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Elijah the Prophet and Nicholas

Such are a few of the ideas connected by Slavonian tradition with the person of the Prophet Elijah or Ilya. To St. Nicholas, who has succeeded to the place occupied by an ancient ruler of the waters, a milder character is attributed than to Ilya, the thunder-god's successor. As Ilya is the counterpart of Thor, so does Nicholas in some respects resemble Odin. The special characteristics of the Saint and the Prophet are fairly contrasted in the following story.


A LONG while ago there lived a Moujik. Nicholas's day he always kept holy, but Elijah's not a bit; he would even work upon it. In honor of St. Nicholas he would have a taper lighted and a service performed, but about Elijah the Prophet he forgot so much as to think.

                 Well, it happened one day that Elijah and Nicholas were walking over the land belonging to this Moujik; and as they walked they looked--in the cornfields the green blades were growing up so splendidly that it did one's heart good to look at them.

                 "Here'll be a good harvest, a right good harvest!" says Nicholas, "and the Moujik, too, is a good fellow sure enough, both honest and pious: one who remembers God and thinks about the Saints! It will fall into good hands--"

                 "We'll see by-and-by whether much will fall to his share!" answered Elijah; "when I've burnt up all his land with lightning, and beaten it all flat with hail, then this Moujik of yours will know what's right, and will learn to keep Elijah's day holy."

                 Well, they wrangled and wrangled; then they parted asunder. St. Nicholas went off straight to the Moujik and said:

                 "Sell all your corn at once, just as it stands, to the Priest of Elijah. [2] If you don't, nothing will be left of it: it will all be beaten flat by hail."

                 Off rushed the Moujik to the Priest.

                 "Won't your Reverence buy some standing corn? I'll sell my whole crop. I'm in such pressing need of money just now. It's a case of pay up with me! Buy it, Father! I'll sell it cheap."

                 They bargained and bargained, and came to an agreement. The Moujik got his money and went home.

                 Some little time passed by. There gathered together, there came rolling up, a stormcloud; with a terrible raining and hailing did it empty itself over the Moujik's cornfields, cutting down all the crop as if with a knife--not even a single blade did it leave standing.

                 Next day Elijah and Nicholas walked past. Says Elijah:

                 "Only see how I've devastated the Moujik's cornfield!"

                 "The Moujik's! No, brother! Devastated it you have splendidly, only that field belongs to the Elijah Priest, not to the Moujik."

                 "To the Priest! How's that?"

                 "Why, this way. The Moujik sold it last week to the Elijah Priest, and got all the money for it. And so, methinks, the Priest may whistle for his money!"

                 "Stop a bit!" said Elijah. "I'll set the field all right again. It shall be twice as good as it was before."

                 They finished talking, and went each his own way. St. Nicholas returned to the Moujik, and said:

                 "Go to the Priest and buy back your crop--you won't lose anything by it."

                 The Moujik went to the Priest, made his bow, and said:

                 "I see, your Reverence, God has sent you a misfortune--the hail has beaten the whole field so flat you might roll a ball over it. Since things are so, let's go halves in the loss. I'll take my field back, and here's half of your money for you to relieve your distress."

                 The Priest was rejoiced, and they immediately struck hands on the bargain.

                 Meanwhile--goodness knows how--the Moujik's ground began to get all right. From the old roots shot forth new tender stems. Rain-clouds came sailing exactly over the cornfield and gave the soil to drink. There sprang up a marvellous crop--tall and thick. As to weeds, there positively was not one to be seen. And the ears grew fuller and fuller, till they were fairly bent right down to the ground.

                 Then the dear sun glowed, and the rye grew ripe--like so much gold did it stand in the fields. Many a sheaf did the Moujik gather, many a heap of sheaves did he set up; and now he was beginning to carry the crop, and to gather it together into ricks.

                 At that very time Elijah and Nicholas came walking by again. Joyfully did the Prophet gaze on all the land, and say:

                 "Only look, Nicholas! what a blessing! Why, I have rewarded the Priest in such wise, that he will never forget it all his life."

                 "The Priest? No, brother! the blessing indeed is great, but this land, you see, belongs to the Moujik. The Priest hasn't got anything whatsoever to do with it."

                 "What are you talking about?"

