The phoenix is a bird that is found in India. After it has lived for 500 years, it goes to the cedar forests of Lebanon and bathes in the fragrance from the trees, then signals the priest in the city of Heliopolis (the city of the sun), who prepares an alter. The phoenix flies to the city, alights on the alter, and ignites a fire that completely consumes it, leaving only ash. The next day the preist finds a worm in the ashes, on the second day a small bird, and on the third day the full-grown phoenix, completely renewed. The phoenix greets the priest and returns to its home in India.
The Epiphanius version follows the same basic story line, but adds a few details. The phoenix is the most beautiful bird, more beautiful even than the peacock. It is colored like precious stones, and has a crested head and feet like fire. It lives among the cedars of Lebanon for 500 years, neither eating or drinking, being fed only by the wind. After this time it goes to the priest at Heliopolis and burns itself up. The next day there is a small bird in the ashes; on the third day the phoenix is fully restored and returns home. The standard version of the Physiologus does not always describe the bird, but the description could be taken from Pliny the Elder, who in his Natural Histories says the phoenix is the size of an eagle, has gold around the neck, a purple body, a blue tail with some rose-colored feathers, and a feathered crest on its head.
The interpretation uses the deliberate death and rebirth of the phoenix to refute those who say Christ could not have risen from the dead Tthe Physiologus text argues that if a bird can do this, surely Christ could too. A quote from the Bible is usually given: "I have the power to lay down my life, and I have the power to take it again" (John 10:18).
The phoenix in the van der Borcht copperplate engraving below is not exhibiting the life-renewing behavior ascribed to it in the text, but it is a most elegant crested bird. The usual illustration of the phoenix shows it either burning or rising from the ashes.
The woodcut below (from the Rome, 1577 edition) also shows the phoenix merely posing; it does have the crest mentioned by the Epiphanius version and by Pliny.