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The Story of the Phoenix
A marvelous bird is the Phoenix: To him, bad burns are wee nicks

Every man who enters the uniformed force of the San Francisco Fire Department receives a breast badge which he must wear when on duty as long as he remains a member of the Department.  But how many know how the design was chosen and what it represents?

Seal of The City & County of San FranciscoThe entire design of the breast badge below the number has been taken from the seal of the City and County of San Francisco.  San Francisco, by its Common Council, upon adopting a design for a corporation seal on November 4, 1852, chose a Phoenix rising from the lines in front of the Golden Gate, with the emblems of commerce on each side, and the words "Seal of San Francisco" around the margin.  Afterward, when a seal was adopted for the new consolidated City and County of San Francisco, March 1, 1859, the main figures were a miner and sailor; between them was a shield on which was depicted — steamer entering the Golden Gate, with implements of Commerce, Agriculture, and mining and a scroll containing the Spanish words Oro en Paz, en Guerra, Fierro (Gold in Peace, in War, Iron.)  The Phoenix was still retained, rising as a crest above the shield for being emblematic of the spirit and fortitude of San Francisco in overcoming the catastrophes of the six great fires of its early days — a spirit which was to manifest itself again following the earthquake and fire of 1906.

The Phoenix was a fabulous bird, about the size of an eagle.  According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, it came from Arabia every 500 years to the sanctuary dedicated to it at Heliopolis, in Egypt, bringing with it the dead body of its parent, which it buried in the shrine.  When it felt it's life drawing to a close, it built itself a nest from which, after its death, a new Phoenix arose.

S.F.F.D. Breast badge EmblemThere are many variations of the story of this fabulous bird.  The following account is obtained from statements of a large number of authors, ranging from Fifth Century, B.C., to the Middle Ages:

The Phoenix was a large bird of very gorgeous plumage, having, according to some authorities, a sweet voice.  It was always male, the only bird of its kind, and lived a long time.  (Various authors give periods ranging from 500 years — the commonest account, up to 12,954 years. The Roman historian, Tacitus, gives 1,461 years, which is the Egyptian Sothic period.)

At the expiration of the allotted time, the Phoenix made itself a nest of the twigs of spice trees; on this it died by setting fire to the nest and burning itself alive.  From its body, its ashes, or the nest, which had been fertilized, came forth another Phoenix, either perfect, or at first in the shape of a white grub.  This young bird, as soon as it was strong enough, took up the body of its father, or the ashes, nest, and all, and flew to Heliopolis, where it deposited them on the alter of the Sun. There are many differences of detail — in some accounts the Phoenix goes to Egypt to die, having produced its offspring before dying.

It was not doubted by most people that the Phoenix really was seen now and then in Egypt; Tacitus and the Roman author Pliny mention recorded appearances.  Attention is therefore drawn by A. Wiedemann to the fact that a bird of the stork family, the bennu or bannu, was sacred to Heliopolis and was connected with local sun worship.  This certainly gives plausible explanation of the origin of some parts of the Greek story; it likewise accounts for Herodotus' statement that he saw a picture of the Phoenix in Egypt, for the bennu is to be found on surviving monuments.

According to a more modern version of the legend, this wondrous bird, at the age of 500 years, built a funeral pyre of wood aromatic gums, which it lighted by fanning its wings.  It rose from the flames which had consumed it, reborn.

Ancient writers mention four epochs of its appearance in Egypt: under Sesastris, under Amasis, under Ptolemy III, and under Tuberius.  In Saint Clement's epistle to the Corinthians, the Phoenix is used as an illustration of the doctrine of the resurrection; it had been regarded by the Egyptians as a symbol of immortality thousands of years previously.  It appears on the coins of several Roman emperors as a symbol of their own exaltation, or in commemoration of a new reign.

To us, the Phoenix is as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden gate Bridge, the Ferry Building, Twin Peaks or our two great spans of steel — it is more, in fact, for it symbolizes the unconquerable spirit of a great city — a city which, after disaster had struck, emerged in youthful vigor from its own ashes — undaunted, unafraid — a spirit which will yet endure when mere physical structures have been reduced to the dust whence they came.

By: Captain Louis W. Hage, Secretary, S.F.F.D. Historical Society, 1933

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