The legend of the Phoenix has been around for centuries. There are a few variations, but the basic idea is this: The Phoenix is a supernatural creature, living for 1000 years. Once that time is over, it builds its own funeral pyre, and throws itself into the flames. As it dies, it is reborn anew, and rises from the ashes to live another 1000 years. Alternatively, it lays an egg in the burning coals of the fire which hatches into a new Phoenix, and the life cycle repeats.
There are a few theories as to what might have given rise to such a legend. Perhaps a brightly colored bird was captured in Asia, and sold in a foreign land with wild stories about the bird's legendary powers, in hopes of jacking up the price. Perhaps someone saw a common peacock backlit by the setting sun, and believed the bird to be on fire. There are a myriad of possibilities, none of which can be confirmed.
One theory about the origins of the Phoenix legend is rather bizarre, but may be closer to the truth than some others: The original 'Phoenix' may have been a crow or raven dancing in a dying fire.
It sounds strange, but truth is often stranger than fiction.
Ravens and crows have been known to practice a peculiar form of behavior called 'Anting'. The bird will disturb an ant's nest, or sit over something sweet (like spilled honey or an almost empty soda-pop can), spread out its wings, and allow ants to run up and down its body. It is thought that the ants give the bird a sort of 'back massage' this way, or that they feast on feather mites which live on the bird and cause irritation. For whatever reason, they seem to enjoy the sensation and have been known to do it repeatedly.
In a similar way, some of these birds will sit over a hot surface, such as the dying embers of a fire, and spread out their wings. Perhaps they do it for the same reason we sit in a sauna - they just enjoy the heat - or perhaps they use the intense heat to encourage feather mites to find a different home. Since they won't talk, it's hard to tell.
However, if a bird such as a large raven sits on the embers of a fire, and for some reason chooses to flap its wings (maybe as a way to cool off, or maybe because it's ready to take to the air) then it could stir the fire to life again. The sudden resurgence of flames around it would almost certainly cause the bird to take off.
And voila - you have a bird rising from the midst of flames and ashes.
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