Following Fabulous Beasts
what Joseph Campbell did more generally
for the world of myth."
The New York Review of Science Fiction
Since publication of The Book of Gryphons in 1982, Joseph (Joe) Nigg has explored the rich cultural lives of mythical creatures in a variety of styles and formats for readers of all ages. His books have garnered multiple awards and have been translated into more than twenty languages.
His most recent book, featured below, is a cultural and unnatural history of the mythical bird that Roman poet Claudian hailed as one that "hast beheld all that has been, / hast witnessed the passing the ages." The story of the figure's transformations through time is the most comprehensive and definitive to date.
From the University of Chicago Press
"Arising triumphantly from the ashes of its predecessor, the phoenix has been an enduring symbol of resilience and renewal for thousands of years. But how did this mythical bird become so famous that it has played a part in cultures around the world and throughout human history? How much of its story do we actually know? Here to offer a comprehensive biography and engaging (un)natural history of the phoenix is Joseph Nigg, esteemed expert on otherworldly creatures—from dragons to gryphons to sea monsters.
"Beginning in ancient Egypt and traveling around the globe and through the centuries, Nigg’s vast and sweeping narrative takes readers on a brilliant tour of the cross-cultural lore of this famous, yet little-known, immortal bird. Seeking both the similarities and the differences in the phoenix’s many myths and representations, Nigg describes its countless permutations over millennia, including legends of the Chinese “phoenix,” which was considered one of the sacred creatures that presided over China’s destiny; classical Greece and Rome, where it can be found in the writings of Herodotus and Ovid; nascent and medieval Christianity, in which it came to embody the resurrection; and in Europe during the Renaissance, when it was a popular emblem of royals. Nigg examines the various phoenix traditions, the beliefs and tales associated with them, their symbolic and metaphoric use, the skepticism and speculation they’ve raised, and their appearance in religion, bestiaries, and even contemporary popular culture, in which the ageless bird of renewal is employed as a mascot and logo, including for our own University of Chicago.
"Never bested by hardship or defeated by death, the phoenix is the ultimate icon of hope and rebirth. And in The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, it finally has its due—a complete chronicle worthy of such a fantastic and phantasmal creature. This entertaining and informative look at the life and transformation of the phoenix will be the authoritative source for anyone fascinated by folklore and mythology, re-igniting our curiosity about one of myth’s greatest beasts."
Alberto Manguel, author of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
"Nigg’s The Phoenix is as singular as its subject. With intelligence, grace, and sound scholarship, he has restored this extraordinary beast to its rightful place in the universal library.”
Boria Sax, author of Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous and the Human
“Nigg tells the intricate story of the phoenix in human culture with the most meticulous thoroughness, from its origins in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China to its use as a symbol of resurrection of New York City after the bombing of the World Trade Center. The tale of this mythic bird is so ubiquitous, multifaceted, and evocative that it seems to merge with the story of humankind.”
"This exhaustively researched and meticulously organized study of the mythical phoenix is an exceptional work of scholarship. It traces the phoenix’s emergence from uncertain origins in antiquity and development into an icon of resurrection and regeneration throughout Eastern and Western civilization. After linking the phoenix to the benu-bird depicted in Egyptian funerary texts, Nigg (Sea Monsters) shows the bird’s gradual evolution through its accretion of attributes described in historical texts. Hesiod mentions the phoenix’s unusually long life in the Precepts of Chiron (700 BCE); Herodotus, in his History (450-425 BCE), describes the bird’s migration to the Egyptian Temple of the Sun bearing the remains of its parent; Ovid, in his first-century BCE Metamorphoses, recounts the phoenix’s death and regeneration after 500 years; and the second-century CE Physiologus finally references the bird’s death and rebirth in fire. By the early Christian era, the phoenix was firmly established as a symbol for death and resurrection. Nigg draws his insights from a wealth of classical texts and bestiaries, and he amply demonstrates the persistence of the phoenix as a popular emblem of renewal and immortality. Even readers familiar with just the bare bones of the phoenix myth will find this book an engrossing history of an idea."
"In this insightful cultural history of the mythical, self-immolating bird, Nigg (Sea Monsters) traces the evolution of the phoenix from its origin as a sacred Egyptian symbol of the sun to its modern appearances in popular literature and as a motif in civic and corporate logos. Using excerpts from the writings of scholars, ecclesiastics, and poets—as well as a selection of pictorial representations from ancient eras to the present day—Nigg illustrates how the creature’s association with rebirth and longevity has resonated throughout history, serving variously as a symbol of resurrection to Christians, an alchemical allegory for the process of chemical and spiritual transformation, and a poetic convention for an idealized lover or the hopeless passion of the lovelorn. The enduring power of the phoenix as an emblem of triumph over adversity even led to its adoption as a symbol for rebuilding efforts following the September 11 terrorist attacks. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers interested in the origins and history of a popular mythological creature and iconographic symbol." —Sara Shreve, Newton, KS
"Where Nigg is most illuminating is on the phoenix in modern poetry and literature. For me, the most readable chapter comes towards the end, where he explores the puns on the phoenix and phoenix mythology that imbue Finnegans Wake. The novel centres around Phoenix Park in Dublin. In a mistaken etymology that is reminiscent of Herodotus’ original benu-phoenix mash up, this is a classically-flavoured Anglicism for the Irish for spring, fiunishgue (transliterated as Feenisk) or “clear water”. The novel plays with puns on phoenix and benu-bird, resurrection and the Book of the Dead — the “bug of the deaf”. An effort to map the city of Dublin (Healyopolis, after the politician Tim Healy) for eternity, is a fitting bookend to Herodotus’ travelogue from the distant antiquity of the Egyptian City of the Sun."
–A. E. Stallings
--The Story Bag Newsletter
--The Houston Chronicle