Phoenix and Peacocks

Phoenix and Peacocks

Phoenix and Peacocks 1315 1001 Brading Roman Villa

At present we are closed, but we hope to rise again like a phoenix. The image of the phoenix has inspired and sustained many over thousands of years and across various cultures from Ancient Egypt (the Benu bird associated with the sun god RA) to Imperial China; from Greece & Rome, to India and the Middle East and religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. In art, it is seen as a beautiful bird that self-immolates and is reborn: a symbol of resurrection and also closely associated with kingship. For example, they guard the Royal Barges in Thailand today.

Of relevance to the Romans, the phoenix was well-known from Herodotus (and later sources, including Tacitus):

“the bird comes but seldom into Egypt, once in five hundred years, as the people of Heliopolis say. … his plumage is partly golden but mostly red. He is most like an eagle in shape and bigness … from Arabia bringing his father to the Sun’s temple enclosed in myrrh, and there buries him… the phoenix, after enclosing him, carries him to the temple of the Sun in Egypt.”

In many of these cultures, the peacock is seen as an earthly manifestation of the phoenix. The peacock’s bright tail with the eyes were seen as the eyes of the son of the sun god RA, Horus. As will be discussed in another blog and my future talk at the villa, Horus is also the son of the resurrected Osiris, and the living pharaoh is the son of RA, the Horus-King, and in death assimilates with Osiris, himself assimilated with RA.

The polymath Emperor, Hadrian, was well-versed in the significance of the phoenix and the related use of the peacock as symbols of rebirth, resurrection and eternity, as his coinage attests to commemorate the divinisation of his adoptive father, Trajan. He was a student of religion and culture; he was a Pharaoh as well as Emperor.  He was familiar with the importance of the Benu bird and RA and also Osiris. He tapped into these with regards to the deification of his favourite, Antinous, who when drowned in the Nile assimilated into and joined with Osiris as Osir-Antinous and he as the Horus king passing eternity united as Osiris-RA with Osir-Antinous. His drawing on Egyptian religion and its syncretism with Graeco-Roman religion seems part of an overall plan for common inter-cultural experience across the whole empire and expressed through royal regeneration.

For his tomb in Rome, known today as the Castel Sant’Angelo, there were many particularly fine bronze peacocks to mark the Emperor’s birth-death-rebirth. Two examples survive to this day in the Vatican Museums in the Braccio Nuovo. There are copies flanking the 4m high ‘pignone’, pine cone, of the Fontana della Pigna. The pine cone was one of the sacred symbols of the god Dionysus (Bacchus), another god of resurrection. More anon and we are looking forward to reopening – and rising like the phoenix.

Thanks to Stewart White for writing this weeks blog.