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The Bennu-bird

Bennu is an ancient Egyptian deity linked with the sun, creation, and rebirth. It may have been the inspiration for the phoenix in Greek mythology.


According to Egyptian mythology, the Bennu was a self-created being said to have played a role in the creation of the world. It was said to be the ba of Ra and enabled the creative actions of Atum.[1] It was said to have flown over the waters of Nun that existed before creation, landing on a rock and issuing a call that determined the nature of creation. It was also a symbol of rebirth and was therefore associated with Osiris.[2]

Some of the titles of the Bennu bird were "He Who Came Into Being by Himself",[1] and "Lord of Jubilees"; the latter epithet referred to the belief that the Bennu periodically renewed itself like the sun.[2] Its name is related to the Egyptian verb wbn, meaning "to rise in brilliance" or "to shine".[1]


Bennu or heron
in hieroglyphs

The Pyramid Texts refer to the yellow wagtail as a symbol of Atum, and it may have been the original form of the Bennu bird.[1] New Kingdom artwork shows the Bennu as a grey heron with a long beak and a two-feathered crest, sometimes perched on a benben stone (representing Ra) or in a willow tree (representing Osiris). Because of its connection with Osiris, it sometimes wears the Atef crown.[2]

A large species of heron, now extinct, lived on the Arabian Peninsula in comparatively recent times. It may have been the ultimate inspiration for the Bennu.[3] Reflecting this, the species was described as the Bennu heron (Ardea bennuides).


Like Atum and Ra, the Bennu was probably worshipped in their cult center at Heliopolis.[2] It also appears on funerary scarab amulets as a symbol of rebirth.[1]

Connection with the phoenix[edit]

The Greek historian Herodotus, writing about Egypt in the fifth century BC, wrote that the people at Heliopolis described the phoenix to him. They said it lived for 500 years before dying, resuscitating, building a funerary egg with myrrh for the paternal corpse, and carrying it to the temple of the Sun at Heliopolis.[4] His description of the phoenix likens it to an eagle with red and gold plumage, reminiscent of the sun.[2] The theme of the fire, pyre and ashes of the dying bird developed long after Herodotus. The name of the phoenix could be derived from "Bennu", and its rebirth and connections with the sun resemble those of the Bennu bird, although Egyptian sources do not mention the bird's death.[1]

Ancient Egyptian depiction of Bennu deity on papyrus, possibly based on the Bennu heron

Possible inspiration[edit]

Remains of a giant, human-sized heron species, thought to have gone extinct around 1500 BC, have been discovered in the United Arab Emirates. It may have been the inspiration for the Bennu, so it has been named Bennu heron (Ardea bennuides).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Hart, George (2005). The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (Second ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 48–49. ISBN 0-415-34495-6.
  2. ^ a b c d e Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 212. ISBN 0-500-05120-8.
  3. ^ Hoch, Ella (1977). "Reflections on prehistoric life at Umm An-Nar (Trucial Oman) based on faunal remains from the third millennium B.C.". In M. Taddei (ed.). South Asian Archaeology 1977. Fourth International Conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe. pp. 589–638.
  4. ^ Lecocq, Françoise (2009). "L'œuf du phénix. Myrrhe, encens et cannelle dans le mythe du phénix" (PDF). Schedae. 6 (1: L‘animal et le savoir, de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance): 73–106. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2016-09-13.

Further reading[edit]

  • Labrique, Françoise (2013). "Le regard d'Hérodote sur le phénix (II, 73)". In Coulon, Laurent; Giovannelli-Jouanna, Pascale; Kimmel-Clauzet, Flore (eds.). Regards croisés sur le Livre II de l’Enquête d’Hérodote. Actes de la journée d’étude organisée à la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée – Lyon, le 10 mai 2010 (in French). Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée. ISBN 978-2-35668-037-2.
  • Lecocq, Françoise (2016). "Inventing the Phoenix. A Myth in the making through Words and Images". In Johnston, Patricia A.; Mastrocinque, Attilio; Papaioannou, Sophia. Animals in Greek and Roman Religion and Myth. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 449–478.
  • Lecocq, Françoise (2019). « L’oiseau bénou-phénix et son tertre sur la tunique historiée de Saqqâra. Une interprétation nouvelle », ENiM (Égypte nilotique et méditerranéenne) 12, 2019, p. 247-280 [en ligne].
  • Van Den Broek, Roelof (1971). The Myth of the Phoenix According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions. Translated by I. Seeger. Brill.

External links[edit]

Media related to Bennu at Wikimedia Commons