‘The Fire Boy’ and ‘Sivka – Burka’ (Part I)

The wonder tale The Fire Boy begins with the fact that the wicked stepmother slanders Mamichigane in front of his father. The father, in anger, drives Mamichigane away. However, he hands him his best horse and rich clothes. The hero leaves his native village and drives up to a high mountain, which cannot be avoided, but his horse, ‘like a bird, flies over this mountain’.[8] In Sivka-Burka, a similar situation occurs; a horse is handed to the hero. Before his death, the old father wills his three brothers in turn to spend the night in his grave. However, since the older brothers refuse to come to the grave to their father, the youngest, Ivan the Fool, spends all three nights on the grave. On the third night, the father thanks the hero and gives him a magic horse: ‘The earth trembled under its hoofs, flames streamed from its nostrils’.[9]

As can be seen from the text of the wonder tales, both heroes receive horses from their fathers, and the horses are supernatural. In the Japanese wonder tale, the transfer to the son of a magic horse is coloured in a real, everyday setting: the father gives his son a horse and rich clothes, as this reflects his own high social status. The transfer of the horse in Sivka-Burka looks quite different. The donor has a clear connection with the realm of death and the world of ancestors. Since the wonder tale preserves and reinterprets many rituals, it is likely that in this case is abandoned the once-existing rite of sacrifice, and the father’s death covenant can be deciphered as a request to perform a sacrifice on his grave. According to Propp, if someone does not make sacrifices, that is, does not satisfy the ‘hunger’ of the deceased, he will not have peace and will return to life as a spirit.[10] In the wonder tale, the refusal of the brothers to sit at night on the grave of their father is motivated by fear.[11] It is obvious that the fear of the deceased father is based on the fear that the dead man can rise from his grave. Hence the act of ‘sitting on the grave’ –  they go to the grave ‘to sit’ to bring the deceased back to the grave if he gets up. Propp believes that this is something that not only the living are afraid of, but also the dead themselves. Therefore, the offer of the father to go to his grave is caused by the desire to secure his otherworldly peace.[12] Thus, in the wonder tale the reader can see that the hero no longer tries to penetrate the realm of death himself, as was the case in the initiation ceremony, the supernatural assistant is given to him by the deceased father, that is, the ancestor who is strong already because he is in the world of the dead. The test of the initiation rite in this text is reinterpreted in honouring the paternal grave, which reflects the patriarchal order and the cult of ancestors.

It is also interesting to see the look of the horse itself, in which ‘flame streamed from its nostrils, smoke rose in columns from its ears’. There is clearly traced the fiery nature of the horse. Fire, as is known, was once represented as a mediator between two worlds. According to Rybakov, with the advent of the cremation ritual, the cult of ancestors split: some actions were associated with the idea of a soul rising to the sky with the smoke of fireplace; others were still confined to the cemetery, to the burial place of the ancestor, as the only item actually associated with the deceased.[13] The funeral pyre, on which the corpse of the deceased was laid for cremation, was called ‘krada’ in the Slavic rite. At the funeral pyre (‘krada’), along with the deceased himself, various animals, including horses, were burned.[14] Apparently, the wonder tale Sivka-Burka, reflected at once two rituals associated with funeral rituals: a ritual performed during cremation and inhumation. In the end, both the supernatural helper and the hero himself are invariably connected with the world of the dead, which corresponds to a visit as dead man and obtaining magical objects in the initiation rite.

Then, the wonder tale Sivka-Burka develops as follows. The king promises to marry his daughter to that who will tear the princess’s portrait. Ivan is going to go to the city with his brothers, but they just laugh at him. However, Ivan calls his horse, and his horse jumps so high that tears off the portrait of the princess.[15] The reader can notice that the magic horse almost flies. According to another version, given in the same collection, the reader can see that sitting on the horse, the hero ‘flew like a falcon’.[16] The horse from the wonder tale The Fire Boy also has similar functions: ‘like a bird flew across the mountain’.[17] As stated in Propp’s book, Istoricheskie Korni Volshebnoi Skazki, the horse, as is known, enters the human consciousness later than the animals of the forests, and is used in completely new household functions. The new form of household does not immediately create equivalent forms of thinking, there is a period when these new forms come into conflict with old thinking and create new images.[18] Therefore, the horse is clothed in the bird image, it is attributed to the function that early thinking firmly entrenched behind the bird, namely, the function of the conductor from the world of the living to the world of the dead. For example, according to Levkievskaia, in the Slavic pre-Christian picture of the world, there was an idea of Vyriy – a mythical overseas country where birds fly away for the winter, and whence they return in the spring.[19] Interesting in the context of this study is the fact that the Nihongi, in the cycle of stories about the emperor Jimmu says the following:

[…] among the mountains it was so precipitous that there was no road by which they could travel […] Then Ama-terasu no Oho-Kami instructed the Emperor in a dream of the night, saying: – ‘‘I will now send thee Yata-garasu[20], make it thy guide through the land’’[21]

Here, the bird also appears to be a guide, an envoy. The reader can notice that something similar happens with Mamichigane. Even though the hero overcomes the mountain thanks to the magic horse, the very fact that the horse is flying confirms that the image of a horse that preserves the functions of a bird in a wonder tale is of a superficial nature.

