Russia’s Greatest Fairy-tale Knight was Also a Devout Monk (Ilya of Murom)

He is Russia’s version of Hercules, the favorite of every Russian child. This Medieval hero represents a secret trait of the Russian People

This article is part of the series ‘Russian Christian Military Heroes’, which illustrates the close interrelationship of the church, state, and military in Russian history. In contrast to the uniquely American idea that it is best to keep church and state separate, Russians believe the opposite - that this is, in fact, harmful, and that society is best served by a close cooperation, poetically described as a ‘symphony.’

One of the earliest examples of the symphony between Russia’s warrior servants and her church servers is Ilia Muromets. Ilia of Murom, an ancient provincial town, was a Bogatyr (the Russian version of a Knight-Errant), of Kievan Rus, the first Russian state which later grew into Russia.

Citizens of Murom sleep well knowing who their spiritual defender is.

The Bogatyr is so much more than just a warrior. He is chosen not only for strong Christian faith and skill in arms, but according to Slavic legend, for his superhuman abilities, and skill as an itinerant monster-slayer. He is not unlike the Witcher (Vedmak in Russian), of the world-famous Polish books and video game series of the same name, which also originate from Slavic mythology. During the early to high Middle Ages, the ruling class of Rus’ were called Varangians or Varyags in Russian, Norse warriors of Scandinavian descent (Vikings), who later made up the elite bodyguard of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor.

Many Russian rulers of the period also appeared in the Norse sagas. Ilia of Murom, an epic hero of song and legend, was a particularly famous subject of many byliny - (Russian epic tales) - not to be confused with bliny, which are delicious pancakes.

Russian fairy tales (Byliny) mix very well with a warm plate of Russian pancakes, but then again, everything mixes well with Bliny, so we highly recommend you indulge in both.

Nonetheless, Ilya of Murom would certainly have fit in well in the company of Thor, Odin, or my personal favourite Geralt of Rivia, if only for one unique fact... Ilya is now Saint Ilya.

Ilya of Murom at various stages of his life.

In his later life, this epic hero became a devout monk who is entombed in Kiev Caves Monastery in the Ukraine. A warrior the likes of which has not been seen since the days of St. George, Ilya had not always been so fierce.

As a monk, he had no use for a weapon. The sword in the icon is merely to remind the faithful that he was a great warrior.

According to legend, Ilya spent the first 33 years of his life sleeping on a Russian stove, handicapped due to his injured back.The myth goes that he received a special blessing from a mysterious person that told him that God had a different plan for him.

In a scene from a famous movie, Svyatogor the Giant predicts that Ilya will be the next great hero and sends him a magical sword.

In some versions of the story, Ilya gets the sword and strength of the giant Svyatogor (a hero whose name fittingly means Holy Mountain - he was the size of a literal mountain), after which he was able to arise from the stove and defend the motherland, invincible like Achilles with an armoured ankle.

A Heroes Journey

Ilya's meeting with Svyatogor is an important part of his tale.

His story follows the Monomyth, also called the Hero's Journey. These are the universal steps which almost all legendary heroes in all cultures undertake during their tales, as described by professor Joseph Campbell.

Specifically, his time with Svyatogor represents the first stage of the Journey. In some versions, Svyatogor (Holy Mountain) wrestles with him, as God did with Jacob in the Old Testament atop a mountain - a clear parallel.

In other stories, Ilia sleeps in the giant's tomb for three days, gaining his strength, which represents the "belly of the whale" part of the journey, and is also a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ.

By giving Ilia his sword, Svyatogor has given the Hero supernatural aid. At that moment, Ilia has crossed the threshold, he is now ready to begin his labours to become Russia's new Hero

Ilya is so legendary and memetic, that many of his historical feats were blended with myths. These tales were often expanded with time, becoming anachronistic, and Ilia is even described as an “Old Cossack” by 16th-century sources.

Here is a summary of his most archetypical tale:

Ilia departed for the court of Vladimir the Bright Sun, grandson of Olga the Wise, but on the road, he was mistaken for a vagabond and dozens of men tried to rob him. The reader can guess how it ended for them; he decimated them.

On his way to Kiev, he single-handedly lifted the siege of Chernigov; his arrival on the battlefield encouraged the King and Defenders of Chernigov to rally with him. Though vastly outnumbered by heathens, they had one immeasurable advantage: the spear and sword of Ilia, against which nothing could stand.

After saving the city, Ilya refused payment or service therein, saying he must ride for Kiev. They warned him the quickest road was impassable because a horrible monster lay in wait. Ilya did not fear. He proceeded on the road and was beset by Nightingale the Robber of the Branskian forest. Nightingale was a humanoid bird-like beast, who’s whistle could kill a man, and he terrorized the countryside.

