“Only the phoenix rises and does not descend. And everything changes. And nothing is truly lost.” -Neil Gaiman
Firebird as Catalyst
I view the firebird as the form of my highest self, and in large part this work has been related to other work that I’ve done, gathering up pieces of myself that I had put aside and setting myself aflame.
The first thing you need to know if you’re thinking about working with any of the firebirds – Phoenix, Zhar Ptitsa, Feng Huang, Bennu, and so on – is that their energy is catalytic. If there’s something you haven’t dealt with, you’re going to deal with it now. It’s not the only thing that can bring your karma or your wyrd crashing down on you, but it’s definitely one of them. You have to burn through what you’re already dealing with before you can begin again.
It can leak, too, so consider this fair warning. Other around you – friend and enemy – as well as organizations, religious groups and even businesses can have unhealthy practices or untied threads come loose. (I used to refer to this as the feeling that every club and coven I joined in college fell apart three months later.)
If you’re stuck and you don’t like the place you’ve come to, working with firebird energy can make you the sort of person who ends up somewhere else, but you have to be willing to let go of the person who’s stuck where you are.
Firebird as Healer
Firebird energy is healing. While it hurts to burn, what remains on the other side is a new Phoenix, whole and hale, unscarred and ready for a new path. While the old self is the building-block of the new, the deeper one goes into the Phoenix, the more you leave behind each time.
Just don’t look back.
I spent a lot of time with the firebird while I was dealing with my brain tumor in late 2010. It was the first time I worked closely with with the firebird and water-dragon in tandem. The idea was to combine fire to burn away what doesn’t belong and water to carry it away and maintain the systems in my body. I survived, and I suppose that’s as close as you can come to saying something worked.
The phoenix can heal others as well. The fire that cracks and chars skin can be controlled to a healing warmth. Like reiki and other energy healing techniques, phoenix energy can spread through the body, finding areas that need to regrow and helping them to recover.
I called on firebird tonight, on behalf of my cousin who’s ill. I asked that everything that stands her in way be burned up. I asked her to comfort my cousin, if she wanted it. I’m a long way from my family, and I don’t know a lot of the details. Given how recent the diagnosis is, I’m not sure anyone knows the details yet. I go back to what I know, what helped me. Fire to turn foreign bodies to ash. Water to flush out impurities. It’s all I can do.
In the face of things beyond my control, I think of feng huang and the imperial dragon, yin and yang, and the way which cannot be known. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know that people can be reborn after suffering, and I know that ends are beginnings too.
Firebird as Diplomat
I’ve seen firebird energy described as diplomatic and that description resonates with me, especially in the aspects of firebird typified in Feng Huang. I’ve relied on this aspect many times in my life, but rather than think of it as diplomacy, I always thought of it as interpretation.
What I mean by interpretation is that I often find myself between two groups, walking the ever-shifting border of vocabulary and definition. Oftentimes people in various groups and subcultures will misunderstand each other, and such misunderstandings quickly grow out of proportion. My job, as I saw it, was to create understanding by explaining how two seemingly-disparate concepts could actually be the same, or related, or have an identical root cause.
The problem with interpretation is that it can quickly become a full-time job by itself. Some people came to depend on having me around to explain their ideas, never learning to bring them to full flower on their own. I also began to take it too far, trying to bring everything together in a personal Unified Field Theory.
The goal of interpretation is not to bring everyone together – it’s not about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. Instead it’s about guiding discourse, bringing together people and ideas that will go further together than they will apart. Some ideas, and some people, stand stronger on their own, and that’s okay. As always, discretion and discrimination are necessary.
If you’re wondering how interpretation fits in with the firebird’s work, it’s just another part of learning to change – in this case, your mind. It’s about being able to shift your point of view enough to understand both sides and maintain enough distance from both to look beyond the obvious.
In other words, it’s about embracing fluidity and change, just like every other part of the process. Fluidity in thought and concept is as essential as any other kind.