The mythologeme ‘soul – bird’ is widespread in many traditional cultures. In the ancient legends of the Ainu, the soul, when it let the human body after death, was pictured as a small bird that could fly far away. At the end of the feast of the deceased, who consecrate the souls of their ancestors by their presence, the Ainu perform a farewell mimic dance, depicting the flight of a bird and issuing sounds characteristic of the noise of wings. Sjoberg believes that this dance depicts the flight of souls in the guise of birds at the end of the feast.[22] In addition, Nihongi also mentions the transformation of the soul of the deceased into a bird. In one of the scrolls there is a story of Yamato-Takero-no Mikoto, who after death took ‘the shape of a white bird […] and flew towards the Land of Yamato’.[23] According to the Slavic beliefs, the soul of the deceased also takes the form of a bird, hence the custom to scatter grains on graves.[24]

In addition, the bird is directly related to totem animals, as it occupies a prominent place among them. According to Propp, the bird is an indispensable companion and assistant to the shaman, it accompanies him in his wanderings to heaven and into the underworld. For example, in the vestments of Siberian shamans, parts of the eagle appear: bones, feathers, claws; and the shaman’s caftan was cut out like a bird and was lined with a long fringe, symbolizing feathers.[25] According to Naumann, in the Yayoi era, cults of bird-spirits, magical and shamanic birds begin to take shape. On the ceramics of the Yayoi period, there are images of priests, or shamans with wings or bird heads. In myths there is a famous scene of funeral ritual of the deity Amenowakahiko, performed by birds, who danced for eight days and sang funeral songs.[26]

Summarizing all of the above, the reader can come to the conclusion that the bird in the wonder tale is an ancient totemic animal, a spirit protector. Moreover, it is conceived as a guide, a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Now, returning to the problem of assimilation of a horse and a bird, it will be easier to trace the transfer of the functions of one animal to another, and to understand what significance it has in the context of this study. The reader has already seen that in wonder tales, magic horses fly like birds. In addition, in the wonder tale Sivka-Burka the hero receives a horse from his deceased father. As already mentioned, the bird was conceived as a guide from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Therefore, the flight on the horse developed directly from the flight in the image of a bird or on a bird, and the custom of giving a horse, which is a mount, at death, is a consequence of the transfer to it of the function of a bird, the function of a guide to the other world. According to Propp, with the transition to settled agriculture, the circle of interests centres on the earth, and a cult of ancestors appears; the deceased are no longer thought of as departed, but of living in the house, near the hearth, in the grave. The horse remained as an attribute of the deceased in general, although it lost its meaning. Therefore, the father who lives with a horse in the grave is a late phenomenon, it reflects the cult of ancestors[27]. The horses successfully fly heroes of both texts, and this is due to the initiation ceremony.

The initiates, passing through a symbolic mortification, were to join the spirit of the totem ancestor-patron, and thus acquire magical armament. The essence of the initiation rite is expressed in the fact that the totemic ancestor often carried out the transfer of the subject to the other world. As already noted, originally the guide was played by a bird, and the soul of a man was represented in the image of a bird, was one with it. But as the mounts appear, the loss of the original idea of consubstantiality begins. According to Prop, by the time man began to tame the horse, the idea of turning into an animal has already come to the fore.[28] However, flying on a horse in wonder tales still reflects the same ideas as the flight in the image of a bird: crossing into the realm of the dead; and this, is one of the actions in the initiation rite.

Thus, in the case of the wonder tale The Fire Boy, the reproduction of the initiation rite is the fact that the horse represents the hero’s guidebook to the world of the dead. In the case of the wonder tale Sivka-Burka, the reader can observe that there is a whole complex of rituals that have preserved a wonder tale, but in the end they all boil down to the notions of the afterlife. The horse, firstly, is itself a being from the world of the dead, and secondly, it acts as a totemic animal – carries out the crossing and communicates magical armament. All this is also an integral part of the initiation rite.

