Boo the Cat Boo the Cat. 1987-2002.


Alexander Ross (1652) Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chapter 21, pp. 201-207..


1. The existence of the Phœnix proved by divers reasons: and the contrary objections refelled: the strange generation of some birds. 2. The Ancients cleared concerning the Phœnix, and whether the Phœnix be mentioned in Scripture. Divers sorts of generation in divers creatures. The Conclusion, with an Admonition not to sleight the Ancients opinion and Doctrine.

BEcause the Doctor following the opinion of Pererius, Fernandus de Cordova, Francius, and some others, absolutely denies the existence of the Phœnix, 1 I will in some few positions set down my opinion concerning this bird. 1. I grant that some passages concerning this bird are fabulous; as that he is seen but once in 500 years, that there is one onely in the World; or if there be two, that the old Phœnix is buried by the younger at Heliopolis. 2. These fabulous narrations doe not prove there is no such bird, no more then the fables that are written of Saint Francis, prove that there was never any such man. 3. Nor doth it follow, that there is no such bird, because some write, they never read of any who had seen a Phœnix; for though these few who write of this bird, did never see him in a picture, yet the Ægyptians, from whom they had the knowledge of the Phœnix, did see him. Tacitus writes, That no man doubts but that this bird is sometime see in Ægypt, Aspici aliquando in Ægypto hanc volucrem non ambiguitur, Ann. l. 6.2 There are some creaturs in Africa and the Indies, that were never seen by any of those who writ their histories, the knowledge whereof they have onely by relation from the inhabitants.3 4. Though Ægypt was the mother of many fictions, as Pererius sheweth, yet it will not follow that the Phœnix is a fiction, or that Ægypt was not also the School of many truths; for the Græcians from thence had the their knowledge and wisdom, Orpheus, Homer, Musæus, the Poets; Lycurgus, and Solon, their Law-givers; Plato & Pythagoras, their Philosophers; Eudoxus and other Mathematicians, were all Scholars in Ægypt. 5. That there is but one Phœnix, is not against Philosophy and Logick, which teacheth us, That the species can be preserved in one individuall, Pererius sheweth, That this is only true in things incorruptible, as in the Sun and Moon; but I say, that this is true also in things subject to corruption; for in these, though the individuals be corruptible, yet the species are eternall; and it skils not how few the particulars be, so long as the species can be preserved in one; and though there be no individuall actually existent, yet the species can be preserved; for in Winter the species of Roses is not perished, though there be no individuall Roses actually existent; for even then they have their being and essence, though their existence be but potentially in the ashes, as the forms of the elements are in the mixed bodies, or as the form of a cock is in the egg, which by the heat of the hen or Sun, is actually educed. 6. Whereas Pererius holdeth it inconvenient, that so noble a species as the Phœnix is, should have but one individual, subject to so many dangers; I answer, That in all beasts and birds, the nobler the species is, the fewer are the individuals; there are not so many Eagles as Doves, nor Elephants as Rabbets, and Nature is so provident in the conservation of the species, that where there be few of the kind, they live long, and have their abode in some remote rocks, mountains, Islands and Desarts, from the dangers they are subject to by men, as Eagles, and the Phœnix, which is seen but seldom. Now multitude of individuals doth not argue the nobility of the species, but rather imperfection; for it proceeds from the division of the matter, whereas unity noteth perfection, as issuing from the act and form of things.4 7. Whereas Fernander sheweth, it's a miracle that the Phœnix can never be taken dead or alive; I answer, It is a miracle in nature, and we know there be many naturall secrets and miracles: is it not a miracle that the Manucodiata, or bird of Paradise, is found dead sometimes, but was never seen alive, neither was there any meat or excrement found in his belly? how he should be fed, where his abode is, from whence he cometh (for his body is found somtime on the sea, somtime on the land) no man knows; the Phœnix is somtime seen alive, but seldome, because provident Nature hath given him that instinct for the preservation of his kind, that he appears to man, that great tyrant over