The Golden Bird, Symbol List

Fool/Simpleton (The youngest son)

In Tarot often depicted walking off the edge of a cliff, stepping out into space. Childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world.  Not limited by reason, open to intuition, synchronicity and ordinary magic. His number is zero, which encapsulates the great potential of an open, “beginner’s mind.” His openness draws new experiences and help from the unconscious/divine.


A symbol of value, eternity, perfection.  Both workable and hard to destroy. Associated with royalty and divine principles: Tao, “the golden mean,” “the golden rule.” Also the refinement of the psyche/consciousness, self-purification, the wisdom of aging. The process of alchemy (turning lead into gold) was symbolic of the transition of the soul from ego-orientation to Self (higher consciousness).


a goal, a prize to win. Knowledge (of good and evil), Sexual desire, Initiation, expulsion from innocence/childhood.  Golden Apple- grants immortality;  allows one to cross from earth to eternal realms.

Standing Guard and Falling Asleep

Day is the time of ego, reason and intellect (sun), work and practical activities, earthly concerns. Night is the time of darkness/mystery, dreaming, celebration, lovers, feeling and intuition (moon). The youngest is a fool because his strength is with feeling, intuition, the unseen world. This is why he is able to stay awake and spot the bird while his brothers fail. His brothers are not open to anything that defies reason, and therefore unconscious (asleep) when it comes to feeling, intuition and the bird, which arises from outside their conventional reality.

Golden Bird

Like apple, symbolizes transcendence and ability to travel between realms (The golden horse echoes this theme.) Birds walk on earth, swim in water, soar into the sky. Messenger between heaven and earth.


The power of the subtle: the smallest weight that can tip the scale. Sets the protagonists journey in motion. Also Fate: in choosing a path, people would toss a feather in the air and follow where the wind took it, acknowledging the role of larger unseen forces in shaping their lives.


Shape shifter, good at deception, trickery, skillful means. Can show up in tales as a benefactor- Guide/Teacher/Messenger from the Self or as a fatal trickster (see Mr. Fox). Foxes are graceful, playful, adaptable, wiley, cunning, physically alert and responsive, quick-thinking, Known as a skillful thieves.

As a “talking animal” the fox represents animal or instinctual nature…the wisdom of the body and intuition. The fool, who is not bound by reason, is open to this intuitive guidance. The fox in this story is a “psychopomp.”


Sometimes a wise old woman or man, sometimes a helpful animal. Soul guide, guide through the underworld, arbiter of transformation, walker between worlds, facilitates health/growth. (Midwives, shamans, therapists, teachers, all sometimes carry this archetype.)

Fox’s tail

Another image of the power of what’s subtle or invisible. (From a “common sense” point of view, A man can’t ride on a foxes tail! Message: honoring wisdom from unconscious/divine dimension gets us where we’re going much faster, helps us overcome obstacles.


Major theme, protagonist is a thief, extracts the value/power from several kingdoms without getting caught. Is shameless in appropriating value, wins through subtlety, skillful at avoiding detection and escaping authority. Probably points to attributes ego must practice to negotiate dog eat dog world of inner psyche and outer world to eventually become an effective servant to Self.

Wood (cage)

strength and flexibility.  associated with warmth, generosity, co-operation and idealism. seeks ways to grow and expand. Made from organic material. A cage encloses, holds, contains. Like a bird, when working with psychic energy we need a way to hold it, contain it.

Leather (saddle)

power, authority, used in soldiers uniforms to ward off blows, protection and bondage. Made from organic material, as opposed to gold, which is made from metal (divine? archetypal?) Saddle- also could be an image for relating with psychic energy, this one more about riding then containing.

Disobeying the foxes instructions

In both cases, the hero chooses to relate with energy/numinousity in a way which causes it to announce itself instead of staying quiet/ secret. This causes trouble but also changes the goal and furthers his quest. By causing the bird to shriek, and the horse to whinnie, the protagonist (ego) is forced to relate with each king (ruling principle) which was guarding it. Each time the king assigns the protagonist a new quest, which he eventually appropriates as his own.


Characterized by a sense of divine power or supernatural presence. The golden bird, golden horse and beautiful maiden each have this quality.


Natural power that has been harnessed/mastered. In this case, used to outrun, escape destructive forces in the psyche. Image of horse also contrasts tameness with wildness. Ego must both harness wild energy and free itself from psychic and external forces that seek to subjugate it to their will.


goal, achievement, a protected center of strength/authority/power. Can offer sanctuary/protection or confinement. Like cage or prison. In the psyche, could be a complex, a powerful archetype, any image,  or any group of ideas which hold energy and determines how it is expressed.


Ruling principle; may be of a culture or a part of the individual psyche. Throughout story protagonist is in conflict with these authorities which try to subordinate him to their will.

Death Sentence

The Kings (ruling principles) repeatedly threaten the protagonist with death if he doesn’t subject himself to their will. Protagonist reorients to his own quest with help from the fox (an emissary of the Self). Ego needs to contend with all kinds of powerful, potentially overwhelming forces in the inner and the external worlds.

