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 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 Kievan 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.
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.
The Pokrov or “Protection of the Mother of God” is a church festival that is celebrated in Russia on October 1st. Its origin lies in the story that in the year 902 (some say 911) c.e., the people of Constantinople gathered in the Church of the Vlakhernae (Blachernae), fearing a military invasion; some say the invaders were saracens (muslims), some say a fleet of northerners from what was then called Rus. During the all-night prayer vigil, Андрей Юродивый — Andrei Yurodivuiy — Andrei the “Holy Fool” — supposedly had a vision in which he saw Mary standing in the church, taking off her veil, and holding it over the congregation as a covering sign of her protection. With her were various saints and angels.
The Vlakhernae Church was the repository for several supposed relics of Mary — her veil, her robe, and at least a portion of her belt.
The Feast of the Protection/Covering was promoted in Russia by the 12th-century Andrei Bogoliubskiy (later declared a saint), who is said to have had his own vision of Mary protecting Russia, so the Pokrov is also seen as a “national” icon.
Let’s look at the title inscription:
ОБРАЗ ПОКРОВА ПРЕС[ВЯ]ТЫЯ Б[ОГОРОДИ]ЦЫ
The bracketed letters are those omitted by abbreviation.
Transliterated, it is: OBRAZ POKROVA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
You should remember the word Obraz, meaning “image.” Pokrova is the “of” form of Pokrov. Pokrov means “protection,” but also “covering” or “shroud.” Presvyatuiya, as you will recall from previous postings, is the “of” form of Presvyataya (f.), “Most Holy.” Bogoroditsui is the “of’ form of Bogoroditsa, meaning “God-Birthgiver,” or in English order, “Birthgiver of God.” It is the Slavic equivalent of the Greek Theotokos. Because “Birthgiver of God” is awkward in English, it is usually loosely translated as “Mother of God.” So, putting all of this together, the inscription reads:
” IMAGE OF [THE] PROTECTION OF [THE] MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”
The Pokrov may be sparingly depicted, with only a few figures, sometimes only with Mary holding her veil; but many examples are quite detailed, such as that shown here:
We see Mary appearing in the air in the center of the church (it is an interior view), with apostles at left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at right with more saints, including various Church Fathers, and above them are angels. In this example Mary looks toward Jesus at upper left. She holds a scroll, which the podlinniki tell us should read:
Царю небеснии сыну и боже мой приими всяаго человека призывающаго имя твое и мое на всяком месте…
“Heavenly King, my son and God, receive every man who calls on your name and mine in every place…”
Below, crowded between the fellow on the ambo (dais) and the separate scene at lower right, stands the Holy Fool Andrei (Andreas/Andrew), pointing out the vision to his disciple Epifaniy (Epiphanios)
There are two odd things about the Pokrov type: first, it is given far more importance by Russians than by Greeks. Second, it contains scenes some four hundred years apart.
The Pokrov, as already mentioned, is said to have happened in the early 900s. But that fellow in deacon’s garments standing on the dais at lower center is Roman (Romanos) the Melodist, called in Russia Роман Сладкопевец — Roman Sladkopevets — “Roman the Sweet-singer” — who lived in the late 400s-early 500s c.e. His story is that he led the singing in an all-night vigil, but after the others left he was unhappy with his talents, and prayed to have a voice worthy of singing the praises of Mary. He fell asleep in the church and had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and gave him a scroll to eat (that is the scene at bottom right). He awoke, and later again sang in the church, and all were amazed at his voice. He wrote a great many church melodies with words (kontakia).
To the left of Roman stands Patriarch Tarasiy (Tarasios) of Constantinople, and to his left is the byzantine Emperor Leo VI, in whose reign the pokrov supposedly happened; and just above Leo is his wife, Empress Zoe.
Here is a rather grand rendition of the “Pokrov” icon that adds the figure of Jesus with angels and seraphim above Mary. This example places Emperor Leo at lower left, and wife Empress Zoe at lower right. On the church we see the five domes of a Russian-style church, and at right an additional dome on the bell tower.
Here is a version painted with more flatness of color and less sparkle.
Now we have to consider why the Pokrov was considered an important festival in Russia. The reasons might surprise you.
First, coming in the autumn, it happened when the harvesting of crops had ended, and ordinary people finally had time for other things, chief among them weddings. So the Pokrov marked the beginning of the “marrying season” in Russia.
This, of course, put the thought of future marriage in young girl’s heads, and so on the Pokrov they would light a candle before the icon in church. It was said that the first girl to light her candle would be the first to marry. Prayers were said to “Father Pokrov” (note how the festival is anthropomorphized) and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa (a patron of marriage), asking that the girl’s head might be “covered” (thus the connection with Mary covering the congregation with her veil). But by this they were asking to be married, because married Russian women covered their hair in public.
So this concept of pokrov — of covering — took on a symbolic meaning in Russian life, and was associated with nature, because the October date of Pokrov made it the time of year with the earth began to be covered in dead leaves, and the early snow fell to protect the ground through the harshness of winter, white as the cloth covering a maiden’s head at marriage.
There is much more to be said about the Pokrov and the customs and beliefs associated with it in Russian folk life. If such things interest you, an excellent book to read is Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief, (Glas, English translation 2007) by Andrei Sinyavsky. The book is rich in information relating to icons in Russia.
The liturgical phrase generally associated with the Pokrov is the kontakion for the feast, tone 3, generally found on the scroll held by Roman the Melodist:
“Дева днесь предстоит в Церкви, и с лики святых невидимо за ны молится Богу: ангели со архиереи покланяются, апостоли же со пророки ликовствуют: нас бо ради молит Богородица Превечнаго Бога”
“The Virgin today stands in the church, and with choirs of invisible saints prays to God for us. Angels and bishops [literally arch-priests] venerate her, apostles with prophets rejoice, because for our sake the Mother of God prays to the God before the ages.”
In icons of Roman shown alone (not Pokrov icons), the text on the scroll he holds is usually the Christmas (Nativity) kontakion, considered his first composition:
“Дева днесь Пресущественнаго раждает, и земля вертеп Неприступному приносит, Ангели с пастырьми славословят, волсви же со звездою путешествуют, нас бо ради родися Отроча Младо, Превечный Бог”.
“The Virgin today gives birth to the One Above all, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable; angels with shepherds praise, and Magi journey with the star. For our sake is born the youthful boy, God before the ages.”
The story that Mary gave Romanos a scroll to eat, after which he could sing and compose well, relates to the word for his verse/hymn form, and later to that of others as well — kontakion. It is said to come from the Greek κόνταξ — kontax — meaning the wooden rod around which a scroll was wound. It could thus be used to mean a scroll or a writing on a scroll, and so from the legend of the scroll Romanos supposedly ate, we get kontakion as a name for the verse/hymn form. At least that is the supposition.
As you can see from the examples on this page, the saints and their numbers in Pokrov images vary from icon to icon of the type.
As mentioned earlier, the Pokrov is celebrated on October 1. Further, Andrei the Holy Fool is celebrated on October 2nd, and Romanos the Melodist is celebrated on October 14th.
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.