                 "It's perfectly true. When the hail beat all the cornfield flat, the Moujik went to the Priest and bought it back again at half price."

                 "Stop a bit!" says Elijah. "I'll take the profit out of the corn. However many sheaves the Moujik may lay on the threshing-floor, he shall never thresh out of them more than a peck [3] at a time."

                 "A bad piece of work!" thinks St. Nicholas. Off he went at once to the Moujik.

                 "Mind," says he, "when you begin threshing your corn, never put more than one sheaf at a time on the threshing-floor."

                 The Moujik began to thresh: from every sheaf he got a peck of grain. All his bins, all his storehouses, he crammed with rye; but still much remained over. So he built himself new barns, and filled them as full as they could hold.

                 Well, one day Elijah and Nicholas came walking past his homestead, and the Prophet began looking here and there, and said:

                 "Do you see what barns he's built? has he got anything to put into them?"

                 "They're quite full already," answers Nicholas.

                 "Why, wherever did the Moujik get such a lot of grain?"

                 "Bless me! Why, every one of his sheaves gave him a peck of grain. When he began to thresh he never put more than one sheaf at a time on the threshing-floor."

                 "Ah, brother Nicholas!" said Elijah, guessing the truth, "it's you who go and tell the Moujik everything!"

                 "What an idea! that I should go and tell--"

                 "As you please; that's your doing! But that Moujik sha'n't forget me in a hurry!"

                 "Why, what are you going to do to him?"

                 "What I shall do, that I won't tell you," replies Elijah.

                 "There's a great danger coming," thinks St. Nicholas, and he goes to the Moujik again, and says:

                 "Buy two tapers, a big one and a little one, and do thus and thus with them."

                 Well, next day the Prophet Elijah and St. Nicholas were walking along together in the guise of wayfarers, and they met the Moujik, who was carrying two wax tapers--one, a big rouble one, and the other, a tiny copeck one.

                 "Where are you going, Moujik?" asked St. Nicholas.

                 "Well, I'm going to offer a rouble taper to Prophet Elijah; he's been ever so good to me! When my crops were ruined by the hail, he bestirred himself like anything, and gave me a plentiful harvest, twice as good as the other would have been."

                 "And the copeck taper, what's that for?"

                 "Why, that's for Nicholas!" said the peasant and passed on.

                 "There now, Elijah!" says Nicholas, "you say I go and tell everything to the Moujik--surely you can see for yourself how much truth there is in that!"

                 Thereupon the matter ended. Elijah was appeased and didn't threaten to hurt the Moujik any more. And the Moujik led a prosperous life, and from that time forward he held in equal honor Elijah's Day and Nicholas's Day.

               It is not always to the Prophet Ilya that the power once attributed to Perun is now ascribed. The pagan wielder of the thunderbolt is represented in modern traditions by more than one Christian saint. Sometimes, as St. George, he transfixes monsters with his lance; sometimes, as St. Andrew, he smites with his mace a spot given over to witchcraft. There was a village (says one of the legends of the Chernigof Government) in which lived more than a thousand witches, and they used to steal the holy stars, until at last "there was not one left to light our sinful world." Then God sent the holy Andrew, who struck with his mace--and all that village was swallowed up by the earth, and the place thereof became a swamp. [4]

               About St. George many stories are told, and still more ballads (if we may be allowed to call them so) are sung. Under the names of Georgy, Yury, and Yegory the Brave, he is celebrated as a patron as well of wolves as of flocks and herds, as a Christian Confessor struggling and suffering for the faith amid pagan foes, and as a chivalrous destroyer of snakes and dragons. The discrepancies which exist between the various representations given of his character and his functions are very glaring, but they may be explained by the fact that a number of legendary ideas sprung from separate sources have become associated with his name; so that in one story his actions are in keeping with the character of an old Slavonian deity, in another, with that of a Christian or a Buddhist saint.

               In some parts of Russia, when the cattle go out for the first time to the spring pastures, a pie, made in the form of a sheep, is cut up by the chief herdsman, and the fragments are preserved as a remedy against the diseases to which sheep are liable. On St. George's Day in spring, April 23, the fields are sanctified by a church service, at the end of which they are sprinkled with holy water. In the Tula Government a similar service is held over the wells. On the same day, in some parts of Russia, a youth (who is called by the Slovenes the Green Yegory) is dressed like our own "Jack in the Green," with foliage and flowers. Holding a lighted torch in one hand and a pie in the other, he goes out to the cornfields, followed by girls singing appropriate songs. A circle of brushwood is then lighted, in the centre of which is set the pie. All who take part in the ceremony then sit down around the fire, and eventually the pie is divided among them.

