You're probably familiar with the basic legend of the phoenix, the mythical bird that lives for 500 years, builds its own funeral pyre, is consumed by the flames, then rises anew from the ashes. This legend supposedly symbolizes the rising and setting of the sun, as well as immortality, resurrection, and life after death. Like all good myths, it has a number of versions and many layers of interpretation. It appears in ancient Egyptian, Greek, Arabic, and Chinese mythology. American Indians have their version of the phoenix: the thunderbird, who is believed to be a powerful spirit in the form of a bird. Through its work, the earth is watered and vegetation grows, for lightning is believed to flash from its beak, and the beating of its wings is thought to result in the rolling of thunder. The city of Phoenix got its name because the city rose from the ancient ruins of a Hohokam Indian settlement that existed there until about 1400. In 1867, the Swilling Irrigating Canal Company was formed, and one of the canal builders, a man named Darrell Duppa, suggested the name.
The name phoenix means palm tree in Greek, and the Greek historian Herodotus tells the tale of the legendary bird. The Greeks probably got the idea from the ancient Egyptians. In Egypt, the phoenix was associated with the worship of the sun. In both the Greek and Egyptian versions, the phoenix represented the sun, who dies in flames each evening and emerges anew each morning. It is described as being larger than an eagle, having brilliant scarlet, gold, and purple plumage and a melodious cry. The Arabs had an incombustible cloth woven of flexible asbestos that was thought to be its hair or plumage. In Egypt, the written symbol, the hieroglyph, for sun was the phoenix.
There was only one phoenix at a time, and it lived for 500 years. It laid no eggs and had no young, and it was there when the world began. It was the quintessential firebird, young and strong. When it began to feel weak and old, it would build a nest out of twigs of cassia and frankincense, set it afire, and immolate itself in the fragrant flames. From this funeral pyre miraculously sprang a new phoenix. The new phoenix would embalm its predecessor's ashes in an egg of myrrh and fly with the ashes to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun in Egypt. There, it would deposit them on the altar in the temple of the Egyptian god of the sun. From this we can easily see how the phoenix came to be the early Christian symbol of immortality and spiritual rebirth. The flight of the phoenix represents "the capacity to leave the world and its problems behind, flying toward the sun in clear, pure skies".
In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is the symbol of high virtue and grace, of power and prosperity. It represents the union of yin and yang. It was thought to be a gentle creature, alighting so gently that it crushed nothing, and eating only dewdrops. It reflected the empress, and only she could wear the phoenix symbol. Jewelry with the phoenix design showed that the wearer was a person of high moral values, and so the phoenix could only be worn by people of importance. The Chinese phoenix was thought to have a large bill, the neck of a snake, the back of a tortoise, and the tail of a fish. It carried two scrolls in its bill, and its song included the five whole notes of the Chinese scale (I don't exactly know how it could sing with its mouth full). Its feathers were of the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, green, and yellow.
For the past couple of years I have been interested in the Chinese art of placement, known as feng shui, and in feng shui, the phoenix figures prominently, representing the south point of the compass, for south was considered the ideal way for one's house to face. In The Feng Shui Handbook, feng shui Master Lam Kam Chuen writes,
A mythical bird that never dies, the phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it. The phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration.
~ Deb Whitehouse ~
A talk given July 15, 1998, at the International New Thought Alliance Congress/Expo in Scottsdale, Arizona