Cor Hendriks – The Macaws (17): The Golden Bird

The motif of the feather that fell from the Phoenix is very well known in folktales. It can be found in the introduction of ATU 301 and of ATU 550/1, both stories of treacherous brothers. In the Grimm story ‘The Golden Bird’ (KHM 57: ‘Der goldene Vogel’) the golden apples from the king’s tree are stolen and the three sons of the king keep guard, but the two eldest fall asleep (in other versions as result of the singing of the bird) while the third one in whom the king has no trust succeeds to stay awake (in other versions because he puts his spear under his chin or makes a cut in his finger and puts it in salt water) and sees at exactly midnight a bird coming whose feathers are all shining with gold. The bird alights on the tree, and has just plucked off an apple, when the youth shoots an arrow at him. The bird flies off, but the arrow has struck its plumage, and one of its golden feathers falls down. The youth picks it up, and the next morning takes it to the king and tells him what he has seen in the night. The King calls his council together, and everyone declares that a feather like this is worth more than the whole kingdom. ‘If the feather is so precious,’ declares the King, ‘one alone will not do for me; I must and will have the whole bird!’ And so, one after another, the three sons of the King set out to find the bird [Grimm 1972, 272f;; see also]. In several versions, as can be seen from the notes of Bolte and Polivka, the bird is the Phoenix. In a version from Tyrol the blind king can be cured by the singing of the Phoenix, while another one is called ‘Der Vogel Phönix, das Wasser des Lebens und die Wunderblume’, from Odenwald ‘Der Vogel Phönix’, from Holstein ‘Vogel Fenus’. In a Danish chapbook (Copenhagen 1696), called ‘En herlig ny Historie om Konning Edvardo af Engeland…’, prince Artus is looking for the ‘Fugl Phoenix’. A Swedish version is called ‘Fogl Grip’, another ‘Fugl Føniks’. An Icelandic version from 1691, also with the English prince Artus as hero, is described as: ‘Historia de tribus fratribus Carolo, Vilhialmo atque Arturo cognomina Fagra, regis Angliae filiis, qui ad inquirendum Phoenicem, ut ea curaretur morbus immedicabilis patris illorum, in ultimas usque Indiae oras missus sunt.’ But in Italian verses the bird is called a griffin, as in a Wendic version [BP I, 504-507].

In Russian versions the bird is ‘The Fire-Bird’; the three sons of the Tsar keep in turn guard by the tree with the golden apples and the eldest fall asleep; only Ivan the youngest stays awake and catches the bird, but has only a feather [see also Allan 1999b, 129-131: ‘Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf’, which is a summary of ‘Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf’ (Guterman 1973, 612-624 = Gruel-apert 1988, 2, 44-52 nº75: ‘L’oiselle de feu et le loup gris’ = Afan. 168/102, ed. Moskou 1819 = Bozoki 1978, 183-193 nº51: ‘Conte du prince Ivan, de l’oiseau de feu et du loup gris’ = Siebelink 1933, 103-117; cf. Allan 1999b, 129, 131, see

Ivan Bilibin's illustration to a Russian fairy tale about the Firebird, 1899 (foto Wikipedia)

Ivan Bilibin’s illustration to a Russian fairy tale about the Firebird, 1899 (foto Wikipedia)

