The Phoenix story has roots going back to earliest recorded history, in ancient Egypt and Arabia, then in ancient Greece and the centuries-old fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm. Legends from many countries include the Persian Simurgh, Chinese Feng Huang, and Russian firebird (Zharptitsa). The Chinese firebird Feng Huang dates back at least 7,000 years, and never dies.
One source says that it lives 500 years or more, and on growing old, flies from Arabia to Egypt’s “City of the Sun.” There it gathers cinnamon twigs and resin and builds a nest of spices on the Temple of the Sun. The sun ignites the nest and the magical bird dies in the flames. A new, young phoenix emerges from the ashes and travels back to Arabia to live again. The bird has glowing red, golden, and purple feathers.
Some scholars say the tale evolved from the Egyptian Benu, a sacred bird in the Book of the Dead that belongs to the sun god Ra and looks like a heron in hieroglyphics.
Herodotus wrote his famous Histories (fifth century BCE) after traveling in Egypt, and tells of many new, fantastic beasts, including the phoenix.
Roman coins showed the emperor’s head on one side and the phoenix on the other. The phoenix represented Rome, the eternal nature of the empire, and its renewal.
Christian and Judaic Sources
In Christian Europe,Christian monks in the middle ages employed the phoenix as a symbol of Christ because of its voluntary death and subsequent rebirth. During the Renaissance, it was a popular emblem of Elizabeth I, and also of Joan of Arc, who perished in the flame.
The Talmud tells how the phoenix (Hol) was the only animal allowed to stay in the Garden of Eden, because it refused to eat the forbidden apple. God granted the bird immortality for its obedience.
In 1850 Andersen published “The Phoenix Bird.” From this short poem:
Beneath the tree of knowledge in the garden of paradise stood a rosebush. And here, in the first rose, a bird was born. His plumage was beautiful, his song glorious, and his flight was like the flashing of light. But when Eve plucked the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and she and Adam were driven from paradise, a spark fell from the flaming sword of the angel into the nest of the bird and set it afire. The bird perished in the flames, but from the red egg in the nest there flew a new bird, the only one of its kind, the one solitary phoenix bird. The legend tells us how he lives in Arabia and how every century he burns himself to death in his nest, but each time a new phoenix, the only one in the world, flies out from the red egg.