New Book Release  

Posted by Wishwords in

In the Tor newsletter this morning was an article about a new book released on the 28th of April. Secret Artifacts and Truly Haunting Muesums by John Schuster sounds like a great book. It's not about legendary critters per se, however, some of the stories should give insight to past beliefs about myths and legends and show some examples of how research has changed our views of what is real and what is legend. The blurb says the book is full of stories about museums, past and present, all over the country.

"What is it about museums that send tens of thousands of people through their doors every year? Is it the “touch me” kiddie-centric exhibits? Is it the chance to look at someone else’s valuables, or the opportunity to stand before the odd and unsettling? Or are we tantalized by a supernatural pull that draws us to certain special and, sometimes, cursed artifacts? While books and movies, from Preston and Child’s Relic to the blockbuster Night at the Museum and the forthcoming sequel Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, have offered glimpses of these little-known mysteries, Haunting Museums reveals the secrets behind many of the world’s most memorable artifacts, those whose legacies refuse to die."

What a fun and interesting sounding book. I hope you all think so too.

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Beast #1 - Phoenix  

Posted by Wishwords in ,

For the first creature article, I thought I'd start with a fairly familiar creature. Everyone knows what a phoenix is, right? It's that bird in the Harry Potter books that burns itself up then hatches from an egg again, right?

Well, kind of, there's more to it than that.

The modern Western version of the phoenix is fairly simple. It is an incredibly beautiful bird with flame colored plumage that lives for a very long time. At the end of its lifespan, it settles into its nest and goes up in flame. Almost immediately, a new phoenix emerges from the ashes and repeats the cycle.

In other parts of the world, and previous centuries, the tale is sometimes much more complex. The phoenix has not always been an attractive creature in either habits or appearance (some of them are downright ghastly sounding), but has consistently represented positive attributes.

One of the oldest versions of the phoenix appears to come from Persia where the it was called simurgh and was depicted as a female (complete with womanly human breasts), supernaturally large, bird of prey. Its feathers were usually copper colored, and it had the head of a dog and the claws of a lion. Later it was sometimes depicted with a human head.

The simurgh was peaceful, wise, and usually lived on a mountain near water. It was said to be so old that it had seen the destruction of the world three times and possessed all the knowledge of the world. In a lovely little creation myth, the simurgh lived in the Tree of Life which grew in the middle of the ocean. The simurgh's launchings and landings knocked the tree's seeds into the ocean where they spread throughout the world and became all the plants that have ever existed.

It appears in many Persian tales as a helper of the hero either providing wisdom, healing, magic, or wealth. It is actually a common theme in cross cultural mythology to have a hero assisted by a supernatural creature in these same areas either as thanks for a good deed or for a price.

It's mortal enemy was the snake, which is notorious for eating birds' eggs and chicks in the natural world.

In ancient Egypt, the phoenix was called Bennu and was usually depicted as a purple heron. It was most often associated with the sun god Ra, Osiris, the Nile, Heliopolis-the city of the sun, and the calendar. It represented the sun, resurrection, and renewal. It is also depicted in the "Book of the Dead". At one point the Bennu was so important that it had its own temple, which was known for being full of calendars and clocks.

There are two generally accepted mythical origins of the Bennu. One version claims that it burst from the god Osiris' heart. The other claims that the Bennu created itself from a fire burning in a tree in the temple of Ra.

The most commonly accepted inspiration for the Bennu is thought to be a now extinct, giant species of the heron that used to live in the area.

A lesser known possible inspiration for the Egyptian phoenix is the East African flamingo. This bird nests on the blazing salt flats where it builds a mound high enough to keep its eggs and chicks cooler. The reasoning behind this seems to be that when a person looks out over the salt flats and see the convection currents between themselves and the birds' mounds, it looks kind of like flames.

The Middle East/India
The Sufis of the ancient Middle East told tales of a bird that flew invisibly over the earth, never landing, never resting, called the Huma. Every few hundred years the bird would ignite and emerge from its own ashes. It was described as a bird of paradise with one side of the body being female and the other male. Some tales claim that the Huma did not like to kill and ate carrion instead.

Unlike the phoenix in other cultures, the Huma was not captured or even pursued in Sufi stories. Catching a glimpse of the creature or being touched by its shadow was enough to change the life of the hero. Having the Huma's shadow touch a man's head or shoulder bestowed kingship upon the man, or in the case of spiritualism, made him a high mystic.

Th Huma represented spirit, air, and water to the Sufi and good fortune to some others.

East Asia
In the previous cultures, the phoenix was a single entity, living and reproducing all by its lonesome. In Asia, this was not so. In ancient China the phoenix was a pair of male and female creatures called Fenghuang--Feng being male and Huang being female. Over the centuries they have been combined into one feminine creature which is often depicted with the masculine dragon to satisfy the concepts of yin and yang. They were supposed to live in the Kunlun Mountains, be the leaders of all birds, and to be immortal.

