The Alkonost and the Gamayun are mythological creatures with the body of a bird and the head of a beautiful woman. They derive from Slavic and Old Russian folklore, and are described as mythical beings that have the ability to mesmerize humans with their enchanting voices.
References and depictions of Alkonost and Gamayun can be found in Russian chronicles, on 13th century cathedral monuments, and on jewels from the era of Kiev Russia. The Alkonos is typically described as a creature of the dawn while the Gamayun is related with the heavens.
The Alkonost exudes beauty and docility and, filled with contentment, flies around projecting a sound that is both exquisite and hypnotising. She enamours those who hear her voice and mentally immobilizes them until they disregard everything in order to hear her delightful melodies. Her eggs are laid on the sea-shore and then placed in the ocean. According to one version of Slavic folklore, she is able to regulate the weather to her liking; there is a calm before a storm for seven days until the eggs fully hatch.
Alkonost. Russian Lubok of 18–19th Century (Wikipedia)
Ancient Origins of the Alkonost
It is not known for certain where the myth truly originates from but it is believed that the mythical beings may stem back to Greek Mythology. Alkonost’s name is said to have come from Alcyone, a Greek goddesss, who was transformed into a kingfisher. Similarly, the Alkonost with her spellbinding vocal chords and half woman and half bird form is comparable to Sirens, which she is often depicted with.
Sirens were dangerous yet beautiful creatures in the form of half-woman and half-fish, although later they took the form of half-woman, half-bird. They lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices, leading them to their deaths.
‘Halcyone’ by Herbert James Draper, 1915. (Wikipedia)
The Siren is essentially associated with sorrow and darkness—records tells us that a Siren would arrive on Apple Spas in the apple orchard full of sorrow but in the afternoon Alkonost emerges to rejoice and laugh.
She also sang beautiful songs to the saints and foretold future joys, but they charmed humans (especially merchants) with their exquisite voices until they forgot everything related to earth, followed the divine creatures until they died of lethargy and perished in the sea.
Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909 (Wikipedia)
The Gamayun, like the Alkonost, is illustrated as a large bird figure with a woman’s head. Her iconic image represents happiness, prosperity and harmony. She is essentially a messenger for peace and sings beautiful melodies. She is considered to be prophetic in Russia as she is aware of everything that occurs within the world including man and animal, and she knows all amongst the gods and heroes.
She lives on an island in the East near the Euphrates River or Eden. The Pythoness is not usually depicted with the Alkonost nor Siren, she is permanently alone knowing the secret fate of humans and the world.
Gamayun, in a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (Wikipedia)
Gamayun cooperated with pagan Russian gods, notably Kryshen, Kolyada and Dazhbog, and Veles. She is seen as a personification of Veles—a renowned deity of wisdom, who keeps secrets regarding the world and man’s creation. She is aware of the true nature of all the gods and humans, and sang in the Book of the Vedas.
The being’s hymns are believed to be divine and to have magical properties, her voice is difficult to understand and decipher, but the few humans who can comprehend her words can have their future prophesied and opulence as a gift. In contrast to the Alkonost, the bird does not derive from ancient Greece but from Iranian mythology, ultimately gaining recognition in Russia.
The bird-maidens in Christianity
Both the Alkonost and the Gamayun played a major role within Old Russian society, including after the introduction of Christianity. When Christianity became the new monotheistic religion in Russia in 988 AD, Russian Pagans resisted. However, many were won over after their sacred gods and beings were incorporated into Christianity in one way or another, including the image of bird-maidens, which were immensely important throughout the society prior to the teachings of Christ.
Old Russia fundamentally believed in nature and elements such as the sun, rain, wind, animals, and birds with protective signs. The Church took away protective symbols associated with the auspicious birds but allowed the customary depiction of the mythical beings to continue
The Alkonost, for example, is considered to be a personification of God’s will in the Russian Orthodox Church. The church thus used the iconic image of the Alkonost to illustrate the Holy Spirit, in the borders of Christian gospel books from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. In the port of Korsun’ (Chersones) on the Black Sea and in Kiev, images of the Alkonost appeared on various household goods such as pottery dishes, gold pendants, and kolty.
She can also be seen on several wood carvings such as The Dmitrovsky Cathedral in Vladimir and the Georgievsky Cathedral in Yurev-Podolsk built in the 13th century, in costume designs, and within the 16th century Lubok prints that sold in markets and fairs.
Equally, the Gamayun gained significance among the Slavic nations. The large half-bird, half-woman had been depicted on the coat of arms of Russians settlements and in areas such as Smolensk, Mikhailovsk (Sverdlovsk region), Terbuny, and Udmurtia. Russian mystic Danill Andreev stated that Alkonost and the Gamayun are among the most significant archangels in paradise, in the esoteric Christian-Buddhist cosmography ‘Roza Mira’ written between 1947 to 1957.
Fundamentally, the divine half-bird, half-women creatures have managed to maintain their popularity in modern Russian due to their associations and adaption, and may continue to play a significant role in Russian folklore in centuries to come.
Featured image: Viktor Vasnetsov's Sirin (left) and Alkonost (right) Birds of Joy and Sorrow, 1896 (Wikipedia).