Bird thou never wert

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

The most appealing phoenix in literature is surely the eponymous bird from E. Nesbit’s 1904 classic, The Phoenix and the Carpet. A mysterious egg arrives in the children’s nursery on Guy Fawkes night (J.K. Rowling’s phoenix, ‘Fawkes’, is the clear literary descendant), and the five children, whose adventures unfold in an atmosphere of benign neglect, manage to set fire to the nursery — involving paraffin and fire-crackers — and trigger the rejuvenation of the mythical bird.

The children recognise the creature from book illustrations, and pull down ‘the old encyclopedia’ to read up on the entry from page 246: a fabulous bird from antiquity, the only one of its kind, it is said to live for 500 years in the wilderness, at which point it builds a nest of ‘sweet wood and aromatic gums’, burns itself up and rises again from a worm left in its nest. Sporting gold and purple plumage, it is, they read, the size of an eagle. (The phoenix, easily ruffled, objects, noting that ‘eagles are of different sizes,’ and that the bit about the worm is a ‘vulgar insult’; it has hatched like any respectable bird.) Nesbit consistently refers to the bird as an ‘it’, glamorously epicene. In a few witty pages, she lays out traditional phoenix lore and some of its myriad variations.

Nesbit is quoting from an actual book, The London Encyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of 1839. Phoenixes seem to belong to encyclopedias somehow — perhaps a reference book, rather than far Arabia, is its native habitat. After all, the phoenix first appears in western literature in a travelogue by the historian Herodotus (fifth century BC), who, in the course of describing curious animals of Egypt, mentions a bird about ‘the size of an eagle’ with red and gold plumage, which shows up in Egypt every 500 years. Herodotus, the father of journalism, I would say, rather than the father of lies (or fake news as it is now known), points out that he hasn’t seen one himself, only pictures. When he adds some hearsay about the phoenix wrapping up the old phoenix in a ball of myrrh and flying it from Arabia to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, to bury it, Herodotus himself says this is hardly to be believed.

He is probably talking about the sacred benu (bnw), an Egyptian sunbird worshipped at Heliopolis, and identified with the purple heron. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it symbolised the soul moving through night into the day. Why, then, does Herodotus call it a ‘phoenix’? Perhaps this is some effort to transliterate bnw into Greek. ‘Phoenix’ can also refer to a
reddish-purple colour (Tyrian purple) derived from Phoenician shellfish. Or it can refer to the date palm. Or to Phoenicia itself. All of these elements will, at one time or another, work their way into phoenix lore, often by quirks of translation, so that the long-lived date palm in the Septuagint will become a mythical bird, and so on.

After Herodotus, the phoenix is not to be sighted for nearly 500 years, showing up this time in Latin, in the work of Ovid. He hews to much of Herodotus’s version, but adds the nest of spices and the fact that the bird perishes in the incense fumes, with a new phoenix arising in its place. In Ovid’s mock-serious ‘Elegy for a Dead Parrot’ (prefiguring Monty Python by a couple of millennia), he adds that the phoenix is the only one of its kind. Ovid has added details to Herodotus, but has also lost Herodotus’s cheerful scepticism. Hereafter, the reality of the bird is open to debate, but it is not firmly categorised as fabulous until the 17th and 18th centuries. (Nesbit’s bird naturally protests this point.)

Other details — Arabia, the maggot in the nest and so on — will appear in other variations of the phoenix fable. But the phoenix also renews by meaning something different for each era — standing for Christian rebirth, or becoming a metaphor for uniqueness (as associated with Queen Elizabeth I, or Petrarch’s beloved Laura), signifying renewal after destruction, a symbol of hope. Though no images of it exist from classical Greece, Rome puts the phoenix on her coins, and ever after it is emblazoned, as it were, on devices, printer’s marks, insignias, logos and city seals. (The phoenix is the symbol of Atlanta, where I grew up, because of its burning during the Civil War. In the 1970s, we briefly had a hockey team known as the Atlanta Flames, and in 1996, for the paralympics, a phoenix mascot dubbed ‘Blaze’.)

If Nesbit’s phoenix were to appear to some unsupervised pyromaniac children in 2017, these would probably consult Google rather than an encyclopedia. But if they did stumble on a book, or a library, they would do well to come across Joseph Nigg’s The Phoenix. Unlike some of Nigg’s other popular volumes on magical creatures (How to Raise and Keep a Dragon), however, this is not aimed at children. Scholarly to a fault, pedantic even at times, it is exhaustive in its efforts to cover every phoenix sighting it can find.

Some attempt is made to put this into a sort of narrative (there is also a nice spiral chronology-cum-astrological chart, ‘Ages of the Phoenix’), but to read again and again recapitulations of the versions of Herodotus or Ovid or Lactantius, who wrote a 170-line poem on the subject, even as we meet new permutations, is to feel a bit like the phoenix itself, monotonously the same against a backdrop of renewal. ‘And so on forever and ever,’ Nesbit’s bird remarks wearily of its repetitive existence.

The prose itself tends to the tautological. Thus we are informed not only that

According to the Chinese classic, the Li Chi, the ‘four intelligent creatures’ were the qilin, the phoenix, the tortoise, and the dragon

but that

Of these four, the unicorn, phoenix and dragon are mythical; only the tortoise . . . is an actual animal.

Like an earnest historical novelist, Nigg also seems reluctant to leave out any tidbits of hard-won research. We learn, for instance, of William Caxton’s The Mirrour of the World (1481) that it

is a version of the 1245 Image du Monde, which was a French translation by one Gossuin or Gautier (both of Metz), of a Latin compilation of sources including Vincent of Beauvais

and was ‘translated in only ten weeks’. Finally we get to the point: it was the first illustrated book printed in England. But rather than be rewarded with an illustration, we learn that Caxton prints yet another pastiche of phoenix lore from the usual suspect sources.

Where Nigg is most illuminating is on the phoenix in modern poetry and literature. For me, the most readable chapter comes towards the end, where he explores the puns on the phoenix and phoenix mythology that imbue Finnegans Wake. The novel centres around Phoenix Park in Dublin. In a mistaken etymology that is reminiscent of Herodotus’s original benu-phoenix mash up, this is a classically-flavoured Anglicism for the Irish for spring, fiunishgue (transliterated as Feenisk) or ‘clear water’. The novel plays with puns on phoenix and benu-bird, resurrection and the Book of the Dead — the ‘bug of the deaf’. An effort to map the city of Dublin (Healyopolis, after the politician Tim Healy) for eternity, is a fitting bookend to Herodotus’s travelogue from the distant antiquity of the Egyptian City of the Sun.

In his introduction, Nigg confesses that his ‘original conception was that of a thin, colourful coffee-table book’ but that this changed with ‘an expanded round of research’. I confess I probably would have preferred a more elliptical yet richly illustrated coffee-table book. Perhaps the ‘expanded round of research’ was at the invitation of the University of Chicago, whose symbol, the phoenix, graces the jacket of the book. The volume’s subtitle, ‘An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast’, promises an informative entertainment; but this is a fairly cut-and-dry reference tome. While the book has an index, I see that Amazon’s Kindle version will soon be ‘searchable’ as well. Maybe Kindle is the proper platform after all for a book on the patron animal of spontaneous combustion.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments