The Firebird Rising Into the Sky: This week on the Storyteller's Night Sky

May 8, 2017

Tsarevich Ivan catching the Firebird's feather in the midnight garden, by Ivan Bilibin

The constellation Cygnus wings back into the sky this month, trailing the better part of the Milky Way and a mighty quest in its wake.

Cygnus is variously known as the Swan, and the Northern Cross, on account of its shape. The outstretched wings of the swan appear like the t-bar on a cross as the stars rise up in the northeast on May evenings.

As a mighty bird trailing starlight and other notable Spring constellations, Cygnus calls to mind the Russian fairytale of “The Firebird”. In the tale, the hero Tsarevich Ivan and his brothers are challenged to see who among them is worthy of the highest quest, which begins with the test of catching the thief who’s been stealing the golden fruit in their father’s midnight garden each year just as it is about to ripen. The “thief” is actually the mythical firebird, and because Ivan, is able to snatch one feather before the bird escapes into the night, the higher quest falls to him.

Ivan’s brothers succumb to idle lives, while Ivan advances on to the crossroads, where he must choose between three paths, each promising their own sort of peril. From here, Ivan’s next challenge is to steal the sacred bird but not its cage; to mount the golden horse but not take its bridle; and finally, to seize the beautiful princess. Were it not for the grey wolf Ivan meets along the way, he would not have been successful in any of these tests, proving himself to be supremely human in his failings over and over again. 

And even though Ivan finally does win the bird, the horse, and the princess, he is overtaken by his idle brothers and slain! But once again the grey wolf comes to his aid, commanding the blackbird to fetch the waters of life, to so restore Ivan to life that Ivan, in turn, is able to free the wolf from its enchantment.

All of this is overhead this month: The firebird is the constellation Cygnus, with its outstretched wings crossing its body to form the crossroads. The hero Ivan is the constellation Hercules; the horse is Equuleus, rising up south and east; and the princess is she who wears the starry crown, our constellation Corona Borealis, already overhead. The true identity of Ivan’s helpmate, the wolf, is hidden through most of the tale, and as a constellation, it is harder for us to see this far north. It’s the constellation Lupus, which is Latin for wolf, and it’s rising up in the southeast below Libra and the Scorpion, just below Wednesday’s Full Moon.