Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Birds of Paradise

Sirin,the Bird of Paradise, 2nd half of the 19th century

And now, for something completely different... this is the first post (of a new 
and hopefully long series) dedicated to favorite fantastic and mythical creatures. 
I first met the Sirin a few years ago while exploring animal mythology for a series 
of educational children's books, and it was love at first sight.

Sirin, early 19th century

The legendary Birds of Paradise Sirin and Alkonost were a common subject of 
hand-drawn luboks. Lubok prints are a popular Russian art form rooted in the traditions 
of icon and manuscript painting, paganism and folklore. It is a joyful art, colorful and 
full of life and love of nature. The subjects of luboks are many and varied, from religious 
to astrological, to daily life, news, folktales and satire. Its recurring motifs of fruit trees,
 blossoming flowers, humorous animals and fanciful birds are also found in other 
expressions of Russian folklore. Luboks were hand painted with colored inks, 
thinned out tempera and gold ink.

Sirin are a Russian variation on the theme of sirens, one better suited to a culture 
acking a strong seafaring tradition. These half-virgins half-birds (someone describes them
 as half-geese) live in the East, somewhere around India, Eden and the Euphrates River,
 and sing beautiful songs of joy communicating the divine word to saints. But for regular 
mortals, Sirin are very dangerous. On hearing their sweet singing, men forget themselves
 and everything else, and helplessly follow them until they die of exhaustion. 
To escape this fate and make the Sirin fly away, people make loud noises 
by shooting cannons, ringing bells and playing trumpets.

Three Sirin, the Bird of Paradise, 1st half of the 19th century

A classic lubok iconography shows the Sirin royally perched on top of a bush full 
of brightly colored flowers. I love the individual variations in the designs. At right 
one can notice a dead victim, an avid listener and people shooting cannons.

Alkonostthe Bird of Paradise, late 18th century

Alkonost is very similar to Sirin, and often the two birds are represented together. 
The name probaly derives from the Greek myth of Alcion, who threw himself into the sea
 and was transformed into a kingfisher (halcyon). It is also possibly reated to the myth 
of the salvific Pelican; in any case, while Sirin are dangerous, Alkonost seem to be
their redemptive counterpart. Alkonost is often represented with arms, 
and holding a religious scroll.

Sirin and Alkonost, birds of joy and sorrowVictor Vasnetsov, 1836
In Vastetsov's painting, Sirin becomes the bird of joy, and Alkonost the bird of sorrow.

Baba Yaga, SIrin and saviour Alkonost
by Ivan Bilibin for the fairytale Vassilissa the Beautiful, 1900

Concidentally, the always interesting Le figure dei libri has just dedicated a very rich,
 beautifully researched historical post to "how sirens lost their tail".


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Wonderful Images! Have you seen "Harpya" an animated film about a frightening siren by Raoul Servais?

  3. What a fabulous blog, so happy to have stumbled here :) Thank you for these wonderful images and tales... I shall be back!
    Best wishes

  4. Thanks for the comments, and the tip!



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