Fear and the Firebird.

In a recent FB post, someone asked what people felt was the worst, the most ‘negative’ emotion. The almost unanimous answer was ‘fear’. It seems that we have demonised visceral emotion and forgotten its value, all of which may be ‘correct’ but which can only serve to impede our journey given the capacity of unwanted fear to keep us indoors.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the role of fear in the individuation process. The context for this will be a Russian folktale, ‘the Firebird’.

It was Prince Ivan’s job to care for the Tsar’s greatest treasure, a tree with golden apples. One day a golden apple went missing from the tree. The next night another…. The night after that the Tsar told Ivan to stay awake in the garden and discover the thief.

He waited and waited and waited. Then he saw the most incredible thing. First it was just a bright glow on the horizon, but then, arching like a comet through the sky, all radiance and brilliant fire, came the thief. It was a Firebird, mystical, breathtaking and wreathed in flame. And for a moment Ivan was rooted to the spot with dread.

Ivan did his best. He ran after it with shielded eyes, but only in time to catch a single feather from the Firebird’s tail. He had failed. The Tsar was amazed at the beauty of the feather, just enough to appease his wrath at the thief’s escape, and sent Ivan to find the mysterious bird on pain of banishment.

First Ivan reached a dark forest where he encounters a toothless wolf. A pedlar had once given Ivan a wolf’s tooth. It was useful for polishing the golden apples to make them extra clean and super shiny. Ivan took pity on Wolf and gave him the tooth. Wolf was grateful and accompanied Ivan to the castle of Koshkei the Deathless where it was said that the Firebird was imprisoned.

Koshkei the Deathless has another prisoner, Princess Vasilisa, a princess of great beauty. Wolf gives Ivan this warning.

“Do not look at her! Koshkei the Deathless has turned her heart into wood, and hidden it so that she has no feelings. If you fall in love with her she will never be able to return your affection.” But without Wolf there to remind him, Ivan forgot the warning and fell deeply in love with Vasilisa.

Now Ivan has to rescue the Firebird and the princess. But before he can make a plan, Koshkei the Deathless appears. He says that Baba Yaga, a terrible witch, has stolen the Firebird. Koshkei the Deathless tells Ivan that if he gets the Firebird back from Baba Yaga, he’ll give him the opportunity to choose between the princess and the Firebird.

Ivan sets off, riding on Wolf’s back. When they find the witch’s house, they see that both Baba Yaga and the crow are fast asleep. Once again Wolf issues a warning to prince Ivan.

“Before you go, a word of warning. The Firebird will be fastened by a golden cord to Baba Yaga’s crow Vanka. Bring the Firebird, but leave the cord.”

Ivan forgets this warning and leaves with the golden cord still tied to Vanka the crow who wakes up and squawks and squawks. Ivan is captured.

Wolf sees all this and fetches princess Vasilisa who pretended to be a pedlar woman and tricks her way into the house. When Baba Yaga and the crow are once again asleep she frees Ivan and the Firebird and they all run away.

Back at Koshkei’s castle Ivan has to choose between the Firebird and the princess.  Whilst caught in his dilemma Koshkei tries to turn Ivan’s heart into wood as well. Vasilisa sees this and bursts into tears.

“Stop!….. Stop your crying!” shouts Koshkei the Deathless.

And in that moment, Vasilisa realises where he has hidden her heart …… in her tears. Koshkei the Deathless shrivels up like the wicked witch of the west and the spell of the wooden hearts is broken.

When I was a teenager in the Rhodesian Commandos, an unwitting lick spittle for de Beers Mining Corp and Anglo-American’s right to loot and pillage Africa, we were blacking up in the ops tent of our bush camp while the choppers warmed up to their whiny scream and the CO barked a few more encouraging words before we were flown into battle for the third time that week. They called it ‘counter insurgency’, which is almost as cute as ‘collateral damage’. No, hideous-lottery-of-death would be better.

My sergeant comes over, ‘Are you afraid, Andy? he asks.

‘Yes, Sarge.’

‘Good, if you’d said not, you’d be a liar or a fool and I have no need of either’.

Fear and the unknown are first cousins. Since the Unconscious is by definition unknown, fear and self-knowledge are even more closely related. Which is why the dictum ‘know thyself’ is not the top of most people’s list.

In any case there’s a lot in life to be scared about. Crossing the street can be the end of you. The endemic belt and braces attitude which says that fear is a weakness or ‘catastrophising’, rides roughshod over raw human experience, fails to find meaning and lacks in compassion. It also robs you of the teaching to be found in your fears, even the ‘irrational’ ones. Stupid fears are ever a cloak for sensible ones.

