Exquisite vintage chromolithograph depicting three different bird of paradise species - greater, six-wired, and little king (public domain)
In the Garden of Paradise, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, bloomed a rose bush. Here, in the first rose, a bird was born: his flight was like the flashing of light, his plumage was beauteous, and his song ravishing.
But when Eve plucked the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, when she and Adam were driven from Paradise, there fell from the flaming sword of the cherub a spark into the nest of the bird, which blazed up forthwith. The bird perished in the flames; but from the red egg in the nest there fluttered aloft a new one - the one solitary Phoenix bird. The fable tells us that he dwells in Arabia, and that every hundred years he burns himself to death in his nest; but each time a new Phoenix, the only one in the world, rises up from the red egg.
The bird flutters round us, swift as light, beauteous in colour, charming in song. When a mother sits by her infant’s cradle, he stands on the pillow, and, with his wings, forms a glory around the infant’s head. He flies through the chamber of content, and brings sunshine into it, and the violets on the humble table smell doubly sweet.
But the Phoenix is not the bird of Arabia alone. He wings his way in the glimmer of the Northern Lights over the plains of Lapland, and hops among the yellow flowers in the short Greenland summer. Beneath the copper mountains of Fahlun and England’s coal mines, he flies, in the shape of a dusty moth, over the hymn-book that rests on the knees of the pious miner. On a lotus leaf he floats down the sacred waters of the Ganges, and the eye of the Hindoo maid gleams bright when she beholds him.
The Phoenix bird, dost thou not know him? The Bird of Paradise, the holy swan of song! On the car of Thespis he sat in the guise of a chattering raven, and flapped his black wings, smeared with the lees of wine; over the sounding harp of Iceland swept the swan’s red beak; on Shakespeare’s shoulder he sat in the guise of Odin’s raven, and whispered in the poet’s ear "Immortality!" and at the minstrels’ feast he fluttered through the halls of the Wartburg.
The Phoenix bird, dost thou not know him? He sang to thee the Marseillaise, and thou kissedst the pen that fell from his wing; he came in the radiance of Paradise, and perchance thou didst turn away from him towards the sparrow who sat with tinsel on his wings.
The Bird of Paradise – renewed each century - born in flame, ending in flame! Thy picture, in a golden frame, hangs in the halls of the rich, but thou thyself often fliest around, lonely and disregarded, a myth - "The Phoenix of Arabia."
In Paradise, when thou wert born in the first rose, beneath the Tree of Knowledge, thou receivedst a kiss, and thy right name was given thee – thy name, Poetry.
Hans Christian Andersen – ‘The Phoenix Bird’, in Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales
Native to New Guinea, its outlying islands, and (in the case of four species known as riflebirds) the north-eastern perimeter of Australia, the dazzling, flamboyantly plumed birds of paradise first became known to a greater portion of the world during the 16th Century, when skins of these exquisite species were brought to Europe by one of Ferdinand Magellan’s vessels. That, at least, is the official history of these birds.
Less well-publicised, however, is fascinating evidence which strongly implies that the birds of paradise were known beyond Australasia many centuries before this, and also that they may well hold the key to the identity of a spectacular, much-celebrated bird of ancient mythology.
The Egyptian phoenix must surely be the most famous of all fabulous birds. According to its legend’s most familiar version, every 500 years (or every century in certain other versions) it would construct its nest from twigs, cinnamon, myrrh, and perfumed herbs; then, as the heat from the intense Eastern sun ignited its nest, transforming it into a blazing pyre of conflagration, the phoenix would raise its outstretched wings and dance, before perishing utterly amidst the flames, which would flicker and burn as the years passed by until only ash remained. From this spent mass of cinders, a new phoenix would rise, reborn and whole, and wrap the remains of its nest in myrrh enclosed within aromatic leaves; it would then fashion this into an egg, and fly triumphantly to the temple of the Sun King at Heliopolis, Egypt, to place its egg on the temple’s altar, before departing to construct a new nest and begin the cycle of self-immolation and resurrection all over again.
Traditional concept of the phoenix and its burning nest, dramatically depicted here in an early engraving (public domain)
Most of this has traditionally been dismissed as imaginative fiction. Admittedly, scholars have attempted to identify the phoenix with various known species, ranging from the peacock, flamingo, and golden pheasant Chrysolophus pictus to (with somewhat less conviction) certain exotic parrots and other brightly plumaged cage-birds imported from the tropics, but none of these identifications is very satisfactory. Alternatively, certain species of perching bird, particularly some crows, seemingly experience a pleasurable sensation from fanning their wings over burning straw or twigs; sightings of this could have contributed to the phoenix legend - discussed by Dr Maurice Burton in Phoenix Reborn (1959).
