The legend of the phoenix transmitted from century to century and from generation to generation, is lost in the dimness of its origins …

— Abbate-Pacha, ‘Le Phenix Egyptien’

… his relatives ordered that his body should be mummified in the best possible way, so that his soul and his intelligence, when they returned some thousands of years hence to seek his body in the tomb, might find his ‘genius’ there waiting, and that all three might enter into the body and revivify it, and live with it forever in the kingdom of Osiris …

— Wallis-Budge, The Mummy

I The Flight of the Fire-Bird

One of the strangest and least understood myths of Ancient Egypt concerns the bennu bird or phoenix. A description of the symbolism it was intended to invoke is given by Rundle Clark:

One has to imagine a perch extending out of the waters of the Abyss. On it rests a grey heron, the herald of all things to come. It opens its beak and breaks the silence of the primeval night with the call of life and destiny, which ‘determines what is and what is not to be’. The Phoenix, therefore, embodies the original Logos, the Word or declaration of destiny which mediates between the divine mind and created things … In a sense, when the Phoenix gave out the primeval call it initiated all those [calendrical] cycles, so it is the patron of all division of time, and its temple at Heliopolis became the centre of calendrical regulation.1

This confirms what we suspected, that the notion of the phoenix is closely related to the Great Pyramid as the epoch and timekeeper of pharaonic kingship, both mythical and historical. The shafts from the King’s and Queen’s Chambers are calendrical in that they point towards specific stars and fixed their precessional and other cycles; the phoenix, on the other hand, was the herald or bringer of these cycles. There is therefore a link between the phoenix and the pyramid as timekeepers of the stars of Orion and, by extension, the ‘soul’ of the Osiris-kings. In the Book of the Dead (Chapter 17) the question is asked: ‘Who is he? … I am the great phoenix which is in Heliopolis … Who is he? He is Osiris …’, leaving us with little doubt who was the Egyptian phoenix.

The phoenix also had another important function: it was the bringer of the life-giving essence, the hikě, a concept akin to our idea of magic, which the great cosmic bird carried to Egypt from a distant and magical land beyond the earthly world. According to Rundle Clark this ‘was “the Isle of Fire” … the place of everlasting light beyond the limits of the world, where the gods were born or revived and whence they were sent into the world’. Given that the phoenix is closely linked to the soul of Osiris, and is said to come from the ‘place where gods are born or revived’, its origins beyond the world are, quite clearly, the Duat.

The story of the phoenix was recorded in more prosaic terms by Herodotus when he visited Egypt:

There is [a] sacred bird called the phoenix. I have never seen it myself except in pictures, for it is extremely rare, only appearing according to the people of Heliopolis, once in five hundred years, when it is seen after the death of its parent. If the pictures are accurate its size and appearance are as follows: its plumage is partly red and partly gold, while in shape and size it is very much like an eagle. They (the Heliopolitans) tell a story about this bird which I personally find incredible: the phoenix is said to come from Arabia, carrying the parent bird encased in myrrh; it proceeds to the temple of the sun and there buries the body. In order to do this, they say it first forms a ball as big as it can carry, then, hollowing out the ball, it inserts its dead parent, subsequently covering over the aperture with fresh myrrh. The ball is then exactly the same weight as it was at first. The phoenix bears this ball to Egypt, all encased as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the sun. Such is their myth about the bird.2

Although told in the usual storytelling style of the Greek chroniclers, Herodotus actually discussed this matter directly with the priests of Heliopolis and we may suppose that he had no reason to alter the facts. What is more likely, however, is that he unwittingly altered the symbolism of how the Egyptian priests themselves understood the attributes of the phoenix. ‘Arabia’, for example, stood for the ‘east’, the land beyond the horizon where the sun and stars rise, that is ‘the place where the gods are born’. The phoenix came to Egypt to lay its egg, the term ‘ball’ in Herodotus’s tale implies a fairly large specimen. Herodotus also says that it is made of ‘myrrh’, a resin commonly used in the process of mummification.3

What was it that the Egyptians looked upon as the egg or seed of the phoenix which was linked to the soul of Osiris and, consequently, the stellar rituals of rebirth?

