In every culture there exists legends of folk heroes. These people of renown can be either fictional or mythological, and many times they are linked to real people whose name and deeds become intertwined with the historical consciousness of a culture. These folk heroes then become part of folk songs, folk tales, and other folklore.
The ancient Kievan Rus, made up of Slavic and Finnic peoples of Europe, are the cultural ancestors of the modern nations of Belarus, Ukraine, and part of Russia. In their legendary folklore you’ll find many tales of the folk hero Ilya Muromets or Ilya of Murom.
Ilya was known as a bogatyr or vityaz, which, in medieval east Slavic legends, is similar to the western European concept of a Knight. You’ll find many Rus’ epic poems, called bylinas, containing stories of legendart bogatyrs. Likened to the Knights of the Round Table, the epic bogatyrs came into existence during the reign of Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015.
Folk tales involving bogatyrs describe them as warriors of incredible strength, courage, and bravery. They are usually characterized as having patriotic and religious pursuits, defending Rus from foreign opponents, such as the Turkic steppe-peoples prior to the Mongol Invasion. In modern times, a bogatyr signifies a courageous hero, athlete, or physically strong person.
One of the best-known folk heroes, who is very much celebrated still today is Ilya Muromets. In legends about him, he is typically featured alongside fellow bogatyrs Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich.
“According to legends, Ilya Muromets, the son of a farmer, was born in a village near Murom. He suffered a serious illness in his youth and was unable to walk until the age of 33. He could only lie on a Russian stove, until he was miraculously healed by two pilgrims. He was then given super-human strength by a dying knight – Svyatogor – and set out to liberate the city of Kiev from Idolishche to serve Prince Vladimir the Fair Sun (Vladimir Krasnoye Solnyshko). Along the way he single-handedly defended the city of Chernigov (modern day Ukrainian Chernihiv) from nomadic invasion (possibly by the Polovtsi) and was offered knighthood by the local ruler, but Ilya declined to stay. In the forests of Bryansk he then killed the forest-dwelling monster Nightingale the Robber (Solovei-Razboinik), who murdered travelers with his powerful whistle.”Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1906.
Muromets is associated as a great warrior, as well as a monk, later in his life. He was venerated as a monastic saint in 1643 by the Orthodox Church, and his relics are preserved in the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. His name, over time, has become synonymous with outstanding spiritual and physical power, as well as integrity. He is portrayed in legends as dedicated to the protection of the Homeland and People. In fact, he is the only epic hero canonized in the Orthodox Church.
Ilya Muromets is depicted not only in stories and myths, but also in various other aspects. For example, his depiction can be found on the following: 1913 Russian stamp, Viktor Vasnetsov’s 1898 painting Bogatyrs, Nicholas Roerich’s 1910 painting Ilya Muromets, and Reinhold Gliere’s 1911 Symphonic No. 3 (Ilya Muromets) in B minor, op. 42.
Regardless of the folk tales surrounding the formidable Ilya Muromets, there’s one thing that stands throughout the test of time: His obstinate strength remains a durable symbol to the Slavic people.
I’ve included a couple of videos below of an epic poem about Ilya Muromets, as well as Reinhold Gliere’s 1911 Symphonic No. 3 (Ilya Muromets) in B minor, op. 42. Enjoy!
HEADER IMAGE: Ilya Muromets (1914) by Viktor Vasnetsov