You already know that in Eastern Orthodoxy, there are lists of saints popularly believed to help with specific problems and saints who are “patrons” of this and that. For example, Nicholas of Myra became a popular patron of Russian sailors, among other things. And the Russian monks Zosima and Savvatiy were the patrons of beekeeping. St. Triphon/Trifon was the fellow you prayed to if you had trouble with flocks of geese.
It is similar in other countries where Eastern Orthodoxy is found. There is a female saint — almost unknown outside Eastern Orthodoxy — whose specialty in popular Greek thought is to make women pregnant. How does she do this? With apples.
Now throughout the world, in folk belief, different cultures had many different methods believed to help a woman conceive. In Cornwall, a female who wanted a baby could have her helpers pass her — feet first — through a large Neolithic stone with a hole in it it called the Men-an-tol ring stone. It had to be done during a full moon, and it had to be done seven times.
The saint who provides the same service — but with apples — dates to the ninth century. Her name is Irene Chrysovalantou. Her popularity, however, is rather modern, which accounts for the recent date of most of her icons.
You will recall that there was a huge controversy over the painting and veneration of icons in the 800s c.e. It was not practiced by the earliest Christians, but seeped into Christianity from the “pagan” fringes, and it took centuries to be officially approved in the Church. Finally the veneration of icons was officially enforced by the Byzantine Empress Theodora in the year 843.
Theodora had a son named Michael (aged twelve), and she wanted to find a suitable bride for him. She sent out searchers who found an appropriately virtuous and beautiful girl of noble birth in Cappadocia. On the journey bringing her back with them to Constantinople, the searchers allowed the girl — named Irene — to make a little side trip to visit a noted hermit who lived on Mount Olympus and get his blessing. The hermit Ioannikos did not see just anybody, but Irene was special. And when he met her, he not only blessed her but told her she should go to the Monastery of Chrysovalantou in Constantinople, where she would become the guide of the nuns there. At least so the story goes.
As these things happen, when Irene arrived in the big city, she found her prospective husband, the pre-teen Michael, had already found another bride. So Irene gave away her worldly possessions, went to the Monastery of Chrysovalantou, and became a nun there. She was eventually made the treasurer and purchasing agent for the monastery. As time passed, she began a very ascetic life. And when the old Abbess died, the Patriarch Methodios of Constantinople chose Irene to be the new leader of the monastery. Chrysovalantou, by the way, comes from χρυσος (Khrysos) meaning “golden” and βαλαντιο (valantio) meaning “purse”).
Icons of Irene are not difficult to recognize, though one can generally expect them to be recent to quite modern. Her icons are identified by the presence of an angel and by three apples, and often bending cypress trees.
The angel comes from the story that Irene prayed for clairvoyance so that she might better guide the nuns under her care. God sent her an angel who stayed by her and told her everything about the private lives of the nuns — so no one in the monastery from that time on had any secrets the angel did not reveal to the Abbess Irene.
Irene continued her ascetic practices, with visions of demons, one of whom even set her clothes on fire. She would stand all night in the yard of the monastery, praying with her arms raised, and they became so stiff that other nuns had to push them down in the mornings, and it is said one could hear the cracking noise as they were pushed down.
One day the nuns noticed handkerchiefs tied to the tips of two tall cypress trees in the yard, and wondered how anyone could have reached so high. But a nun had seen Irene praying in the yard at night, and saw that not only was the Abbess levitated about six feet above the ground, but also that the two cypresses had bowed their tops toward the ground in veneration of her. It was Irene who had tied handkerchiefs to the tops of the cypresses as they bowed to her.
But why apples, and how did that “eat an apple and get pregnant” belief begin? It is said that one night Irene heard a voice telling her to welcome a sailor who would bring fruit to her that day. Nuns found the sailor outside the gate, and brought him to the Abbess. He told her he was from the Island of Patmos (where according to legend John the Evangelist had lived in a cave). He and his shipmates were sailing past the far end of the island when they heard an old man shouting for them to stop. But the coast was rocky, so the sailors made to continue on. But the old man — who was John the Apostle and Evangelist — shouted again, and the ship stopped still in the water. The old fellow walked across the waves to the ship, and took three apples out of his garments. He told the sailors the apples were from Paradise, and that they were to give them to the Patriarch Methodios. Then he took out three more very large and fragrant apples from Paradise, and asked the sailors to give them to Abbess Irene at the Chrysovalantou Monastery. Then John disappeared and the ship moved forward in the water again.
