The template for the veneration of saints in Greek Orthodoxy, in western Latin Catholicism, and in Russian Orthodoxy was already provided by pre-Christian, “pagan” polytheism. In Greece, in Rome, and in Russia there were gods, major and minor, to whom an individual could turn for help in time of need. There were, of course, gods who “specialized” in providing aid for specific problems.
When Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, a great number of converts began entering the church for all kinds of reasons, one of which was social advancement. In a time when Christianity was becoming the favored religion of the government, it became beneficial to be Christian. Eventually it became dangerous not to be Christian, to remain a “pagan.”
The consequences of this for the history of icons were immense. The rise of the painting and veneration of Christian icons — unknown to the earliest Christians — was the result of this huge influx of pagans into the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries. Though slow to officially take hold in the Church, the use of icons became a widespread practice among the laity, among ordinary people who were accustomed to seeing images of the gods to whom one prayed, and who consequently had to find some workable substitute for those gods under the new Christian regime.
Finding Christian substitutes for the old gods was not difficult. First there was the cult of martyrs that had arisen in Christianity, the veneration of saints who had been martyred in the days before the legalization. These saints, it was believed, were now in heaven, in spiritual bodies, and from there they could look down on needy supplicants and provide aid in a way more personal than God or Jesus, who were felt too important and too busy to occupy themselves with such things as sick horses or missing geese.
Christianity in those days was a very political matter. So when Greek Orthodoxy came to Russia and there was a forced conversion of the people that began in Kievan Russia under the ruler Vladimir in 988 c. e. (Vladimir chose conversion; other Russians were converted en masse under government threats), it was a simple matter for the Russian people to transfer their pagan attentions from their local gods to the “new” saints of Orthodoxy. The old god of flocks, Volos, had his duties taken over by the saint Vlasiy (Blaise), whose similarity of name was no coincidence; Perun, the old god of thunder, was replaced by the Old Testament prophet Elijah, whose fiery chariot rattled across the heavens during thunderstorms.
There were “new” saints to replace the old gods for help in all kinds of situations.
If, for example, one needed help with the raising of horses, one could turn to Flor and Lavr, brothers who began as the 2nd century saints Florus and Laurus. They were said to have been stonemasons in Byzantium. Under the influence of their Christian work instructors, they too became Christians, and when hired to build a pagan temple in Illyria, they instead finished it by destroying its pagan images and installing a cross. Needless to say, not everyone was pleased. According to the tradition Florus and Laurus were martyred by being thrown down a well, then buried in it.
For some reason a story arose that the Archangel Michael aided the brothers not only in the recovery of horses but also in their care and training; so Flor and Lavr became associated with horses, and that became their specialty for believers.
Here is a typical icon of Flor and Lavr, showing not only the Archangel Michael but also three other horse-related saints riding below. The inscriptions read “Holy Martyr [muchenik] Flor”; “Archangel”; and “Holy Martyr Lavr.”
The three lower horsemen are called Spevsipp, Melevsipp, and Elevsipp, from their Greek names Speusippos, Meleusippos and Eleusippos. They were said to have been Christian martyrs in the second century, some said in Galilee, some said in Cappadocia. As you have read earlier on this site, the Eastern Orthodox were never particularly careful in choosing their saints and verifying their stories, so we should not be surprised by the confusion in place. It is noteworthy that the names of all three, in Greek, contain the element “-ippos,” from hippos, meaning “horse.” And, oddly enough, in icons of Flor and Lavr the three horsemen are usually depicted without the halos accorded Flor and Lavr.
Here is another icon of Flor and Lavr, the patrons of horses. This one has additional saints added above, as well as the angel holding the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus:
Trouble with flocks of geese or with falcons? Then if you were a Russian, you would go to the martyr saint Trifon (Tryphon). He was said to have been a gooseherd as a child in the 3rd century. He could also keep insects from your crops and exorcise demons, in popular Russian belief. In addition, a later Russian legend says that a man named Trifon was a falconer for Tsar Ivan “the Terrible.” While out hunting one day, he allowed the Tsar’s falcon to escape, and was told that if he did not find the missing falcon in three days he would be executed. He looked for two days without results. On the third day, exhausted, he prayed to his name saint Trifon and then fell asleep. He dreamed he saw a young man on a white horse, holding the Tsar’s falcon on one hand. The young man told him to take the falcon and bring it to the Tsar. When the falconer awoke, he saw the Tsar’s falcon sitting in a tree, and returned it to his “Terrible” boss (aren’t lots of them?)
Though Trifon was known in Russia before the 16th century, he was not a prominent saint. It was only in that century that his veneration began to grow there.
Here is an icon of Trifon in the form popular in the 18th to early 20th centuries. It includes the geese from his youth as well as the white horse and falcon from the Russian legend of the falconer’s dream; the inscription reads, “Holy Martyr Trifon ]the] Wonderworker”:
What about bees? Well, if you were a beekeeper, bees were very important, and if you were having trouble with your hives, you would pray to saints Zosim and Savvatiy (Zosima and Sabbatius in Latinized form). They were 15th-century Russian monks of the so-called “Northern Thebaid,” two of those who went off into the forested and isolated wilds of northern Russia. They founded a big monastery on Solovki (Solovetsk) Island in the far north; Savvatiy came first, and after his death, Zosima. The monastery, like a beehive, came to be busy place, and it happened that Zosim and Savvatiy became the patrons of bees and beekeeping. You can see them standing on both sides of a hive of bees in this icon.
Unfortunately, the Solovetskiy Monastery that they founded later became the site of much suffering. First, the monks there refused to accept the changes in Church ritual forced on Russia by the State in the 17th century (Russian has never known real separation of Church and State). They kept instead to the “Old Belief” and were put under siege by the Tsarist regime and eventually (after holding out for eight years) expelled. In Russian Orthodoxy, the Russian State functioned as the punishing arm of the Russian Orthodox Church (and unfortunately still does, it appears — think of the imprisoned girl band “Pussy Riot” and the current persecution of “gays”). The Tsarist regime added to its monastic use those of both a prison and a fortress. Then it became a horrible forced labor camp (“Gulag”) under the Soviets in 1926. Now it is a monastery again.
Of course there are many more saints who specialized in all kinds of things, from toothache to childbirth, from alcoholism to helping students with their studies. So the veneration of the old gods became the veneration of Christian saints, and thus there continued, with little change, the ancient pre-Christian practice of the veneration of and prayer to various “specializing” deities, just as Christian icon painting continued the tradition of the painting of images of the gods in Greco-Roman times.