At left, a phoenix bird gathers sweet-smelling plants for its altar. At right, a phoenix burns with a peaceful expression on its face.

Phoenixes (detail) in the Northumberland Bestiary, about 1250–60, unknown illuminator. Pen-and-ink drawings tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment, 8 1/4 × 6 3/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 100, fol. 41v. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Meet 19 animals of the medieval bestiary in Book of Beasts, a blog series created by art history students at UCLA with guidance from professor Meredith Cohen and curator Larisa Grollemond. The posts complement the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Center from May 14 to August 18, 2019. —Ed.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the phoenix Fawkes plays a recurring role as the trusty companion of wizard Dumbledore. Fawkes, who ages, dies, and rises from his own ashes (once after saving Harry Potter from the evil basilisk), is a loyal and intelligent protector.

How did the mythical creature of the phoenix, first described in the fifth century BCE by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, make it into twenty-first-century popular culture? Across centuries of literature, the phoenix has been a symbol of rebirth and of rising again after failure. In medieval bestiary manuscripts, the bird even became a symbol for Christ.

Death, Fire, Ash, and Rebirth

Two different stories are associated with the phoenix in medieval bestiaries. In both variants, the phoenix’s self-immolation is depicted as an allegory for Jesus’s sacrifice for the good of humankind.

In one story, there is only one phoenix in the world who lives more than 500 years. When he senses that he has grown old, he builds a funeral pyre with spice-bush branches, turns toward the sun and, with a flap of his wings, sets himself on fire. On the third day, a new phoenix rises from the ashes of the old.

In the other story, a covering of frankincense, myrrh, and other scented plants is created in Heliopolis by a priest in the spring. When the phoenix reaches the end of its life, which can be up to 500 years long, it mounts the altar and the pyre is set on fire. The next day, a worm is found in the beast’s ashes, which grows every day until it becomes a phoenix again.

Although most medieval stories involving the phoenix follow these same plots, there is less consistency when it comes to the size and color of the bird. Most accounts of the phoenix describe or depict it as blue and purple, or crimson. Some bestiaries portray the phoenix as primarily white and brown. And as described by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder in his first-century book Natural History, which influenced later bestiary texts, the phoenix is as large as an eagle and is yellow, purple, and rose.

A manuscript page has two depictions of phoenix birds. At top, the bird grasps a branch with its beak. At bottom, the bird sits in a large tub, wings spread, as it goes up in a riot of flames

Phoenixes in a bestiary, about 1225–50, unknown illuminator, made in England. Pigment on parchment, 30.8 x 23.2 cm. The British Library, Harley Ms. 4751, fol. 45. Digital image: British Library

Phoenix as Christ

In the medieval bestiary, the phoenix primarily represents the resurrected Christ, appearing as a symbol of salvation.
This symbolism is made clear in the three-day timeline of the phoenix’s rebirth—the same number of days as between Christ’s death and resurrection—and through the pyre’s construction in spring, at Eastertime. The scents left behind by the fragrant plants used for the creature’s pyre, such as cinnamon and frankincense, are meant to represent the sweet words of the Old and New Testaments that God gave to mankind.

In bestiaries the phoenix tale served as an allegory, reminding the Christian faithful to build their own spiritual pyres of sweet smells by following the word of God. The phoenix was said to give hope to those who have sinned, just as Christ’s sacrifice offers the promise of redemption.

A phoenix bird being burned on a funeral pyre of cinnamon and frankincense. The image evokes the strength of fire and alludes to the power of the sun.

A Phoenix (detail) in a bestiary, about 1270, unknown illuminator, possibly made in Thérouanne, France. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 7 1/2 × 5 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 3, fol. 74v. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The Phoenix in Popular Literature

The phoenix has been a popular character across centuries of texts, both religious and secular. During the fourth century, for example, a poem by Christian author Lactanius, “De ave phoenice,” described the phoenix as an eternal inhabitant of the Garden of Eden. Similarly, in early rabbinic teachings it is written that the phoenix refused to eat the forbidden fruit offered to it by Eve. God then granted it a modified form of immortality, as well as permission to remain in paradise. Since all other animals did eat the fruit, they were banished from this garden.

In the Old English poem “The Phoenix,” a translation and adaptation of “De ave phoenice,” the bird represents faithful Christians enduring the fiery judgment of the apocalypse. And in Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” the phoenix serves to symbolically promote the idea of the miraculous succession, the peaceful transfer of power from one ruler to the next.

This leads us back to Harry Potter. In the fifth book in the series, Albus Dumbledore creates the Order of the Phoenix, a revolutionary group that aims to achieve social justice and peace. The values this organization embodies—selflessness, belief in the good, and individual freedom—were not just a product of J. K. Rowling’s imagination. They are adaptations of the stories of the phoenix found in literature dating back centuries.

In the Harry Potter series, Fawkes’s tears are used to heal Harry’s wounds. Since the phoenix was long used in Christian literature to represent Jesus, it’s no surprise that the healing powers of the phoenix remain an important part of its lore to this day. This imaginary creature has stood the test of time for its deep morality and its appealing symbolism of healing and rebirth.

Further Reading

Edwards, Karen. “Milton’s Reformed Animals: An Early Modern Bestiary: P–R.” Milton Quarterly 42, no. 4 (2008): 253–308.

Faraci, Dora. “Sources and Cultural Background: The Example of the Old English ‘Phoenix.’” Rivista Di Cultura Classica E Medioevale 42, no. 2 (2000): 225–39.

Hill, John Spencer. “The Phoenix.” Religion & Literature 16, no. 2 (1984): 61–66.

Himuro, Misako. “‘The Phoenix in The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.” Renaissance Studies 12, no. 4 (1998): 523–44.

Hume, Anthea. “Love’s Martyr, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle,’ and the Aftermath of the Essex Rebellion.” The Review of English Studies 40, no. 157 (1989): 48–71.

James, Montague Rhodes. “The Bestiary.” History 16, no. 61 (1931): 1–11.

Kessler, Herbert Leon. “The Solitary Bird in Van Der Goes’ Garden of Eden.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 28 (1965): 326–29.

Too, Yun Lee. “The Appeal to the Senses in the Old English ‘Phoenix.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 91, no. 2 (1990): 229–42.

Text of this post © Ingrid Sorensen. All rights reserved.

A small dragon with the words Book of Beasts

This post is part of the series Book of Beasts, which introduces the animals of the medieval bestiary—a Christian compendium of real and imaginary beasts.
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