Probably the most important of the mythological birds, and a favorite motif in tattoo artwork, the phoenix was known in ancient Egypt, Greece, China and the Middle East. In the many stories that surround it, two aspects remain constant though — its unmatched splendor and the immortality it derived by rising from its own ashes.
Its name comes from the Greek word for “red”, the color of fire. According to the Greek historians Herodotus and Plutarch, it came originally from Ethiopia. For the ancient Egyptians, though, a heron was the first animal to land on the hill that rose out of the primordial ooze. Benu, as they named it, was worshipped as a manifestation of the sun god and thought to appear only once every 500 years. In ancient China, the feng-huang bird was able to unite both yin and yang and was used as a symbol of marriage. In ancient Rome, it was stamped onto coins to symbolize the endurance of the empire.
In some versions of its story, it flew to distant lands gathering fragrant herbs which it returned to its altar, setting them afire and burning itself to ashes – rising three days later. In other versions, when the time of its death would draw near, it built a nest of aromatic twigs in which it would burn, simply from the heat of its own body. However, no matter the details of its origin, life, or death, it has become a symbol not only of the undying soul, resurrection, and immortal life but also one of triumph and a rebirth in this life.