This is the fourth part of a series of blog posts entitled “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ.” You may want to read parts 1-3 before reading this one.
“All the ancient peoples knew about the phoenix. The Israelites did, and the bird appears in the Bible at least once or twice.”–Mike Aquilina in Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols.
“In my own nest I shall grow old; I shall multiply years like the phoenix.”–Job 29:18, translation favored by ancient rabbis.
Coin depicting a phoenix from Antioch, Syria, 4th century A. D.
Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ Part Four: Phoenix Rising
In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis described the guardian of the Tree of Life as a majestic bird which was “larger than an eagle, its breast saffron, its head crested with scarlet, and its tail purple.” (MN 92) The reader can only wonder what sort of creature this majestic bird could be, for Lewis does not immediately tell us what type of bird serves as the guardian of the Apples of Immortality.
It is not until the final Narnia adventure that Lewis reveals that this creature is, in fact, a phoenix. (LB 764) As with the griffin, Lewis did not include the phoenix in his novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but film director Andrew Adamson’s version of the story includes the magnificent bird among the good creatures that fight for Narnia in Aslan’s army.
The mythology of classical antiquity described the phoenix as a majestic bird which flew to foreign lands to gather fragrant herbs and spices to heap upon an altar, set fire to them, and then burn itself to ashes, only to rise from the pyre after three days time. The early Fathers of the Church logically saw this myth as a typological symbol of the death of Christ, who rose from the tomb on the third day.
The phoenix was adapted by the early Christians as a symbol of the Resurrection as early as the first century A.D. Drawings of the creature appear amongst the Christian murals and “graffiti” that identify the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs beneath the city of Rome. St.Clement of Rome, who was pope at the end of the first century, wrote of the legend of the phoenix in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He used the story of how the bird died and rose again as a new phoenix to explain the Resurrection of the Christian faithful which will occur at the end of time:
“Let us consider the strange sign which takes place in eastern lands, that is, in the regions near Arabia. There is a bird called the phoenix. It is the only one of its kind, and it lives for five hundred years. When the time for its dissolution in death approaches, it makes for itself a sepulcher of frankincense and myrrh and the other aromatics, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. From its decaying flesh a worm is born, which is nourished by the juices of the dead bird until it grows wings. Then, when it is strong, it takes up that sepulcher in which are the bones of the bird of former times, and carries them far from the land of Arabia to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt; and there, in the daytime, in the sight of all, it flies to the altar of the sun where it places them; and then it starts back to its former home. The priests then inspect the records of the times and find that it has come at the completion of the five hundredth year. Do we, then, consider it a great and wonderful thing that the Creator of the universe will bring about the resurrection of those who have served Him in holiness and in the confidence of good faith, when He demonstrates the greatness of His promise even through a bird?”—from the First Letter to the Corinthians by St. Clement of Rome, 80 A. D. (Jurgens 8-9)
Phoenix depicted in a detail of a floor mosaic from Daphne, Syria, late 5th century.
The Medieval bestiaries compared the phoenix, with the power to lay down his life and take it up again, to Jesus Christ. Like the lion, griffin, unicorn, and stag, the phoenix is a Christ symbol.
Pagans saw the phoenix as a symbol of the immortality of the human soul. In Mesopotamian and Egyptian art, this was symbolized by a winged solar disk, a depiction of the sun with wings.
It is possible that this image had some influence on the Old Testament prophet Malachi who wrote: “…the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings.” (Malachi 4:2, KJV) The Sun of Righteousness or Sun of Justice referred to by Malachi was later thought by the early Christians to be the Son of Righteousness or the Son of Justice who rises, that is, Jesus Christ the Resurrected Son. The image of the sun with wings was a symbol of the immortality of the soul, a symbol of resurrection which was also portrayed by the phoenix. We have seen the symbol of the winged solar disk portrayed as a physical object in Harry Potter’s world: it is the Golden Snitch.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the chapter entitled “The Will of Albus Dumbledore,” the professor leaves Harry the first snitch he ever caught in a Quidditch match. The snitch is marked with the words, “I open at the close.” When Harry goes to face his death at the climax of the novel, he opens the Golden Snitch to find the Deathly Hallow known as the Resurrection Stone hidden inside of it. Thus, Rowling has presented the readers with one resurrection symbol (the stone) hidden inside of another (the winged solar disk).
"I Open at the Close" fan art by Gold Seven.
Harry is most fond of his holly and phoenix feather wand, which he chose over the all-powerful Elder Wand at the end of book seven. It contains one tail feather from Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes, as its power source. The wand is made of holly, and like its phoenix-feather core, the wood is symbolic also. Holly is said to be one of the plants used to make the Crown of Thorns. Another legend claims that it was used as the wood of the Cross of Calvary. Holly was thought to provide protection from lightning and to ward off evil spirits. Its evergreen leaves symbolize eternal life. Christian legends claim that holly berries were originally white but they were stained red by the Blood of Christ after he was crowned with thorns. Holly was also associated with Christmas because of a tale describing how the holly tree grew leaves out of season in order to hide Jesus, Mary, and Joseph from King Herod’s soldiers. For this reason, it is miraculously evergreen. In the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum, in the unicorn tapestry entitled “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle,” a holly tree grows behind the creature’s head, reminding the viewer that the unicorn is a symbol of Christ.
In fact, holly appears in all but the first and last of the Cloisters’ unicorn tapestries and in all six of the unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum’s collection. The holly and phoenix feather wand was an important clue about Harry’s destiny that has been present from the first book onward.
The symbolism of the phoenix has been important throughout the series. Harry met Fawkes, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, in the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Fawkes saved Harry’s life by crying healing tears to heal a mortal wound Harry received from the deadly basilisk. The tears of a phoenix are the only known cure for the basilisk’s poisonous venom.
Fawkes’s song gave Harry renewed strength and courage in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when the young hero had to face Voldemort in the flesh during the wizard’s duel in the churchyard. Dumbledore’s patronus is a phoenix, and the name of the Anti-Voldemort league that Dumbledore established is called “The Order of the Phoenix.” All of the good adult wizards that Harry admires—Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Tonks, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley—are members of the new Order of the Phoenix. Harry’s deceased parents, James and Lily, along with Ron’s deceased uncles, Gideon and Fabian Prewett, and Neville’s parents, Frank and Alice Longbottom, were all members of the original Order of the Phoenix during the First Voldemort War.
We even witness Fawkes the Phoenix saving Dumbledore’s life when Voldemort tries to use Avada Kedavra, the Death Curse, to defeat him: “Fawkes swooped down in front of Dumbledore, opened his beak wide, and swallowed the jet of green light whole.” (OP 815) Only the phoenix, like Christ, could take the curse of death upon himself and rise again in glory, unharmed. From the earliest days of Christianity, the phoenix was a symbol of the believer’s hope of Resurrection at the end of the world. Its ascension into the heavens, like that of the eagle, symbolized the soul’s desire for union with God.
At the funeral which concludes the sixth book, Harry saw smoke rising from the white flames around Dumbledore’s body, and “Harry thought, for one heart-stopping moment, that he saw a phoenix fly joyfully into the blue.” (HBP 645)
“If resurrection is proved by means of an irrational bird… why do they foolishly dismiss our claims, when we profess that He who has the power to create everything out of nothing, also has the power to restore the human body, and raise it up again after its decay?”–Apostolic Constitutions, Syria, mid-fourth century.
Please subscribe to this blog so that you don’t miss the next installment of “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ,” which is entitled “Weasley Is Our King.” If you would like to order a copy of my book, The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, it can be obtained from www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows.
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