The Phoenix in the West

Feng-Huang, the Chinese Phoenix

Simurg, the Islamic Feng



Phoenix, Feng and Simurg


The phoenix is a mythical bird from the Orient. In China it is called feng huang and in the Persian world simurg. Eagle and phoenix sometimes are confounded or are thought to be the same. In the Arab world it was the opninion, going back to Greek traditions that “When the eagle has become old an weak and blind, he flies in the direction of the sun until his wings are burnt; then he falls down, submerges in a bitter well and rises from it reborn and renewed”. It was also thought that the old eagle was transported by his offspring to a well in India and immersed there. Then he was dried in the sun until his feathers came down. With the growing of new feathers the light in his eyes returned.

It looks as if the writer wanted to describe a kind of universal heavenly bird which in the west had all characteristics of an eagle but in the east, and in particular in China, had been a heavenly symbol for centuries. Also in the Persian culture there is the simurg, a bird of great resemblance with the Chinese phoenix. The simurg is the king of all birds and in particular is associated with the Persian hero Rustam.  


The Phoenix in the West.



Herodotus (484 ca - 430 ca) writes in his “Histories”:


“Another sacred bird is the phoenix; I have not seen a phoenix myself, except in paintings, for it is very rare and visits the country (so they say at Heliopolis) only at intervals of 500 years, on the occasion of the death of the parent-bird. To judge by the paintings, its plumage is partly golden, partly red, and in shape and size it is exactly like an eagle. There is a story about the phoenix which I do not find credible; it brings its parent in a lump of myrrh all the way from Arabia and buries the body in the temple of the Sun. To perform this feat, the bird first shapes some myrrh into a sort of egg as big as it finds, by testing, that it can carry; then it hollows the lump out, puts its father inside and smears some more myrrh over the hole. The egg-shaped lump is then just of the same weight as it was originally. Finally it is carried by the bird to the temple of the Sun in Egypt. Such, at least, is the story. [1]


Pliny the Elder (24-79 A.D.) writes:




Of the Phoenix.


THE BIRDS of Æthyopia and India, are for the most part of diverse colours, and such as a man is hardly able to decipher and describe. But the Phœnix of Arabia passes all others. Howbeit, I cannot tell what to make of him: and first of all, whether it be a tale or no, that there is never but one of them in the whole world, and the same not commonly seen. By report he is as big as an Ægle: for colour, as yellow & bright as gold; (namely, all about the necke;) the rest of the bodie a deep red purple: the taile azure blew, intermingled with feathers among, of rose cornation colour: and the head bravely adorned with a crest and pennache finely wrought; having a tuft and plume thereupon, right faire and goodly to be seene. Manilius, the noble Romane Senatour, right excellently well seene in the best kind of learning and litterature, and yet never taught by any, was the first man of the long Robe, who wrote of this bird at large, & most exquisitely. Hee reporteth, that never man was knowne to see him feeding: that in Arabia hee is held a sacred bird, dedicated unto the Sunne: that hee liveth 660 yeares: and when hee groweth old, and begins to decay, he builds himselfe a nest with the twigs and branches of the Canell or Cinamon, and Frankincense trees: and when he hath filled it with all sort of sweet Aromaticall spices, yeeldeth up his life thereupon. He saith moreover, that of his bones & marrow there breedeth at first as it were a little worme: which afterwards prooveth to bee a pretie bird. And the first thing that this yong new Phœnix doth, is to performe the obsequies of the former Phœnix late deceased: to translate and carie away his whole nest into the citie of the Sunne neere Panchæa, and to bestow it full devoutly there upon the altar. The same Manilius affirmeth, that the revolution of the great yeare so much spoken of, agreeth just with the life of this bird: in which yeare the starres returne againe to their first points, and give signification of times and seasons, as at the beginning: and withall, that this yeare should begin at high noone, that very day when the Sunne entreth the signe Aries. And by his saying, the yeare of that revolution was by him shewed, when P. Licinius and M. Cornelius were Consuls. Cornelius Valerianus writeth, That whiles Q. Plautius and Sex. Papinius were Consuls, the Phœnix flew into Ægypt. Brought he was hither also to Rome in the time that Claudius Cæsar was Censor, to wit, in the eight hundred yeare from the foundation of Rome: and shewed openly to bee seene in a full hall and generall assembly of the people, as appeareth upon the publicke records: howbeit, no man ever made any doubt, but he was a counterfeit Phoenix, and no better. [2]


ð For a (annotated) text about the Phoenix attributed to Lactantius (ca 240-320A.D.) see The Phœnix.