creatures, but seldome; for had Heliogabalus, that Roman Glutton, met with him, hee had devoured him, though there were no more in the world. Nature hath given to each creature so much policie, as to preserve themselves from danger; and the fewer there be of that kind, the more wary and cautelous they are; and if it be true that Pliny and others write of the Ravens, that their nests can never be found,5 it is a great miracle, which perhaps may be so in Italy, yet in the rocks of Norway, Shetland, and other Northern places, their Nests are found. But it is more to bee admired, that Ravens use to flye to the places where dead bodies are, and by a strange instinct have knowledge of the bodies dying two dayes before they be dead;6 and I think there is as great a miracle in the Loadstone, as there is in the Phœnix. 8. It is as possible for a Phœnix to arise out of the ashes of the dead parent, as for a silk-worm to proceed out of the Egge of the dead Worm. If any reply, that the one is perfect, the other imperfect; I answer, That every thing is perfect in its own kind, and in generation; Nature looks not at the perfection or imperfection of the creature, but to the aptitude and disposition of the matter to receive such a form, Again, a Cock, which is a perfect creature, is excluded out of the Egge by the heat of the Sun, or Fire; and Scaliger speaks of a bird that was found in a shell, the learned men of that time concluded, That the Oyster was turned into a bird. I take it to be as great a wonder for a Mule, which is a perfecter creature then a bird, to be generated of the seed of another kind, then that the Phœnix should arise out of the putrified ashes; That the Clakgeese7 are generated of trees in the North-seas, beyond Scotland, is not altogether fabulous; the inhabitants thereabout at this day constantly believe it. They are observed every year to flye from the North to Shetland and Orkney, where I have been; in the beginning of Winter they come thither, in the Spring they flye away Northward in flocks, which must be to Norway or Greenland, for I know no other land they can repair to Northward. Island is Northwest, but neither in these places, nor any where else, could their nests be ever yet found. Besides, bodies of old trees that have been driven upon these Islands by the winds, have had upon them the full proportion and shape of those birds. And why should this be more incredible then that which Scaliger writes of a certain tree in the river Juverna, whose leaves falling into the water, receive the form & shape of fishes, and life withall; and of that tree in the Isle Cimbulon, whose leaves falling on the ground, move themselves backward & forward; being touched, they go back: one of these was kept 8 dayes alive in a platter. 9. Whereas Fernandus asketh, whether every parcell of the dead Phœnix his ashes hath an aptitude to become a new Phœnix; if it hath, then (saith hee) there is more then one Phœnix; if it have not, what is the reason that one part of these ashes should have this aptitude, and not the other; I answer, All that heap of ashes is but one body, of which is produced one Phœnix, as one bird out of one egge, and not many out of the severall parts thereof. 10. Though Aristotle and some others make no mention of the Phœnix, it will not follow that therefore there is no such bird extant; for there are many kinds of creatures of which they write not. 11. It is likely that the bird Semenda in the Indies, which burneth her self to ashes, out of which springs another bird of the same kind, is the very same with the old Phœnix. 12. The testimony of so many Writers, especially of the Fathers, proving by the Phœnix the Incarnation of Christ, and his Resurrection, and withall our resuscitation in the last day; doe induce me to believe there is such a bird, else their Arguments had been of small validity among the Gentiles, if they had not believed there was such a bird.8 What wonder is it, saith Tertullian, for a virgin to conceive, when the Eastern bird is generated without copulation, Peribunt homines, avibus Arabiæ de resurrectione sua securis. Shall men utterly perish (saith he) and the birds of Arabia be sure of their resurrection? The existence of this bird is asserted by Herodotus, Seneca, Mela, Tacitus, Pliny, Solinus, Ælian, Lampridius, Aur. Victor, Laertius, Suidas, and others of the Gentile Writers. The Christian Doctors who affirm the same, are, Clemens, Romanus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Nazianzenus, Ambrose, Augustine, Hierom, Lactantius, and many others.9

