‘The Crane’s Return of Favour’ and ‘Ivan Tsarevich, The Firebird and The Gray Wolf’ (Part II)

The content of the wonder tale The Crane’s Return of Favour briefly looks like this. A young man saves a wounded crane. Soon, on the threshold of his house appears a girl who asks to shelter her. The girl becomes his wife and for his kindness, she decides to weave fabrics. The girl forbids her husband to look into the room while she is there however, one day he violates the ban. The man finds a crane at the loom and understands that this is the same crane that he saved once. The crane girl flies away.[36]

As can be seen from the text, a bird appears in the wonder tale. The nature of the bird, its connection with the souls of the dead, the afterlife and totemic animals has already been mentioned above. According to Eason, in the Yayoi period, wooden birds, which symbolized the shaman’s feathery spirits, protecting people from the evil spirit of disease, were installed in front of houses or on the roofs of houses. Among these assistants, the crane was often considered to be revered for a particularly sacred bird and figured in many religious rituals.[37]

In the wonder tale, the crane girl is engaged in weaving, and does it secretly, behind closed doors. Opening the door, the hero violates the ban, and the crane leaves the house and her husband. This motif, where the weaving room is forbidden, is rooted in antiquity. In particular, Amaterasu – the goddess of the sun, is also the goddess of weaving. In Nihongi, in the cycle of myths about the concealment of Amaterasu, one of the reasons that prompted the goddess to hide in the celestial cave is the following:

[…] after this Waka-hiru-me no Mikoto was in the sacred weaving-hall, weaving the garments of the Deities. Susa no wo no Mikoto saw this and forthwith flaying a piebald colt with a backward flaying, flung it into the interior hall […] Waka-hiru-me no Mikoto […] fell down from the loom, wounding herself with the shuttle which she held in her hand.[38]  

After this, the angry goddess disappears in the Stone Cave of Heaven. Ueda Masaaki, analysing the ancient texts and highlighting the myth in which Amaterasu ‘took the silkworms in her mouth, and succeeded in reeling thread from them’[39] came to the conclusion that Amaterasu was the Chief Celestial Weaver.[40]  In the general system of symbols, the act of spinning embodied creation and growth. This position is confirmed by the fact that the virgins in Niiname-no-Matsuri (the feast of eating the first harvest, the main agricultural holiday of the annual cycle) spun.[41] It should also be noted that Nihongi directly states that Amaterasu ‘sowed for the first time the rice seed in the narrow fields and in the long fields of Heaven’.[42] Amaterasu is revered as the pioneer in rice cultivation. Thus, Amaterasu combines all the properties of an agricultural deity – a symbol of fertility. Turning to the wonder tale, one can see that it is no accident that a girl appears in the house of the young man at the end of winter, spends the summer there and flies away, when winter comes. That is, the crane-girl is directly connected with the agricultural cycle. The crane-girl, like the insulted goddess of the sun, leaves the house of the young man, after the hero dared to disturb her solitude in the weaving room. The fact that weaving was associated with a number of prohibitions is confirmed by the myth from Fudoki:

According to another version [of the story], the name utsuhata derived from Tate’s manner of weaving. Tate would shut himself up in his hut while he worked because he was afraid that his technique would be stolen. Thus, his cloth came to be called utsuhata (woven in secret).[43]

This is due to the fact that fabrics from ancient times were one of the types of sacrifice to the gods. Thus, in the wonder tale, the reader can see that the crane-girl is connected with the agricultural ritual, as it should stimulate fertility and abundant harvest. Moreover, she is engaged in weaving, which is also part of the agricultural ritual, since the act of spinning represents a growing crop.

Now, turning to the Russian wonder tale, it begins as follows. In a certain kingdom, the king has a wonderful garden with a golden apple tree. However, the apples are stolen every night, and the king alternately sends his sons to watch the thief. The younger son discovers that the Firebird steals the apples.[44]

Firebird is often presented to the reader as a kind of mythical fire bird, which is associated with phoenix. However, one should pay attention to the fact that many verbal signs of heat (‘zhar’) are phonetically very close to the words denoting cranes (‘zheravik’), which is a homonym indicating both the crane and the hot coals. Apparently, the proximity of writing, sometimes reaching homonymic identity, led to the convergence of two semantically unrelated concepts. In addition, according to Rybakov, the fire properties of the Firebird, its luminous feathers could have resulted as a consequence of the illumination of the cranes by the rays of the ascending or setting sun, when in June those flew to the feeding in the nearest grain fields.[45] Thus, like in the Japanese wonder tale, in Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf a crane appears. Subsequently, the king sends his sons to search for the Firebird. Ivan travels for a long time on his horse, but suddenly a grey wolf appears, tears his horse and asks to accompany Ivan in his wanderings. Ivan sits on the wolf and continues his journey.[46] Here the situation is the same as with the magic horse. A helper is a totemic animal and carries the hero to another kingdom.

