The Phoenix (or: Surprising Things in the Church Fathers)

Re-post from elsewhere in 2007

Phoenix from the Aberdeen Bestiary (12th c.)

One of the things I’m contemplating studying when I grow up is Patristics, which is to say, the study of the Church Fathers, who are the church leaders, bishops, theologians, monks, writers, mystics, and whatnot, from the second through the fifth or sixth century, sometimes even later. As part of this, once Easter came and I was allowed to read books again, I read First Clement.

First Clement is a letter from St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome, on behalf of the Romans to the Corinthians. I found it in an immensely useful book called Early Christian Fathers from the Library of Christian Classics. The book gives a good introduction to the writings of the period, as well as solid introductions to each work, editions of the text, and further reading.

Anyway, one of the interesting bits is Chapter 25:

Let us note the remarkable token which comes from the East, from the neighborhood, that is, of Arabia. There is a bird which is called a phoenix. It is the only one of its kind and lives five hundred years. When the time for its departure and death draws near, it makes a burial nest for itself from frankincense, myrrh, and other spices; and when the time is up, it gets into it and dies. From its decaying flesh a worm is produced, which is nourished by the secretions of the dead creature and grows wings. When it is full-fledged, it takes up the burial nest containing the bones of its predecessor, and manages to carry them all the way from Arabia to the Egyptian city called Heliopolis. And in broad daylight, so that everyone can see, it lights at the altar of the sun and puts them down there, and so starts home again. The priests then look at their dated records and discover it has come after a lapse of five hundred years.

St. Clement concludes, Chapter 26.1:

Shall we, then, imagine that it is something great and surprising if the Creator of the universe raises up those who have served him in holiness and in the assurance born of a good faith, when he uses a mere bird to illustrate the greatness of his promise?

This is not some sort of whacked-out Christian appropriation of a pagan myth. In St. Clement’s mind, this is no myth at all. This is fact. There is a bird called the phoenix, and it operates in the following way. It is part of God’s glorious creation. Just as Jesus uses wheat as a symbol of His death and resurrection, so St. Clement uses the phoenix as a type in nature of the Resurrection.

Nor is it shocking proof of how quickly the Early Church was Hellenised, how its Hebrew roots were lost and subsumed into pagan culture. Clement was a Jew [I think?]. A Jew with a specific adjective: Hellenistic. The phoenix story shows not how Christians had been Hellenised or paganised, but how Jews living outside of Palestine for generations had become part of the culture around them. Clement knew what he was talking about. He knew this story. Sure, he’d never seen one. I’ve never seen a hippopotamus, either.

Apparently, according to footnote 66 on page 56, “Tacitus is more critical toward the legend than Clement (Ann. 6:28).” Other people who wrote about the Phoenix are Hesiod, Herodotus, Ovid, Pliny the Elder.

Does the phoenix come under the classification of cryptozoology? Or is that more for things like the brontosauroi in the Congo, and dragons?

As a thing to close. There is a story, I think it’s even in Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, about St. Anthony [actually, it’s in Jerome’s Life of Paul of Thebes]. One day he was walking to visit this one fellow monk [Paul of Thebes]. Along the way, he met a hippocentaur (that is a centaur with horse bits rather than bull bits) who was seeking the fellow monk as well. Anthony wept at the knowledge that even this creature out there in the desert was seeking knowledge of salvation. I think that’s how the story goes. I’m not going to look it up.

Joseph Campbell and Hagiography

This post is hypothesising more than anything. Please keep that in mind, in case you place great stock in Late Antique/Early Mediaeval hagiography.

In Authority and the Sacred, Peter Brown writes:

In large areas of eastern Christianity (and, if in a more diffident and spasmodic manner, also in the West) the holy man was thought to have brought back to the settle world, from his long sojourn in the wilderness, a touch of the haunting completeness of Adam. (p. 76, referencing B. Flusin, Miracle et histoire dans l’oeuvre de Cyrille de Scythopolis (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991), pp. 34-5.)

A good example of this narrative is the life of Jacob of Nisibis, recounted by Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ in his Historia Religiosa (translated for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria). Jacob was what is termed a boskos, a grazer. He lived in the wilds of Syria with no shelter and no food. He literally lived off the land, eating wild plants to sustain himself. This was his ascetic labour.

