The Phoenix

Emily Balivet, "Mother Isis"

Emily Balivet, “Mother Isis”

1.“When I comprehended my darkness, a truly magnificent night came over me and my dream plunged me into the depths of the millennia, and from it my phoenix ascended.”

C.G. Jung, “The Red Book”

2.”At the beginning there was only Khaos (Air), Nyx (Night), dark Erebos (Darkness), and deep Tartaros (Hell’s Pit). Ge (Earth), Aer (Air) and Ouranos (Heaven) had no existence. Firstly, black-winged Nyx (Night) laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Erebos (Darkness), and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros with his glittering golden wings.”

Aristophanes, “Frogs”

Nyx, Hesperus & Selene, gods of night, star & moon

Nyx, Hesperus & Selene, gods of night, star & moon

3. “Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,

And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;

Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,

And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood…“

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 19 (bolding mine)

4. “The phoenix symbolizes the birth of life at a new level through the burning of all limitations into the fire. This fire is the real symbol of the energy which burns in the man who has reached the eighth phase of his journey along the Zodiac. It is the fire which destroys lesser forms and summons greater ones to be developed during the Sagittarius period of the cycle. This fire is the transcendent and occult aspect of sex…”

Dane Rudhyar,  http://www.khaldea.com/rudhyar/pofl/pofl_p2s8p3.shtml

5. HUNTING THE PHOENIX

Leaf through discolored manuscripts,
make sure no words
lie thirsting, bleeding,
waiting for rescue. No:
old loves half-
articulated, moments forced
out of the stream of perception
to play “statue,”
and never released —
they had no blood to shed.
You must seek
the ashy nest itself
if you hope to find
charred feathers, smoldering flightbones,
and a twist of singing flame
rekindling.

~ Denise Levertov

The myth of the phoenix most probably has its roots in ancient Egypt, where the bird benu was worshiped, which had the power to regenerate itself and was associated with the sun. Benu was connected with the primeval act of creation:

 “In the beginning,  when Atum created the world and the primeval hill was the first thing to rise out of the waters of chaos,  the benu perched on the hill,  and its first flight across the sky marked the beginning of time.  Because of its role in this creation myth, the benu, signifying the return to a new beginning, the start of a New Era, was a natural symbol for the Sothic period [a single year between heliacal risings of Sothis – i.e. Sirius, the dog star].“

Carol F. Heffeman, The Phoenix at the Fountain: Images of Woman and Eternity in Lactantius’s Carmen De Ave Phoenice and the Old English Phoenix

Benu bird from an Egyptian papyrus

Benu bird from an Egyptian papyrus

The benu, venerated at Heliopolis, the city of the sun, was believed to have been appearing in Egypt at intervals of 1,461 years heralding the beginning of a new cycle. The heliacal rising of Sothis (Sirius) coincided with the rising of the Nile and the renewal of life. The benu was also significant in Egyptian funerary rites, as Heffeman writes: “the Book of the Dead contains a spell for transforming a dead person into a benu, enabling him or her to fly to the eternal land beyond.“

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Nakht (detail), showing two Benu

Papyrus from the Book of the Dead of Nakht (detail), showing two Benu

Already in Neolithic times, as is evident from extensive research conducted by a Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, birds were believed to partake of the feminine nature. Gimbutas excavated numerous Bird Goddess figurines that contained the cosmic egg from which gods were believed to have arisen. A similar myth was told over and over again in ancient Egypt, Babylonia and Greece.

Ishtar vase, goddess with bird feet

Ishtar vase, goddess with bird feet

Heffeman puts forward an interesting suggestion regarding those ancient figurines. She quotes Mircea Eliade’s profound thought regarding creation of life. The celebrated Romanian historian of religion and philosopher said that life always springs from over-fullness, from a wholeness. Thus: “Bird Goddesses have both female egg-shaped buttocks and long phallic necks, suggesting a fusion of the sexes.“

It is in the phoenix that the fusion of the sexes -the myth of the Androgyne – is realized most beautifully. What a pity that most of us know only a tiny fragment of the beautiful story – its climax: the rising of the new phoenix from the ashes. Carol F. Heffeman in her extraordinary book brings us the full myth by analyzing a poem “Carmen de Ave Phoenice“ by Lanctantius, an early Christian author. Born in Northern Africa, he was an ideal candidate to marry the pagan myth with Christianity. The wonderful poem can be read here,   and the following is the summary offered by Heffeman:

“Lanctantius’ Carmen de Ave Phoenice begins with a description of the phoenix’s grove on a high plateau in the East. Remote from man and blessed with temperate weather,  the grove has at its center a fountain that overflows twelve months of the year. Here the phoenix follows a daily ritual of immersing itself in the fountain at dawn, flying up to a perch on a tall tree, and singing as the sun rises. This pattern of life continues for a thousand years until the old phoenix needs to renew itself. Then the phoenix takes flight to Syria where it seeks out a palm tree in which to die and recreate itself. After the old phoenix dies in flames ignited by the sun, the young phoenix evolves from the amassed ashes of its predecessor. [She elaborates later: “The new phoenix first appears as a worm that creeps out of the ashes, grows in due course to a bird,  and flies away.“] When it becomes an adult, it shapes whatever remains of the dead phoenix into a ball and takes it to an altar in Heliopolis. A joyous host of birds gather around the fabulous bird and sculpt it in marble amidst singing and gift-giving.“

