Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hot Bird

Today is Thanksgiving for U.S. Americans, a day in which our merchants either to try to sell us stuff at ungodly hours or a day which they conspicuously ignore in order to promote the big holiday beyond.

We also roast turkeys on this day, unless we are members of certain anti-meat groups.

But my thoughts this morning are upon a different sort of hot bird.

I speak of the phoenix.

Like the dragon, the lore of this mythical monster seems to permeate almost every human culture.

For the longest time, I have had a brassy coin that I thought was from China, and upon whose obverse I assumed was a depiction of Tiananmen Square. I searched and searched and only this month have I discovered, ignorant American that I am, that it is no more Chinese in origin than a Looney is legal tender in Mazatlan.

This is actually a ten yen coin, depicting the Phoenix Hall of the Byodoin Temple in Kyoto, Japan, a building that dates to 998 A.D.

I don't know what Japanese word is translated as phoenix, or even how closely that approximates to the western concept of the beast, a bird reborn in fire and ash.

Not just the pagans but the Early Christian Church father Clement speaks of the phoenix, as a symbol of resurrection, in his letter to the Corinthians. (Don't confuse this with the canonical letter by Paul!)

"...from the neighborhood, that is, of Arabia. There is a bird which is called a phoenix. It is the only one of its kind and lives five hundred years. When the time for its departure and death draws near, it makes a burial nest for itself from frankincense, myrrh and other spices, and when the time is up, it gets into it and dies. From its decaying flesh a worm is produced, which is nourished by the secretions of the dead creature and grows wings ... [flying to the Egyptian city of] of Heliopolis, it lights at the altar of the sun."

The Christian "heretics," the Gnostics, also mention this flammable fowl. I found a reference today in the Nag Hammadi text, "On the Origin of the World."

"And the worm that has been born out of the phoenix is a human being as well. It is written concerning it concerning it, 'The just man will blossom like the phoenix.'"

The Gnostic writer cites the Septuagint (Greek) version of Psalms 91: 13 for this reference, but he seems to have taken some liberties. Our King James version reads:

"Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet."

The Septuagint has "basiliskou" from the Hebrew pethen, for adder. No flying phoenix, just a bad-tempered snake. Perhaps some later monk scrubbed out the mythological term -- although the dragon escaped his scrutiny.


Kat said...

Because of the fiery death and quick rebirth, Atlanta's symbol is the phoenix. A statue of a goddess holding a phoenix stands downtown, and the unique Center for Puppetry Arts boasts an animatronic phoenix who unfolds from a flaming, clanging trash can. The mythic bird suggests energy, transformation, and some of Atlanta's offspring express that spirit.


Kat said...

Oh! and Happy Thanksgiving to you and Sweetie!

Eastcoastdweller said...


Fascinating, isn't it, how mythic symbols persist and thrive in our supposedly modern, secular world.

I wonder what the kernel of truth is that lies behind this indefatigable legend.

Happy Thanksgiving to You, too. Sweetie and I spent it with Her family, eating way too much Southern food. Corn pudding, sweet potato pie, etc.

Janice Thomson said...

Happy Thanksgiving ECD.
Interesting info which some of it I didn't know. Symbols are just that - the true meaning lies in the power our thoughts give them.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Happy thanksgiving. Thank you for such an interesting and well researched post.