The Theosophical Forum – January 1948

THE PHOENIX — Allan J. Stover

For constancy the phoenix serves as a type; for understanding by nature its renewal it is steadfast to endure the burning flames which consume it, and then it is reborn anew. — Leonardo da Vinci

The legend of the Phoenix Bird, periodically reborn from the ashes of its consumed body, is a myth from the mystery language of the Ancient Wisdom, so old that no man knows the time or place of its origin.

Found in both the East and the West, it everywhere sets forth in poetic imagery the law, universal throughout nature, that individuals, civilizations, races and worlds are perpetually reborn from the ashes of their former selves. Various aspects of the myth have been brought out by different peoples, and by comparing these the student's mental conception of the Phoenix myth begins to take form and color, and is seen to be, not an image of fancy and superstition, but a symbol of eternal truth.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Phoenix came from Arabia at the close of every 500 years, and flew to its shrine at Heliopolis in Egypt, where it deposited the dead body of its parent (i.e., its former self) which it had brought incased in an egg or ball of myrrh. Another and later version tells of the bird at the age of 500 years building a nest or funeral pyre of frankincense and cassia and other fragrant herbs, which it lighted by vigorously fanning the pile with its wings until it caught fire. Then when its body was entirely consumed, the Phoenix rose from the flames and flew away a new bird.

In the collection of popular legends of the Middle Ages called the Physiologus, the Phoenix is described as an Indian bird which lived only upon air, and after a period of 500 years loaded himself with fragrant spices and flew north to Heliopolis, where he entered the temple dedicated to the sun, and depositing his load upon the altar was burned to ashes. The renewed bird emerged at once and in three days was full grown and flew away.

The Phoenix was known to the Egyptians as the Bennu Bird and was closely associated with the daily rising of the sun. The Bennu was also referred to as the "soul of Ra and symbol of Osiris." In The Book of the Dead we find these words spoken by the deceased:

"I am the Bennu, the soul of Ra, and the guide of the gods in the Tuat [the underworld]; let it be so done unto me that I may enter in like a hawk, and that I may come forth like Bennu, the Morning Star.

". . . from many passages we learn that the Bennu, the Soul of Ra, which appeared each morning under the form of the rising sun, was supposed to shine upon the world from the top of the famous Persea tree [at Heliopolis in Egypt] wherein he renewed himself."
      — The Gods of the Egyptians, II, 97, A. E. Wallis Budge

The Persea Tree appears to have been a member of the Laurel family and is used as a symbol of the "World Tree" which is representative of the hierarchical system in which we live, and in whose higher parts the reincarnating monad finds its rest. According to Egyptian belief the Phoenix or Bennu, self-regenerated, rises like a fragrant flame above the Persea Tree, or again at night as the soul of Osiris it rests in this tree above the sarcophagus of Osiris. Elsewhere we find the Nile god referred to as awakening to life the soul as the Phoenix-Osiris in the plants. There are also other references to the Morning Star as the one who ferries Osiris or the Phoenix from the east.

In Persia the world tree was the "Ox-Horn Tree" which contained the seeds of all plants, and possessed the power of renewing the universe at the proper time. "On it perched the sacred eagle Simurgh. When he flew upward the tree was so agitated that a thousand twigs shot forth. When he alighted again he broke off a thousand twigs which scattered seeds on all sides." — The Rainbow Bridge, J. S. Newberry, p. 171. Here is obviously an allegory of the cosmic outbreathing and inbreathing, expansion and contraction, which all things undergo.

Among the Turks, the Phoenix was known by the name of Kerkes, and according to tradition was said to live a thousand years, at the end of which time it consumed itself by fire and arose renewed to live another thousand years. This was repeated 7 x 7, or 49 times when the Day of Judgment came. Mme. Blavatsky says:

The "seven times seven," 49, are a transparent allegory, and an allusion to the forty-nine "Manus," the Seven Rounds, and the seven times seven human cycles in each Round on each globe. The Kerkes [of the Turks] and the Onech [of the Hebrews] stand for a race cycle, and the mystical tree Ababel — the "Father Tree" in the Kuran — shoots out new branches and vegetation at every resurrection of the Kerkes or Phoenix, the "Day of Judgment" meaning a "minor Pralaya " — The Secret Doctrine, II, 617

The "seven times seven human cycles in each Round" evolve through a graduated series of seven races. Each race of whatever degree is separated from its successor by cataclysms of greater or lesser magnitude. These take place at about the midpoint of the race, at the time when the peak has been reached and the downward plunge has commenced.

G. de Purucker points out that while the Babylonian Neros of 600 years comes as close as any to the Phoenix cycle as commonly understood in Europe, nevertheless the symbol represents the cyclic nature of all recurring periods of time, both great and small, rather than any particular cycle. (1)

Cycles of many lengths have been associated with the Phoenix, but it is interesting to note that Dr. de Purucker gives the life cycle of what he called a tribal generation, or the active expansive period of what we know as a nation, as about 500 years; at which time the nation having reached its crest of importance begins to decline while a new nation rises to take its place in the world. Races like the individuals composing them all have their youth, maturity and old age. Modern Europe rose from the wreck of the Roman Empire, and will when its time has come give place to its successor. It would seem that in many places in the world today, the Phoenix Bird is fanning his wings above the fragrant pyre of national consciousness in order that a rejuvenated humanity with renewed hopes and ideals may again take a step forwards and upwards.

According to The Secret Doctrine our European Family Race has a great many thousands of years yet to run; nevertheless there is evidence that new racial trends are already appearing, perhaps the Fifth National Race, perhaps only a new Tribal Race. The important thing is to keep the general scheme of intermeshing racial cycles in mind as an ideal pattern to brood and meditate upon.

