Monster of the Week: Phoenix

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So the phoenix isn’t really a monster, sure. Hey, these don’t all have to be creepy.

It’s been an unseasonably warm December around here, so I’m going to put off my wintery posts a little bit and bask in the warmth of everybody’s favorite firebird: the phoenix.

I mean, you know what a phoenix is, right? They’re up there with dragons and unicorns on the “Most Recognizable Mythical Creatures” list. They’re in Harry Potter. And their undying heat makes them a pretty accurate namesake for the city in Arizona—the one that we’re all about to be really jealous of for a few months and then really glad we’re not there.

(Unless you are. Sorry, Arizona readers. But mostly, fuck you and your balmy winters.)

The phoenix’s most memorable trait is also its most enviable, though: they’re immortal.

Well, basically. Maybe they have a little down time between life cycles, depending on your mythology, but still. I wouldn’t say no to that deal.

So how does that work? Traditionally, a phoenix’s life ends in one last burst of flame and it rises again from the ashes, good as new.

Maybe if Harry had read his schoolbooks this wouldn't have been such an awkward surprise.
Maybe if Harry had read his schoolbooks this wouldn’t have been such an awkward surprise.

It’s a well-known kind of magic—and one that’s rife with allegorical significance. You don’t need to be a fantasy fan to have met a phoenix. Even very literal (or literary) fiction often uses the phoenix as a metaphor when the protagonist jumps up from some kind of setback.

That’s a pretty universal story, so it’s not surprising that the phoenix myth struck a chord with cultures all over the world. With its cyclical rebirths and fiery plumage, it’s also strongly linked to the sun. That gives it a lot of staying power. Everyone worships the sun. Hell, I worship the sun. We’d all be stone cold dead without it, sooooo… thanks, sun.

And I guess there is that whole immortality thing. I guess that’s a pretty universal desire.

Okay, okay, fine. Maybe not everyone wants to live forever—there is the common well wouldn’t you just be sad if your loved ones kept dropping like flies thing—but who wants to deal in absolutes, anyway? Vodka companies, that’s who. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a vodka company. If you are, then, uh, hey, shoot me an email? Let’s talk sponsorship!

I got a little sidetracked there.

My point is that most everyone has flirted with the desire for immortality. Even if not forever, even if not for themselves, most people have at least asked that question. It’s why there are so many legends about immortal gods and fountains of youth and whatnot.

So, in a way, the phoenix is just the lighter side of a dark coin. The flipside is, of course, death. Maybe some people find comfort in religion or elsewhere, but there’s little more universally human than the fear of death. What’s more appealing than a myth that offers escape from that inevitable end?

But for the phoenix, like the sun, there’s more than just pure immortality. It’s a cycle. Even the phoenix can’t escape death. The sun must set. It may come back tomorrow, but we will not.

That is hella depressing, yes.

It’s also natural. It’s why life and death are two sides of the same coin—why these myths have such strong emotional currency. The fantastic entertains and fills us with wonder, yes, but beneath that is a quiet undertone of something very real.

This is what makes speculative fiction powerful. It helps us understand the most frightening and complex truths in the world, then gives us the escape that only magic—or fiction—can. It shows us the merciless, cleansing fire and the barren ashes—and then the light, if only a tiny spark, reminds us to come back from that. While we still can.

And now it is time for this blog post to come to an end. Like the phoenix, this blog will rise anew next Wednesday! Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for your electronics, soooooo I really hope your computer doesn’t combust.

Prompt: If the phoenix is the light side of the life-or-death coin, maybe the raven or some other carrion bird is the dark side. Think of your favorite monster or magical creature and make up a being that is its polar opposite. Then tell me about it in the comments!

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