Aug 20, 2022 I Bibhu Dev Misra

The Phoenix: Is it a Bird or a Sungrazing, Jupiter-Family Comet?

In 1973, archaeologists opened the tomb of Lady Dai, the wife of a Han dynasty aristocrat, who had died in 168 BCE. In the tomb, they found a collection of manuscripts written on silk – more than 2000 years old – now known as the Mawangdui Silk Texts, since the tomb was found at the Mawangdui burial site in the Hunan province of China. 

Among the treasure trove of manuscripts was a comet atlas, in which was recorded hundreds of comet sightings over the past few centuries, with two-dozen rendering of specific comet forms. One of them, in particular, stood out. It was a swastika-like comet called “Di Xing, the long-tailed pheasant bird”. This comet had the longest description in the atlas: “Appearing in spring means good harvest, in summer means drought, in autumn means flood, in winter means small battles.”[1]

The reason why this comet was termed a “long-tailed pheasant bird” is not hard to guess. The tails of the comet must have resembled the pheasant bird’s long, colourful tails. There is, in fact, a strong visual similarity between a bird and a two-tailed comet. The straight, bluish, ion tail of a comet looks like the tail feathers of a bird, while the curvy, yellowish, dust tail corresponds to the wings of a bird. A two-tailed comet streaming through the night sky can be easily imagined as a gigantic, luminous bird in flight

Figure 1: Comet Hale-Bopp, April 1997, shortly after passing perihelion. Source: Wikimedia Commons / E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria; CC BY-SA 3.0

Comets with multiple tails bear an even greater degree of resemblance to the many, colourful tails of the pheasant bird. For instance, the Great Comet of 1744 (also known as Comet de Chéseaux) was exceedingly bright and was visible to the naked eye for several months in 1744. It developed a spectacular “fan” of six tails after it moved away from perihelion (the closest point to the Sun). In early March 1744, the six tails extended well above the horizon while the comet's head remained invisible due to the morning twilight.[2] Observers in the Southern Hemisphere reported an incredible tail length of approximately 90° (spanning almost half the sky) on March 18.[3]

Figure 2: The Great Comet of 1744. From Amedee Guillemin’s The World of Comets (London, 1877). Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Figure 3: The Golden Pheasant. Source: Twitter

An important ecological function performed by migratory birds is the dispersal of seeds over long distances, which they carry in their plumage or digestive tract. Comets perform a similar function on a cosmic scale. Comets are believed to have seeded life on earth by bringing in water and complex organic molecules. Proponents of cometary panspermia, such as astrophysicists Sir Fred Hoyle and Chadra Wickramasinghe have proposed that comets seeded life on Earth by bringing in dormant bacteria and dessicated DNA and RNA molecules. Many carbonaceous chondrites – which are remnants of extinct comets - have been found to contain microbial fossils, in addition to various organic compounds of extraterrestrial origin.[4]

Moreover, numerous space-based experiments have shown that bacterial spores, seeds and lichens, can survive exposure to solar UV radiation and cosmic rays during interplanetary travel, if sheltered inside comets or rocks. For instance, the spores of Bacillus subtilis were mixed with soil and exposed to space in the BIOPAN facility of the ESA (European Space Agency), onboard the Russian Earth-orbiting FOTON satellite. The spores showed a survival rate of up to 100% after 2 weeks of exposure. The scientists in the study concluded that, 

“the data suggest that in a scenario of interplanetary transfer of life, small rock ejecta of a few cm in diameter could be sufficiently large to protect bacterial spores against the intense insolation.”[5]

It would not be amiss, therefore, to think of comets as cosmic birds involved in spreading the “seeds of life” across the universe.

It is well-known that many ancient cultures venerated a specific bird-deity as a symbol of immense strength, speed and prowess, which could block out the Sun with its wings, and release thunder and flashes of lightning to destroy its enemies. This bird was variously represented as an eagle, pheasant, peacock, heron etc., and was said to return periodically to the Earth. It is still used as the insignia of royalty and the armed forces in many countries around the world.

