Rise Like a Phoenix
Written by: Ioannis Ziogas
Dido’s reincarnation in Conchita Wurst
Ioannis Ziogas, the author of Ovid and Hesiod, compares Vergil's story of Dido to the Austrian singer Conchita Wurst's performance last week at the Eurovision song contest in a nuanced reading of classical myth and gender metamorphoses.
After watching Austria’s victorious entry in this year’s Eurovision, I am convinced that Vergil would have loved Conchita Wurst’s performance. The transvestite singer strikes me as a true heir/heiress of Dido, the tragically powerful and markedly androgynous queen of Carthage.
The song compares the singer with the phoenix, the mythical bird that cremated itself and miraculously rose from its ashes as a new bird. Here is the refrain of Conchita’s Rise like a Phoenix:
Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes
Seeking rather than vengeance
You were warned
Once I’m transformed
Once I’m reborn
You know I will rise like a phoenix
But you’re my flame.
What does all this have to do with Vergil’s Dido? The answer is a lot. Conchita’s refrain could easily be Dido’s dying words to Aeneas. Right before her tragic death and cremation, the jilted queen vows that an avenger will rise from her bones, a reference to Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, who inflicted terrible catastrophes on Aeneas’ descendants. The lifespan of the phoenix is five hundred years and Frederick Ahl notes that Hannibal is born two cycles of the life of the phoenix after the fall of Troy (Ahl, Virgil. Aeneid. Oxford, 334-5). Dido will rise like a phoenix from her funerary pyre and will be reincarnated as a male avenger.
Vergil often refers to Dido as Phoenissa, which is usually interpreted as nothing more than a reference to her Phoenician origins. Yet, Vergil is very fond of punning on proper names. Phoenissa Dido is a phoenix-like queen – the flame of her passion will burn her body, but she will be reborn from her ashes and seek retribution.
The flame of erotic passion eventually turns into the fire of Dido’s cremation. Vergil’s shift from figurative to literal flames features prominently in his poetry. “Phoenician Dido burns” (Aeneid 1.713-14) when she first falls in love with Aeneas, a fire of passion that will eventually burn her dead body. It is intriguing to note that Conchita’s “But you are my flame” similarly plays on the figurative and literal meaning of fire. Passion burns Dido and Conchita like a phoenix but they both vow to come back for retribution.
Reincarnation crosses the boundaries not only between life and death but also between male and female. The rebirth of the phoenix becomes an icon of transsexual transformation and a symbol of liberation from gender norms. Dido’s gendered ambivalence features prominently in the Aeneid. She will be reborn phoenix-like as a male avenger; she is a dux (‘leader’), a word that more often than not describes men in Latin; she is a masculine woman in love with Aeneas, an effeminate man (a marked inversion of gender roles); her appearance in the Underworld is modeled on Homer’s Ajax, one of the strongest Greek heroes. In the Underworld, she appears right after Caenis, a heroine who turned into a man and then morphed back into a woman. Or, according to Ovid, Caenis was transformed into a bird after her death. Avian metamorphoses are enmeshed in gender-shifts. And that is why the phoenix is such an appropriate bird for both Phoenician Dido and Conchita Wurst.
In Ovid, the gender-shifting hyena follows the tale of the phoenix (Metamorphoses 15.391-412). But the link between avian reincarnations and sex-changes would have not occurred to me, had I not seen this year’s Eurovision. So, thank you Conchita, and make sure you come back.