The phoenix is an ancient and familiar mythical bird which has been surprisingly versatile and tenacious in its applications. Originally developed among the Greeks (with an Egyptian counterpart, the decidedly less glamorous benu), it was soon adopted as a symbol by early Christians since it is associated with the sun and with rebirth, like Christ. There are versions of the firebird which exist among the Chinese, Persians, and Native American tribes, so it’s a universal creature. The appearance of the phoenix is well known to us through art as in the 18th-century engraving below by Friedrich Bertuch, although iconography often shows the bird with scales and with a golden color or, failing that, a combination of red and yellow.
The bird is often depicted as a kind of superhero version of an eagle but, in fact, sources are conflicted about fundamental details about its size and even its gender. Some sources, notably Pliny, considered the bird to be the size of an eagle whereas others had it pegged as being larger than the ostrich. The confusion about its gender is connected to the fact that the ancients considered that there was only one bird in existence and reproduction was spontaneous by means of parthenogenesis. Some authorities held it to possess male and female gender but most treat the bird as sexless. This fitted in well with the appropriation of the bird as a trope for Christ and also for the soul. What we might find surprising about the traditions which existed about the phoenix is that the method of rebirth with which we are acquainted, that of being born out of the ashes of its predecessor, is only one of two accounts of its manner of survival. These two narratives share the essential element of the myth, namely that by submitting voluntarily to death the animal renews its life. In the other, less common, version, the phoenix gathered aromatic herbs when it felt the approach of its end, then built a nest out of them. When it died, its body decomposed among the aromatic plants and the new bird came out of these remains, usually in the form of a worm. It is easy to see why the fiery finale has become predominant. It is more dramatic, unnatural, and visually striking. Decomposition is decidedly prosaic and for the purposes of Christian symbolism doesn’t stress the incorruptibility of the soul in any neat way. Mythology, if it is to have any use at all, has to involve high melodrama and fireworks, in other words a complete removal from the ordinary. We do not purposely seek the pedestrian in any human endeavor, whether it be love, religion, or art. We might be satisfied with transient and immediate pleasures, but satiation implies a disconnect from banality, or at least the impression that we have some real relief from it.
There is something very attractive about the myth of the phoenix, which was thought to be a real creature by the ancient Greeks and early Christians. My favorite personal artistic interpretation is the Fire Phoenix (1999), above, by Thetis Blacker, a quirky artist whose work is infused with a fecund spirituality. It was commissioned for the college to which I belonged as a graduate student and at which I was a moral tutor, Grey College, Durham University. The phoenix was adopted as the emblem of the fledgling institution in 1959 after its first buildings were destroyed by fire. This huge work of art hangs over the college’s high table as a constant reminder to students of triumph over adversity and of the necessity of struggle. What should surprise us about this avian allegory is the fact that the bird is chimeric. It is a fictional creation, existing only in our imaginations, yet it occurs liberally and ubiquitously in modern culture (see some of its uses here), from coins to gaming, from literature to the names of businesses. It is significant that this elusive and iconic creature cannot be said not to possess any existence in reality yet we are able to design, describe, and give life to it. It is not an unknown quantity in any way. Recent research in varied fields such as cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology has been underscoring the process by which we read and identify with fictional literary characters. The conclusions to be drawn are that people who read fiction and read well are markedly and demonstrably more empathetic than their non-literary counterparts, and this makes the phoenix a very powerful representation of how crucial reading is and, more than that, it testifies to the enduring potency of human imagination.
Today’s cufflinks were crafted by the Scottsdale-based designer Ray Graves and are made out of pewter containing much detail, probably dating from the 1950s. I’ve already blogged about another pair of his here. Graves tended to prefer scenes from the desert landscape of Arizona and the choice of a mythic animal is a curious one, though perhaps is linked to the proximity of the city of Phoenix. In any case, on this Easter Sunday, the bird is a timely symbol of hope and perseverance -unlike many mythic bestial creations, it is an entirely positive one- something we all need to varying degrees.