The Firebird of Slavic folklore is a mythological bird seen as a personification of the sun, light, and fire in various myths and legends.1 The Firebird’s mythological roots are believed to trace back to the solar religion that was once widespread in Slavic lands.23
The Firebird’s life cycle is believed to be intertwined with the cycle of the solstices and equinoxes. The Firebird is said to die every autumn and be reborn in the spring,4 which corresponds with the deeper meanings of the equinoxes (the autumn equinox being associated with death and entry into the dark half of the year, and the spring equinox with resurrection and entry into the light half of the year). The Firebird was said to show itself at the summer solstice5 — a time of year that in the religion of the sun represents spiritual ascension and a time of the greatest light in the year.
In some myths the Firebird is said to have its nest in the World Tree (also known as the Tree of Life and Axis Mundi), and it is said that:
“The Firebird eats golden apples, giving youth, beauty and immortality; when it sings, pearls pour out of its beak. The singing of the Firebird heals the sick and restores the sight to the blind.6“
In many ways the mythology of the Firebird seems to be intertwined with other cultures descended from the lost civilization of the sun, including the mythology of the World Tree and the garden filled with life-rejuvenating golden apples (elements also found in the Scandinavian and Germanic legends), and there are some similarities with other mythological birds associated with the sun such as the Phoenix bird of Greek mythology and the Simurgh bird of Persian mythology.7
In Slavic folklore the Firebird is often sought after by a steadfast hero on a quest. It’s associated with tests and trials over which the hero must triumph. The hero capturing the bird, or even just one of its feathers, is then able to triumph over challenges and complete difficult trials. In many of these stories, even a single plume of the bird has the power to vanquish darkness.8
One interesting Firebird folktale is called “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf” (collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki / Russian Folk Tales). It tells the story of Ivan Tsarevitch, the youngest son of a king, who went on a journey filled with many trials in order to capture the Firebird and bring it back for his father. Ivan succeeded in his quest, but upon his return his jealous brothers, who themselves refused to undergo these challenges (preferring an idle life), killed Ivan and cut him into pieces. They then claimed as their own the treasures Ivan brought with him from his journey and presented them to their father as though it was they who won them. Ivan was revived, however, and restored back to life with the help of a companion gray wolf that assisted him throughout his journey, and was able to reclaim his rewards despite his brothers’ treachery.9
This Slavic folk tale is somewhat reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian mythology of the god Osiris who was cut up into pieces by his jealous brother Seth, and then resurrected and was brought back to life. The tests and trials of Ivan, his journey to capture the Firebird (the Sun) and other treasures, and his betrayal, death, and spiritual help and resurrection appear to be mythological remnants telling of the journey of the sun through the solstices and equinoxes and the deeper spiritual meaning of these times of year.10
The following classic Russian folktale cartoon is an illustrated version of another myth about Ivan Tsarevitch, the Firebird and the gray wolf. This 1984 classic titled “Firebird” (Жар-птица) is unfortunately only available in Russian, but a summary of the spoken story is as follows:
In a certain kingdom the land was overtaken by invisible dark forces that crept in unseen and enslaved humanity, in the process stealing and enslaving a maiden named Vasilisa.
Ivan Tsarevich, the hero of the story (who throughout the tale is assisted by a gray wolf and an invisibility hat that help him on his mission) sets out on a journey to rescue Vasilisa and to fight these dark forces, but despite his bravery he finds the powers of darkness overwhelming.
After unsuccessfully trying to fight this evil on his own he remembers a magical garden where the Firebird feeds on golden apples. He goes there and captures a fiery feather from from the Firebird’s tail. This luminous feather, which turns into a sword of light, helps him to fight and defeat the darkness (which takes the form of a flock of black dragons). Ivan is then able to defeat the dark forces, free Vasilisa from the dungeon where she was imprisoned, and the world from the shackles of darkness. The tale ends with the earth lit up by the sun and evil vanquished.
- “Жар-птица.” Wikipedia. Accessed March 10, 2018. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%96%D0%B0%D1%80-%D0%BF%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%86%D0%B0
- Vatroslawski, Wilk. “Phoenix – The Legendary Firebird and myths about it in Slavic culture.” Slavorum. September 06, 2016. Accessed March 12, 2018. https://www.slavorum.org/legends-and-myths-about-the-phoenix-firebird-in-slavic-culture/.
- The Firebird is known as Zhar-ptitsa in Russian, Ukranian, Serbian, Macedonian, etc., and Żar-ptak in Polish, Pták or Vták Ohnivák in Czech and Slovak, Rajska/zlata-ptica in Solvene, etc.). Source: “Firebird (Slavic folklore).” Wikipedia. February 28, 2018. Accessed March 10, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firebird_(Slavic_folklore).
- “Жар-птица.” Wikipedia.
- Vatroslawski, Wilk. “Phoenix – The Legendary Firebird and myths about it in Slavic culture.”
- “Жар-птица.” Wikipedia.
- “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf.” Wikipedia. February 28, 2018. Accessed March 12, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsarevitch_Ivan,_the_Firebird_and_the_Gray_Wolf.
- Ibid., Chapter 4, p. 129, and especially p. 133 -135, 138, 140-147, 168.