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  • A Medieval Phoenix and Heliopolis March 25, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    island sun

    The phoenix has been written about for well over two thousand years. Here though is a late version, a medieval version, in fact. It is interesting for its vividness and also for the curious confusion over Heliopolis, which the author situates in Ethiopia (rather than Egypt): any help with where this confusion begins, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. Egyptian Heliopolis lies today deep under the streets of Cairo. Here it becomes a mythical island where the sun dwells (during the night?) on the other side of the mountains of the moon.

    In this distant land [Ethiopia] is the sun’s abode, in the form of an island, two hundred stades in length and the same in width. Surrounded by a wall, this abode of the sun is called Heliopolis; it is built of bronze and iron in alternating work. There are trees there which resemble the laurel and the olive; these produce frankincense and balsam, which ooze from there in drops.

    In hiis terminis colonia est solis, ad modum insule, in longitudine habens stadia ducenta et in latitudine totidem. Colonia ergo solis, muro cincta, Eliopolis nuncupatur, in structura erea ac ferrea opere alterato. Illic arbores sunt lauro et oliue consimiles, ex quibus thus et opobalsamum distillando nascuntur.

    We move from there to nearby Mount Adans, presumably on the Ethiopian island where the phoenix lives? The connection between the phoenix and (the real) Heliopolis may be ancient. Certainly, Bennu, ‘the shining one’, the Egyptian immortal bird was associated with that city and was presumably the prototype of the phoenix.

    In the neighbourhood of Heliopolis is Mount Adans, unscalable on account of its height. On it lives a bird with an eagle’s head and very large feathers like a hoopoe. Also found on this mountain is the phoenix, a bird with a wide fillet on its head and a crest with a rounded spread like that of a peacock’s tail. It is said that the sun takes delight in this bird: it lives for countless years, and sprang, so they say, from the Godhead alone (ex sola… diuinitate); and so, living on amomum and frankincense, it sits in a nest which is studded with pearls, large and small. It is reborn from the combustion of itself and its nest, and for this reason it is said to live for ever, in accordance with the lines of Ovid:

    One bird there is, which renews and regenerates itself:

    The Assyrians call it the phoenix. It lives, not on seeds or green food,

    But on drops of frankincense and the juice of amomum.

    Ad confinium Eliopolis mons est Adans, inascensibilis propter sui celsitudinem, in quo auis est caput habens aquile, pennas maximas similes luppe. In hoc quoque monte auis est fenix, amplam habens uittam in capite, cristam simile orbiculari caude pauonis. In hac aue delicie solis esse referuntur: innumeris uiuit annis, ex sola, ut tradunt, diuinitate processit, ideoque amomo thureque uiuens, nido insidet ex margaritis ac unionibus conserto. Ex se nidoque combusto renascitur, unde semper uiuere predicatur, secundum illud Ouidii: Una est, que reparat seseque reseminat, ales:/ Assirii fenica uocant; non fruge, nec herbis/Sed thuris lacrimis et succo uiuit amomi.

    In my ignorance I had to look up amomum. It is a kind of cardamom. Poor Phoenix.