The Golden Bird



PREFACE                                              4


INTRODUCTION                                 5

TRIPLE-GODDESS                              7  

FEATHER                                            17

FOX                                                       22

GOLDEN APPLE                                28

TWO INNS                                           52

QUEST                                                  58

MOUNTAIN                                         66

TRICKSTER                                        75

WELL                                                    80

OLD MAN                                             92

BREAKING THE SPELL	               94

LOVE                                                   115

SUMMARY                                         120


THE GOLDEN BIRD – Slovenia                                                                                         124

PRINCE IVAN, THE FIREBIRD, AND THE GRAY WOLF – Russia                          128

THE FIREBIRD AND PRINCESS VASILISA – Russia                                                  168

THE BURIAT EPIC – Siberia                                                                                             192





The Golden Bird, collected by the Grimm Brothers from oral traditions in Hesse, is a tale of great antiquity, possibly of Middle Eastern origins. In Germany, the bird is generally called the Phoenix, and in one tradition three sons of an English king are sent to the furthest shores of India to seek a cure from the Phoenix for the mortal illness of their father.

The quest of the hero is always for ‘life’, that special feeling of aliveness, or vitality, or complete engagement with the moment, which makes life worth living. The aim of this book, no less than the distant journey of the three princes, is to find the secret of ‘life’. We begin our interpretation of The Golden Bird with the belief that somewhere behind the surface events of the story is concealed the answer we seek.

Using spiritual guides like Jesus and Buddha, psychological guides like Jung and Freud, and mythological guides like Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell, we journey through the story of The Golden Bird. We find the secret herb of eternal youth and then, like the first hero Gilgamesh, we have the task of bringing it home, which is to say, applying it in our lives. 

In Part 2, we compare alternative versions of The Golden Bird from Slovenia, Russia, Siberia and Arabia, seeing what can be learned from their differences. New light is shed on The Golden Bird, and we are guided by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend towards astronomical and eschatological meanings hidden in the oldest parts of the story.


Fairy tales, myths and dreams have the merit of being obviously untrue, unlike everyday life, which is also untrue.  But look long enough at a fairy tale, as at a ‘magic eye’ picture, and beneath the fantastic surface will appear meaningful three-dimensional forms.  Apply the same technique to everyday life and, surprisingly, the same eternal forms are revealed. The fairy tale gives insight into the eternal truths, and opportunity to practice the skills of looking through the surface.  So let us walk through this surface and see what we find.  

A long time ago, in the very early days of human civilisation, people believed that everything in the universe was somehow connected .  Something that happened to a part would affect the whole, and deliberately affecting some part was a way to influence the whole.  The world was understood to operate through cycles of various kinds, and it became the custom to appoint a king who would personify the chosen cycle.  Solstices were favoured markers of these cycles, and so a sacred king might be crowned at midwinter, as the days began to lengthen, and then killed at midsummer, when they shortened again.  A new king, sometimes called the twin or tanist of the first, ruled from the midsummer solstice through the darkening days into winter.  One king might have to kill the other; but the sacrificed king looked forward to enjoying the fruits of eternal life after death.

Trade, emigration and war circulated ideas like this, with their mythologies, around the world from early times: neolithic Britain, for example, was already trading with the Minoan civilisation of Crete over four thousand years ago.  The mythological symbol often used to represent the death and rebirth of the sacred king was the ‘apple’.  Indeed, the word ‘paradise’ means orchard. And so when King Arthur is mortally wounded and must be healed in readiness for his Second Coming, he goes to the Isle of Avalon, or ‘island of apple trees’. 

As kings grew in power, however, and patriarchy asserted itself over matriarchy, the old beliefs began to lose their force, and the kings looked for ways to extend their period of rule.  One of the stratagems they used was to sacrifice someone else in their place, usually a child or stranger made king for a day to qualify for the honour. At first this substitution could only be done for a number of years – four, eight, twelve, nineteen, as the case may be – until some greater cycle was completed that required the death of the king himself. Eventually, the king ruled for life.


The story of The Golden Bird  begins with a king, who has a lovely pleasure-garden around his palace, in which there is a tree bearing golden apples. One day, when the apples are nearly ripe, they are counted. But the very next morning, one is reported missing. 

Looking through the surface of this opening scene, we see a story which begins with the death of a king and the end of a cycle. The apple hangs on the tree like a child attached to its mother, or a human being holding on to life: when it ripens and falls, or is plucked or stolen, that life is over. The Golden Bird begins with a missing apple, which indicates that a king must die. What follows, the quest for the bird, has to do with life after death. The fact that the apple is stolen, rather than given, shows that the king is reluctant to die: he sees death as a theft rather than a gift.

