One of my personal favourites among magical creatures is the Russian Жар-птица (Zhar-ptitsa), the Firebird. Although clearly related to the legend of the Phoenix, the Russian bird has some features from other legends: she guards – or sometimes steals – the golden apples that give eternal life, a feather can bring both fortune and trouble to those who find it, and sometimes she is a messenger who sets the hero on his or her journey.
The best known story about the firebird is that of Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf: originally, the hero sets out to capture the bird who has been stealing the golden apples from the king’s garden: being the youngest of three brothers, he succeeds with the aid of animal helpers and gains the beautiful princess, but is killed by his envious brothers, only to be restored back to life by the wolf.
This is the version of the story that Sergei Diaghilev’s famous ballet is based on, with the music by Igor Stravinsky. It conflates this tale with that of Kaschei the Deathless, who abducts virgins and holds them captive in his magic castle, from where the hero must rescue them. This character, incidentally, winds itself through the legends of the world, from the Indian Ramayana to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version of of the Parzival legend – not to mention Lord Voldemort (minus the abducted virgins).
Other tales of the firebird centre around a female character: Princess Vasilisa, who is brought by the king’s archer to marry the king, but eventually marries the archer instead, who has accomplished all the tasks set to him after he found a firebird’s feather. Or Maryushka the Weavers, who is turned into a firebird and abducted by Kaschei the Deathless, but leaves her feathers behind in her native village.
The firebird is generally described as quite a large bird with majestic plumage that glows in the dark, like a fire just past the point of bright flame.
Often the bird takes the shape of a peacock, but other birds have served as models, too: I found a lyrebird, a swan, herons, a sparrow for a small version of the bird, and one of my own images from quite a few years ago, where I have used the Middle American quetzal as a model.
All images are copyright the respective artists, and may not be reproduced without permission.