonstrates that no matter what you have experienced in your life, you are a survivor. Indeed, these experiences have led to a more enlightened version of yourself.
A phoenix tattoo can also symbolize that you have within you a fire that will never go out. The eternal fire can related to your faith, your love for another, or even a renewed love and respect for yourself. It can also symbolize your dedication to a cause, craft, or other enterprise. Every tattoo has a personal story behind it. But hopefully understanding more about phoenix mythology and symbolism can bring even deeper meanings to your tattoo.