We will be using the word ‘death’ on two levels in this exploration: literally, as meaning the death of someone; and symbolically as meaning the end of something. This idea of death as ‘ending’ will often appear together with the associated ideas of ‘letting go’, ‘change’ and ‘rebirth’.

Beneath the surface, the apple has not so much been stolen from the king as given to him. It indicates that his term has ended, and that he must die or find a suitable substitute. In everyday terms, it relates to that moment when a phase of life ends and we must either let it go, or remain stuck, as if turned to stone, in something which has lost its vitality. It is the time to ‘move the stone’. The king’s solution, in effect, is to give the apple to his eldest ‘son’, and he tells him to keep watch under the apple tree that night to see if the thief returns.  The ‘thief’ is death, and the ‘son’ is the sacrificial victim who takes the place of the king. So when at midnight the eldest son is overcome by ‘sleep’, he is actually overcome by death. ‘Midnight’ like ‘solstice’ marks the moment of ‘death’ and ‘change’, as one cycle finishes and a new one begins.

The eldest son wakes up in the morning to find that another apple has gone: a new sacrifice is needed for the new ‘day’.  So the next night the King’s second son guards the tree. He too is overcome by sleep at midnight and then a third apple goes missing. 

The falling asleep of the brothers under the apple tree is worth comparing with the three disciples who fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus asks Peter, James and John to keep awake, on watch, while he goes ‘a stone’s throw’1 away to commune with God.  Then, something like the king, Jesus makes 3 attempts to defer his death. He prays, “Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.”2   The ‘cup’ here is equivalent to the apple.

Jesus repeats his prayer 3 times, and each time he finds the 3 disciples have fallen asleep – much as the 3 apples were stolen from the King’s garden while their guardians slept.  Finally he says, “Sleep on now and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners”.3  The ‘hour’ he refers to is ‘midnight’, or its equivalent, because “immediately, while he yet spoke, cometh Judas, one of the twelve”4 who betrays him with a kiss.  The eleven disciples are already with Jesus in the Garden, so Judas marks the arrival of the twelfth, the midnight hour, the moment of death and so of change.

Not only in Gethsemane, but time and again, Jesus urges his followers to keep awake.  In psychological terms, it is the call to be conscious and free of the hidden strings by which the unconscious pulls us like puppets.  In Buddhist terms, it is the path of awareness leading to Enlightenment.  So Jesus says, “Watch ye therefore, for ye know not when the master of the hour cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning: lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.  And what I say unto you I say unto all, watch.”1  The ‘master of the house’ is death, or life, or change, or God, depending on the level beneath the surface one looks.  To be asleep when he comes is to fail to connect.

The Garden of Gethsemane is another version of the pleasure garden of the King.  It is the place where Jesus goes to receive directly from God the cup/apple of death, which confirms the end of his term and the start of a new cycle.

Jesus takes upon himself the burden of the sins of the world, something like Atlas, the father of the Hesperides, who was ‘condemned’ to carry the world on his shoulders for all eternity. Heracles (Hercules), in his eleventh labour, agreed to shoulder this burden while Atlas collected the golden apples for him from his daughters in the Garden .The sacred king had always taken upon his back the fate of his people, and died so that they might live.  Christ does so consciously and voluntarily, compensating for Adam and Eve, who, in a reversal of this same theme, brought down upon mankind the burden of their original sin.

Following the failure of the first two sons to stay awake and catch the apple-thief, the third son asks permission to try.  The King has not much confidence in his youngest son but at last he gives his consent.  As the clock strikes twelve there is a rustling in the air, and, by the light of the moon, the Prince sees a bird whose shining feathers are of pure gold.  Just as the bird is plucking the apple the Prince shoots an arrow which hits its plumage.  The bird flies away, but one of its golden feathers falls to the ground and the Prince takes it to the King.1
From a historical perspective the King was right to have little confidence in his 3rd and youngest son, because with his certain death there would be no one left to stand between the King himself and death. This is because the story relates to a time when the king reigned for a period of 4 years, being killed at the end of the 4th year (the feather symbol) with 3 surrogate victims in between.  The original purpose of the Olympic Games, which changed from being held every year to every four years in 776BC,2 was to appoint the sacred queen and king.  And yet, as Robert Graves explains in his book, “The Greek Myths’, the 4 years were always seen as half of a full cycle or ‘Great Year’ of 8 years.  In the same way the king’s reign between the solstices was seen as being half its full cycle of the calendar year.  So at Olympia, “ when the single year of the king’s reign was prolonged to a Great Year of nominally a hundred months – to permit a more exact synchronisation of solar and lunar time – the king reigned for one half of this period, his tanist for the other.  Later both ruled concurrently ... .”3

This gives us one explanation for the King having 3 ‘sons’: he needed 3 sacrificial victims to postpone his own death till the end of his 4-year reign.  But this system flourished under the Goddess, and here there is a deeper root for the presence of the 3 sons.

