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The Legend and History of the Benu Bird and the Phoenix
The Benu Bird
The Benu Bird is linked to that of the phoenix. Both are birds of the sun, both are self created, rather than being born from other creatures, both undergo death and become symbols of regeneration. The Egyptian sunbird is identified with Re, the Sun God. The word Benu in Egyptian means both purple heron and palm tree. The Benu was identified with the Temple of the Sun God at Heliopolis, which was revered by the Egyptians as the sacred mound from whence the Sun god, in his aspect of the Benu Bird, arose cyclically to renew Egypt; another feature which was shared by both the phoenix and the Benu Bird.
The Benu Bird was also known to be a symbol of Osiris and is said to have sprung from the heart of Osiris as a living symbol of God, thus renewing itself. The Benu is thought to have originated in either Egypt or Arabia and by one account, spends most of its life in Phoenicia.
A festival to the Benu is noted on the 12th Day of Khoiak in the Season of Aket (the Inundation-considered by one reference to occur between August 29th and December 26th); it was the Day of Transformation of the Benu.
Often depicted as Phoenix, sharing traits
There are many descriptions of the Benu Bird ranging from various colours to types of birds. It has ranged from a heron (Book of the Dead, depicted with a long straight beak, and a two-feathered crest, the physical manifestation of both Ra and Osiris) to an eagle like bird, a yellow wagtail (Pyramid Texts, serving as a manifestation of Atum), and a golden hawk with a heron’s head. The colouring of its plumage is also varied. Usually part red and part gold it has also said to be royal purple with a golden head and neck or a plum coloured body with scarlet back and wings feathers, a golden head and a sweeping tail of rose and azure. It is described as a large bird. The size of the Benu is the only thing that seems consistent, but also ambiguous, as large can mean many sizes.
Myth or Reality?
The Myth of the Egyptian Benu Bird, which was usually depicted as a heron, could have come from a new species of heron found in recent excavations in Umm-an-Ner. When the bones were reconstructed, it was found to be a large heron, larger than any now living. It is speculated that the Egyptians may have seen this large bird only as an extremely rare visitor or from tales of it from travellers who had trading expeditions to the Arabian Seas. Another possibility is the Goliath Heron, now found, among other places, on the coast of the Red Sea, but which may have been more widespread in ancient times.
The Greek Legend
The Greeks knew the Egyptian Benu Bird as the Phoenix. A legendary bird without parents and offspring it nurtured itself on sunlight and sea spray. Brilliant in appearance, its feathers were gold, red and white; its eyes were green as the sea. A semi-immortal being, the Phoenix had a lifespan of 500 years and when about to die, it drew new life from the primal elements of fire and water and was born again. It would build its nest in the form of a funeral pyre and a single clap of its wings would ignite it. Then, when consumed by the flames, a young Phoenix would arise from its own ashes. The Greeks considered the appearance of the Phoenix as a herald of important events to come.
It is thought by many that the myths surrounding the Phoenix were a misunderstanding of the Egyptian myths if the Benu Bird. It is possible that the legend comes from what Herodotus wrote of the Benu Bird.
“I have not seen a phoenix myself, except in paintings, for it is very rare and visits the country (so at least they say in Heliopolis) only at intervals of 500 years, on the occasion of the death of the parent bird. To judge by the paintings, its plumage is partly golden, partly red, and in shape and size it is exactly like an eagle. There is a story about the phoenix: it brings its parent in a lump of myrrh all the way from Arabia and buries the body in the Temple of the Sun. To perform the feat, the bird first shapes some myrrh into a sort of egg as big as it finds, by testing, that it can carry; then it hollows the lump out, puts its father inside and smears more myrrh over the opening. The egg-shaped lump is then just the same weight as it was originally. Finally, it is carried by the bird to the Temple of the Sun in Egypt.”
In Pliny’s account, a small worm appeared from the body of the phoenix the metamorphosed into a bird, thus the phoenix was reborn.
The Egyptian Legend (The Creation Myth of Heliopolis)
One of the creation myths of Heliopolis tells of the Benu Bird. IT gives an account of the first dawn and a heron skimming over the waters of the Nun until it comes to rest on a rock. As it did so, it opened its beak and a cry echoed over the water of the Nun. The world was filled with ‘that which it had not known’; the cry of the Benu Bird ‘determined what is and is not to be’. Thus, the Benu Bird, as an aspect of Atum, brought life and light to the world.
The Benu Bird was said to have created itself from a fire which burned at the top of the sacred persea tree in Heliopolis and it rested on the Benben Stone, a pillar topped by a pyramid shaped stone (an obelisk), which became the most sacred fetish worshipped in the city. On the Metternich Stele, Isis says to her son, Horus: ‘Thou are the Great Benu who was born on the incense tree in the House of the Great Prince of Heliopolis”. The capstones of the pyramids and the pyramids themselves were thought to be a representation of the Benben Stone and the Kings buried beneath were under the direct protection of the Sun God.
The Benu’s cry had begun the cycle of time, which the Egyptians believed to be divinely appointed.The Temple of the Benu Bird at Heliopolis was primarily concerned with the regulation of the calendar and the Benu Bird itself became the deity concerned with the division of time.
The Bennu bird serves as the Egyptian correspondence to the phoenix, and is said to be the soul of the Sun-God Ra. Some of the titles of the Bennu bird were “He Who Came Into Being by Himself,” “Ascending One,” and “Lord of Jubilees.” While Bennu is the common name given to the bird in English, the original vowels of the name spelled as bnn by Egyptian scribes are uncertain, although it may have been pronounced something like banana.
The name is related to the verb wabana (spelled wbn in Egyptian texts becoming Coptic ouoein), meaning “to rise brilliantly,” or “to shine.” The Bennu bird was the mythological phoenix of Egypt. It was associated with the rising of the Nile, resurrection, and the sun. Because the Bennu represented creation and renewal, it was connected with the Egyptian calendar. Indeed, the Temple of the Bennu was well known for its time-keeping devices.
According to ancient Egyptian myth, the Bennu had created itself from a fire that was burned on a holy tree in one of the sacred precincts of the temple of Ra. Other versions say that the Bennu bird burst forth from the heart of Osiris. This would mean that Ra reincarnated himself through Osiris, creating a precedent for Pharaohs. The Bennu was supposed to have rested on a sacred pillar that was known as the benben-stone. The Egyptian priests showed this pillar to visitors, who considered it the most holy place on earth.
The Bennu was pictured as a grey, purple, blue, or white heron with a long beak and a two-feathered crest. Occasionally the Bennu was depicted as a yellow wagtail, or as an eagle with feathers of red and gold. In rare instances the Bennu was pictured as a man with the head of a heron, wearing a white or blue mummy dress under a transparent long coat. The Bennu was considered the “soul” of the god Atum, Ra, or Osiris.
Clark, Rosemary (2000) The Sacred Tradition in Ancient Egypt Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications
David, Rosalie (2002) Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt London: Penguin Books Ltd
Draco, Melusine (2001) The Egyptian Book of Days London: Ignotus Press
Faulkner, R.O. (2000) The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead London: British Museum Press [Revised Edition 1985, originally published 1972 by The Limited Editions Club, New York]
Quirke, Stephen (2001) The Cult of Ra: Sun Worship in Ancient Egypt London: Thames & Hudson Ltd
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