Firebird (Slavic folklore)

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Ivan Bilibin's illustration to a Russian fairy tale about the Firebird, 1899.

In Slavic folklore, the Firebird (Russian: Жар-пти́ца, Zhar-ptitsa; Ukrainian: Жар-пти́ця, Zhar-ptica; Serbo-Croatian: Жар-птица or Žar-ptica; Bulgarian: Жар-птица, Zhar-ptitsa; Macedonian: Жар-птица, Žar-ptica; Polish: Żar-ptak; Czech: Pták Ohnivák; Slovak: Vták Ohnivák; Hungarian: Tűzmadár) is a magical glowing bird from a faraway land, which is both a blessing and a bringer of doom to its captor.

The Firebird is described as a large bird with majestic plumage that glows brightly emitting red, orange, and yellow light, like a bonfire that is just past the turbulent flame. The feathers do not cease glowing if removed, and one feather can light a large room if not concealed. In later iconography, the form of the Firebird is usually that of a smallish fire-colored peacock, complete with a crest on its head and tail feathers with glowing "eyes".

The story of the Firebird inspired many literary works, including "The Little Humpback Horse" by Pyotr Yershov. The most famous production of the Firebird was by Sergei Diaghilev of Ballet Russe who commissioned composer Igor Stravinsky to create the enormously popular large-scale ballet score known as The Firebird.

Fairy tales[edit]

A typical role of the Firebird in fairy tales is as an object of a difficult quest. The quest is usually initiated by finding a lost tail feather, at which point the hero sets out to find and capture the live bird, sometimes of his own accord, but usually on the bidding of a father or king. The Firebird is a marvel, highly coveted, but the hero, initially charmed by the wonder of the feather, eventually blames it for his troubles.

The Firebird tales follow the classical scheme of fairy tale, with the feather serving as a premonition of a hard journey, with magical helpers met on the way who help in travel and capture of the Bird, and returning from the faraway land with the prize. There are many versions of the Firebird story as it was primarily told orally in the beginning.

One version is the tale of Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf.

According to Suzanne Maisie the story of the Firebird is about a great embroiderer Maryushka, who lives in a small village. People would come from all over to buy her embroidery. Many merchants would try to get her to work for them but she told them all that they could buy her wares but she would never leave the village she was born in. One day the evil sorcerer Kaschei the Immortal heard of Maryushka’s beautiful works and transformed into a beautiful young man and visited her. Upon seeing her ability he became enraged that a mere mortal could produce finer work than he. He tried to tempt her by offering to make her Queen but she refused saying she never wanted to leave her village. Because of this last insult to his ego he turned Maryushka into a firebird and himself into a falcon, picked her up in his talons and stole her away from her village. As a way to leave a piece of herself with her village forever she shed her feathers onto the land below, after the last feather fell Maryushka died in the falcon’s talons. The feathers live on showing themselves to those who love beauty and show beauty to others.[1]

Irina Zheleytova translates another version, the The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa. In this version a king’s archer is on a hunt and runs across a firebird’s feather. The archer’s horse warns the archer not to touch it, as bad things will happen. The archer ignores the advice and takes it to bring back to the king so he will be praised and rewarded. When the king is presented with the feather he demands the entire firebird or the death of the archer. The archer weeps back to his horse who instructs him to put corn on the fields in order to capture the firebird. The firebird comes down to eat allowing the archer to capture the bird. When the king is presented with the firebird he demands the archer fetch the Princess Vassilissa so the king may marry her, otherwise the archer will be killed. The archer goes to the princess’s lands and drugs her with a wine to bring her back to the king. The king was pleased and rewarded the archer, however when the princess awoke and realized she was not home she began to weep. If she was to be married she wanted her wedding dress, which was under a rock in the middle of the Blue Sea. Once again the archer wept to his horse and fulfilled his duty to his king and brought back the dress. The princess was stubborn and refused to marry the king even with her dress until the archer was dipped in boiling water. The archer begged to see his horse before he was boiled and the horse put a spell on the archer to protect him from the water. The archer came out more handsome than anyone had ever seen. The king saw this and jumped in as well but was instead boiled alive. The archer was chosen to be king and married the princess and they lived happily.[2]

Prince Ivan returning on a magic carpet with the caged firebird.

The Firebird concept has parallels in Iranian legends of magical birds, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about The Golden Bird, and related Russian magical birds like the Sirin. The story of the quest itself is closely paralleled by Armenian Hazaran Blbul. In the Armenian tale, however, the bird does not glow, but rather makes the land bloom through its song. In Czech folklore, it is called Pták Ohnivák (Fire-like Bird) and appears, for example, in a Karel Jaromír Erben fairy tale, also as an object of a difficult quest. Moreover, in the beginning of this fairy tale, the bird steals magical golden apples belonging to a king and is therefore pursued by the king's servants in order to protect the precious apples.

The story of the firebird comes in many forms. Some folk tales say that the Firebird is a mystical bird that flies around a king’s castle and at night swoops down and eats all the king's golden apples. Others say that the firebird is just a bird that flies around giving hope to those who need it. Some additions to that legend say that when the firebird flies around, his eyes sparkle and pearls fall from his beak. The pearls would then fall to the peasants, giving them something to trade for goods or services. In the most common version of the legend, a Tsar commands his three sons to capture the firebird that keeps flying down from above and eating his apples. The golden apples are in the Tsar’s orchard and give youth and strength to all who eat them. The sons end up barely missing the bird, but they catch one of his feathers that glows in the night. They take it to a dark room and it lights the room completely.

Literary and musical works[edit]

The story of the Firebird quest has inspired literary works, including "The Little Humpback Horse" by Pyotr Yershov.

The most famous production of the Firebird was the production by Sergei Diaghilev of Ballet Russe who commissioned composer Igor Stravinsky to create the enormously popular large-scale ballet score called The Firebird. In Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird, the creature is half-woman, half-bird. She is captured by Prince Ivan, but set free and gives him a magic feather, which he uses to defeat the spell of Kaschei the Immortal. Prince Ivan then marries the most beautiful of twelve princesses.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Maisie, Suzanne (1980). Land of the Firebird. Simon and Schuster. pp. 18–19. ISBN 0-9644184-1-X. 
  2. ^ Zheleytova, Irina. "Russian Fairytales: The Firebird and Princess Vassilissa". Retrieved 9 October 2012. 

External links[edit]