Now out of what we have spoken, we can easily answer the Doctors objections whic he hath collected out of Pererius, Fariundes,10 Franzius, and others; as first, when he saith, That none of those who have written of the Phœnix, are oculary describers thereof. Ans. Neither was Aristotle, Gesner, Aldrovandus, and others, who have written largely of beasts, birds, and Fishes, ocular witnesses of all they wrote:11 they are forced to deliver much upon hear-say and tradition: So those that write the later stories of American and Indian animals, never saw all they write of. Secondly when he saith, [That Herodotus, Tacitus, and Pliny, speak so dubiously, that they overthrow the whole relation of the Phœnix.] Answ. Herodotus doubteth not of the existency of the Phœnix, but onely of some circumstances delivered by the Heliopolitans, to wit, that the younger Phœnix should carry his Father wrapt up in Myrrh, to the Temple of the Sun, and there bury him; so Tacitus denieth not the true Phœnix, but onely saith, That some hold the Phœnix there described, which was seen in the dayes of Ptolomy in Egypt, not the right Phœnix spoken of by the Ancients. The words of Pliny are falsified by the Doctor, who cites them thus: Sed quæ falsa esse nemo dubitabit: whereas the words are, Sed quem falsum esse nemo dubitabit:12 So that he doth not say, That what is written of the Phœnix is false; but onely that this Phœnix which was brought to Rome in the Consulship of Claudius, was false, and not the right one. 3. He saith, That they who discourse of the Phœnix, deliver themselves diversly, contrarily, or contradictorily. Answ. There is no contradiction except it be (ad idem) most of them agree in substance, that there is a Phœnix, they onely differ in the accidents and circumstances of age, colour, and place.13 We must not deny all simply that is controverted by Writers: for so we might deny most points in Divinity and Philosophy. 4. He saith the word Phœnix in Job 29.4814 can have no animall signification, because there is expressed ste/lexoj foini/koj, the trunk of the Palm-tree; and the Hebrew word is by Tremellius rendred Sand. Answ. The same which properly signifieth the trunk of the Palm, may metaphorically be meant of the body of the Phœnix. For the same word in Greek is given both to the Palm and Phœnix; for as the one is long green, so the other is long-lived: but the Hebrew word lwx hhol15 in that place, though expounded Sand by Tremellius, yet signifieth a Phœnix, as both Pagnin, Montanus, Buxtorsius, and other Hebricians affirm; and so doth R. Salomon with other ancient Hebrewes expound this Text of the Phœnix, consonant to which is the Tygurin Version, so Tertullian; Phillipus Presbyter, and Cajetan expound this place of the Phœnix, being the symbole of our resurrection, & of a long life. And it seems that the word Phœnix is more consonant to the Text then Sand, because Job speaks of his nest: I shall die in my nest (saith he) and shall multiply my dayes as the Phœnix. 5. He saith, [That the existence of the Phœnix is repugnant to the Scripture, which affirms, there went of every sort two at the least into the Ark. It infringeth also the benediction of multiplication, Gen. 1. For they cannot be said to multiply who do not transcend an unity.] Answ. When the Scripture speakes of two that entred into the Ark of every sort, it means of those that were distinguished into male and female: for the end why these went in by couples was for procreation, now the Phœnix hath no distinction of Sex, and therefore continueth not his species by copulation, as other creatures do. Hence though he enters into the Ark, it was not needfull he should be named among those that went in by couples and sevens. For how could hee that was but one, be said to goe in two and two, or male and female. As for the benediction of multiplication, it was not pronounced or enjoyned to the Phœnix, which was not capable of it, God having supplied the want of that with another benediction equivalent, which was a longer life then other animals, and a peculiar way to continue the species without multiplication of the Individuum. 6. He saith, That to animal generation is required the concurrence of two Sexes, and therefore such as have no distinction of Sex, engender not at all, as Aristotle conceives of Eeles, and testatious animals. Ans. Aristotle de gen. animal. l. 3 c. 10. shewes that there is no distinction of sex in divers Fishes, and Bees, which notwithstanding generate.16 But when he speaks of Eels in historia animal, he shews they do not generate at all, not because they want distinction of sex, as the Doctor saith; for he speaks of divers creatures that generate without that distinction; but because there is not in them wotokia, a production or generation of egges or spawn; for all those kind of Fishes, saith he, which generate, have spawn or egges in them, which Eels want.17 Again, he shews in his first book de gener. animal. c. 1. That sanguine creatures are distinguished into male and female, except a few, saith he:18 If then there be some sanguine animals without sex, what wonder is it if the Phœnix have none? As for testacious animals, they want distinction of sex, because they are, as he saith, Immoveable alone, and stick to rocks, having as it were the life of plants, and therefore are no other wise distinguished into male and female then plants are, which is not properly but analogically. 7. He argueth, That if the worm into which the Phœnix is corrupted, becommeth a Phœnix, this would confound the generation of perfect and imperfect animals, and the lawes of Nature. Again, the generation of venemous animals is not from a corruption of themselves, but rather a seminal and specifial diffusion. Answ. The generation of the Phœnix is no confusion or disturbance of Natures laws, which delights in variety of productions. Therefore in plants we see some produced by their seed, some by their roots without seed; some by their stems onely without root or seeds; some without any of these, immediatly of the earth: So in animals some are generated by coition of male and female in the same kind, as Men, Lions, Horses &c. Some by coition of different kinds, as Mules; some without coition, by affriction onely, as divers Fishes; some are produced by the female without the male, as the fish Erythinus, which some think to be the Rochet; some by reception of the females ogan within the male, as flies; some by a salivious froth as the shell fishes called the Purple; some are progenerated of slime without coition, outwardly in the mud, as Eels; some without coition, but within the body of the parents, as Bees: And lastly, the Phœnix is begot without coition, of its own putrified body, at which the Doctor wonders how it should be, [seeing the generation of Insects is not by corruption of themselves, but rather a seminall diffusion.] To which I answer with Aristotle, speaking of Bees, that as they have a proper and peculiar kind of Nature differing from all other creatures, so it was fit they should have genesin idion, a peculiar and proper kind of production. The like I may of the Phœnix, which is a miracle in nature, both in his longevity, numericall unity, and way of generation. And in this wonderfull variety the Creator manifests his wisdome, power and glory.

