For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining;
and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason,
that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection,
and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.
— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
What is the first image to mind upon the word Phoenix? A bird of immense power that is unbeatable as it reincarnates when it dies. This myth has gained its good fame on books, movies and stories. One aspect of it hasn’t catch up, at least until now. Because my question is: Is the myth’s ending a teaching of something to do or of something to avoid. In other words: is it recommended to be powerful enough to reincarnate or is that a fault in itself?
The myth of the Phoenix or fire-bird is represented in almost all ancient cultures. In Egypt it is the Bennu; In Greece the Phoenix; in Persia the Humma; in China the Feng Huang; in Japan the Hou-ou; in Rusia the Zhar -Ptitsa; in Arabia the Ghoghnous; in Jewish culture the Milcham; in Taoist beliefs the Cinnabar; in Hindu the Garuda, and like this there’s many more references. The common elements among all of them are:
It reincarnates from its own ashes
It is associated with Fire
Reincarnation: fault or success?
Is the ending of the Phoenix myth showing a successful story or a situation to avoid? If one’s goal is to grow beyond one’s limits, then why would reincarnation be successful? Wouldn’t that be a limit where the Phoenix starts all over again in the same form? While it is obvious that physically we tend to change and we can’t control that force, it is not so obvious that there are limits that appear again and again across different situations of our lives regardless of our body’s evolution.
The Phoenix’s myth focuses on those repeatable limits that reincarnate again and again. For instance, if I have a limit to receive from others this could be manifested in my body not receiving nutrients from food (others), or not improving at work by not receiving useful feedback, and like this on many other areas of life. Reincarnation of these limits is as much a fault as the Phoenix reincarnating itself from its own ashes, which represent what the Phoenix doesn’t consider.
When I did my first illustration of the Phoenix I represented these repeatable limits as the strength in its wings. It is the part of its body that is the most strong and as the poem above mentions, passion unruled is a flame that leads to its own destruction. Some could think that reincarnation is a desirable benefit because one would never loose if one can never die. But imagine your life would repeat itself once you reached 12 years old, and you’d start all over again, forever and ever. You’d never know what is on the other side of that limit. Off course, you’d be the best twelve year old ever and probably very strong at it but you’d never be what’s next. This is the Phoenix’s fault: its reincarnation.
Fire: the dense cause
Why is the Phoenix not aware of his own fault? Continuing the analysis above I say it’s the reliance on strength (fire) only. As it is able to reincarnate whenever it dies. It does not care about limits because from its point of view there seems to be nothing to loose. Unless it starts to find it boring to reincarnate, or starts to be curious of what happens on the other side of death.
What does it take then, for the Phoenix to solve its fault. I immediately thought about Water as the complement of Fire that it is missing in its life. But wait, water is not the complement of fire, both are opposites that cancel each other. Then what is the complement of Fire? It is Air! Voila! Have you seen how birds are not always flapping their winds when they fly, but sometimes they are leveraging the existing winds with their wings and tail? That is what the Phoenix is missing, to rely also on leveraging the forces around it. That requires to recognize a limit of where the movement from one’s force reaches a limits and other forces being.
This solution to the Phoenix’s fault is illustrated in the tail, which is involved in a shape that represents the element of Air, that is the complement to the Fire element represented in the flame shaped head. Fire that represents emotions is complemented by Air that represents reason.
Complement: divide to multiply
It is not enough to understand that Fire is complemented by Air. Too much of one can consume the other, which means we can’t solve the Phoenix’s fault using only Fire (passion) and Air (reason). We need a third element that drives both. In Gibran’s poem above this is mentioned as the Soul that rises both reason and passion to a beautiful song.
In my illustration this has been there all along. If you felt there is something off about the shape of the Phoenix’s wings, it because the wings on the right are sharp like fire and the ones tot he left are rounded like air. Both wings up in the same position means the Phoenix is not distinguishing what is different in him: fire (passion) and air (reason). If I don’t differentiate something I can’t use it for what it’s meant to be.
Something magical happened when I arranged the Phoenix’s right wings in a downward position: it reached a yin yang order (see image below): the yang (bright) part is initiated by the fire shaped wings to the right and includes the air (reason) element; the yin (dark) part is initiated by the round shaped wings tot he left and includes the fire (passion) element. What unites both is the Wings or the Soul, that which can fly and thus connect earth (material) to heaven (inmaterial).
I have to say that I’m not implying that the Phoenix has to fly in this position. This image shows that the Phoenix recognizes the different elements within him: its fault and its strength and uses both from the Soul to go beyond its own limits. That is what ends the reincarnation cycle. The Last Phoenix is now on to the next life.