Bennu Bird Picture

The Bennu Bird was an ancient Egyptian deity greatly worshiped in the cult center of one of Egypt’s oldest cities, the city of the sun (named Heliopolis by the Greeks). Its name is derived from the Egyptian word wbn (pronounced weben, ‘to rise brilliantly” or “to shine”) and was first mentioned in a collection of texts from the old kingdom called The Pyramid Texts.
At first it resembled a bird called the Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava). But at the turn of the new kingdom of Egypt (16th-11th century B.C.), Egyptians began interpreting the bird differently. The most common depiction was a bluish-grey heron with a black stripe surrounding it’s eyes and flowing down to it’s neck, a two-feathered crest on it’s head, and an atef crown or a sun dial on it’s head.
The bird was linked with two other Egyptian gods. One was Ra, god of the sun, for being a piece of his soul called a Ba (thus it’s hieroglyphic symbol would later represent Ra himself). The other was Osiris, god of the afterlife, death, life, and resurrection, for springing out of his heart and wearing a crown like his. It was also named ‘the star of the ship of Osiris’ for its connection with the planet Venus.

Creation Myth:

This bird plays a very important role in the creation myth of ancient Egyptians in the city of the sun. They believed the bird created itself from a fire that burned at the top of a sacred tree (a Persea tree, Willow tree, or an Ished tree in other works) and flew over a primordial watery abyss called Nun. It then landed on a rock called a benben stone, an obelisk capstone that represented physical and eternal life, the magical powers of protection, and reincarnation. Then the bird issued a call that determined the nature of creation, began the cycle of time, and enabled Atum, the first Egyptian god in the Pyramid Texts, his creative abilities. Because of this, the bird was the god of time, linked with the inundation of the Nile River, and considered as the Lord of the Royal Jubilee (a form of resurrection and rebirth like the rising and setting sun).
The city was said to have been built around the same tree the bird first created itself on, and housed it in the open courtyard of the city’s sun temple of Ra. Many time-keeping devices were built in the temple for the bird’s association with the divisions of time, and it was often thought that the fruit from the tree would give eternal life and knowledge of ‘the divine plan’ once eaten.
During the time of its worship, it was thought the bird will return from it’s original home in Arabia every 500 years. But when the bird reaches an age of 1461 years, on the twelfth day of Khoiok in the season of Aket (inundation), people of the city would have a festival known as the day of transformation. On that day, the bird was said to return in the form of the rising sun to it’s sanctuary in the open courtyard of the temple, build a nest of herbs and cinnamon twigs on the tree, and then ignite it with the power of the sun, shining itself upon the world. It would be burned alive and revitalized afterward, representing the sun shining to renew the world (much like a new years celebration).

Explaining the Myth:

Ancient Egyptians believed that any phenomena in nature was the work of the divine, and tried to use these forces to their own benefit through worship, rituals, and sanctuaries for these forces. The forces took the form of gods, which were depicted as either people, animals, or a mix of the two who wanted to help humanity. But unlike what most people think about these gods, their descriptions are neither literal nor constant. A way a god is interpreted was to symbolize the god’s role in nature and his or her overall characteristics. These depictions also changed over time as importance to individual gods changed. During these changes, syncretism would take place. Syncretism is when two or more gods are unified to form one god, and the ancient Egyptians did this to reflect relationships between certain elements in nature. The Bennu Bird is such an example of syncretism.
The bird has a relationship with the gods Ra, Osiris, and Atum from the creation myth, and a lot of features and characteristics appear to be derived from these gods as well. The bird represents the same powers of the sun, creation, and recreation as the three other gods, and its origin was derived from another form of the creation myth. Multiple forms of the creation myth exist in ancient Egypt, but in this variation, Atum (or Amun-Ra or Ra in other versions) began creation by mating with his own shadow. He spat out Shu, god of air and provider of the principles of life, and vomited out Tefnut, goddess of moisture and provider of the principles of order. But there was no origin for the forces of time.
The most fundamental of Egypt’s natural features were sunlight, the solar cycle, regular rhythms in nature, and the agricultural cycle of the Nile river. Like all the gods of ancient Egypt, the interpretations of the Bennu Bird were derived by qualities people at the time saw in things in nature, such as animals. With this in mind, the heron would be the more likely origin of the Bennu Bird myth. What kind of heron though is up for debate (some believe it to be the great blue heron, the purple heron, and a larger extinct species that lived 5000 years). No matter what species, herons on the Nile River will stand on high rocks when the river flooded. This sight may have made people associate herons with the creation myth involving Atum. The chaotic waters in both myths were derived from the hardship and flooding of the Nile, and the benben stone originated from the tips of boulders that haven’t completely submerged. The heron was thus given qualities from other gods, Ra and Osiris, to make a deity that represented the link between creation, reincarnation, and the solar cycle: time.

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