The Firebird – a magical creature from Slavic fairy tales

The Firebird is a miraculous bird whose plumage shines with fiery colors. It travels secretly by night and few beholders had the chance to witness this bird’s mysterious whereabouts. It is mentioned in fairy tales and legends of all the Slavic people, being the most prominent among the Eastern Slavs. The Firebird is usually the reason for sending heroes to difficult journeys, but is sometimes heroic itself, throwing pearls from its beak to the poor peasants. Of all the stories about this creature, the following two are most widely known. Speakers of Slavic languages will most likely be familiar with a number of other interpretations from their native surroundings.

Prince Ivan and the grey wolf

The Tsar and the Firebird's featherThe frequent motif of this fairy tale is the Tsar’s magical orchard which contains the tree with golden apples. The mysterious thief steals one apple each night. Depending on the story, the Tsar can have three sons, or sons and daughters, but the hero is always the youngest prince Ivan. He alone stays awake while guarding the tree, identifies the thief as the Firebird and grabs one of its feathers. The bird is described as beautiful, peacock-like, blazing with orange, red and gold. When she flies, her light illuminates the entire orchard. The feather from its tail, which Ivan caught, also glows in the dark, enough to lighten the whole room. The beauty of the feather makes Tsar covet the bird itself. He sends his children on a quest to faraway lands, in order to fetch the Firebird. Only Ivan is brave enough to proceed into the dark forest, and gets his horse eaten by the gray wolf. The wolf is wise and magical animal, capable of talking and shape shifting. Sorry for depraving Ivan of its horse, he promises to serve him and carries him to another tsar who owns the Firebird. Stories differ in details, but Ivan is always young and foolish, forgetting the wolf’s advices and failing to get the task right. The failure gets the hero into trouble and initiates another quest, thus making him obliged to several tsars apart from his father. At the end, he not only needs to fetch the Firebird, but also the horse with the golden mane, the beautiful maiden and her wedding dress from the depths of the sea. Shape shifting wolf helps him fulfill the tasks, tricks the other tsars and keeps all the treasures for Ivan, including the fair maiden with whom the prince fell in love. The last Ivan’s obstacle is to face the jealousy of his brothers, who meet him on the way home and kill him. But, the gray wolf resurrects him with the water from the Fountain of life, and Ivan gets home victorious. He marries, inherits the throne and lives happily ever after.

 

The Firebird and the horse of power

Another fairy tale about the Firebird represents the warning against greed and vanity. The protagonists are the young and ambitious archer and his horse of power, apparently wiser than his master. One day in the woods, they come across the splendid and glowing Firebird’s feather. The horse advices his master to leave it where it stands, but the archer wants to be rewarded by the Tsar and decides to present him with the magical feather. In spite of the horse’s warning, he appears in front of the Tsar, who becomes greedy to own the whole bird. He orders the archer to either fetch the Firebird or die. The archer fulfills the task with the help of his horse, but instead of reward gets another death threat. Namely, the Tsar realizes that his servant is very skillful and decides to send him for all the treasures he ever wanted. The most important among them is the young bride Vasilisa, from the far away land, whom the tsar desires in spite of his old age and worn-out looks. When she is kidnapped by the archer and brought to the tsar, the former is in danger again, because the girl wants to boil her captor out of vengeance. The Tsar agrees, but here the twist of the story happens. In some versions, Vasilisa herself enchants the boiling water not to harm the archer, and in the others, his horse does it. Stravinsky's Ballet FirebirdThe effect of the boiling is that the archer comes out unharmed and even younger and more handsome than before. Seeing this, the Tsar himself enters the cauldron and gets boiled to death. The archer ultimately gets his reward, becoming the ruler and a groom to beautiful Vasilisa. In some versions of this story, other fairy tale characters appear, the most prominent being the evil wizard Kaschei the Deathless and the forest witch Baba Yaga.

The Firebird fairy tales are not only children’s bed time stories, since they point towards human weaknesses such as jealousy, greed, lust and vanity. However, they are colorful and didactic, and have inspired many artists through the ages. Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird” is probably the most popular adaptation of this motif in the mainstream culture. Quite recently, American author Susanna Kearsley offered a modern interpretation in her 1996 novel, “The Firebird”.

 

Vesna Adic

Vesna Adic holds an MA degree in Art History from the University of Belgrade and has graduated with the Mention of Excellence from the Paideia Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She is a certified curator, an experienced public speaker and a freelance writer. Her major interests are history, 19th century art & literature, music and traveling.