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Author Interviews


Among the many civic uses of the Phoenix is that of a school mascot. Swarthmore College was one that adopted the symbolic figure. Bookend issues of the college's July 2008 and Winter 2017 magazine featured the mascot's debut and its subsequent popularity. Both issues included background on the mascot's mythical Phoenix ancestor.

From Heather Shumaker's "The Phoenix Through the Ages"
From Kathryn Campbell's "Order of the Phoenix." The author signing The Phoenix at Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store, November 2016. Photo by Angel Horvath.

The Phoenix Through the Ages: The self-renewing bird is one of our most enduring myths

By Heather Shumaker

Unraveling the legend of the phoenix is trickier than it might seem. The fabled bird is so thoroughly entwined in our culture that most people have heard of it, but no one seems to know much about it—“Oh, yeah, it’s that bird that burns up and rises from the ashes, like in the Harry Potter books.” Snazzy new Web sites and dusty library reference books don’t offer much more. One brief entry even said: “There is so much rich history about the phoenix, its story deserves a book of its own.”

Enter Joseph Nigg, perhaps the world’s sole phoenix scholar. He’s author of The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writing from Ancient Times to the Present—and is known as the Joseph Campbell of fantastical animals. Nigg is writing a book about the phoenix and was just finishing chapter 19 of 20 when I called his home.

The Greeks rooted the tale of the phoenix in Western imagination more than 2,500 years ago, but its story began in ancient Egypt and Arabia. The fabled bird is said to live 500 years or more, and when the old bird is tired, it flies from Arabia to land in Heliopolis, Egypt, the “City of the Sun.” There, it gathers cinnamon twigs and resin to build a nest of spices atop the Temple of the Sun. The sun ignites the nest and the old phoenix dies in flames. A new, young phoenix emerges from the ashes and wings back to Arabia to live another life cycle. The bird’s features have changed over the centuries, but most agree it’s an eagle-like bird with shining red, golden, and purple plumes.

The tale may have evolved from the Egyptian Benu, a sacred bird mentioned in the Book of the Dead that is associated with the sun god Ra and looks like a heron in hieroglyphics—or it may have been mistaken for a cousin by Egyptologists overeager to make a connection. The phoenix—a Greek word meaning “reddish-purple”—turns up first in a riddle by Hesiod. Themes of time and longevity suggest the bird was already well known to those trying to solve the riddle.

Although he lived two centuries later, the Greek historian Herodotus is credited with introducing the legend of the phoenix into Western culture after his travels in Egypt. In his famous Histories (fifth century BCE), Herodotus tells of many new, fantastic beasts, including the crocodile, hippopotamus, and phoenix. Herodotus visits Heliopolis and talks to the temple priests: “They have another sacred bird called the phoenix, which I have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed, it is a great rarity, even in Egypt. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible.” This early Greek version of the phoenix has no fire.

Like all legends, details in tales of the phoenix vary. For instance, its long lifespan is sometimes 500 years, 540 years, or even 1,461 years (the Egyptian Sophic year in astronomy). Some tales claim the phoenix has magical healing powers. Another Greek historian, Pliny the Elder, scoffed at doctors who promoted the use of phoenix ashes to heal wounds. “He makes fun of it,” Nigg says, and asks, “‘How can you rely on a cure that is available only every 500 years?’”

Romans loved the phoenix. Their coins showed the emperor’s head on one side and the phoenix on the other. “The phoenix represented Rome itself, the eternal nature of the empire, that it continues to return with each new emperor,” Nigg says.

But even as Rome began its decline, the phoenix flourished in early Christian Europe. Its message of rebirth and eternal life fit Christian themes, and popes like St. Clement (96 AD) used the phoenix to prove Jesus’s resurrection. Monks included phoenixes in the bestiaries of the Middle Ages, making no distinction between God’s wondrous creations—real or imaginary. During the Renaissance, the phoenix was a popular emblem of royals like Elizabeth I and martyrs like Joan of Arc. “This is the greatest period for the phoenix,” according to Nigg. “Why not? With a word like ‘renaissance,’ a time of rebirth and learning, you definitely have his time.”

Despite its strong Christian associations, the phoenix also appears briefly in Jewish tradition. 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.

Legendary birds around the world are often linked to the phoenix, including what Nigg calls “phoenix counterparts” such as the Persian Simurg, Chinese Feng Huang, and Russian firebird (Zhar-ptitsa). These birds arose from their own local folklore. Swarthmore Professor of Russian Sibelan Forrester says Slavic lore hosts two mythical birds, the traditional firebird (star of Stravinsky’s ballet) and Finist the Bright Falcon, whose name is derived from the Greek phoenix.

