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Order of the Phoenix

For a mythical bird that embodies the weighty themes of life, death, rebirth, and spiritual transformation, a bulky gym bag seems too humble a place to call home. But that’s where Phineas the phoenix, Swarthmore’s mascot since 2008, resides when there are no events or appearances scheduled. On a rainy day this fall, only the head was visible. Large, expressive, if not bulging, eyes. A curved silent beak. All features surrounded by Elmo-red fur just begging to be hugged. Or patted. It might be that Phineas’s utter cuteness is also an Achilles’s heel.

“I guess I wish that Phineas were fiercer,” shrugs Freddy Bernardino ’18, a student working in the Office of Student Engagement. 

The fact that Phineas—neither male nor female—is a lover, not a fighter, is a purposeful decision, according to David Raymond, the source behind the rascally and beloved Phillie Phanatic.

“We wanted Phineas be huggable and lovable,” says Raymond, who was the Phanatic for almost two decades and now runs a successful company creating and promoting mascots. “If it’s done right, a mascot is the embodiment of the organization; a living, breathing extension of the brand of the institution.”

According to folklore, the phoenix is not hatched, but comes to life after a spectacular fiery death, but Phineas as a 30-plus pound costume sprang into being when Raymond and his team of designers collaborated with students eight years ago. They wanted Phineas to reflect not just fun, but a physical and emotional connection to a time and place. 

“We all have formative years of growth while we’re at college,” he says, “and part of the beauty of the character is that it can come to represent some of that time for us long after we have left.”

Claire Melin ’08 went on to medical school at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, but as a student she was part of the team that shaped the mascot. “I recall it being a very democratic process,” says Melin. “There had been a movement for many years to create an official Swarthmore mascot. It was wonderful to be involved in the process and to be a part of Swarthmore’s history.”

Kyle White ’08, the first student to wear the costume, was instrumental in the process of developing Phineas. “I’m always in awe of how much support I had from the College—everyone involved allowed me to explore the possibilities of the project,” says White, who now lives in London and works as a marketing and communications manager. 

Since the arrival of Phineas, the reception has been both warm, and lukewarm. The mascot was nameless for two years until the College held a contest in 2010. The raptor never speaks. It relies on an inimitable avian hustle to engage, whether called on for athletic events or move-in day. And coaxing industrious, serious-minded students to agree to wear the outfit—even with pay—has proven difficult.

“We look for students who are outgoing, flexible, creative and on time,” says Ben Wilson, an administrative assistant in the Office of Student Engagement. “But let’s be real, it gets hot in there after a few hours.” 

In mythology, the phoenix can exist for hundreds of years before it combusts and then is reborn. At Swarthmore, its legacy may just be getting started. With so many distractions from the core work of learning and self-discovery, a slightly chunky five-foot tall bird might not get all the attention it deserves from students. 

“People don’t expect to see a big red bird walking down the hallway,” says Wilson. He handles the mascot’s schedule and had just returned from a photo shoot as Phineas lifting weights in the Matchbox. Sometimes he’ll get a high five, hug, or request for a selfie. Sometimes the cold shoulder.

That said, there are students intrigued by the prospect of becoming Phineas. The role has perks. Any walk across campus in the company of the bird arouses a flurry of attention. Phineas climbs the steps to Parrish, enters the front doors and a student involuntarily beams. Another greets the bird with a friendly "What’s up Phineas?" When the mascot weaves through a maze of students in Sharples, heads turn and groups wave invites to join their tables. The significance of the mascot’s presence continues to grow with athletic competitions, prospective student events, and alumni gatherings—and even in the sweet form of a row of small plush Phineas dolls peering up from the bookstore shelves.

Mascots play an important, but different, role at large institutions with significant Division I sports cultures, says Isaiah Thomas, Assistant Director of Residential Communities. “But all mascots have a function in establishing senses of pride and togetherness,” he says. “Beyond Phineas, I believe our values of intellectual curiosity, social justice, and respect are what bring us together.”

The fact that the phoenix myth can be interpreted in many different ways and is not linked to any one particular episode or story, and therefore carries no personal baggage, makes it an especially good mascot, says Jeremy Lefkowitz, associate professor of Classics at the College. And the peculiarly suicidal idea that it destroys itself before it can be recreated touches on a dark side of all the best mythological heroes. 

“The self-inflicted trauma of the phoenix is both disturbing and weirdly inspiring,” says Lefkowitz. “It is a creature that destroys itself, but, like Oedipus, the phoenix somehow manages to endure and to live on.”

It may be, that while continuing to secure its place as Swarthmore’s mascot, Phineas is meant to be a visual reminder. As a phoenix, Phineas tells us that we are all, whether human or legend, in the process of changing. That is what one of the foremost authors on the history of the phoenix, Joe Nigg, has summarized; the myth survives because each night, when we go to sleep, we die in a way. And each morning, rise again. 


Grabbing a Golden Feather

In the sunny second-floor office of his home, author Joe Nigg is nearly swallowed up by mountains of papers, hand-scribbled notes, and a library of more than 3,000 books. Here, among the jumble of manuscripts, he taps away on his computer, dreamily following threads and willingly tumbling down rabbit holes all in pursuit of the marvels hidden in myth. 

  Why bother? With the torrent of news and information streaming from the internet and yammering out of televisions, what do fantastical myths really have to add? For 78-year-old Nigg, they clinch humanity’s greatest truths. And that simplicity, he says, is beautiful. 

