Heaven Sent

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

A Bird From Another World

Divine birds appear in legends of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. These creatures come from a sacred realm and rarely visit the earth. When they do, they may offer a sign that a new era has begun or a wise leader has taken the throne. Often linked with fire and the Sun, these immortal birds bring a message of peace, renewal, and good fortune.

Western phoenix illustration from Lykosthenes, rare book collection, c. 1557
American Museum of Natural History Library


There was once a girl named Saijosen who made the most beautiful embroidery in Japan. She stitched pictures of men, gods, and animals so artfully, it was as if living creatures were trapped in the silk. One day as she sat working, an elderly man appeared beside her. "Stitch two phoenixes here," he said, pointing to a space on her embroidery. Saijosen was surprised at this request, but she did as she was told. Her visitor watched as she worked the whole day. No sooner were the birds complete than their wings trembled and they rose from the cloth. The old man climbed on the back of one phoenix and motioned Saijosen to do the same. Then the two soared away to the land of the immortals, never to be seen again.

--adapted from a Japanese folktale

King of the Birds

In Asia, the magical phoenix is said to reign over all of the birds. Living only on spring water and bamboo seeds, this gentle ruler harms nothing--not even a blade of grass. In Chinese tradition, the phoenix appears only at times of peace, or to announce the birth of a virtuous emperor. Tales of birds much like the Asian phoenix are told in many regions of the world. These legends have sometimes changed as cultures have come together through travel, trade, and war, expanding and enriching each other.

Born Again

When the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 464-425 BC) visited Egypt, he learned of the sacred benu bird of Egyptian myth. He called it the phoenix, and wrote that it came to the Egyptian Temple of the Sun once every 500 years. Later writers told a more complex story: Every five centuries, the phoenix burned in a fire lit by the Sun and then rose to begin life again. Inspired by this tale, many poets and artists have adopted the phoenix as a symbol of renewal and rebirth.

Regal Beauty

In Asia, the phoenix is the symbol of an empress. At a traditional Chinese wedding, a bride may wear a robe scattered with phoenix designs and a crown like a phoenix crest--ceremonial dress that makes her "empress for a day."

What's in a Name?

Europeans once thought the Chinese mythical bird fenghuang was a close cousin of the legendary phoenix of the West. As it turns out, the two birds have separate mythic origins, though they continue to share the same English name.

At a Glance: Asian Phoenix

The Asian phoenix is a symbol of the Chinese empress, the Sun, and the south. Its body expresses five Chinese virtues:

  • head: goodness
  • wings: duty
  • back: proper behavior
  • breast: kindness
  • stomach: reliability
  • body is two meters (six feet) tall
  • tail is two meters (six feet) long


In ancient Egypt, a mythic bird called the benu was linked with creation, renewal, and the rising and setting sun. The benu wears the crown of a god on this scarab, an Egyptian charm used to protect the living and the dead.

Embroidered Silk

In Chinese tradition, the phoenix is the divine ruler of birds and a symbol of feminine grace. Richly embroidered panels were often saved after a garment became worn and reused again and again.

Roof Charm

Rows of ceramic mythic beasts guard the roof tiles of many palaces and temples in China. In a typical roof decoration of the imperial court, they are led by a divine figure riding a phoenix.

Japanese Sword Hilts
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Sword Guards

According to Asian legend, when a phoenix flies from heaven to earth, it likes to perch on a branch of a paulownia, or princess tree. Both the bird and the tree have been used as emblems of the Japanese empire. Here a golden phoenix hovers above paulownia blossoms on a Japanese sword guard, a decorative art form inspired by Samurai armor.


In ancient Persian stories, a magical bird called the simurgh offers wisdom and kindness to people. Early pictures show the simurgh as a griffinlike beast with the wings of an eagle, tail of a peacock, head of a dog and claws of a lion. But after Persia fell to the Mongols, this legendary bird began to look like the Chinese phoenix.