There is a joke about a married heterosexual man being asked his opinion on gay marriage. His response was that he was in favor of it, because “Why shouldn’t gay men have to suffer too?”

Yes, marriage can often be a trial for both husbands and wives, which is why divorce has become so common now that the stigma against it has disappeared. People no longer feel obliged to suffer in silence (or maybe not so silent) for years in an unhappy marriage.

Marriage has always had its difficulties, which is why icons of the patrons of tranquility and harmony in marriage — Samon, Guriy and Aviv — have had such popularity in Russian Orthodoxy.

Here is a simply-painted and colorful example:

(Courtesy of http://www.russianstore.com)

Samon, Guriy and Aviv are also found among other spellings as Shamuna, Gouria, and Habib, given that they were Syrian martyrs . Samon and Guriy were by tradition martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, in 288 c.e; Aviv was martyred later, in 316 c.e. — the time of Licinius.  Aviv was buried with Samon and Guriy, and all three were commemorated on the same day in the church calendar — November 15.

Now why should these three be the patrons of harmony in marriage?  Well, it all has to do with a rather unpleasant tale related in the writings of Dimitriy Rostovskiy.

The story relates that Samon and Guriy, who were prominent in the Christian community though living outside the city of Edessa, were put under guard and told they were to sacrifice to the Roman Gods.  Of course they refused, otherwise they would not be included in the list of saints.

Now the Romans, historically, were often surprisingly patient with Christians, and contrary to the picture of them in stories of martyrdom, they often did their best to try to ease things for the Christians — who were quite stubborn, and sometimes actually went out of their way to be martyred, because it theoretically gave them instant access to “salvation.”  In any case, to make a long story short, Samon and Guriy were given repeated opportunities to make the minimal sacrifice necessary to satisfy Roman law, but they consistently refused.  The story says that they were tortured and finally beheaded.

Now there is nothing whatsoever in the tale of Samon and Aviv to suggest that they have any connection with the improvement of marriage.  That connection — slight though it is — comes later.

Now as for Aviv, when he heard the soldiers were looking to arrest him for his preaching, he came forward and revealed himself to the leader of the soldiers.  The leader kindly warned him to go away and hide (that patience again), but Aviv insisted upon making himself obvious, opening himself to punishment and eventual martyrdom.  Aviv — so the story goes, was burned alive.

Now again, there is nothing in the tale of Aviv to connect him with marital harmony either. 

The connection comes in the story that later, Edessa was being threatened by barbarians, and Greek troops were sent to protect it.  Among the troops was a rather lusty Goth.  His eye happened to be caught by the  remarkably beautiful virgin (aren’t they always in these stories?) daughter of widow named Sophia. 

Now the Goth had a wife and kids back home, but that did not stop him.  He told Sophia he wanted her beautiful daughter Euphemia.  The mother refused.  The Goth threatened to bring trouble on her, but that did not work.  So he changed his tactics.  He bought the mother and daughter expensive clothes and jewelry.  That did not work either. 

The mother Sophia told the Goth she had heard he had a wife and children back in his homeland.  He denied it, and said he wanted to make Euphemia his wife and the mistress over all his property.  So finally Sophia gave in, and allowed the Goth to marry her daughter.

Having successfully fended off the barbarians, the Greek troops returned home, and the Goth went back to his homeland as well, taking Euphemia along with him.  But before they left, Sophia — left behind in Edessa — had him swear at the shrine of saints Samon, Guriy and Aviv that he would love and respect and care for her daughter Euphemia, and do her no harm.  The Goth swore his oath of faithfulness there.

When they reached his homeland, everything changed.  The Goth told Euphemia to keep what had happened between them a secret, and she found he had a wife and children.  She was told that she was to be presented to them as his prisoner, and was to become a slave to his wife.  He told her he would kill her if she revealed to anyone that he and Euphemia had been married.

After some time, Euphemia gave birth to a boy who looked so much like the Goth that his real wife became insanely jealous, and secretly poured poison into the infant’s mouth, and he died.

When Euphemia found her son lying dead, she noticed the poison trickling from his mouth, and soaked some of it up with a bit of wool.  When later she served a drink to the Goth’s wife, she first soaked the wool in it, then took it to the wife — who drank the poisoned liquid and died.

Now it was obvious to the people that Euphemia must have poisoned her mistress, and they decided to kill her by putting her in the coffin with the decaying corpse. 

Certain to die soon in the grave, Euphemia prayed to God in the names of Samon, Guriy and Aviv, and the tale relates that as she did so, three shining and sweetly fragrant men appeared to her  — the martyrs Guriy, Samon, and Aviv.  Within the hour they had miraculously transferred her back into the church of those three martyrs in Edessa.  There she woke the next morning to find them still beside her.  They told her:

“Rejoice, daughter, and discover where you now are.  See, we have fulfilled what we promised.  Go to your mother in peace.”  And they disappeared.

Euphemia’s mother Sophia was amazed to find her daughter back in Edessa.  The daughter revealed all the terrible things that had happened to her, and how the Goth had betrayed his oath.

Later the Greek army returned, and the Goth with them.  When he talked to Sophia — not knowing of the return of the daughter — he told her that Euphemia was living happily in his homeland with the little boy she had borne him.  The mother then began to berate him for his lies, and went to the authorities and told them the whole story.  They arrested him, and he was eventually beheaded.

And that is the not very cheerful but quite horrific story of how Samon, Guriy and Aviv became the patrons of harmony in marriage long after they had died.

Here is a rather sophisticated icon of the three.  Samon at left looks — as the Svodnuiy Podlinnik says — like Cosmas; Guriy in the center has a beard — again as the podlinnik says — like that of John the Theologian.  And Aviv, at right, looks like St. George in his features, and is dressed in a robe like Stephen the first martyr; and because Aviv was a deacon, he carries a censer on a chain in one hand, and an incense box in the other.