In the Norwegian version ‘The Golden Bird’ the youngest succeeds in taking a tail-feather, and when he comes with it to the king it shines as if it is daytime. In the Rumanian version ‘The Golden Sea-girl’ the golden apples of the Emperor are stolen, and he sends his two eldest sons out to get the thief; the youngest, thought to be a coward, is not allowed to go, but keeps whining till his father gives him an old mare, which was fine by the boy, who departs under the jeering laughs of the population. In the forest he meets a hungry wolf, and he gives him the horse to eat, which restores the wolf to his health, and he offers to bring the boy to the thief, a wonderfully beautiful bird. Of course the boy, when he tries to steal the bird, is caught as the result of an alarm system, which is the same as we saw earlier with the stealing of the musical instruments. Also in this tale the boy has to steal three things to accomplish his mission [Schott]. In Hungaria it is also the Firebird, who destroys each night the little garden of a poor man with three sons, who stand guard and only the youngest, Ladislas, succeeds in grabbing the bird, but it flies away leaving behind one brightly shining feather. The three sons go searching for the bird, arrive after a week at a beautiful [rose] garden, where the eldest pick roses but are taken by a dwarf with a long beard under the ground. Ladislas goes on alone, comes to a sharp rock in which a sword is sticking, pulls it out and immediately a seven-headed dragon appears out of the rock. He manages to kill it with the magic sword, washes himself in the dragon’s blood and becomes very strong. He forces himself through the rock opening and soon meets a silver bear. They fight [as Gilgamesh and Enkidu]. When the bear notices that Ladislas is stronger, he offers him his service and brings him on his back in one hour to a diamond castle, turning on a duck leg, where the firebird is kept in a crystal cage that he must not touch. Unfortunately he accidentally touches the cage, and immediately the alarm goes off, guards storm in and bring him before the king who orders him to bring him the silver-coloured horse from the Iron King. The bear brings him there; he is not to touch the saddle, but it happens anyway, and this king wants him to bring the daughter of the Queen of the Fairies. The bear takes Ladislas to the realm of the Fairies, where he finds the princess in the 50th room on a golden throne. She is wonderfully beautiful and Ladislas is to her liking, so she comes with him. Near the Iron King the bear takes on the appearance of the princess to get the horse, next that of the horse to get the bird. Then the bear liberates the brothers and they all go home (get rich from selling flowers) [Klimo, 259-265: ‘L’Oiseau de Feu 1’ (collected by Kalmany). The 2nd version is just like the Russian: king with tree with golden apples, youngest grabs fiery feather, gives his horse to eat to the silver-haired wolf, who brings him in seven hours to the garden where the bird sits on a golden apple-tree in a golden cage that he has to take without touching a leave; the alarm goes off, he has to bring the horse, next the gold-haired princess, who is stolen by the wolf himself, on the way back the wolf takes on the appearance of the girl and the horse, but after the prince has taken leave of the wolf, he meets his brothers, who gough out his eyes and bring the bird, horse and princess to their father, forcing the princess to say that they have liberated her, the wolf comes back to the boy, heals him with a special (sight-restoring) herb, etc. (ID., 265-276: ‘L’Oiseau de Feu 2’)].

In a Tartar version the bird is not specified, as is already clear from the title ‘The Bird-Seeking King’s Son’. A king has three sons and 40 barns full of gold and silver. One morning two barns are missing, and the king doesn’t have a clue. The next day another barn is missing, and the oldest son offers to stand guard, but he falls asleep, and another barn has disappeared. Also the second son falls asleep, but just like his brother he hides this for his father. In the third night the youngest stands guard. At midnight a very great and powerful bird comes flying, swoops down on a barn, grabs it with his claws and flies off with it. The prince takes his gun, shoots, and the bird drops the barn and flies away, leaving one big feather behind. In the morning the prince shows it to his father, and the three sons decide to pursue the bird. They go together, but soon they come to a crossroad with a road-sign, saying: ‘Who goes to the right, becomes very rich; who goes on the middle road becomes mediocre rich, who goes to the left will not return homeward.’ The oldest thinks he is entitled to go to the right, the second of course takes the second road, and the youngest says: ‘One has to obey Gods commands. If it is thus, I will go to the left.’ So they split up and each makes his own meal. A wolf comes to the oldest prince, but is chased away with a stick, and he says: ‘May you not go further from here; when the food in front of you is finished, then eat your shoe!’ The same thing happens with the second. The youngest gives the wolf half of his food and when questioned tells about the bird. The wolf says: ‘Before you is a village; the people there own the bird, who is sitting on a golden throne on top of a poplar at the edge of the village. It is guarded by seven guards, with next to them a fire.’ He gives the youth a letter: ‘Throw this in the fire. Take the bird, but don’t take the throne.’ The prince goes in the night to the poplar, throws the letter in the fire, and all the guards fall asleep. He climbs in the tree, takes the bird, but then wants to take the throne too, but as soon as he touches it, the alarm goes off (the throne produces a sound). He is caught, brought before the king, whom he tells that the bird has stolen their barns [as usual, this is a blind motif: barns full of gold nor golden apples are ever returned]. The king thinks he is a clever thief, and offers the bird in exchange for the seven beautiful horses that are the possession of a king of a city further on. After a meal he is sent away and meets on the road the wolf, who reproaches him for not heeding his words. Then he tells him about the next town, where the seven horses are guarded by seven guards, and gives him again a letter to burn. This time he has to cut the reins, but while he cuts the reins of six, the seventh he wants to take without cutting, and the alarm goes off. This king wants him to go to a king further on and steal his golden cither. He must not touch the strings, but is headstrong, is caught, and has to bring the daughter of the king of the next country. The wolf tells him to go there now, because tomorrow that king organizes a shooting-contest: the winner gets his daughter, and he gives him a paper with which to rub his gun before the game, then he will hit the target. So he wins the contest, gets the king’s daughter, falls in love with her and she with him. But the wolf has a solution: he blows the girl in the face and she becomes very ugly. Indeed the king has no interest in this ugly girl, the youth may keep her and he gives him (for all his hard work) the cither. The wolf blows over it, as well as the horses, and in the end he changes them all back. The betrayal by the brothers has been left out [Radloff 1872, 146-154 nº4: ‘Der den Vogel suchende Fürstensohn’].

