De Ave Phoenice is a poem of 170 lines in which the Phoenix is described. The Phoenix is a mythical bird who after a certain time dies in fire and arises out of its ashes again. The poem is generally attributed to Lactantius (c. 240 – c. 320), a Christian apologist, but what has puzzled scholars is that there are no overt references to Christianity. Sure, the Phoenix was seen sometimes as a symbol for Christ and Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) considered it even as the proof for the possibility of resurrection, but no such suggestions are made in the poem. Lactantius did not come from a Christian family, but was converted in later life, after having been professor of rhetorica. It could be that this poem was his first writing as a Christian. It could also be that this poem was written for an occasion of which the details are lost, leaving us with a poem without context. But the very fact that little is known, has given rise to wide and wild speculations. I happen to read this poem now with a friend of mine and she found on internet interpretations as: " Female initiation rites and early Christian and pagan theories about menstruation, conception and birth" and: `Image of the paradisiacal garden as a symbol for Mary (and the church) and Mary herself, the solitary one in wait for the coming of the Lord – the Phoenix’ song and bliss at its flight to meet the sun, as analogue to the Annunciation (where Mary accepts the angel’s invitation to do Gods will). Thus where the sun knocks at the threshold of the shining gates, is a reference to the descent of the Logos into the womb of Mary.’ Hear, hear! Well, I won’t say that it is impossible, but sometimes scholars are very eager to read their own ideas into texts.
The De Ave Phoenice is also interesting for students of Old English, as it is the basis of an Old English poem with the same name. The first part is a translation and the second part a Christian meditation upon this text.
The poem starts with a description of a kind of paradise, far in the East, near the rising of the sun and after this the Phoenix is introduced:
Lactantius, De Ave Phoenice 31-50
hoc nemus, hos lucos avis incolit unica phoenix
unica sed vivit morte refecta sua
paret et obsequitur Phoebo memoranda satelles
hoc natura parens munus habere dedit.
lutea cum primum surgens aurora rubescit
cum primum rosea sidera luce fugat.
ter quater illa pia immergit corpus in undas
ter quater e vivo gurgite libat aquam
tollitur ac summo consedit in arboris altae
vertice, quae totum despicit una nemus
et conversa novos Phoebi nascentis ad ortus
expectat radios et iubar exoriens
atque ubi sol pepulit fulgentis lumina portae
et primum emicuit luminis aura levis
incipit illa sacri modulamina fundere cantus
et mira lucem voce ciere novam.
quam nec aedoniae voces nec tibia possit
musica cyrrhaeis assimilare modis
sed neque olor moriens imitare nosse putatur
nec cylleneae fila canora lyrae.
hoc nemus hos lucos: i.e. the wood and sacred groves in the mythical land where the Phoenix lives.
morte refecta sua: renewed from her own death
Phoebus: the sun
satelles, satellitis ( f. and m.): servant, attendant
hoc munus habere dedit: gave (her) this for having as duty
luteus: saffron, golden
gurgis gurgitis (m.): steam, whirlpool
libo: to sip
vertex verticis (m.): top
iubar iubaris (m.): radiance, brightness
pello pepuli pulsum: to strike knock
lumina portae: the threshold of garden where the phoenix lives
emico emicui emicatum: to break forth
sacri modulamina fundere cantus: to spread out the melody of a sacred song
cieo civi citum: to cause to go, stir
aedoniae voces: the voices of nightingales (the adjective aedonius is only found twice in Latin
musica: adjective to tibia
cyrrhaeis modis: Cyrrha was a town in Phocis associated with Apollo (= Phoebus). so it means `tunes associated with the sun’.
olor oloris (m.): swan (the swan, not a bird renown for its beautiful singing, was believed to sing beautifully when dying.)
cylleneae lyrae: Cyllena was a mountain in the north –east of Arcadia (I think this is the only place in Latin literature where this mountain is associated with a lyre .)
fila canora: harmonious strings
Translation by J.W. Duff and A.M. Duff (1934)
In this grove, in these woods, dwells the peerless
bird,the Phoenix, peerless, since she lives renewed
by her own death. An acolyte worthy of record,
she yields obedience and homage to Phoebus : such
the duty that parent Nature assigned to her for observ-
ance. Soon as saffron Aurora reddens at her rising,
soon as she routs the stars with rosy light, thrice
and again that bird plunges her body into the kindly
waves, thrice and again sips water from the living
flood. Soaring she settles on the topmost height of
a lofty tree which alone commands the whole of the
grove, and, turning towards the fresh rising of
Phoebus at his birth, awaits the emergence of his
radiant beam. And when the Sun has struck the
threshold of the gleaming portal and the light shaft
of his first radiance has flashed out, she begins to
pour forth notes of hallowed minstrelsy and to sum-
mon the new day in a marvellous key which neither
tune of nightingale nor musical pipe could rival in
Cirrhean modes ; nay, let not the dying swan be
thought capable of imitating it, nor yet the tuneful
strings of Cyllcnean lyre.
Phoenix in the flames (Aberdeen bestiary 12th century.)