Saturday, April 7, 2007

Phoenix as Symbol of Resurrection

As Easter Sunday approaches and we reflect on the meaning of tomorrow, it is fitting to take a brief glimpse into one of the symbols of resurrection in the Christian faith. The phoenix is a mythical bird (although many pagans and Christians believed it existed) of crimson and gold color that would build a flammable nest and be consumed by the flames, from which it would arise from its own ashes. For this reason the phoenix was said to live for 500 (1,461 in some sources) years. Clement of Rome was the first Christian to connect the phoenix with that of Christ's resurrection:

Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.

Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfil His promise? For [the Scripture] saith in a certain place, "Thou shalt raise me up, and I shall confess unto Thee; " and again, "I laid me down, and slept; I awaked, because Thou art with me; " and again, Job says, "Thou shalt raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things." (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapters XXV-XXVI).

Clement clearly uses the phoenix as a symbol of Christ's resurrection and wrote that it hearkened to the hope for our own resurrection. Tertullian, another Ante-Nicene church father, uses Psalm 92.12 ("The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, He will grow like a cedar in Lebanon") and connects it to the phoenix. At first glance Tertullian might be handling the Psalmist's words loosely but not when you consider that he used the Septuagint as did many early Christian writers including the authors of the New Testament. According to Doug Gray, "The greek word for date-palm is 'phonix', and the ashes of an old date-palm tree are thought to be excellent fertilizer for seedling palms. This is supposed by some authorities to be the basis of the legend...In early Byzantine work, so rich in symbolism, the date-palm is often substituted for the phoenix." The beautiful and majestic cedar trees of Lebanon were also known as a symbol of Christ because of their height and long life, pointing to the eternal Messiah, "whose goings forth are from everlasting" (Micah 5.2). Tertullian writes:

If, however, all nature but faintly figures our resurrection; if creation affords no sign precisely like it, inasmuch as its several phenomena can hardly be said to die so much as to come to an end, nor again be deemed to be reanimated, but only reformed; then take a most complete and unassailable, symbol of our hope, for it shall be an animated being, and subject alike to life and death. I refer to the bird which is peculiar to the East, famous for its singularity, marvelous from its posthumous life, which renews its life in a voluntary death; its dying day is its birthday, for on it it departs and returns; once more a phoenix where just now there was none; once more himself, but just now out of existence; another, yet the same. What can be more express and more significant for our subject; or to what other thing can such a phenomenon bear witness? God even in His own Scripture says: "The righteous shall flourish like the phoenix; " that is, shall flourish or revive, from death, from the grave-to teach you to believe that a bodily substance may be recovered even from the fire. Our Lord has declared that we are "better than many sparrows: " well, if not better than many a phoenix too, it were no great thing. But must men die once for all, while birds in Arabia are sure of a resurrection? (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, chapter XIII)

Other church leaders followed suit in this interpretation, baptizing this pagan symbol into an explicitly Christian one. Bestiaries (check out The Book of Beasts : Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century by T.H. White and an out of print book titled The Bestiary of the Christ by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay) in the Medieval period always included the phoenix as a Christ symbol and Christian iconography during this time made use of the phoenix as well. C.S. Lewis used the phoenix in his Chronicles of Narnia series in The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle. We all know that J.K. Rowling uses the phoenix explicitly in every Harry Potter novel in the character Fawkes. John Granger, in his book Looking for God in Harry Potter, explores this and other symbols JKR uses and Travis Prinzi has a fantastic feature-length article on this topic as well, The Meaning of the Phoenix. Be sure to check these resources out.

A big thank you to Travis Prinzi for mentioning this blog in his newest Hog's Head podcast. His continual support is much appreciated.


Robert Gee said...

Thanks for this research. I was looking for some further evidence of the use of the Phoenix as a Christian symbol and here it is!

Geremia said...

The ancients admitted the existence of this fabulous bird, the first Christians considered it a symbol of the resurrection of the body. [cf.]…St. Clement of Rome, (Epis. ad Corinthios, i. n°25.) Tertullian, (De resurrectione carnis, cap. xii.) St. Ambrose, (Hexsemeron,lib. v. cap. xxiii.) St. Cyril of Jerusalem, (Cateches xviii., cap.xxiii.) and St. Epiphanius, (Ancorat. cap. lxxxv.)

Trudy Young said...

As a Christian, I find it somewhat disturbing that you are even giving credit to the likes of Harry Potter occultic books. God forbids sorcery and witchcraft. I do not believe that the Phoenix is a symbol of Christ's is an occult symbol.