Image of a Golden Apple Tree (foto Alfo Art)
Image of a Golden Apple Tree (foto Alfo Art)

In the Croatian version ‘The Feathers of the Golden Bird’ one of the king’s son succeeds in catching the golden apples stealing bird, but has only the tail in his hand, which he brings to his father, who from gazing at it becomes blind. Doctors know of no cure and the brothers decide to catch the tailless bird. The two eldest get trapped in the Gay Inn. Finally the third sets out, also passes the Gay Inn, where his brothers call him, but he continues his way, gives a starving fox his provisions, and is shown the way across a river, and comes to a house, where a wedding is going on, although the bride is unhappy. He sees the tailless bird in a cage, but there are many guests. The fox creates a distraction, so everyone pursues him, and the prince can take the bird. The bride also follows him and takes a fine horse from the stable. They ride back, pass the inn, where he is just in time to save his brothers who were about to be hung because of their debts. But on the road they throw the youngest brother in a dry well and take bride, bird and horse to their father, who is though not cured. The horse is unapproachable, the bride doesn’t speak, and the youngest is saved by some passing people who hear him shout. When he comes home, and his father looks at the bird, he can see again, the bride is happy and marries the hero [Neweklowsky & Gaál 1987, 274-278 nº48: ‘Die Feder des goldenen Vogels’].

A bit strange is the introduction of a Syrian version collected by Oestrup in Damas before 1897. The three sons of the Sultan of Damas want to go travelling and their father promises the kingdom to the one who brings him the golden bird, and he gives each of them a feather [but it is of course totally unclear how he got these feathers]. Anyway, after having travelled together for ten days the brothers decide each to go his own way. The oldest comes to a man with a garden who invites him in, but then demands that he tells a story that is from beginning to end a lie. The brother thinks he can do that and starts: ‘There once was a merchant…’, whereupon the man cuts him short, because he has already told a truth, and he takes his bag of gold and has the prince locked in a dungeon. The second brother comes to this same garden and is also locked up. The youngest prince has taken a different road and comes one evening at a source at the foot of a big tree. He sees a demon [snake and or dragon!] after drinking from the source climbing the tree, but faster than lightning the prince pulls his sabre and cuts the demon in two pieces. The demon had wanted to devour the young birds that are high up in the tree. When their mother, a female vulture, comes back and finds her little ones safe and sound [so behind lies the story of the returning demon] she asks them what has happened and they tell: ‘While we were sitting in the nest, the lad there came to the source, a half hour later came the demon and after having drunk from the source, he started climbing up to devour us; but the lad has drawn his sabre and with one stroke he has cut him in two pieces.’ ‘God be praised who has delivered us from it [the yearly pest],’ the mother says, ‘I’m going down to speak with this lad and grand him a wish.’ The bird descends, greets him, says he has done a great service, and he may ask whatever he wants. He shows the feather of the golden bird, and the vulture tells him to tie his horse to the tree and climb on her back. The bird flies up with him into the air and brings him to a castle, where he has to take a sabre from the wall without touching anything. He accidentally touches the wall [the alarm goes off], and 40 demons storm in and hold him prisoner. They will let him go if he gives the sabre back, but he manages to give them the sheath and run off himself with the sabre. He flies away on the vulture who brings him to a garden where there is a young girl who has no equal among men and demons, who is the owner of the bird, but who will kill him as soon as she sees him. When he enters the garden he sees the bird eating herbs on the ground, catches it and puts it in his bag. Then he enters the palace and finds the girl with a face radiating as the full moon sleeping upon her throne. He drugs her with some sleeping powder and carries her in his arms outside to the vulture, who brings him back to his horse. On his way back the prince comes to the garden with the owner who invites him in and demands that he tells a story made of lies. The prince succeeds (with a sort of Munchenhausen-tale) and the garden-owner admits his loss and leaves his garden to the prince, who then finds his brothers in the dungeon. They leave for home, but the false brothers let him go down in a well and leave him there. The girl had overheard the brothers and told the youngest about their plan, but when he goes anyway she gives him her necklace and bracelet. So the elder brothers take the girl, bird and sabre to their father and tell him that their brother has died and that they have buried him. The youngest is saved by a Arabs and brought to Damas, where he changes clothes with a beggar and becomes the servant of the goldsmith. The story goes on as many versions of ATU 301: the princess demands her bracelet and necklace copied. Finally there is a riders-game, which is of course a tournament, and the prince first throws his brothers out of the saddle with his lance and then everybody else. Only then he is recognized by his father the sultan, who after hearing his story hands him over the throne, and gives him full power over his brothers, but he forgives them, marries the girl and rules in justice [Oestrup 1897, 82-97 nº6: ‘The Three Princes and the Golden Bird’].

