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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creature Feature: Bennu Heron.

Sometimes, it's really hard to tell how a myth got started. Where did mermaids come from, for example? Not all of us are going to buy that sailors were drunk enough to think that manatees were alluring sirens. Luckily, the origins of the Egyptian phoenix, or Bennu, are traceable to a single, extinct species of heron. Fancy that.

The origin of the Bennu is known only from the bones of a large heron species, dubbed Ardea bennuides after the phoenix. Another likely base is the Goliath Heron, even though it looks absolutely nothing like the sketches. Although the bird was indeed around in the age of man, it had an ironically-short lifespan; there are no Bennu Herons in this day and age. 

The mythical Bennu was the archetypal firebird: there was only one in existence, and it was certainly immortal. The sacred stone it perched upon, the ben-ben, was said to have been around since the dawn of creation, thus linking the Bennu with time - a sort of avian sundial. It was even linked to the Nile's flood cycle.More than just an immortal firebird, the Bennu was also thought to be the soul of Ra, the (main) Egyptian sun god. In later times, the simple hieroglyph of the Bennu was used to represent Ra. So, yes, it was a very potent symbol.


Unfortunately, much less is known about the Bennu Heron. What we do know is that it was larger than the Goliath Heron. It probably had similar nesting habits to other herons in the area. Although the two-plumed crest of Osiris was likely exaggerated, nearly all drawings of it emphasize the symmetrical plumes. It was likely gray-blue on the top and white on the bottom. Mind, these are all from ancient Egyptian drawings, so it's not like they could go into PhotoShop and take a spin on the color wheel.

This is, for once, not a case of "OMG humans wiped a mythical bird out!" This heron's remains were found in areas dating 2500-2000 BCE in the United Arab Emirates. If it was wiped out by humans, they weren't killing it in any of the modern ways. Nobody knows how it died. For now, its bones have revealed the root of one of the most beloved legends of all time. Let's see if more bits of evidence rise from the ashes.

Until then, however, please have this Moltres. ;)

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