Great Swan Meets Firebird

Birds have long been a symbol of the energy (shakti) and movement of the Spirit, and may be the predecessors of angels. To the Romans aves meant both “birds” and “ancestral spirits.” Sun-birds/ soul-birds had various names in various cultures, starting perhaps with the benu bird of Egypt. In the Middle Ages the idea of the “phoenix,” or “fire bird” or “crimson god-bird” spread to many lands, probably from Phoenicia.

A modern day sacred bird is the white dove of Christianity which represents the third aspect of the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The American bald eagle has long been a sacred spirit bird to Native Americans. India has several sacred birds, and the white swan is one of them. Swans are said to be able to separate out milk from a mixture of milk and water, symbolizing the ability to discriminate between the unchanging essence and the changing phenomena. Swans are symbols of light and Light of lights, as well as of high culture.

In 1901 Swami Vivekananda, a foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, designed a swan-serpent emblem, pictured above, for the newly founded Ramakrishna Math. The meaning of the emblem he gave as follows: The lotus – Bhakti Yoga (power of love). The rising sun – Jnana Yoga (power of intelligence). The encircling serpent – Raja Yoga (will power). The wavy waters – Karma Yoga (power of action). The swan – the Supreme Self or Over-soul. When these 4 Yogas are practiced in a harmonious fashion the vision of the Supreme Self is obtained.

Many other things can be obtained also, such as “creative ingenuity” as described by Revered Swami Sridharananda of Australia. When the four yogas are practiced in harmony, great insight, wisdom and creativity can be applied to any field of action. The inscription on the bottom of the emblem reads “Tatro Hamsah Prachodayaat” or “May the Supreme Being illumine us; may that Inner Spirit inspire and guide us.” Sri Ramakrishna himself is sometimes referred to as “Paramahamsa,”or “the Great Swan.” The title refers to the highest level of spiritual realization a person may have in this life.

It is interesting to note that Sri Ramakrishna had another interpretation of “the swan” (see The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna pp784-5): “There are two entities: (1) jiivaatmaa – the embodied soul, and (2) Paramaatmaa – the Supreme Soul. The embodied soul is the bird (or swan). The Supreme Soul is like the aakaasha (space-sky); it is the Chidaakaasha – the sky of Consciousness. Captain said to me: ‘Your embodied soul flies into the aakaasha of Consciousness. Thus you go into samaadhi.’” Perhaps Sri Ramakrishna would have said that the sky around and over the swan represents the Supreme Self, and the swan itself represents the individual self.

In the City of Phoenix Arizona we now have a meeting of the Great Swan and the ancient Phoenix Bird. What an amazing mixture of cultures and religions these two represent. The city got it’s name for two reasons: (1) temperatures in Phoenix Arizona average over 100 degrees about 5 months in a year, therefore the sun is a very prominent feature, and (2) it was recognized that the city was a resurrection of ruins of a former Native American civilization. For more than 1000 years, the Hohokam people created about 135 miles of irrigation canals, making the desert lands along the Salt River and Gila River habitable.

Phoinix means “crimson” in Greek and “god” in Phoenician. It represents the human soul’s rebirth or the god’s resurrection. The existence of the phoenix was quoted in the Middle ages as an argument supporting the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only one phoenix is said to exist at any time, it lives for hundreds of years, burns up at the end of a cycle, and is born again from it’s own ashes.

There is a great deal of world mythology related to the phoenix. It is interesting that modern science says our sun will eventually explode and burn up – similar to a phoenix. The phoenix and many other sacred birds, are symbols of high virtue, grace, power, prosperity, peace, strength and purity of life. Phoenix Arizona is the 5th most populous city in the USA and is one of the largest by land area. It is a popular retirement location due to its dry climate and mild winters. It is a good place to reflect on the meaning of life. Come and see us!


The Women’s Dictionary of Symbols by Barbara G. Walker, Phoenix AZ