Add to favorite
Subscribe to our Newsletters Subscribe to our Newsletters Get Daily Updates RSS

Russian Birds of Paradise
August 2, 2011 16:24

Sirin, Alkonost, and Gamayun are enigmatic fairy bird-maidens from old Russian legends and mythic tales. They are mentioned in Russian annals, and their images have remained among illustrations of ancient manuscripts, on jewels of the epoch of Kiev Russia, and in carvings of white-stone cathedrals (the Dmitrovsky Cathedral in Vladimir — 1212, the Georgievsky Cathedral in Yurev-Podolsk — 1230) of Vladimir and Suzdal lands, which are pretty far from Kiev. Who are they, these mysterious bird-maidens from Paradise or, in another way, the Solar Garden? How did they appear in Russian culture?

The bird-maidens are not the only fanciful creatures known in Slavic beliefs. The Old Slavs were also acquainted with Centaur (Kitovras) - part horse and part man who shoots with a bow, the Gryphon - a winged lion with eagle’s head, the Dragon - a winged serpent. All those wonder creatures are related to Oriental legends and art of the East. The fantastic images made a difficult and long way from the East before they got to Russia.

Sirin and Alkonost — Keepers of the Tree of Life

Sirin in Old Russian folklore is a big, strong, and multi-coloured maiden-bird with large breasts, a stern face and a crown on her head.

The analog and even most likely the predecessor of Russian Sirin are the Greek Sirens, whose magic singing carried away sailors, making their ships perish in the deep of the sea.

According to descriptions of Old Russian tales and myths the sweet-voiced Sirin Bird, similar to pernicious sea bird-maidens Sirens, also stupefied travelers and carried them away to the realm of death. In the later period, however, these features were left in oblivion, and Russian Sirin came to be endowed with magic functions of protective nature, and personify beauty, happiness and joy of living. As for misfortunes and troubles, according to Russian mythology, their carrier was another fancy bird with a female face – she was called Obida (i.e. Offence) Bird. Unlike Sirin and Alkonost, she was depicted with open wings, as if dispersing good, light and joyous times. The herald of misfortunes was also Div or Ptich - an angry bird sitting with widely spread wings on a tree top.

Nearby Sirin the Slavs often depicted another mythical bird, Alkonost.


Alkonost is the bird of the Dawn; it rules the winds and weather, and in Russian tradition it is associated with the Slavic solar deity Khors. The Slavs believed that during Kolyada (falling on the winter solstice) Alkonost gave birth to children on “the edge of the sea” and then there was clear windless weather for seven days. The earliest image of Alkonost is found among miniatures and headpieces of the Jurevsky Gospel of 1120-1128 - one of the most ancient monuments of Russian literature, which was custom-made in Kiev by order of the Jurevsky Monastery of ancient Novgorod. Alkonost is depicted with both hands and wings at the same time and is holding a flower in her hand.

So how could it happen that such significant and expensive items bore the images of these mythical bird-maidens — Sirin and Alkonost?

The answer to this question lies in ancient pagan beliefs of the Slavs, when people worshipped the Nature and its elements: they prayed to the sun, rain, and wind, revered fire, and vested plants, animals and birds with protective properties.

Among birds the most revered ones were the Sun Bird (Ptitsa Solntse) — a strong bird with wings spread wide and beams emanating from it in all directions – and the Duck (Utochka)— an Old Slavic symbol of the purifying power of Water. They believed, for example, that images of the Sun Bird and the Duck attached to two sides of one kolt (old Russian ornament fastened to a headgear) guarded a woman wearing it from misfortunes and disasters. The combination of these two birds is also present in the image of Solar god Khors.

Since the year 988 the new religion of the princely power in Russia has been Christianity, which was forced on pagan Russian Slavs . The Christian church, having shown persecution and violence, faced resistance of Russian pagans and had to make various concessions. Among those concessions there was also the bird’s image, which had been a habitual talisman and a widespread character for the Slavs from times immemorial, and so while taking away that protective symbol, the Christian church was compelled to give people new patrons in the habitual shape.

So, Sirin and Alkonost replaced the Sun Bird and the Duck, and the mythical bird-maidens acquired halos or nimbi over their heads as the sign of holiness in Christian religion. Gradually under the influence of Christian and pagan beliefs Sirin came to be considered paradisiac and divine, and got heavenly qualities, such as brightness, light, unearthly beauty, wondrous singing and kindness. Thus, the image of Sirin became widely spread in Russian art and can be often found on surfaces of various items of the 14th-17th centuries. Alkonost is seen not so often, though. Probably, eventually distinctions between them were forgotten, and the two birds merged together into the image of Fairy Bird, the symbol of beauty, in which the Russian people saw their dream of kindness, goodliness and happiness.

The most widespread composition of the Old Slavic pagan art related to the image of these two birds is their placement on two sides of the same tree, branch or leaf. According to researchers, it comes from the first legends about creation of the world. One of them says that amidst boundless water space, which existed in the very beginning, there was a tall mighty tree. Two birds that made a nest on that tree started new life on the earth. Thus the tree of life tree has become the symbol of everything alive, and the two birds guarding it came to stand for wellness, continuation of family line and family happiness. The picture as a whole meant life and well-being.

Before the early 20th century both the bird-maidens were not rare images in folk lubok pictures , which were on sale on markets and fairs, as well as on peasant household items , in wood carving , on painted distaffs and tableware, in paintings on homespun canvasses, and in folk embroidery and laces of the Russians.