Nightingale mocked him saying no mortal man could slay him, except a Bogatyr (a word possibly meaning “little God/Godling”) whose might was greater than that of any common man. But Ilia’s strength of arms was unmatched in the world; he subdued Nightingale, laying him down with irons, and took him to Kiev.

When Ilya arrived in Kiev (modern-day central Ukraine), he approached the court of Vladimir the Great. Vladimir, the High-King overall Russian Kings and cities received him, asking him by which road he travelled. He explained he came from Murom (modern-day central Russia, east of Moscow), and rode to Chernigov where he lifted the siege.

This alone caused disbelief among the listeners, but when he claimed he had captured the monster Nightingale, Vladimir was furious, calling him a liar. This was dangerous, as Vladimir himself was a legendary warrior, famous from Norway to Constantinople, and surrounding him were other Bogatyrs.

Ilia showed Vladimir that he had tied Nightingale to his horse, and so Vladimir demanded that he prove it was him, by making the monster whistle. Upon his whistle, Nightingale killed several guards, and foolishly lept for Vladimir (who was more than capable of killing him alone), when he was slain on the spot by Ilia.

For this feat, Ilia quickly became the captain of Kievan Bogatyrs, befriending Vladimir’s uncle Dobrynya the Dragonslayer, and Alyosha the Priest's-Son. Together, they saved Russia from all the foes who dared march on her, and their adventures were the subject of many a tale.

"Three Bogatyrs" by Viktor Vasnetsov, one of the most famous Russian paintings.
Ilia the Strong is in the center, with Saint Olga's brother Dobrynya the Wise on his right, and the clever Alesha with his bow on the left.

The three figures fit well the universal fantasy trope of a Fighter (Ilia), a Mage (Dobrynya), and a Rouge (Alesha).

On the left Lord of the Rings characters. One can clearly see Christian symbolism and similarities between all cultures and their legendary figures.

What is certain is that Ilia finished his life as a peaceful humble monk. His body lay amongst the other monks of Kiev, forgotten during the troubled times of the 15th through 17th centuries. One 17th century monk rediscovered him deep within the monastery and noticed his name was 17th centuries. One 17th century monk rediscovered him deep within the monastery and noticed his name was Ilya and found his body had not decayed.

The relics of Ilya of Murom in Kiev. That is his real hand, notice its great size and the presence of skin covering the bones.

This is no fairy tale - it is common for Russian Saints to have bodies that do not decay after death - discovering such a body is a sure sign of the person’s holiness. He was covered in many spear wounds, indicating he was indeed a great warrior, and upon seeing his overall size, they realized the Monk Ilia of the Deep-Caves was in truth the legendary Ilia Muromets. Portions have his relics are also laid to rest in his hometown of Murom, where they are a popular destination for pilgrimage. It is common for parents who want to have a son, to come to pray at his relics. They pray that God through the prayers of Saint Ilia will grant them not only a son, but a strong, healthy warrior.

His relics are primarily divided between those in Kiev and those transfered to his hometown Murom.

And so passed into song and legend, the story of Ilia of Murom.

Ilia has appeared in so frequently in Russian culture, together with the character Ivan "the Idiot", he may be the most famous depiction of the Russian Hero. His image is beloved by all, and he has become a popular character in a Russian cartoon series about him and his companions. In this scene, notice how after being rescued by a chained elephant, Ilya uses his inner spiritual strength to free his friend in turn. This was inteltinonally done to remind children watching that Ilia's greatest strength was his faith in God and love for Russia. It was his his inner strength which made him a great warrior, a concept forgotten in the west.

Above all else, Ilia's story reveals an interesting truth and archetype amongst the Russian people; it is a metaphor for Russian national awakening. Russians have long been like our Saint Ilia, sleeping and blind to the evils of the world, perhaps at times naive and even apathetic; they often do not defend the Motherland in times of peace, when they see no obvious threat. All that changes though, when evil openly insults or threatens Russia.

The Russian people can even complain about, and fight against their homeland, in the same way children rebel against their parents. But God help the foreigner who insults Russia in front of her children. When the darkest hour comes, and Russia is in grave danger, Russian sons and daughters arise from their deathly slumber to defend her, just like Saint Ilia of old. They fight not for any old territory, but rather for a land they truly believe to be their Mother. Even those who would not otherwise be very patriotic turn into Bogatyrs when Russia is attacked.

One can draw parallels to modern times. The western powers thought they could divide Ukraine after their 2014 coup, and then impose sanctions on Russia when she resisted and tried to save her Slavic sister. The West thought sanctions would turn Russians against the Russian government, but the opposite happened. This was an unprovoked attack against Mother Russia, and even people who had been previously critical of the government, even many who would otherwise look to the West, supported Putin's leadership, and Russia only became more united.

So let none forget that sleeping in the heart of every Russian is a Bogatyr, waiting to awaken.

Check out this classic soviet movie about Ilia of Murom with english subtitles.

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