Life, death, rebirth, transformation, renewal, poetry
According to Egyptian sources a sacred bird was occasionally seen at the temple in Heliopolis, the city of the sun god. On some of the oldest and best pictures the bird resembles a heron. The bird symbolized the rising sun, i.e. the day and eternal rebirth. According to an Egyptian myth Osiris transformed into a phoenix bird in Heliopolis. The bird was from time to time depicted sitting in a tree next to Osiris' coffin, thus symbolizing Osiris', the dead man's, resurrection after death. In greek sources, among others Herodot, the phoenix bird's cyclic renewal is a core theme. Later authors have developed the story about the phoenix bird. Ovid and Mela told that the phoenix bird built itself a nest of Incense and died in it. According to Artemidor the bird burned in its nest made by incense and myrrh, after which a new phoenix bird emerged from the ashes. This story about the phoenix bird was spread and has lasted until today. Christian monks in the middle ages employed the phoenix bird as a symbol of Christ because of its voluntary death,rebirth af death and its pure way of coming to life.Sources (both Danish): Salmonsens Konservationsleksikon, 1920, Gads Religionsleksikon, 1999.
In Andersen's tale "The Garden of Paradise" (1839) the princess in the Garden of Paradise, a fairy, who tempts the tale's prince to sin, like Eve did Adam, is very interested in hearing about the phoenix bird:
When the East Wind gave her the palm-leaf message from the phoenix, her eyes sparkled with pleasure.
In 1850 Andersen published a short prose hymn called "The Phoenix Bird". In "The Phoenix Bird" the phoenix bird is connected with the garden of Paradise and with the fall of man:
Beneath the tree of knowledge in the garden of paradise stood a rosebush. And here, in the first rose, a bird was born. His plumage was beautiful, his song glorious, and his flight was like the flashing of light. But when Eve plucked the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and she and Adam were driven from paradise, a spark fell from the flaming sword of the angel into the nest of the bird and set it afire. The bird perished in the flames, but from the red egg in the nest there flew a new bird, the only one of its kind, the one solitary phoenix bird. The legend tells us how he lives in Arabia and how every century he burns himself to death in his nest, but each time a new phoenix, the only one in the world, flies out from the red egg.
Andersen here locates the phoenix bird in the center of God's original creation. Moreover, he identifies it with poetry itself:
When you were born in the garden of paradise, in its first rose, beneath the tree of knowledge, our Lord kissed you and gave you your true name – poetry!
Poetry – that is writing as a whole, prose is a part of the Danish "poesi" – thus is a divine creation, but its divine spark is not, as it was conceptualized in romantic aesthetics, a part of the light of creation, but of the spark, that "fell from the flaming sword of the angel" (cf. the motif Devil, Satan). The bird's and literature's fate is the same as Adam and Eve's after the banishment from the Garden, with a translation of Johan de Mylius' words in Forvandlingens pris ('The price of transformation'), Høst & Søn, Copenhagen 2004, p. 225: "a poetry in the order of modernity, stray and lonely". The phoenix' bird's way of living, always lonely and unique, always traveling btween death and birth in fire, makes it a figure that Andersen could make use of creating pictures of individuals in transforming destruction, like e.g. the little mermaid and the oak tree in "The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream".
Let's have him out. He must tell me about the phoenix bird, because the Princess in the Garden of Paradise always asks me about that bird when I drop in on her every hundred years.(...)
"Here's a palm-leaf fan for the Princess," the South Wind said. "It was given to me by the old phoenix, who was the only one of his kind in the world. On it he scratched with his beak a history of the hundred years that he lived, so she can read it herself. I watched the phoenix bird set fire to her nest, and sat there while she burned to death, just like a Hindoo widow. What a crackling there was of dry twigs, what smoke, and what a smell of smoldering! Finally it all burst into flames, and the old phoenix was reduced to ashes, but her egg lay white-hot in the blaze. With a great bang it broke open, and the young phoenix flew out of it. Now he is the ruler over all the birds, and he is the only phoenix bird in all the world. As his greetings to the Princess, he thrust a hole in the palm leaf I am giving you."