Somehow, word of Jacob’s holiness got around, and he was elected bishop of Nisibis. Reluctantly, he answered the call of the people of Nisibis and strode naked into the local church, and was duly consecrated. This anti-social character lived out the rest of his life as bishop of that city, serving the spiritual needs of his flock.

Similarly, St Hilarion (saint of the week here) spent a very long time in self-imposed exile before his monastic complex sprung up around him in Palestine. Barsanuphius of Gaza never left his retreat, bricked up in a cell in his monastery, but dispensed wisdom to many through his letters. St Symeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) spent time living as a traditional anchorite before climbing his pillar and drawing crowds; so did his imitator, St Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) in Constantinople.

Examples no doubt abound. The basic cycle of the story is that the holy man or woman withdraws from human society — into the wilderness, into a tomb, up a mountain, into a cave, on a pilgrimage — and there acquires holiness and access to God and the wisdom of God. This access to God (parrhesia) and power (dunamis) is acquired through ascetic struggle, through wrestling with demons, constant prayer, fasting, or wearing iron undergarments.

Then, whether he or she likes it or not, a return to society is made. Sometimes, society comes to the saint, as with Symeon the Stylite. Sometimes the saint goes to society, as with Jacob of Nisibis. Having returned to society, the saint dispenses the wisdom, holiness, and spiritual power upon the people. The saint intercedes on their behalf, with God and with local or imperial men of power.

This is the basic story.

It sounds a lot like this:

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

This is an image representing the most popular aspect and core thesis of Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology and psychological interpretation thereof, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, the vast majority of hero mythologies take this journey from the known to the unknown and back again. This is part of the archetypal universe that inhabits the subconscious of the human psyche.

I find it interesting that Late Antique and Byzantine hagiography fit this pattern. Many would probably subscribe to a statement such as, ‘Hagiography is a skillful blending of history and mythology.’ By that, however, they would usually mean that true facts about these persons are mingled with tall tales and fables. They would not mean, ‘Hagiography is mythological in that it traces the same patterns as the foundational myths of most civilisations.’

This can mean a few things. One thing this observation can mean is that the appeal of hagiography throughout the Byzantine centuries is precisely rooted in its drawing up the same archetypal motifs as all mythology. We all like mythology — Homer, Hesiod, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the adventures of Sigurd (Siegfried). It speaks to something in the core of our being. It resonates with us.

Myths are not just stories that are untrue and that explain some religious aspect of the universe. They are often this. But they are more than this. To quote my friend Emily, something that is mythical is bigger than true. Whether such a definition helped her ESL students, who can say? But that does get at the heart of why we find the voyage of Orpheus to the Underworld or Galahad’s Quest for the Grail so compelling. They speak to our hearts and communicate realities that mere history and philosophy (and their awkward companion allegory) cannot touch.

Thus hagiography’s appeal.

Another realm for play in this discussion ties into the thoughtworld of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. For these Oxford dons, Christianity was the myth that came true. It was not simply the history of God with humanity. It was not simply theology. Nor was it myth in the sense of an untrue story that communicates deep truths about the world. It was a myth that actually happened.

This is to say that the mythical impulses of the Christian story — the eucatastrophy of the Easter cycle (a concept discussed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ — see the volume Tree and Leaf), the miracles, the events surrounding the lives of the apostles — are, in fact, historically true, just as Augustus’ victory at Actium in 31 BC is historically true. But they are still mythologically charged and speak to the mythical impulse in ourselves. It is as though the myths of the world that resemble the Incarnation are, in fact, backwards echoes of the power and incomprehensibility of God becoming man. Or that they are implantations within the human heart of the greatest story of all, a historically true story to be recognised when met.

What if, then, the mythological impulses of hagiography are real? This would presuppose the staying power of God’s presence in the world after Christ’s ascension. This would also mean that myths can be acted out in real life. Indeed, could not the appeal of Campbell’s cycle tug on the heartstrings of real men and women? Could they not live out the myth for real? It strikes me as plausible.

Perhaps we should all live out the myth. Hagiography was written to remind us that we, too, should be holy. Let us leave the familiar and combat the forces of darkness that we may return to the world of the known, bestowing the gifts of the divine upon our fellow humans.

The Katabasis of Father Brown: Descent in “The Sign of the Broken Sword”

SPOILER ALERT!  What follows is a sort of commentary/essay on G.K. Chesterton’s story “The Sign of the Broken Sword.”  If you wish a. not to have any of the story spoiled and b. to know what exactly I’m talking about, read it first.  It is not long.  Then, come, read this post!