Thus have I briefly an cursorily run over the Doctors elaborate book, tanquam canis ad Nilum, having stoln some hours from my universall History,19 partly to satisfie my self and desires of my friends, and partly to vindicate the ancient Sages from wrong and misconstruction, thing it a part of my duty to honor and defend their reputation, whence originally I have my knowledge, and not with too many in this loose and wanton age, slight all ancient Doctrines and Principles, hunting after new conceits and whimzies, which though specious to the eye at the first view, yet upon neer inspection and touch, dissolve like the apples ofSodom into dust. I pitie to see so many young heads still gasping like Camelions for knowledge, and are never filled, because they feed upon airy and empty phansies, loathing the sound, solid and wholsome viands of Peripatetick wisdome, they reject Aristotles pure fontains, and digge to themselves cisternes that will hold no water; whereas they should stick close and adhere as it were by a matrimoniall conjunction to sound doctrine, they go a whoring as the Scripture speaketh) after their own inventions.20 Let us not wander then any longer with Hagar in the wild desart where there is no water; for the little which is in our pitcher, wil be quickly spent; but let us return to our Masters house, there we shal find pure fountains of ancient University learning. Let Prodigals forsake their husks, and leave them to swine, they will eat bread enough at home: And as dutifull children let us cover the nakednesse of our Fathers with the Cloke of a favourable Interpretation.