As documented by Texas University researcher Thomas Harrison (Isis, 1960), there had even been suggestions by some of the early naturalists and poets that the phoenix could have been based upon a bird of paradise, but as the phoenix legend considerably precedes these birds’ ‘official’, 16th-Century debut in the West, this possibility received short shrift - until 1957. But before we investigate this further, we should recall how the birds of paradise themselves first came to Western attention.
It was September 1522 when the survivors of the once-mighty expeditionary fleet of renowned Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan returned home to Europe, arriving in Seville, Spain, and bringing with them all manner of exotic treasures and relics from far-flung corners of the globe. Among these was a series of truly exceptional bird skins, which had been purchased from natives of New Guinea and various of its outlying islands. Their most immediately-striking features were their extravagantly flamboyant feathers - spectacular flourishes of gauzy, rainbow-hued plumes that billowed like dazzling fountains from beneath their wings and tail.
Bestiary compiler Conrad Gesner's famous woodcut of an ostensibly footless bird of paradise from his Historia Animalium (1551-1558) (public domain)
When examined more closely, however, these resplendent specimens revealed an even more remarkable characteristic - they were wholly devoid of flesh, blood, and bones. Their heads came complete with eyes and a beak, and their bodies had wings, but otherwise it seemed that these extraordinary birds were composed entirely of feathers - they did not even possess any feet! Yet there were no recognisable signs that the skins had been in any way tampered with, so the possibility of a hoax was discounted.
The belief in fabulous sylph-like creatures such as these recurs in mythology throughout the world, but never before had science obtained any hard evidence in support of their reality. Needless to say, therefore, zoologists were totally bemused, but at the same time thoroughly captivated, by these astonishing specimens, and concluded from their near-weightless, fleshless, and footless forms that they undoubtedly lived an exclusively aerial existence - spending their entire lives, from birth to death, drifting ethereally through the heavens, and presumably sustained solely upon an ambrosial diet of nectar and dew imbibed in flight.
To quote one zoologist of that time, they were nothing less than "...higher beings, free from the necessity of all other creatures to touch the ground". Not surprisingly, as birds that seemed to have originated from Paradise itself, their species ultimately became known as the bird of paradise, and also as the manucodiata ('birds of God'), the latter name preserved today by several bird of paradise species that are referred to zoologically as manucodes.
Early engraving of a manucodiata (public domain)
Subsequent expeditions to New Guinea brought back more skins, again purchased directly from native tribes, and it soon became obvious that these exquisite creatures comprised many different species, delineated from one another by their distinct but all equally splendid plumages. No living specimens, however, were captured, and it was not until the 19th Century that Western scientists penetrated the dark New Guinea jungles to spy these gorgeous birds for themselves – one such encounter calling forth a paean of praise and wonder from the pen of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who wrote in his diary:
The feelings of a naturalist who at last sees with his own eyes a creature of such extraordinary beauty and rarity so long sought after, would require a touch of the poet to reach full expression. I found myself on a remote island, far from the routes of the merchant fleets, I wandered through luxuriant tropical forests...And here, in this world, I gazed upon the bird of paradise, the quintessence of beauty. I thought of the long vanished ages during which generation after generation of this creature...lived and died - in dark, gloomy forests, where no intelligent eye beheld their loveliness. And I wondered at this lavish squandering of beauty.
Only then did scientists finally expose these extraordinary birds’ long-hidden secret. The skins that had been arriving back in Europe were incomplete ones - the New Guinea natives had developed to a fine art the immensely skilled process of skin preparation whereby the flesh, blood, bones, and feet of these birds were removed without leaving behind any readily-noticeable signs of their former presence. In short, the birds of paradise were not ethereal, everlastingly-airborne beings at all.
19th-Century bird painter John Gould's superb illustration of a male and female greater bird of paradise Paradisaea apoda – 'apoda' translating as 'footless', derived from the earlier mistaken belief that this and related species did indeed lack feet (public domain)
In fact, as ornithologists swiftly discovered when at last able to examine complete specimens, they were nothing more than gaudy relatives of the sombrely-garbed rooks and ravens. Happily, however, their wonderful feathers were genuine (although in most cases it was only males that sported such sumptuous plumage), therefore offering at least a measure of consolation and compensation to scientists and poets alike for the otherwise traumatic transformation of the miraculous manucodiata into first-cousins (albeit very beautiful ones) of the crow family!
Upon the arrival of the first bird of paradise skins in Europe, their unparalleled beauty attracted equally unparalleled attention, not only from the scientific world, however, but also from the fashion industry, whose wealthier patrons yearned to be as glamorously decorated in these extravagantly beautiful plumes as the birds of paradise themselves. During the 19th Century, when Wallace and others finally spied living specimens in their native homelands, this insatiable demand set in motion a traffic in bird of paradise skins on so great a scale that it soon became evident to all that, if this trade continued for much longer, many species would become extinct within a very short space of time.