Firebird and Gender
I perceive the phoenix as genderqueer. While firebirds are sometimes assigned a specific gender, this is not always the case. When the myths say there is but a single phoenix at any given time, it is by that definition either hermaphroditic or agendered.
Usually, the phoenix lays its egg without a partner. A phoenix needs nothing but its own will to be reborn, and no fertilization is needed to create the egg. In that sense it could be seen as asexual. In comparison, the huma of Persia is described as being one-half male and one-half female. The Chinese feng huang was in the past associated with both genders and could be seen as having both male and female natures.
Of course, now the feng huang is seen as female in complement to the Imperial dragon in symbology. Thus I tend to think of the phoenix as somewhat genderqueer – capable of male, female, both and neither as the situation calls for.
It’s possible that I feel this way because I personally am genderqueer. While I can’t physically shift my sex without a lot of effort, I have learned to embrace both masculine and feminine traits and mindset, and there are times when I feel like one or the other – or both, or neither – is the correct term for me. Working with firebird has helped me to see this as adaptability, a strength, rather than a weakness of not conforming to the gender markers society expects.
Firebird and Synthesis
Phoenix is also about synthesis and adaptability. Diplomacy is the art of understanding both sides. Once you understand both halves, you can become them and then transcend them.
Male and female polarities are the most obvious, and the easiest for many to start with. Gender-switching gives you an image to focus on, an idea of “other” that you can picture. The genderqueer nature of the phoenix is essential here; without the ability to understand both gender roles, the seeker will struggle to go further. The full concept of polarity includes many mindsets and concepts that are associated with either male or female but in reality belong to individuals, not genders.
There are many different roles to be understood. It’s not simply a matter of roleplaying, but of truly understanding and appreciating both roles: dominant and submissive, master and servant, fire and water, earth and air, hunter and gatherer, and, ultimately, projective and receptive. Ultimately, it’s about the energy.
Remember that the Chinese firebird has already mastered this synthesis, bringing the feng and huang together in a single bird. The larger picture, the Phoenix’s dance with the Dragon, means stepping beyond the individual’s work and bringing in another partner – the Phoenix is the catalyst, taking in and shaping the raw energy of the Dragon. But while the Phoenix is the receptive partner, both need to be capable of giving and receiving for the work to, well, work.
It’s essential to find both those halves in yourself, then, before you go working with a partner. Who you are when no one else is around is your truest self, right? In the silence of your head, can you be male and female? Can you be light and dark? Because as much as you think you know one, you need to understand what separates it from the other. All those trite comments about how you need the darkness to appreciate the light? At the base of it, they’re correct.
Once you can at least see things from every angle, you’ve begun to understand the firebird’s point of view. It can be paralyzing to understand both sides, because you learn where one has to give ground for the other to gain. Taoism finds virtue in this – the tao divides into yin and yang, but one who knows the true tao strives to reach wu wei, the state of acting without acting. A lesser echo of this is that understanding prompts inaction.
I think there is a greater understanding, though, as well – where action instead becomes effortless and one moves in harmony without needing to consciously direct it. It’s necessary to pull back from that lesser understanding, however, and keep pushing toward a higher goal.
Putting the pieces together and seeing both sides of the puzzle doesn’t mean you’re done with your path. It just means you’re finally starting to see the bigger picture.
Firebird and Burnout
I declare I don’t care no more I’m burning up and out and growing bored
Sometimes I’m very, very tired. It might be work, parenting, my mental health, my writing, general timing, or social issues. Whatever combination it is, I feel overwhelmed.
I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, though. I’ve come to believe that burning out is actually an important step in on the firebird’s path.
In almost every tradition, the journey to the higher self includes a moment like it – it’s often called the Dark Night of the Soul in Western mysticism, after the writing of St. John of the Cross. It’s the moment where everything feels empty and meaningless, nothing feels like it’s working, and you wonder why you ever bothered in the first place.
