Although the Phoenix is well known in legend, there are few classical stories associated with it from mythology. The Phoenix is a large bird that is revered around the world as a symbol of immortality and re-incarnation.
In Greek legend, the Phoenix lived in Arabia near a cool well. Every morning as the Sun rose and dawn broke, it would immerse itself in the cool clear water of the well and sing such a delightful and sweet song that the Sun God would stop his chariot to listen to the beautiful sound.
Every 500 years, as death approached, it would construct a nest of sweet smelling wood that it then set upon fire, the flames consuming the bird. From the ashes, a new Phoenix arose which would wrap up the ashes in a parcel of myrrh. Flying to Heliopolis, the "City of the Sun," also called On, in Egypt, it would deposit the ashes on the altar of the Ra, the Sun God.
In the Egyptian myth, it is known as Bennu, representing the rise of life and also the sun, announcing a new period of prosperity and fertility. It is also portrayed as a heron on the sarcophagi of the dead.
In Chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead, the opening passage reads:
"I am Tem in rising. I am the only One. I came into being in Nu. I am Ra who rose in the beginning... The pillars of Shu were not as yet created. It is Ra, the creator of the names of his limbs, which came into being in the form of the gods, who are in the train of Ra" ... "I am the Bennu which is in Anu, and I am the keeper of the volume of the book of things which are and of things which shall be."
The Phoenix symbolizes cycles of rest and activity, sometimes called "Days and Nights of Brahma." The cycles of activity are called "Millions of Years," "Great Green Lake," and simply, the "Lake." They represent the cycles in which are swallowed up all things produced by "The Begetter of millions of years."
In Chapter XLII he "who dwelleth in his eye" is beaming in "the solar egg, the egg to which is given life among the gods." In Chapter XV he is "Yesterday," "Today," and "Tomorrow" and the one "who reposeth upon law which changeth not nor can it be altered."
In Chapter LXXV he is the self-created god: "I gave birth unto myself together with Nu in my name of Khepera, in whom I come into being day by day. I am the creator of the darkness who maketh his habitation in the uttermost parts of the sky ... and I arrive at the confines thereof. I sail over the sky which formeth the division betwixt heaven and earth... None sees my nest, none can break my egg."
Buddhism portrays the Phoenix as Garuda, the "Bird of Life," a golden bodied bird with an eagle's beak and wings and a human body. It is so large that it can cover the Sun and turn day into night. Garuda is seen as the mount of Vishnu.
An ancient Malayan myth records that the Garuda attacked a Roman ship carrying a Roman prince and a fellow called Merong Maha Wangsa. The prince was on his way to marry a Chinese princess. After the Garuda destroyed the ship, it flew to China, kidnapped the princess and held her on Langkawi Island (known now as Malaysia).
By a fortunate coincidence, the prince was washed ashore on Langkawi Island, discovered his betrothed and married her. Merong Maha Wangsa searched for the prince but instead discovered the state of Kedah and set himself up as ruler, a place where his descendants still rule.
The Chinese recorded this constellation as Ho Neaou the "Fire Bird" but the Phoenix bird equivalent was known as Feng-huang, one of the four spiritual creatures which represented the four points of the compass.
The four were Ch'i-lin, a creature with a deer's body, ox's tail, horse's hooves, and a single horn, marking the west. Gui Xian, the tortoise, was a symbol of long life and marked the northern point. Long was a dragon, a bringer of good fortune and representing the power of the Emperor. He ruled the waters including the rain clouds and the compass point of east.
Feng-huang was a bird with glorious plumage and a beautiful song. He appeared when good fortune was due and marked the southern point.
In another sense, the Phoenix is the Cherub or Angel (in Israel), the clapping of whose wings simulates the roar of thunder. And this thunder is really the fearful rumble of the volcanic explosion that destroyed Paradise, as well as the roar of the onrushing waters of the sea, stirred by the cataclysm.
Some astrologers consider the Phoenix as a higher form of the eagle, one of the symbols of the constellation Scorpio, appropriate given the death and rebirth connotations of the zodiacal sign.
The name Phoenix has been given to a small constellation visible in the Southern Hemisphere. Its brightest star alpha was anciently known as Nair al Zaurak, the "Bright One in the Boat."