In the Flemish version ‘The most beautiful Woman in the World’ the three sons of the king have heard about this wonderful woman, that she is held by three giants, together with the most beautiful bird, called Venus, and the most beautiful horse called Mouse-hair, and they want to liberate her. A Dutch-Belgian version of ATU 551 is called ‘The Bird Vinus’ and the sick king can heal by listening half an hour to the bird’s singing. In a German version from Transylvania, called ‘The Bird Wehmus’, the vicar becomes ill, but everyday a bird visits his room at 11 o’clock, sings and the vicar is cured, but when the bird leaves at 12, the vicar becomes ill again, so his sons decide to go and fetch the bird. In the Greek version ‘The Church and the Bird Nightingale’ a rich man builds a church for the benefit of his soul and wants a nightingale to assist the choir in their singing. He offers a great reward and a poor man sends his three sons to find the bird. On a crossroad they will go each a way, but the oldest wants to work in a bakery, the second in a factory for halva, so only the third son goes looking. When night comes, he seeks shelter in a cave and comes at a blind dragon. He keeps quiet until the dragon farts, and says then to be his son, born from that fart. The dragon accepts him as his son, gives him all the keys, and the boy takes care of the dragon, cures his blindness by cutting the oversized eyelashes and washing the eyes. One day he asks the dragon for the nightingale and gets a golden key, that the dragon always wears around his neck, which opens a door on the terrace, behind which there is a white, winged horse, that speaks and takes him to a mountain, that is open at a certain time of the day. Through the aperture they come to a golden palace with a beautiful garden, where a girl lies sleeping with on her apron the bird Nightingale. He carefully takes off the apron with the bird in it and flies away on the horse, chased after by an army of dragons, ghosts and Nereids, but the mountain closes behind him and they stay inside [Megas 1978, 219-224 nº52].