The firebird works without as much as sie works within: between the catalytic energy surrounding me, the temptation to take interpretation too far, and the feeling like I have to have the perfect nest and I have to have it now, well, it’s easy to burn myself out.
That’s an important lesson, to know where your limits are. Until you push yourself as far as you can go, you don’t know how far that is. If you’re afraid to push to your limits, you’ll never push past them.
And sometimes instead of pushing past, you crash and burn. That’s okay too. It happens.
When you fall apart, you get to look at all the pieces as you’re picking them up. It’s a wonderful opportunity to decide which puzzle pieces really fit and which belong to someone else’s puzzle entirely.
And once you’ve gathered your pieces up, you can start to put them back together.
Firebird and Dragon
For the first eighteen years of my life, I thought of dragons as fictional – inherently something that existed only inside the imaginations of children. The dragons I knew were Falkor and Puff and Figment. While I read fantasy novels as a teen, the dragons in them never resonated with me like these “imaginary” ones did when I was a child.
Then I had my first real, in-person relationship. I had just been introduced to group ritual via the university’s pagan organization, and he was the first person I worked with one-on-one. I didn’t really understand what we were doing, and I doubt he did either, but when we raised energy, it was obvious we were on opposite-but-complimentary wavelengths. Raising energy was fast and effective with him.
He mentioned, in passing, that his mental concept was of a dragon. I didn’t think too much of it; I’d heard much weirder things on the internet, after all. We parted on good terms, eventually. I didn’t think too much of it until my current partner mentioned that her higher self takes the form of pan long, a coiling ocean dragon. Apparently dragons are just my type.
In the Chinese tradition, the pairing of feng huang with long, usually the imperial dragon, is common. The dichotomy represents the yin/yang, dark/light balance as well as pairing the relatively self-contained feng huang with the outwardly-focused dragon.
I am fortunate to have a dragon as my working partner. I find that having a working partner on a different but complimentary path has been incredibly helpful in my own development. There are dozens of little ways in which we balance each other, from the contrast between fire/air and water/earth energies to the fact that one of us is there to hold the other through periods of difficulty.
For a partnership to work, both members must have relatively close levels of commitment, background knowledge and independence. In my experience, we both had to do a lot of internal work before we were ready to work with a partner in a serious, magic-using way.
When we work together, we are natural opposites. My energy tends to fall within the yin principle – dark and negative even when I’m feeding the flame. Hers is naturally yang, bright and positive. At first glace, that might seem like it’s not conducive to working together, but it’s actually very effective. Combining one positive reactor and one negative reactor allows for energy to build up as in a battery. Then it’s simply a matter of mustering sufficient will to direct it.
If you know much about yin and yang alignments, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not purely yin and she’s not yang – if nothing else, our genders don’t match. This ties in very neatly with the genderqueer aspect of firebird for me – I can draw on feminine energy during ritual, and she can draw on masculine, as the situation requires. Because there is yang within my yin, and yin in her yang, each of us is a system unto itself. I find that the more our energy is in motion, the less mental effort is required to maintain it before release.
I know several people who do most or all of their work with disincarnate partners – they work with tutelary spirits, or are godspouses, or variations along those lines. I was just recently reading a post from someone in that sort of situation, about the strengths of such a relationship, and it got me thinking about my own partnership.
I prefer having a physical partnership. While we both do our own internal work, and we can’t truly see inside one anothers’ heads, I feel like she can understand me better because we stand together through the same challenges. Sometimes I need the pressure of a warm hand to pull me out of journeywork. Sometimes two magicians working on a problem can approach it from different, but complimentary, perspectives. Often she’s the sword to my shield, or I’m the sword to hers. I play both roles and so does she, but we each have our strengths and we use them.
At some point in every journey of self-improvement, you have to step outside of the “self” mindset. Having a partner helps me do that – she keeps me grounded when I’m inclined to fly off the handle, and I draw her to the surface when she goes too deep.