In the early matriarchal days, the apple of death and of eternal life was given to the king by the Goddess, or her representative, the priestess-queen.  And the Goddess, especially the Moon-goddess, was commonly depicted in triad.  So Graves writes in his book, ‘The White Goddess’: “As the New Moon, or Spring she was girl; as the Full Moon or Summer she was woman; as the old Moon or Winter she was hag.”1

The Triple-goddess brings death to the sacred king at the end of his appointed term, and so in the myths affected by this tradition, the number 3 2 has this association. Examples include the 3 Fates, 3 Sirens, 3 Gorgons, 3 months spent each year by Persephone in Hades, 3 days spent by Christ in the tomb, 3 days spent by Inanna in the Underworld before Ninshubar raises the alarm, 3 days spent by Heracles in the sea monster's belly while rescuing Hesione, 3 days spent by Jonah in the whale on his way to rescue the city of Nineveh, 3 days spent searching for Elijah after a fiery chariot had carried him up to heaven, 3-headed Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, and even the 3 wise men, who could not escape precipitating Herod’s great massacre of the innocents.  But two examples are particularly useful to our story.

The Goddess appears to Paris in triad, when Hermes asks him to award a golden apple to the fairest of the three of them: Hera, Athene and Aphrodite.  This scene then sets in train the events which will lead to the death of Paris and the destruction of Troy.3  Graves calls this a typical example of editorial reversal by patriarchal conquerors, who did not want to see their sex portrayed in a secondary role: originally the Triple-goddess would have given the death apple to Paris, the sacred king, rather than the other way around.1  In The Golden Bird, the apple is not given to the Goddess but is ‘stolen’ by her on 3 moon-lit nights, when she appears in her bird form: a variation on the theme.

The Goddess also appears in triad as the 3 Hesperides, whom Graves equates with the 3 Fates, and with “the Triple Moon-goddess in her death aspect.”2 The 3 Hesperides are the first guardians of a golden apple tree belonging to Hera, ‘the pre-Hellenic Great Goddess.’3 But when apples start to go missing, suspicion falls, appropriately enough, on them.  They ‘steal’ the golden apples in just the same sense that the golden bird does on its 3 visits: namely, as the Fate-goddess bringing death to the sacred king.

In the original matriarchal tradition, however, as we have said, death was not a theft but a gift.  And in his book, ‘Occidental Mythology’, Joseph Campbell shows representations of a pre-biblical Eden on Sumerian and Syro-Hittite seals, in which the Tree of knowledge and of life-in-death is tended by the Goddess: “Nor is there any sign,” he says, “of divine wrath or danger to be found in these seals. There is no theme of guilt connected with the garden.  The boon of the knowledge of life is there, in the sanctuary of the world, to be culled.  And it is yielded willingly to any mortal, male or female, who reaches for it with the proper will and readiness to receive.”4 Here, where death is not resisted, the Tree of knowledge is not feared and fenced off .The apple of death, and of knowledge of the value of death, is freely given and accepted.  

Another seal shows the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh in dual manifestation serving as the guardian of a sanctuary.  But instead of a tree with golden apples, there is “a column made of serpent circles, bearing on its top a symbol of the sun.  Such a pole or perch is symbolic of the pivotal point around which all things turn (the axis mundi) and so is a counterpoint of the Buddhist Tree of Enlightenment in the ‘Immovable Spot’ at the centre of the world…Approaching from the left is the owner of the seal, conducted by a lion-bird (or cherub, as such apparitions are termed in the Bible) bearing in its left hand a pail and in its right an elevated branch.  A goddess follows in the role of the mystic mother of rebirth.”1

This picture, according to Campbell, shows a mortal individual, the owner of the seal, being guided to the Tree of “knowledge of his own immortality”.2 Perched on top of the column is the sun symbol, which is an alternative representation of the lion-bird and of our golden bird .We are reminded of the golden-winged Eros, otherwise known as Phanes, or Protogenus Phaëthon – ‘first born shiner’,3 i.e., the sun.4 Hermes, who flies on golden-winged sandals and summons the dying by laying his gold staff on their eyes, is another form of the golden bird, and we have seen him bring the golden apple to Paris, accompanied by the Triple-goddess Hera, Athene and Aphrodite. The Phoenix is yet another form.  

