The Horse of Power


Adapted by Joseph McCaleb, Copyright 2004.
Based on Richard Burton's translation of The Ebony Horse .
See reference & notes following the tale.

photo of painting by Lauren Mathews

The Horse that scents the living Grass
And sees the Pastures smile
Will be retaken with a shot
If he is caught at all--

Emily Dickinson


Return now to ages past where there are still the great boreal forests and their people. In this primeval space runs the horse of power joined by the hunter, tending over the mystic earth as one being. Such horses have not been seen for a long, long time. Some say they are waiting, perhaps in the world underground, waiting for riders worthy to join them once again, riders who can hear.

There, long, long ago—which we know is also now, the eternal now—that horse of power stamps the iron hoof, flares wide nostrils, and flashes fire-eyes, impatient to be about their work. For our ancestors said such horse wait beneath the ground restless to be about the task, the task of cleaning up the earth. That’s the way I heard it from the grandfathers and grandmothers and they lived a long time ago. So it must be true.

Then this power, the union of the hunter with the horse, moves through the boreal forest. They hear the silence that is broken only by the sound of the wind that their vigil stirs up and the impact of mighty hooves meeting the earth. For these are spirit-makers and these have the force to reshape the world. This horse and rider are keenly aware of undertones within silence.

They sniff the air to track the maker of the hush. What is it that’s stilled the birdsong? Who subdues a hawk-scream? Why is the eagle silent? For this is the green season. Some force has passed through to create such a pregnant silence. The horse and rider search the unseen lore for tales of creatures so feared, so esteemed to make a heavy quiet like this. A shiver of recognition runs between them. For such a quest have these hunters come to this search in the forest of the unseen.

Thus prepared, they walk on. Thus, they are unsurprised to find straightway the feather huge upon their path and burning. They behold the kind of luminous burning that all others most likely would have never seen. Or if seen would have spooked and stampeded away from. It’s a numinous burning before them, not as a flame but with vibrancy of color and with a heat that they feel pulsing from it. And though they’ve never seen one except through the dream of story, they know at once it is the firebirdfeather. What else would make the world bow as if in prayer, as if waiting for the burning bush to tell.

“If you pick it up,” murmurs that horse of power, “. . .” Some say the rider hears “You will wish you had not.” To others, the warning goes: “You will know the meaning of fear.” And what does your horse of power say? And do you take the dare?

“Yes, we will know trouble,” says this rider. “Yet our ruler must have it.” And the rider straps the long spine of the feather into the back of the belt so that the plume rises far above their heads.

As they approach the castle grounds, the story of their burning presence spreads like wildfire ahead of their travel so that the ruler awaits them in the courtyard. The hunter dismounts, bows, and presents the feather to the ruler. “Ah,” says the ruler, “this is a fitting tribute to me and of you and your nature. Of course, if you out of all hunters and horses bring the firebird feather, surely you can provide the firebird as well. Go and return with the firebird. You need not be told that this task runs on the path of your destiny. And once you ride free upon it, there is no turning back. So good speed, return with the firebird or not at all.”

Some of the peasants who are crowded about mutter at the ruler’s harsh demands. Younger ones tingle with adventure and wish they could ride. And a few grayed heads nod remembering rare times when the ruler commanded more than they had thought they could survive.

Greatly saddened, the hunter retreats to a lonely place with the horse and weeps, “Why did we take the feather? No one has ever captured the firebird. This is the death of me.”

“I could remind you of something I said,” offers the horse, “but this is not the time to despair. Weep not. Return to the ruler and ask for the supplies we shall require. Bring back many sacks of corn and a good length of stout rope. This is the time for work.”

When they are thus equipped, the hunter and horse spend the night spreading a vast field with the corn. In the midst of this field stands an ancient tree. It is the tree of life, of course. While others are sleeping, the horse and the hunter prepare for the yet to be seen. Then before the hint of morn, at that hour in the darkest just before dawn, the hunter hides in the old tree in the midst of the now seeded earth. When the first shimmers of blue-black spread from the eastern sky, this horse-hunter pair has prepared the earth. When the burning source of day streaks forth, bursting out of its center flies the firebird straight for the field that calls it. There the firebird feeds on the corn, there where the horse is grazing, where the hunter awaits the way such a hunter waits.

The hunter is within the tree and even when the firebird moves beneath the massive branch, the hunter is no more than a leaf. For the hunter who rides upon the horse of power has those eyes, that nose and ears, and the weight of mighty hooves. It’s the horse that scents the firebird for any opening and when the moment comes, down goes the only hoof that could ever pin the firebird’s wing. Then, and only then, the hunter springs and winds the rope. Thus it is not long before the firebird is rejoined to its feather. The ruler is well pleased.