               Numerous legends speak of the strange connection which exists between St. George and the Wolf. In Little Russia that animal is called "St. George's Dog," and the carcases of sheep which wolves have killed are not used for human food, it being held that they have been assigned by divine command to the beasts of the field. The human victim whom St. George has doomed to be thus destroyed nothing can save. A man, to whom such a fate had been allotted, tried to escape from his assailants by hiding behind a stove; but a wolf transformed itself into a cat, and at midnight, when all was still, it stole into the house and seized the appointed prey. A hunter, who had been similarly doomed, went on killing wolves for some time, and hanging up their skins; but when the fatal hour arrived, one of the skins became a wolf, and slew him by whom it had before been slain. In Little Russia the wolves have their own herdsman [5]--a being like unto a man, who is often seen in company with St. George. There were two brothers (says a popular tale), the one rich, the other poor. The poor brother had climbed up a tree one night, and suddenly he saw beneath him what seemed to be two men--the one driving a pack of wolves, the other attending to the conveyance of a quantity of bread. These two beings were St. George and the Lisun. And St. George distributed the bread among the wolves, and one loaf which remained over he gave to the poor brother; who afterwards found that it was of a miraculous nature, always renewing itself and so supplying its owner with an inexhaustible store of bread. The rich brother, hearing the story, climbed up the tree one night in hopes of obtaining a similar present. But that night St. George found that he had no bread to give to one of his wolves, so he gave it the rich brother instead. [6]

               One of the legends attributes strange forgetfulness on one occasion to St. George. A certain Gypsy who had a wife and seven children, and nothing to feed them with, was standing by a roadside lost in reflection, when Yegory the Brave came riding by. Hearing that the saint was on his way to heaven, the Gypsy besought him to ask of God how he was to support his family. St. George promised to do so, but forgot. Again the Gypsy saw him riding past, and again the saint promised and forgot. In a third interview the Gypsy asked him to leave behind his golden stirrup as a pledge.

               A third time St. George leaves the presence of the Lord without remembering the commission with which he has been entrusted. But when he is about to mount his charger the sight of the solitary stirrup recalls it to his mind. So he returns and states the Gypsy's request, and obtains the reply that "the Gypsy's business is to cheat and to swear falsely." As soon as the Gypsy is told this, he thanks the Saint and goes off home.

               "Where are you going?" cries Yegory. "Give me back my golden stirrup."

               "What stirrup?" asks the Gypsy.

               "Why, the one you took from me."

               "When did I take one from you? I see you now for the first time in my life, and never a stirrup did I ever take, so help me Heaven!"

               So Yegory had to go away without getting his stirrup back. [7]

               There is an interesting Bulgarian legend in which St. George appears in his Christian capacity of dragon-slayer, but surrounded by personages belonging to heathen mythology. The inhabitants of the pagan city of Troyan, it states, "did not believe in Christ, but in gold and silver." Now there were seventy conduits in that city which supplied it with spring-water; and the Lord made these conduits run with liquid gold and silver instead of water, so that all the people had as much as they pleased of the metals they worshipped, but they had nothing to drink.

               After a time the Lord took pity upon them, and there appeared at a little distance from the city a deep lake. To this they used to go for water. Only the lake was guarded by a terrible monster, which daily devoured a maiden, whom the inhabitants of Troyan were obliged to give to it in return for leave to make use of the lake. This went on for three years, at the end of which time it fell to the lot of the king's daughter to be sacrificed by the monster. But when the Troyan Andromeda was exposed on the shore of the lake, a Perseus arrived to save her in the form of St. George. While waiting for the monster to appear, the saint laid his head on her knees, and she dressed his locks. Then he fell into so deep a slumber that the monster drew nigh without awaking him. But the Princess began to weep bitterly, and her scalding tears fell on the face of St. George and awoke him, and he slew the monster, and afterwards converted all the inhabitants of Troyan to Christianity. [8]

               St. Nicholas generally maintains in the legends the kindly character attributed to him in the story in which he and the Prophet Ilya are introduced together. It is to him that at the present day the anxious peasant turns most readily for help, and it is he whom the legends represent as being the most prompt of all the heavenly host to assist the unfortunate among mankind. Thus in one of the stories a peasant is driving along a heavy road one autumn day, when his cart sticks fast in the mire. Just then St. Kasian comes by.

