Welcome to another Quarterly Bestiary! Featuring, once again, images by Bridget Sarsen!
Winter Solstice has passed, and the days begin to lengthen once more. To celebrate the return of the light, what better than a creature of brilliance like the Firebird? I had been thinking of looking into this bright Russian beast for a while. However, when I started researching, I quickly found a frequent confusion between firebirds and phoenixes. I even found websites like this one that calls the Firebird a phoenix, and this one that calls the phoenix a firebird.
So is the Firebird a phoenix? Here is what I found.
Please note: The Russian Firebird is so rare its name is often capitalized like a name. I will be continuing that tradition only when referring to the traditional Firebird, with lowercase for firebirds of recent or uncertain origin.
The Russian Firebird
Despite the name, the Firebird has no flames. The English version is an almost literal translation of the Russian zhar-ptitsa (жар-пти́ца). It is described as having flickering fiery plumage that does not fade if plucked, so one feather is worth almost as much as the whole bird.1 Its eyes resemble jewels and sometimes pearls fall from its beak.2 The size of the Firebird varies. One story has the hero instructed to steal the bird by hiding it under his coat,3 yet another has him riding on its back.4 The stories generally say nothing about mating, nesting, or dietary habits, unless the golden apples stolen in one tale end up as food.
The best way to understand the traditional Firebird is through the stories about it. At least two tales of the Firebird depict it as a prize to be captured: “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf” (or simply “The Firebird”) and “The Firebird and Princess Vassilissa.” Similarities between these tales make me wonder if they have a common ancestor. The hero in the first story is Prince Ivan, youngest son of Tsar Tsarevich, while the hero of the second is a nameless archer. However, both heroes present a single Firebird feather to a tsar, both get sent on quests after ignoring the advice of a talking animal companion, and both end up with a beautiful princess as well as the Firebird.
There are some noticeable differences, however. While Ivan always disobeys his wolf friend when gold is around,5 the archer only laments the first time when crying, “Why didn’t I listen to my horse?”6 Ivan’s Princess Helen mirrors the Firebird’s role as an object, with the personality of a sack of potatoes. Ivan puts her on his horse and off they go. Ivan’s brothers kill him and put her on their horse and off they go. Ivan returns from the dead to claim Helen as his wife and off they go. Princess Vassilissa, on the other hand, weeps when she wakes up after a wine-induced sleep to find a tsar wanting to marry her. She refuses, first until the archer retrieves her underwater wedding dress and then until he is boiled alive. It’s not clear whether she was hoping this would lead to the tsar dying and the archer marrying her instead, but that’s what happens.
In other tales, the Firebird takes a more active role. In “The Maiden Tsar,” the Firebird appears briefly with other birds when another Ivan blows three horns belonging to a Baba Yaga7 (one of three in the tale). This time, the Firebird plays the role of helpful talking animal, rescuing Ivan from the Baba Yaga.
Finally, there is the legend Suzanne Massie uses to preface her book Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia. I have not been able to find a definite source for this legend, though Massie implies it’s one of the Russian tales her mother told her. In this tale, the beauty of humble Maryushka’s embroidery attracts the jealousy of another common character in Russian mythology, evil sorcerer Kaschei the Immortal. Kaschei tried to coax Maryushka to come with him, to become a “queen” with orchards where “golden apples grow.”8 She refuses to leave her village, so he transforms her into a Firebird and tries to carry her off in falcon shape. Rather than let herself be taken, Maryushka sends her feathers down, her life leaving her with them.
The classic tale of the phoenix comes from Greek mythology. The name is linked with the Phoenician people famous for their “purple,”9 possibly “reddish-purple,”10 dye. Its overall appearance is likened to an eagle. It is often said “[o]nly one phoenix existed at any time,”11 though I have rarely seen the name capitalized. The story is believed to have come from tales of the Egyptian Bennu or Benu, a mythological heron-like bird representing the sun god Re (also written as Ra) and sacred to the city of Heliopolis.12 It is to this city that Greek mythology claims the phoenix returns to perform its iconic rebirth in flames.
Though the rebirth story is probably what makes the phoenix so well-known today, the details are inexact. The length of time the adult phoenix flies the skies is given as 500, 540,13 1, 400,14 or 1, 461 years.15 Some versions even lack the flames. A Bestiary from 700s England describes the phoenix building “a chrysalis of frankincense and myrrh” where it dies and releases a “worm” that grows into a new phoenix.16 Yeah, I know, gross. Other legends have the phoenix fly into an altar fire at Heliopolis,17 or build a nest of “cinnamon twigs and resin,”18 both leading to the familiar result of a new phoenix rising from the ashes of the old. This is what we talk about when use the phoenix as metaphor today, that renewal through flames.
A World of Phoenixes
There may be only one Greek phoenix, but the name has lately come to mean a variety of different mythological birds. Here is a sampling of some of the “phoenixes” out there.