As we have said, the Egyptians called the phoenix the bennu. John Baines, Professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, pointed out that the root word ben, was generally used by the Ancient Egyptians to denote sexual, procreational or seeding ideas, such as ‘the semen’, ‘to copulate’, ‘to fertilise’ and so on.4 Interestingly, in Semitic languages the word ben also means seed in the sense of son.5 The direct connection between the bennu/phoenix bird and the Benben Stone kept in the temple of the bennu/phoenix has been made in Chapter One. The fact that the Benben Stone was conical has also been established by many Egyptologists.6 In a very ancient stela dating from the First Dynasty, the phoenix is seen perched on some object, which Rundle Clark called a ‘stone perch’.7 Later it was commonly depicted perched on a pyramidion or a perch fixed on a pyramidion. Various opinions are expressed by Egyptologists as to what or who the Egyptian phoenix was, but the consensus is that it sometimes represented the soul of Ra, at other times the soul of Osiris, and at yet others the ‘Morning Star’.8 Rundle Clark also rightly said that ‘the bird and the stone – if stone it is – are linked together’,9 and that Kurt Sethe, the first acclaimed translator of the Pyramid Texts, identified the Benben Stone with the sacred conical stones of the Greeks and Syrians, the ‘Omphalos or Baetylos’, a term used by historians to signify sacred stones with cosmic attributes.10 Indeed, in the earliest known depiction of the Benben Stone on which the phoenix is perched, the Stone is not pyramidal, as was previously thought; its slopes bulge a little, showing that it was conical.11 It is clear, too, that the Benben Stone was considered a relic of immense value by the pyramid builders, so valuable that it was placed in the holy of holies of Heliopolis, in the focal point of the ‘Mansion of the Phoenix’ and replicas of it placed on the top of great pyramids.12

The conclusion must be that the phoenix was a symbol of divine procreation and rebirth, this magical quality characterised by the seed it deposited in Heliopolis. What, then, was the seed of the phoenix?

II The Seed That Fell From Heaven

We tend to think of meteorites as stones that fall from the sky, though ‘falling star’ and ‘shooting star’ are still used as visual metaphors. The fall of meteorites is spectacular. Historical accounts are in close agreement that a fiery mass appears in the sky; shooting down, it sometimes leaves a luminous trail, and its fall is accompanied by what is often described as ‘thunder’.13 Meteorites enter the earth’s atmosphere at great velocity but are then slowed down by the friction of the air and great heat is generated around the meteorite. This release of heat, which ignites its surface, causes the fireball appearance, the hot gasses which incandesce around it making the fireball appear quite large. As the meteorite tears its way through the air, it also produces shock waves which resound like cannon fire or thunder, which is probably why in earlier times meteorites were associated with storm gods such as Haddad in Phoenicia and Zeus in Greece.14

There are two sorts of meteorites: stone and iron. The iron, for obvious reasons, tend to be black and often larger than the stone variety, since they suffer little or no damage when they hit soft ground. Also, when entering the earth’s atmosphere, some iron meteorites retain their direction of flight rather than roll about. These are called oriented, that is, they maintain their orientation as they fall, like an arrow or pointed cannon shell. As these oriented meteorites are heated during their fiery fall, their front part tends to melt and taper down and, when found usually have the characteristic shape of a cone. Two good examples are the large conical meteorites known as ‘Morito’ and ‘Willamette’.15

There is evidence of religious cults based on the veneration of sacred meteorites in the ancient world. It is well known that the Greeks regarded Delphi as the ‘navel’ of the world. However, the omphalos stone which marked the spot was not the original fetish of Delphi. There was originally a rough stone, believed to have been cast down to earth by the titan Kronos.16 The Delphians believed their stone to be the one cast down by Kronos and called it Zeus Baetylos, a term usually taken to mean meteorite by historians.17Extant drawings show the Zeus Baetylos as ovoid in shape, and about the size of a cannonball. In view of its cosmic origins and characteristic shape, the Zeus Baetylos was almost certainly a meteorite.18 A similar stone was shown to the historian Pausanias (second century AD) at the town of Gythium, which the locals called Zeus-Kappotas (Zeus fallen down). This was probably also a meteorite.19 Pliny (AD23–79) also reported that a ‘stone which fell from the sun’ was worshipped at Potideae and that others had fallen at Aigos-Potamus and at Abydos, near the Hellespont.20

The cult of meteorites was particularly rife in Phoenicia and Syria. At Emessa (Homs), for example, was the shrine of the god Ela-Gabal or Elagabalus, where a sacred relic was described as ‘a black, conical stone’; the chronicler Herodianus tells us that the Emessians ‘solemnly assert it to have fallen from the sky …’ Not far from Emessa, in the temple of Zeus-Hadad, at Heliopolis-Baalbek, were ‘black conical stones’.21 Zeus-Casios, a counterpart of Zeus-Hadad, had his abode on Mount Casios and also had abaetylos sacred to him. In ancient Phrygia (central Turkey) the Great Mother of the Gods, Cybele, was represented at the temple of Pessinus by a black stone said to have fallen from the sky.22 The Cybele cult was particularly widespread and was adopted by the Romans who took it as far as France and England.23

There are many other examples of meteorite worship in many places of the world.24 This is quite understandable because ancient man saw the meteorite as the material representation of the sky gods and, perhaps more specifically, the star gods. We surely do not need any further examples to make the point that the Benben Stone kept inside the Temple of the Phoenix may have been a conical meteorite.