               "Help me, brother, to get my cart out of the mud!" says the peasant.

               "Get along with you!" replies St. Kasian. "Do you suppose I've got leisure to be dawdling here with you!"

               Presently St. Nicholas comes that way. The peasant addresses the same request to him, and he stops and gives the required assistance.

               When the two saints arrive in heaven, the Lord asks them where they have been.

               "I have been on the earth," replies St. Kasian. "And I happened to pass by a moujik whose cart had stuck in the mud. He cried out to me, saying, 'Help me to get my cart out!' But I was not going to spoil my heavenly apparel."

               "I have been on the earth," says St. Nicholas, whose clothes were all covered with mud. "I went along that same road, and I helped the moujik to get his cart free."

               Then the Lord says, "Listen, Kasian! Because thou didst not assist the moujik, therefore shall men honor thee by thanksgiving once only every four years. But to thee, Nicholas, because thou didst assist the moujik to set free his cart, shall men twice every year offer up thanksgiving."

               "Ever since that time," says the story, "it has been customary to offer prayers and thanksgiving (molebnui) to Nicholas twice a year, but to Kasian only once every leap-year." [9]

               In another story St. Nicholas comes to the aid of an adventurer who watches beside the coffin of a bewitched princess. There were two moujiks in a certain village, we are told, one of whom was very rich and the other very poor. One day the poor man, who was in great distress, went to the house of the rich man and begged for a loan.

               "I will repay it, on my word. Here is Nicholas as a surety," he cried, pointing to a picture of St. Nicholas.

               Thereupon the rich man lent him twenty roubles. The day for repayment came, but the poor man had not a single copeck. Furious at his loss, the rich man rushed to the picture of St. Nicholas, crying--

               "Why don't you pay up for that pauper? You stood surety for him, didn't you?"

               And as the picture made no reply, he tore it down from the wall, set it on a cart and drove it away, flogging it as he went, and crying--

               "Pay me my money! Pay me my money!"

               As he drove past the inn a young merchant saw him, and cried--

               "What are you doing, you infidel!"

               The moujik explained that as he could not get his money back from a man who was in his debt, he was proceeding against a surety; whereupon the merchant paid the debt, and thereby ransomed the picture, which he hung up in a place of honor, and kept a lamp burning before it. Soon afterwards an old man offered his services to the merchant, who appointed him his manager; and from that time all things went well with the merchant.

               But after a while a misfortune befell the land in which he lived, for "an evil witch enchanted the king's daughter, who lay dead all day long, but at night got up and ate people." So she was shut up in a coffin and placed in a church, and her hand, with half the kingdom as her dowry, was offered to any one who could disenchant her. The merchant, in accordance with his old manager's instructions, undertook the task, and after a series of adventures succeeded in accomplishing it. The last words of one of the narrators of the story are, "Now this old one was no mere man. He was Nicholas himself, the saint of God." [10]



[1] Afanasief, Legendui, No. 10. From the Yaroslaf Government.

[2] Il'inskomu bat'kye--to the Elijah father.

[3] Strictly speaking, a chetverìk = 5.775 gallons.

[4] Afanasief, P.V.S., iii. 455.

[5] Called Lisun, Lisovik, Polisun, &c. He answers to the Lyeshy or wood-demon (lyes = a forest) mentioned above, p. 212.

[6] Afanasief, P.V.S. i. 711.

[7] Afanasief, Legendui, No. 12.

[8] Quoted by Buslaef, "Ist. Och." i. 389. Troyan is also the name of a mythical king who often figures in Slavonic legends.

[9] Afanasief, Legendui, No. 11. From the Orel district.

[10] Afanasief, Legendui, pp. 141-5. With this story may be compared that of "The Cross-Surety." See above, p. 40.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Elijah the Prophet and Nicholas
Tale Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Book Title: Russian Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Publisher: Hurst & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Russia
Classification: unclassified

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