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Artmakers as Friends of the Earth
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An Introduction to Cosplay Costuming
The Two-Headed Phoenix
The Two-Headed PhoenixMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
A mythical bird sounds like a topic unlikely to spark controversy, right? In fact, because of it, I have been involved in at least one very awkward conversation.
Imagine this scene: a writer and a painter in front of the very first illustration for a common project, a majestic cavern full of birds and apes ruled by a magnificent phoenix.
The writer (threading softly): “Wonderful! You’ve really got the feeling, here. I love the colors, the apes are perfect and so are the birds, only . . .”
The painter (calm but a bit disappointed): “Yes . . .?”
The writer (embarrassed): “The phoenix . . . should be crested, with a longer neck and a fuller tail, a bit between a pheasant and a paradise bird, you know . . .”
The painter (uncomprehending) : “ But according to the Greeks, the phoenix looks like a multicolored eagle?”
All right, there was an added reason of awkwardness, since I was the writer and the painter was my mother-in-law, but our main problem (apart from sheer lack of experience working as a team, given that this was our first common project) was that, outside of Eastern Asia, two very different birds go by the common name of “phoenix”.
The Greek historian Herodotus was the first to record the appearance and habits of the “Arabian phoenix”. He wrote:
"They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follow:- The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible: that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry; then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first; so he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird." (1)
According to scholars, Herodotus here is talking about the bennu, a bird that was a symbol of Ra and Osiris, and was known to be worshipped in Heliopolis, although the representations we have of bennu portray a heron-like bird, nothing like Herodotus’ eagle.
One may note that a lot of well-known phoenix-lore is missing from the Greek’s account. According to Herodotus, when the old phoenix dies, its offspring embalms the body in a sort of sarcophagus made out of myrrh, and brings it to the city sacred to the sun-god to be entombed. No mention at all is made of the old bird dying in flames to be reborn.
That part of the myth is narrated by the Latin poet Ovid in The Metamorphoses:
"How many creatures walking on this earth
Pliny the Elder and Tacitus also mention the wondrous bird, which was taken taken up as a symbol of resurrection in the Middle Ages. It appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy as well:
Just so, men of high learning have avowed
In life it does not feed on grass or grain,
The Chinese phoenix, however, or feng huang is a completely different bird. It is described by one author as:
“resembling a wild swan before, and a unicorn behind, it has the throat of a swallow, the bill of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the tail of a fish (having twelve feathers, except in years with an intercalary month when there are thirteen), the forehead of a crane, the crown of a mandarin drake, the stripes of a dragon and the vaulted back of a tortoise. The feathers have five colours which are named after the five cardinal virtues (4), and it is five cubits in height . . .” (5)
Painters, though, usually shied away from such a chimerical mix, and most painted phoenixes appear to combine the looks of pheasant and peacock, or sometimes bird of paradise.
Another author adds:
“This bird resides in the Vermillion Hills, where it eats and drinks at it pleasure, waiting for the time when peace shall pervade the country. There are four sorts which differ only in the colour of their plumage.”(6)
The feng huang is supposed to appear only in times of peace and prosperity, and to herald great events, such as the birth of philosopher Confucius. It is also the second of the four supernatural creatures, the others being dragon, unicorn, and tortoise.
It is considered by some scholars to be the same as the “red bird”, one of the animals of the four directions, and, as associated with the south, it symbolizes sun and warmth, and is often portrayed gazing on a ball of fire.
Another common representation of the Chinese phoenix pairs it with the dragon. It is usually a reference to the imperial couple, where the dragon is the emperor and the phoenix the empress. The clothes and accessories of imperial women were often adorned with phoenix motifs, and some beautiful examples of phoenix hair-ornaments in precious metals, semi-precious stones and kingfisher feathers, or of phoenix-decorated hats have survived and are preserved in museums.
Contrary to the Arabian Phoenix, which is always described as a unique bird dying and being reborn in a cycle (according to different authors its lifespan goes from one hundred to one thousand years, with five hundred being the most common number), the Chinese phoenix is truly immortal, and is thought of as a couple. (Although, according to Chinese sources, only one shows itself at any given time.) Even the original name of the bird hints at a couple, feng defining the male phoenix and huang the female.
Nowadays, the Chinese Phoenix is still one of the most used and widely recognized East Asian symbols. The European one, however, maybe because of overuse from the XVII century onwards, had almost disappeared from figurative art and narratives alike, eclipsed by herds of unicorns and prides of dragons—at least until J.K. Rowling chose the phoenix Fawkes as the familiar of Albus Dumbledore.
Fawkes’ characteristics, though, seem to be a blend of both traditions: He dies and is reborn in fire, but his appearance and sweet song come from Asia, a choice possibly due to the growing familiarity of the general public with the feng huang.
It shall be very interesting to see if the recent comeback of the classic fantasy genre, both as books and movies (Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia delve deeply in classical symbology, as does, if a bit more tongue-in-cheek, the Harry Potter series), will herald in the near future a more widespread rediscovery and creative reworking of the ancient symbolic traditions.
(1) From *The History of Herodotus*, translated by George Rawlinson. New York: D. Appleton, 1859
(2) From *The Metamorphoses* by Ovid. Translated by Horace Gregory, New York: Viking Press 1958
(3) *Inferno XXIV*, quoted from * http://www.italianstudies.org/comedy/Inferno24.htm*
(4) Benevolence, purity, propriety, wisdom and truthfulness.
(5) From *Notices of Natural History*, in the “Chinese Repository”, Vol. VII, 1839, pp.250-1
bonomi-bennu.jpeg from: J.Chevalier, A.Gheerbrant Dizionario dei simboli, BUR 1988 p.440 (Bennu from the tomb of Irinefer)
bonomi-phoenix.jpeg from: E.T.C. Werner Myths and Legends of China, 1922, unnumbered plate. (Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, accompanied by a Phoenix)
bonomi-phoenix1.jpeg from: Costumes of the Ch’ing Dinasty, National Museum of History, Taipei 1988 p.79
(Summer court hat of imperial concubine)
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