The most well-known of these bird-deities is probably the Phoenix, which the ancient Egyptians knew as the Benu Bird. When we study the descriptions of the Benu Bird or the Phoenix, and some of its related symbols in the Mediterranean world such as the Aquila or the Double-Headed Eagle, it becomes quite apparent that the Phoenix is not a terrestrial bird, but a giant comet that returns periodically to the Earth and causes major upheavals.

The Phoenix and the Benu Bird

When Herodotus had gone to Egypt he came across the legend of the Phoenix, which the Egyptians knew as the Benu Bird. The Benu Bird was regarded as a self-created (“He Who Came Into Being by Himself”) manifestation of the High God Atum, mediating between the divine mind and created things.[6] In the primordial times, the cry of the Benu bird broke the silence of the primeval night with the call of life and destiny, “which declared everything that is and not yet.”[7] In other words, it was the Benu Bird who set the act of creation in motion, determining everything that is to come.

Figure 4: The Benu Bird was depicted in Egyptian art as a grey heron wearing the Atef crown or a solar disk. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The Benu was a brilliant “bird of light”, for its name is related to the Egyptian verb wbn, meaning “to rise in brilliance” or “to shine”. The Shu texts talk of the “breath of life which emerged from the throat of the Benu Bird”[8], which implies the Phoenix brought life to the Earth. In a Coffin Text, the victorious soul says: “I come from the Isle of Fire, having filled my body with Hike, like “that bird” who [came and] filled the word with that which it had not known.”[9]

The renowned Egyptologist R.T.Rundle Clark had clarified that, as per Egyptian belief, the Isle of Fire is the “place of everlasting light beyond the limits of the world, where the gods were born or revived and whence they were sent into the world”; while Hike is the “vital essence” of life.

The Benu, quite obviously, was a celestial bird of light, who had brought life to the primordial Earth from a different place in the cosmos - a place of eternal life which the Egyptians called the Isle of Fire. This could refer to the Sun, for the Benu Bird was called the “son of Ra (Sun)”[10]. As per the Encyclopedia Britannica, “both Horapollo and Tacitus speak of the Phoenix as a symbol of the Sun.”[11]  There is a definite allusion to comets here, for comets come from outer space, swing around the Sun, and seed planetary systems such as ours with water and life.

The Egyptians represented the Benu Bird as a grey heron, wearing the Atef crown or a solar disk. When Herodotus (c.425 BCE) brought back the story of the Phoenix from Egypt to Greece, it had, by that time, transformed into an eagle with red and gold plumage. Herodotus wrote:

“There is another sacred bird called the Phoenix. I have never seen it myself except in pictures, for it is extremely rare, only appearing, according to the people of Heliopolis, once in five hundred years, when it is seen after the death of its parent. If the pictures are accurate its size and appearance are as follows: Its plumage is partly red and partly gold, while in shape and size it is very much like an eagle. They (the Heliopolitans) tell a story about this bird which I personally find incredible: the Phoenix is said to come from Arabia, carrying the parent bird encased in myrrh; it proceeds to the temple of the sun and there buries the body.”[12]  

The fact that the Phoenix returns periodically every 500 years, is a tantalizing clue to its true nature. The only way we can explain it logically is if the Phoenix is a long-period comet. These types of comets have orbital periods of more than 200 years, and typically come in from the spherical Oort cloud that surrounds the Solar System.

Pliny the Elder added more colour to Herodotus’s description of the Phoenix. In his Natural History, Pliny wrote that the Phoenix “has a brilliant golden plumage around the neck, while the rest of the body is of a purple colour; except the tail, which is azure (blue), with long feathers intermingled of a roseate hue.”[13] This conforms to the general appearance of comets, which have a yellowish dust tail, a blue ion tail, while some comets appear reddish due to the emission of sodium ions.

