“There is only one bird which reproduces and renews itself: the Assyrians call it the phoenix.”
Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15, page 490
TEXT: ANA SOJO IMAGES: © MUSEO DEL SEGURO DE FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE
If there is one mythological creature capable of symbolizing immortality, rising again from its own ashes to come back to life, that is the Phoenix. In the mid-19th century it was to become one of the favorite emblems of insurance companies all over the world, especially in the fire insurance line. Everyone is well aware of the symbolism inherent in the myth of the Phoenix. Classical sources such as Herodotus place its existence to the east and mention it as a myth of the Egyptian world. The Egyptians called it Bennu and, in their culture, it represented the sun that dies every night, before resurrecting the next day.
Years later, the figure of the Phoenix was adopted by Christianity to represent the resurrection. The Christian tradition, in particular St. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, paragraph 25, relates the following: «There is a bird which is called the Phoenix. It is the only one of its kind and lives for five hundred years; and when the time of its dissolution in death is at hand, it makes itself a tomb of frankincense, myrrh and other spices, and when the time is fulfilled, it enters into it and dies. Now from the corruption of its flesh there springs a worm, which is nourished by the juices of the dead bird, and puts forth wings.”
The classical and medieval iconography has been extensively used to represent the image of different insurance companies throughout history. In addition to their informative function, the plaques fulfilled an advertising function: transmitting the values and image of the insurance companies.
Mythological scenes, medieval motifs and fantastical animals abound on insurance plaques: knights, castles, crowns, shields, angels, dragons, Pegasus, griffins and rampant winged lions serve to create an exciting, brilliant image which, if we stop to observe it, transports us to a prodigious world waiting to be discovered.
The universal force of the legendary myth of the Phoenix remains present to this day. The name Phoenix is used in the denomination of a huge amount of projects. Companies and institutions as varied as PEMEX, the CIA, the Royal Spanish Soccer Federation etc. have used the name Phoenix to inspire and implement various initiatives.
And we cannot forget that, in the Harry Potter saga, there are two important references: The Order of the Phoenix (the title of the fifth book) and Fawkes, Dumbledore’s faithful ally, a phoenix whose feathers were used to manufacture more powerful magic wands in the saga.
Practical information on the Insurance Museum
Located in Madrid, at Calle Bárbara de Braganza 14, it has 600 pieces on display and a total of 1,300 preserved in the institution’s collection.