The Age of Fable eBook

Thomas Bulfinch
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 1,207 pages of information about The Age of Fable.
of the young bird as soon as fledged, and able to trust to his wings, is to perform the obsequies of his father.  But this duty is not undertaken rashly.  He collects a quantity of myrrh, and to try his strength makes frequent excursions with a load on his back.  When he has gained sufficient confidence in his own vigor, he takes up the body of his father and flies with it to the altar of the Sun, where he leaves it to be consumed in flames of fragrance.”  Other writers add a few particulars.  The myrrh is compacted in the form of an egg, in which the dead Phoenix is enclosed.  From the mouldering flesh of the dead bird a worm springs, and this worm, when grown large, is transformed into a bird.  Herodotus describes the bird, though he says, “I have not seen it myself, except in a picture.  Part of his plumage is gold-colored, and part crimson; and he is for the most part very much like an eagle in outline and bulk.”

The first writer who disclaimed a belief in the existence of the Phoenix was Sir Thomas Browne, in his “Vulgar Errors,” published in 1646.  He was replied to a few years later by Alexander Ross, who says, in answer to the objection of the Phoenix so seldom making his appearance, “His instinct teaches him to keep out of the way of the tyrant of the creation, man, for if he were to be got at, some wealthy glutton would surely devour him, though there were no more in the world.”

Dryden in one of his early poems has this allusion to the Phoenix: 

   “So when the new-born Phoenix first is seen,
    Her feathered subjects all adore their queen,
    And while she makes her progress through the East,
    From every grove her numerous train’s increased;
    Each poet of the air her glory sings,
    And round him the pleased audience clap their wings.”

Milton, in “Paradise Lost,” Book V., compares the angel Raphael descending to earth to a Phoenix: 

“...  Down thither, prone in flight He speeds, and through the vast ethereal sky Sails between worlds and worlds, with steady wing, Now on the polar winds, then with quick fan Winnows the buxom air; till within soar Of towering eagles, to all the fowls he seems A Phoenix, gazed by all; as that sole bird When, to enshrine his relics in the sun’s Bright temple, to Egyptian Thebes he flies.”


This animal was called the king of the serpents.  In confirmation of his royalty, he was said to be endowed with a crest, or comb upon the head, constituting a crown.  He was supposed to be produced from the egg of a cock hatched under toads or serpents.  There were several species of this animal.  One species burned up whatever they approached; a second were a kind of wandering Medusa’s heads, and their look caused an instant horror which was immediately followed by death.  In Shakspeare’s play of “Richard the Third,” Lady Anne, in answer to Richard’s compliment on her eyes, says, “Would they were basilisk’s, to strike thee dead!”

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The Age of Fable from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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