Harris Rackham observed that Pliny’s description of a Phoenix, “tallies fairly closely with the golden pheasant of the Far East,”[14]. Now, where else did we read about the golden pheasant? In the comet atlas of the Mawangdui Silk Texts in which a comet was described as a long-tailed pheasant bird. 

Claudian, while describing the Phoenix, wrote, “A mysterious fire flashes from its eye, and a flaming aureole enriches its head”[15]. What could be the flaming halo around the head of the Phoenix, if not the brilliant coma around the nucleus of a comet? The gas and dust spewed by a comet forms an enormous glowing atmosphere around the nucleus called the coma, which is larger than most planets. The solar wind blows the coma dust and gas into a pair of long, bright tails.

Figure 5: A depiction of a phoenix by Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Herodutus had mentioned an intriguing fact about the Phoenix which has not been properly understood or explored. He wrote that the Phoenix carries the body of its parent, encased in myrrh, to the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis and buries it there. There is a well-known story behind it, as Josepha Sherman explains: 

“When the solitary Phoenix felt itself near death, which occurred every 500 to 1000 years, it built a nest of aromatic wood, and set it on fire. The flames consumed the Phoenix and a new (or renewed) Phoenix sprang up from the pyre. The new Phoenix embalmed the ashes of the prior Phoenix in an egg of fragrant myrrh, and then flew to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun. There, it left the egg on the sun god’s altar.”[16]

None of this, quite obviously, makes any sense in the context of any terrestrial bird. But if we consider that, in this legend, Heliopolis, the “City of the Sun” - which was known as the “House of Ra” during the Old Kingdom - refers to the Sun itself, then the mystery begins to unravel. It means that, the Phoenix deposited the embalmed ashes of its parent on the solar surface, when it swerved round it during its perihelion passage. That would make the Phoenix a sungrazing comet!

Sungrazing comets are a special class of comets that come very close to the Sun (within 850,000 miles) at their nearest approach (perihelion), such that they undergo fragmentation and lose a part of their mass. Most sungrazing comets belong to the cometary group known as the Kreutz sungrazers, which are the fragments of the comet of 371 BCE, which fractured into several pieces on the 326 CE perihelion passage, and then further fractured into thousands of pieces on the 1106 CE perihelion. Other sungrazing cometary groups are the Meyer group, Kracht group and the Marsden group.

Thus, the Phoenix, appears to be a colourful, long-period, sungrazing comet, that suffers fragmentation during its perihelion passage around the Sun, with some of the largest fragments plunging onto the solar surface and getting buried there. This information was encoded in the form of a story in which the Phoenix deposited the ashes of its parent in Heliopolis. 

The ancient accounts, quite clearly, paint a vivid picture of this giant comet that governs the cycles of creation, and heralds a new age. As per Pliny the Elder, the senator Manilius had stated that the Phoenix appeared at the end of each Great Year [17], which is believed to extend for 10,800 years (as per Heraclitus) or 12,954 years (as per Cicero), and is equivalent to the Yuga Cycle of 12,000 years. Egyptologist R.T.Rundle Clark wrote, 

"As the herald of each new dispensation, it (Phoenix) becomes, optimistically, the harbinger of good tidings…We are told that ‘the watchers tremble’ with joy when they behold it (Phoenix) coming, with the assurance that creation is still active and the world is not yet to be reabsorbed into the Abyss.”[18]

The “watchers” are the semi-divine beings who keep a watch over humanity. The fact that even they erupt in joy at the sight of the Phoenix reveals the magnificence of this comet which returns at the end of a World Age or Yuga, and acts as a herald of a new era. Although the Phoenix brings great destruction and upheavals, it is ultimately a “harbinger of good tidings”, for it restores peace and health, joy and prosperity.

Herodotus may have carried the legend of the Phoenix to Greece, but the Greco-Romans had their own version of the Phoenix called Aetos Dios or Aquila. An exploration of this symbol provides more insights into the nature of this periodic comet.

