One sunny day, I met up with my friend Claire Genkai by the sea and we talked stories, personal and mythic. We became curious about how our personal narrative can be reframed to enable change; how moments of ‘melt down’ can hold the potential to create new stories around identity and purpose. How could myth translate into the workplace? She invited me to write a blog that could help business people frame their experience in the mythic.
The next day I woke up with my mind full of a story I had known for years – ‘The Firebird’. Sometimes the old tales just pitch up and demand my attention, and this one was knocking on the door. I was curious – why this story? The world of myth may seem distant to us in a world of fast-spinning media, but I believe those ancient stories bridge the junction between the conscious and the unconscious; metaphor and image can be a powerful way to help us see what is hidden.
So, here are a few simple reflections, starting with the very barest of bones of the first part of this story with you: -
A Hunter finds the feather of the Firebird. It fills the forest with golden light - a rare and extraordinary treasure, from a mythical bird that few ever see. Should he pick it up? His horse says, “No, that way trouble lies.” The Hunter follows the pull of his desire, picks it up and takes it to the king, dreaming of rewards and riches. Instead, he is ordered to trap and bring back the Firebird itself or face death. Full of fear, he runs to his horse for advice. The horse says, “This is some kind of trouble but the real trouble is yet to come.” The Hunter traps the Firebird and takes it to the king. It is placed in a cage which glitters and, the moment the door is snapped shut, the bird loses its fire and becomes dull and grey. It is then placed in a far corner of the palace and forgotten about.
In telling this story, one of the most potent images for me is the moment before capture - the Firebird flying free towards the hunter at dawn – a rare, once in a lifetime sight of wonder, freedom, wild transcendence. It seems that this is the Hunter’s moment of opportunity; that if he can simply be present in this extraordinary moment, then he will see beyond his set goal, expand into the possibility of choice, dare to challenge his function. It is a caesura, a pause of potential change. This surely, is a moment for divine inspiration. Instead, we are delivered a shadow image of captivity - the Firebird trapped in its golden cage, feathers fading from flame to grey, left forgotten in a distant corner of the palace. This image provoked many questions in me.
Seeing this story as a metaphor for the psyche, I ask: when do I cage my creativity? When do I refuse to stay present to those moments of wild inspiration that challenge my status quo? And, taking this a step further into the outside world, where and how do I choose to offer my creativity? The archetype of a corrupt King invites the question: how do we challenge ourselves and the organisations we work for when we notice that innovative thought, the possibility of wider vision, is sidelined?
The image of the Firebird placed in a cage illustrates the corrosive power of being driven by fear-based ambition and getting stuck in ‘tunnel vision mode’, hunting down targets. Pressurised workplaces driven by a need for results can stifle the very conditions that are essential for original thought.
Another enemy of creativity is the inability to tolerate not knowing, the discomfort of not having a solution. For creativity to occur there has to be time and space for the possibility of play – a relaxed, expansive, contemplative state. A later part of this story holds a very different archetype – the Princess Vasilisa -who provides a counterpoint, a possibility of balance, of hope.
The Hunter is sent to capture the Princess Vasilisa for the King. She sails in a boat at the very edge of the world, and holds the wisdom of the seas, the stars, the shifting of time. She is tempted to the shore by the Hunter, who woos her with fine wines, sweet music, poetry that would leave Pablo Neruda stumped for words. It is one of those rare, endless evenings where the possibility of love hides in everything. At the moment when her eyes grow heavy and she surrenders to sleep, he throws her on the back of his horse and takes her to the King to marry.
The archetypal characters in this drama can be seen as representing aspects of our own psyche: the King archetype holding the balance, the order of a kingdom; the Hunter – focused energy, drive; Vasilisa, Queen of the Sea – wisdom, contemplation, the secrets of the unconscious; the horse – gut instinct and inner knowing; the Firebird – divine inspiration, wild freedom. At this point in the story, the kingdom is out of kilter: the King is motivated by greed, the Divine Feminine has been drugged and thrown into a marriage against her will, the Hunter is driven by fear. What can resolve this?
Cutting to the end of the story:
Princess Vasilisa says that she will only marry the King if the Hunter is boiled in water. A great fire is lit, a cauldron boils, and the Hunter runs to his horse to say goodbye. The horse says: “This is the trouble I told you of. Turn and face your death. Run towards it with open arms and leap.” The Hunter runs towards the boiling cauldron, takes a great leap, sinks into the depths and emerges – alive, transformed, dazzling with vigour and beauty. The King wants some of that for himself, so he summons servants, inches himself over the edge and sinks – never to emerge again. The Hunter and Vasilisa are married, the Firebird flies free, and they rule over that kingdom wisely and well.
This is a moment of complete transformation; as Robert Moore writes - in order for change to take place, a death – symbolic, psychological or spiritual – is essential for an initiation into the new. The old King has to die, and the possibility emerges of a rule which unites the Masculine qualities of drive and ambition with the Feminine qualities of reflection and spacious contemplation. In this court, the Firebird can fly free.
The image of the Hunter emerging anew from the cauldron reminds me how moments of meltdown contain the potential for transformation. When we can truly surrender – often because there actually is no choice – the possibility for long lasting change can present itself. It may be terrifying to feel old structures breaking down, but the opportunity is there to create new meaning, purpose, identity.
At a more everyday level, there is a symbolic reminder in this about how I follow the ‘Firebird feathers’ which appear on my path, pulling at my desire for that possible job, that connection, that project. Archetypal psychology takes us away from a dualistic vision of right / wrong and invites us to engage with the many inner conflicts that we can project into the world; to get curious about the dance of the archetypal characters throwing a party in our psyche – who is dominating? what needs attention?
The Hunter - a reminder to check what is driving me. Princess Vasillisa - a reminder to take time to reflect, expand, contemplate the wider vision – even when pressures pull to take the short road. The King – creating order, balance. What is the gut instinct running beneath – the voice of the wise horse? Above all, the image of the Firebird invites me to connect with my values, my sense of purpose, and to risk a leap into the unknown.
In order to survive, we can sometimes banish parts of ourselves – the part that is ‘too challenging’ for whatever king is ruling our world – and forget that in the process we have lost the fire in our belly. Our bodies are often the key to noticing that the balance in our kingdom has gone awry – symptoms of stress, tension, anxiety – signs that we are in the land of the caged firebird. How do we reconnect, open doorways to possible transformation?
James Hillman writes about the power of working with image and archetype, where: “…the true iconoclast is the image itself which explodes its allegorical meanings, releasing startling new insights” (Re-visioning Psychology 1975: 8). Feel free to ditch interpretation, and walk this myth out into the woods, see where the images lead you. The old stories offer an opportunity to dig deep, get intimate with images and see what they provoke, what cages need to be unlocked, and what has the potential to fly free into the world.