It is not surprising that in Russian folk culture there is no clear dividing line between myth and religion. The stories told of saints in icons are often largely myth, and elements of folk belief entered into Russian Orthodox religion.
Today we will look at two very interesting beings from traditional Russian folk culture — the Paradise birds Sirin (Сиринъ) and Alkonost (Алконост/Алкионъ).
Here is an old lubok (wood block print) of Sirin from around the beginning of the 19th century:
In the Russian mixture of folk belief and religion, Sirin is believed to be a bird with the head of a woman, in and from the Garden of Paradise. The first line in the small inscription at the top reads:
Птица Сирин святаго и блаженнаго рая — Ptitsa Sirin svyatago i blazhennago raya
“The Bird Sirin of the holy and blessed Paradise.”
The inscription at the base relates that Sirin is a bird found also in the region of India, which is “near to the blessed place of Paradise.”
In the Lubok, we see a man at upper right, captivated by the Sirin’s song. Below him a group of people stand by a church bell tower, shooting off cannons and making noise with horn and rifle, etc. It was believed that the Sirin could not endure such noise, and so could be frightened away by it.
Not surprisingly, the name Sirin comes from the Greek myth of the Σειρήν (Seiren), the Siren — as in the Sirens in the Odyssey of Homer, who could lure people with their songs. Apparently the legend came north in the Middle Ages, when Greek culture flowed north into Crimea and Kyivan Rus.
The other mythical Paradise bird of Russian folklore that is often paired with the Sirin is Alkonost:
The inscription at the top reads:
ПТИЦА РАИСКАЯ АЛКОНОС — PTITSA RAISKAYA ALKONOS
“The Bird of Paradise Alkonost.”
As you see, Alkonost also has the head of a woman. And like Sirin, the name is taken from the Greek, in this case it goes back to the myth of the girl Alcyone (Ἁλκυόνη), who was the daughter of Aeolus, God of the winds. She and her husband angered Zeus, the chief of the Gods, and Zeus killed her husband. In grief Alcyone cast herself into the sea, and was transformed by the Gods into a kingfisher (ἀλκυών) bird, as was her husband.
Alkonost was said to be found in Paradise and on the Euphrates River (listed as one of the rivers of Paradise, according to Genesis 2:14).
It is said that in midwinter, Alkonost places her eggs under the sea, where they lie for seven days, then float to the surface. And that during these days the sea remains calm.
Like that of Sirin, the song of Alkonost causes humans to completely forget everything.
Here is an uncommon image of Alkonost painted as an icon.
You may recall from a previous posting the term “Apple Savior” (Яблочный Спас), the term for August 6/19th) which in folk custom marks the beginning of autumn. In folklore it is said that on the morning of “Apple Savior,” the Sirin flies into the apple orchard, singing a sad song and weeping; and in the afternoon, Alkonost flies into the orchard singing a joyful song and laughing.