Some notes on the Egyptian Phoenix

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Jochen1, Dec 8, 2019.

  1. Jochen1

    Jochen1 Well-Known Member

    Dear friends of ancient mythology!

    Most of us know the Phoenix from the FEL TEMP REPARATIO coins of the Late Roman empire. Here I want to share an article about the origin of the Phoenix from Egypt.

    The coin:
    Egypt, Alexandria, Antoninus Pius, AD 138-161
    AE - tetradrachm, 11.44g, 22mm, 180°
    struck AD 138/9 (RY 2)
    obv. [AV]T [K T AIΛ AΔP] - [AN]TΩN[INOC EVCEB]
    Bare head r.
    rev. AI - ΩN
    Phoenix, nimbate, stg. r.
    in l. and r. field L - B (year 2)
    ref. Milne 1603; Geissen 1291; Dattari 2430; Kampmann 35.2
    Rare, F+, slightly porous
    ex CNG electronic auction 219, lot 386
    ex coll. Jörg Möller

    AIΩN = eternity

    The origin of the mythology of the wonder bird Phoenix can be found in Egypt. There the bird benu, a purple heron, played an important role. During the Nile flood this beautiful blue bird sat on a high place and collected the sunbeams over the water with its shining feathers. Therefore he was associated with Ra, the sun god, as whose soul he was considered. He was especially worshipped in Heliopolis (the city of the sun). According to a Heliopolitan legend, Benu created himself from the fire that burned on the holy jsd tree in the consecrated precinct of the Ra Temple. He then settled on a column called the benben stone, which the priests showed visitors as the holiest place in the world. In another myth the famous bird was placed to Osiris, who had once renewed himself. Benu had sprung from his heart.

    The name Benu probably comes from Egyptian weben, which means ascend or shine. In the last period the hieroglyph of the bird was used directly for the sun god. As a symbol of the rising and setting of the sun, Benu was also the lord of the royal throne jubilee. And of course he was in connection with the Nile flood and creation at all. During the Flood standing alone on a single high rock, the Heron represented the first life that appeared on the primitive hill that rose as the first creation out of the chaos of water. This hill was also called ben-ben, which was the cry of Benus at the creation of the world and thus marked the beginning of time. Thus Benu was also the God of time and its subdivisions, of hours, days, nights, weeks and years. He was early connected with the calendar and the temple of Benu was famous for its time measuring instruments (Klepshydrae, water clocks) and his priest was responsible for the calendar.

    The Phoenix was mentioned for the first time by Hesiod (ca. 700 BC), who extended his life into monstrosity: He should live 972 human ages, 100000 years! And then there is the famous description of Herodotus (2, 73), which was probably based on Hekataios: "There (in Egypt) there is also a holy bird, which is called Phoenix, but which I myself have seen only on pictures, because it comes very rarely to Egypt, at intervals of 500 years, as the people of Heliopolis say. They say that he always comes when his father dies. And if he really looks like in the pictures then he has about the size and appearance of an eagle except that some of his feathers are golden and others are red. This bird, they say (but I can't believe this story), now does this: Coming from Arabia he carries his dead father covered with myrrh to the Temple of the Sun and buries him there. And this is how he does it: He forms an egg out of myrrh as big as he can carry it right now, and then he makes an attempt to lift it, and if that succeeds, he hollows out this egg and puts his father in there and closes the opening again. Then he brings the whole thing to Egypt to the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis."

    Only later sources tell that the Phoenix burns himself and is then reborn from the flames. Unfortunately I didn't find out when this variation came from. Anyway it is this Greek legend which is the most widespread until our time. In this form it also appears in the Bible (Ezekiel). Therefore the Greek Phoenix should be clearly distinguished from the Egyptian one!

    Ovid lets Pythagoras say that Phoenix is the only bird that renews itself.

    Tacitus mentions in his Annals (6.28) the appearance of the Phoenix in the year 34 A.D. Since this had already happened 250 years after his last appearance under Ptolemaios III, there was cause for discussions about the duration of a Phoenix period, which was equated by some with the Sothis period of 1461 years. A short time later, during the reign of Claudius, a Phoenix appeared again, which was even shown in Rome, but Pliny the Elder writes that this probably wasn't the real one (NH, 10.3-5). So the problem arose to distinguish real from fake birds! Pliny is said to have written that the bird would die in a nest of cinnamon and similarly fragrant herbs and then a new Phoenix would be born from the bones of the dead bird.

    Martial then used the Phoenix as the first symbol for Rome's eternity (Epigrams 5.7). And in this sense also the Phoenix on the coins of the late Roman series FEL TEMP REPARATIO has to be seen as a resurrection of the eternal Rome. Philostratus (ca. 170 AD), who wrote the biography of Apollonius of Tyana, writes of the Phoenix that he had lived in India, but would emigrate to Egypt every 500 years. This view is obviously influenced by Garudas, the bird of the Hindu god Vishnu. Lactantius and Claudian have written long poems about the Phoenix.

