Identified as a heron with its long straight back and head adorned at the back with two erect feathers, the Bennu was later named Phoenix by the Greeks. The Bennu lived on the ben-ben stone or obelisk within the sanctuary of Heliopolis and was worshipped alongside Ra and Osiris. Bennu was also considered a manifestation of Osiris, said to spring from his heart as a living symbol of the god. The Bennu symbolizes rebirth as it rises from the ashes, just as the new sun rises from the old.
Every 500 years, the Bennu flew to the Sun Temple in Heliopolis where the priests were waiting to assist it. The bird then built a large funeral pyre of spices, climbed on top, and allowed the sun's rays to consume it. From the ashes, a worm was born which grew into an adult Bennu by the end of the day.
Greek mythology places the phoenix in Arabia, where it lives close to a cool well. Every morning at dawn it bathes in the water and sings a beautiful song. So beautiful is the song that the sun god would stop his chariot to listen.
There only exists one phoenix at a time. When the phoenix feel sits death approaching (every 500 or 1461 years) it builds a nest, sets it on fire, and is consumed by the flames. A new phoenix springs forth from the pyre. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh and flies with it to the City of the Sun. There the egg is deposited on the altar of the Sun god.
In Jewish legend, the phoenix's name is Milcham. According to tradition, after Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she became jealous of the immortality and purity of the other creatures in the garden. Eventually, she persuaded all the animals except the phoenix to share in her fallen state by eating from the forbidden tree.
God rewarded the phoenix by setting him up in a walled city where he could live in great peace for 1000 years. At the end of every 1000-year period, the bird is consumed by fire and reborn from an egg found in its ashes.
One variation of this Jewish legend states that at the end of each 1000-year period, the phoenix's body becomes small and featherless like a baby's and then he grows up all over again. In any case, the Angel of Death may never touch him.
Ovid tells the story of the Phoenix as follows:
"Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself. The Assyrians call it the Phoenix. It does not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odoriferous gums. When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm tree. In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these 'materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes out its last breath amidst odours.
From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long a life as its predecessor. When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent's sepulchre), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun."
In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is represented by the Feng-huang, a bird symbolizing the union of yin and yang. It is made of all the most desirable parts of earth's creatures: the snake's neck, the crane's forehead, the dragon's stripes, the fish's tail, the tortoise's shell, the swallow's throat, and the fowl's bill.
It carries in its bill either two scrolls or a square box that contains sacred books. According to tradition, the phoenix's song includes all the five notes of the traditional musical scale; its feathers include the five fundamental colors and its body is a composite of the six celestial bodies: the head symbolizes the sky; the eyes, the sun; back, the moon; the wings, the wind; feet, the earth; and the tail, the planets.
The phoenix appears only in peaceful and prosperous times, and hides itself when there is trouble. It is sometimes pictured with a fiery ball representing its association with the sun. It is the emperor of birds and is called the "scarlet bird."
The Feng-huang lives in the Kingdom of the Wise, which is somewhat to the east of China. It drinks the purest water and eats bamboo. Whenever it sings, all the roosters in the world join in its five-noted melody. Its marrow is considered heavenly food.
The legendary phoenix was a symbol of high virtue and grace to the Chinese. This bird is the Chinese emperor's protector. The male Feng-huang symbolizes happiness and the female Feng-huang represents the empress. A pair of Feng-huangs symbolizes marital bliss. At conception, this remarkable bird delivers the soul of the infant to its mother's womb.
In the legends of native North Americans, the thunderbird is a powerful spirit in the form of a bird.
Lightning flashes from its beak, and the beating of its wings is creates the thunder. It is often portrayed with an extra head on its abdomen. Lesser bird spirits, frequently in the form of eagles or falcons, often accompanies the majestic thunderbird.
The thunderbird petroglyph symbol has been found across Canada and the United States. Evidence of similar figures has been found throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.