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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Russian folklore: The fool of the world and the flying ship

The traditional Russian folktale of the Fool of the World and the flying ship although a children’s story has a number of lessons built within it for those who care, or dare to look. For example there are themes of naivety and innocence, but also friendship, love, faith and belief. The important thing for the reader is to make up their own mind using their own knowledge and experience as to what if any lessons there may be, at least for them.

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In the days of the great Tsars of Russia there lived in a village an old peasant couple who were the parents of three sons. The two oldest sons were deemed to be young men of high intelligence and considered handsome to look upon by maidens. The youngest was deemed to be a fool. His parents were ashamed of him and often mocked him and were cruel to him calling him the Fool of the World. Sometimes he felt sad at this. Even so, he had a cheerful and optimistic disposition and mostly remained happy in his own ways.  Read more

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The Drown Town” by Konstantin Gorbatov, 1933 – Public Domain

Batu Khan and the Golden Horde

According to legend when Batu Khan sacked the Russian city of Vladimir he first heard of Kitezh and became determined to capture it and he led the Golden Horde into Russia. The Mongols attacked and captured Maly Kitezh forcing Georgy to retreat with his army to the forests towards Bolshoy Kitezh . Although they had found and captured Maly Kitezh the Mongols did not know where to look for Bolshoy Kitezh as it was hidden on the lakeside which was protected by thick forest. Only those who knew the secret paths could find it.

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