The oldest descriptions of Fenghuang are a bit bizarre. It was made up of the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hind legs of a stag, the neck of a snake, the forehead of a fowl, the face of a swallow, the beak of a rooster, and the tail of a koi. Not exactly my idea of beauty, but I imagine the various parts symbolized important things to the ancient Chinese. In modern times it is described as a combination of beautiful birds with the head of a golden pheasant, the tail of a peacock, the body of a duck, the legs of a crane, and the wings of swallow.

The Fenghuang is associated with the direction south, divine power, loyalty, honesty, virtue, grace, and is a representation of yin-yang.

Like the Persian simurgh, the Fenghuang's greatest enemy was the snake, and it is frequently depicted in art attacking serpents.

The Fenghuang is another creature that scholars think might be based on a prehistoric bird. In this case, the Asian Ostrich with its long, snake-like neck.

In Russian folklore, the phoenix is referred to as Zhar-Ptitsa, or the Firebird. It is a large bird with brilliantly glowing feathers from a far off land. In more modern times it has been depicted more and more like a peacock. The feathers keep glowing even after it falls off the creature.

The Firebird's role in myth and legend is as the object of a quest for capture rather than as an advisor or helper of the hero. In some tales capturing the Firebird is a blessing, in some a curse, and in others both. It is also frequently associated with stealing apples, usually from a king's garden.

It seemed to represent the payoff after a struggle.

Greece and Rome
The Greek and Roman tales are intertwined and share sources, so I'm going to present them here together. They are also where we get most of our modern view of the phoenix. In fact, the name phoenix seems to come from the Greek word a certain shade of purple, which seems to have come from the fact that the Phoenicians were known for creating a particular purple dye and nicknamed "the purple people".

In the basic version, the phoenix lived in India and flew to the temple in in Heliopolis, the city of the sun in Egypt, every 500 years where it immolated itself on the alter. Over the next three days, a new phoenix emerges from the ashes and then flies back to India to live.

There are several variations regarding the creature's appearance. It is anywhere from the size of a hawk up to the size of an eagle. The colorations mentioned are like gemstones, or with a gold band around the neck, a purple body, and a blue tail, or gold and red.

Sometimes the story explains that the phoenix builds a nest on the alter, which is sometimes sprinkled with sulfur, usually from myrrh or cinnamon sticks. The nest then ignites either from the sun or by the phoenix striking the alter with its beak. Within three days, the new phoenix transforms from a worm or maggot into the glorious phoenix.

In earlier forms, the phoenix died in India, Egypt, or Arabia by either burning or an unexplained method. The body or ashes were then carried to Heliopolis by the new phoenix with an egg made of myrrh.

In another version the phoenix eats only incense and cardamom sap. When it's life is at an end, it builds a nest of fragrant barks and twigs and dies. The new phoenix emerges from the body of the old one then carries the entire nest, with the remains of the dead phoenix, to Heliopolis.

The phoenix was a symbol of fire, the sun, regeneration, divinity, and eternity.

Christians adopted the legend of the phoenix fairly early on as a representation of Christ and it continues to be popular in that aspect today. The early Catholics justified this representation by pointing to Psalm 92:12 which used the word "bennu", but it was actually being used to refer to a type of palm tree and has been challenged over the centuries. Later, Job 29:18 became the more favored justification based on the use of the word "hol" which can mean "sand" or "phoenix" and the reference to a nest.

The symbology of the phoenix to Christians is fairly elegant. Various writings present the following associations and lessons:

1. The idea that there is only one phoenix matches the idea that there is only a single god.
2. The phoenix' birth from its ashes represents the resurrection of Christ.
3. The three days it takes the phoenix to become itself matches the number of days it took Christ to be reborn.
4. The use of aromatic plants represents virtue.
5. The story of the phoenix' rebirth is seen as proof of Christ's resurrection arguing that if a bird can do it, so could the Son of God.
6. The idea that the phoenix lives its entire life in one place is an example of how Catholics should live their life, not wandering and searching for greater things but finding reward in faith and the Church.

Appearances in Pop Culture:
Books and games where the phoenix creature appears as itself.

*Feersum Endjinn, a science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks: The simurgh appears as an avatar.
*Xanth, a fantasy series by Piers Anthony: The simurgh appears as an immortal and wise bird.
*Rostam, a comic book series by Hyperwerks: The simurgh appears as an immortal and wise bird.
*Harry Potter, a fantasy series by J.K. Rowling: The phoenix appears as Professor Dumbledore's patronis and his "pet" named Fawkes, who assists the main character.
*Phoenix, a fantasy novel by Steven Brust: The phoenix flies over members of the House at their birth.

Fantasia 2000

*Final Fantasy X & XI, computer games by Squaresoft: The simurgh appears as enemy and notorious enemy respectively.
*Yu-Gi-Oh!, the trading card game by Upper Deck Entertainment/Konami: The simurgh appears as Simorgh - Bird of Divinity, Simorgh - Bird of Ancestry, and Dark Simorgh.

Further Reading
*The Myth of the Phoenix - According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions - R. Van den Broek
*Entry for the Phoenix in Wikipedia
*Entry for the Phoenix in The Aberdeen Bestiary
*Dave's Mythical Creatures and Places: Phoenix
*The Medieval Bestiary: Phoenix
*SurLaLune Fairy Tales Site