At present the world is undergoing a series of slow alterations in climate and structure which are fully as important as the events which have disrupted human society. These geologic changes will continue and slowly increase for thousands of years since man and his home, the earth, co-operate and evolve together throughout the ages. One sub-race after another will gradually separate from its parent stock and enter upon its golden age, and will find the physical conditions it needs for its development.

In America, the blending of racial strains is resulting in many new characteristics. In the United States the majority of people have already combined several European strains and will gradually become a race apart. In Canada the English, Scottish, French and Indian and other stocks have similarly combined. South of the Rio Grande two thirds of the population is colored with Indian blood and the Mestizo is emerging and forming a new race or races, fore-shadowings of greater races to come.

Throughout these lands, Ancient America is renascent with qualities and hopes before unknown, as fanned by the wings of the Phoenix the world awaits rebirth. (2)

In America a living symbol, the Quetzal (ket-sal) is said by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world. It lives high in the "cloud-forests" of Guatemala and Honduras and commands admiration whenever seen. In American mythology the Quetzal was the solar bird, the dweller of the great spaces and symbolic of the supreme spirit. The colors of its plumage may be seen in the green and red of the ancient wall paintings and the trailing tail is repeated in the long and colorful ceremonial robes.

The Quetzal nests only in the loftiest trees, and the nest has two openings, one for entrance, one for egress, the long plumes not permitting the bird either to turn about or to back up. Closely connected with the Quetzal was the serpent Coatl, symbolic of the earth — not the inert matter but the living fire of the globe, often represented as a two-headed dragon.

When in man the fire ascended and was united with the solar or buddhic splendor the man became illumined, his inner vision opened upon infinity. He was clothed with the solar radiance and was then known as the plumed serpent — Quetzalcoatl, as his brothers in India were called the Great Nagas or serpents and in China or Wales as Dragons of Wisdom.

The radiance of the spirit was always symbolized in America by Quetzal plumes in the headdress. From this custom it came about that all chieftains gradually came to use feathers of other birds as a sign of honor and achievement.

Everywhere the Phoenix myth signifies, above all else, the principle of self-regeneration as a necessary part of the life cycle of both individual and race. It is therefore a doctrine of hope, and a promise of unending evolution.

In India, Karttikeya, born from fire and water and nursling of the Pleiades, combines the attributes of both Mars and Apollo. He was said to exist for the purpose of destroying Taraka, a deva-daimon who had seized occult knowledge and powers belonging to the gods alone. He is represented as having six heads, one for each century of the 600 year Neros cycle; and is shown riding on the peacock (the Hindu Phoenix). The "eyes" of the peacock feathers were said to represent the starry heavens while about the body of the bird were concealed the signs of the zodiac.

The allusion to the destruction of the daimon Taraka as a punishment for possessing occult powers may well apply to the self-destruction brought upon a race by the misuse of atomic or similar force: a possibility the greater part of the world stands in abject fear of today. Karttikeya and his Phoenix-peacock steed represented the critical midpoint of any racial cycle.

The Phoenix in Japan is represented by the Ho-wo, a mythical bird composed of peacock, pheasant and bird of paradise. The Ho-wo dwells in the high regions of the air and only descends to earth when bearing one of the immortals or upon the birth of a great sage or emperor.

In China the Feng-Huang or Vermilion Bird dwells in the southern quarter of the heavens and rules over the midpoint of the day as well as over the midpoint of any cycle. Astrologically it is the brilliant red star Antares in Scorpio, and with its companions Regulus in Leo, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Fomalhaut in Aquarius rules over the four cardinal points. These stars, known as the Four Royal Stars by the Persians, and the Four Maharajas by the Hindus are referred to in The Secret Doctrine (I, 408-9) by Mme. Blavatsky who says ". . . that which Mr. G. Massey calls the four genii of the four cardinal points; and the Chinese, the Black Warrior, White Tiger, Vermilion Bird and Azure Dragon, is called in the Secret Books — the 'Four Hidden Dragons of Wisdom' and the 'Celestial Nagas.' "

The Feng-Huang was believed to have its origin in the sun and to drink only the waters from the K'unlun Mountains, feeding upon the tender sprouts of the bamboo. As in Japan it is associated with the coming to earth of great souls and with the beginning of wise and beneficent reigns. It is the symbol of Yang the spiritual principle, its plumage contains the five colors, (3) its call is a sweet blending of the five notes. "Its low notes are like a bell, its high notes are like a drum." When it flies 360 kinds of birds follow and the legends told of it are countless.

There is a thread of esotericism running through all these legends, linking the thought of east and west, vitalizing the myth, until the truth it embodies shines forth like a many faceted jewel, a constant reminder that there is no death, but only endless change and evolution, as mankind progresses from humanhood to godhood. It is the symbol of the immortal self which after playing one part on the stage of life, discards its old garments and passes on to another act in the Great Drama.


1. See Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp 36 et seq. (return to text)

2. Among the many suggestions submitted for the great seal of the United States, was one by William Barton in which the phoenix was included as part of the design for the obverse side. This however was never adopted. Charles Thomson's original sketch and the text accompanying it, which was adopted for the obverse of the seal, specifically names and depicts the American eagle as the emblem of our country.

The unfinished pyramid and all-seeing eye of the reverse side, with the exception of the motto, is from the design submitted by Mr. Barton. (return to text)

3. In America the Quetzal's plumage reflects the seven colors of the solar spectrum; while in China the Vermilion Bird is traditionally endowed with the five colors and the five sounds pertaining to the five elements of the Chinese philosophy. (return to text)

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