That meteorites played a major role in the formation of religious ideas and in the rebirth cult has been known to Egyptologists since 1933. In-depth studies on the subject were made by G. A. Wainwright, a British Egyptologist and former assistant of Flinders Petrie. These appeared in the Journal of Egyptian Antiquities from 1933 to 1950. Wainwright traced the evolution of the Egyptian ‘meteoritic cult’ and its association with several important gods; in particular, he showed that the ‘aniconic’ (like a cone) form of the Theban god Amun was a meteorite known as the Ka-mut-f,25 quite typical, Wainwright remarked, of small, pear-shaped iron meteorites.26

III The Iron Bones of the Star Gods

Although the pyramids were built before the bronze and iron ages, meteoritic iron was known to the Egyptians of the Pyramid Age.27 The Ancient Egyptian name for iron was bja and, according to Wainwright, ‘meteorites consist of bja’.28 The word bja is mentioned repeatedly in the Pyramid Texts in connection with the ‘bones’ of the star kings:

‘I am pure, I take to myself my iron (bja) bones, I stretch out my imperishable limbs which are in the womb of Nut …’ [PT 530]

‘My bones are iron (bja) and my limbs are the imperishable stars.’ [PT 1454]

‘The king’s bones are iron (bja) and his limbs are the imperishable stars …’ [PT 2051]

As these passages show, there was a belief that when the departed kings became stars, their bones became iron, the heavenly material (meteorites) of which the star gods were made. Such cosmic iron objects were the only material evidence of a tangible land in the sky populated by star souls, and it was easy to see why the stars were thought to be made from bja. Since the souls of departed kings were the stars, they too had bones made of iron.29

This brings us back finally to the Benben Stone of Heliopolis, which I30 and many Egyptologists have associated with a meteorite. Wallis-Budge was the first to suggest that the Benben Stone was a relic similar to the Black Stone of the Ka’aba. The same idea crept into the mind of Egyptologist J. P. Lauer who wrote that the Benben was probably a Bethyl or a meteorite.31 It is thus quite likely that a large oriented iron meteorite fell near Memphis at some time in the third millennium BC, perhaps during the Second or Third Dynasty. From depictions of the Benben Stone,32 it would seem that this meteorite was from six to fifteen tons in mass, and the frightful spectacle of its fiery fall would have been very impressive. The fall would have been presaged by loud detonations caused by the shock waves, and even in daylight a fireball with a long, pluming tail would have been visible from considerable distances. This fire-bird would have evoked the notion of a returning phoenix crashing in from the east (according to theEncyclopaedia Britannica, all meteorites follow the path of the sun). Rushing to the spot where it landed, people would have seen that the fire-bird had disappeared,33 leaving only a black, pyramid-shaped bja object or cosmic egg (the oriented iron meteorite). They would then have taken it to the ancient temple of Atum, to be placed on the sacred column venerated there.34

IV The Seed That Is Osiris

The Pyramid Texts are full of references to the seed of Ra-Atum. The seed in question is that from which Osiris was created in the womb of the sky goddess, Nut, Mother of the Stars: ‘O Ra-Atum, make the womb of Nut pregnant with the “seed” of the spirit (Sahu) that is in her.… [PT 990] … Pressure is in your womb, O Nut, through the “seed” of the god which is in you …’

To which the Osiris-king responds, ‘It is I who am the “seed” of the god which is in you [PT 1416–7] … the Osiris-king is an imperishable star, son of the sky-goddess [1469] … O Ra-Atum, this Osiris-king comes to you, an imperishable spirit … your son comes to you …’ [PT 152].

