The Phoenix Bird

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In monumental effigies, in stone pyramids and mummies the Egyptians sought eternity; it is understandble that the myth of an immortal bird that periodically is reborn appeared in Egypt, even if the later elaboration is the work of the Greeks and the Romans.

Ermon wrote that in the mythology of Heliopolis the Phoenix (benu) is the patron saint of jubilee holydays or long periods. Herodotus, in a frgament, suspiciously told the first form of the legend:

“There is another sacred bird I have seen only in pictures and whose name is Phoenix. Indeed, it is rarely seen and comes to Egypt only once every five hundred years, namely when its father dies. If in terms of size and shape it is as it appears described, its size and appearance are very similar to those of the eagle and its feathers are golden in red. The miracles that are being told about it are amazing, although in my opinion they are not too credible.”

After five hundred years, Tacitus and Pliny resumed history; the first one rightly remarked that any old narrative is obscure, but that tradition has established the life of the bird at 1,461 yars. The second one also researched Phoenix’s chronology: the bird lives a platonic year, that is the period when the sun, the moon and the five planets return to their original position. In the “Dialogue on Oratory” Tacitus specified that this period covers 12,994 ordinary years.

The ancients belived that after this giant astronomical cycle universal history is repeated in all its details; the Phoenix bird would thus become a mirror or a picture of the universe. In an even greater analogy, the stoics have shown that the universe is perishing in the fire and then rebirth, and that this process will not end and that it didn’t even have a beginning.

from Jorge Luis Borges, El Ave Fénix

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