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Q&AZ: Was Phoenix named after the mythical bird?

In mythology, the phoenix is a bird that famously rose from the ashes, and it has endured as a modern-day symbol of rebirth and revitalization. A listener wanted to know if this same bird inspired the name for the city.

Through KJZZ’s Q&AZ reporting project, a listener asked: Was Phoenix named after the mythical bird?

The short answer is yes, but the long answer has more names than just Phoenix.

The story starts with Jack Swilling of South Carolina. He was a former Confederate soldier living in Wickenburg in the 1860s, in what was then the Arizona Territory. He came across the Salt River Valley, where modern-day Phoenix now sits.

“The story goes that he’s kind of traveling through what is now central Arizona, and he stops to rest his horse,” said Jaynie Adams, the history engagement coordinator at the Arizona Historical Society. “He looks around the Salt Valley, and he notices just how fertile the valley is. And he thinks to himself, ‘Well, this is probably a great place to settle down.’”

Despite the desert landscape, the soil was most likely good for crops because of cattle, according to Changbin Chen, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences.

“Many of those cattle from California [were] here,” Chen said. “They added more of the manures into the field, so that can also improve the soil quality in the Phoenix area.”

Cattle farming has been in what is now Arizona since the 1600s, Chen said. Compost from plants were added to the sand and clay soil, improving its quality. Early crops would have included corn, cotton, beans and squash, Chen said.

Water is final piece

The only missing element was water. Swilling was inspired by the canals built by the Hohokam people thousands of years earlier. A new canal was built from the Salt River, and Swilling founded the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company, Adams said.

Swilling’s instincts were correct: Crops began to grow, and people moved to an area just east of present-day Phoenix. They named the area Swilling’s Mill, according to the city of Phoenix. From there, the name changed to Helling Mill and then to Mill City, but those were not the only ideas.

“There were lots of suggestions,” Adams said. “One of the suggestions was to call the place Salina, because of the Salt River. Another suggestion was to call the town Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson, which, you know, would be interesting for us in the present day. And it was even suggested to call the place Pumpkinville because of the presence of wild pumpkins in the area.”

'Like a phoenix rising from the ashes'

It is believed that the name Phoenix was suggested by French pioneer “Lord” Philip Darrell Duppa, who thought of the mythical firebird, the phoenix, according to the city.

At the time of its naming, the valley was part of Yavapai County, and the new electoral precinct formed by the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors officially recognized the city on May 4, 1868.

“Someone basically came forward and said, ‘Well, our townsite is only possible because of the people who came before us, and so why don’t we call it Phoenix as a symbolic gesture,” Adams said. She said it was “kind of pointing at the grand society that existed before us and coming into a new society, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Despite being well known, the mythical phoenix has a mystical origin.

Egyptian origin of myth

“It’s not a Greek story,” said Stephen Scully, a professor in the Classical Studies Department at Boston University. “It’s always an exotic story. Even the Egyptians find it exotic, because the bird doesn’t live in Egypt. It lives far away and is brought back or comes back to Egypt.”

Scully said the tale of the phoenix came to Europe from Greek geographer and historian Herodotus, who learned of the phoenix from the Egyptians.

Herodotus thought the phoenix was a real bird, like the golden pheasant that is sometimes considered a reference, said Philip Waddell, a professor at the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona. Waddell said Herodotus never believed the magical story that went with the phoenix, however.

The story of the phoenix is that there seems to be one that carries an immense weight, said Waddell. Ancient historians thought the phoenix was the size of an eagle and reproduced asexually. The phoenix name may relate to the Venetians, Waddell said.

“Venetian color, Venetian antiquity was famous for its purple dyes,” Waddell said of the phoenix’s color. “The depictions of it are this kind of purple or very vivid red-ish bird.”

Waddell also added that some ancient historians depict the phoenix as a multi-colored bird with a golden head and purple body.

There are two possible scenarios when a phoenix dies, Scully said. Either upon the phoenix’s death, the bird is wrapped in a ball of myrrh gum-resin by its offspring and taken back to Heliopolis, an ancient Egyptian city, or when the bird thinks it is dying, it goes back itself.

Scully said the offspring would bring its dead parent to the temple of the sun god.

“And then the priest sets this dead bird ablaze,” Scully said. “And then out of the ashes emerges new life. A new phoenix, as it were.”

Q&AZ answers more listener questions

Sarah Min Heller is an intern at KJZZ. She is currently a student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and is getting closer to earning a bachelor's degree. She worked at Cronkite News as a digital reporter prior to joining KJZZ.In her spare time, she enjoys listening to different kinds of music, watching old movies and TV shows, and creative writing when she isn't taking care of her family.