So the golden bird has this most rich and ancient ancestry, and signifies the relationship between death and life, the Moon-goddess and Sun-king, unconscious and conscious, body and soul.  The bird who is the life-stealing Goddess is also the stolen soul of the sacrificed Prince. So the King and his 3 sons, the golden apples and the golden bird are effectively, in the end, different ways of looking at the same thing – just as in a dream, all the objects and characters can be seen as representing different aspects of the one dreamer. This is what we find beneath the surface of things.5 

Back now in the Garden of the Hesperides, the unsleeping dragon, Ladon, has been installed as guardian in place of the ‘thieving’ daughters of Atlas. Robert Graves identifies this great serpent with the “oracular ghost”1 of the sacred king. What this means is that the ‘stolen’ apple has been passed to the king of the old year, who dies on earth, and then reappears from his underground resting-place into the paradisial garden, like a snake reborn after throwing off its old skin. In The Golden Bird we have seen that the King’s sons are, in the same way, both the guardians of the Tree and its sacrificial victims. Understood psychologically, which is to say beneath the surface, hero and dragon are two aspects of the one individual, as life and death are two aspects of the one process. Therefore we are told: die and you shall live; give and you shall receive. 

In The Golden Bird, the central role of the Goddess in her garden is hidden. It is evident only through her symbols of tree, apple, bird, moon, and through her number ‘3’.2 However the success of the third and youngest son provides another clue to her presence, because whilst primogeniture became the norm in patriarchal societies, ultimogeniture, or succession of the youngest, was the rule in matriarchal, goddess-centred societies.3  The difference perhaps stemming from the emphasis on strength in the male and fertility in the female.4 

Psychologically, the youngest Prince, from whom nothing is expected, stands in opposition to the King as the ‘inferior function.’  C.G.Jung distinguishes four functions – thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition – through which people relate to the world.  He says, “Experience shows that it is practically impossible, owing to adverse circumstances in general, for anyone to develop all his psychological functions simultaneously.  The demands of society compel a man to apply himself first and foremost to the differentiation of the function with which he is best equipped by nature, or which will serve him the greatest social success ... As a consequence of this one-sided development, one or more functions are necessarily retarded.  These functions may properly be called inferior in a psychological but not a psychopathological sense, since they are in no way morbid but merely backward as compared with the favoured function.”1  

 Whilst the precocious development of the superior function may benefit society and the social status of the individual, it becomes harmful to the rounded and wholesome development of the individual – for which society too must ultimately pay.  Jung concludes, “It may well be…that beneath the neglected functions there lie hidden far higher individual values which, though of small importance for collective life, are of the greatest value for individual life, and are therefore vital values that can endow the life of the individual with an intensity and beauty he will vainly seek in his collective function...”2 The Prince very much stands in this role of the despised and rejected inferior function in contrast to the superior function represented by the King.  It is the same role as Jesus plays when he describes himself as, “The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.”3  


When the Prince, Eros-like, shoots his arrow at the golden bird (who will later become a princess in a golden palace), he brings down a golden feather from the bird’s plumage.  

We have seen that at one level ‘gold’ represents the sun, and so the feather is one of its golden rays.  But beyond this gold signifies the ‘most valuable’, which is also a way of describing God. Our story focuses upon this issue of the ‘most valuable’, however we may experience it in our lives.  What is really important?  What is the purpose of life?  What should we be aiming for to get the most out of life?

When the Prince gives the golden feather to the King, he is in the role of Hermes bringing his staff to the dying man, or in the role of the lion-bird of the Syro-Hittite seal, who brings the owner of the seal followed by the mystic mother of rebirth to the axis mundi.  3 apples have gone, and now, with the 4th visit of the bird, the King himself must die and make way for his successor. This is it, the moment of truth, the coming of the kingdom, when duality dissolves, surface dissolves, a person sits on the Perilous Chair and will either explode in pieces or be brilliantly transformed.  Neither is it a once in a life time moment, as the story will show, but an everyday moment.  The glorious is hidden in the mundane, like a prince in a frog or a fox, or like God in a manger.