Alkonost is one of several magical Russian spirit birds. Her identity is complex and mysterious. She is the bird of paradise and a wind spirit: she raises storms. She originally lived in the Pagan Russian paradise on the Otherworld island of Buyan. Post-Christianity, she was transferred to the Garden of Eden where she serves as God’s personal messenger, traveling to Earth to sing marvelous songs to saints, foretelling their happy future in Paradise and endeavoring to bolster their spirits when they waver.
Alkonost has a sister spirit, Sirin, her alter ego, whom she resembles very closely. Once upon a time, they were considered sacred birds of fortune, venerated side by side as protective spirits:
• Alkonost guards good fortune by day.
• Sirin protects it at night.
Carved wooden images of Alkonost and Sirin traditionally graced entrances to Russian peasants’ cottages. In older visual depictions, especially those intended for peasants, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the two spirits without reading captions identifying them. Over time, however, Alkonost was classified as entirely “good,” an angelic figure, while more ambiguous, seductive, Sirenlike qualities were assigned to Sirin:
• Alkonost promises saints eternal life in Paradise.
• Sirin is a gloomy harbinger of death.
Their names derive from Greek myth: Sirin means Siren; Alkonost may derive from Alcyone. Older Russian names, if they existed, are forgotten.
When Viktor Vasnetsov (1848–1926), a Russian artist specializing in mythic themes, painted their portraits in 1896 as Birds of Joy and Sorrow, it was easy to tell which sister was which. Alkonost sits on the right side of the canvas with white eagle wings and a fair complexion. Swarthy, black-haired Sirin perches on the left, gazing downward, sporting black vulture wings. ( see image above )
Alkonost is the name of the legendary private publisher active in Petrograd from 1918 to 1923, specializing in Symbolist authors like Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Blok.
Bird with a woman’s face or head; sometimes as a winged woman