instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast

Thou hast beheld all that has been, hast witnessed the passing of the ages.


Introduction: Cultural Transformations of the Phoenix

Prologue: Sacred to the Sun
Chapter 1 Egyptian Beginnings
Chapter 2 Royal Bird of China

Part I. Classical Marvel
Chapter 3 Birth of the Western Phoenix
Chapter 4 Early Roman Sightings
Chapter 5 Later Roman Variations

Part II. Bird of God
Chapter 6 The Judaic Phoenix
Chapter 7 The Early Christian Phoenix
Chapter 8 The Phoenix in Old English
Chapter 9 The Bestiary Phoenix
Chapter 10 Beyond the Bestiaries

Part III. Renaissance Transformations
Chapter 11 Innovations and Renewals
Chapter 12 The Elizabethan Phoenix
Chapter 13 The Emblematic Phoenix
Chapter 14 The Philosopher’s Stone
Chapter 15 Metaphorical Variety

Part IV. Challenged and Discredited
Chapter 16 Rising Doubts
Chapter 17 Battle of the Books
Chapter 18 Fading into Fable

Part V. Modern Rebirth
Chapter 19 Mythical Bird
Chapter 20 Poetic Fire
Chapter 21 Literary Distinction
Chapter 22 From Literal Ashes

Selected Bibliography


From the Introduction
"A bird dies in its nest and rises, reborn, from its own ashes. The standard fable of the mythical Phoenix is easily summarized. The cultural complexities of the bird’s traditional lives, deaths, and rebirths are unlimited.

"The late-Roman poet Claudian hailed the Phoenix as one that “hast beheld all that has been, / hast witnessed the passing of the ages.” Even after more than one-and-a-half millennia since Claudian wrote those lines, the bird is all around us in words and images. The figure is in our common speech: 'like the Phoenix rising from the ashes.' Throughout the Internet are global place-names, businesses, organizations, and products of all kinds that bear forms of its name in multiple languages. . . ."

"As D. H. Lawrence writes in Apocalypse, “Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.” Identified with the eternal sun, the divine benu of Heliopolis was the “keeper of the book of things which are and of things which shall be.” Like W. B. Yeats’s golden bird of Byzantium, the Phoenix sings, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Springing from human hope for continual renewal and spiritual rebirth, the solar Phoenix is ageless. The wondrous bird’s lives, deaths, and rebirths through time mirror the transformations of the Western imagination and the broad patterns of history itself, all the while embodying the diurnal, seasonal, and astronomical cycles of nature. We all, in fact, relive the Phoenix fable in our daily lives, not only in emotional rejuvenation and psychic rebirth, but also in the elemental physical pattern of sleeping through the night and rising with the sun. To support R. T. Rundle Clark’s claim that the Phoenix “is one of the most evocative symbols ever devised by the human imagination,” one has only to consider the millennia-long history of the bird. Its transformations from ancient times to the present assure its cultural life – in some form – for time to come."

The triumphant central panel of Paul Coze's mural in Phoenix, Arizona's Sky Harbor Airport, dedicated in 1962. Photograph by the author (2001).

For another overview of the Phoenix's cultural history, see Heather Shumaker's 2008 "The Phoenix Through the Ages" in the Interviews section of this website.

Copyright © 2017 Joseph Nigg