All About the Mythical Phoenix: Bird of Fire and Eternal Life

By: Mitch Ryan  | 
Phoenix mythology often entails the notion of eternal life as the fire bird is reborn from ashes. ValeryLt / Shutterstock

The phoenix bird is a mythical creature that resembles an eagle with broader wings. Its elegant, peacock-like feathers burst with the dazzling colors of flames. Any Harry Potter fan could explain what this magnificent "fire bird" looks like in great detail.

However, the phoenix lived only in legends of ancient times and modern works of fiction: It is not a real bird found in nature. Just as the dragon was a figment of collective imagination, the story of the sacred bird called the phoenix is likely based on the now-extinct Egyptian Bennu heron.


Regardless of its actual existence, the phoenix mythology has endured across many cultures of the ancient world and remains an important symbol of the neverending cycle of life and death today.

Origins of the Phoenix Tale

Although J.K. Rowling is arguably a talented fictional world-builder, the famous author of Harry Potter can not be credited with creating the phoenix myth. For that, we credit the ancient Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptian Lore

Egyptian folklore claims that the Bennu bird was born from the heart of Osiris, or burst forth from the ashes of a holy tree near the eternal city of the sun god, Ra.


The legend says that, near the end of its life, the mythical bird would return to its birthplace near the temple to build a nest that would ignite. The old phoenix dies, and a new phoenix is born from the ashes.

Chinese Mythology

The phoenix also appears in the Chinese myths of Feng Huang. Feng Huang was believed to be a sacred bird of great rarity that possessed an amalgamation of different animal parts, including the head of a golden pheasant and the back of a tortoise.

These different attributes symbolized the idea of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies working in harmony to build the wonder of our universe.


Is the Greek Phoenix Considered a Sacred Bird?

The first Western Phoenix account appears in Greek historian Herodotus' recorded travels into ancient Egypt. Any Greek story is chock full of immortal heroes interacting with mythical creatures, so it can be easy to see why writers like Herodotus were eager to adopt the mythological bird into their culture.

The modern nickname "phoenix" is actually Latin, which stemmed from a Greek word that can be translated into crimson, griffin or palm tree. (Language is funny like that.)


In the Greek tradition, there is a story about Apollo — the sun god — stopping his chariot to listen to the mythical bird's song, but there is no evidence of the phoenix holding a sacred position amongst the gods of the Pantheon.

What Is the 'Phoenix Rising' Analogy?

Unlike the plethora of dragons, unicorns and other mythical creatures, there is only one phoenix, and it exists in an eternal lifecycle, beginning and ending in flames.

When a phoenix dies, it rises from the ashes, gifted with renewed life. This concept of hope and joy coming from despair is at the heart of the phoenix rising analogy, which has endured as a symbol of rebirth for over a thousand years.


Other Famous Mythical Birds Around the World

Birds hold a special place in the human heart, and their majestic appearance elements make them a common muse for myths and folklore in nearly every culture.

Thunderbird and Lightning Bird

Several African and Native American cultures have stories of gigantic birds that nest in the tallest mountains and have the power to summon thunder and lightning in nearby villages.


In South Africa and Zimbabwe, this creature is often known as Impundulu and is most commonly associated with medicine men and spiritual shamans.

Hugin and Munin

These two ravens are loyal spies for Odin, the most powerful god in Norse mythology. Their names mean "thought" and "memory," which are both necessary traits for creatures acting as Odin's eyes and ears between the many multidimensional kingdoms surrounding Earth.


This dragon-like bird from Filipino mythology is a serious force of nature that is large enough to swallow the moon, explaining eclipses and other mysterious celestial events. (If you're intrigue by Minokawa, you might also be interested in how the CIA used the aswang from Filipino folklore during the Cold War.)


Although Aztec iconography may portray this serpentine creature to look more like a dragon, it's often connected more with birds due to its large wings and thick plumage of multi-colored feathers.

Quetzalcoatl was a central deity of the Aztec religion that held sway over the wind, merchants, arts, crafts, knowledge and learning.


Similar to the sirens of Greek mythology, the Gamayun from Russia has the face of a woman and the body of a bird. Gamayun's song is said to foretell the future, and the mythological creature is often associated with universal knowledge and insight into the unseen world.