Arising triumphantly from the ashes of its predecessor, the phoenix has been an enduring symbol of resilience and renewal for thousands of years. But how did this mythical bird become so famous that it has played a part in cultures around the world and throughout human history? How much of its story do we actually know? Here to offer a comprehensive biography and engaging (un)natural history of the phoenix is Joseph Nigg, esteemed expert on mythical creatures—from griffins and dragons to sea monsters.
Beginning in ancient Egypt and traveling around the globe and through the centuries, Nigg’s vast and sweeping narrative takes readers on a brilliant tour of the cross-cultural lore of this famous, yet little-known, immortal bird. Seeking both the similarities and the differences in the phoenix’s many myths and representations, Nigg describes its countless permutations over millennia, including legends of the Chinese “phoenix,” which was considered one of the sacred creatures that presided over China’s destiny; classical Greece and Rome, where it can be found in the writings of Herodotus and Ovid; nascent and medieval Christianity, in which it came to embody the resurrection; and in Europe during the Renaissance, when it was a popular emblem of royals. Nigg examines the various phoenix traditions, the beliefs and tales associated with them, their symbolic and metaphoric use, the skepticism and speculation they’ve raised, and their appearance in religion, bestiaries, and even contemporary popular culture, in which the ageless bird of renewal is employed as a mascot and logo, including for our own University of Chicago.
Never bested by hardship or defeated by death, the phoenix is the ultimate icon of hope and rebirth. And in The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, it finally has its due—a complete chronicle worthy of such a fantastic and phantasmal creature. This entertaining and informative look at the
life and transformation of the phoenix will be the authoritative source for anyone fascinated by folklore and mythology, re-igniting our curiosity about one of myth’s greatest beasts.
This exhaustively researched and meticulously organized study of the mythical phoenix is an exceptional work of scholarship. It traces the phoenix's emergence from uncertain origins in antiquity and development into an icon of resurrection and regeneration throughout Eastern and Western civilization. After linking the phoenix to the benu-bird depicted in Egyptian funerary texts, Nigg (Sea Monsters) shows the bird's gradual evolution through its accretion of attributes described in historical texts. Hesiod mentions the phoenix's unusually long life in the Precepts of Chiron (700 BCE); Herodotus, in his History (450-425 BCE), describes the bird's migration to the Egyptian Temple of the Sun bearing the remains of its parent; Ovid, in his first-century BCE Metamorphoses, recounts the phoenix's death and regeneration after 500 years; and the second-century CE Physiologus finally references the bird's death and rebirth in fire. By the early Christian era, the phoenix was firmly established as a symbol for death and resurrection. Nigg draws his insights from a wealth of classical texts and bestiaries, and he amply demonstrates the persistence of the phoenix as a popular emblem of renewal and immortality. Even readers familiar with just the bare bones of the phoenix myth will find this book an engrossing history of an idea.