The Phoenix

Pliny says of the Phoenix:--"AEthiopia and India, more especially produce

birds of diversified plumage, and such as quite surpass all

description. In the front rank of these is the Phoenix, that famous bird

of Arabia; though I am not sure that its existence is not a fable.

"It is said that there is only one in existence in the whole world, and

that that one has not been seen very often. We are told that this bird

is of the size of an eagle, and has a brilliant golden plumage around

the neck, whilst the rest of the body is a purple colour; except the

tail, which is azure, with long feathers intermingled, of a roseate hue;

the throat is adorned with a crest, and the head with a tuft of

feathers. The first Roman who described this bird, and who has done so

with great exactness, was the Senator Manilius, so famous for his

learning; which he owed, too, to the instructions of no teacher. He

tells us that no person has ever seen this bird eat, that in Arabia it

is looked upon as sacred to the Sun; that it lives five hundred and

forty years. That when it is old it builds a nest of Cassia and sprigs

of incense, which it fills with perfumes, and then lays its body down

upon them to die: that from its bones and marrow there springs at first

a sort of small worm, which, in time, changes into a little bird; that

the first thing it does is to perform the obsequies of its predecessor,

and to carry the nest entire to the City of the Sun near Panchaia, and

there deposit it upon the altar of that divinity.

"The same Manilius states also, that the revolution of the great year is

completed with the life of this bird, and that then a new cycle comes

round again with the same characteristics as the former one, in the

seasons and the appearance of the stars; and he says that this begins

about midday of the day in which the Sun enters the sign of Aries. He

also tells us that when he wrote to the above effect, in the consulship

of P. Licinius, and Cneius Cornelius, (B.C. 96) it was the two hundred

and fifteenth year of the said revolution. Cornelius Valerianus

says that the Phoenix took its flight from Arabia into Egypt in the

Consulship of Q. Plautius and Sextus Papinius, (A.D. 36). This bird was

brought to Rome in the Censorship of the Emperor Claudius, being the

year from the building of the City, 800, (A.D. 47) and it was exposed to

public view in the Comitium. This fact is attested by the public Annals,

but there is no one that doubts that it was a fictitious Phoenix."

Cuvier seems to think that the bird described above was a Golden

Pheasant, brought from the interior of Asia--at a time when these birds

were unknown to civilised Europe.

Du Bartas, in his metrical account of the Creation, mentions this winged


"The Heav'nly Phoenix first began to frame

The earthly Phoenix, and adorn'd the same

With such a Plume, that Phoebus, circuiting

From Fez to Cairo, sees no fairer thing:

Such form, such feathers, and such Fate he gave her

That fruitfull Nature breedeth nothing braver:

Two sparkling eyes; upon her crown, a crest

Of starrie Sprigs (more splendent than the rest)

A goulden doun about her dainty neck,

Her brest deep purple, and a scarlet back,

Her wings and train of feathers (mixed fine)

Of orient azure and incarnadine.

He did appoint her Fate to be her Pheer,

And Death's cold kisses to restore her heer

Her life again, which never shall expire

Untill (as she) the World consume in fire.

For, having passed under divers Climes,

A thousand Winters, and a thousand Primes;

Worn out with yeers, wishing her endless end,

To shining flames she doth her life commend,

Dies to revive, and goes into her Grave

To rise againe more beautifull and brave.

With Incense, Cassia, Spiknard, Myrrh, and Balm,

By break of Day shee builds (in narrow room)

Her Urn, her Nest, her Cradle, and her Toomb;

Where, while she sits all gladly-sad expecting

Some flame (against her fragrant heap reflecting)

To burn her sacred bones to seedfull cinders,

(Wherein, her age, but not her life, she renders.)

* * * * *

And Sol himself, glancing his goulden eyes

On th' odoriferous Couch wherein she lies,

Kindles the spice, and by degrees consumes

Th' immortall Phoenix, both her flesh and plumes.

But instantly, out of her ashes springs

A Worm, an Egg then, then a Bird with wings,

Just like the first, (rather the same indeed)

Which (re-ingendred of its selfly seed)

By nobly dying, a new Date begins,

And where she loseth, there her life she wins:

Endless by'r End, eternall by her Toomb;

While, by a prosperous Death, she doth becom

(Among the cinders of her sacred Fire)

Her own selfs Heir, Nurse, Nurseling, Dam and Sire."