In the Western world the Phoenix has no sociopolitical connotation. In Greece and Rumania it was the emblem of the Mavrocordat family and as such figured after 1699 in the arms of some Rumanian princes. [3] Also, the phoenix was the emblem of the Hellenic provisional government (1827-’32) and of the Hellenic Republic 1932-’35 and 1967-’75. From 1811 until 1820 it was the emblem of King Henri I Christophe of Haiti.


Feng, the Phoenix in China


In China the bird usually called phoenix in western languages is of a quite different kind and its denomination is probably due to a wrong translation of the word feng-huang.


Wooden panel with gerfalcons (he) supported by spotted deer and feng.

Chu State (Hebei) 5th c B.C. (15 Í 51,8 cm)

As the he was the rank insignia of high military officials, the panel could have been part of the seat of such an official.  The achievement of Chu State consisted of a full moon supported by two feng.


Early Chinese bronzes from the Chou Dynasty (11th-9th century B.C.) show feng-like birds looking more like peacocks and this suggests that the feng was developed from the peacock. On pictures from the 5th century BC the bird is unmistakebly not a peacock but what we would call a feng. After this century the feng belonged to the Chinese repertory of auspicious symbols up to the present day.


The phoenix is called Feng-huang, Fung of Fum in chinese; the vermilion bird, the substance of flame; it is one of the Four Spiritually Endowed, or sacred creatures and like the dragon and the qilin, with which it is always associated, it is both yin and yang. When it is the male feng it becomes yang, solar, the fire bird; but as the huang it is feminine, yin and lunar. When depicted with the dragon as a symbol of the Emperor, the phoenix becomes entirely feminine as the Empress, and together they represent both aspects of imperial power. In the feminine aspect the huang denotes beauty, delicacy of feeling and peace. It is also a bridal symbol signifying inseparable fellowship, not only for the married couple but also for the complete yin-yang mutual interdependence in the universe in the realm of duality. Also, like the dragon and the qilin, the phoenix is made up of various elements, typifying the entire cosmos: “it has the head of a cock (the sun), the back of a swallow as the crescent moon, its wings are the wind, its tail represents trees and flowers, and its feet are the earth. It has five colours symbolizing the five virtues: Its colour delights the eye, its comb expresses  righteousness, its tongue utters sincerity, its voice chants melody, its ear enjoys music, its heart conforms to regulations, its breast contains the treasures of literature and its spurs are powerful against transgressors.” [4] 

The appearance of a phoenix on any occasion was highly auspicious and signified peace and benevolent rule, or the appearance of a great sage. A pair of phoenixes denoted the combination of emperor and sage.


The phoenix or vermilion bird is the symbol of the south and initially was a symbol of the Southern Kingdoms for example Yüeh before and the territory of the Wu-dynasty after our era. In the 5th century China was divided into the Empire of the Northern Wei and the Empire of the Southern Sung and this could explain why of the “Four Animals” tiger (west), tortoise (north), dragon (east) and phoenix (south) only the dragon and the phoenix were continued in Chinese state symbolism. As a consequence there is some reason to believe that the modern symbolism of the Chinese phoenix has been laid down during the Sui- or the T’ang Dynasties (581-907) at the moment that China was united and a great  political reform had taken place. Nevertheless it is said that its symbolism was laid down during the Han dynasty (207 BC.-220 AD.)


With China as a centre the phoenix spreaded over its vassal states like Korea, Japan, Vietnam and smaller states. Because indonesian rulers often married chinese princesses, the phoenix occurs also in Indonesian culture.