The Chinese phoenix Feng Huang (Ho-o in Japan) is a completely separate bird dating back at least 7,000 years. This celestial fowl became entwined with the Western phoenix through Scottish sinologist James Legge, who translated Chinese classics in the 1800s. His word choice persists, even though the Eastern bird has no fire, never dies (so is never reborn), and looks like a pheasant. Its very name represents the union of yin-yang, with “feng” being male and “huang” female. When paired with a dragon, the phoenix represents the empress and the dragon the emperor. This auspicious pairing also symbolizes good luck and harmony between husband and wife.

Both the Eastern and Western phoenix legends begin in the murky days of prehistory. Some say the Chinese tale comes from distant memories of the extinct Asian ostrich. In Egypt, a prehistoric flamingo may have inspired the tale, because heat waves rose from the hot salt flats where it laid its eggs, perhaps suggesting a nest of fire.

But like its legend, the phoenix enjoys a modern rebirth as a mascot, logo, and fairytale. Swarthmore is not alone in seeking a symbol of renewed life and hope after devastating fire. Cities including Atlanta; San Francisco; London; and institutions in Chicago and Coventry, England, have each adopted the phoenix. Its namesake, Phoenix, Ariz., reminds modern Americans that the city stands on the same site as a vanished Native American civilization.

Why is phoenix lore so enduring? “It’s because of renewal,” Nigg says; “it’s hope for rebirth. I think it deals with hope.”

Before becoming a freelance writer two years ago, Heather Shumaker ’91 was a conservationist working for a nonprofit land trust in Michigan. Mother of two young boys, she has written for Parenting, Organic Gardening, and Pregnancy magazines; the Wisconsin Natural Resources Journal; and Traverse. Inspired by her research for her current Bulletin article, she says, her most recent Halloween costume was a phoenix.

Copyright 2008, Swarthmore College Bulletin, Swarthmore College.


From The Order of the Phoenix

By Kathryn Campbell

In the sunny second-floor office of his home, author Joe Nigg is nearly swallowed up by mountains of papers, hand-scribbled notes, and a library of more than 3,000 books. Here, among the jumble of manuscripts, he taps away on his computer in pursuit of the marvels hidden in myth.

Why bother? With the torrent of news and information streaming from the internet and yammering out of televisions, what do fantastical myths really have to add? For 78-year-old Nigg, they clinch humanity’s greatest truths. And that simplicity, he says, is beautiful.

“The power of myth is so deep in the human mind,” says Nigg, whose latest book, The Phoenix an Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, took him 18 years to research and write between a full-time editing job and other books. (The last he spoke with the Swarthmore College Bulletin was in the July 2008 issue, which debuted the College’s new phoenix mascot.)

“Myth is a part of us and our collective imagination,” he says. “The story of the phoenix could come from the awareness of mortality. When a caveman first killed an animal, he might well have realized that he, too, could die. One of the things the phoenix symbolizes is the hope that we can somehow overcome death.”

His myth-hunting began in earnest with the purchase of a hanging oil lamp from an antique store owned by his parents. “While I was writing a novel in the late ’70s, I kept looking at the lamp’s figure of a winged lion with a fish tail,” he says. “That led me to research the eagle-lion griffin, which led me in turn to fabulous and mythical beasts in general, including the phoenix, whose variations appeared in my earlier fiction.”

In exploring the symbol of the phoenix through the ages, in both form and fable, Nigg submerged himself in study. His extensive research led him to British libraries and museums, including a search for an attested, but no longer existent, phoenix feather in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology.

“It’s a matter of following a single image,” says Nigg, a father and grandfather who has been writing for most of his adult life. “You could call it a quest. For me, I was grabbing a golden feather.”

Originally planned as a coffee table book, Nigg found the subject of the phoenix so irresistible and rich that his vision expanded. “It was extraordinary watching this protean bird transform into different cultural shapes throughout human history.”

From the symbolism of its colors, to its role as muse, especially for the writer D.H. Lawrence, Nigg unlocks every detail of the bird’s story. According to the historian Herodotus, the plumage is “partly golden, partly red.” One of the meanings of the Greek word phoinix derived from the purplish-red dye from Phoenicia, Nigg says. Some writers suggest that the gold and red of the sun bird correspond to the sunrise in the East, its Arabian homeland. Nigg also looked at the relationship of the phoenix as a symbol for cultural transformations brought about through the flames of national crisis such as 17th-century burning and rebuilding of London. The bird of renewal was adopted by London’s 1782 Phoenix Assurance Company and spread in name or image to seals and flags of San Francisco and Atlanta, as well as the “Phoenix Plan” of Kobe and Hyogo, Japan, following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. It was also used by the Pentagon’s restoration ‘Phoenix Project’ after the September 11th terrorist bombings of New York City and Washington, D.C.