A katabasis (Latinised as catabasis) is, according to Raymond J. Clark in Catabasis: Vergil and the Wisdom Tradition, is a descent to the Underworld by a living human being in the flesh — ie. not a divinity, not in a dream, not necromancy.  Many katabaseis involve the hero of the story going to Underworld to fetch back a person or gain knowledge, thus requiring a favour of the Queen or King of the Dead, such as dread Persephone, Lord Pluto, or Ereshkigal.  The most famous katabasis in all of western literature is that of Dante in his Inferno, vol. 1 of The Divine Comedy.  This descent was patterned on that of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI; other mythological heroes to descend include Herakles and Orpheus.

The katabasis has survived into modern literature as well.  Two recent examples, both of them framed on Classical myth, are found in Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Themes and images of descent make their appearance in less explicit places as well, however.  “The Sign of the Broken Sword” is one such place, beginning with a descent from the churchyard into the woods, and out again at the inn at the end.  Along the way, Father Brown and Flambeau wrestle with a mystery that itself is a descent into villainy, horror, and treason.

Our first clue that Chesterton has written us a katabasis comes in the first paragraph as he is setting the stage and setting the oppressive, heavy mood that persists throughout the story.  In describing the forest, he writes:

The black hollows between the trunks of the trees looked like bottomless, black caverns of that Scandinavian hell, a hell of incalculable cold.

First, Chesterton is not merely imagining that Hell would be a place of cold for northern peoples, an inverse of the Mediterranean Christian Hell of fire.  Hel in Norse mythology is the name of the goddess of the Underworld, one of the children of Loki (himself god of mischief), and she rules over an Underworld of cold ice — as Chesterton says, “a hell of incalculable cold.”  At first reading, I assumed Chesterton was merely making the hell reference to produce the weighty mood that he sought.  Such is not the case, as further evidence of katabasis, of descent, rears its head as our main characters walk away from the monument to General Arthur Saint Clare and make their way into the woods — into hell itself.

The first clue is merely incidental, but not to be missed — they are leaving an old graveyard, the earthly abode of the dead.  There is no more appropriate place to begin a descent to the Underworld than a graveyard, if you ask me.  Another piece of corroborating evidence is found as our protagonists pass “many hundreds of grey and ghostly trees” — strikingly reminiscent of the shades of the dead who abide in Hades, even described as “ghostly”.  And that this hell is Scandinavian is kept within the reader’s awareness by the description of the moon as being “like a lustrous snowball”.

At one point, Brown and Flambeau pass from one bit of forest to another.  As they are about to plunge into the depths of the next piece of wilderness, we read of Flambeau:

He stared firmly at the grey facade of forest in front of him, with the one black gap in it, like the mouth of the grave, into which their path plunged.

They are descending into “the mouth of the grave” — into Hell itself.  As they move through hell, at one point a tree branch curves against the white face of the moon — described as a “devil’s horn.”  As the evil of the narrative discussed by Father Brown and Flambeau unravels and becomes clear, they plunge through dark corridors and blackness.  The path grows steeper, more convoluted and twisted, the deeper into the tale of General Saint Clare they tread.  Ghostly language is used even to describe the spare light to be found in the wood at night, “a ghost of a net”.

We eventually reach a firmer reference to Hell once Father Brown has unravelled the clues and is about to relate to Flambeau the whole horrid, wretched story of evil:

“I mean that,” retorted the cleric, and suddenly pointed at a puddle sealed with ice that shone in the moon. “Do you remember whom Dante put in the last circle of ice?”

“The traitors,” said Flambeau, and shuddered. As he looked around at the inhuman landscape of trees, with taunting and almost obscene outlines, he could almost fancy he was Dante, and the priest with the rivulet of a voice was, indeed, a Virgil leading him through a land of eternal sins.

Thus, Father Brown is leading Flambeau through Hell.  Flambeau is like Dante, Father Brown like Virgil.  The Hell is one of coldest ice, a Scandinavian Hell as found in the wintry wood of Chesterton’s story.

And as Father Brown draws his story to a close, Flambeau sees the warmth of the light of the inn at which they shall rest come story’s end.  The katabasis will be soon over.  At the end, they emerge from the woods, from Hell, and come back to our world, to an inn, the Sign of the Broken Sword.