The firebird or zhar-ptitsa is from Russian (Slavic) mythology. I first learned about the real creature itself from listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite. The best known of the firebird stories, at least to English-speakers is “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf”. Another interesting one is “The Firebird, The Horse of Power and the Princess Vasilisa”.
In the folklore the firebird is a large bird with glowing plumage of red, orange, yellow. When plucked, the feathers don’t stop glowing, and one is enough to light up a room if not covered up. Usually the quest for catching the firebird starts when the firebird comes at night and eats golden apples from the Tsar’s garden. So he sets his two eldest sons to catching the bird, but they both fall asleep. The youngest son, Ivan, manages to stay awake and almost catches the bird, retaining just a feather. From there, he goes out to retrieve the firebird.
This bird came to mind for me though because it’s a bit of a conundrum. To possess the firebird is good, considering the beauty of it, and the glowing plumage. But it also leads to quite a lot of misfortune, i.e. Ivan’s travails in retrieving the bird, or how his brothers end up after stealing the bird from him. A bit of a confusing way to look at things, but it makes sense also. After all, magic birds as a quest aren’t too surprising. Also, it eventually ends up that the hardships and troubles suffered by the seeker are far outweighed by the good things that happen. Or at least, that’s how the Tsarevitch Ivan story goes. In any case, the firebird does make for interesting story-telling. It causes problems but is a great reward.
The firebird is similar to the phoenix. Phoenixes are scarlet and gold in plumage, with a 1000 year life cycle, before it burns to ash, to be reborn. They looked a bit like peacocks, or were seen that way by the Greeks, though I believe also occasionally they were seen as eagle-formed. It’s a symbol of renewal and immortality. So it seems that the firebird acquired a far different set of meanings than the phoenix.
Now, how this relates to me personally. My family comes from Russia, so this fascinates me. The sheer fact that I’ve rarely found anything at all about Slavic mythology, folklore or beliefs in libraries or bookstores is another reason I’ve always been interested. Sadly that means I’ve had to rely on internet resources alone for stories about the firebird, but cross-referencing is at least a way to partially ensure that the information is correct.
Just a little bit of information on a fascinating creature.∗
“Storming the Castles” – idea for post
SurLaLune Fairy Tales – “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf”
Firebird (Slavic folklore) – checked for spelling of zhar-ptitsa