All of this gives Nigg hope. “If the millennia-long cultural history of the phoenix is any indicator, renewal through trends of diversity and acceptance can eventually transform the current United States and the global political climate.”

With his book complete, Nigg’s to-do list is shorter. Lately items included tidying up his office and a recent book signing. The signing event brought up new questions about the role of the phoenix. As a mascot such as Swarthmore’s, Nigg says, the image evokes school spirit, renewal, and perhaps comebacks in sports.

For the Welsh physician Henry Vaughan, quoted in Nigg’s book, the phoenix reflects the cyclical truths in nature;

“For no thing can to Nothing fall, but still
Incorporates by skill,
And then returns, and from the wombe of things
Such treasure brings
Phenix-like renew’th
Both life and youth…”

So, perhaps for students who find themselves here on a journey of transformation, there is no more perfect symbol than that of a phoenix. Amid the Swarthmorean goals of sustaining integrity, a commitment to social justice and enrichment of the mind, the College community shares the exceptional quest of recognizing the light within each other.

Copyright 2017, Swarthmore College Bulletin, Swarthmore College.



"Best-selling author Joseph Nigg near a dragon, one that's part of the Royal Alberta Museum's big dragon show called 'Dragons: between science and fiction.'" Edmonton Journal/Bruce Edwards

(The Edmonton Journal, August 2, 2008)

Dragons blaze a scorched trail as ultimate house pets

By Paula Simons

Finding the right pet is never easy. You need to choose an animal that suits your home and your lifestyle.

If anyone in your family suffers from allergies, you face an even more difficult task. Cats, dogs, hamsters and rabbits can provoke serious allergic reactions, yet fish can be a little dull and a tad ephemeral.

Well, have you considered a dragon? A dragon is hypoallergenic and non-shedding. They make highly intelligent, devoted and loyal companions who can be trained to perform a variety of practical tasks and showy tricks.

They are extremely hardy and long-lived; your pet dragon, in fact, is quite likely to outlive you. They are excellent security guards -- a Beware of Dragon sign is bound to discourage any burglar. They make a terrific fashion statement -- why settle for a ubiquitous bichon or golden retriever when you can own a pet that will inspire awe and envy wherever you go?

A well-trained dragon can also serve as a unique form of green transportation. Avoid traffic snarls on the Henday or the Whitemud, and simply fly over those commuters!

Admittedly, a full-size dragon may not be an ideal city pet. Larger beasts require large enclosures and may be better suited for acreage dwellers. But today's dragon breeders have developed a wide variety of miniature breeds, bred for temperament as well as size, which can, with proper care and handling, make ideal family pets for busy urbanites. That's where Joseph Nigg comes in.

Nigg, an author and academic from Denver, Colo., is the editor of How to Raise and Keep a Dragon. First published in 2006, Nigg's international bestseller has now been published in 20 different languages, including Czech, Hungarian, and Japanese.

An informative guide for both the novice owner and the more advanced dragon-keeper who may be interested in show competition and agility training, How to Raise and Keep A Dragon introduces readers to basic breeds, such as the Standard Western Dragon, the Asian Sky Dragon and the Greek Drakon, as well as to more exotic species, like the Babylonian Mushussu, the Mississippi Piasa, and the French Tarasque.

It covers everything from the basic care, feeding, grooming and training of your dragon, to the historical and cultural importance of these ancient and majestic creatures.

Intrigued? Well, you're in luck. Joe Nigg is in town to deliver a lecture at the Royal Alberta Museum this Sunday at 2 p.m. as part of the RAM's summer-long blockbuster dragon show.

(Officially, Nigg is only the book's editor. Its "author" is the pseudonymous dragon expert John Topsell, the mythical descendent of real-life 17th-century British naturalist and bestiary author Edward Topsell, who published his Historie of Serpents in 1608.)

Nigg, who's been writing scholarly books on fantastical creatures such as the gryphon and the phoenix for almost 30 years, admits he's been overwhelmed by the international interest his charming little "how-to" manual has generated.

"It just knocks my socks off," he says. "I've been a writer most of my adult life, trying to sell books. I've never had luck like this before. I get mail every day from kids who want to order dragons."

Nigg says he never set out to write for children. "I wrote it as an adult book, as a parody of animal-raising books. I figured book stores would put it next to the books on how to train dogs."