Sometimes the bird has a strange name, like Azaran-Blbul, in a version from Armenia. It has all kinds of traditional features, like the king with thnree sons, two sensible and the youngest a fool, called Alo-Dino (which is of course Aladdin). Also the king has a beautiful garden with an apple-tree with only three apples. Once a beggar comes in the garden and asks the gardener for an apple, but he replies that only the king may pick an apple. Thereupon the enraged beggar curses the garden and instantly everything is withered, and he tells the disconcerted gardener that the garden will not blossom until they bring the bird Azaran-Blbul. The two eldest sons of the king depart immediately for the bird. The youngest notices that they are gone, hears from his mother about the bird, goes to the stables, puts his hand on a horse and it sinks through its hind-legs. The same thing happens with the other horses till he sees near the gate a dirty rugged horse that doesn’t shrink under his heavy hand. He orders to feed it raisins, every hour a pud (a little over 16 kilo), and to wash it three times a day, and after three days the horse is ready and he leaves and catches up with his brothers. The oldest sends him away, but he may stay from the other one as their servant. Finally they arrive at a crossroad, where an old man is sitting, whom they greet. He is in fact a road-sign, telling that the first road leads to Tbilisi, the other to Jerevan, while the third one is an evil road, called Gedan gjalmaz, meaning ‘Who goes won’t return’. Alo-Dino immediately chooses this third road, so that his brothers have a not dangerous road, and they are satisfied with this, but they meet with all kinds of hardship and finally have to sell their horses and clothes and to work as servants in a bathing-house (so they took the same road) [This is episode II in the description of ATU 550/551 of Thompson, which is totally based on west-European ATU 550-versions: The two elder are unkind to animals (old woman, dwarfs) that they meet and they fail; but the third is kind and receives help of the animals]. Ali-Dino, going the ‘road of no return’, comes finally in the Red Land, where everything is red. His horse [speaking for the first time] tells him it is the land of the three-headed Red Dev [an explanation is added (it is an edition for children) that a dev is a creature that is half human, half animal, this is of course not correct; first of all it is a demon, a man-eating creature, a devil, who also is half human, half animal, often the devs have just like dragons three, or a multiple of three, heads (six, nine, 18, 27, etc., but also 40)]. In the evening he comes to his house, where his wife warns him for her husband. He tells her to give him food and she gives him three plates. He laughs at those crumbs and she points him to the food prepared for the Dev: five barrels with pilav and two oxen, that he consumes in two portions. The woman wants to hides him, but then the Dev arrives, making the whole house shake. He greets Alo-Dino by name, because on the day he was born the Dev heard about it from the stones, trees and grass [this motif is also in the Russian versions of ATU 300 A: The Fight on the Bridge]. No other person would have dared to come there. The Div kills two wolves and his wife makes a new meal: the Dev notices that Alo-Dino also eats the bones [cf. Loki and Logi in eating contest]. The next day they have a fighting contest; first the Dev throws his cudgel three times, but misses because Alo-Dino’s horse jumps at the last moment in the air. Then Alo-Dino chops off in one stroke with his cudgel the three heads of the Dev, cuts off noses and lips and put these in his bag. Then he greets the wife of the dev as his sister-in-law. She wants to be his wife, but he has destined her for his oldest brother. After three days he continues his journey and comes to a White Land; the White Dev has seven heads, so he also has more to eat for Alo-Dino. The Dev has a herd of lions, wolves and bears, also knows his name, fights with him in the morning and loses his heads, lips and noses, and his wife he destines for his second brother. Then Alo-Dino continues his journey for the bird and comes into the black land of the Black Dev, who has 40 heads, eats four oxen, etc. Their fight lasts for three days and three nights, and then Alo-Dino kills him and accepts the wedding-proposition of his wife, but first he has to get the Azaran-Blbul. The wife of the Dev tells him that the bird’s master is king Czatshonts who sleeps 40 days. He goes on and comes to the sea that the horse can’t cross. Alo-Dino goes to sleep on a stone, dreams that under the stone are buried three bridles of seahorses. He must bind two around his waist and lower the third in the water. He does this and a seahorse appears. He jumps on it and the horse asks what he wants. The bird. The horse cannot bring him there, but will take him over the sea to its oldest sister. On the other side of the sea he lowers another bridle in the water and catches the horse, that flies with him to the palace where he can grab the cage [of course the third bridle is necessary to get back!]. He finds his horse, travels through the Black, White and Red land, taking the dev-wives, and finally arrives at the crossroad, where the old man still sits [as he is a road-sign]. He tells him that his brothers haven’t returned [in versions with a stone as road-sign the brothers often leave their knife under the stone; as the knives of the brothers are still there, he knows they haven’t returned]. Hereafter the story takes the usual AT 551-course: he retrieves the brothers, who betray him by dumping him in a well, and bring the girls and the bird to their father. The wife of Alo-Dino has already foreseen the betrayal, warns him in vain and then gives him her glove and shoe. The bird will not sing (talk) and the youngest girl asks for an identical glove and then a shoe, and Alo-Dino, after being saved from the well by the men of a merchant, goes to work, first for a tailor then for a shoemaker (he eats nuts instead of working), and delivers the objects. The king Czatshonts comes looking for the stolen bird, which is comparable with the episode V (b): the princess seeks the father of her child (with a great army) and, in spite of the treachery of the elder brothers, finds and marries the hero, in our case he gives him the bird with which the hero brings the garden of his father back to life [Mijne 1989, 52-96 (nº3), retold by Jakov Chatsjatrjants].

The Blbul is Turkish bulbul ‘nightingale’ and the quest for the Hezaran Bülbül by Hoca-Bey is an episode from the Hoca-Bey story, belonging to the Köroglu-tales, summarized by Boratav. Hoca-Bey has heard about [the hero] Köroglu and comes to [the town] Çamlibel and is tested there by Köroglu to know his strength. It turns out that Hoca-Bey is stronger than Köroglu and some of the Beys (noblemen) of Çamlibel make sport of Köroglu, who, irritated, wants to give Hoca-Bey an assignment he can’t fulfil. When Hoca-Bey comes back empty-handed, he can make sport of him. So he requires of Hoca-Bey that he brings him the Hezaran-nightingale (that he himself couldn’t get). Hoca-Bey sets out with his brother-in-law Mustafa Bey, his brother Arif Bey, and Ayvaz to show them the way. They arrive at the coast of the Middle-sea. The bird is on an island, the ‘Isle of the Seven Seas’. Ayvaz explains to Hoca-Bey how to get across the sea and get the bird. So one morning Hoca-Bey takes from under a black stone a few bridles and mounts the horse that comes out of the sea as soon as he waves the bridles. In one saddlebag is meat, in the other herb. Then he rides over the sea and comes to the Isle of the Seven Seas. In the palace a girl who possesses the Hezaran-nightingale, and who is the Padishah of the Fairies (Perîs) is sleeping for 40 days. When Hoca-Bey enters the palace, he closes the open doors and opens the closed ones. Then he takes the nightingale off the head of the girl. But this awakens her and she shouts to the doors: ‘Don’t let him escape!’ But the doors don’t want to harm the hero who has liberated them from their already ling time boring situation. Then a ram, big as a mountain, appears to Hoca-Bey, who is speeding on his horse to the coast. Hoca-Bey saves himself by throwing to it the herb from his saddlebag. Shortly thereafter a wolf, big as a mountain, appears, and this time he saves himself by throwing the meat from the other saddlebag. This way he manages to reach the sea, rides over it and comes back to his waiting friends with the Hezaran-nightingale [Boratav 1975, 76f. Bulbulhezar ‘a 1000 nightingales’, a fairytale-bird, that attracts with its singing other birds (Köhler, K.S., III, Berlin 1900, nº23, at Schiller’s Turandot)].

