Fire Myths: The Firebird

In Slavic folklore and myth, this supernatural spirit can bring doom or blessing to its captor.

What is it?

The Firebird, which appears in numerous Slavic folk tales, is a large bird with rich plumage that glows with a red, orange and yellow light. Even once removed, its feathers continue to glimmer. Later renditions depict a smaller, fire-coloured falcon with crystal eyes. The Firebird is beautiful but hostile. 

Symbolism

Typically, in fairy tales, the Firebird is the object of a difficult quest which begins with the finding of a lost tail feather. The hero of the tale then sets out to find and capture the bird – usually on the orders of an authority figure such as a father or king. Despite the Firebird’s magnetism, the hero slowly comes to blame it for his rapidly spiralling troubles. The feather found at the start serves as a prophecy of a hard journey to a faraway land, featuring magical helpers en route who help with the bird’s capture.  

Origins 

As the Firebird tale was initially told orally, there are many variations. The first recorded version is believed to be The Firebird, the Horse of Power and the Princess Vasilisa, a Russian fairy tale collected by Slavist and ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev, in his world-class collection of folklore tales, Narodnye russkie skazki. The story follows a royal huntsman who finds a Firebird’s feather. The king demands that he bring him the bird – which he does; he is then asked to bring Princess Vasilisa to be the king’s bride. After many trials, the huntsman becomes king himself, and marries the princess. Another version in Afanasyev’s collection revolves around the Russian tsar’s youngest son, Prince Ivan, who goes on a quest to capture the firebird who is eating his father’s golden apples in order to become heir to the throne. After his horse is eaten by a wolf, and Ivan is killed by his older brothers, he is restored to life with the help of a grey wolf, marries a fairy tale princess, and lives ever after. 

The Firebird - Eldvarm

Variations

The phoenix is often invoked along with the firebird, but they are two very different beasts in the world of myth. While linked by fire, the phoenix’s main characteristic is immortality – hence its capacity to burn to ashes only to be reborn again. The firebird is a creature of Slavic mythology, mainly present in old Russian and Ukrainian fairy tales, while the phoenix can be traced back to ancient Africa. Nonetheless, there are many parallels of the Slavic Firebird, from Iranian legends of magical birds to the Brothers Grimm fairytale The Golden Bird. The quest aspect of the legend is closely related to the Armenian tale Hazaran Blbul, where the bird makes the land bloom through song. The Firebird relates to types 531 and 550 in the Aarne-Thompson–Uther index of folktale types.

Famous renditions

Scored by Stravinsky, and produced by Sergei Diaghilev of the company Ballets Russes, ‘The Firebird’ (1910) is the most popular and iconic version of the legend. The ballet’s screenplay was based on Russian fairy tales, but also incorporated the unrelated Russian folklore antagonist Koschei the Immortal, whose soul was supposedly hidden deep in a forest in a magic egg lying in a casket. In the ballet, the Firebird is half-woman and half-bird. She is captured by Prince Ivan, but when he sets her free, she gives him an enchanted feather which he then uses to defeat the spell of Koschei, who has captured thirteen princesses. Prince Ivan marries the fairest of them. The ballet premiered at the Palais Garnier in Paris on 25 June 1910, and became an instant success, marking Stravinsky’s breakthrough.

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