In ancient Egyptian mythology and in myths derived from it,
the phoenix is a mythical sacred firebird.
Said to live for 500 or for 1461 years, the phoenix is a male
bird with beautiful gold and red plumage. At the end of its life-cycle the phoenix builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs
that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix arises. The
new phoenix embalms the ashes of the old phoenix in an egg made of myrrh and deposits it in Heliopolis ("the city of the sun"
in Greek laungue) located in Egypt.
Although descriptions (and life-span) vary, the phoenix became
popular in early Christian art and literature as a symbol of the resurrection, of immortality, and of life-after-death. The
early Christians were convinced the phoenix was a real living creature.
Originally, the phoenix was identified by the Egyptians as
a stork or heron-like bird called a benu, known from the Book of the Dead and other Egyptian texts as one of
the sacred symbols of worship at Heliopolis, closely associated with the rising sun and the Eygptian sun-god, Ra
The Greeks adapted the word benu (and also took over
its further Egyptian meaning of date palm tree), and identified it with their own word phoinix, meaning the colour
purple-red or crimson. They and the Romans subsequently pictured the bird more like a peacock or an eagle. According to the
Greeks the phoenix lived in Arabia, next to a well. At dawn, it bathed in the water of the well, and the Greek sun-god Apollo
stopped his chariot (the sun) in order to listen.