A popular symbol for rebirth, the legendary Phoenix has made its way into many books and movies throughout the world. While most of its legends are based on Greek and Roman culture, there are other cultures with similar creatures.
From Egypt to Persia, Russia to China, many cultures have some version of a bird-like animal reminiscent of the Greek Phoenix. While they don’t all have the exact same things in common, what if some of the unique characteristics between birds from different places complement each other? What if together these different cultural aspects of this bird point to an amazing—but entirely real—biological phenomenon? What if there really was a species of bird that was “reborn from it’s ashes?”
Let’s take a quick look at a few Phoenix-like legends from around the world, then we’ll dive into the details of the Greek and Roman Phoenix and the exciting scientific possibilities they point to together.
Similar to the Greek Phoenix, the Egyptian “Bennu” is also a symbol of rebirth and sacrifice. The tallest and most heron-like of our Phoenix-esque creatures, the Bennu had red and gold plumage with two long feathers on his head. He was considered the heart and soul of Ra, the Egyptian sun god who was reborn every day after sailing across the sky as the sun.
Interestingly, the world’s largest heron currently lives in Africa and has reddish plumage. But his horrible voice is a strike against his similarity to the Phoenix. We’ll come back to that.
The Hou-ou, a Japanese phoenix-like bird, is not a symbol of rebirth but instead represents feminine royalty, as of a queen or an empress. It also represents justice and fidelity. This bird appears on rare occasions such as for the birth of a ruler. It will only come during a time of peace, stability and prosperity. It’s absence is a symbol of disharmony.
This bird is like the Chinese dragon in that it’s made up of several parts of different animals. The jaw of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the front half of a giraffe, and the back of a deer, though it is also pictured as a peacock-like bird. The first description does conjure up a very different image than the type of Phoenix we might expect, but focus on what it symbolizes.
In Chinese culture, there are two birds similar to the Phoenix: one called the Feng-Huang, and one called the Vermilion Bird. The Feng-Huang is the fusion of male and female characteristics. It was originally depicted as two separate birds, but is now considered to be just a single creature and is usually visualized as feminine. The Erya, the oldest Chinese encyclopedia, says that it is made up of the head of a swallow, the beak of a rooster, the neck of a snake, the back of a tortoise, and tail of a fish, though it, too, is pictured as a peacock-like animal as well.
During the Han dynasty, the Feng-Huang represented powers given by a god to the empress. Another bird that only appeared during times of peace, this one is a symbol of eternal love, merit, and grace, instead of self-sacrifice or rebirth.
The second Chinese bird, the Vermilion Bird, is a bit more like the Greek Phoenix. It had red plumage and represented summertime, the south, and good luck. But there is no mention of this one bursting into flames to be reborn.
Persia also has two birds instead of one: the Huma and the Simurgh. The Huma flies constantly and is never visible to humans. It’s also called the bird of paradise. Some say it never lands because it has no limbs. It is believed to live forever, acquiring a new body through fire every few hundred years. It is not possible to kill it, and attempting to kill it would mean instant death. It represents fullness through both male and female traits.
The Simurgh has the head of a human or dog, the claws of a lion, and the body of a peacock. It represents wit or loyalty, depending on the head, and it is always courageous, beautiful, benevolent and motherly. Every seventeen hundred years it is immersed in flame and rises anew from the ashes. It represents resurgence, purity and fertility.
The Russian version is called the Zhar-Ptitsa which means firebird. It is said to come from a far-away land, bringing joy and peace to good people and sorrow to captors and masters. If someone tried to catch it in order to force it to provide prosperity, it would bring their doom instead. It also had majestic glowing feathers, but there is no mention of fire or rebirth.
And that brings us to the most familiar version, though the Egyptian version was probably the original. The Greek and Roman Phoenix is a peacock or eagle, with red and gold feathers. The Greek word for Phoenix means "red palm tree," in reference to its palm tree-like plumage.
According to the mythology, it liked to nest near a well, and every day at dawn it would bathe in the well and sing. Its song was so lovely that the Greek sun god Helios would stop his chariot to listen (strike against the currently-living Goliath heron whose voice is not so pretty). Only one of these birds could be alive at a time. When it began to feel old, it intentionally burst into flame and burned up, and a new bird was born from the ashes. Thus the Phoenix symbolizes self-sacrifice and rebirth.
Herodotus, the Greek historian who wrote about griffin sightings, wrote this about his visit to Egypt: "There is another sacred bird, too, whose name is Phoinix (Phoenix)....It is said that the Phoinix comes when his father dies. If the picture truly shows his size and appearance, his plumage is partly golden and partly red. He is most like an eagle in shape and size."
The Roman poet Ovid had this to say of the creature: "But one alone, a bird, renews and re-begets itself--the Phoenix of Assyria...This bird, when five long centuries of life have passed, with claws and beak unsullied, builds a nest high on a lofty swaying palm; and lines the nest with cassia and spikenard and golden myrrh and shreds of cinnamon, and settled there at ease and, so embowered in spicy perfumes, ends his life's long span. Then from his father's body is reborn a little Phoenix, so they say, to live the same long years..."