Aetos Dios or Aquila: The Imperial Eagle

In Greece, the "Eagle of Zeus" - called Aetos Dios - carried the thunderbolts of Zeus for striking down his opponents. To the Romans, the Eagle of Zeus was known as Aquila (meaning “eagle” in Latin). The Aquila holding the lightning of Jupiter was the standard of the Roman legions, and a herald of victory. A legionary known as an aquilifer, the “eagle-bearer”, carried this standard. The Roman military went to great lengths to protect a standard, and in case it was lost during a battle they spared no effort to recover it. In addition to being an imperial symbol, the Aquila was also used as a funerary emblem – indicating the belief, perhaps, that the Aquila carried the souls of the deceased to heaven.

Figure 6: Ptolemaic silver coin with the Eagle of Zeus standing on a thunderbolt. Source: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
Figure 7: The Praetorians Relief depicting Roman soldiers along with a standard bearer, who holds an aquila standard, with the eagle grasping a thunderbolt in its talon. Marble relief, c.51-52 CE, Louvre. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Christophe Jacquand CC BY-SA 4.0

According to Aeschylus, when Zeus had threatened to strike the house of Amphion with lightning, he had declared that he would burn it up by means of eagles bearing fire.[19] This tells us that Zeus controlled a multitude of eagles that were capable of striking his opponents with thunderbolts. The true import of these symbolisms can be deciphered once we realize that the “eagles bearing fire” are actually comets, and the “thunderbolts” using which these eagles strike their enemies are the fiery projectiles released by an Earth-approaching comet. 

It is a known fact that the gravity of the planet Jupiter exerts a strong influence on the orbits of comets. Whenever a Kuiper belt or Oort cloud comet comes near Jupiter, it is either sent into a short-period orbit in the inner Solar System, or is ejected out of the Solar System. This is why the vast majority of short-period comets have their aphelion (farthest point from the Sun) near the orbit of Jupiter. Of the nearly 586 known short-period comets, 511 have their apehelion near Jupiter's orbit. These comets are collectively known as Jupiter-family comets.

This indicates that the “eagles bearing fire” that Zeus / Jupiter sent against his enemies, were nothing but Jupiter-family comets! It is quite astonishing to realize that the ancients were well-aware of the role played by the planet Jupiter in regulating the periodic appearance of comets – something that modern astronomers have found out only in the last few decades. The Eagle of Zeus or Aetos Dios, and by extension the Phoenix is, therefore, likely to be a Jupiter-family comet.

Figure 8: Jupiter-family comets have their apehelion near the orbit of Jupiter. Credit: Bibhu Dev Misra

There is need for a clarification here. I proposed earlier that the Phoenix is likely to be a long-period comet with an orbital period of more than 200 years, since Herodotus mentioned that it returns every 500 years. Now we find out that the Phoenix is also a Jupiter-family comet. But Jupiter-family comets are all short-period comets having orbital periods of less than 200 years. How do we reconcile these two contradictory observations? 

What probably happens is that, this giant comet, after being active for some time, enters into a dormant state over long periods of time, when it remains hidden from view. Thus, it appears as a long-period comet even though it is a short-period, Jupiter-family comet. It is known that many comets alternate between a dormant and an active state. For instance, the centaurs are a class of small bodies which revolve around the Sun in slightly elliptical orbits, between the outer planets. Many centaurs – such as Chiron and 29P - occasionally outburst and develop a comet-like coma, which is why they have been classified both as asteroids and comets. In other words, centaurs are comets which become dormant from time to time. 

The legend of the Phoenix dying, and a new Phoenix re-emerging from its ashes, was probably framed due to the propensity of the comet to alternate between a dormant and active state. When it became dormant, the old Phoenix was believed to die. When it suddenly switched into active mode, the new Phoenix was believed to rise from the ashes of its parent.

Another form, in which the Aetos Dios or Aquila had became popular in Europe during the Medieval age, is the “Double-headed Eagle”, which still appears on the flags and the coat of arms of many nations. 