The Golden Bird, Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm, 1914 (foto Wikipedia)

The Golden Bird, Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm, 1914 (foto Wikipedia)

A mystical twist to our tale is given in the Eastern European Jewish story of ‘The Golden Bird’ about the 19th-century rabbi Nachman of Bratslav [Bratislava]. One time rabbi Nachman was walking in the woods when he was struck by the beautiful song of faraway bird. The rabbi hurried in the direction of the sound in the hope of catching a glimpse of the bird, and without noticing the road he covered a great distance, while a strange quietness seemed to have descended over the forest. At last he seated himself disappointedly at the foot of one of the wood-giants, whose branches seemed to reach the heaven, and he thought about a line from the psalms: ‘The Torah is like a Tree of Life for those who hold on to it.’ And at the same moment a feather fell before rabbi Nachman on the ground, and the song of the bird resounded, but when the rabbi climbed into the tree, he saw the bird nowhere. He climbed down again and noticed that the feather was made of gold and shone in the sun like a mirror. Again he felt a longing to possess the bird, but the sun was almost down, so he returned home, directed it seemed by an invisible guide, because he flew through the wood and stood in no time outside the forest. Back home he told no one about the bird and when he went to sleep, he put the feather under his pillow. Hardly asleep the rabbi was back in the wood with the feather, and saw in the distance a fen and went there to clench his thirst, and while he was bent over to drink the water, that seemed to refresh his very soul, he saw reflected in the water the golden bird flying over the fen, but when he looked up it was gone. And with the notion that he would not rest before he had this bird the rabbi woke up. The next day he thought about the bird the whole day, but it seemed pointless to go to the woods: the bird could only be found in the Land of Dreams. That night in his sleep he was walking again in the wood, and thought he saw in the distance a garden, but it disappeared when he got closer, and every time he though he saw it, he heard the gripping song of the golden bird, and he knew he had to find that garden. Then he thought about the feather, took it out and saw in that mirror the gate of the garden opening and closing like the blinking of an eye. He went before the gate, closed his eyes, opened them again and noticed that he was awake. The third night he ‘awoke’ in a beautiful garden and clearly heard the bird singing. In the distance he saw a tree, so thick that walking around it would take 500 years. From under the tree sprouted four rivers, that went each to a different direction, and in the tree sat the golden bird, as a golden star, and his song brought the rabbi in highest ecstasy. Suddenly the rabbi saw a man with a shiny face, who bade him welcome, and introduced himself as the gardener. The rabbi asked him to be his guide and to tell him how he became gardener there. The man said: ‘I am the Ari (that is the 16th-century cabbalist Isaac Luria), who once was gardener of the Torah and found the hidden meanings, buried beneath the surface, and understood how fanned-out sparks can take root and produce an abundant harvest; and as reward was appointed as gardener of this garden, wherein the golden bird nests, the beloved bird of the Messiah; because his song translates the prayers of Israël into gripping music, that fills the heavens.’ Rabbi Nacham was reminded of a tale about his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, who once, while he was praying with his Chassidim (‘pious ones’), stretched the Eighteen Blessings so long, that his Chassidim became impatient and left one after the other the house of prayer. Afterwards the Baal Shem Tov told them that he was busy during the prayer to climb the ladder of their prayers [ladder of Jacob] to a spot, where he had seen in a vision the bird, whose song had to bring peace in the heart of everyone who heard it. He assured them that he almost had the bird, when the ladder broke beneath him (by the departure of the Chassidim) and he fell back in this world. The Ari had read the thoughts of rabbi Nachman and said that this was the same bird that the Baal Shem Tov had seen. And that his Chassidim became impatient was no coincidence; heaven had taken care of that, because it didn’t wanted the Baal Shem Tov to succeed, for the time of the birth of the Messiah had not yet come. For the garden is the residency of the Messiah and his palace is sometimes called the Bird-nest. Because it is the song of the bird, that maintains the worlds above and below. The Messiah enters this hidden residency at new moon and on religious holydays and on the Sabbath, because then the bird leaves this enchanted tree and returns to its nest, where he sings continuously his song, that is equal to 100,000 prayers, and delights the Messiah. If the Baal Shem Tov had been able to take just one golden feather, then there would have been peace for many generations. And had he taken the bird, then the Messiah would have followed him as not to part with its song. Rabbi Nachman became very serious when he heard this, because just like the Baal Shem Tov he wanted for nothing better than that the Messiah would herald in the End of Times. He asked: ‘And what if I would take that bird?’ Immediately a sudden gush of wind took the golden feather out of his hands, and rabbi Nachman understood that he could just as easily be driven from this garden. The Ari said: ‘You, rabbi Nachman, came in this realm dreaming, while the Baal Shem Tov came here while awake. For you this way is barred and even if you would find the bird, you still couldn’t bring it past the gate. The moment you would touch it, you would be back in the human world and all that has happened to you now, would slip away as a dream.’ The rabbi asked if he would be able to return to this garden, and the Ari told him that he only has to think of the verse of the psalms: ‘The Torah is a Tree of Life,’ that will serve him as key [Schwartz 1986, 201-206].
The tree, so thick, that it will take 500 years to circle it, can be compared with the assertion, that the distance from the earth to heaven is 500 years, while there is a distance, just as big, between one end of each of the seven heavens to the other, and from the exit of every heaven to the entrance of the next; just as big also is the distance between to opposite wind-directions. Also the North, the place of hail, damp, ice, darkness and storm, where all kinds of devils, demons and evil spirits live, measures a space, 500 years big [Staal 1925, 10. Trachtenberg 1970, 76 notes, that Sandalfon is a distance of 500 years bigger than his companions (although his real meaning is in his intimate service to the person of God himself), see for more Jewish tales].

