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The Phoenix

3829: Cornelis Troost 1696-1750: The Phoenix. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Phoenix is a fabulous and sacred bird.

What he does and how he looks like

According to the people of Heliopolis in Egypt, the Phoenix came to that city once in five hundred years to bury his father. Historians have apparently never claimed to have seen this extraordinary creature, except in pictures, and they have found the accounts about this bird quite incredible. It is from the pictures that they have described the Phoenix, saying that it had the appearance of an eagle, both in shape and size, and that his plumage was partly golden, and partly red.

How he manages

It is said that the Phoenix, carrying his father encased in myrrh, comes from Arabia to the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, where he buries him. In order to do this, the Phoenix first moulds an egg of the bitter tasting but aromatic plant called myrrh, and then hollows it out, putting his father into it. Having done this, he plasters over with more myrrh the hollow of the egg, and carries it to Egypt.

Reproduces himself

Yet the Phoenix has no father in the usual sense. For this bird, they say, is the only creature capable of renewing and reproducing its own being. They add that unlike other birds, the Phoenix does not feed on seeds, but on the gum of frankincense, an aromatic resin, and the juices of amomum, a herb of the ginger family.

Nest carried to Heliopolis

When the Phoenix has lived for five hundred years, he builds a nest at the top of a palm-tree, which he covers over with cassia-bark, spikes of nard, cinnamon, and myrrh—all of them highly aromatic plants. Having then placed himself upon the nest, he dies; but from the dead body a little Phoenix springs up, who also lives the length of five centuries. Now, once in the course of his life, the Phoenix removes the nest from the palm and bears it to Heliopolis, where he lays it down before the doors of the Temple of the Sun. This is the only thing that the Phoenix, though he lives five hundred years, has been reported to do.

The difficult science of life span, years, ages and generations

On the length of the life of the Phoenix, the following has been said:

"A chattering crow lives out nine generations of aged men, but a stag's life is four times a crow's, and a raven's life makes three stags old, while the phoenix outlives nine ravens, but we, the rich-haired Nymphs, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder, outlive ten phoenixes." (Hesiod, quoted by Plutarch, Obsolescence of Oracles 415c).


Relation to previous

Life span

Aged man


80 years


9 x 80

720 years


4 x 720

2880 years


3 x 2880

8640 years


9 x 8640

77760 years


10 x 77760

777600 years

Now, if the crow outlives nine generations of aged men, and if we were to call an aged man he who is 80 years old, then the crow would live 720 years (80 x 9). The stag's life being four times a crow's would then amount to 2880 years (720 x 4). The raven lives as long as three stags, which amounts to 8640 years (2880 x 3); and the Phoenix lives as long as nine ravens, which is 77760 (8640 x 9). The NYMPHS then would live 777600 years before they also die. But this is not right counting that reaches such immense results. For the word "generation," says Plutarch, is to be interpreted as "one year," thus opening a wiser way of counting, able to yield results (table below), which, for being more modest must also be more reasonable. For those who count with lesser numbers, as the Etruscans and the Atlanteans, whose ages amount repectively to 12.000 years and 11.044 years, may tend to find enormous, the fashion in which other peoples pile up digits. For the Indians, for example, say they have existed for more than years, and the Scythians say for 88.638.417 years, and the Chinese for 2.760.000 years, and the Japanese for 2.362.584 years, and the Chaldeans for 720.000 years, and the Persians for 100.000 years, and the Phoenicians for 30.000 years. And as some apparently find that very large numbers may confuse the mind, making it run away from any meaning whatsoever, they have wished to keep them low. Thus, they reason, the crow lives 9 years out of those which an aged or vigorous man may live, which could be 30 years if he is going to be counted as a generation for his vigour, or 108 if he is counted as a generation for his age. For 108 doubles 54, which is considered to mark the middle years of human life, being also a number related to the creation of the world. Such interpretation yields better results:


Relation to previous

Life span

Aged man




9 x 1

9 years


4 x 9

36 years


3 x 36

108 years


9 x 108

972 years


10 x 972

9720 years

The table shows, however, that the Phoenix lives 972 years and not 500, as others have claimed. Concerning the Nymphs, who live in the woodlands, rivers, and meadows, some have thought that they do not live longer than a tree. Then again it has also been said that:

"... in the lifetime of one squawking crow, five human generations come and go." (Hesiod quoted by Aristophanes, The Birds 609).

And that:

"... for every crow, if her mate dies, remains a widow, not merely for a short time, but for nine generations of men." (Plutarch, Beasts are rational, Moralia 989a).

Here "generation" does not appear to mean "one year" as before; for it is said immediately that:

"It follows that your fair Penelope is nine times inferior in chastity to any crow you please." (Plutarch, Beasts are rational, Moralia 989a).

These enlightening discussions suggest, despite their merits or through them, that difficulties tend to grow when things are examined in their details. Leaving them aside for a moment then, it may be established that the Phoenix is immortal. For whatever the length in years of each reincarnation, he is born from its own being, and returns for ever and ever again.

Account of Philostratus

Flavius Philostratus (c. AD 170), who wrote the biography Life of Apollonius of Tyana, says that the Phoenix visits Egypt every five hundred years, and the rest of the time flies about in India. He considered the bird as an emanation of sunlight, being in appearance and size much like an eagle. Its nest, he says, is made out of spices at the springs of the Nile, and when the bird is being consumed in the nest, he adds, it sings funeral strains for itself.

Others with identical name

Phoenix 1, brother of Europa or perhaps her father, was son either of Agenor 1 or of Belus 1; these two descend from Libya, daughter of Epaphus 1, son of Io. After Phoenix 1, they say, Phoenicia was called.
For Phoenix 2 see ACHAEAN LEADERS; after him a river Phoenix was called in southern Thessaly.
Phoenix 3 was a chieftain who came as guardian of the young Hymenaeus 3 when they joined Dionysus 2 in his campaign against India

Related sections The Phoenix in GROUPS: BESTIARY 

Hdt.2.73ff.; Ov.Met.15.391; Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 3.49; Strab.9.4.14.