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Aspiring to Immortality

By: A.M. Juster
December 29, 2016

or thousands of years, across continents and religions, people have found beauty and meaning in the phoenix, a mythological bird that lives a long life, suffers a brief incendiary death, and then reemerges from the ashes in its youthful form. Hesiod mentioned the Egyptian benu 2,700 years ago, although the Western tradition did not begin in earnest until Ovid expansively reworked Greek accounts of Egyptian phoenix myths.

Hundreds of years before Hesiod, Confucian texts discussed a similar fenghuang. Parallels in content suggest a common ancestral myth, but the relationship between the Eastern and Western mythologies remains speculative.

Joseph Nigg, author of The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, is a retired professor and editor who writes primarily about mythological animals. In The Phoenix he accepts the ambitious challenge of providing a comprehensive history of the phoenix myth that will be helpful to scholars and accessible to the general reader. Though not the first to write about the evolution of phoenix mythology, he is the first to do so in decades, and has taken the opportunity to incorporate a considerable amount of recent scholarship into his “biography.” Commendably, the University of Chicago Press supported a book that addresses both audiences, a service many university presses would not perform.

The book begins with an overview of what we know about the Egyptian origins of the phoenix myth. Scholars believe that the word benu derives from weben, which means “to rise” or “to shine”—both features of the bird. There is also some evidence that the word also derives from bn, which meant “circle,” “depart,” or “return.” In the cosmology of the high priests of Heliopolis, the world began when the sun-god assumed the form of a glittering benu on a small piece of land in the primordial sea. The first cry of the sun-god/benu set time in motion.

In Nigg’s summary of the scholarship on the Chinese fenghuang, the earliest extant reports occurred about 3,000 years ago and claimed that the bird first appeared about 2,000 years earlier. Unlike Western mythology, which usually describes a single bird (male, female, or asexual depending on the time and culture), Chinese mythology celebrated one male and one female bird, a pair that came to be viewed as symbols of eternal love. By the sixth or seventh centuries AD, tales of the fenghuang had traveled to Japan and inspired the Japanese ho-oo.

The Greek word phoinix appears first in Precepts of Chiron, a work whose attribution was debated even in antiquity by Hesiod scholars. Those references and those by Hecataeus, Herodotus, and other Greek authors are the likely sources for Ovid’s expansive reworking of the myth in his Metamorphoses and Amores. The book also provides useful information about the parallel Judaic phoenix tradition, which probably did not influence Ovid.

Rome’s early Christians latched onto Ovid’s engaging retelling and enhancement of the phoenix myth with enthusiasm, then reshaped it for their own purposes. Clement I, the third successor of Peter, provided the earliest extant mention of the phoenix by a Christian, and soon bestiaries incorporated both the phoenix and its new Christian aura. The underappreciated 170-line poem of Lactantius, De ave phoenice, subtly but clearly transforms Ovid’s pagan story into a lyrical tale of flesh’s ability to defy death through God’s intervention.

More than a century later, Claudian wrote a 110-line poem that borrowed facts, but not the Christian message, from Lactantius. The anonymous author of the ninth-century Old English Phoenix, writing centuries after Claudian, relies heavily on Lactantius but makes many of his predecessor’s subtle points more brutally clear—while also correcting what he sees as Lactantius’s theological errors.

When the author discusses key poems in detail, he makes mistakes due to his unfamiliarity with the authors he discusses as well as his reliance on musty, often inaccurate, translations. He does not, for instance, understand Old English verse when he states that “hall” and “swift flyer” are “kennings.” Similarly, he makes an incorrect point about the phoenix’s gender in the Lactantius poem based on misunderstanding the use of gender in Latin vocabulary. Alert peer reviewers should have rescued the author from such errors, and their inattention diminishes the scholarly value of this book.

The author is more of an aggregator than a critic, but he does make occasional astute observations, as in this section identifying parallels between the Chinese and Western traditions:

Lactantius’ bird, introduced as female, is unique in that “she lives renewed by her own death”—an overtone of Christian doctrine within a classical context. True to Phoenix tradition from the benu on, she is closely allied with the sun. At dawn, “as saffron Aurora reddens at her rising,” she performs her daily purification in the crystal spring (analogous to the Chinese fenghuang drinking from the crystal waters of the Kunlum Mountains, land of the Immortals) before settling in the highest branches of the tallest tree in the grove to await the first beams of “Phoebus at his birth.”

More often, however, the grammar is clumsy, the vocabulary clichéd, and the commentary thin.

After the discussion of the Old English Phoenix, the next six chapters touch lightly upon a wide range of European authors in approximately chronological order. The author’s breadth of focus and attention to detail make these sections valuable for researchers, although they are tedious to read and suffer from the same shortcomings as his more extended literary analyses. One example is his dating of the deaths of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I—they’re off by a century.

One also begins to see errors of omission. In his chapter on “The Elizabethan Phoenix,” the book refers to Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle as an “allegory of spiritual love.” That categorization is true as far as it goes, but it omits any mention of the vigorous scholarly debate about other religious and political allegorical meaning in Shakespeare’s most puzzling poem.

The book then rights itself with a chapter on artistic representations of the phoenix and a chapter on its role in alchemy. These thorough chapters are more engagingly written than those preceding them. The next chapter—a romp through the metaphysical poets—is so rapid-fire that its pace guarantees superficiality. The three chapters tracking the history of the realization that the phoenix is a mythological creature, not an actual bird, have the same fragmented and diffuse quality as the later literary chapters. It would have greatly improved the book to combine these chapters into one more cohesive chapter.

The book veers again with two unfocused chapters that cover modern reception of the phoenix myth. I would have liked to have learned more about Robert Pinsky’s To the Phoenix than that it “asks an enigmatical question poets will attempt to answer.” The more extended discussion of a poem by Colorado’s current Poet Laureate feels more like a friendly gesture than a necessary analysis. Some insight into the reasons for J.K. Rowling’s creation of the phoenix Fawkes, rather than just a three-page rehash, would have been valuable and possibly entertaining.

The Phoenix proceeds to an insufficient chapter on depictions before a final section, “The Modern Rebirth,” concludes with anticlimactic, poorly written observations:

Beyond place-names, uses of the “Phoenix” name and variations of it in major Western languages are innumerable. Newspapers, hotels, restaurants, and [sic] businesses, organization [sic], and products of all kinds bear forms of the English “phoenix,” the French phénix, the Spanish fénix, the Italian fenice, and the German Phönix. There are many hundreds of millions of internet search matches for the English word “phoenix’ alone. A great many of those refer directly to the bird whose transformations from ancient times to the present assure [sic] its cultural life—in some form—for time to come.

Given the richness of this material, it is hard not to feel a sense of lost opportunity.

The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast has its virtues, and it will be valuable if used gingerly. The author has been dogged in finding literature that mentions his subject. He has also produced thorough notes that crisply summarize scholarship about that literature. Moreover, his lack of an overarching thesis frees the book from the bias that comes from grinding an ax. Nonetheless, its lapses in scholarly accuracy will make academics hesitant to cite it, and its failure to tell a consistently good story will make general readers hesitant to finish it.