I don’t think a working partner is necessary for everyone. But this is what works best for me; taking the next step along the firebird path requires having someone to walk it with me. Firebirds and dragons have a long history of working together, and drawing on that imagery and tradition helps strengthen the work we do together.
The feng huang is a uniquely Asian bird, though in modern times it’s associated with the European phoenix and Egyptian bennu. Its plumage is very distinctive; it is described as having the head and body of a pheasant, but a long graceful tail in the style of the peacock. The tail is more richly colored than even a peacock’s, having all five sacred colors among its feathers: red, yellow, blue, black and white. Unlike the western firebirds, the feng huang is truly immortal; it doesn’t die and renew itself.
Sometimes, particularly in later iconography, the feng huang was paired with the dragon. They might be paired peacefully, as a symbol of love, or they might be depicted in combat. Often they were used as symbols of the emperor (the dragon) and the empress (the feng huang). In this context, as you might expect, the imperial dragon was the masculine energy and the feng huang was the feminine, thus giving the bird the traditional yin/lunar associations of the female huang.
The feng huang can also represent the power of systems within systems. Aside from the dragon and phoenix symbolism that is commonly depicted in art, there is also the duality of the feng huang itself. The name “feng huang” was originally two words: feng was the name of the male bird, with the usual masculine connotations of yang energy and the sun. This aspect of the bird is closest to the “fire bird” image associated with the phoenix. The female bird was called the huang, and was given the female associations of yin energy and the moon.
Thus, it is both completion in itself and part of a larger whole. This is a common theme in East Asian religion and Chinese philosophy, where an enlightened bodhisattva will delay Nirvana to help other souls find enlightenment, and where a person can only be wise in the Tao when he is in sync with society and the world around him.
Despite coming from a northern European culture, I ended up studying Buddhism as well as primarily Chinese philosophy and folk religion. Feng Huang is the form of the firebird I know best and have worked with the most. I first met her during a guided meditation meant to lead me to Kuan Yin and she has patiently kept an eye on me ever since.
Feng Huang comes to me with a distinctly feminine presence, like the Russian Zhar Ptitsa, but she understands both sides of the gender coin. She knows a thing or two about losing your place in the world – before the Imperial Dragon rose to match her, she was complete and sovereign unto herself. But she also teaches me the importance of being willing to play a part in something large than yourself.
The feng huang in the role as the guardian of the south is sometimes also conflated with the zhuque. The zhuque, or red bird, is grouped with the dragon, the tortoise, and the tiger. Together they are referred to as the Celestial Guardians and represent the four directions. In this aspect the zhuque is said to live in the south and is associated with the color red, the element fire, and the sun.
Most of the main branches of mythology have some variety of firebird in them, whether well-known or obscure. While the Norse mythology is oddly lacking in firebird figures, it does feature a lesser-known goddess whose story is a good example of firebird work.
Gullveig is only mentioned in one surviving myth, recounted in the Prose Edda:
She that remembers, the first on earth,
when Gullveig they with lances pierced,
and in the high one’s hall her burnt,
thrice burnt, thrice brought forth, oft not seldom; yet she still lives.
Heidi they called her, whitherso’er she came,
the well-foreseeing Vala:
wolves she tamed, magic arts she knew, magic arts practiced;
ever she was the joy of evil people.
So, review: a powerful seid-worker with a bit of a one-track mind is boring at a party and so Odin sets her on fire repeatedly (Man, remind me never to go to his parties.) and this allegedly started the Aesir-Vanir war. Seems a little over-reactive on Odin’s part, doesn’t it?
If you want an allegory, instead consider that what she was trying to do was teach him. Odin was interested in learning every bit of magic he could, and the Vanir seid magic seems to have fascinated him despite, or maybe because, it was limited to women. And yet it can’t have been easy for him to submit to a Vanir and a woman besides- we know he eventually learned it from Freya, but he had to dress and live as one of her handmaids to do it, and Loki wouldn’t have tried to mock him for it in the Lokasenna if it wasn’t considered a little odd.