I have found that psychotherapy clients faithfully present the same one issue time and again. Whatever the content of their personal experience they all suffer from hovering too long on the edge of something. What lies below is almost irrelevant. It’s the drop that’s important. Descent into the unknown self which both literally and figuratively involves an encounter with Death.

Ivan’s encounter with the Firebird is the gritty moment in all our lives when we realise there is something in us of which we had been completely unaware, something intensely alive, vibrant and…


It is something that seems not to be of this world and puts an end to an old way of life. You could call it spiritual awakening. For Ivan, the brilliant bird is bound to induce something in him similar to the experience of the angel appearing to the shepherds in the nativity story.

Fear not said he for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds..

The original rendering of, ‘seek and ye shall find..’ had a second part to it…

‘and when you find it you will be troubled’..Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

This is because encounter with the Self is what Michael Fordham calls a ‘deintegrate’, something that pulls the world-as-we-know-it apart, loosening internal co-herance, momentarily weakening personality and threatening stability. Ivan’s fearfullness is appropriate to the occasion. He’s encountering a trancendant principle which he can never know or ‘grasp’ and to which his fate is now inextricably and fearfully bound.

‘Where your fear is, there is your task.’ C. G. Jung

The encounter also tips Ivan into the living complexity of the Unconscious symbolised by the Dark Forest. Ivan’s skill is not so much that he’s big and brave but that he has a ‘propitious attitude’ and gives Wolf (back) his teeth. Giving Wolf his teeth is Ivan’s preparedness for his journey to be dangerous. He allows Wolf to be dangerous in anticipation that he himself.. might be dangerous. He aquaints himself with his own instinctive nature that knows how to use things like fear…

‘be warned! Do not look at her!’

but he does.

wasn’t scared enough.

So Wolf has to bail him out. Luckily Vasilisa knows the value of legging it.

We were once compromised deep in enemy territory, way up on the Zambezi escarpment.

Shouldn’t have been there mon..

A hurried, uncoded message came through on the radio… half the Zambian army were on to us. Five minutes away.

….with them guns..

We ran all day long from early dawn, down bright lit forest paths silent but for Hoopoe and Vervet; over golden grassed plains, zigzagging for dusty hours down, down to the clean wet river  by night fall. Forty miles. Strange how fear in the right place can lend you wings.

Ivan is none too smart but he’s persistant and isn’t put off by his failure or fear of further failure.

‘It is impossible to live without failing unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.” J.K. Rowling

In order to redeem the firebird (and himself) Ivan has to encounter the devouring, death dealing aspects of the archetypal parents symbolised by Baba Yaga and Koshkei the Deathless.

As Death mother Baba Yaga instills in you the sense that you’ll be destroyed if you go your own way…

‘swamped by lethargy and paralysis…. incubated by the crushed hope of an unlived life.’ M. Woodman.

As Death father, Koshkei represents the chronic felling of stuckness and restlessness that pervades so much of modern life.

The word ‘chronic’ is derived from Chronos/Saturn… the dark face of father Time whose afflictions are worst for their endurance,  unfeeling wooden-ness that has gone on so long it has become the norm.

Like Saturn eating his children, what the chronic condition does is to devour what comes so naturally to children, the capacity for play, curiosity and innovation. This is because the psyche is being drained of its resources by the need to prop up prescribed ways of living that are opposed to you finding your own destiny.

Ivan is not saved by his great courage or cleverness.

He is saved by the despair of having to endure impossible love, by being helped when he doesn’t really deserve it…

by running away..

by horrified tears…

and by the reflection of his own humanity in the desperate face of another.

‘We become enlightened not by imagining beings of light, but by  making the darkness conscious. This, however is disagreeable. C.G.Jung

Facing the unknown is an apprehensive process. So, if we are not kindly to our fears and regard them simply as there to be vanquished then we will never make friends of Wolf, be saved by Vasilisa, or discover where the treasure lies.





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Psychotherapist/writer/artist/ author of, 'Going Mad to Stay Sane', a psychology of self-destructiveness, about to come into its third edition. Soon to be printed for the first time, 'Abundant Delicious.. the Secret and the Mystery', described by activist Satish Kumar as, ' A Tao of the Soul'. This book documents the archetypal country through which the process of individuation occurs and looks at the trials and tribulations we might expect on the way. In the meantime..... Narcissisim is the issue of our age. This blog looks at how it operates, how it can damage and how we may still fruit despite it.

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