An enduring symbol of hope and rebirth.
It is known that the feather from a Phoenix’s tail can be mixed with a few other compounds by a skilled alchemist, to produce an elixir that will bring someone back from the brink of death. Long ago, people believed this potion (called 'Phoenix Down') could actually cheat death itself. We now know that people likely witnessed the miraculous effects of the potion on people who were not truly dead, but were simply in a deep state of unconsciousness, and their imaginations filled in the rest. Despite the lack of solid evidence, some alchemists still assert that, if you obtain a phoenix feather of ultimate beauty, you can brew a Phoenix Down that will return someone from the dead.
A phoenix is an immortal bird that resembles a large eagle but with feathers the colour of fire and burnished gold. Various other colours, like those of gemstones, add ornamentation. There is an old Latin poem 'De Ave Phoenice' (The Phoenix) which has been attributed to Lactantius and was latter translated into old English by an anonymous author. The poem describes the appearance of the phoenix:
That fowl is fair of hue from the front flecked with various colors about his breast before. His head is green behind, wondrously varied and blended with purple. Then is his tail fairly colored, some brown, some red, some with black spots, cunningly covered. Those wings are white at the back, and the neck green below and above, and the beak shines like glass or gemstone, his jaws sparkle within and without. The nature of his eye is piercing and much like the hue of a stone, a merry gem when it is set into a golden vessel by the skill of smiths. About its neck, just like a ring of sunlight, is set the brightest bracelet of feathers. Wonderful is the belly beneath, wondrously fair, bright and brilliant. His crest overhead is fitted with ornaments over the bird’s back. His legs are covered with scales, the fallow feet. The fowl is absolutely unique in its hue, much like the peacock, grown up in joys, as the book tells us. He is not slothful nor wanton, heavy nor sluggish like some birds, which slowly flap their wings through the breeze, but he is nimble and quick and so light, lovely and delightful, marked out with glory.
To gaze at a phoenix is to gaze at the rarest rising sun. They are aloof and mysterious, but can form a deep bond of friendship with those they come to trust. They are gentle, confident, and graceful, and so you should never fear them, but treasure the sight of one.
The Phoenix is a master of death. At the end of its life, a phoenix bursts into flame and its ashes start to contract into a ball. This ball forms an egg which hatches within the still-burning embers of the fire. A phoenix is always born again. In his dialogues, Tacitus believed a phoenix lived for the amount of time it took the sun, moon, and five planets to return to their original positions (12994 years). We now know the phoenix has a shorter life cycle but it is still a living representation of the cyclical nature of the universe. The Stoics believed the universe began and ends in fire and therefore has no beginning or end – much like the phoenix. We may also recall the story of two star-crossed wizards who came into possession of wands that each contained a tail feather from the same phoenix. Both of those wizards died and were reborn. The Phoenix is a master of death.
Written by Giles Ravensong.