The two-step process of the stellar transfiguration of an Osiris was briefly discussed earlier,35 where we saw how the corpse was first made into an Osiris-mummiform, then placed inside the rebirth chamber of the sepulchre, where he was to spiritualise himself into a star soul. We learnt that the word for making a mummy in Ancient Egyptian was, not surprisingly, Sahu, synonymous with the name given to the original Osiris when he became the Lord of the Duat.36 The dramatic act of giving life to the mummy was not expected to happen by itself but depended on the devotion and action of the dead king’s eldest son, the new Horus-king who before his coronation was probably called Horus-the-Elder.37 The crucial dramatic ceremony this Horus had to carry out was called ‘the opening of the mouth’, which required that the embalmed body of his father, now in full Osirian regalia, be placed upright in front of a small stand on which was a lotus plant in full bloom. The lotus symbolised the ‘four sons of Horus’ (the king’s grandsons38), who in turn symbolised the ‘four cardinal points’.39 Wearing a hawk-mask, the Horus slowly approached the mummy and, assisted by his ‘four sons’, picked up a small metal cutting instrument, similar to a carpenter’s adze, and struck or cut open the mouth of the Osiris-king. The four sons, using their ‘fingers’ (apparently made of bja), performed the same ritual. These rites were extremely ancient and are described in the Pyramid Texts:

‘O King, I have come in search of you, for I am Horus; I have struck your mouth for you, for I am your beloved son; I have split open your mouth for you … with the adze of Upuaut … with the adze of iron …’ [PT 11–13]

‘… your children’s children together have raised you up, [namely] Hapy, Imsety, Duamutef and Kebhsenuf, [whose] names you have [wholly] made. [Your face is washed], your tears are wiped away, your mouth is split open with their iron fingers …’ [PT 1983–4]

There are three important aspects of this rather bizarre ceremony which demanded our undivided attention. The first was that the adze instrument and also the fingers of the four sons of Horus are said to be made of bja (meteoritic iron).40 This was picked up by G. A. Wainwright in 1931, and discussed in detail in a landmark article entitled ‘Iron In Egypt’.41 Wainwright rightly argued that it was because of the ‘heavenly’ qualities of bja that the ceremony was believed to evoke the magic for the escape of the soul to the stars.42 This is now a well-accepted notion in Egyptology, and was recently repeated by Dr Bernd Scheel, an expert in ancient Egyptian metal-working and tools, who wrote

Iron was [a] metal of mythical character. According to legend, the skeleton [bones] of Seth … was of iron. Iron was called the ‘metal of heaven’ because for a long time the Egyptians knew only meteoric iron, which has a high nickel content. Because of its supposedly divine origin, meteoric iron was used in particular for the production of protective amulets and magic model tools which were needed for the ritual called the ‘opening of the mouth’, a ceremony which was necessary to prepare the mummy of the deceased for life after death.43

What Wainwright and also Mercer, the Canadian Egyptologist who translated the Pyramid Texts in 1952, noticed was that the adze used for opening the mouth was shaped in the form of the constellation of Ursa Major, which the Egyptians called meshtw, the Thigh.44 The German Egyptologist, Bochardt, had, however, argued that it was more probably Ursa Minor.45 A bovine foreleg has the knee bending forwards and thus fits better the shape of Ursa Minor. In any case, these constellations form a pair in the circumpolar region of the sky and are in the region targeted by the two northern shafts in the Great Pyramid. The important cardinal direction for this curious meteoritic and stellar ceremony with the king’s mummy was, then, the circumpolar north, the focal point of which is the celestial pole. During the Pyramid Age this was marked by the star Alpha Draconis, the precise target of the northern shaft of the King’s Chamber. The northern shaft of the Queen’s Chamber pointed to the ‘head’ of Ursa Minor, made up of four stars which, in all probability, represented the adze used by Horus in the ceremony of the ‘opening of the mouth’.

In the Pyramid Texts this instrument is called ‘the Adze of Upuaut’ [PT 13]. Upuaut was, as we have said, the Jackal-god who ‘opened the ways’ and he is clearly represented in the famous Zodiac of Dendera, now in the Louvre Museum, as the circumpolar Horus figure holding Upuaut. The northern shafts are not only set meridionally but, unlike their southern counterparts leading to Osiris-Orion and Isis-Sirius, they have a curious architectural anomaly, which has perplexed Egyptologists and recently has been queried by Rudolf Gantenbrink, who explored them in 1992–3.

19. The Zodiac of Denderah (Ptolemaic Period) Note constellations of Sahu-Orion (Osiris figure) preceded by Taurus; the star Sirius (Isis) over ruminating cow follows Orion

During the conference on 21 June 1993 at the FNTP in Paris, where Gantenbrink, Edwards and I were among the speakers, Rudolf raised the question of this anomaly.47 He pointed out that when he guided his robot up the northern shafts he came to the junction where they meet with the Grand Gallery. Because the Grand Gallery is in the direct path of the shafts, both had to be given a pronounced ‘kink’ westward to bypass the Gallery. Rudolf, who is pragmatic and a thorough rationalist, said he could understand that the architects and builders might have made a mistake in putting the opening of the northern shaft in the Queen’s Chamber directly in line with the Grand Gallery, and then had to detour to bypass this huge obstacle. What he could not understand, was why this was repeated for the northern shaft in the King’s Chamber. He asked the attending Egyptologists – Edwards, Leclant, Lauer, Vercoutter and Kerisel – what they thought of this. Although all are experts on the pyramids of Egypt, no answer was forthcoming. Rudolf then adduced the logical conclusion: the detour or kink was not a mistake but a deliberate design feature. Moreover, these shafts had been given more gentle kinks as they ran past the Grand Gallery and then reverted to their original course.

