Fairytale Wiki

"Ivan Tsarevich catching the Firebird's feather" by Ivan Bilibin

In Slavic folklore, the Firebird (Russian: Жар-пти́ца, Zhar-ptitsa; Ukrainian: Жар-пти́ця, Zhar-ptica; Serbian: Жар-птица or Žar-ptica; Croatian: 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".

Fairy tales[]

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, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf.

Suzanne Massie retells another story of the Firebird legend. A modest and gentle orphan girl named Maryushka lives in a small village. People would come from all over to buy her embroidery, and many merchants asked her to come away and work for them. She told them all that she would sell to any who found her work beautiful, but she would never leave the village of her birth. One day the evil sorcerer Kaschei the Immortal heard of Maryushka’s beautiful needlework and transformed himself 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 himself possessed. He tried to tempt her by offering to make her Queen if she would embroider for him alone, 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 great black Falcon, picked her up in his talons, and stole her away from her village. To leave a memory of herself with her village forever she shed her feathers onto the land below. As the last feather fell Maryushka died in the falcon’s talons. The glowing rainbow feathers were magic and remain undimmed, but show their colors only to those who love beauty and seek to make beauty for others.

Irina Zheleytova translates another version, 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 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 that the archer fetch the Princess Vassilissa so the king may marry her; otherwise, the archer will be killed. The archer goes to the princess' lands and drugs her with wine to bring her back to the king. The king is pleased and rewards the archer; however, when the princess awakes and realizes she is not home she begins to weep. If she is to be married she wants her wedding dress, which is under a rock in the middle of the Blue Sea. Once again the archer weeps to his horse and fulfills his duty to his king and brings back the dress. The princess is stubborn and refuses to marry the king even with her dress until the archer is dipped in boiling water. The archer begs to see his horse before he is boiled and the horse puts a spell on the archer to protect him from the water. The archer comes out more handsome than anyone had ever seen. The king sees this and jumps in as well but is instead boiled alive. The archer is chosen to be king and marries the princess and they live happily ever after.

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.

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