The phoenix (fenix)

The bird who builds, burns, and is reborn

This text is made up of selected excerpts from the Old English poem The Phoenix.* You can access the full Old English text here.The Phoenix is an Old English reworking of the fourth-century Latin Carmen de Ave Phoenice (Song Concerning the Bird Phoenix) that has been attributed to Lactantius. The Old English poem is found in the tenth-century Exeter Book.

Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.

When the grey-feathered one, haswigfeðragrey-feathered one, becomes sad, gomolaged, old in years, the best of birds aflyhðflies away from the grene eorðangreen earth, the land in bloom, seeking out the vast rice middangeardesrealm of middle-earth, his dwelling and home, where no men live.

FuglasBirds throng around the noble one. Each wants to be the great prince’s þegnthane and þeowservant until they, in the greatest of multitudes, journey to Syrwara londSyria. There the pure one quickly gets away and lives in the shade of a wudubearwetree-grove, a weste stowedeserted place, concealed and hidden from many men.

Bestiary of Ann Walsh. England, 15th century. Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, fol. 37v. []

There he inhabits and guards a high beamtree in the wood, secure upon its roots under heofunhrofeheaven's roof. People call that tree FenixPhoenix on account of the bird’s name.

When the windwind rests and the weather is fair, when the clear, holy gem of heaven shines and the wolcenclouds are dispersed, when the waters’ torrent stille stondaðstands still and every storm under the sky is quieted, when the warm sun, wedercondelweather's candle, dazzles from the south, giving light to men, then the bird begins to prepare and build his nest in the branches.


From feor ond neahfar and near he collects and gathers the sweetest, most pleasant wyrtaplants. He himself carries that bright treasure back to the treowtree. There in the high tree in the wasteland the wilda fugelwild bird builds his house, lovely and pleasant. He makes himself at home in the tree’s upper chamber.

In the leafsceadeleafy shade he surrounds his feathered body on all sides with sacred stencumsmells and the noblest bledumflowers of the earth. He sits, ready for a journey.

The phoenix on its funeral pyre, which was lit by the rays of the sun above. Ashmole Bestiary. England (Peterborough?), early 13th century. Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1511, fol. 68r. []

In summertime the sun, the swegles gimsky's gem, is at its hatosthottest. The herbs grow warm and a smell–sweet fragrances–waft from that willselegood hall. Then in the heat, in the fire’s embrace, the bird byrneðburns with his nestnest.

A flame is kindled. Fire covers the hushouse of the sorrowful** one. Fierce, hastening, fealoyellow flame consumes and burns the phoenix, who is old from fyrngearumyears gone by.

Then the finest of nests, the brave warrior’s hofhouse, is clæneclean destroyed by the blaze. The corpse, a banfæt gebrocenbroken bone-vessel, cools. The burning subsides.

Bestiary. Northern France, 13th century. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, fol. 23v. []

Something rather like an apple can be found in the pyre’s ascanashes. From it grows a wyrmworm, wonderfully fægerfair, as if hatching from an egg, scirshining out of the shell.

He grows in the shade. At first he resembles an earneseagle's young, a lovely fugeltimberfledgling. Happily, he grows still more so that he has the shape of a full-grown eagle. Then he is adorned with bright-blooming feþrumfeathers, just like he was in the beginning. His flesh is all made new.

A phoenix gathers aromatic branches for its funeral pyre, then burns itself up. Bestiary. England (Durham?), c. 1200-1210. British Library, Royal MS. 12 C. xix, fol. 49v. []

Once the feather-proud bird has aweaxengrown amongst the plants, his life is renewed. He is geongyoung and graceful. From the greotedust, what remains of the fire, he lifts up his leoþucræftiglithe, limb-crafty body that was destroyed by flame. Carefully gathering the ruined bone after the blaze, he brings back together the pyre’s remnants, banbone and cinders. He covers these spoils, adorning them beautifully with plants.

The front of the bird is fair of hue, and his breast is adorned in bleobrygdumvaried colours. His heafodhead is green at the back, wonderfully mingled and blended with wurmanpurple. The tail is beautifully varied—partly brunbrown, partly basucrimson, and cleverly decorated with shining splottumsplotches. The wings are hwitwhite at the tips, the neck green up and down, and the beak gleaming like glæsglass or a gem, the jaws bright inside and out. His eye is stearcstern in nature—it looks very much like a stone or a sparkling gem set in gold plate by the cunning craftsmanship of smiϸasmiths. His scancanlegs are covered with scales and his fotasfeet yellow.

In appearance that fugelbird is unique in every way.

Bestiary. England, c. 1225-1250. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, fol. 70v. []

*To be exact, lines 153-158a, 163b-174, 182-189a, 192b-194a, 199b-209, 213-219a, 226b-241a, 265-274a, 291-297a, 299b-304, 310-312a.

**An excessively academic-y note even though there really is no place for such things in this blog so please feel free to ignore…There is not a good translation for heoru-drēorig (line 217a). Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary says that the word means either “bloody with sword-wounds” or “very sad, sad unto death” and suggests using the latter definition for its occurrence in The Phoenix. Karl Wentersdorf has argued that although Old English dreorig is almost certainly derived from dreor (blood), there is no evidence of the adjective’s use in Old English to mean “bloody”. In his article about dreorig in another Old English poem (The Battle of Brunanburh), Wentersdorf says there is “no reason to assume that the derivative dreorig would necessarily have suggested ‘blood’ to readers”. I disagree. That the bloody resonance of a word like heoru-drēorig would not occur to a poet seems highly improbable. After all, the phoenix represents Christ (think wounds, the Passion, etc.). Unfortunately, I can think of no word in modern English that means “sad” or “sorrowful” but also has the sound of the word “blood”…hence, my copout translation “sorrowful”. See K. Wenstersdorf, “On the Meaning of Old English dreorig in Brunanburh 54″, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 74.2 (1973), 232-37.

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