Although it might seem a bit strange at first, I take inspiration for my novels equally from sacred literature and folk literature. You might find as much of a fairy tale element in a given character or situation as you might find an obvious parallel with a life of a saint. The combination of these two seeming opposites is actually not that unheard-of. In particular, there is curious case of St. Ilya (Elijah) of the Kiev Caves.
St. Ilya of the Kiev caves is also known as Ilya Muromets (“of Murom”), one of the most famous bogatyrs (supermen) of the genre of Russian epic folk poetry called the bylini. There are some interesting and odd facts associated with him that many people don’t know (I got these from a Russian website, and I found them interesting).
How is a Bogatyr also a Saint?
The word bogatyr immediately calls to mind superhuman strength and boldness, but etymologically, it may have something in common with the Russian word Bog (God) and bogaty (rich). That is, it could etymologically mean “a man who is rich in God.” The Russian folk, historically speaking, pick up words carefully, and often the deeper meaning of words becomes slowly obvious over the course of centuries. The word bogatyr appeared in the Chronicles in the 13th century and came to mean “a person gifted with great riches and a divine abundance of physical strength.” It is said that the bogatyr’s strength is not merely physical. He only defeats his enemies because he stands on the side of the truth. And, as the Russian saying goes, “God is not in strength, but in truth.”
Why did Ilya Muromets sit on a stove for thirty years?
The traditional Russian stove has a seating ledge that is the warmest place in the often cold Russian hut. It is also the place where the loafers and drones of fairy tales spend their existence. Why then did such a folk hero as Ilya Muromets sit on a stove for thirty years? According to the tale, he could not walk for his first thirty years. Interestingly, recently scientists examined the relics of St. Ilya of the Kiev Caves and noticed pronounced curvature in his lower back and some very obvious bone spurs on the vertebrae. This could mean that in his youth, the saint was effectively paralyzed. The wanderers who came to heal Ilya in the folk tale could have been, according to one version, folk healers who basically performed an adjustment on his backbone and helped him to learn how to walk again. The more traditional version is that he was healed by a miracle.
Ilya the “boot”?
Another odd nickname that Ilya Muromets has gathered in the tales is Ilya Chobotok, which means “the boot.” He received this nickname after he was surprised by some enemies before he had a chance to dress in the morning. He managed to put on one boot, but not the other, and having no other weapon at hand, he beat all of them off with the second boot. We even find this story in a document of the Kiev Caves Lavra. In the tales, this is not the only offhand object he uses to beat back his enemies. One of the bylini has him defeat a band of thieves with his helmet alone.
Not everyone associates the legendary folk figure with the saint of the Orthodox Church. This division between the legend and the man happened in large part because the Soviet authorities spared no effort to convert the saint into a mythical figure. And so, he needed to be secularized, de-Christianized. For example, a central event in his cycle of tales is his miraculous healing from paralysis by three strange wanderers. In the pre-revolutionary version of the published bylini, these strangers reveal themselves as Christ and two apostles. The Soviet version simply removes the revelation.
Descendants of Ilya Muromets
Ilya’s home village of Karacharovo is now physically inside the city of Murom. At that same place now stands a house owned by the sisters Gushchin. These sisters consider themselves to be direct descendants (28 generations later) of Ilya Muromets. Their great-great-grandfather apparently also inherited Ilya’s physical strength. He could easily pull a plow if the horse couldn’t manage. And the local authorities apparently banned him from the traditional fisticuffs that were held during Cheesefare Week, because he could kill someone with a single blow. Another rumor has it that he was allowed to participate, but only with his hands tied behind his back.
In the West
Interestingly enough, Ilya Muromets was even known in the West. He is found as a legendary hero in some German epic poems of the 13th century. In these poems he is also called Ilya, but he is an exiled bogatyr sorrowing after his lost homeland. In the Germanic “Cycle of Ortnit,” there is a certain “Ilian von Ruizen” (Ilya the Russian) who takes part in a military campaign and helps Ortnit find a bride. In this story, Ilya has not seen his wife or children for a year, and he speaks of his desire to return to Rus. Another example is the Scandinavian saga written down in Norway c. 1250, called the “Saga of Thidrek”, where the bastard son of the ruler of Rus is a man named Ilias, whose half-brother is Valdemar. Thus, according to these literary sources, Ilya Muromets was actually a biological brother of Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev, the traditional founder of Christianity in Rus.
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