Slavic mythology is full of various fascinating creatures from mermaids to flying serpents. Many different animals have had supernatural powers attributes to them and so did birds. Russian folklore is rich with tales about enticing and dangerous winged creatures who thrive in fairytales, legends and visual art even nowadays. The most famous of them are probably Stratim-bird, Alkonost, Sirin and Gamayun.
1. Stratim-bird (also known as Strofil-bird)
In a book “The Verse about the Book of the Dove” (“Golubinaya Kniga”), which dates back to 15th – 16th centuries, Stratim was described as the mother of all birds. Her body was believed to be so large that her right wing could cover the whole world. This majestic creature lives in an ocean and there births her children.
Stratim is often mentioned in connection to the slavic god Stribog, the ruler of the winds. According to some, it is in fact Stribog himself who turns into a bird when descending to the human world. Others believe that Stratim is an incarnation of the god Veles, patron deity of cattle and arts. This mythical bird was particularly important for sailors. She could influence the weather and create storms that would drown ships with treasures.
It is not certain from where this mythical creature came to slavic folklore but it is possible that Stratim is actually an incorrectly written ostrich. The mistake was probably made in old times during translation of foreign documents.
Another magical bird with a face of a beautiful young woman, who holds a flower from Paradise or a scroll in her hand. Alkonost is said to live on the river Euphrates or on a mysterious island Buyan that sometimes appears from tides. Legend has it that she lays eggs underwater in the winter and in 7 days they float up so the mother can transport them to the land. While Alkonost’s eggs are in the sea, the weather always stays calm and windless.
Men believe that the voice of this bird has a unique magical quality. Her exquisite singing is dangerous to people, once you hear it you will be forever hypnotised by it’s beauty and forget everything you ever knew. In this sense Alkonost reminds of greek Sirens.
The origins of this fantastical being come from the Greek myth about a girl by the name of Alcyone. According to the story, she was transformed into a kingfisher bird by gods.
Sirin is often associated with Alkonost. Both are perceived to be birds of paradise with female heads and enchanting voices. In Russian middle ages there were tales about her prophetic singing. Her songs, that describe the visions of heavenly bliss, were also deadly to humans. People who heard them could easily loose their mind. Because of this, some believe Sirin to be the creature of darkness, a messenger from the underworld. In later books there was a theory that this bird can be chased away by loud sounds such as the ringing of a church bell or a cannon shot.
According to an old slavic tale, in the morning of a harvest festival “Yablochnuy Spas”, Sirin cries over the apple trees. After noon comes Alkonost and laughs over them brushing off the dew with her wings. Apples then are believed to acquire miraculous healing properties.
In literary sources of 17th – 19th centuries, Gamayun was described as a bird that occasionally flies from heaven to earthly skies, has no legs and no wings, and hovers only with the help of her gorgeous long tail. Later on, her image underwent a certain change and was depicted having legs, wings and also a woman’s face.
To some people, like Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov and poet Alexander Block, Gamayun was closely connected with the ideas of blissfulness and happiness. But just as some other mythical birds described above, she was often perceived as a bad sign. This bird almost never descends to the ground and if she does fall, death will soon come to a member of a royal family. This is why Gamayun has also earned a reputation of a bird of sorrow. It is likely that this creature came to slavic culture from Iran. Their mythology has legends about a bird “huma”, who brings power to those over whose head she passes.
Almost every enchanting bird of Slavic folklore has a certain tragedy to it’s image. But despite this, or maybe because of this, the legends about them still inspire and fascinate people.