The phoenix or fire-bird, is a mythical bird the size of an eagle and graced with certain features of a pheasant. When it sees that its death is drawing near, it builds itself a nest and exposes itself to the rays of the sun until it burns itself to ashes. Another phoenix then arises from the marrow of the bones of the old one. In Egypt it was called the bennu bird and was associated with the sun god Ra and with Osiris, the Wise Old Man as a representation of the positive father archetype. (1)
This potentially transformative aspect of fire, as portrayed in the myth of the phoenix, is further demonstrated by the fairy tale, Fitcher’s Bird: an old man disguises himself as a beggar only to abduct one beautiful maiden after another. They all end up locked away, decapitated and hewn to pieces, until the third daughter is cunning enough to trick the old man; she makes her escape by disguising herself as a magical bird, and by burning down his house.
In the story, the third daughter makes her final escape by ‘becoming a magical bird’. She gets into a barrel of honey and then rolls in feathers, after having cut open a feather-bed. Her act implies total commitment; she acts with ‘her whole body,’ with her whole being.
By disguising herself she enters a fantasy space, but at the same time, she also exists in reality; she embodies energy from both consciousness and the archetypal world of the unconscious. In this way she creates a living symbol in the form of the magical bird that may bring about change. The symbol is not merely an intellectual fact. Inspired by Fitcher’s Bird, Kalsched emphasizes the potentially beneficial influence of symbolical creative work in therapy with traumatized individuals. (2)
When she leaves, the house of the old man burns down and the negative complex is destroyed. This in turn allows for positive masculine energy to enter, perhaps in the form of the Wise Old Man.
- JE Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1971, p. 253
- D Kalsched, The Inner World of Trauma, 1996, p. 186 – 200