The fact that the wolf is a guide to the afterlife, is confirmed by the further development of the plot. The hero gets to the wonderful garden, in which there is a golden cage with the Firebird. When he shows greed and decides to take the cage, an alarm sounds: ‘a thunderous noise resounded through the whole garden, for there were strings tied to the cage’.[47] The owner of the garden, is angry, but promises to give the Firebird, if Ivan will bring him a golden-haired horse. The hero on his wolf gets to the desired kingdom, but touches the gold bridle and everything repeats. The local king agrees to give the horse in return for Princess Elena the Fair. The reader can see that as soon as the hero touches the golden object, a roar is heard throughout the kingdom and all guards awake, this is due to the presence of a certain ‘alarm, but this is a later interpretation, and alarm here is of a different kind, it works when the hero presents himself as living in the realm of the dead. According to Agranovich, a specialist in the field of folk traditions, rituals and Russian folklore, almost from the very beginning of the emergence of human society, long before gold become a symbol of wealth, it was already a sign of death.[48] The logic here is simple: the dead were buried in the ground, and gold from the earth was washed away, it was found mostly in the forms of nuggets in the sources of streams.[49] According to Propp, since gold in the consciousness of an early man has always been connected with death, everything that is coloured in gold in wonder tales, reveals its belonging to a different world. Therefore, only the living can be deceived by the gold, which abounds in the afterlife, and to which the dead are indifferent.[50] This once again confirms that the hero is in the realm of the dead, which corresponds to the second stage of the initiation rite.

The images of the wolf and the Firebird, also, are not devoid of a certain symbolism associated with the ideas of fertility. According to Rybakov, their images were often placed on widely known silver bracelets from princely and boyar treasures between the twelve and sixteenth centuries, which were intended for ritual activities during the Green week.[51] Interesting for the study, conjugated with a wonder tale, is a bracelet from the Mikhailovsky treasure, which depicts a long-legged bird and beside it two solar signs (see Figure 1). In this bird it is easy to recognize the demoiselle crane (Anthropoides virgo) that inhabits the southern Russian lands. Rybakov believes that the arrival of cranes meant the influx of spring heat, and their famous spring games coincided with the beginning of the cycle of agrarian holidays.

Figure 1
Ryabakov, B. (1987). Iazychestvo Drevnei Rusi. Moskva: Nauka. p.718.

The wolf also occupies an important place in symbolic compositions, imbued with the idea of life and the flowering of nature. In Rybakov’s book Iazychestvo drevnei Rusi, there are images of wolves with flowering tails in the white-stone carving of the Vladimir-Suzdal land (see Figure 2), where they are next to the so-called ‘tree of life’, the trunk and branches of which very accurately reproduce the letter ‘Zh’ (‘zhivete’). Such an image expressed a verbal appeal to nature, ‘pustʹ vse zhivet!’ (let everything live!), in order to communicate life forces to it by means of an incantation.[52]

Figure 2
Ryabakov (1987), p. 749.

On a bracelet from Principality of Halych (see Figure 3), where all the space is covered with dozens of rhombuses equipped with dots, which is typical conventional depiction of a sown field, a tumbling wolf is depicted, and next to it is a woman and a large male head with horns. The woman, as it were, begins to take off her skirt: one leg is exposed above the knee.[53] In this regard, of particular interest is lycanthropy the transformation of people into wolves. In the wonder tale, the Gray wolf undoubtedly possesses magical properties characteristic of a shaman and is engaged in shapeshifting: it turns into an exact copy of the princess, and then returns its wolfish appearance.[54]

Figure 3
Ryabakov (1987), p. 742.

In addition, the wolf tells Ivan to wait for him in a ‘open field under the green oak’, where it returns, carrying Princess Elena the Fair on its back.[55]According to Rybakov, the image of the wolf and the woman on the sown field on the bracelet seems to illustrate the custom of ritual copulation on a ploughed field. At this time, the woman and the main performer of the rite, imitating a wolf, rolled around the field, imitating coition in order to influence the fertile forces of nature. The man’s head with horns, pictured nearby, is none other than Volos, the cattle god, a very archaic deity that goes back to the hunters of the Paleolithic, disguised as animal skins during hunting and rituals. His festive days were wolf holidays (‘Kudelitsa’).[56] This once again confirms that the wolf on the ornament is a person who has adopted a wolf appearance.