The Double-Headed Eagle

The earliest instance of the double-headed eagle symbol dates to the Hittite period (c.1600 BCE – 1200 BCE), and was found carved on the Sphinx Gate at the Hittite settlement at Alaca Hoyuk in Turkey. After a gap of more than 2000 years, the double-headed eagle motif reappeared in Europe between the 10th -13th centuries CE, when it started being used by the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, Serbia and Russia.

Figure 9: A collage of some double-headed eagle symbols from different cultures. Credit: Bibhu Dev Misra

Some scholars believe that the Roman Aquila was modified into a double-headed eagle emblem, while others suspect that a lingering Hittite influence from Turkey may have played a part in the re-emergence of this symbol. 

In the 15th century it was adopted as the imperial symbol of the Byzantine Empire, after which its use became widespread, particularly on the coat of arms of many nations. In India, a double-headed eagle called Gandaberunda – having long tail feathers like that of a peacock - was used as the insignia of the Kingdom of Mysore in the 15th century CE. Like the single-headed eagle, the double-headed eagle was an imperial symbol that represented the divine authority of the king, insurmountable strength and martial prowess.

The question is, why was the imperial eagle symbol depicted with two heads? What gave rise to this symbol in the first place? Once again, the enigma can be resolved once we recognize that the bird-deity represents a specific comet.

Recent discoveries have revealed that many cometary nucleus are bi-lobed. In 2014, the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) found that the nucleus of Comet 67P has a bi-lobed structure i.e. it has two large lobes, connected by a narrow neck.[20] As per a press release by the ESA, Comet 67P has “a duck-like appearance”[21], since one of the lobes slightly was bigger than the other.

Figure 10: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko images by Rosetta’s camera on 3 August, 2014. Credit: ESA, Public Domain

In fact, of the seven comets astronomers have seen at high resolution till now, five are bi-lobed. It is more than likely, therefore, that the bird comet that was venerated by many ancient cultures has a bi-lobed nucleus i.e. its nucleus consists of two equally sized lobes joined by a narrow neck. This must be why, this bird-deity was also represented as a double-headed eagle. The ancients accounts seem to have preserved an incredibly detailed understanding of this comet's structure and behavior.

Conclusions

This review of the legends and characterestics of the Phoenix and the Benu Bird, as well as the related symbols in the Mediterranean region such as the Aetos Dios / Aquila and the Double-headed Eagle, indicates quite clearly that the Phoenix was not a terrestrial bird by any stretch of the imagination. Its description matches those of a periodic comet that returns to the Earth towards the end of a World Age, and acts as a herald of a new way of life.

Even though it causes great destruction, it was regarded as a symbol of “good tidings” for it restored health and prosperity. A great deal of specific information about this comet can be gleaned from the ancient legends and texts, once we become aware of its true nature:

  • It is an enormous, colourful, many-tailed comet that resembles the golden pheasant bird with its many colourful tails.
  • It periodically strikes the Earth with burning pieces of rocks, which the ancients called the “thunderbolts” of the gods.
  • The comet seeded the Earth with water and life - as posited by the “cometary panspermia” doctrine - and initiated the cycles of creation.
  • It is a sungrazing comet, that suffers fragmentation during its perihelion passage around the Sun, and some of the large fragments plunge onto the solar surface.
  • It is a Jupiter-family comet, with its apehelion near the orbit of Jupiter, since the comet was controlled by Zeus / Jupiter.
  • The comet peridically enters into a dormant state, and becomes active after a gap of 500 years (Herodotus) or at the end of a Great Year of approximately 12,900 years (Pliny).
  • The nucleus of the comet has a bi-lobed structure i.e. it has two large lobes connected by a narrow neck, which gives the appearance of a double-headed bird.

The cometary nature of the bird-deity is obvious from the descriptions in the ancient texts and legends. Indeed, nothing other than a comet would tally with these imageries! This just goes to show how relevant, scientific, data can be extracted from the ancient texts, once we view them in the proper perspective, instead of simply dismissing them as myths and fantasies – as so many mainstream historians and archaeologists are inclined to do. 

