In ancient Egyptian mythology, the phoenix was a large and magical bird with red and gold plumage which was usually depicted in a heron-like form. However, in some cases it was also shaped like a vulture, a peacock or an eagle.
The phoenix supposedly visited Egypt on a regular basis, albeit once every 500 to 1,461 years, streaking across the sky with a long, fire-like tail billowing behind it. It would then crash and set fire to itself. From its ashes a new phoenix would rise and the cycle would begin again.
The coming of the phoenix was seen by the people of Egypt to herald a new era for mankind. It also symbolized immortality, resurrection and life after death. A large, conical-shaped lump of metal, which was supposedly an egg laid by the creature, was held sacred by the priests of the time. The egg was known as the Benben stone and was kept in the city of Heliopolis. Sadly, the egg's location is now a mystery.
World Wide Phenomenon
Although the legend of the phoenix began in Egypt, its influence spread throughout the ancient world and references to similar creatures are found in Chinese, Arabic and Greek history. The name 'phoenix' was actually given by the Greeks and is the most common name for the creature today. However, the Egyptians, who founded the legend, named it the 'Bennu Bird'. In China it was known as 'Phuong' or 'Si Ling' and in Arabia it was called the 'Roc'.
So what is it?
It seems unlikely that the phoenix was a real creature, as only one could apparently exist at a time; a trait which would make reproduction difficult. Many explanations have been put forward for the origins of the phoenix legend. The explanation favoured by orthodox Egyptologists is that the phoenix represented the Sun, rising and setting in a continual cycle.
A more convincing theory has recently been put forward, however, which suggests that it was in fact some kind of comet or meteor. A comet or meteor would streak across the sky with a fire-like tail behind it, as the phoenix was said to do. Meteors are partially made of metal and this would explain the existence of the 'phoenix egg'.
This explanation is by no means certain, and we may yet see the legendary 'fire bird' hurtling through the sky as the ancient Egyptians supposedly did.