The Sighting of the Firebird

March 4, 2014 | Posted in: Myths & Folktales

Firebird Feather by Elena Konstantinovna Gorokhova

Firebird Feather, Elena Konstantinovna Gorokhova

“If we speak of things as inert or inanimate objects, we deny their ability to actively engage with us—we foreclose their capacity to reciprocate our attentions, to draw us into silent dialogue, to inform and instruct us.” David Abrams


I’m of the joyous suspicion that the world is endlessly proffering secret messages, which I’m only able to observe when my awareness is clear and open to sensory experience unfolding moment to moment.

Allow me to illustrate: On a day much like any other here in Asheville, as I was nearing home, a flash of bright red darted across my vision in the space between two bare branches. Coming from Colorado, where birds display generally drab, muted tones (as if western avian fashion is puritanically modest), this flash of the most marvelously vibrant shade of red transfixed me utterly. Since that first glimpse, I’ve been on a daily quest to catch clear sight of this fire spark of a bird, my imagination cloaking it in the mythological semblance of the phoenix or firebird of legend, imbued with meaning, a sign just for me.

The Red Bird, from the The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Mark Catesby, 1729.

Red Bird, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Mark Catesby, 1729.

The color red has a magic allure about it, arresting one’s attention and inspiring a sense of awe. Ecologically, it’s a rare color, as there’s no hiding when an organism coats itself in flaming brightness. It’s a bold move and is made for one of two reasons: to warn or to attract. In either case, like a hook, red pierces through our inner chaos of sensory perceptions, thoughts, and emotions, and shocks us into a sudden and sharp awareness, a feeling that a message is being spoken to us, if only we can translate it.

My imagination’s not the first to have been captivated by the vision of a bird like a flame. Myths of color-emblazoned eagles, herons, and peacocks abound in cultures on nearly every continent. The most famous, originating in Arabia and later adopted by the Greeks, is the phoenix: a magical bird that today nearly everyone has heard of, and yet hardly any stories speak about it in length. The most common tale goes that this majestic and solitary creature, once bone and sinew are worn with long years, creates for itself a funeral pyre and bursts into flame, only to rise once more from its own ashes. The phoenix’s plumage of deep red links it symbolically to life, sacrifice, death, and rebirth, a cycle we can all relate to in our own lives.

In Russian folklore several old tales speak of the mysterious and gloriously feathered firebird, a magical and elusive creature whose appearance always heralds an upset. Yet even in these stories, the bird itself makes only brief appearances, acting as the spark which ignites a great quest filled with uncertainty, boundless danger, and always requires transformation before success can be achieved. In the old tale The Fire-Bird and the Princess Vasilissa, the hero starts off innocently trotting on his magical horse through the woods, when he comes across a glowing golden feather dropped by the firebird. His horse warns him “leave the golden feather where it lies. If you take it you will be sorry for it, and know the meaning of fear.” But a hero or heroine must take the risk, pluck the treasure, face the darkest fears, or no transformation can occur. In the end, the taking of the feather is required for life to evolve, for the child to grow to adulthood, and thus at its heart, the firebird is an archetype of metamorphosis, providing the necessary spark that will light a new stage of development in our lives, ready or not.

The color red is a warning to pay attention, that something you don’t want to miss is occurring, that danger or pleasure is about to unfold, and the red bird is a messenger, a being that acts as the catalyst, the sign that a transformation is at hand. So, I keep my eye out for the red bird here in these wooded hills, my curiosity sparked, my awareness engaged, and I remember that the world is always speaking to us, if we have the good sense to listen…

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Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.