Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 2 The Sect Of The Phoenix Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 2, The Sect of the Phoenix : Artifices | Summary



A narrator describes conflicting descriptions by commentators on the age and origin of something called "the Sect of the Phoenix." Some trace the origin to the 14th century BCE. Others point out the sect was not called "Phoenix" until some time after the ninth century CE. The narrator adds "the name by which they are known to the outside world is not the same as the one they themselves pronounce."

Another commentator, Miklošić, compares members of the sect to gypsies, also known as Roma-Sinti people. There are both Roma-Sinti people and members of the Sect of the Phoenix in Chile and Hungary, but the two groups "have very little in common." Their professions are different. "The gypsies are of a definite physical type" and they speak or once spoke "a secret language." None of that applies to members of the sect, who blend in with everyone else. "The proof of it is that they have not suffered persecutions." The narrator also disputes comparisons between sect members and Jews. If they sometimes resemble Jews when they are in a Jewish environment, says the narrator, that's only because "they resemble ... all the men in the world. They are everything to all men."

The narrator backtracks a bit on the claim the sect was never persecuted. They have never been persecuted for belonging to the Sect of the Phoenix. But because sect members are in every "human group," they suffered every persecution and took part in every act of revenge.

The narrator lists all the things that do not unite the sect: no common holy book, language, or cultural memory. Although the sect once had a creation myth in common, it has been forgotten. Sect members differ in how they remember one "obscure tradition" from the myth: some think it is a punishment, some a pact, some a privilege. The only commonality now is "the performance of the rite," which the narrator never describes. Members learn the rite from "individuals of the lowest order. A slave, a leper, a beggar plays the role of mystagogue," or someone who initiates another into a mystery cult. The narrator claims the rite is "trivial, momentary, and does not require description" and lists the materials needed: "cork, wax, or gum arabic."

The narrator adds more puzzling information about the rite, also called "the Secret." It "is sacred, but also somewhat ridiculous." It is practiced clandestinely, and no one talks about it. "There are no respectable words to describe it, but it is understood all words refer to it." The narrator quotes Du Cange, a 17th-century French scholar of Latin: "Orbis terrarum est speculum Ludi," or "The world is mirror to the game."

Some sect members refuse to practice "the Custom." They are despised for it. Some refuse to practice but "manage to engage in a direct communication with the divinity" and are respected. The narrator has known sect members "on three continents." They find the Secret "paltry, distressing, vulgar." They also cannot believe "their ancestors had lowered themselves to such conduct," and the narrator is surprised "the Secret has not been lost long ago." Despite all the events in the world, "despite wars and exoduses," the Secret remains.


In the prologue to Part 2 Borges says "The Sect of the Phoenix" hints at "an ordinary fact." Indeed, many interpreters comment "The Sect of the Phoenix" hints at a sexual fact. In an interview Borges said the secret rite was sex: "the act is what [Walt] Whitman says 'the divine husband knows.''' Borges is quoting from the poem "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers" by 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman. In the interview he adds as a child he was shocked to realize his own parents had had sex.

If sex is the story's secret rite, then the story relies on a trick. The "sect" of the title leads a reader to think it is about a small group of individuals, when in fact it is about most of humanity. However, it is difficult to square all the details of the story with this answer. True, "usage does not favor mothers teaching it to their sons." But other hints do not square with Borges's answer: "the necessary materials are cork, wax, or gum arabic."

There is a riddle: "What's green, hangs on a wall, and whistles?" The riddler always has to give the answer, which no one can guess: a herring. When the outraged listener points out a herring isn't green, the riddler answers, "So paint it green." To the objection herrings don't hang on walls, the answer is, "So nail it to the wall." As for the whistling, that was just put in to make it difficult. If readers believe sex is the secret rite, then the situation seems similar for "The Sect of the Phoenix." The story is a riddle with one answer, and things like cork and gum arabic are put in to make it difficult.

But if readers put aside the solution to the riddle, there is still the matter of the story. Regardless of what the rite is, here is a story about the decline and routinization of sacred mysteries. "Once upon a time," the narrator says in storytelling fashion, the sect had a cosmogony—a creation myth, a story about how the world began. Thus it had the secret rite and a sacred interpretation of the world. But the sect did not found a nation in the sign of its sacred truth and did not limit the rite to a particular language or culture. No earthly support exists for the rite—no temple, no institutions, no nation for which to wage holy war. Without these the rite's sacred aspect disappears. People remember only "the obscure tradition of some cosmic punishment." Nothing can be passed on to converts or heirs, except the same rite, divorced from larger meaning.

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