The phoenix became the supporter of the national yin-yang symbol in the achievement of state of the Korean Empire of 1897-1919.

Today it is on the handle of the Korean national seal (illustration).



Japanese Phoenix (hoo). Fortunately for art, depiction of the mythological phoenix did not maintain fidelity to its legendary description: front of the body like a goose; rear like a unicorn; head like a snake; tail like a fish, or alternatively a dragon; back like a tortoise; neck like a swallow; and beak like a chicken. The phoenix allegedly was seen only when a virtuous ruler appeared; that is, almost never. [5]


A 14-15th century golden seal from Java shows a phoenix. Ca. 1480 the german heraldist Konrad Grüneberg documents a coat of arms with a phoenix for the “Emperor of Java” (= of the Madyapahit Empire). The phoenix symbolism has been continued by the later Sultans of Solo. After independence the phoenix, called Sang Raja Walik (royal bird Walik) returned as the supporter of the arms of the Republic.

The Simurg, the Islamic Feng [6] 




The simurg, literally “Thirty Birds” is mentioned in the Shahnama, the book of kings that was finished about 1010 by Firdausi. [7]  The mythical bird is the protector of the family of Zal and his son Rustam, the adversary of Prince Isfandiyar who has to kill a simurg in his fifth mission.


In mystiscism the simurg has a quite different meaning and is an allegory of God. In the Mantiq at-Tayr (the birds’ assembly) of Attar from the first half of the 13th century, thirty birds are looking for their king, Simurg, until they discover that they are Simurg themselves. One of the earliest manuscripts depicting this simurg is the Herat Manuscript in Berlin (1456AD/860H) [8] Not only the assembly of birds is depicted (without the simurg) but also his burning himself, also an allusion to God.

The idea of the simurg as a primus inter pares ruling all winged animals is borrowed from Chinese mythology and has been continued in Islam.

Frieze with Simurg. Takht-i Suleiman, about 1270.

Coll. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.


Pictures of simurgs are known from the time of Il-Khanid rule in Persia (1256-1343). Many tiles and parts of  them, showing phoenixes have been found when the Summer Palace of Il-Khan Abaqa (1265-’82) in Taht-i-Sulaiman (NW-Iran) was excavated. These phoenixes have been the prototypes for all later simurgs. The development of the design slightly evoluating in muslim context.

As the simurg was clearly borrowed from Chinese auspicious symbolism and was imported in the Islamic world by the Il Khanids in Persia, its meaning was also that of a representation of imperial power and in particular the imperial administrative power. In that quality it has spread over the eastern islamic world, mingling with the feng on the indian subcontinent.


In the head of this essay a feng from the Han Dynasty (207 B.C.-220 A.D.)


© Hubert de Vries 2006-06-28

Updated 2010-06-02


[1]) B. II.73. Penguin Classics, p. 112 n 48: Hesiod (7th or  8th century BC) had called the phoenix long-lived, and Hecateaeus (540ca - 470) included a description of it in his work. The story that H. tells here is not corroborated by any Egyptian evidence. In this context it may be interesting to mention that the Egyptian dynasties ruled on an average of one century.

[2] ) Philemon Holland, translator (1601): C. Plinius Secundus The Historie of the World. Book X. (Pages 270-309)

[3] ) Dogaru, Maria: Un Armorial Românesc din 1813. Bucureşti, 1981.

[4] ) From an ancient ritual.

[5]) Dower, John W: The Elements of Japanese Design. A Handbook of Familiy Crests, Heral­dry and Symbolism. Weatherhill Inc. New York/Tokyo, 1971. 170pp. ill. With over 2700 crests drawn by Kiyoshi Kawamoto

[6] ) Gierlichs, Joachim: Drache . Phönix . Doppeladler. Fabelwesen in der islamischen Kunst. Berlin, 1993. pp. 17-21.

[7] ) It is the time of the Abbassid Caliph Al-Qādir (991-1031) in Bagdad.

[8] ) Staatsbibliothek, Ms.or.oct.268