“sat down and cried”

The fox appears in moments when the protagonist (ego/conscious will) has failed and the task before him seems overwhelming and impossible. This is often the only time we are open to guidance from guidance from the Self.

Beautiful Maiden

The young/new feminine principle full of potential. The role of the feminine in the individuation process of a male psyche is not highlighted in this story but it’s central importance is still made clear.

Saying goodbye to parents

The maiden has to let go of old relationship with parent’s to become a true partner. She can’t fulfill her potential as a bride until you successfully steal her away. What might this represent in the individual psyche?


Kings or princesses often set impossible tasks for protagonist to accomplish before s/he can claim partner. In this case, literally move a mountain, blocking view from the king’s window. Dominion of the invisible/divine dimension over ordinary world is demonstrated when the fox makes a whole mountain disappear.

Fox joins them

When protagonist wins the beautiful maiden (ego comes into relationship with anima?) the fox shows up and travels with them without needing a major crisis as in the past. May indicate a maturing of ego- through feeling (the feminine) ego has formed a stronger relationship with Self.


Protagonist uses trickery to get the golden horse and bird, the fox tells him how. What kind of psychic situation might this point at? The soul guide uses any means necessary. Not bound by authority of ethical systems, follows no hero’s code of “right and wrong.” Very un-American. Brothers deceive hero, and to overcome them, he must also use subtlety and deception.

Don’t buy flesh that’s bound for the gallows, don’t sit on the edge of a well.

Psychic principles wrestle to claim power and wealth (energy). It’s a dog eat dog world. Survival of the fittest is as true in the psyche as in the external world. If you aren’t using it, or can be conned out of it, I’ll claim it as mine. Very American. A fool and his wealth are soon parted. A certain level of canny/cunningness are necessary for psychic growth.

The two brothers

If the protagonist is the ego, those elder brothers might be any complex in the psyche that might dominate or overwhelm the ego. In this case they squander psychic energy and do harm. The whole psyche cries out for their death. The protagonist suffers when he steps in to prevent their execution. The message is clear: Some complexes/ elements in the psyche need to die. Until they die, they pose a serious threat. Another image of death and recycling.

Princess smiles, horse eats, bird sings

The princess, horse and bird are all served by their relationship to the ego/protagonist. They know he is their true psychic partner. He is the one who can best facilitate them fulfilling their potential.


image of depths of psyche, source, you could fall in, or draw something out.

Fox/Princess’s brother-

Fox is enchanted, has been appearing in one form while it’s true nature remains hidden. Fox feels imprisoned that form, asks to be killed so it can reveal its true nature. Repeats major theme is necessity of death and recycling in the psyche. Story ends with a psychic element saying please kill me, shoot an arrow in my heart and chop off my hands and feet. Reminicent of two parables from the Buddhist tradition about letting go of old forms once they have served their purpose:

  1. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
  2. “Once you’ve crossed the river, don’t carry the boat on your back.”

It seems that the process of psychic/spiritual growth requires us to be fluid, let go of attachment to forms/appearances, even ethical norms.

Messages: What the story says about spiritual growth/ the development of the psyche

1. The goal of growth is fluid…we should be prepared for it to be continually transforming. The numinous focus of the story starts out as the golden apple, becomes golden bird, then golden horse, then beautiful maiden. In the end, prince discovers the princess’s brother, someone he didn’t even know he was searching for.

2. Psychic elements only “exist” in order to perform functions. For example, the ego is a collection of functions. Psychic elements which are harmful, or stand in the way of growth need to die, be recycled. (Remember the matrix: The evil agent Smith is a element in the Matrix which refuses to die. The Brothers demonstrate how these elements must be treated very cautiously by the ego.)

3. Subtlety and trickery are necessary when the psychic elements who have seized power are not functioning in accord with individuation process. At that point ego must steal in and appropriate the value/psychic energy without being captured… or at least eventually escaping.

4. Beware of external rules, codes, ethics. A healthy ego does not give in to external authorities, but acts in accord with inner wisdom, without regard to how their behavior appears from the outside.

5. Following common sense does not facilitate spiritual growth. You must be open to the invisible world, instinct, inner/divine guidance. This means you must give up attachment to appearances and “conventional reality.”

6. In order to accomplish challenging tasks, sometimes the ego must admit its powerlessness and ask for guidance from the unconscious. It is up to the ego to decide what guidance to listen to and what to ignore.


“a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes…organized around a common theme.” (Schultz, D. & Schultz, S., 2009), from Wikipedia  Complexes can end up organizing or influencing how psychic energy expresses itself.

A ruling principle is similar to a complex in that it’s a collection of ideas, values, perceptions which can dictate where your energy goes. You could be under the sway of a ruling principle which doesn’t even belong to your personal psyche. For example, if you gave in to the authority of a religious,  ethical or family system.

Lee Scher facilitates a monthly fairytale study group in Portland, OR. For more info visit: or email: For more info on Lee’s psychotherapy practice please visit:


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