Among the multitudes of my devoted readers I suppose there are probably a few bird-watchers. And I would also hazard a guess that, however many species of winged creatures they might have seen—not one of them has ever sighted a phoenix.
Nevertheless, stories about this extraordinary bird can be traced back to the most ancient records of human culture.
A fragment attributed to the Greek writer Hesiod who lived around 700 B.C.E. spoke of the phoenix’s impressive life-span—nine times that of the long-lived raven. Several centuries later, the historian Herodotus provided considerably more detail about the phoenix—though to be sure, he did not claim to have seen one (other than in a painting), nor did he guarantee the veracity of the tales he was repeating. Herodotus’ description contains most of the elements that subsequently became standard features of the “phoenix legend.” For example, the birds are dazzlingly coloured, with plumage of red and gold; and they are as large as eagles.
Herodotus’ phoenix makes only the very rarest of appearances to the inhabited world, at intervals of no less than five hundred years. Their arrivals coincide with the deaths of their parents. The young phoenix takes care of the funeral rites for its deceased parent, conveying the corpse from Arabia to the Egyptian temple of the sun at Heliopolis where it covers the deceased body in fragrant myrrh and performs a complex rite with an egg-shaped lump of myrrh. This later came to be perceived as a single process of resurrection in which the selfsame bird was restored to life in a newly regenerated body.
This quintessentially pagan legend, which probably arose out of the rich mythological traditions of Egypt, was well known to Jewish writers in the ancient world. Some Jewish Apocalyptic visions contain fantastic descriptions of phoenixes that were observed by their mystic heroes as they ascended toward the sublime throne of the Almighty.
A Jewish playwright known as Ezekiel the Tragedian (second century B.C.E.) composed a Greek play about the Exodus (known as the “Exagogé”), portions of which have survived in quotations by later authors. One of those fragments relates to an obscure episode in the Torah, shortly after the parting of the Red Sea and the miraculous sweetening of the bitter waters at Marah, when the Israelites encamped at an oasis named Elim which provided them with twelve wells of water and seventy date palms. Ezekiel’s script contains a speech by the scout who reported to Moses on discovering this idyllic spot, and his description includes a sighting of a huge multi-coloured bird (the word “phoenix” does not actually appear in the text) twice the size of an eagle, with an exceptional voice, who comported himself like the king of the birds and was treated as such by the other birds.
Not enough of the text remains to let us figure out why the play’s author was impelled to insert this detail, one that does not seem to be suggested by the wording of biblical narrative. There are indications that a tradition existed about an appearance of the phoenix during the reign of the Pharaoh Amasis who was believed to have lived at the time of the Exodus. This would be consistent with the view that was widely held among the ancients, that great epochs and historical turning-points (and from the Jewish perspective, the Israelite liberation from slavery and the revelation at Mount Sinai would surely qualify as such) were marked by sightings of the phoenix. Indeed, a large portion of the literature about the phoenix was devoted to measuring its life-span and calculating the dates of its past and future rebirths.
Ezekiel’s insertion of the phoenix episode into the biblical story might also have something to do with the date-palms that flourished in Elim. The Greek word for date-palm is also “phoenix,” and this has given rise to several scholarly disagreements about the meanings of various texts in which the word appears.
This confusion extended to passages in the Bible. The familiar verse in Psalms that “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” was translated by some Christian exegetes (including the Latin Vulgate version) as “like the phoenix.” Indeed, in Christian art and homiletics, the phoenix became a favourite symbol and precedent for the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
Rabbinic tradition also discerned several references to phoenixes in the Bible. One of these texts was a verse in the book of Job in which the hero recalls his happier and more hope-filled days: “Then I said, I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the sand.” The Hebrew word (ḥol) that is translated here according to its normal sense of “sand” was understood by some rabbis as the name of a bird; and in fact, an alternative Masoretic tradition read it with a different vowel, as “ḥul”; this interpretation is preferred by several modern scholars. The Alexandrian Greek translation translated the text as “the trunk of a palm tree,” using that ambiguous word “phoenix.”
A tradition in the midrash teaches that when Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she also offered to share it with all her fellow-creatures in the garden of Eden, and the only one to decline the offer was the virtuous ḥol bird—for which it was rewarded with a blessing of longevity or immortality. In this respect it differed from the other, less disciplined creatures who were, like the humans, deprived of their primordial immortality.
Rabbis from the early third century explained the phoenix’s immortality in terms that dovetailed with Greek traditions about its lifespan. They said that it lives for a thousand years, at the conclusion of which, according to one view, a flame emerges from its nest and burns it up completely, leaving an egg from which it regenerates limbs and springs back to life; and according to a second theory, the aged bird’s body simply decays without the sudden fiery conflagration, and is then recreated.
These two theories about the regeneration of the ḥol bird correspond precisely with the two dominant Greek traditions about the process of the phoenix’s rebirth. The egg motif had become a standard element of the myth since Herodotus. The image of the new phoenix arising from the flames of the old has of course become the most popular version and is frequently invoked as a metaphor.
Some commentators also claimed that there was a phoenix on the passenger list of Noah’s ark. The Talmud quotes a conversation in which Noah’s son Shem chatted with Abraham’s servant Eliezer about the grueling workload faced by his father when catering to the individual needs of all the diverse denizens of that floating zoo. One of those creatures, designated by the (otherwise unknown) name “avarshana” or “urshana,” lay uncomplainingly in a corner of the vessel. When Noah tried to offer him food, the humble avarshana replied that he hadn’t wanted to trouble his host who seemed so busy with his other onerous chores. Noah was so impressed with its considerateness that he blessed the creature with eternal life. In this connection, the Talmud cited the verse from Job.
Rashi inferred that the avarshana was none other than the phoenix—a thesis that achieved much popularity among subsequent commentators—even though the Babylonian Ge’onim, like most modern lexicographers, preferred to translate it as a more conventional type of bird, likely a dove or pigeon (albeit one capable of carrying on conversations with humans). Interestingly, some ancient Greek writers mentioned that no-one ever observed a phoenix eating.
In the Jewish work known as “the Apocalypse of Baruch,” we should note, the phoenix is said to be responsible for using its wings to screen humanity from the deadly rays of direct sunlight—a motif that would also resurface in rabbinic midrashic traditions.
Perhaps its next appearance will bring a solution to global warming and the hole in the ozone layer.
Hopefully we won't have to wait a thousand years—or even five hundred—for that to happen.