But not done. The ruler goes on, “Such a hunter as can bring the firebird, can surely bring the beloved. Ah! I’ve waited long for that beloved. The one that sails out on the sea must be waiting for me. Bring in the beloved.”

Again, heads nod this way and that as some say “Ah!” and others go “Oh, no! That’s too much!” And, as you too well know, life now balances precariously again on an impossible task!

The hunter returns to the horse full of the despair of life. “No one has ever brought in the beloved. Why me! Alas the day . . .”

“This is not the time to grieve,” interrupts the horse. “Ask for a fine tent with provisions to adorn it and all that should fill it.” So this hunter has to imagine a tent-sized world of such allure that the beloved will be irresistibly drawn in from the misty sea. This hunter has a heart that remembers the seeded field of corn. This horse and hunter pair has tracked tales of what a lover wants most.

So they call upon the ruler to provide the materials of such dreams that adorn the tent for the edge of the sea arrayed with the beauties of imagining full of make-believe. These provisions are packed, light or heavy, upon the horse of power, and they ride, long or soon as it takes to the ocean edge. On the shore of the great sea, the tent is arrayed and the scent of it floats out with the tide. By mid-afternoon, a boat’s sailing in. Because the hunter seems only to be grazing on the delicacies and scarcely seems to notice the beloved’s approach, that beauty disembarks from the craft and comes in from the sea.

After enduring another kind of silence, the beloved and the hunter find their voice. They dine, they drink, yes, they even converse, and then the beloved slips into a sleep. Or perhaps so entranced it is they are with each the other, it is as if they each are sleep-walking or dancing as in a great ballet.

Perhaps it is the horse that has to put down the hoof again, more gently, but yet nudging the hunter to recall the inescapable demand of destiny. The work, the time for weeping even, is not yet done. So they ride and carry more gently the sleeping beloved to be presented there at the place of the ruler.

The ruler is again delighted and seems to be almost satisfied. And would be if wed with the beloved. But a condition is yet to be made. The beloved says a wedding would be quite impossible without the contents of a trunk from the bottom of the sea. “Go and get it,” says the ruler to the hunter, “and need I remind you that your life depends on it?”

“No, I’m more than aware,” says the hunter going out. Once more the hunter weeps to the horse, “This is impossible. How can a trunk be enticed from the depths of the sea? How could it even be found?”

“This is not the time for weeping,” says the horse. “Come on. There must be a way.” The hunter wonders if even the horse has any sense of how to proceed. Even so, they travel on and back to the edge of the sea. The heavy hooves of the horse of power tread in the tide pools. They send tiny crustaceans scurrying. In whatever time it takes to find, to uncover, to have what is needed be drawn in from the sea, they work at the edge. Then the heavy hoof descends on the enormous ancestor of all crab-shapes from the waters.

“Let me go,” calls the old one.

“Of course,” says the horse. “But first you deliver the trunk that is laid in the bottom of the sea.”

The old one calls on all the crab-like descendants. Soon enough they drag in the trunk. Then the horse releases and thanks the ancestors. The hunter wonders what is this in the trunk and in this getting of the trunk brought by the backs of the grandmothers and grandfathers. What is it that is required for the marriage with the beloved? The hunter has now studied the old ancestor and demanded the inheritance that is required. The hunter and the horse of power return with the trunk to the ruler and to the beloved.

The ruler gladly takes the trunk and presents it to the beloved. The plans for the wedding proceed. Amid these plans the beloved orders that a great cauldron be filled with water and that wood from the forest be laid. From the wood must come the fire, and from the fire the water must be brought to a boil.

“Wood to fire.
Fire in the water.
Water Air.
And the hunter
into there!”

This the beloved chants:

“Wood to fire.
Fire in the water.
Water Air.
And the hunter
into there!”

Into this bubbling cauldron, the beloved demands that the hunter be cast. The ruler is untroubled. The ruler simply affirms the command. The hunter begs but one request, to bid farewell to the horse of power. “Granted,” decrees the ruler.

One last time the hunter grieves to the horse. “Ah,” says the horse, “this is the trouble and right you are to weep. For now the danger is great and now my power must yield. Yet one word of advice: when they come to cast you in the cauldron, break free and rush leaping with all your heart headlong casting yourself into the steam rising from the boiling waters. Then all will be well. Perhaps.” The hunter promises the mighty horse, gives thanks, and returns to the site of the cauldron.

As the hunter returns, the beloved says, “First I must attend to the waters” and passes a hand into the steam where some perceived a substance falls from the palm of the beloved into the waters, but others say no. “Now is the time,” demands the beloved.