It is said that Irene ate a piece of one of the apples every day for forty days, and no other food or water. And when she ate a piece, her mouth became so fragrant that all the nuns in the monastery could smell it. She gave the second apple to the nuns for them to divide and eat, and they too became fragrant and very happy. The third apple she kept uneaten until finally she consumed it shortly before her death.
That accounts for the three apples seen in icons of Irene. And in Greek Orthodoxy, it is believed that if a woman brings an apple to the church to be blessed on July 28th, the day of commemoration of Irene, that apple will have the power to make her conceive, if she fasts for three days before eating it (and paradoxically has no sexual relations during that time).
The original Chrysovalantou Monastery in Constantinople was destroyed some time after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. A new monastery was founded in her name not far from Athens, in Greece, in 1930, with legends saying the nun had appeared and authorized its site during construction.
The new Irene Chrysovalantou monastery is in Lykovrisi. Its apples are much in demand by women who want “really effective” sacred apples to make them pregnant, and Eastern Orthodox believers from all over the world still make donations to that Monastery, requesting in return a slice of the “sacred apple” to make them conceive or to supposedly heal other ills. In the Monastery there is a kind of “no guarantees” sign in Greek reading τρωος πιστευεις ελπηζεις — “You eat, you believe, you hope.”
Here is an icon painted (as the inscription says) by a monk named Mikhail at Karyes Monastery on Mount Athos in 1983. The title inscription at the top reads:
Η ΑΓΙΑ ΕΙΡΗΝΗ
HE HAGIA EIRENE
[the] HOLY IRENE
In the icon, we see the angel, the three apples, the bending cypress with a handkerchief tied to its top, as well as the nun peeking out behind the door and seeing Irene with the tree bowing to her.
The Lykovrisi (Λυκόβρυση) Monastery also has a so-called “miracle-working” icon of Irene — decked out in coins and other votive objects — painted by a monk of Athos named Nektarios in 1919. He was later martyred by the Turks. The recent founding of the Monastery dedicated to Irene and the publicity surrounding its “sacred apples” accounts for why St. Irene Chrysovolantou icons tend to be from the 20th century or later. She is usually titled either Οσία Ειρήνη Χρυσοβαλάντου (Hosia Eirene Khrysovalantou) or Αγία Ειρήνη Χρυσοβαλάντου (Hagia Eirene Khrysovalantou). You will recall that Hosia is the title for a nun, and Hagia means “holy” or more loosely “saint.”
By coincidence, today — August 19th — is an “apple” holiday in Slavic Countries. It is a pre-Christian celebration that after the conversion to Christianity became known as Яблочный Спас (Yablochnuiy Spas), meaning “Apple Savior.” It is also called “Second Savior,” because there is a “First Savior” holiday on August 14th, called “Honey Savior” ( Медовый Спас — (Medovnuiy Spas). Apple Savior is a popular seasonal marker, considered the beginning of cooler weather and Autumn (though the temperature where I am is expected to reach 102 degrees today). Officially it is the Church celebration of the Transfiguration of Jesus, but as a folk celebration it is the day when one can begin to eat apples, which by this day have ripened in great abundance, and in folk belief should not be eaten before Apple Savior.
There are many folk customs associated with the day, one of which (aside from eating lots of apple foods) is to gather in the evening to watch the sun set and to sing songs. And it is considered a duty that those who have apples should share them with relatives and with the needy, and apples are even taken to the graveyards, because there is a connection between Apple Savior and the deceased.
There is a third Slavic “Savior” holiday in August along with “Honey Savior” and “Apple Savior.” It is Ореховый Спас — Orekhovuiy Spas — “Nut Savior.” Nut Savior happens on the 29th of August this year. It is not nearly as popular as “Apple Savior.”