Instead, the book has been adopted by dragon-mad children around the world, many of whom take Nigg's tongue-in-cheek handbook in deadly earnest. He sometimes has to write back to disappointed young customers, trying to special-order pets, that they need to use their own imaginations to conjure up dragons of their own.

Why the current cultural fascination with dragons? In part, says Nigg, our global obsession with the beasts stems from the success of the Harry Potter series, and of the renaissance of interest in the writings of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis sparked by the success of the Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies. But our need for dragons goes much deeper.

"The dragon is archetypal. It is the oldest and most universal of the fantastic animals," he says. "Dragons represent chaos and power. They represent our fears of things we cannot control. When we imagine things that are very fearful, when we tell ourselves stories about them, they become a way to have control over our fears."

Perhaps, then, in these fearful, chaotic times, we need tamed dragons around, to give us the illusion of control?

But dragons, Nigg cautions, are too big and grand and various to categorize in neat little theoretical boxes. Their enduring, complex magic defies such analysis.

"The great writer Jorge Borges said, 'We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe,' " says Nigg.

"They are just so immense. It makes them the hardest animal to write about."



Copyright © The Edmonton Journal 2008



(www.omnivoracious.com February 08, 2008)

How to Raise and Keep a Dragon: Feedback from Kids

By Jeff VanderMeer

My friend Joe Nigg, channeling dragon buyer John Topsell, published a book called How to Raise and Keep a Dragon back in 2006. Joe has written a number of wonderful books about mythological and folkloric creatures, but this one had a particularly interesting story behind it--one that's still unfolding. As Joe explains, "A funny thing happened. The book went from a commissioned adult spoof of animal-raising guides to being marketed as an illustrated children's book. The book's surprisingly enthusiastic reception internationally (see matches for John Topsell on Google.com) has shown how fervently many young readers dream of raising their own dragon--and that many adults shared that dream as children, some apparently still believing there are such creatures."

Fueling this impression, Joe says that "Topsell lists fictitious Dragon Suppliers in the back of the book," a resource page that has, in part, led to a lot of correspondence from kids--a veritable outpouring. They run the gamut from literal belief and doubt to imaginary play. Sometimes, Joe says, he responds by writing, "John Topsell's dragons have been in myths and stories worldwide since time immemorial. But there are real animals called 'dragons': the Komodo Dragon of Indonesia (which grows up to 10 scary feet long!), and Chinese Bearded Dragons and Water Dragons, tiny lizards that people raise as pets. What I recommend is that you create your own imaginary Dragon friend. Select its breed, size, and color. Name it, and raise it as you read the book."

Below you'll find some wonderful (uncorrected) excerpts from the many emails and letters received by Joe, which once again show just how imaginative and passionate kids can be about the things they love.
I loved the book "How to Raise and Keep a Dragon." I live in California, but my parents are unwilling to drive to Dragon House, Inc. to get a miniature Standard Western Dragon. First of all, is there any way to get a dragon egg shipped here? And, my parents have no belief in dragons whatsoever. I need to find some way to get a dragon, no matter what the cost. In addition, I need to know how much they cost. Thanks! how long wold it take for a dragon to fly from canada to south america?


I am five years old. I want a Standard Western Dragon. I also want the Mushussu Dragon. I want the Piasa Dragon and the Dragon of India. Where can I get them? Can I have a dragon? That is it.


dose a baby dragon think your its mom wen it haches?


I have your book and I had wanted to purchase a mini western dragon so I looked in the resources and found a place to purchase a dragon from, so I looked on the internet to look up the place I wanted to get my dragon from, and when I searched it said:"Nothing matches your search."I obviously knew the place you mentioned in the resources wasn't real.I asked my dad to help me find a place where someone sold real dragons on the internet but my dad insisted they were not real.I NEED YOU TO GET ME A LINK FOR A FEW WHERE THEY SELL REAL DRAGONS ON THE INTERNET!!!


i saw the thing about mouthrot but how do you see it and kier it.


I read the book "How to raise and keep a dragon" and I think it's FANTASTIC. But still have questions I would like to ask. Does a dragon exists(I really really really wish it does.)? If so, can you please give me the phone numbers of the dragon suppliers in China (If [you] have them. If not,the addresses will be ok.)and send me a picture of a stanrd western dragon(green,if possible.), too. Thank you!


How big should a miniture dragons room be, at the smallest?


I am taking care of a standard western dragon and I am wondering where to buy riding equipment for it.


Why did you lie to me? I was so upset when I asked my mom where Babyon was, because I wanted to train a Mushussu dragon. She told me about how it was now Iraq and that it no longer exists. I hate you!