The hunter breaks free of the ruler’s attendants and leaps headfirst into the steam rising from the boiling waters of the cauldron. Soon enough the hunter springs back out and appears more astonishing, more radiant, flushed with a splendor beyond what was before.

The ruler notes well this transformation and judging that indeed now is the time rushes also into the cauldron, sinks, and is never seen again. Some even report that the ruler is already going in just as the hunter emerges out of the steam. Ah—it’s said that the hunter, who was before joined with the horse of power, is now renewed and become one with the beloved. It’s even said that this pair now goes to the steam, this water of life, and draws forth a newborn babe.

Well, there is some mighty sign of the new union. For you know this is the end of the tale and there must be a wedding, of course. And there is. We were there. This is all the great marriage. We sang there and danced in the half-light and told stories and ate and drank the nectar. Don’t you remember the way the one who had been the hunter looked at that one who had been out at sea. How they gazed into each other’s eyes just the way we saw them when they joined in the tent. See the new ruler returning the knowing vision, sighing together at the successful concluding of the wedding preparations. This is the fruit of the firebird’s field, of the feast at the ocean edge, of the alchemy done in the boiling cauldron. It’s the miracle of marriage!

And so they are wed and the realm is renewed. Toasts are given to the firebird, the old ones, the ruler, the beloved, the hunter, and that mighty horse of power. And, of course, they all lived happily ever after or until the next adventure betide. Maybe it was at the wedding feast that some mangy minstrel started telling tales again. Someone might have asked what happened to the horse. And so we’re off again: Once upon a time . . .


The Life that tied too tight escapes
Will ever after run
With a prudential look behind
And specters of the Rein--

The Horse that scents the living Grass
And sees the Pastures smile
Will be retaken with a shot
If he is caught at all--  

Emily Dickinson


Notes on Sources

I must have first heard this story being told by Michael Meade in a version similar to the one in his book Men and the Water of Life (pp. 209-213) which he titles “The Firebird.” Meade credits the Guterman’s 1945 translation of Afanas’ev’s “The Firebird and Princess Vasilissa” (pp. 494-497), but in places his story is more like Ransome’s translation. Afanas’ev collected his Russian Fairy Tales about 1865-1869.

Older sources:

Alexander Afanas'ev (Collected 1865-1869) & Norman Guterman (Trans.). Russian Fairy Tales. “The Firebird and Princess Vasilissa,” pp. 494-497. NY: Pantheon Books, 1945.

Arthur Ransome (Ed.) Old Peter’s Russian Tales. “The Fire-bird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilissa," pp. 242-259. Chicago: Hale/Cadmus, nd. (also cited as published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1916.

More recent retellings:

Keith Bilderbeck (Adapted by). Audiotape, 1999 (CD made later). (Note: The story has Baba Yaga but includes a song, "Horse with the Golden Mane.")

Cherry Gilchrist (Retold by). Prince Ivan and the Firebird. Shambhala, 1994. (Note: based on Afanas'ev.)

Selena Hastings (Retold by). The Firebird. Turtleback Books, 1996. (Note: based on Afanas'ev.)

Rachel Isadora (Retold by). Firebird, 1994. (Note: picture book inspired by the Balanchine version of the Stravinsky ballet.)

Bernard Lodge (Retold by). Prince Ivan and the Firebird. Whispering Coyote Press, 1993.

C.J. Moore (Retold by). The Firebird : A Traditional Russian Folktale. Floris Books, 1999. (Note: don’t know which firebird story this is based on.)

Jacqueline Onassis (Ed.). The Firebird and Other Russian Fairy Tales. 1978. (Note: Retells four Russian folktales: The Firebird, Vassilissa the Fair, Maria Morevna, and The Snow Maiden.)

Ruth Sanderson (Retold by). The Golden Mare, the Firebird, and the Magic Ring. Boston: Little Brown & Co, 2001.

Gennady Spirin (Retold by). The Tale of the Firebird. Philomel, 2002. (Note: combines several Firebird stories including BabaYaga.)

Jane Yolen (Retold by). The Firebird. HarperCollins. 2000. (Note: similar to Firebird ballet, not Horse of Power.)

Comparison stories:

“The Golden Bird” No. 272 in Grimms. The 3 rd son rides on a fox’s tail to accomplish a number of tasks including retrieving the golden horse and two beautiful princesses; also includes the “killing” of the fox in order to break the spell.

“The Magic Feather: A Jamaican Legend.” Retold by Lisa Rojany. Troll, 1995. She credits Walter Jekyll, Jamaica Song & Story, English Folklore Society, 1907; and West African origins related to ManCrow.


Michael Meade. Men and the Water of Life. “The Firebird,” pp. 209-213. NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

Marie-Louise Von Franz. Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Dallas: Spring, 1974.



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