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The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast

Thou hast beheld all that has been,

hast witnessed the passing of the ages. 

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, 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."

"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."


The Dictionary of Imaginary Places


"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."

 BORIA SAX author of Imaginary Animals

The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human





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."


Publishers Weekly
"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."


Library Journal
"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


Choice Connect
"A bird dies in its nest and rises, reborn, from its own ashes. The standard fable of the mythical Phoenix is thus easily summarized." Nigg opens his account of the Phoenix with this brief synopsis, but what follows is anything but brief. In a meticulously researched yet eminently readable book, the author adds another massive tome on a mythological beast to his previous work, which includes The Book of Gryphons (1982), The Book of Dragons and Other Mythical Beasts (2002), and Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World's Most Beguiling Map (2013). Nigg traces the Phoenix and its legend from Heliopolis, in ancient Egypt, to its modern day namesake, Phoenix, Arizona. In telling the story, Nigg focuses on four individuals as major players in the development and spread of the myth: Herodotus, Saint Clement of Rome, Petrarch, and 17th century scholar/author Thomas Browne. Nigg tracks the mythical bird across the pages of history, alchemy, and literary metaphor, and scholars of mythology and historical symbolism will appreciate the detail. But this 'biography' will also intrigue nonspecialists, for example those piqued by appearances of the Phoenix in the Harry Potter books and movies. SUMMING UP: Recommended. Lower division undergraduates through faculty; general readers."-D. E. Wigner, The University of the South


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.


For Joseph Nigg's fictional beginning of the Phoenix's Firebird ancestor, see "Bird of Wonder" in the First Quest section of this website. 

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

Copyright © 2022 Joseph Nigg