  “The power of myth is so deep in the human mind,” says Nigg, whose latest book, The Phoenix an Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, took him 18 years to research and write between a full-time editing job and other books. (The last he spoke with the Swarthmore College Bulletin was in the July 2008 issue, which debuted the College’s new phoenix mascot.) 

 “Myth is a part of us and our collective imagination,” he says. “The story of the phoenix could come from the awareness of mortality. When a caveman first killed an animal, he might well have realized that he, too, could die. One of the things the phoenix symbolizes is the hope that we can somehow overcome death.”  

  His myth-hunting began in earnest with the purchase of a hanging oil lamp from an antique store owned by his parents. “While I was writing a novel in the late ’70s, I kept looking at the lamp’s figure of a winged lion with a fish tail,” he says. “That led me to research the eagle-lion griffin, which led me in turn to fabulous and mythical beasts in general, including the phoenix, whose variations appeared in my earlier fiction.”

  In exploring the symbol of the phoenix through the ages, in both form and fable, Nigg submerged himself in study. His extensive research led him to British libraries and museums, including a search for an attested, but no longer existent, phoenix feather in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. 

  “It’s a matter of following a single image,” says Nigg, a father and grandfather who has been writing for most of his adult life. “You could call it a quest. For me, I was grabbing a golden feather.” 

  Originally planned as a coffee table book, Nigg found the subject of the phoenix so irresistible and rich that his vision expanded. “It was extraordinary watching this protean bird transform into different cultural shapes throughout human history.”

  From the symbolism of its colors, to its role as muse, especially for the writer D.H. Lawrence, Nigg unlocks every detail of the bird’s story. According to the historian Herodotus, the plumage is “partly golden, partly red.” One of the meanings of the Greek word phoinix derived from the purplish-red dye from Phoenicia, Nigg says. Some writers suggest that the gold and red of the sun bird correspond to the sunrise in the East, its Arabian homeland. Nigg also looked at the relationship of the phoenix as a symbol for cultural transformations brought about through the flames of national crisis such as 17th-century burning and rebuilding of London. The bird of renewal was adopted by London’s 1782 Phoenix Assurance Company and spread in name or image to seals and flags of San Francisco and Atlanta, as well as the “Phoenix Plan” of Kobe and Hyogo, Japan, following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. It was also used by the Pentagon’s restoration ‘Phoenix Project’ after the September 11th terrorist bombings of New York City and Washington, D.C. 

  All of this gives Nigg hope. “If the millennia-long cultural history of the phoenix is any indicator, renewal through trends of diversity and acceptance can eventually transform the current United States and the global political climate.” 

  With his book complete, Nigg’s to-do list is shorter. Lately items included tidying up his office and a recent book signing. The signing event brought up new questions about the role of the phoenix. As a mascot such as Swarthmore’s, Nigg says, the image evokes school spirit, renewal, and perhaps comebacks in sports.   

For the Welsh physician Henry Vaughan, quoted in Nigg’s book, the phoenix reflects the cyclical truths in nature; 

“For no thing can to Nothing fall, but still    

Incorporates by skill,

And then returns, and from the wombe of things

Such treasure brings

Phenix-like renew’th

Both life and youth…” 

So, perhaps for students who find themselves here on a journey of transformation, there is no more perfect symbol than that of a phoenix. Amid the Swarthmorean goals of sustaining integrity, a commitment to social justice and enrichment of the mind, the College community shares the exceptional quest of recognizing the light within each other.

The First Phineas: Kyle White ’08

Alumni Council member Kyle White ’08 was the first student to wear the Phineas costume. The chance to lead a project at 19 gave him confidence and led him to success in a marketing career. 

What was your role in the creation of the mascot and why did you enjoy the process?

I originally became involved with the mascot through a college organization called the Garnet Club, which helped foster campus support for varsity athletics. Through the Garnet Club, one representative was allowed a non-voting seat on the Student Athletic Committee. It was discussed between the Garnet Club and SAC members that one potential way to help support the promotion of college athletics would be to develop a mascot. In the early discussions, it quickly became obvious that a mascot could have incredible value across the entire college community, not just for athletics. The idea that creating some tangible identity for the school ultimately fulfilling broader communications and marketing objectives really sparked my interest in branding. It was a ton of fun seeing the mascot start as a concept and then be fully realized as a big fluffy bird. It was a true team effort and being a part of that process was a highlight for me in my time at Swarthmore. 

Why do you think a mascot is important for Swarthmore? 

A mascot creates a way for people to instantly connect with the college. 

Do you still have any Phineas keepsakes?

Oh yes! My first piece of phoenix swag was the Phineas stuffed animal which sits proudly on my bedroom dresser. I also have the coffee mug which I use at work and a hat. 

Do you have a funniest memory of the process of either making or being Phineas? 

One of the best experiences of the phoenix was the final reveal when we held the mascot competition in LPAC. One of the aspects of the competition was that each contestant had to hype the crowd by any means necessary—I’ve never seen so much body paint or clever uses for a feather boa! Also, no one had actually seen the mascot yet, so when it walked out onto stage, the sight of everyone’s faces was priceless! Phineas looked awesome with his high-top sneakers!

What are you doing now in your career? 

I now live in London and run marketing and communications for an institutional financial services firm across Europe and Asia. 

Any other comments or memories that relate to the mascot?

As a 19-year-old with no prior branding or marketing experience, I was entrusted with a lot of responsibility. Working on developing the mascot also gave me the chance to explore my passion for branding—it was a once in a lifetime experience that I’m really proud to have been a part of. I hope to see Phineas for many years to come!