Here is an image of one of the most traditionally popular saints in Russia — Paraskeva:
Her title is Svyataya Paraskeva Pyatnitsa. You already know (if you have been reading this site) that Svyataya is the feminine form of the word “Holy.” Paraskeva is the slavicized Greek Name Παρασκευή — pronounced Paraskevi in modern Greek. In Greece she is also known less formally as Paraskevoula, which accounts for those Greek ladies called Voula. In Greek, her name means “Friday.” When she was adopted by Russia, people did not know what it meant, so the secondary Russian name Pyatnitsa was added. Pyatnitsa also means “Friday.” So, odd as it seems, this is Paraskeva Pyatnitsa — Saint Friday-Friday. On Russian icons her name is sometimes written as Paraskoviya, as in this example:
It is traditional for her scroll to show the beginning words of the “Symbol of Faith” — the Nicene Creed:
Верую во единого Бога, Отца Вседержителя, Творца неба и земли…
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…
At first glance, there seems no reason why Paraskeva should have been so popular. Her name in Greek — Paraskevi — while it refers to Friday, is derived from the verb παρασκευάζω meaning “to get ready, to prepare.” It is used for the “Day of Preparation” in the New Testament — of preparation for the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday. So that is why it means also “Friday.” And significantly, according to the Gospels, Jesus was crucified on Friday. It is said that Paraskeva was given this name because she was born on a Friday, near Rome, in the 2nd century c.e.
This repetitious connection with Friday is the key to her popularity.
In early pre-Christian Russian lands, Friday was apparently a day sacred to the Slavic goddess Makosh (Макошь), just as our Friday was originally named in honor of the Nordic Goddess Freya. Makosh had authority over things important to women — marriage, childbirth, and particularly female occupations such as spinning and weaving. October 28th was considered the birthday of Paraskeva, and on that day, by folk tradition, women were not to spin or weave or wash linen or children, or go into water; otherwise they would be severely punished by the saint.
Now this connection of both Makosh and her double Paraskeva with the spinning of thread and its weaving is very significant. The goddess Makosh is said to have also had power over destiny, which associates her — through spinning — with the Greek Fates (Moirai) and the Scandinavian Norns, who spun and cut the threads of human life and fate. So that is why anything involving the making and weaving of thread is so important to Paraskeva. She was very powerful, and in fact an aspect of the ancient Mother Goddess under a Christian name, which is why Paraskeva, in popular Russian thought and folk belief, tended to blend into Mary, mother of Jesus, who was also a Mother Goddess figure in practice (though of course that would not be stated in official Church theology).
In keeping with this connection with human fate and time, Paraskeva is associated with twelve significant Fridays of the calendar year — the Twelve Paraskevas — days on which fasting is said to bring remarkable benefits to those honoring her. The list of Fridays is found in a document popular among the peasantry, and said to have been written by Pope Clement. It is called:
Поучение, иже во святых отца нашего Климента, папы Рымскаго о дванадесятницах — “The teaching which is according to our father Clement, Pope of Rome, about the Twelve Days,”
So fasting on all these special Fridays would supposedly protect the believer from, among other things, sudden death, execution, poverty, evil spirits, drowning, lightning and hail, from famine, and ultimately it was believed to ensure the salvation of the believer, stating that those who fast on the Friday before Epiphany would have their names written in the “Book of Life.” The peasants considered it wise not to discuss this document and its promises with the official clergy, who might be displeased by peasants having such an alternate route to Heaven.
It is not surprising that Paraskeva was also associated with the fertility of the fields and their watering by rain. In fact she is reminiscent of the germanic Earth Goddess Perchta, also known as Frau Holle, and in English as “Mother Hulda.” And like this goddess, she was not only associated with springs and water (in some places coins were cast into springs as offerings to her), but she also had a negative aspect.
The germanic goddess Perchta, at her special time of year, would come into homes to make sure the women had been diligent in spinning. We have seen that Paraskeva also had this association with spinning. And again like Perchta, Paraskeva had two aspects — that of a beautiful and radiant young woman, but also that of an ugly old hag clothed in rags and dirt. And just as Perchta punished those who had not been dutiful in spinning, Paraskeva, as ragged old hag, would punish those who did not refrain from spinning on a day when it was prohibited. Among her worst punishments were diseases of the eyes and fingers, both of which severely affected one’s ability to spin and weave. And do not forget that in the old days, thread had to be spun by hand, and cloth had to be made by hand. For a peasant woman to lose this ability was disastrous.