July 20, 2016

Greek Folk Traditions and the Prophet Elias

By John Sanidopoulos

The Prophet Elias (the Greek rendering of Elijah) is honored by the Orthodox Church on July 20th. Along with this festival many traditions and customs have become associated with his name, not only in Slavic lands, Bulgaria and Serbia, but especially in Greece, with its hundreds of monasteries, churches, chapels and shrines dedicated to him, particularly on mountaintops and high places.

In many regions of Greece, especially Thrace and Macedonia, the Prophet Elias is considered the overseer of rain, thunder, lightning, and the wind. This likely comes from the Old Testament, where it says that Elias prevented rain from falling on the land of Israel in his days by the word of his mouth for three years, at which time again by his word he was able to make it rain and relieve the land of its drought. Folklore says that lightning and thunder are his weapons and he unleashes them as he chases the devil, or variously, the dragon, across the heavens in his chariot, and he also prevents insects from destroying crops. It is perhaps this reason why the Prophet Elias has almost a monopoly on churches closest to the heavens.

It had been pointed out by the Greek folklorist Nikolas Polites, with a high degree of probability, that these attributes of Elias represented an appropriation of the principal characteristics of the pagan Greek god Zeus, who was also known as the god of thunder, rain, and the skies, and to whom heights were sacred. Furthermore, both by the philological proximity of the names Elias and Helios (in Greek by one letter), and by further appropriation, it has been indicated, again with a high degree of probability, that the veneration of the Prophet Elias expropriated the functions of the sun god Helios; also close in position and function to Zeus.

The connection between Helios, or the Sun, and Elias, besides very similar pronunciations in post-classical Greek, also has to do with the Prophet Elias who rode in his chariot of fire to heaven (2 Kings 2:11), just as Helios drove the chariot of the sun across the sky; and the holocaust sacrifice offered by Elias and burned by fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38) corresponds to the sun warming the earth.

Sedulius writes poetically in the fifth century that the "bright path to glittering heaven" suits Elias both "in merits and name", as changing one letter makes his name "Helios"; but he does not identify the two. A homily titled "The Ascension of Elias", misattributed to Chrysostom, claims that poets and painters use the ascension of Elias as a model for their depictions of the sun, and says that "Elias is really Helios". Saint Patrick appears to conflate Helios and Elias. In modern times, much Greek folklore also connects Elias with the sun.

As mentioned, in Greece, chapels and monasteries dedicated to Prophet Elias are often found on mountaintops, which themselves are often named after him. Since Wachsmuth (1864), the usual explanation for this has been that Elias was identified with Helios, who had mountaintop shrines. But few shrines of Helios were on mountaintops, and sun-worship was subsumed by Apollo-worship by Christian times, and so could not be confused with Elias. The modern folklore is not good evidence for the origin of the association of the sun, Elias, and mountaintops. Perhaps Elias is simply a "natural patron of high places".

The association of Elias with mountaintops seems to come from a different pagan tradition: Elias took on the attributes and the locales associated with Zeus, especially his associations with mountains and his powers over rain, thunder, lighting, and wind. A map of mountain-cults of Zeus shows that most of these sites are now dedicated to Elias, including Mount Olympus, Mount Lykaion, Mount Arachnaion, and Mount Taleton on the mainland, and Mount Kenaion, Mount Oche, and Mount Kynados in the islands. Of these, the only one with a recorded tradition of a Helios cult is Mount Taleton.

It has been observed that on the highest landmark of Mt. Taygetus, dominating the Spartan plain, the Greek peasants used to ascend the mountain on his feast day, July 20, to light fires in his honor and to throw incense into the fire as an offering to the Prophet. Down below on the plains, the peasants lighted their own fires, dancing around them and jumping over the flames. Further, it was the practice to sacrifice a rooster to him, a practice closely associated with the worship of the pagan god of the sun Helios. As a symbol of the sun, whose rays first fell on the mountaintops, the cock sacrifice was adopted into the veneration of Elias who also inherited some of the traits-attributes of Helios, as well as of Zeus. Thus the farmers used to believe that they could foretell the weather from the crowing of the rooster. As an Old Testament Prophet, Elias, it was believed, could foretell the future, and so on his feast day the peasants consulted him from the colors of the burning incense which the faithful offered to him in the fires on the mountain heights.

Yet the primary reason for the association between the Prophet Elias and mountaintops is based on the Old Testament. When Elias prevailed over the priests of Baal, it was on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:38), which later became known as Mount St. Elias. When he spent forty days in a cave, it was on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). When Elias confronted Ahab, he stopped the rains for three years (1 Kings 17:1-18:1). Hence, when the Prophet Elias became "Hellenized", his biblical association with mountaintops and high places was incorporated into the culture to replace the pagan associations.

As we mentioned, Christian peasants would offer roosters as sacrifices to Elias. In eastern Rumelia, peasants sacrificed bullocks to him in an effort to ward off contagious diseases. Also, in northern Thrace, villagers who came to Greece from Asia Minor in 1923 would offer the so-called "kourbania" to the Saint, which is essentially an animal sacrifice. These are still practiced in remote places, but slowly the custom is dying out.

Building on the theme that Elias ascended to the sky in a fiery chariot, it is taught in Achaea that "Saint Elias was a sailor, and because many things happened to him out at sea and he almost drowned, he abandoned being a traveler and decided to go to a place where they known nothing of the sea and ships. So he placed his paddle on his shoulders and came to dry land. Whoever he met and asked him about his paddle, with the mention of the word 'paddle', he would be pulled higher and higher, until he reached the peak of the mountain. When he asked the locals up there what he was holding, they responded "wood', thus understanding that those people had never heard of a paddle, therefore he decided to remain up there in the heights."

A similar tradition is taught in Kefallonia, where they explain that the reason the Prophet is on the mountaintops, is because he never set foot on the flatland, and he was never buried. Therefore he travels around on his chariot, and when he wants to rest he can only do it on the mountaintops. And while he lived, he enjoyed the mountains.

An icon from 800 years ago in Kastoria also ties the Prophet Elias with the fur industry of Kastoria. Though some argue that the name “Kastoria” refers to the mythological hero Castor, another association is perhaps more compelling: in Greek, kastoria means “place of beavers.” In fact, trade in beaver fur became the mainstay of this city’s commercial life. In the early period of the Roman Empire, animal pelts were still associated with fur-clad barbarians and thus could hardly be deemed desirable luxury items. This trend continued in Byzantium even as fur trading flourished in the Islamic world of the 9th and 10th centuries. By the time the Elias icon was painted in the 12th century, though, references to treasured furs appear increasingly in elite texts — the Roman aristocrats, it seems, had begun to see the benefit and beauty of these “barbarian” garments. Kastoria’s entrance into the fur trade is not confirmed by written sources until the 15th century, but it is possible that the city was involved from an earlier period. At some point in the history of Kastoria, the Prophet Elias came to be known as the protector and patron of furriers, particularly because in his icons he wears fur. Today, the Kastorian Fur Association is named “O Prophetes Elias” — The Prophet Elias. This association claims that the city began processing furs around the 13th century.