While each of these mythical birds is described a bit differently, they bear many similarities. Many of them have rich red and gold plumage, have to do with the sun, and sing beautifully. While they are not all considered to represent rebirth, what if these strange birds were capable of a unique type of reproduction? What if each of these birds from different legends from different cultures were the same or similar species of birds capable of the same unique ability? What if they only look like different things because each culture valued a different aspect of them and so forgot the other things?
What kind of unique reproduction could I be talking about, you ask?
Parthenogenesis is defined as: “cell division in a female gamete without any genetic contribution from the male” and comes from the Greek words parthos, meaning "virgin," and genesis, meaning "origin."
Did you know that there are some animals capable of reproducing without a male? There are even some species that reproduce exclusively through parthenogenesis. These species are made up entirely of female members.
One example of this is the mourning gecko. Each member of the species is female, and each hatchling is a perfect clone of the mother.
There’s a range of different types of parthenogenesis, but interestingly even some very large animals are capable of it. It’s even been seen in two female Komodo Dragons in a couple of zoos in Europe.
People might try to dispute this by stating that many species of female lizards hold onto sperm indefinitely and may produce offspring long after mating. This is true, but one of these lizards hadn’t been with a male in 2.5 years, and the other had never been with a male at all. So how could this be possible?
What if someone was careless and one day the male got in the cage with the female and bada bing, bada boom, baby dragons?
But the zoos considered this as well, so they did genetic tests on the offspring. They found that their genetic codes, while not perfect clones of their mothers because of how the chromosomes work in this type of parthenogenesis, were not different enough from their mother's for a father to have been involved. The father would’ve had to be genetically identical to the mother to produce those particular offspring.
In the human (and many animal) genetic makeup, sex is determined through the X and Y chromosomes. XX will produce a female and XY will produce a male. But it is the opposite in Komodo dragons: two of the same sex chromosomes for the male and two different ones for the female. These have been assigned different letters: ZZ for male and WZ for female. So each egg from a female has either a W or a Z, and when they reproduce parthenogenically, those genes get doubled. This results in offspring that are either WW or ZZ. Unfortunately, WW’s are not viable and die early on. But ZZ’s are normal males.
So with that in mind, consider this. The Egyptian Bennu, the Persian Huma and Simurgh, and the Greek and Roman Phoenix are each said to perish in fire and either be reborn or have an offspring produced from the ashes. The Japanese Hou-ou, the Chinese Feng-Huang, and both Persian examples, each either represent feminine qualities or the combination of feminine and masculine qualities in one body.
Could both of these things be references to parthenogenesis?
Despite our thoughts of Fawkes, the phoenix from Harry Potter, many of the ancient tales about the actual phoenix indicate that the reborn phoenix is not the same as the one that died. The one grows old and ignites, then another—different—one emerges from the ashes.
Parthenogenesis has also been seen in chickens and turkeys. If this phenomenon is possible now, what if there was a bird who could replicate itself without sexual reproduction?
What if it was through observing this phenomenon that the people of ancient cultures formed the ideas and legends that led to our current understanding of this amazing creature?
But what about the fire? Besides erupting in flame at the end of their lives, they supposedly glowed like the sun and had feathers like fire.
There are many animals today--including some birds--that are bioluminescent. Such as hummingbirds or pigeons. while their shimmer might be green or purple, imagine what an all red and gold bioluminescent bird would look like under the sun?
They have even found fossils of bioluminescent feathers. These particular feathers shimmered greenish-black, so they probably weren't Phoenix feathers. But maybe someone will discover fossilized bioluminescent red and gold feathers some day.
So what do you think? Do you have another hypothesis? Do you think my ideas are crazy? Tell me about it in the comments!
In Recent Media
The first phoenix of recent(ish) media I think of is Fawkes, the phoenix in Dumbledore’s office. He was first mentioned in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he delivered the sorting hat and the diary to Harry in the chamber and then pecked out the basilisk’s eyes so that no one else could be frozen. In the fifth book, which is also my favorite one, the Order of the Phoenix is named after him. Later on in the series, Fawkes teleported Dumbledore away before idiots could snag him for Azkaban.
There’s also a firebird in the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. It is never called a Phoenix, and is likely based on the Russian firebird, judging by the author’s preference for Russian themes in her books.
What’s your favorite fictional Phoenix? Tell me about it in the comments!
If it only comes around during times of peace and prosperity, what about a story where they haven’t seen the Phoenix in years, and a child wishes that the world would be at peace so that he could see this legendary creature. Or what if it was last seen at the birth of the king, and the king is about to have a grandson and wishes that the bird would be present to bless the birth. He tries extra hard to make the kingdom peaceful around that time.
People want to catch it to force it to bring them joy. Perhaps a bad guy’s back story could be