The idea of rebirth has been a fundamental element of many religions and mythologies throughout history, from East to West. Why is that so? Why do people of all eras, cultures, and beliefs yearn for a second chance?
Also called metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul after death – rebirth stands for a new or second birth. The idea of passing the spirit to another body, either human or animal, has survived from its origins in ancient Greek philosophy until the most recent times.
In the meantime, however, the term has gone through numerous alterations, adapting its meaning and symbolism to the spirit of the time, providing various phenomena with connotation – from spiritual regeneration to the revival of something else, transmitting the rebirth motif into various uses other than the literal rebirth of the soul.
For example, a physical or spiritual healing or a radical change – individual or collective – all fit in with the idea of rebirth. Phrases like “I felt reborn after that journey,” or “a rebirth of a nation” illustrate the seeping of the idea of rebirth into our everyday lives.
Since rebirth has strong relations to the phenomena of strength and growth, it is inevitable that some of their most powerful symbols overlap, while others are unique and inherent to the symbolism of rebirth and resurrection.
In this article, I will focus on the classical symbols of rebirth in the first place, and then I will reflect on the living creatures most commonly used for the same purpose throughout various traditions.
Phoenix as the Symbol of Rebirth
Phoenix is the ultimate and most notorious symbol of rebirth, the one people always refer to when trying to explain someone’s ability to overcome a difficulty.
The minor part of its symbolism is related to the virtue of strength, as I have already explicated in the article on the topic of strength symbols – due to Phoenix’s ability to overcome death, and its power to win the battle with the dark forces.
In ancient Greek mythology, this immortal bird was associated with the Sun, the principal symbol of life. Therefore, its rebirthing potential came as a logical outcome.
The bird is believed to die and decompose in flames, in order to be born again, arising from its own ashes, and we have incorporated this exact motif into our everyday use of the Phoenix symbol. It used to be depicted with giant wings, wearing a halo with seven rays. The bird was traditionally believed to be in beautiful vibrant colors, from red to peacock-like. Still, the historical sources don’t have a definite consensus about it.
Phoenix has its analogs in other cultures as well. Let’s have a look at them.
Persians had their own counterpart in the Simurgh, legendary gigantic bird nesting on the Tree of Knowledge. This magnificent creature with healing characteristics, related to rebirth, life, divinity, and wisdom, had an important presence in Persian culture and mythology.
The Chinese variant of Phoenix is called the Fenghuang. It is a typically Chinese binary opposition, representing peace, harmony, and balance. Fenghuang signifies both male and female, the yin and yang of the universe, prosperity, as well as Confucian virtues – loyalty, honesty, and justice.
In Slavic folklore, Firebird is considered to be a magical burning bird. Being beautiful and dangerous at the same time, it served as the symbol of both blessing and doom. Various fairy tales throughout Eastern Europe and Russia describe this magnificent and intriguing creature.
Other examples of Phoenix can be found among the traditions of Japan, Turkey, Arabian countries, Georgia, Tibet, and Japan, with specific characteristics depicted in local portrayals. Despite the differences, the symbolism of the ancient, legendary bird remained strong around the world. It includes the ideas of restart, physical and spiritual strength, a new beginning, and new life.
Lotus As the Symbol of Rebirth
Lotus is also among the most famous example of rebirth. Its deep symbolic meaning is regarded in many cultures, especially in the eastern ones. The secret of the lotus flower had been intriguing to people in ancient Egypt when it became an important symbol of rebirth, representing the universe’s potential of revival and new life.
What was so special about it? Its natural characteristics are to blame for the deep symbolism this flower carries since the old days.
Lotus has a life cycle, unlike any other plant. Lotus is an aquatic plant, and the flower grows directly from the muddy bottom of a swamp or a pond. What is more, the plant reblooms every morning, treating the onlookers with a brand new flower. The miracle of this process and its regenerating beauty astounded people since time out of mind, inspiring them in many ways.
Today, we usually relate the lotus flower to Buddhism and Hinduism, where its daily resurrection plays a crucial role.
In Hinduism, it stands for Brahma, the ultimate creator of the universe arising from the lotus flower. In Buddhism, it has several meanings and its symbolism is quite complex. It stands not only for rebirth but also for spiritual development, love, compassion, as well as strength.
Its refusal to accept death and defeat, along with its ability to reborn itself in the same shape, fully intact in spite of the mud that surrounds it, is what makes the lotus flower another ultimate symbol of rebirth.