A Russian version of ATU 400 (The Man on a Quest for his Lost Wife) features also the Firebird. A merchant’s son fell in love with a tsar’s daughter, who had crossed the sea to look for him. But his evil stepmother thwarts the rendezvous with the princess by making him asleep with a magic spell. When she cannot wake him up, the princess leaves him a note that he must visit her in her land on the other side of the sea, in the other world. The youth sets out immediately and comes in a dark wood on an open spot at a little hut on chicken-feet. He greets the fearful-looking old woman inside politely and asks if she knows the way to the other world. She can’t help him, but maybe her younger sister, and she shows him a secret way through the forest. He comes to another house on chicken-feet, but the second sister also doesn’t know and sends him to the third sister, even deeper into the forest. She is touched by his youthful enthusiasm, warns him that the third sister likes to eat human flesh, and gives him a horn to blow when in danger. He thanks and continues his journey through the forest to the third sister. Near the house he is caught by the Baba Yaga, but he thinks of his horn, blows, and immediately a great flock of birds come, with in their middle the beautiful Firebird. The Firebird invites him to climb on his back and brings him in safety, while the witch screams out of anger. They fly a long time over the sea, until the Firebird puts him down on an open spot in a forest, where he is welcomed by a very friendly old woman, who houses him and has a daughter, who works for the tsarevna (the hero is looking for) and manages to discover the secret of her lady’s love: it is hidden in an egg in a duck in a hare in a box that is buried under an oak. How he finds the oak and what happened there is not told, but it is clearly the same as in ATU 302: The Life in the Egg. After he has gotten the egg, he brings it to the old woman, who invites the tsarevna for diner and serves her the egg, and that way her love for the merchant’s son rekindles, and the old woman brings him inside. [Michael Kerrigan, in: Allan 1999b, 105-107: ‘De tsarevna’.]