    The Egyptian Phoenix became very popular in the early Christian church, both in art, literature and symbolism. So the first Christians made the Phoenix the symbol of the resurrection, of life after death and of eternal life, yes the symbol for Christ himself. One of the early church fathers, Flavius Clemens, writes a longer chapter about the Phoenix. But probably the greatest influence in this sense had the Physiologus, an anonymous work of the 4th century AD, which probably originated in an Alexandrian Christian community and was widespread in the Middle Ages. He writes: "The Phoenix now becomes the symbol of our Redeemer; for he also came down from the heavens and brought his two wings full of fragrance, that is to say full of excellence, i.e. full of sublime divine words, so that we too at prayer spread our hands and bring upwards spiritual fragrance by conduct of life pleasing in the sight of God."


    An ancient explanation for the Egyptian Phoenix was a specific bird species of East Africa. This bird nests on salt flats that are too hot for its eggs or chicks to survive; it builds a mound large enough to support its egg, which it lays in that marginally cooler location. The convection currents around these mounds resembles the turbulence of a flame.

    The Benu was a large imaginary bird resembling a heron. The bird may be modeled on the gray heron (Ardea cinera) or the larger Goliath heron (Ardea goliath) that lives on the coast of the Red Sea. Archaelogists have found the remains of a much larger heron that lived in the Persian Gulf area 5000 years ago. There is some speculation that this bird may have been seen by Egyptian travelers and sparked the legend of a very large heron seen once every 500 years in Egypt. It had a two long feathers on the crest of it's head and was often crowned with the Atef crown of Osiris (the White Crown with two ostrich plumes on either side) or with the disk of the sun.

    Another suggested inspiration for the mythical Phoenix, and various other mythical birds that are closely associated with the sun, is the total eclipse of the sun. During some total solar eclipses the sun's corona displays a distinctly bird-like form that almost certainly inspired the winged sun disk symbols of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

    History of Art:
    On ancient pictures, especially on coins of the Imperial Era like here from Alexandria, the Phoenix - described by Herodot as an eagle-like bird - is depicted as a winged animal with long stilts with a nimbus or an aureole around its head, sign for eternity. The bird symbolized the change of an era. In Christian art the Phoenix is known in connection with pictures of Christ or the paradise, e.g. on the mosaic in the apsis of SS. Cosma e Damiano in Rome from AD 526-530, in S. Clemente, S. Prassede and other churches, and already in the 3rd century AD the Phoenix which burnt and renewed itself was the symbol of resurrection as in the Priscilla catacomb in Rome. The symbolic content of resurrection and eternity was taken up again in Renaissance

    I have added the following pics:

    (1) the pic of an Egyptian wall painting showing a boat wit the Benu who is wearing the sun disk on his head. We can see the distinct similarity with an heron.

    (2) the detail of the mosaic in the apsis of S.Prassede in Rome. You can see the Phoenix with a nimbus seated on a palm.

    (3) the pic of a wall painting from the Priscilla catacomb, showing three children standing in a furnace with the Phoenix above as symbol of resurrection.


    (1) Herodot, The Histories II, 73
    (2) Tacitus, Annales
    (3) Ovid, Metamorphoses XV, 392-407
    (4) Physiologus, Chapt.7
    (5) Der Kleine Pauly
    (6) Aghion/Barbillon/Lissarrague, Lexikon der antiken Götter und Heroen in der
    Kunst, 1994
    (7) Jefferson Monnet, The Benu (Bennu) (online)
    (8) Mattingly, FEL TEMP REPARATIO

    Best regards
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  3. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter I dig ancient coins...

    Very interesting @Jochen1 - your referencing weben reminds me of this...

    iw wbn ra m pt - the first little sentence they teach you in introductory classes on hieroglyphics, sort of like bona puella in Latin.

    "Ra rises in the sky"
    Jochen1 likes this.
  4. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Very informative write-up, as usual, @Jochen1 ! Interesting coin, too.

    I have many coins depicting the Phoenix, but it's rendered small, being held by Aeternitas. This coin's reverse assigns the immortal bird a more prominent spot:

    Constantius II FEL TEMP phoenix Siscia.jpg
    Constantius II, AD 337-361.
    Roman Æ 3 (1/4 maiorina?), 2.36 g, 18.7 mm, 11 h.
    Siscia, AD 348-49, fifth officina.
    Obv: D N CONSTAN-TIVS P F AVG, pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust, right.
    Rev: FEL TEMP REPARATIO, Phoenix, nimbate, standing right on mound of rocks; ЄSIS(symbol 5) in exergue.
    Refs: RIC viii p. 366, 240; LRBC II 1133; RCV 18250; Cohen 58.
    Jochen1, Johndakerftw and Bing like this.
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