- Anqa: Hailing from Arabia, this bird is described as enormous and eagle-like with a harsh voice, the male colorful with a white ring on its neck while the female has 8 wings.19 Some say there was only one at a time, though I’m not sure how that works if there were male and female birds.
- Simurgh: Also known as “simorḡ” or “sēnmurw,” this Persian bird is also large and looks either eagle- or peacock-like.20 It was predatory, its diet including crocodiles and elephants. In one tale, a female bird gives the hero one of her feathers to burn if he needs to summon her, and several mention nestlings, so this bird was not a lone specimen.
- Konrul: Also called “Konqrul” or “Qonrul,” Turkic mythology describes it as having the body of a copper-feathered peacock with lion claws and either a dog or human head.21 It may have experienced phoenix-like rebirth and was involved in a story with magic apple theft.
- Finist the Bright Falcon: Though his name is supposedly taken from “phoenix,”22 this shape-changing Russian falcon is shiny but not reborn from flames. In a a tale young Maryushka asks her father for the falcon’s feather so she can summon him and enjoy his company as a young man. When taking her jealous sisters’ advice injure him, she must pass trials to win him back.
- Garuda: Technically Garuda is a Hindu sun god, but the phoenix is considered “a contemporary representation” of him.23 He has eagle-like features and is the enemy of snakes.
- Fènghuáng (凤凰): Just the sight of this immortal Chinese bird signaled harmonious times.24 The first syllable once referred to its male aspect while the second referred to females, but during the Yuan Dynasty both aspects merged to become a feminine symbol of the Empress while a dragon represented the Emperor. Often described with chimerical references, it resembles a pheasant.
Phoenix or Not?
So, is the Firebird a phoenix? That depends on how you define it. If the Greek phoenix, with its eagle-like appearance and rebirth from fire and ash is your model, then no, the Firebird is not a phoenix. Maryushka’s story suggests the Firebird can die, and the only resurrection in the Firebird legends is Ivan, brought back by his wolf friend. The magic of the Firebird’s feathers is not part of the phoenix legend, and what descriptions we have of the Firebird’s appearance compare it more to a peacock than an eagle.25 Their plumage may be similar, but these birds belong to distinct traditions.
On the other hand, if you include the fènghuáng and other birds under the umbrella of “phoenix,” there’s really no grounds to exclude the Firebird. The features these other birds have in common with the Greek phoenix are about the same as those shared with the Firebird: fire-colored feathers and a magical/religious connotation. By that definition, it actually makes more sense to call the phoenix a fire-bird, but “phoenix” is the name attached to the rebirth-in-flames metaphor that so inspires us. In fact, those flames have spread to “phoenixes” that were once without fire. In the Chinese drama Ashes of Love, Prince Xufeng of the Heavenly Realm is identified as a fènghuáng,26 yet he spends 49 days in a fire-filled urn in order to achieve a form of “rebirth.”27 It’s not surprising that name has such a hold on us.
The Firebird in Media
Media depictions often participate in muddling the line between phoenixes and firebirds, if they show the Firebird at all. Phoenixes are everywhere, literally in films like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and metaphorically in the X-Men franchise and the historical revenge Phoenix. Then there’s Asian “phoenixes,” like the one above. By contrast, the only major Firebird film I’ve found with anything resembling an actual bird is Fantasia 2000, which uses Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite for a sequence where an erupting volcano is personified as a predatory bird. This is not the traditional Firebird but an original metaphor. Ironically, Stravinsky’s music was written for a ballet that does draw heavily on Firebird mythology. In the ballet, the Firebird is once again caught stealing golden apples, but Prince Ivan releases her and receives in return a feather and help defeating Kaschei the Immortal.
The Firebird appears more often in novels, but even those referencing the Russian legend often incorporate elements of other birds. The heroine of Katherine Arden’s The Girl in the Tower murmurs “Zhar Ptitsa” when she sees a golden mare transform into a firebird.28 This bird’s feathers, however, trail flames that burn down a city. Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels are strongly based on historic Russian culture, yet the firebird hunted in Ruin and Rising bewildered me on first encounter. It’s described as “huge” and “white” with “vast wings tipped with golden flame.”29 Its main objective is to add the main characters to the “pile of bones” marking its feeding area.30 The size and behavior sound less like a traditional Firebird and more like an Arabian roc, which could be “snow white” and easily carried off elephants to eat.31 Perhaps Bardugo simply wanted something fiercer than an apple-stealing peacock, but it’s a little disorienting if you know how the Firebird generally looks and acts.