What if my dragon goes Buzerk and gets really mean? (not that it has)


I am an eleven year old fan of dragons, and I am wondering what you think about them. I must ask, do you truly believe dragons are/were real? Please answer truthfully, I do not like being misguided. I would like to discuss this topic more with you, if you don't mind.


I would like to know if you really have dragons because I would like to get one and I can't get one if they're not real.


I have a full grown European Dragon, a mini- European dragon, and a European Dragon egg, but where can I find a home for them in a mountain? (I am an excellent trainer but people keep spotting them and faint, while some call the police!) Please reply A.S.A.P.!!!!!!!!

© Omnivoracious 2008



(Atlanta's The Sunday Paper, August 24, 2008)

Con artists and cryptomorphs: A case for believing in Bigfoot, Nessie, and all their weird kin

By Stephanie Ramage

Clayton County Police Chief Jeffrey Turner didn’t mince words last week when asked about the employment status of Matt Whitton.

“As of today he is a former police officer. He has been terminated,” Turner told The Sunday Paper on Aug. 19.

Whitton and his friend Rick Dyer had appeared on national television just days before, claiming to have the corpse of a “Bigfoot” they’d found in the North Georgia mountains. On the evening of Aug. 18, however, under pressure from the scientific community to produce the body for inspection, the two admitted that what they really had was a Halloween costume they’d waterlogged in a faulty freezer and then photographed. It was all a hoax.

Whitton had been on medical leave following an injury he sustained in the line of duty. When Turner saw the initial television reports in which Whitton claimed to have a specimen of the legendary creature, the chief did not immediately jump to conclusions.

“I kept an open mind. I said, ‘Let’s wait and see if it’s real.’ But the minute it turned out to be a hoax, he lost his credibility and integrity,” Turner said. “To be a police officer, you have to have both. How can you arrest someone and go into court before a judge if you do not have credibility amd integrity? Therefore he is useless and an embarrassment to this police department.”

A national embarrassment, at that. As if Clayton County didn’t have enough to deal with, hundreds of e-mails poured into the sheriff’s department from all over the country, nearly all asking how Whitton could still be a sworn peace officer and what Clayton County planned to do about an employee who had willfully lied to the world.

When Turner spoke with SP, he was audibly disgusted with his former employee. “He swore on national television that he had Bigfoot,” he said, and added, “If it had been real, it wouldn’t have been an issue.”

Wait a minute. “If it had been real”?

How could it be real? This is Bigfoot—prom date of Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, drinking buddy of the Yeti, fraternity brother of the Chupacabra and cousin to a whole pantheon of mysterious, never-really-
verified entities collectively known as cryptomorphs.

“Crypto” comes from the Greek word “kryptos,” which means “secret or hidden.” The second part of the word, “morph,” refers to “form.” When these hidden forms are said to be part of the animal kingdom, they become fodder for cryptozoologists—folks who study mysterious or mythical animals.

But why is anyone studying them? Why was Whitton and Dyer’s tale an item worthy of international news coverage? Why are blogs devoted to the topic chock full of postings? Why have there been at least 22 reports of just “Bigfoots”—never mind reports of Mothmen and Swamp Monsters—in Georgia alone? Why, in short, do seemingly normal folks persist in believing in the existence of this bizarre menagerie of beings?

Scientists and hairy people
To a certain extent, we believe in such things because science is always turning up something new, so Bigfoot might not be as crazy a concept as one might think.

Jeff Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, thinks it’s important not to rule out anything prematurely, especially when it comes to how primates—whether apes or hominids (human-like life-forms)—might have evolved.


Fantasy and hucksters
When Joe Nigg ran an Internet search on “Bigfoot,” Google returned more than 743,000 matches. That’s a startling number, but Nigg, author of the wildly successful book “How to Raise and Keep a Dragon” (under the nom de plume of John Topsell), was not shocked.

“We want to believe. Even very rational people want to believe,” says Nigg, whose dragon manual was intended to be a spoof on various pet books that would appeal to adults, but has instead become a children’s favorite. 

“We need fantasy. It’s a great distraction from politics, wars, high gas prices, the economy,” says Nigg. “We must have needed it or we would not have created it. It’s interesting that fantastic animals were believed in up until the rise of science. Then, people started asking, ‘Have you ever actually seen a gryphon? A dragon? A manticore?’ Now, we want them back.”

And sometimes we want them back so much that we become easy prey for unscrupulous characters like Whitton and Dyer. Such hucksters are nothing new. In the mid-1800s legendary circus pimp P.T. Barnum huckersterized mermaids in the form of the “Fiji mermaid,” a taxidermy job that slapped orangutan remains onto a fish tail. 

Copyright © 2008, The Sunday Paper


Copyright © 2022 Joseph Nigg