Summarizing all of the above, and returning to the analysed wonder tale, the reader can come to the conclusion the in the wonder tale there is a crane, the arrival of which coincided with the beginning of the cycle of agrarian holidays. Crane is inseparable from the notions of fertility, the life-giving force of sunlight. In the wonder tale, this was reflected in the fact that the crane is represented by the Firebird, the fiery nature which corresponds to the idea of the connection of the crane with the solar cult. The wolf also plays an important role in the notions of fertility and the life principle in general. This is confirmed, firstly, by the depiction of wolves with their buds tied up next to the tree of life, and secondly, by the fact that images of wolves were placed on the sown field. In the wonder tale, the wolf, having stolen Princess Elena the Fair, takes her to the field riding on its back. In the text, of course there is no longer either that the woman was rolling around the field, nor the fact that the wolf was rolling around itself. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that some echoes of the ancient rite in the wonder tale are still preserved, and the fact that the wolf brings Elena on the field, and the presence of a wolf and a woman in one field, indirectly can indicate it. Thus, both of the wonder tales, one way or another, are associated with perceptions of fertility and agrarian ritual.

Despite that, the reader can see how both wonder tales are related to the rite of initiation. In the Japanese wonder tale, the hero meets the magical helper – the crane. As it was already established, the bird in antiquity was a totemic animal, an ancestor-guard, a companion of a shaman. Crane in Japan also was among the spirits assistants of the shaman. Testing the initiation rite for obtaining a magical helper – a totemic animal, in a wonder tale is reinterpreted and presented as a help that a man renders to the animal. Here again there is a motif of the grateful animal. In the Russian wonder tale, the hero also receives a supernatural helper who clearly contains all the signs of a totemic animal and acts as a guide to the afterlife. The very course of the wonder tale is full of signs that the hero is in the realm of death, which corresponds to a visit as dead in the initiation rite.

One should also point out the essential difference between the two wonder tales in question. If Ivan Tsarevich, Firebird and the Gray Wolf ends in a well-known scenario (the hero returns after the initiation and marries),[57] that is, there is a traditional happy ending, the Japanese wonder tale ends tragically.

The absence of opposition, characteristic of the wonder tale canon, and the reconciliation of heroes with their destiny are features of the Japanese wonder tale and Japanese folklore in general. In particular, especially the sad ending is present in wonder tales, where the supernatural helper appears.

According to the Japanese scholar Tomo Matsui, this is due to the fact that the wonder tales reflected the changes in the culture of the Japanese people. The scholar notes that during the Jomon period (the culture of hunters and gatherers in Japan), people revered animals as gods, in other words, during this period the population of the Japanese islands was in a deep relationship with nature. However, the Jomon culture was replaced by an agrarian culture, which implies the partial capture by nature of man by building villages, breeding livestock and cultivating fields. This led to the emergence of an independent agricultural community, which is a human world that exists apart from the natural world. Since a person gained economic and psychological independence from nature, this world, once inhabited by deities, becomes ‘different’ for man. Matsui believes that Japanese wonder tales arose under the influence of the picture of the world that existed during the culture of hunters and gatherers. For example, The Crane’s Return of Favour still contains the echoes of the former divine status of the crane girl: her amazing skill as a weaver and the ability to bring luck and prosperity to the family. However, when the old culture was replaced by the culture of agriculture, the stories of these texts were rethought. According to the scholar, animals that were formerly revered as divine ancestors, founders of the genus and its patrons, lose their divine status and become for man beings from the ‘other’ world. Therefore, in wonder tales, when a person reveals their true identity, the animals have nothing left but to leave the family and again return to their world, which has become alien to the human world.[58] In other words, parting in such wonder tales symbolizes the gap that has occurred between man and nature.