Phoenix silk painting, image via https://www.flickr.com/photos/natsart/5359512905/

Phoenix silk painting, image via https://www.flickr.com/photos/natsart/5359512905/

Heffeman believes strongly that the poem’s imagery draws on female initiation rites and says there is “a menstrual connection” to the fountain which overflows twelve times a year. She adds that the plumage of phoenix was believed to be partly golden, but mostly crimson red, as the natives of Phoenicia, the land which gave its origin to the name phoenix, were cloth dyers by trade.

A phoenix depicted in a book of mythological creatures by FJ Bertuch (wikipedia)

A phoenix depicted in a book of mythological creatures by FJ Bertuch (wikipedia)

It is a sublime image of the phoenix waiting eternally in sublime seclusion for the aurora, the new dawn. But it does not wait passively; instead it purifies itself regularly and ritualistically “in the very font of the origin of life.” When the cycle is ripe, and the sun rises, the conception sequence may start and the phoenix begins his wondrous and ecstatic song of conception.

Phoenix detail from Aberdeen bestiary

Phoenix detail from Aberdeen bestiary

The Roman poet Ovid wrote that both heat and moisture are required to create life: “For when moisture and heat become mingled they conceive and all things arise from these two.“  In the phoenix birth ritual, the heat of the sun produces fragrant steam, as Heffeman continues: “The imagery of steam, redolent with scent [amidst the herbs the phoenix has collected and placed around itself as a nest] suggests steamy fumigation, an external expedient that has been used to facilitate delivery by many peoples in many times.“

It is believed in Christian lore that the phoenix was last sighted after the Holy Spirit overshadowed Virgin Mary, and she gave birth to Jesus in a secluded cave. The symbol seems to have experienced a vast collective renewal at our moment in history. Does that mean that the phoenix has relived the whole cosmology and is ready to begin a new song of conception? I think the time is right to bring the full meaning of the symbol to our collective awareness. To me, the poem by Lactantius and its eye – opening interpretation by Heffeman reestablish the importance of the feminine principle in one of the most potent and most universal myths of humanity. In The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall wrote: “The phœnix is the most celebrated of all the symbolic creatures fabricated by the ancient Mysteries for the purpose of concealing the great truths of esoteric philosophy. … Mediæval Hermetists regarded the phœnix as a symbol of the accomplishment of alchemical transmutation, a process equivalent to human regeneration.” The phoenix symbolizes being reborn into a new spiritual consciousness – the culmination of the Great Work.

Phoenix Fountain - Mugunghwa Valley, Korea, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronbrownphotos/4972461256/

Phoenix Fountain – Mugunghwa Valley, Korea, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/aaronbrownphotos/4972461256/

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25 Responses to The Phoenix

  1. Wow! Marvelous ❤ Gratitude

  2. Monika: Wow! The work you obviously put into this piece really shows — it’s a wonderful read.
    I find the ‘Benu’ mythology particularly interesting.

  3. litebeing says:

    such a beautiful post Monika, a delight for the eyes, heart, and spirit.

    The phoenix is also associated with Scorpio, and the information you provide adds so much to that signature symbol for the Plutonians.

    • Thank you so much. Yes, I know about Scorpio. I wanted to post before the new moon while the moon was still in Scorpio. I wanted also to include something about the phoenix being a transformed dragon in alchemy but did not have enough time.

      • litebeing says:

        smart move to post now! Did not know about the alchemical reference, very intriguing. I am considering posting something today as well, if I can transmute some
        obstacles here at home 🙂

        You did a beautiful job here. Always room to add more nuances as you are led…

      • Just added a little something at the end concerning alchemy…
        Thank you again, my Scorpio woman. I hope I have managed to pay homage to my progressed Scorpio Moon.

      • litebeing says:

        Guess where my progressed moon is now? In Gemini 🙂
        Waiting for it to conjunct my natal placement.

        In many ways Monika you qualify as Scorpionic, even without the progressed moon!

  4. Reblogged this on Tania Marie's Blog and commented:
    Love this! The energy and insights go great with Tom Lescher/Kaypacha’s Astrology for the Soul on tomorrow’s New Moon energy I just posted. Loving how everything is increasingly weaving such synchronous threads. Enjoy!

  5. Maria F. says:

    Now I understand this symbol better, Thanks!

  6. Excellent post! I particularly connected with the quotes form Dane Rudhyar and Manly Hall. As always, well researched and inspiring. Have a great weekend, Monika!