Next in the texts is the following. Mamichigane works for a long time in the house of a rich man as a stoker. When a festival starts in the city, he waits until everyone leaves, changes into his beautiful clothes and flies on the horse to the city centre. People worship him as a deity. After that, he returns to the house and lies down on a pile of ashes near the stove.[29] In the wonder tale Sivka-Burka the hero on his magic horse tears off the portrait of the princess and at the same time snatches the scarf from her. After that, he, as if nothing had happened, comes home and sits down near the stove.[30]

According to the Russian folklorist Meletinsky, the conscious aspiration of the hero to hide under the ‘low’ guise, perhaps, is connected with the ‘marriage-workmanship’, widely known in ethnography: the young man had to work for a certain period in a ‘low’ position with his future father-in-law. The matrilocal marriage was characterized by the relative passivity of a man who is going to transition to his wife’s family. This passivity received in the ritual a peculiar expression in the form of ‘escaping of the groom’. Therefore, it is likely that the wonder tales reflected a similar rite (draws attention to the marked passivity of the heroes). They escape from the festival, return to their normal state and not only do not achieve a higher position, but as if they avoid it.[31]

In addition, the marriage was preceded by the initiation rite, which presupposed the neophyte’s being in a state of temporary death. According to Propp, one form of imitation of death was the smearing of soot or clay.[32] Such colouring made the person unrecognizable and gave him a repulsive appearance, that is, made him invisible, lost his personal qualities, and this, is a characteristic feature of the dead man. Thus, the image of the facelessness, unrecognizability of the hero also reveals a connection with the ideas underlying the initiation rites.

Both wonder tales end in a well-known scenario. Heroes have already shown their magical armament, because they have at their disposal a supernatural helper, and hence the connection with the totem ancestor. Thus, they have proved that they are initiated, and therefore can enter into a marriage relationship. In both texts, the hero is recognized by a special mark. In the wonder tale The Fire Boy such is the black mark on the left ear of the hero, which reveals hero’s true identity.[33] In the wonder tale Sivka-Burka the princess brings a glass of beer to the hero, and sees the scarf he once snatched from her.[34] In this case, the scarf plays the same role as the mark in the wonder tale The Fire Boy: Both these details are present in the texts as a stigma, according to which the hero stands out among other suitors. According to Propp, in the ritual of initiation, stigmatization, that is, the drawing of distinctive signs, was necessary for admission to the tribal union. The presence of such a stigma confirmed that the new member of the society is an initiate and has the right to join a clan association.[35]





[8] Seki, K. (1978). Nihon Mukashibanashi
Taisei. Volume 5.
Tokyo: Kadokawashoten. p. 191.

[9] Afanas’ev, A.N. (1984). Narodnye
Russkie Skazki A.N. Afanasʹeva v 3 tomah.
Volume 2.
Moskva: Nauka. pp. 5-6.

[10] Propp (2013), p. 122.

[11] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 2, p. 5.

[12] Propp (2013), p. 123.

[13] Rybakov, B. (1987). Iazychestvo Drevnei
. Moskva: Nauka. p. 81

[14] Ibid., p. 87.

[15] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 2, pp. 6-7.

[16] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 2, p. 8.

[17] Seki (1978), pp.191-192.

[18] Propp (2013), p. 142.

[19] Levkievskai︠a︡, E. E.
(2000). Mify Russkogo Naroda. Moskva: Astrel. p. 188.

[20] The crow with a head eight feet long.

[21] Aston, W.G. (1896). Nihongi: Chronicles of
Japan From The Earliest Times to A.D. 697
. London: Paul. p. 115.

[22] Sjöberg, K. (1991). Mr. Ainu: Cultural
Mobilization and The Practice of Ethnicity in a Hierarchical Culture
Lund: University of Lund, Department of Social Anthropology. p. 84.

[23] Aston (1896), p. 210.

[24] Levkievskaia (2000), pp. 163-164.

[25] Propp, V. (1998). Morfologiia Volshebnoĭ
. Moskva: Labirint. p. 257.

[26] Naumann, N. (2000). Japanese Prehistory:
The Material and Spiritual Culture of The Jōmon Period
. Wiesbaden:
Harrassowitz. pp. 63-65.

[27] Propp (1998), p. 260.

[28] Ibid., p. 294.

[29] Seki (1978), pp. 193-194.

[30] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 2, p. 7.

[31] Meletinskii, E. (2005). Geroi Volshebnoĭ
. Moskva: Akademii︠a︡ issledovaniĭ kulʹtury. p. 205.

[32] Propp (1998), pp. 223-225.

[33] Seki (1978), p. 195.

[34] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 2, p. 7.

[35] Propp (1998), p. 378.

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