The feather of the Griffin

In Italy a special subtype (called an oicotype) of ATU 780 has developed called ‘The Feather of the Griffin’. Thompson gives the following type description: ATU 780: The Singing Bone. The brother kills his brother (sister) and buries him in the earth. From the bones a shepherd makes a flute which brings the secret to light. In different versions the murder is revealed in several different ways: (a) an instrument (harp, flute) is made from the bones [E632] or (b) from a tree growing from the grave [E631]. [Thompson 1961, 269.] From Italy I have collected 12 versions belonging to the oicotype. There are always three sons who are going to seek a bird’s feather, most of the times of the griffin, sometimes a peacock (three, four, six) or crane (eight). The feather has usually healing power (one, two, six, eight-10) [which makes the tale a version of ATU 551]. The king is blind (one, eight, 10), has an eye-disease (two, nine) together with his wife (six). The youngest finds the feather, sometimes helped by an old man (nine) or after a prayer to St. Joseph (10). In versions three and eight (which are basically the same) the brothers go searching for the bird, spend the night in a forest, whereby the youngest stand guard and manages to kill the bird. When the brothers see it in the morning, they kill the youngest and cure their father with the hu-feather (crane, not falcon as BP translate). In version six an old woman points the princes to a cistern wherein the peacock lives, but the eldest brothers are afraid to go down [cf. ATU 301]; the youngest dares to do it, pulls out three feathers from the bird and gives the lesser ones to his brothers [like the division of the three princesses in ATU 301]. Despite intercession of the second brother the oldest kills the youngest, after which a shepherd, who saw everything, makes from the corpse a bagpipe that makes the shepherd famous with its song:

Play me, play me, my shepherd,
Play me clear and play me calmly,
For three feathers of a peacock
I was killed at the bank of the Jordan
By my brother, the traitor,
The middle brother is not guilty
And the oldest goes to hell.’

Finally the shepherd arrives at the king, who has the oldest prince hanged and buys for much money the bagpipe from the shepherd. Here there is a division between the brothers, comparable with heaven, purgatory and hell, but most of the times the two brothers are both guilty, as in version two: the eldest brothers are killed by the Griffin, the youngest kills the bird and restores with a miracle twig the brothers to life. The brothers find him sleeping, ‘think’ he is dead [= kill him]; a reed, growing out his [buried by the brothers] body is used by a shepherd to make a flute that sings:

Shepherd, dear shepherd!
They have killed me on the Love-meadow
On the Love-meadow
Because I had taken the feather of the Griffin to me.

The shepherd goes with his flute to the king, who cuts open the flute, whereupon the youngest comes out of it. His father cures him [with the griffin-feather or with the miracle twig?] and banishes his brothers.

The place of the murder is often revealed in the song. We already saw the bank of the Jordan (six: a lu scimmi Giuccedamu) and in the Love-meadow (two), but it can also take place at the Fountain of the Three (one: alla’ Fonte de lu Tre), in rhyme with the fije de rre, the king’s sons who killed him for a penna d’ucelle Ufrone (feather of the bird Griffin), in the forest of Me (or May? four: bosco del Me), or in the Field of Flowers (seven: a Ccambe de fiore), or at the Serene Waters (or Water of the Mermaid? eight: al Acqua sirena [German: am klaren Bach]), or under the gate of Vienna (11: sulle porze de Viena). In version four grows from the grave a cornel-tree (sanguine), from which the shepherd (mugnaio) cuts a flute (zampogna), in version one from one of the three on the grave growing reed-stalks [BP: from a rose-twig]. In version seven a pig roots up a bone and when he has it in his mouth, the flute sings: ‘Caro mio porchè (careful my piglet)’, etc. The shepherd takes it to the parents, where everyone tries the bone (the song adjusts to the player) and the murderers are discovered; the father burns them in a pitch-shirt. In version eight the brothers manage to obtain mercy, the shepherd is promoted to army general and the flute is carefully conserved. But in version three both brothers are burnt in the town square, the shepherd is promoted to captain of the guard, while the king spends his days in playing on the flute. Most of the times the guilty brothers are killed; in version 11 the king commits suicide after this (having lost all his sons). Mackensen who has made a study of this type long ago remarks about version four: The investigations (for the disappeared son) are in vain, but it is noticed the tree ‘immer neu wächst’. But it is not a tree but the grass (l’erba) on the spot, where his blood was shed, that always stays fresh (sempre fresca) [Mackensen 1923. Version 1: De Nino, Abruzzesi III, 7 nº2; 2. Comparetti 1875, 112ff nº28; 3. Calvino 1980 nº180; 4. Gubernatis, S. Stefano, 1894, 154f nº20; 5. Archivio VII, 93 (Umbria); 6. Gonzenbach 1870, I, 329 nº51 (Sicily); 7. Archivio III, 1884, 371 (Abruzzia); 8. Pitrè II, 1875, 196-199 nº79 = ID., 1991, 205-207 nº34 (Sicily); 9. Imbriani, C. Pomiglianesi, 195f; 10. Corrazzini 1877, IV, 455f nº15 (Benevento); 11. Schneller, Wälschtirol, 1867, 143-146 nº51; 12. Archivio VI, 267 (Lucca); cf. BP 1, 265. See also].

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