Accordingly, many countries banned all import of these skins, and in the 1920s New Guinea banned their export, thereby freeing the most famous and magnificent members of its avifauna from any further massacres in the name of fashion, and enabling their much-depleted numbers to recover. Nevertheless, a certain degree of skin trade still occurred within New Guinea, and in 1957 a team of Australian scientists set out to discover the extent of this traffic - never dreaming that one of the outcomes of their investigations would be the disclosure of a hitherto unknown facet of the Egyptian phoenix myth.
Phoenix with wings outstretched amidst its fiery nest, illustration from Kinderbuch by Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806 (public domain)
According to a detailed account in Purnell’s Encyclopedia of Animal Life (1968-70, edited by British zoologists Dr Maurice Burton and Robert Burton), the scientists learned to their astonishment that the New Guinea native tribes had been killing the birds of paradise to obtain their skins for trade with visiting Western seafarers long before the 16th Century. In fact, this had been taking place as far back as 1000 BC, when bird of paradise skins were transported thousands of miles westwards to Phoenicia - birthplace of the phoenix legend. But that was not all.
To preserve the skins’ delicate plumes during their long sea journey from New Guinea to Phoenicia, the tribesmen had presented them to the sailors carefully wrapped in a covering of myrrh skilfully fashioned into an egg-shaped capsule, in turn enclosed within a parcel of burnt banana leaves. If we equate the banana leaves of reality with the aromatic leaves of legend, the result is an extraordinarily close correspondence with the famous myth of the phoenix.
All that is missing is the blazing fire encompassing the bird on all sides - but this is the easiest aspect of all to explain via the bird of paradise hypothesis. One of the most magnificent and also one of the most abundant species (even during the height of the fashion trade, and even though it was especially sought-after due to its sumptuous plumes) is Paradisaea raggiana, Count Raggi’s bird of paradise.
John Gould's gorgeous painting of a male Count Raggi's bird of paradise Paradisaea raggiana exhibiting its spectacular fiery plumage (public domain)
A crow-sized species, the male is a truly resplendent sight during the breeding season, set apart by the breathtaking brilliance of the scarlet plumes that surge from each side of its breast, cascading all around like a blazing eruption of scorching flames. During the male’s pre-mating display, moreover, it expands and elevates these huge sprays of plumes, and vibrates its body, so that the resulting effect is uncannily like that of a bird dancing in the midst of a coruscating inferno of flame!
Considering that the abundance, the gorgeous appearance, and the notable popularity among plume-hunters of Count Raggi’s bird of paradise would ensure that it was well-represented in all series of skins sold by the natives to the Phoenicians, and that the natives undoubtedly regaled them with vivid descriptions of its striking courtship display, need we really look any further for the origin of the Egyptian phoenix, and its dramatic dance of death in the fiery heart of its blazing nest?
Additionally, in his book Fabulous Beasts (1951) Peter Lum stated that the Roman emperor Heliogabalus (reigned 218-222 AD) is said to have dined upon a bird of paradise. Also, as V. Kiparsky noted in an Arsbok-Societas Scientiarum Fennica paper from 1961, basing his ideas upon accounts in ancient Russian literature tantalizingly comparable to bird of paradise descriptions (most notably the famous Russian firebird or zhar ptitsa), a trade in their plumes may have been taking place at a very early date in eastern Europe.
Stealing a plume from the Russian firebird (public domain)
Finally: Well worth pointing out here is that trade in bird of paradise plumes was also taking place at an early age between New Guinea and China – as long ago as China's Bronze Age (3100-300 BC), in fact, according to a fascinating section in Civilisation Recast: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives by Stephan Feuchtwang and Michael Rowlands, in which they state:
…tropical forest products and most importantly birds of paradise feathers were being sought by the Bronze Age 'civilisations' of the China Sea.
(Incidentally, China does of course have its very own phoenix, the feng-huang, but this avian entity seemingly has a totally separate folkloric origin from Egypt's version, being widely believed to have been inspired by various species of Asian pheasant and peafowl.) Moreover, I recently learned from Australian Facebook friend Yarree Denamundinna that some bird of paradise plumes had allegedly been discovered inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. I asked Yarree if he could supply me with any published sources confirming this fascinating claim, and if he can do so I shall publish details here.
A pair of blue birds of paradise Paradisornis rudolphi (my favourite species), painted by okapi-discoverer Sir Harry Johnston (aka Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston), from Marvels of the Universe, Vol I (public domain)
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and adapted from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.