FIRE AND FIREBIRDS : FROM PHOENIX TO FENICE
A.J. Fabre samedi 17 janvier 2009
Myths and legends on firebirds flourish in every civilization all over the world.
Among many others, comes first the story of the mythical bird from Egypt, the firebird named Phoenix, periodically destroyed by flames to rise reborn from its own ashes.
According to Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484-425 BC) (Histories.II. 73), the bird lives in Egypt : "They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies.
Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follow :The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle.
They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible: that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body.
In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry; then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first; so he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun".
A same account is given by Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) (Mét. 15, 392-40)
Pliny (Nat. hist. x. 2) (23-79 AD) gives more details : there is only one Phoenix at a time. Arrived at the end of his long life, the Phoenix will build from twigs of cassia and frankincense, a nest on which he dies and from his corpse comes a worm which will metamorphose into another Phoenix.
From Tacitus (Ann. vi. 28) (ca. 56 – ca. 117) we learn that the young Phoenix brings his father on the altar in the City of Sun to burn him there. We also get warning from Pliny that the Phoenix displayed on the Secular Games of Rome could have been pure forgery.
With Martial (38-102 AD), Lucan (39-65 AD) and Stace (40-96), comes a new story : the Phoenix self immolated on a pyre will be regenerated from his very ashes:
Actually, the Phoenix is likely to have been, according to modern commentators, an Egyptian flamingo, species Phoenicopterus, which comes from East Africa. The bright pink color of flamingoes comes from their diet high in carotene rich algae which is their food in the bottom of African muddy lagoons. For nesting, they build a several inches tall mound originating around them flame shaped currents.
We also know from the Book of the Dead, and other Egyptian texts, that an egret bird called Benu was worshiped in Heliopolis as a sacred symbol of the rising sun. It was represented as "The heart of the renewed Sun" self-regenerating every morning as a mystic symbol of anticipated rebirth in the netherworld
Later, Latin Fathers of the Church as Clement of Alexandria in his First Epistle, Lactantius who left a poem (De Ave Phoenice) on death and rebirth of the mythical bird or Isidore of Seville precursor in Physiologus of all medieval Bestiaries, saw in the Phoenix a symbol of the resurrection of Christ
During Middle Ages, chroniclers as Guillaume le Clerc (The Bestiary), Bartholomaeus Anglicus (early forerunner of Encyclopedia) and Sir John Mandeville (The Travels).
Medieval Jewish commentators also stressed that a passage of the Book of Job could be read as an allusion to the Phoenix.
In medieval Heraldry the Phoenix was pictured as a bird of prey covered in flames, held as a symbol for the powers of destruction and regeneration of fire.
Phenices in evry country
Every country, even in Far East has its own legend of a mythical firebird.
Thus the winged, bird-like creature of Persian mythology and the fire bird of Russian folklore.
The Phoenix is a central figure in Lebanese culture, in heritage of Phoenicia and Beirut which has been destroyed and rebuilt 7 times during its long history might be seen as a symbolic name of the Phoenix
Even in Far East is Phoenix everywhere present : the Fenghuang of Chinese mythology is leader of all birds and the Japanese "Immortal Bird", the Fushichō, nests on the top of the Kyoto Kinkaku-ji Temple,
During the Great Independence War of XIXth century, the Greek flag showed proudly a Phoenix emerging from the ashes
The Fenice in Venice
Last but not least, Venice, the Serenissima, is fully dedicated to its Temple of Music, the legendary Theatre Fenice, which burnt to the roots twice and each time rose up from the ashes
In 1774, Venice's most important Opera House, San Benedetto, burned to the ground. After many legal disputes, it was decided to build the new on Campo San Fantin.
Construction began in June 1790, and by May 1792 the new Opera, called "La Fenice" in reference to the company's survival, first to the fire, then to the loss of its former quarters, opened with Paisiello's Giochi di Agrigento. During XIXth century, several masterpieces of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti gave European reputation to the theatre
In December 1836, disaster struck again : La Fenice was destroyed by fire. However, it was quickly rebuilt with a design offered by the team of engineer-architect brothers, Giambattista and Tommaso Meduna.
La Fenice rising once again from its ashes opened its doors on the evening of December 26, 1837. Giuseppe Verdi association with La Fenice began in 1844 with a performance of Ernani during Carnival season and for the next thirteen years, the premiere of Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra took place there.
During First World War, La Fenice was closed, but reopened with much glory, more and attracting the World's greatest singers and conductors.
In 1930, Venice Biennale initiated the first International Festival of Contemporary Music, which brought to La Fenice such composers as Britten and Stravinsky, and, more recently, Berio, Nono and Bussotti.
Then, during the night of January 29 ,1996, La Fenice was once more destroyed by fire. After some delays, reconstruction began in 2001. During the two following years, a team two hundred plasterers, artists, woodworkers and other artisans were at work. Everything from the old theatre could be re-created but at a vertiginous cost.
Actually many Venetians still believe that some sort of jinx has always been cast to their Gran Teatro : "La Fenice" was indeed nothing else than a bird of "bad omen".
Legends of a mythical firebird are present in the every country : Orient, and even Far East, Balkans, Russia, and, last but not least, Venice, whre the Fenice, the mythical temple of music, burnt twice to the roots and each time rising up from the ashes
In final, It is fascinating to observe that everywhere in the world, since the beginnings of times, firebirds and their metamorphosis have always fed human dreams.
From the mythology of fire, metamorphosis gives evidence of the intercession of the Gods : their shape may not be detectible to human eyes, but their powers have no limits.