Flight of the Phoenix: Image of Fiery Rebirth

Craig Chalquist, MS PhD

Although the story of the phoenix, a powerful, self-rejuvenating bird that reincarnates by burning itself up, seems to have surfaced in ancient Egypt, this fiery image of rebirth has circled the world since the earliest ages. In the Southwest it looks like the Thunderbird; in India, Garuda; in Iran, the Huma; in England, like Arthur's dragon symbol. Its forms change, but the flamelike essence remains.

The story goes like this:

When the beautifully songed phoenix (from the Gk. "fenix," possibly derived from Phoenicia) has reached the end of a cycle of life, it builds a pyre for itself. Consumed by the flames, it issues forth as a new being, young and renewed. Some say its feathers are colored like those of a peacock; others, tinged royal purple. C. G. Jung likened it to the transmutation of alchemical "prime matter" into bright metal through purification by fire. Jung considered the phoenix one of many representations of the archetype of Rebirth.

Certain aspects of the tale always seem to follow every reimagination of this fabulous bird. In two movies named Flight of the Phoenix (1965 and 2004), for example, an airplane is assembled from the parts of old flyers. The same is true of the experimental ship Phoenix (Star Trek: First Contact, 1998), its fuselage fashioned from the remnants of a nuclear missile: an irony, as Commander Data notes, in that the test ship ushers in an era of worldwide peace. In a second-season episode of the revisioned series Battlestar Galactica (2006), Starbuck nervously pilots a superspeed test ship named Blackbird scrounged from the remains of old vessels and the inventive Chief's newly broken heart. Trust an engineer to be attracted to machinery...

Other aspects of the phoenix story include a quality of desperation, as though time were running out; a need for creative assembly; a passage from stuckness to dizzying speed; a meaningful calling out (the phoenix's voice was said to have charmed Apollo himself); and a period of darkness giving way to intense illumination.

Popular portrayals of the phoenix emphasize its more pleasant qualities, sometimes draping it in rainbows, but the rebirth it images only comes after a time of sacrifice and loss. It is as though the bird flies upward and outward on the wings of Life and Death, moving from a lifeless past into some future form or task of regeneration.


© 2006 by Craig Chalquist.

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