THE TANGLED TALE OF SISINNIOS AND SIKHIEL

Ever heard of St. Sisinnios?  Most people have not.  Nonetheless, there exist icons of a tale associated with him — and also with an archangel most people have not heard of either, named Sikhiel.

But first you need to know that there is more than one St. Sisinnios.  In fact, there are as many as nine.  The Sissinios as seen in today’s icon combines elements from more than one, including a Sissinios of Antioch who is said to have killed his sister, because she was possessed by the demon Gyllou (Lilith), and was trying to murder her own children. He is also sometimes blended with one of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste.

The various versions of the tale of Sissinios are remarkably tangled, confused and widespread throughout the Eastern Orthodox realms, from Greece through the Balkans to Russia — and even beyond.

Unravelling all the strands mixed into the story of St. Sissinios is not easy, and it would take a book to detail them all.  In “official” church tradition he was a a bishop who lived in Kyzikos (now in Turkey) and was tortured and martyred for his faith in the time of the Emperor Diocletian.

In variable religious folk tradition, however, Sissinios stood on a mountain called “Sinai,” (or in some versions a marble pillar) by the sea.  There he kept watch to make sure that the 12 demons of fever (or sometimes 7 or 40, or 77 in other versions) were prevented from coming out of the sea to spread their sicknesses among people — particularly among children.  It is said that Sissinios could force the demons to reveal their secret names (often all are named for some kind of feverish illness or symptom), and so he gained power over them.  They are sometimes called daughters (or wives) of King Herod, sometimes daughters of Cain.   It is said that Sisinnios, seeing the fever demons trying to come out of the sea, called on God, who sent the demon-fighting Archangel Sikhael (in some versions also the archangel Enos and the four Evangelists) down to conquer the demons, who promise not to enter any dwelling where the name of the the Archangel Sikhael is spoken.  So confused has this all become that in some icons the archangel is Michael, in others Raphael or some other angel.  In any case, prayers, rituals, charms, icons and amulets associated with Sissinios and the Archangel were intended to protect households from fever diseases, worst of all, from the Black Plague.  Magic and spells — often containing odd prayers or requiring peculiar rituals — were a significant part of folk belief in the Eastern Orthodox countries.

Here is the basic type, which in this example replaces Sikhiel with the Archangel Raphael.  The fever demons are here depicted sitting in flames:

Here is a more elaborate version with additional saints:

For our purposes, the essential elements of the icon are three:

First, St. Sissinios, dressed as a bishop:

His abbreviated inscription reads SVYATUIY SVYASHCHENNOMUCHENIK SISINIY — “Holy Priest-martyr Sisiniy [Sisinnios in Greek].

Second, the angel (actually an archangel) standing at left, and thrusting his spear into the  third element — the sea/pool/cave below Sissinios, which contains demons. In some versions the angel holds birch rods that he uses to whip them.  As we have seen, his name varies from example to example:

All the other saints depicted are just additions, but of course they were thought to make the icon more powerful and useful.

At upper right are Venerable Paphnutiy of Borovsk, Wonderworker; below him at left is Martyr Ouar, and at right the martyress Oulitta and her son, Kirik.

At lower left is Venerable Much-suffering Job:

And at lower right is Venerable Ioann the Much-suffering.

Though the title of such icons varies, for convenience we can call the type Явление архангела Сихаила святому Сисинию — Yavlenie arkhangela Sikhaila svyatomu Sisiniu— “The Appearance of the Archangel Sikhail to Holy Sisiniy/Sissinios” — keeping in mind, of course, that the angel in such icons may not always be Sikhail.  Some amulet/medallion icons simply depict the Archangel and Sissinios without the demons.

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THE PARADISE BIRDS

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 ( Алконостлкионъ ).

Here is an old lubok (wood block print) of Sirin from around the beginning of the 19th century:

(Russian State Historical Museum)

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.