The Benu – An Egyptian Phoenix?
Another symbol of the sun and rebirth, the benu, or bennu, bird is the Egyptian version of the Phoenix. Not much is known about this symbol other than it was associated with the Gods Ra, Atum and Osiris – some of the more important male deities.
The benu is not the only significant avian symbol in ancient Egypt, and sometimes it gets confused with other birds such as the sacred ibis and the goose named The Great Honker. The ibis, particularly the African sacred ibis, is a symbol of the god Thoth. It has a white body with black head, legs and tail. It was worshiped and mummified due to its sacred status, and sometimes invoked for protection against winged serpents.
The Great Honker, sometimes called The Great Cackler, is the goose from a version of the creation myth. This primeval goose laid the cosmic egg, the source of all creation. In other versions, it’s the ibis that carries the egg.
The Benu Myths
Now that you know the difference between the benu, the ibis and the primeval goose, and can tell them apart, you can appreciate the different mythologies of each bird. In depictions, the benu resembles a heron, which could mean that the imaginary version was based on these birds.
It was sometimes shown with the white atef crown and two ostrich feathers on each side, just like Osiris wears. Other times, it was shown with the sun disk. And other times, it was shown with just its two long feathers sticking out of the back of its head.
In a version of the Heliopolitan creation myth, the benu flew over the Nun, the dark waters of chaos, before creation even began. As it perched and gave out a cry, this event triggered the beginning of time and creation.
As such, the benu was the sacred bird of Heliopolis, where it had a cult, and it was associated with the rising and setting sun. It was also the representation of the soul, or ba, of Ra. In the Late Period, its hieroglyph represented the god Ra’s name.
As the heron was seen standing on rocks in the middle of the Nile’s inundation, this may have been why the benu was associated with the primordial waters and the first mound, the benben.
And as a symbol of creation that came before creation, there is an element of being self generating, and so its association with the Ra and Atum as self-generating gods is natural.
And as a symbol of the sun that regenerated itself every morning, its association with rebirth and regeneration naturally associated it with the god Osiris. By Herodotus’s description, the benu lived for 500 years and then it would build a pyre where it would burn itself. Then, a new benu would rise from the ashes. That’s the story of the phoenix that we’re all familiar with, but it has no basis in Egyptian mythology however.
This link seems to be the only one relating the benu to the ancient Greek phoenix.
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