A GOD BY ANY OTHER NAME: ILYA AND VLASIY

I have said before that the polytheism of the pre-Christian world did not disappear with the arrival of Christianity; it was simply transformed. The pantheon of the old gods was replaced by the “pantheon” of God the Father, Jesus, Mary, the angels and the saints. Where people once turned to this or that lesser deity for help with such things as illness and crops, they now turned to Christian saints.

In the Slavic world, two very important pre-Christian gods were Perun and Veles. Perun was a sky god associated with thunder, lightning, and fire. Veles was a lower earth god associated with herds and flocks.

Now, as one might imagine, both of these things were very important to the average person concerned about his crops and his flocks.

So what happened when Christianity was imposed on such people? They looked for replacements. Here is an icon of the Prophet Elia/Ilya (at left) and of St. Vlasiy, called “Blaise” in the West:

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen:  http://www.russianicons.net)
(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: http://www.russianicons.net)

Christianity has the Prophet Elijah, called Ilya in the Slavic world. In the Old Testament story, Ilya was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. His day of celebration came late in July, a time when peasants were very concerned about the effects of weather on their crops. So the characteristics of the thunder god Perun were simply transferred to the Prophet Elijah, who was believed to roll across the heavens in his fiery wagon, making the sound of thunder, which is why in Serbia he is called Sveti Ilija Gromovnik — ” Holy Elijah the Thunderer.” Now you know why there are so many icons of Elijah. When the images of the old gods were done away with, their place was taken by icons. So polytheism did not die out with the arrival of Christianity; it just put on different clothes.

In some places, even the “blood” sacrifices to the old gods survive in the veneration of Elijah. In the Balkans, for example, there is a tradition for a family to kill the oldest rooster each year on Ilinden –Ilya’s Day; and also a ram or bull is killed and boiled so that Ilya will not withhold rain for the crops.

The old rival of Perun in the Slavic pantheon was the god Veles/Volos. When Christianity was introduced (one could say “imposed”), it was not difficult to find a counterpart for Veles in the ranks of saints, because one particular saint had a very similar-sounding name — Vlasiy (Vlasios in Greek, Vlas in Bulgarian). It did not matter that hagiography related that Vlasiy had been a bishop at Sebaste (now Sivas in Turkey) in the late 3rd-early 4th century. There was a legend that he healed wild animals, and that, combined with his name, made him the new Veles, protector of herds and flocks. That is why an icon of Vlasiy was often hung in the shed where livestock was kept. His day of commemoration was in February.

FIRE AND THE OLD BELIEF

I have mentioned previously how icon painting in Russia changed drastically from the latter part of the 1600s onwards. And I have mentioned that the old stylized manner of icon painting survived largely due to the ultra-conservatism of the Old Believers, who not only refused the innovations in ritual and text forced on them by the Patriarch Nikon, but also kept to the old style of icon painting, scorning the western innovations favored later by Tsar Peter “The Great.”

I have mentioned too how the “official” Russian Orthodox Church, working hand in hand with the Tsar in the 1600s, had the chief voice of the Old Believers — the Archpriest Avvakum — murdered; they burnt him at the stake. And when the State Church went after the other Old Believers, they escaped and spread into distant regions farther from the Church and State authorities, moving into northern Russia, into the Urals and Siberia, and down among the Cossacks and into other regions where they might be safer.

Nonetheless, some of the Old Believers, when threatened by the forces of the Tsar, locked themselves inside their wooden churches and set them on fire, preferring to die in flames rather than to accept what they considered to be the great heresy that had come into the Russian Orthodox Church through the innovations of its Patriarch, Nikon.

And that is today’s topic — the odd connection one finds between the Old Believers and fire.

Fire, in Russian, is огоньogon‘.  Russian being an Indo-European language, it is not difficult to see that the Russian word is in essence the same as the Sanskrit Agni, which, in addition to meaning “fire,” is also the name of the Vedic God of Fire, to whom sacrifices are made. So there is an interesting psychological link here with the Old Believer way of thinking.

The Old Believers saw fire as both a purifier and a connection to the end of the world and the Last Judgement. It is not surprising that we see this reflected in their icons.

They were also the chief makers of cast metal icons, and saw them as images created by fire rather than painted by the hand of man.

They were also fond of icons of the Prophet Elijah (Iliya), who through his prayers was able to call down fire from heaven upon his sacrifice. So we find many Old Believer icons of Elijah that include the “Fiery Ascension of the Prophet Elijah,” as in this example, painted by a very skilled artist:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

Let’s take a look at the identifying inscription, apparently written by a hand other than that of the painter of the image, which was a common practice:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

It reads, ОБРАз ОГНЕННОЕ ВОСХОЖДЕНИЕ С[вя]ТАГО ПРО[рок]а ИЛИЙ — OBRAZ OGNENNOE VOSKHOZHDENIE SVYATAGO PROROKA ILIY — “IMAGE OF THE FIERY ASCENSION OF THE HOLY PROPHET ELIJAH.”

We see, as the central image, Elijah seated in his cave in the wilderness. Around him are scenes with his follower Elisha, showing Elijah parting the waters of the Jordan River with his mantle (on one side), and (on the other side) is Elisha doing the same with the mantle dropped to him from Elijah’s fiery chariot, the scene at the top. At lower left is an angel about to awaken Elijah to eat the food brought to him.

Here is a detail of the fiery horses; note how the painter has delineated them in just black and white, with the flames doing the rest:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

And here is a closer view of Elijah ascending in the fiery chariot. Look at the gold highlighting on his garments:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

Look closely at his garments again in this detail showing the angel awakening Elijah:

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

There is something interesting about the technique here. As already mentioned, the highlights on the garments are gold. That was made possible by gilding the entire background of the icon, then painting the figures over it. The highlights were then added by removing paint from the area to be highlighted, revealing the gold base beneath. This is in contrast to highlighting practiced in many icons simply by lightening the base color with white, or by adding gilding over the garments. This method of “removing to reveal” the gold beneath was very effective, and makes for very striking icons.

Look also at the trees and leaves in the background. Though the Old Believers were careful to keep to stylization in the figures of the saints, it is not uncommon to see touches of westernization in the painting of the background landscape, and in the trees and leaves seen here, which are not as radically stylized as in earlier times.

Finally, we can see the skill of the face painter in this detail, showing careful whitened highlighting over the sankir (dark brown) base, and the painting of beard and hair by the persistent adding of very fine, white lines.

(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)
(Courtesy of jacksonsauction.com)

The inscription in the halo reads “Holy Prophet Elijah.”