In Egyptian mythology, the Benu (also spelled Bennu) was the soul of the Sun-God Ra. As the mythological phoenix of Egyptian culture, this ancient bird was linked with creation and renewal. The Benu’s titles included the “Lord of Jubilees” and the “Ascending One” – his very name taken from a word that meant “to shine” or “to rise brilliantly”. The Benu was linked to seasonal rhythms like the rising of the Nile, as well as representing the sun and resurrection. It is no surprise that the Benu Temple in Egypt was famous for its accurate time-keeping.
The Benu created itself, springing forth from a flaming tree in Ra’s temple. Other versions hold that the Benu came from Osiris’ heart. In any case, the benu rested on the benben-stone, a sacred pillar in the temple. Visitors revered this pillar as a sacred object.
Benus were usually pictured as purple, blue, grey, or white herons, with long beaks and a crest consisting of two feathers. Occasionally they took the form of an eagle with red and golden plumage, or as a yellow wagtail. Rarely, Benu is a heron-headed man, clad in a mummy dress and wearing a long transparent coat.
The Greeks and Romans, intrigued by the tales, were inspired to adapt the Benu, changing its name to Phoenix. According to their tradition, the phoenix was a brilliant bird, clad in shades of crimson or purple-red. To them, the phoenix lived in Arabia near a well. The Greek Sun-god Apollo would stop the chariot of the sun nearby to hear the beautiful bird sing.
The Chinese told of the Feng-Huang, the “substance of the flame”. This sacred creature represents both the feminine yin and masculine yang. As feng, it becomes the fire bird, filled with yang and the power of the sun; this is balanced by the feminine huang, representing all that is yin and lunar. Often the Feng-Huang was pictured with a dragon, symbolic of the Emperor. In this representation, the phoenix represents the Empress and femininity. Combined, they show both yin and yang of the Imperial power.
To the Chinese, the bird was an amalgamation of various species, all with a deeper spiritual meaning. The head was that of a cock, representing the sun. The moon was represented by the phoenix’s back, like that of a swallow. The wings represent the wind, while the tail stands for flowers and trees. The feet represent the earth. This phoenix is brightly-colored, and those five colors represent the five ancient virtues which the Chinese held dear.
Early Christians adopted the phoenix as a representation of resurrection and immortality. Christ’s divine nature was represented by the phoenix, while his human nature was represented by a pelican. As Jesus was devoured by the fires of passion, then rose again, so does the phoenix.