Russian folklore: The firebird

The firebird is a creature from Russian or Slavic folklore that has been the inspiration of many fairy and folktales, literary works and works of art.  According to folklore it is a very rare and beautiful bird whose plumage glows red, orange and yellow like the flames of a flickering fire.  When removed the feathers continue to flicker in color and glow.

It is said that one feather is sufficient to light a large room.  Some accounts say the firebird is large but other depictions show the firebird as being smaller than a peacock, with a crest, tail feathers and fiery glowing eyes. The firebird is said to live in a distant land and a is bringer of blessing or doom to those who become involved with it.

Fairy tales

There are many folk or fairy tales that feature the firebird.  It was originally told orally and most examples have a common structure interwoven with a number of common themes which helped the orator remember and tell the story.   At the same time having a structure enabled variations of the same themes so although the main structure and themes of many of these tales are similar there are variations of detail which give rise to different tales.

Events are often set in motion by the finding of one of its brightly colored feathers by the hero of the story, who is often accompanied by a magical animal helper.  Despite being warned not to touch the feather by his magical helper, which is often his horse, or a wolf, he picks it up and takes it to the Tsar expecting a handsome reward for such a rare and beautiful item.  But the Tsar although greatly pleased is not satisfied and sets the hero one or more impossible or difficult tasks such as capturing the firebird and bringing him a princess for a wife from a distant land.  He promises the hero great rewards if he succeeds but death if he fails.

The hero is sent  forth, often reluctantly,  to capture and bring back the elusive and fabulous bird. This often results in him experiencing a misfortune, or a series of worsening misfortunes, which he blames on the firebird for his troubles, though he eventually does win through.

Although he admires the firebird he views it as the cause of his troubles.  He forgets he ignored the advice of his magical animal helper who advised him not to touch the feather.  Nevertheless the trials that he goes through change him and to overcome these he grows spiritually and he becomes a stronger person.  Through his trials he not only wins the hand  of the princess he is sent to find from the Tsar but supplants him becoming ruler himself.

Hidden messages

Are the firebird stories nothing more than quaint children’s stories or is there hidden information in the story that is not necessarily apparent at first but becomes clearer on reflection and contemplation of the story?

In fact some of the stories may be seen as subversive to the established social order.  There is the hero of the story, often an archer who has helped defend his country in the service of the Tsar or a hunter, who is self-sufficient, hard working and loyal, who knows his place in the social hierarchy.  Despite his efforts to please he is  treated with ingratitude and scorn by the Tsar and threatened with death. Nevertheless, eventually, through his trials he becomes greater than the Tsar and it is the Tsar who finds death.  The hero then becomes Tsar and marries the beautiful princess.

Sheer enjoyment

Many  of the firebird tales are very old and have been adapted through the ages and from place to place and while the structure, elements and themes are similar the action taking place within the stories can be different.  Hidden messages and meanings may vary depending on political and social factors but the sheer enjoyment of hearing a good tale remains constant throughout the ages.   Therefore let the reader make what they will of the stories but above all, let them enjoy them!

References and Attributions

Copyright zteve t evans

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4 thoughts on “Russian folklore: The firebird

  1. I read many Russian fairytales as a child and loved the stories of the firebird. In fact, I still have this really battered looking children’s Russian fairy tales on my library shelf. Thanks for the memory.

  2. In Gregory Maguire’s book Egg and Spoon, he seems to suggest that a firebird’s feather can grant wishes. Have you come across that idea in any firebird stories or did it originate with Maguire?

    • I have not come across this myself yet, but it may be so. In Stravinsky’s ballet the hero is given a feather by the firebird as reward for not killing her. He can use this to summon her to his aid when he is of need. When he does summon her she appears and saves him. I have not read Maguire’s book. Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting its very much appreciated!

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