Gullveig tried to teach him a different path of seid from Freya’s sex-flavored practice. Hers was more alchemical, almost – in alchemy, remember, the search to turn lead into gold was a metaphor for the refinement of the soul. Frustrated with Odin’s unwillingness to understand the metaphor, Gullveig resolved to show him.
She had to burn three times to get the point across, and even then it was Loki, not Odin, who understood what she was offering. (Though from my experience with Odin, I can see why alchemical sex magic suited him better in the end…)
Gullveig was the first goddess in the Northern tradition to reach out to me, and she remains one of few I deal with regularly. She helped me take the first steps from being drawn to the firebird to actually doing the work – seeing the patterns in my life, strengthening the healthy patterns, dulling the unhealthy ones. All archetypes have strengths as well as weaknesses. Knowing both keeps you from playing out the old stories again too easily.
I still go to her when I’m dealing with necessary sacrifice; she taught me how to mourn the person I was leaving behind, and still continue forward. The process of becoming is never truly finished. When I finish burning, I’ve started to gather kindling for the next fire.
She likes the sacrifice of irreplaceable things that you really shouldn’t have kept. I gave my ex-boyfriend’s letters to her. I call to her when I’m re-organizing, sorting through old things, deciding what to keep. I called to her a lot when I was getting ready to move last fall.
She is the one who says, “Let it go.”
She is the one who says, “Let it burn.”
The eagle that lives atop Yggdrasil is never named in the lore.
And yet there’s a similar story about Mimameid, a tree named for Mimir (in the same way Yggdrasil is named for Odin), with a rooster at the top named Vidopnir. There are some academics who’ve suggested that Mimameid and Yggdrasil are both names for the same World Tree.
Why, you may ask, is this tagged ‘firebird’? To start with, the eagle is one of the species of bird associated with various firebird legends. The rooster is too, though admittedly through a more circuitous route. Through both my own and other peoples’ UPG, eagles in the Northern lore are linked to lightning, and thence to the thunderbird/firebird.
I set out to work with Vidopnir because I was curious. I like finding firebirds and seeing what they are willing to teach me.
At it turned out, working with Vidopnir also meant working with Yggdrasil. As you might imagine, being the Guy At the Top of the Tree, Vidopnir’s pretty into the big picture. He and I talked about goals, and what’s important, and where I’ve been wasting my energy.
I think of Vidopnir as the firebird of the controlled burn, with the perspective to see what’s really going on behind the scenes.
Not long after I moved out of my parents’ house, I had a series of dreams. A beautiful woman with wings, who was also a bird, and was guiding me through some kind of initiation. She bid me to walk through the fire and be remade for her. She told me her name, and I wrote it down as “Ahnka,” thinking of the spelling of the Egyptian symbol. I googled it a couple of times but never turned up much, so I thought of her as one of the personal spirits I work with.
Sometimes you have zero information besides your own experiences. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and they’d rather stick to things other people are going to recognize. If nothing else, it’s much easier to have a conversation online about Odin or Brigid than it is about a being nobody else knows.
In the last few years, people have become more open to talking about unnamed deities, and I admire those who were able to make that leap and find ways to open up about their practice. Seeing that helped me find the clarity to start revisiting my own experiences and explore those I’d forgotten.
That was how, years later, I thought about Ankha, the bird-woman who’d bid me remake myself. And knowing that there’s more out there all the time, I googled again. And like Mara, suddenly there was fact where in my mind there’d only been fiction before. I read about the Anka Bird, Zümrüdü Anka, and made the connection.
It felt like coming full circle, after more than a year of firebird work to come to understand that first firebird I ever knew.
“And god help you if you are a phoenix And you dare to rise up from the ash A thousand eyes will smoulder with jealousy While you are just flying past.” -Ani Difranco