I had proposed in an earlier article that the Kali Yuga (Iron Age), which is the present age of discord and strife, greed and deceit, will end in 2025, followed by a long period of transition.[22] The end of the Kali Yuga not only signifies the end of a Yuga or a World Age, but the end of the entire descending Yuga Cycle of 12,000 years, which the Greeks called the Great Year. This means we getting close to the time when this comet will return, and we shall confront a reality that has long been forgotten and relegated to the realm of myths. It may not be very long before this brilliant bird of light illuminates the skies and emits its call of “life and destiny”, which heralds the dawn of a new era.

References


[1] Dayle L. Brown, Skylore from Planet Earth: Stories from Around the World, AuthorHouse, 30-Jan-2015.
[2] Kronk, G. W. Cometography: A Catalog of Comets, I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 410
[3] Kronk, G. W. Cometography: A Catalog of Comets, I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 411.
[4] Wickramasinghe, C. (2011). Bacterial morphologies supporting cometary panspermia: A reappraisal. International Journal of Astrobiology, 10(1), 25-30. doi:10.1017/S1473550410000157
[5] Horneck, G.; Rettberg, P.; Reitz, G.; Wehner, J.; Eschweiler, U.; Strauch, K.; et al. (2001). "Protection of bacterial spores in space, a contribution to the discussion on panspermia". Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere. 31 (6): 527–547. doi:10.1023/A:1012746130771. 
[6] R.T.Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (Thames and Hudson Ltd:London, 1959) 246
[7] Book of the Dead, Chapter 17, taken from R.T.Rundle Clark’s Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p 84.
[8] Shu Texts, taken from R.T.Rundle Clark’s Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p 246.
[9] Coffin Texts, I, 138/9 and 150, taken from R.T.Rundle Clark’s Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p 247
[10] Shu Texts, taken from R.T.Rundle Clark’s Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, p 246
[11] "Phoenix", The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature, Volume 18, 1885
[12] Herodotus, II, 73
[13] Pliny the Elder, Natural History X.2
[14] Rackham, H., ed. (1940), Pliny. Natural History, Volume III: Books 8-11, Loeb Classical Library 353, translated by Rackham, H., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 292–294.
[15] Claudian,"Phoenix", ll. 17–22
[16] Josepha Sherman, Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore (Routledge, 2015) 364.
[17] Pliny the Elder, Natural History X.2
[18] R.T.Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (Thames and Hudson Ltd:London, 1959) 246 - 247
[19] Niobe, quoted in Aristophanes, Birds, 1247-48
[20] Ana V. Aceves, "Comets Break Up and Make Up", Sky&Telescope June 13, 2016, https://skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-news/comets-break-up-and-make-up/
[21] "Rosetta arrives at comet destination", European Space Agency, 06/08/2014, https://www.esa.int/Science_Exploration/Space_Science/Rosetta/Rosetta_arrives_at_comet_destination
[22] Bibhu Dev Misra, “The end of the Kali Yuga in 2025: Unraveling the mysteries of the Yuga Cycle”, Ancient Inquiries, July 15, 2012 , https://www.bibhudevmisra.com/2012/07/end-of-kali-yuga-in-2025-unraveling.html

Bibhu Dev Misra

Bibhu Dev Misra is an independent researcher and writer on ancient civilizations and ancient mysteries. His passion is to explore the knowledge left behind by the ancients in the form of inscriptions, artifacts, monuments, symbols, glyphs, myths and legends. His articles have been published in different magazines and websites such as the New Dawn, Science to Sage, Nexus, Viewzone, Graham Hancock's website, Waking Times etc. and he has been featured on podcasts, interviews and online conferences organized by Earth Ancients, Portal to Ascension, OSOM, Watcher's Talk, Times FM and others. He is an engineer from IIT and a MBA from IIM, and has worked in the Information Technology industry for more than two decades. He can be reached at [email protected] and via his website Ancient Inquiries: www.bibhudevmisra.com

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