Moreover, the universal concept of sadness and admiration, the so-called ‘mono no aware’ concept, where ‘aware’ can mean both ‘charm’ and ‘sorrow’ may have influenced the creation of wonder tales in a similar way, peculiar only to the Japanese mentality[59]:  ‘I am the crane that you saved. I wanted to repay you […] but now that you have seen my true form I can stay here no longer.’ […] The crane then quickly flew off into the sky’.[60] The main feeling that the reader brings to the finale of this story is undoubtedly sadness. According to McCullough, the characters of many Japanese legends are often tragic figures, especially those characteristic of female characters who embody the beauty of the emotional, evocative ‘aware’, since the aesthetic ideal of the refined woman – the woman with the aura of sadness – is close to the Japanese since ancient times.[61]

In addition, the Japanese system of values is constantly influenced by the concept of ‘wabi-sabi’. The spirit of the ‘sabi’ in particular is characterized by the presence of emotional polarity: at one pole is pathetic grief, on the other – enlightened reconciliation with their sorrows. In other words, it is the aesthetic mastery of the world in all its harsh truth: the ‘sabi’, which goes back to a sense of ‘horror’ before the world, then turns into ‘beauty’, ‘reconciliation’.

Such a dual perception of the world could not but arise in Japan. For example, in Kamo no Chomei’s An Account of my Hut, which was written in Kamakura period, the author talks about real natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes etc.) that he witnessed personally:

[…] there was a violent earthquake, causing unbelievable damage.  Mountains crumbled, rivers were completely filled up, and waves from the sea inundated the land.  The earth split and water gushed out […] People who were inside the houses might be crushed at once, but those who ran outside were faced by the cracks in the earth.[62]

Listening and other misfortunes, the author convincingly leads to the conclusion that nowhere in the world there is a safe place for life. It is not necessary to focus on insignificant things when all can be suddenly lost. He comes up with this idea of impermanence of everything in the world (‘mujokan’). Japan is often subjected to the strongest earthquakes and tsunamis. According to Eliott and Hsu,  against this background, the Japanese mentality has developed a natural resilience: because of the constant threat of losing everyone, the Japanese have learned to overcome losses and treat it as a given, which it makes no sense to resist – it can only be expected.[63]

In a word, the spirit of overcoming tragedy through reconciliation with reality permeates the entire culture of Japan, moreover, determines its distinctive content. Such a unique feature of the Japanese mentality could not but affect the wonder tale subjects, so the lack of opposition in the wonder tale, being tradition for the wonder tale canon in Japan, does not fit into the generally accepted system of wonder tale composition. It is in this that one of the main differences between the wonder tales of Japan and Russia is manifested.





[36] Seki (1966), p.77.

[37] Eason, C. (2008). Fabulous Creatures,
Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook
. California:
Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 65-66.

[38] Aston (1896), p. 45.

[39] Ibid., p. 33.

[40] Ueda, M. (1999). Nihon Shinwa Ron.
Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten. pp. 227-247.

[41] Hosoi, Y. (1974). Tree Symbolism in The
Japanese Religious Tradition
. Chicago: University of Chicago. p. 193.

[42] Aston (1896), p. 33.

[43] Aoki (1997), p. 70.

[44] Afanas’ev, A.N. (1984). Narodnye russkie
skazki A.N. Afanasʹeva v 3 tomah. Volume 1.
Moskva: Nauka. p. 331.

[45] Rybakov (1987), pp. 712-713.

[46] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 1, p. 332.

[47] Ibid., pp. 332-333.

[48] Agranovich S. Z. and Rassovskaia L. P. (1989). Istorizm
Pushkina i Poètika Folʹklora
. Saratov: Izd-vo Saratovskogo Universiteta.
pp. 39-41.

[49] Propp (1998), p. 364.

[50] Propp, V. (1999). Problemy Komizma I Smekha. Moskva:
Labirint. pp. 230-231.

[51] Rybakov (1987), pp. 696-701.

[52] Ibid., pp. 703-704.

[53] Ibid., p. 725

[54] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 1, p. 335.

[55] Ibid., p. 334.

[56] Rybakov
(1987), pp. 733-735.

[57] Afanasʹev (1984), Volume 1, p. 343.

[58] Matsui, T. (1988). Mukashibanashi no Shi to
. Kyobunkan. pp. 106-108.

[59] Choi, J. (2018). Reorienting Ozu: A Master
and His Influence
. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 7.

[60] Web-japan.org. (2018). Tsuru no Ongaeshi 5
– Folk Legends – Kids Web Japan – Web Japan
. [online] Available at:

[61] McCullough, H. (1990). Classical Japanese
prose: An anthology
. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p.560.

[62] Washburn.edu. (n.d.). Hojoki.
[online] Available at: https://washburn.edu/reference/bridge24/Hojoki.html
[Accessed 1 Sep. 2018].

[63] Elliott, A. and Hsu, E.L. (2016). The
consequences of global disasters
. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis
Group. pp. 50-52.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s