The closest I’ve seen to the traditional Firebird in books comes from Patricia A McKillip. Two of her novels feature a firebird, The Cygnet and the Firebird and The Forest of Serre. In the first, the firebird is an enchanted prince who only takes human form “at moonrise, until midnight.”32 This firebird’s cry produces both transforming flames and jewels, though the jewels are everything but pearl.33 The second is obviously inspired by Russian folklore, though without Russian names. A horse squashing a hen sets off a quest where Baba Yaga-like Brume demands Prince Ronan bring her “the firebird in a golden cage” to escape her spell and a power-hungry wizard tries to cast his own.34 The firebird is shown as female, occasionally appearing as a woman, singing a siren song, and laying one egg every 7 years.35
So that is the journey I took searching for the difference between the Firebird and the phoenix. What do you think? Is it important to separate the two, or is the blending of myths just a natural progression of the imagination? Perhaps you have heard other tales that cast the matter in a different light. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
- zteve t evans, “Russian Folklore: The Firebird,” Under the Influence, posted Dec. 2, 2015, accessed Jan. 4, 2020, https://ztevetevans.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/russian-folklore-the-firebird/.
- Cengage Learning, UXL Encyclopedia of World Mythology (Detroit: Bukupedia , 2009), 5:384, https://books.google.com/books?id=q8ddDwAAQBAJ&dq=UXL+Encyclopedia+of+World+Mythology+firebird&source=gbs_navlinks_s. (Accessed Jan. 3, 2020).
- “The Firebird,” Artrusse, last modified Apr. 1, 2017, accessed Dec. 27, 2019, http://www.artrusse.ca/FairyTales/firebird.htm.
- Johnson, Allen W., and Douglass Richard Price-Williams, Oedipus Ubiquitous: The Family Complex in World Folk Literature (Standford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 128, https://books.google.com/books?id=rLF7E1u0SnwC&dq=Oedipus+Ubiquitous:+The+Family+Complex+in+World+Folk+Literature+%22maiden+tsar%22&source=gbs_navlinks_s. (Accessed Jan. 4, 2020).
- “The Firebird,” Artrusse.
- “Russian Fairytale: The Firebird and Princess Vassilissa,” The Russian Store, ed. Anashkina, Arina, posted Jul. 26, 2016, accessed Dec. 27, 2019, https://www.therussianstore.com/blog/the-firebird-and-princess-vassilissa/.
- Johnson and Price-Williams, 128.
- Massie, Suzanne, Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia (Blue Hill: HeartTree Press, 1980), 18.
- “Phoenix,” Greek Mythology.com, accessed Jan. 8, 2020, https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Phoenix/phoenix.html.
- Shumaker, Heather, “The Phoenix Through the Ages,” Swarthmore College Bulletin, Oct. 2008, accessed Jan. 8, 2020, https://bulletin.swarthmore.edu/bulletin-issue-archive/archive_p=117.html.
- “Phoenix,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified Nov. 13, 2019, accessed Jan. 7, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/phoenix-mythological-bird.
- “Phoenix (Bennu, Benu),” Ancient Egypt: The Mythology, last modified Dec. 11, 2019, accessed Jan. 8, 2020, http://www.egyptianmyths.net/phoenix.htm.
- “Phoenix,” Greek Mythology.com.
- Bestiary, Translated and republished by Richard Barber (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1999), 142.
- “Phoenix,” Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Gamm, Niki, “The Great Birds of Middle Eastern Legend: Myths or Reality?” Hürriyet Daily News, July 14, 2012, accessed Jan. 9, 2020, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/the-great-birds-of-middle-eastern-legend-myths-or-reality–25445.
- “Simorḡ,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, last modified July 20, 2002, accessed Jan. 9, 2020, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/simorg.
- “Konrul,” Wikipedia, last modified Jan. 7, 2020, accessed Jan. 9, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrul.
- “Garuda,” Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia, last modified Nov 2, 2015, accessed Jan. 9, 2020, http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/Garuda.
- “Chinese Phoenix – Auspicious Bird Rising from Ashes,” China Daily, last modified Mar. 4, 2011, accessed Jan. 11, 2020, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2011-03/04/content_12117413.htm.
- zteve t evans.
- Ashes of Love, episode 2, directed by Zhu Ruibin, written by Ma Jia, Xu Zishan, Liu Gelin, Chen Lusha, and Zhang Yuan’ang, Perfect World Pictures, Aug. 2, 2018.
- Ashes of Love, episode 1, directed by Zhu Ruibin, written by Ma Jia, Xu Zishan, Liu Gelin, Chen Lusha, and Zhang Yuan’ang, Perfect World Pictures, Aug. 2, 2018.
- Arden, Katherine, The Girl in the Tower (New York: Del Rey, 2018), 311.
- Bardugo, Leigh, Ruin and Rising (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2014), 381.
- Bardugo, 380.
- McKillip, Patricia A., The Cygnet and the Firebird (New York: Ace Books, 1993), 150.
- McKillip, Cygnet, 157.
- McKillip, Patricia A., The Forest of Serre (New York: Ace Books, 2003), 67.
- McKillip, Forest, 153.