Gamayun — Prophetic Bird 

Gamayun is a talking bird who foretells the future and tells fortunes. Its name is derived from the Russian word “gam” or “kam”, meaning “noise”, hence are the words “kamlat” (i.e. to perform shamanistic rituals) and “shaman”. In the Belorussian language the word “gamanits” means “to speak, to talk”. In Old Russian tradition Gamayun Bird served to pagan gods, namely Veles, Kryshen, Kolyada and Dazhbog, and she was the one to h“sing” the “Starry Book of the Vedas”.

Famous Russian artist Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) depicted the oracular bird as an alarming and somber creature in his painting “Gamayun — Prophetic Bird” (1897). This disquiet, worry and prophetic vision of the fantastic bird in the painting inspired Alexander Blok’s same-name poem.

Here is a rough translation

Gamayun – Prophetic Bird

On expanses of endless waters
By the sunset in purple robed
It prophesies and sings
Unable to raise its worried wings

It augurs yoke of evil Tartars,
It foretells bloody executions,
Upheaval, fires and famine,
Power of evil and ruin of righteous. . .

Enveloped in the pre-eternal awe,
Its splendid face burns with love,
But resound with truth pythonic
Its lips parched with blood!

The splendid Phoenix Bird able to burn down and then rise from the ashes is known in mythologies of various cultures. In Old Russia there were its analogs as well: Firebird (Zhar-Ptitsa in Russian) and Finist.

Firebird, aka Zhar-Ptitsa is a heavenly beautiful magic bird, one of the symbolic characters of Russian fairy tales, where it usually acts as “the Grail” that the main hero quests for. Firebird’s Feathers shine so brightly that their beauty can be even blinding for people. Firebird’s feathers shine of silver and gold, its wings are like crests of flame, and its eyes sparkle like crystals. It is the size of a peacock, which evidently served as the prototype for the fancy bird.

Firebird lives in a gold cage in the Garden of Irii (Paradise). At night it leaves the cage and illumines the garden as brightly as a thousand lit up fires.

It is extremely difficult to get hold of Firebird and so it is one of the major tasks that the Tsar (or the Father) gives to his sons. Only the youngest son contrives to bring the desired bird.

Mythologists (Afanasyev, in particular) explained the phenomenon of Firebird as the embodiment of fire, light, and the Sun. Firebird eats gold apples that endow youth, beauty and immortality; when it sings, pearls pour from its beak. Singing of Firebird cures the sick and returns eye-sight to the blind. Putting aside any mythological explanations, one can compare Firebird with medieval stories - very popular both in the West European and in Russian literature - about Phoenix Bird reviving from ashes. Rejuvenating apples, in turn, can be compared with the fruit of the pomegranate, the favourite delicacy of Phoenix Birds.

Every year in autumn Firebird dies and revives in spring. Sometimes it is possible in fairy tales to find a sparkling feather dropped out from Firebird’s tail; when brought inside a dark room it replaces the richest illumination. In due course such a feather turns into gold. To catch Firebird they use a gold cage with apples inside as a trap. A human cannot catch the bird barehanded, since its plumage is scorching.

Mythological Finist was a serene falcon, a bird-warrior, an embodiment of Volkh – Slavic god of war, the defender of Russia.

Finist Yasny Sokol (i.e. serene falcon) is a magic character of Russian fairy tales rooted in legends of the people of Riphean Mountains (ancient name of Ural Mountains). He was a fine young man able to turn into a falcon. The old-Russian name Finike was obviously related to the Greek Phoenix. The definition of Finist as Yasny Sokol (i.e. serene falcon) probably generated from the metaphorical Russian image of the groom-falcon, where “falcon” was synonymous of “fine young man”.

The fairy tale about Finist reminds, especially in the beginning, of the fairy tale Scarlet Flower; here instead of the scarlet flower, the youngest of three daughters asks the father to find and bring her Finist’s feather as a present.

Finist – is a fine young guy, who was in Ural legends the personification of pure love as an invaluable gift. The one who protects and strive for this gift attains happy and wonderful life.

Nowadays, Finist the Serene Falcon can be seen as the symbol of the revival of Russia, which is aspiring to know its roots and regain its spiritual power.





Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Birds of Paradise Russian Folklore Slavic Symbols Old Russian Beliefs Slavs 

Next Previous

You might also find interesting:

Records of Auction Sales in Russian Art: 20 Most Expensive Russian Paintings, Part 1 Collective Portrait Of Russia Best Artists of the Russian Street Art Russian Tradition of Birch Bark Braiding Khokhloma Painting

Comment on our site

RSS   twitter      submit

Russian Cinema  David Cameron  driving in Russia  sport  Perm  Open Data Portal  Gorky Park  Evgeny Garanichev  Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia  migration rules in Russia  Russian scientists  Moscow  Serge Golovach  Ust-Ilimsk  Gonets  anniversary  The Hermitage Museum   Khabarovsk  Great Patriotic War  Portraits  Smoking in Russia  Conservatory Ball  Russian science  Russian tourism  Sevsk  Mamonovo  Christmas  Leningrad Region  Arkhangelskoye  Syria  Tourism cluster  airport transfer in Russia  St. Petersburg  Russian citizenship  Izborsk  Russian opera singers  Russian history  Enem  Parliament in Action  Opposition  Classical Music  Russian political parties  Russian oil  Exhibitions in Moscow  Russian economy  Russian business  VDNKh  Golden Ring  Castle Of Treachery And Love  Tula Region 

Travel Blogs
Top Traveling Sites