1. In Pseudodoxia III.xii, one of the most closely reasoned and supported chapters of the work. Ross's argument here is particularly obtuse, even by his standards, and ignores Browne nearly completely.

2. Tacitus: Annales VI.6.28. Ross has left out the beginning of the sentence to make the text support his argument.

3. Cf. the jackelope.

4. Presumably Ross would exempt Man from this calculation, as he outnumbered Eagles and Elephants even in Ross's day.

5. Pliny on ravens' nests.

6. Browne alludes in passing to this error, Pseudodoxia V.xxii.

7. Or claik-goose; the barnacle-goose, Branta (or Anas) leucopsis; the term is also used of barnacles proper. The barnacle-goose nests in the Arctic.

8. Uhoh. With friends like Ross, orthodox Christianity has no need of enemies.

9. Tertullian, De resurrectione carnis, XIII, but Tertullian is relying in part on a misunderstanding of Psalm 92. The quality of the various "assertions" cited by Ross is not high; see, for instance, Herodotus, II.73, who tells a variant of the phoenix story, but clearly (he says so) disbelieves it, on which see also the commentary this section (later in the chapter, Ross denies that Herodotus doubts the existence of the phoenix, but he is clearly mistaken); Seneca, Ep. 42, where the phoenix is more a prop than a natural being; Aur. Victor 4.14 (Claudius), where the sight of the phoenix in Egypt is mentioned in a list of more or less implausible ill omens; Tacitus, Annales VI.28 (as above) gives a variant of Herodotus's story, with an "aiunt", along with several comments (including the peculiar idea that the particular phoenix in question is "spurious" and unacquainted with the true habits of phoenixes); Pliny X.3 (englished) and following gives yet another description; and so on down the list. It is to be remarked that not one of these authorities claims to have seen a phoenix, and most of them specifically say the story is fabulous (although many then add that there must be something, since so many tell the story). Of the Christian sources, the most famous is the long poem of Lactantius, Phoenix.

10. Fernandius? Much of Browne's material derives from him. "whic he": sic.

11. Ross, as often, begs the question: no ocular witness of the phoenix has left an account; indeed, none of the writers in question claims even second-hand evidence.

12. Browne has not "falsified" Pliny, but he does follow an alternate reading. Editions of Pseudodoxia subsequent to 1646 have a sentence explaining this; if this is in response to Ross, it is possibly the only such response recorded. The text as now accepted supports Ross, although Ross does not point out that Pliny begins the relation with a warning that the story is probably fabulous. Pliny X.3 , as above.

13. In short, they agree that there is such a word, but that's all they agree on. (As printed, 1652 has "age, colour, ann place".)

14. Sc. Job 29:18, which has "sand" in all major English translations ("palma" in the Vulgate).

15. Sic; presumably khol. The word occurs some twenty times in the Bible, and is always translated "sand".

16. In a long and peculiarly wrong-headed argument, Aristotle says (but does not affirm) that bees may reproduce without distinction of sexes. His problem arises from a refusal to believe that bees are female ("because nature does not provide females with weapons", i.e., sting) or that drones are females (because they do not care for the offspring, which is, says Aristotle, the job of the female); the corollary is that bees are not male (because they do take of the young) and drones are not males (they don't have stings). Ergo, neither is male, and neither is female; therefore no generation by sexual congress. (There are other problems arising from the belief that the offspring of bees are not always bees, but that's another question.) The final conclusion, however, is not Ross's, but is in fact close to the real case: Aristotle posits a third class of bee, the "leaders" — the queens, we might say, or kings, as he says — and gives to them the power of reproduction (the general idea is correct, although the details are odd in Aristotle's version.) As often, Ross takes a "it may be" and turns it into "it is". [We might note, in passing, that Ross begins the chapter with admitting that the stories of the phoenix's singularity (and therefore presumably his reproductive pattern) are fabulous, and then proceeds to show that they aren't. There are many other inconsistencies in this particular chapter — for instance, compare what is said here about the manucodiata with what is said in Chapter 7. Perhaps this chapter was written first.]

17. Aristotle says that those who say that they have observed the young of eels are mistaken. A perusal of the History of Animals and the Generation of Animals does not incline the reader to rely heavily on their zoological conclusions, nor does it increase his respect for the philosopher behind them.

18. He says a good deal more than that, in fact, although much of it is contradicted elsewhere; Gen. Animal. I.i:

Now some animals come into being from the union of male and female, i.e. all those kinds of animal which possess the two sexes. This is not the case with all of them; though in the sanguinea with few exceptions the creature, when its growth is complete, is either male or female, and though some bloodless animals have sexes so that they generate offspring of the same kind, yet other bloodless animals generate indeed, but not offspring of the same kind; such are all that come into being not from a union of the sexes, but from decaying earth and excrements. To speak generally, if we take all animals which change their locality, some by swimming, others by flying, others by walking, we find in these the two sexes, not only in the sanguinea but also in some of the bloodless animals; and this applies in the case of the latter sometimes to the whole class, as the cephalopoda and crustacea, but in the class of insects only to the majority.

19. We can only say that we wish he had stoln more, or fewer, hours from his Universall History. The numerous typos in this paragraph, by the way, are Ross's.

20. Normally after idols, gods, wizards or devils: e.g., Ex. 34:15-16; Levit. 20:6; Deut. 31:16; etc.

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