Magazine article Russian Life

Ilya's Day: The God of Thunder Lives On

Magazine article Russian Life

Ilya's Day: The God of Thunder Lives On

Article excerpt

THE ANCIENT SLAVS worshiped many gods, but perhaps the most revered was Perun, god of thunder and lightning. When Prince Vladimir came to power in Kiev in 980 he decided that all the gods worshiped by his subjects should "support" him. He erected statues of them outside his palace that overlooked the Dnieper. Among them was a wooden statue of the thundering Perun, with hair of silver and whiskers of gold.

Eight years later, Vladimir adopted Christianity. According to the Primary Chronicle, he immediately ordered that all these "idols" be cast into the Dnieper. Perun was, furthermore, to be thrashed, "not because [Vladimir] thought the wood could feel anything, but to desecrate the demon who had deceived men in this guise."

But the people were in no hurry to forget this ancient god. For many years a phenomenon that scholars have labeled dvoyeveriye (dual faith) existed in Rus, whereby professed Christians continued to perform many pagan rites and worship pagan gods.

Nevertheless, Perun was gradually forgotten. Or was he?

For centuries, in villages all across Russia, July 20 (Old Style) and August 2 (New Style) was one of the most important religious holidays: Ilya's Day, the feast day of St. Ilya (the Prophet Elijah). Rus held this stern and implacable Old Testament prophet in particular esteem.

Who was St. Ilya? What was the system of beliefs about him passed down from generation to generation of Russian villager? It turns out that God brought Ilya from earth to heaven while he was still alive and he now rode across the skies in a chariot of fire. This chariot generates a terrible rumble, which is why the skies are so full of thunder around Ilya's Day in early August. Why is there no thunder in winter? Apparently this is because in winter Ilya rides around on a sled, which isn't nearly as noisy.

Ilya is able to summon rain and thunder and generally has amazing powers. In some areas it is believed, for example, that God tied one of his arms behind his back, because if he was able to use both he would destroy the entire world. Ilya, it was also prophesied, would make an appearance on Earth just before the Apocalypse.

Such a fierce and terrifying saint was regarded with a mixture of fear and respect, just as thunderstorms, capable of producing lightning that can burn down an entire village, were feared and respected. Preparations for St. Ilya's Day were taken seriously: baking for the feast day began as much as a week in advance. As the day approached, people stopped working completely to avoid angering the fearsome saint/god. Heaven forbid that some peasant should feel compelled to go out into the fields to urgently harvest a crop. His fellow villagers would intervene to stop such foolhardiness, unharnessing his horse and maybe even giving him a thrashing for putting the entire village at risk. The threat of lightning strikes was considered to be particularly great around St. Ilya's Day.

The day itself started with a visit to church, but from there events took a decidedly un-Christian turn. Ilya, apparently, merits the sacrifice of an animal, and not just any animal, a bull. The peasants of one or sometimes multiple villages would then gather for a grand feast. After the bull had been consumed, the dancing began, often including khorovody, where people formed a ring of dancing and singing. …

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