Yes, they look alike, and have been conflated over the years.
But the phoenix dies and resurrects itself in a blaze of glory every 500 years, and if you tried to catch one, FWOOF. You’re now the first pile of ashes to ever receive a Darwin Award.
The firebird of Slavic folklore, on the other hand, lacks the penchant for self-immolation and rebirth, swipes apples from the royal orchard, and can even take a back seat in its own story. With its crystal eyes, trail of pearls and red and golden feathers, it only looks like roaring flames, and you, or more specifically “Ivan, Russian everyman”, can get hold of one in the following ways:
By completing a convoluted fetch-quest
Any role-playing gamers will know the score, but in one of the more famous iterations, The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf, the beautiful firebird can only be obtained at the end of a (mostly self-inflicted) laundry list of tasks.
As the youngest of the tsar’s three sons, Ivan initially gains favour by actually staying awake to catch the fiery fruit thief. Unfortunately, he only manages to grab one of its sunset-coloured tail feathers.
His father orders his sons to bring back the live bird, and Ivan sets off on his horse, only for it to be eaten by a wolf after passing by a stone that literally says “if you pass by this side of the stone, your horse will die”. Fortunately the wolf turns out to be friendly/guilt-ridden and leads him to the firebird, which is kept in a golden cage in the king’s garden.
Here is what Ivan has to do to take it home with him:
- On the wolf’s advice, not touch the golden cage when he tries to grab it. He fails.
- To earn the king’s forgiveness, go and capture a horse with a golden mane belonging to another tsar.
- On the wolf’s advice, not touch the horse’s golden bridle when he tries to catch it. He fails.
- To earn the tsar’s forgiveness, go and fetch a princess he has his eye on. He falls in love with her instead.
Fun fact: both the king and the tsar make it clear that, if Ivan had only asked, they’d have happily given him what he wanted from the start.
And true to the most agonising of fetch quests, even then it’s not over. Although the loyal and infinitely patient wolf helps Ivan escape with the firebird, horse, and willing fiancée thanks to its shape-shifting powers, Ivan’s jealous brothers murder him and kidnap the princess. The wolf comes to his rescue again with a resurrection spell, and when Ivan’s father discovers what happened, he disowns his other sons and makes Ivan the tsar.
This was by far the most long-winded way anyone has caught the firebird, but in another version, Ivan this-time-a-stable-boy uses the most ingenious:
By getting it wasted on beer
Beer-soaked cheese, to be exact.
This time, he’s ordered by the king to watch over the royal orchard, and firmly solidifying its awesome status, it’s the wolf who gives him the idea of booze.
Having proven himself by capturing the drunken firebird, Ivan is then entrusted with fetching a fair princess, but as with the previous version, he falls in love with her. Once again the wolf impersonates her so they can escape, and after the king dies from the shock of realising he kissed a literal dog, Ivan assumes the throne, or simply earns it after catching the firebird. To thank it for changing the course of his life, he sets it free, and overlooks any apples that may or may not disappear in future.
The path of the firebird isn’t always sunshine and bunnies, however, as the nameless archer discovers in the version The Fire-Bird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa. After finding and showing one of the firebird’s feathers to his tsar, the archer is forced on pain of death to catch the rest of it, which he does:
By pinning it under a horse
And yet again, it’s the companion animal who comes up with this fabulous plan. Said Horse of Power is true to form, and warns the archer not to pick up the feather in the first place lest it bring him true fear. But when needs must, he advises the archer to scatter maize over a midnight field to attract the bird, then steps on one of its wings so it can’t flap away. The unlucky firebird is imprisoned as a pet for the tsar, and isn’t mentioned in the story again.
Honestly, the remaining events are more convoluted than in the first story, but they involve the tsar’s drugged and unwilling bride-to-be, a bling-worthy stable of gold, and a happy ending for the archer and the princess. Again, this stunning bird fades into the background of the story, but at least it has a bit more agency in the world-beating ballet that Igor Stravinsky cobbled together.
This time Ivan begins the story as a prince, and catches the firebird:
By using its apple-lust against it
While wandering in someone’s garden at night, he grabs her while she snacks on her favourite fruit.
In return for releasing her, she offers him one of her magical feathers, and a warning: he is dangerously near to the castle of sorcerer Koschei the Deathless. In fact, it’s his garden he is wandering in, and the eerie number of human statues, and the thirteen princesses randomly dancing in it during the day, give a bit of a clue as to the oddity.
Of course there is a curse, the stone statues being the hapless people who tried to rescue the princesses, and after falling in love with one of them, Ivan wants to help. The firebird’s feather protects him from the stone spell, and he manages to destroy a magical egg that was for some reason holding Koschei’s soul. All the statues return to normal, and Ivan can whisk his chosen princess off into the sunset. Job done.
It seems once you meet a firebird you’re suddenly lumped with some kind of burden or responsibility. But if you let it go again, it might reverse enough for you to find happiness or thwart an evil wizard. It’s either the best kind of teacher, letting its students discover themselves, or it chose the longest possible way to combine dinner with rebellion.
What? Beautiful red and gold bird with crystal eyes that can bring luck, misfortune, or bail you out of trouble with its magical feathers.
Where? The royal orchard, if you happen to live in a mediaeval Slavic country.
How big? In most iterations, the size and shape of a peacock with red and gold feathers.
Probable motto: I get upstaged a lot, because I understand subtlety.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing (about the mythology, anyway!)
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Phoenix“. Britannica.com.
“Firebird“. No date. Encyclopedia.com.
“The Firebird“. No date. Royal Opera House.
“The Fire-Bird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa“.No date. World of Tales.
Lizleafloor. 2019. “Symbolism of the Mythical Phoenix Bird: Renewal, Rebirth and Destruction“. Ancient Origins.
Przybylek, Stephanie. No date. “The Firebird by Stravinsky: Story and Analysis“. Study.com.
Sullivan, Kerry. 2016. “The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf“. Ancient Origins.
“The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf“. No date. Alex’s Tours and Travel.
Thomas, Rachel. 2014. “The myths behind the ballets: A quick guide to Sampling the Myth“. Royal Opera House.
Wilkinson, Philip. 2009. “Myths & Legends: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings“. Dorling-Kindersley.
Featured image credit: “Firebird with stars”, Maria Saakyan © 123RF.com