What was not realised at the time of the conference was that the shafts, with their kinks, appeared to be shaped in the form of the sacred adze. That they were also directed to the circumpolar constellations, one of which symbolised the stellar adze, making this very unlikely to be a coincidence. It now seemed certain that the ceremony for the opening of the mouth had been performed, perhaps several times, inside the Queen’s Chamber.48 We could visualise the Horus-son being led into the Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid to meet the mummy of his dead father: ‘O Horus, this king is Osiris, this pyramid of this king is Osiris, this construction of his is Osiris, Betake yourself to it …’ [PT 1657]. And Horus exclaiming: ‘O King, I have come in search of you, for I am Horus; I have struck your mouth for you, for I am your beloved son; I have split open your mouth for you. I announce him to his mother when she laments him, I announce him to her who was joined to him.’ [PT 11–12].

20. Internal layout of the upper chambers of the Great Pyramid and associated shafts Note kinks in the two northern shafts

Horus performs the potent ritual then presents his four sons, the dead king’s grandchildren: ‘I split open your mouth for you … I open your mouth for you with the Adze of Upuaut, I split open your mouth for you with the Adze of Iron which splits open the mouths of the gods …’ [PT 13]. ‘.. your children’s children together have raised you up, [namely] Hapy, Imsety, Duamutef and Kebhsenuf, [whose] names you have [wholly] made. [Your face is washed], your tears are wiped away, your mouth is split open with their iron fingers …’ [PT 1983–4].

A priest then acts for the dead king who has been struck by the astral power of the bja, and says: ‘I am pure, I take to myself my iron (bja) bones, I stretch out my imperishable limbs which are in the womb of Nut …’ [PT 530] … ‘My bones are iron (bja) and my limbs are the imperishable stars.’ [PT 1454] … ‘The king’s bones are iron (bja) and his limbs are the imperishable stars …’ [PT 2051].

What now astounded us, however, was to discover whence the Horus was summoned to betake himself to the ‘pyramid that is Osiris’. He began his journey towards the pyramid from a place directly due north. According to French Egyptologist Goyon49 this was precisely on the meridional line of the Great Pyramid, 15–75 kilometres away, the site of the ancient city of Khem, later called Letopolis by the Greeks. It provided the son-priest in charge of the opening of the mouth ceremony with the title, Horus of Letopolis.50

Letopolis actually existed before the Pyramid Age,51 and many Egyptologists believed it had served as the central geodetic marker for all other sites in the area.52 This, according to Goyon, was especially the case for the meridional sighting and alignment of the Great Pyramid and, consequently, the whole Giza Necropolis.53 An even more curious revelation was that, according to Wainwright, the city of Letopolis was the ‘Thunderbolt City’, so-called because it was linked with a meteoritic cult: ‘… since the Egyptian religion included a very important ceremony of “Opening of the Mouth” of the dead King with tools made from meteorites, it is no accident that the chief “Opener of the Mouth” lived at the thunderbolt city of Letopolis …’54

In an atlas of Ancient Egypt,55 we found that Letopolis was, as Goyon had said, about fifteen kilometres due north of the Great Pyramid. What Goyon had not said was that Letopolis was also due west of the Temple of the Phoenix at Heliopolis. It thus was on the geodetic point adjoining the meridian of the Great Pyramid and the latitude of the Heliopolis, where the Benben Stone was kept. Letopolis was a signpost to Rostau, the ‘roads of Osiris in the sky’56 It also linked, by latitude and meridian, the Benben Stone with its stylised replica on top of the Great Pyramid. Finally, it brought together, to meet inside the pyramid, the stellar adze of the circumpolar stars with the roads to Osiris in the sky, which could only be the southern shafts. These lead to the land of Osiris in the sky and, of course, to the Duat.

As if this were not mysterious enough, at the end of one of these southern shafts was the closed door which Gantenbrink hoped to open. Assuming that the door concealed a chamber, might it have been modelled on the secret chamber of Thoth spoken of in the Westcar Papyrus? More particularly, could it contain something of perhaps greater significance than a mummy, a statue or other funerary equipment?

We now turned our attention to Heliopolis, where the Benben ‘Phoenix’ shrine once stood.

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