  7. This is just beautiful, verbally and visually – and means a great deal to me. With three of my personal planets conjunct Pluto, ruler of the IC/South Node in my horoscope, arising phoenix-like from the ashes of a dead life phase is something which I have experienced, more than once…..

    • Dear Anne,
      That brings us closer because I also see myself as a Pluto person, and my IC is in Scorpio, too. Having my progressed Moon in Scorpio right now has made me ponder death, regeneration and rebirth in my life right now.
      Thank you for sharing a bit about your experience.
      Monika

  8. Beautiful Monika, like many I have been drawn to the Phoenix but your revelations here have revealed to me my previous lack of full awareness. The impact, similar to the meaning within your research and writing, is resonant with today’s New Moon in Sagittarius within the previous and forthcoming astrological cycles. I love your connection to the feminine, the menstrual cycle, and watery purification through the phoenix. It makes me consider culturally in esoteric circles how much attention is focused on that moment of the phoenix arising from the ash, as well as the phoenix being engulfed within flames, and how the rest of the story is completely ignored. At moment I only have a vague dawning of recognition of what this means, like a New Moon in Sagittarius. I am also amazed by Benu with the full fabric of my being, as for some reason I became strongly drawn to the appearance of Blue Herons after moving to the Pacific NW. Of course, this is not unusual, and these magnificent birds mesmerize many and their image appears all over the place as a sign of meaning. Connecting the Heron with Benu and then as a Phoenix of rebirth is an epiphany for me, in particular with the story of the Phoenix purifying itself cyclically in water as the process leading to a steamy rebirth. Quickly after noticing the appearance of the Heron in my life, whether by flying above me in the sky with its graceful arc of flight (I think the Heron has the most beautiful flight of all birds I have seen) or whether found by walking upon a body of water containing a Heron lovingly nourishing itself, these appearances took on great significance for me and always hold special meaning. I am grateful to learn of this ancient symbolic connection and thank you for giving me this greater perspective.

    • Dear Gray,

      You are not the only one who was unaware of the full myth. In none of the dictionaries of symbols that I have consulted was the water element mentioned. Tales said that at the beginning was water, Heraclitus thought the first principle was fire, but in fact both are equal, as the phoenix’s story testifies. Also, as you obviously know, Scorpio is a water sign, and phoenix is the highest sublimated Scorpio, which means that we must find water in the myth somehow. I feel I could ponder more on the symbolism of the white worm and the seed.
      Herons are magnificent birds: I sometimes see them here. There is a pond nearby which is their favorite dinner parlor. I hope you will appreciate a short passage on the blue heron from Ted Andrew’s “Animal Speak”:

      “Legs enable animals and people to move about on the earth. They are symbols of balance, and they represent an ability to progress and evolve. Also the longer the legs, the deeper the water the heron will feed in. The deeper life can be explored. The long thin legs of the
      heron reflect that you don’t need great massive pillars to remain stable, but you must be able to stand on your own. This is especially significant for those with a totem of the great blue heron, as it is a lone hunter.

      When it feeds, it stands in the water, reflecting a connection to the earth while implying the exploration of other dimensions on the earth (water element It is important for anyone with a heron totem to explore various activities and dimensions of earth life. On the surface, this may seem a form of dabbling, but those with heron totems are wonderfully successful at being the traditional “jacks of all trades.”

      This ability enables them to follow their own path. Most people will never be able to live the way heron people do. It is not a structured way, and does not seem to have a stability and security to it. It is, though, just a matter of perspective. There is security in heron medicine, for it gives the ability to do a variety of tasks. If one way doesn’t work, then another will. This heron people seem to inherently know.

      Heron do not seem to need a lot of people in their life, nor do they feel pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” or be traditional in their life roles. The one time they gather in colonies is during the breeding season. They stand out in their uniqueness, and they know how to snatch and take advantage of things and events that the average person would not even bother with.

      The great blue heron is the tallest of the herons, and when it flies, its head is folded back in a flat S-shaped loop. This reflects the innate wisdom of being able to maneuver through life and control its circumstances. It reflects a need for those with this totem to follow their own innate wisdom and path of self-determination. You know what is best for you and should follow it, rather than the promptings of others. The great blue heron in flight is powerful, and its legs and head are held in a straight line. It uses a slow stalking stride when hunting. When it spies a fish, it spears its prey with its sharp beak and with quick speed. Again it reflects an aggressive movement toward opportunities that present themselves.”

      THANK YOU.

      Monika

  9. Viv says:

    Always a feast for eyes and mind. Thank you.

  10. What a journey through what feels like several ‘things’ all interrelated. What breadth and depth this article explores. Thank you so much and now – off to read the poem. I admit to never wondering ‘more’ about the Phoenix rising and falling. Just took it as some sort of fable or parable. Of course it has to be connected to something quite faded from our time!

    • Dear Steven,
      I realized recently the phoenix together with the dragon are the two central archetypes that rule my psyche, at least at this juncture of my life. I poured a lot into this article. I am glad you also founded some meaning in it.
      Monika

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