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Thursday, May 21, 2015

C is for Cendrawasih/ PHOENIX SONG

Illustration by Martina Peluso. Pre-order the book from: 

Many don't know that there are two separate legends of the Phoenix. The first is the Fire bird from Central Asia, Russia and the Near East. The Phoenix is the emblem of ancient Lebanon which used to be called Phoenicia. Its people were the Phoenicians, the people of the Phoenix. This is the bird which builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs and then burst into flames, singing its most beautiful song as it dies, only to be reborn again from its own ashes.The Phoenix represents the element of fire and symbolises immortality

The Fire Bird  of  the Near East (royalty free image)

Then there is the Chinese Phoenix or Feng Huang. This bird is associated with Spring and the renewal of life. It's arrival is heralded by fine misty rain and barren land suddenly bursting into life and withered plants blooming into flowers. The Chinese Phoenix is also known as the Vermilion Bird of the South and is one of the Celestial Guardians. This legendary bird is also the emblem of the Empress of China.

The Chinese Phoenix (royalty free image)

According to Chinese or rather Taoist traditions, there are four Celestial Guardians of the four cardinal points or meridians: the Azure Dragon of the East (representing the element of wind), the Vermilion Bird of the South (representing the element of fire!), the White Tiger of the West (representing the element of water) and finally, the Black Tortoise of the North (representing the element of Earth). The Black Tortoise is sometimes represented as the Tortoise-Snake, a strange chimera of tortoise tied to a snake.

The four legendary guardians of the four meridians. Illustrations from finiens

I wanted to find out if there is an equivalent to the Chinese Phoenix in Malay folklore. I believe this is the Cendrawasih ( pronounced Chendrawasih.) There is some confusion over the the identity of the Cendrawasih, because it now refers to a group of birds known as Birds of  Paradise i.e. birds which are very real. In fact, this has led some people into believing that the real Birds of Paradise carry a magical blue gem in their body! One only hopes that the mixed identity does not lead to the decimation of these beautiful birds...

Anyway, this Facebook thread gives an idea of the opinions out there:

A question for the culture experts out there: What is the Malay name for the Phoenix? Jentayu, Rajawali or Cenderawasih? According to most blogs it's Jentayu but that seems quite unlikely to me. Jentayu is a robust, vulture like bird. I think it's Cenderwasih - mainly because of batik prints of the bird!
 — feeling conflicted.
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