When lacking inner incentive, self-confidence, and self-awareness, look out for the lotus flower symbolism, its natural beauty will inspire you.
Here is another ancient symbol of rebirth with unclear or simultaneous origins in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese mythology, and later adopted in Gnosticism and alchemy.
Ouroboros is represented as a dragon or a serpent eating its own tail – dying from eating it and being reborn through self-fertilization. The snake stands for fertility in some religions, while the process of its skin molting is a common metaphor for the transmigration of souls.
Thus, the Ouroboros is considered to be the symbol of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Its ability to destroy and recreate itself lies in the heart of its symbolism.
The New Moon
Those who are into astrology certainly know how important this celestial body can be, especially when you are looking for the perfect timing to start something new. However, the moon’s first lunar phase is celebrated in many traditions, not only in this pseudoscience. Marking the beginning of the lunar circle, the new moon represents new beginnings and the power of rebirth, and people have always relied on it when calculating time.
The new moon is an important element of various calendar systems, from Hebrew and Islamic to Hindu and Chinese. It marks the beginning of the lunar calendar and of each month.
It is believed to bring optimism, good luck, the opportunity for a fresh start and rebirth. If you decided to set new goals, projects, or simply a new chapter of your life, be patient and wait for it.
Real Animas as Symbols of Rebirth
There are a number of real living beings symbolizing regeneration, rejuvenation, a fresh start, and rebirth in different traditions and religions.
The most notable among them are bear, snake, lizard, starfish, the scarab beetle, butterfly, and molting bird. What connects them is their natural ability to constantly change and adapt to new circumstances, to preserve the image of an immortal creature, as well as the innate capacity to regenerate and transform themselves.
Biology teaches us there are certain animal species capable of changing or replacing parts of their bodies. As we’ll see, these animals are especially inspirational as symbols of reberth
Snake is famous for periodically shedding the skin in order to be able to grow. Lizards to this as well, but unlike them, the snake’s skin comes off in one chunk, and snakes do not eat them afterward. That is why humans were able to witness the process and remain impressed by the full skin “coat” remaining after the shedding.
Thus, it is no wonder why snakes used to be seen as the symbol of rebirth and self-renewal, since ancient Greek mythology whose god Asclepius, the god of medicine, carried a snake.
Salamanders and Starfish
Salamanders and Starfish are completely unrelated animals. Salamanders are terrestrial amphibians that live near freshwater, and like most animals, have propper legs, tails, and heads. Starfish are sea creatures that have five arms that radiate from the center, and no legs or heads.
However, salamanders and starfish have one common feature – amazing regeneration ability. If they lose their limbs, they can grow them right back. It is precisely this trait that made both creatures symbols of rebirth. Salamander has symbolized immortality and rebirth since the old ages and in various cultures. Starfish is an important symbol of bodily regeneration in Native American culture.
Although it may not seem intuitive, what brings the bear to this list is its natural ability to hibernate during the unfavorable climate conditions – during the wintertime – and to start again from scratch once the spring comes and the food becomes abundant again.
Although many temperate zone mammals do this, the bear is certainly the most impressive of them. It is why this wild animal is the symbol of a fresh start and rebirth.
On another note, the butterfly is a typical metaphor for rebirth and renewal. It goes through several levels of metamorphosis, from the stage of caterpillars, through pupa, until the gorgeous flying creature with beautiful wings. The symbolism of transformation, development, new phase of life is used in the traditional interpretation of a butterfly.
To tie this symbol with rebirth and immortality even further, a butterfly (or a moth) is also an antique symbol of the human soul.
Finally, the scarab beetle has been worshipped since ancient Egypt, as the symbol of immortality and rebirth. This holy creature was related to the god of sunrise, named Khepri, seen as the symbolical rising sun, surviving the darkness and returning alive.
Even though civilization has gone through many stages of transformation and progress, nature remained its major teacher. Every time humankind seeks philosophical and existential answers, it turns back to nature. The living world is our main inspiration when trying to explain the wonders of life, even when we make them up.
Symbols of rebirth reflect this rule as well. One could take it as an irony – for mortal creatures to reflect immortality of the soul, but essentially, the life cycles in nature are perfectly compatible with the idea of rebirth.
Look for the symbols of rebirth in your own tradition. Do they resonate with the examples I pointed out? Let us know in the comments what symbols have helped you on your way to a symbolic rebirth, be it physical or spiritual.