Designing the phoenixes of Tselaya MountainPosted: August 12, 2014
I’ve been doing some rough draft work for Tinder Stricken, and a lot of thinking about the new book’s world. It’s been a while since I did extensive worldbuilding for a writing project! The Stories of Aligare setting has been firm in my mind for years now, with only the smaller details and customs that needed defining. It’s a nice change to design a completely different realm — and the creatures in it.
Which brings me to the phoenixes! Greek mythology usually refers to the phoenix as a large, magical, immortal bird that periodically douses itself in fire and rises up renewed from its own ashes. That renewal symbolism is a great selling point for a mythological creature and it’s been interpreted variously over the years, even embraced by early Christian symbolism.
The phoenix has differing physical descriptions, depending on which ancient text you consult. It’s usually said to have a crest of feathers on its head, and red/yellow colouring that suits a fiery creature. Other than that, they’re up to the individual’s imagination. Sometimes the phoenix is the size of an eagle or a rooster, other times it’s said to dwarf an ostrich. (I suspect that the stated size has to do with whether people wanted to carry the legend on their arm like a trained falcon, or ride it through the sky.)
There are other cultural representations of phoenix-like birds, such as the Slavic firebird, or the simurgh sometimes said to plunge itself into fire after 1 700 years of life. And some mythical creatures are loosely compared to the phoenix just because they’re legendary birds.
In particular, the fenghuang is often called a “Chinese phoenix”, although it’s not fire-aspected. Fenghuang are legendary birds associated with femininity, justice, honour and the various celestial forces, and sometimes used to symbolize the ruling empress. Fenghuang were originally described as elaborate chimera creatures (much like Asian dragons) but more modern depictions of fenghuang are mostly fusions of peacocks, pheasants, cranes, ducks and swallows. To be fair, they do look a lot like a Western phoenix.
And can we consider Harry Potter a legitimate folklore source for phoenixes? I think we can, since the series is so far-reaching. Fawkes the phoenix has the crest, long tail and colouration of a traditional phoenix, and he bursts into flames to recover from periodic death. His feathers are powerful magical items that can be made into wizarding wands. And Fawkes also has some less traditional special abilities — such as healing tears, teleportation, and an enormous carrying capacity — that phoenix lore is able to support. Surely, a creature magical enough to be healed by fire must have some other amazing traits, right? J.K. Rowling was able to put her own spin on the mythology.
Because much like dragons, the phoenix has a lot of long-standing mythology to draw from, but not many stone-set rules. A phoenix can be recognisable while still being different from what we’re expecting. I love it when the fantasy genre does that!
I’ve used phoenix lore alredy in my Aligare world — as Phoenix the Legend Creature, said to cause volcanic eruptions each time she throws herself into the renewing “firerock”. Now, with Tinder Stricken, I’m using phoenixes in a more central role to the story. Much like my Aligare dragons being more approachable interpretations of Earth lore, and mundane in their own world, I’m making the phoenixes of Tselaya into more realism-based creatures. They’re not all-powerful legends. They’re just living things — and a part of the local ecosystem.
These phoenixes are about the size of an eagle, with physiology like a combination of ravens and cranes. They’re omnivorous, snapping up passing insects and other opportunities, but the bulk of their diet is shoots, buds, fruit and seeds from high-magic-content plants. Because such plants are rare in the challenging growing conditions of Tselaya Mountain, phoenixes cultivate some of their food. They use flint and steel to start fires, so that they have fertile ashes to grow seeds and saplings in.
I thought that using striking tools to start their fires would be an interesting take on phoenix lore, since tool use is a well-known sign of intelligence in Earth birds. To that end, phoenixes have stringfeathers — two tough, cord-like tail feathers that they can use to help carry objects. The stringfeathers can be wrapped or tied around the phoenix’s cargo, including their prized bits of fire-starting minerals, or their gathered plant sprigs. The rest of the phoenix’s tail is forked like a swallow’s tail. I figured that a mountain-dwelling bird would face high winds, so they’d need a more practical, flight-assisting tail than the showy display plumes usually seen on a phoenix.
But the crest aspect of phoenix design suits my purposes. Partly due to intelligence and partly due to their magic-rich diet, Tselaya phoenixes are very good at communication. Their three crests of feathers help them express themselves.
And an intelligent, fire-starting bird like that is bound to get on the wrong side of the local humans. Phoenixes are generally considered dangerous pests — but the best way to get rid of a wild phoenix is to have a trained phoenix talk to it and ask it to leave. When Tinder Stricken‘s main character has her family heirloom knife stolen by a wild phoenix, she essentially needs to fight fire with fire. (Huh, I just noticed how conveniently that idiom fits into my scenario.)
So I’m looking forward to working with my own take on various old lore. Phoenixes and similar legendary birds might be well-known and open to interpretation, yet they’re nowhere near as popular as dragons. And unlike werewolves and vampires — which are nearly their own genres — phoenixes don’t often get top billing in fantasy novels. I think that should change! The phoenix is one more aspect of speculative fiction that’s fertile ground for reinvention.