Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

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Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

The Feather of the Firebird

The Fabled Firebird

The fabled Firebird from Russian and Slavic mythology and folklore is a magical, mysterious bird, both rare and elusive and the inspiration of many folk and fairy tales. Its plumage is the color of red, yellow and orange flames of fire or maybe like the setting or rising of the sun.  

According to tradition it  appears from the east lighting up the sky causing all the creatures of the world to fall silent in deference to its glory. The Firebird appears in many stories as a blessing and a bearer of good fortune but it can also be a harbinger of doom for those of a wicked disposition.  However, for Alexis, the hero of this story, the finding of the feather of the Firebird is the catalyst for inner growth and strength.  He is sent on a journey completing a set of difficult tasks bringing out his own inner resources to win through.  In doing so he rises from lowly beginnings to a prominent  position in the world.

Finding the Feather

In this story our hero is a young man who despite being rather naive is true of heart and courageous and it is he who finds the feather.  For those who find a feather of the Firebird great changes befall them.  To pick it up sets off a life changing chain of events putting their life at risk and bringing them real fear.  When Alexis finds the feather he does not listen to the warning of his horse of power and decides to pick it up and take it to the Tsar.  From then on his problems snowball and for the first time he begins to experience real fear.

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The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa

The Firebird is usually said to represent the whole truth, or enlightenment of the world.  Princess Vasilisa represents love. The finding of a single feather from the Firebird represents the finding of a single grain of truth.  If the whole truth is desired then the whole Firebird must be sought to gain enlightenment. The Tsar is not satisfied with a feather but demands the whole truth, represented by the Firebird and sends Alexis to bring it back.  Yet, he is not satisfied with the whole Firebird and demands love in the form of Princess Vasilisa.  Again, he sends Alexis to find her but does nothing himself to win her love.

Although the Tsar seeks enlightenment and love he never does anything himself to find either and consequently never finds them.   Enlightenment comes from the experience gained from completing the journey and the tasks of the quest and love is earned by the way others are treated along the way, yet he never learns this.

Animal Helper – The Horse of Power

As with other Firebird stories our hero has a  wise animal and magical helper who accompanies him on the quest.   In, The Feather and the Firebird, the magical animal helper is a horse of power who has the gift of speech and foresight and is named Perdun.

Perdun warns against picking up the feather, which is only a small part of the truth.  The horse is important to our hero as it represents his own natural wisdom – his gut instinct which he suppresses.  It is the suppression of his inner instinct that gets him into trouble in the first place.  As he learns to listen to and trust his horse of power, or gut instinct, he at last triumphs.

So when our hero embarks on his quest at the command of the Tsar who is not satisfied with part of the truth but craves the whole truth the Tsar is making a huge mistake.  He does not experience the journey and the hardships so he remains none the wiser, but the hero through the trials on his journey learns the whole truth and the world is his.  On the way he finds love while the stay-at home Tsar never does.

While the Tsar ends up with death the hero is rewarded with marriage to Princess Vasilisa and becomes the new Tsar,  His own inner resources have grown to the point where he recognizes that the Firebird, like the truth and enlightenment, is something that cannot be caged and sets it free to roam the world as it should.  Perhaps one day, somewhere, someone else will find one of its feathers and embark on their own journey of discovery.

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© 01/07/2020 zteve t evans

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

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