Picture: St Elias, Russian icon. Taken from http://ru-icons.ru/part8/1_1_70-8.htm
St Elijah, known in Europe as St Elias, was a prophet in the Land of Israel in the 9th century BC, who proclaimed the only God and opposed against the pagan religion of the local rulers. The name of Elijah means “Yahweh is my God” (Yahweh, or Jehovah, is the name of God in the Bible). In many Orthodox countries the Saint is called also “Elias the Thunderer”, as in folklore traditions he is often associated with the pre-Christian deities of summer storms and thunder. In Slavic countries Elias is called Ilya.
St Elias is remembered in Western Christianity on 20 July, mostly limited by the religious commemoration. St Elias is revered as the spiritual Father of the Catholic religious Order of Carmelites, founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel, which is also called Mount Saint Elias and is located in northern Israel. According to the Bible, Mount Carmel was the place where Elias challenged 450 prophets of the “false deity” Baal, and managed to prevail over them.
In the Eastern Orthodox countries the tradition of St Elias’ Day is more spread, combined with the pagan celebrations, dedicated to the deities of thunderstorm. By Gregorian Calendar, his feast falls on 2 August. In Balkan regions St Elias’ Day is known as Ilinden, or Ilindan, while in other Eastern countries it is also called day of Ilya, Thunderer, Day of Perun (Slavic pagan god of thunder), Ilya the Angry.
Elias the Prophet was considered by Slavs protector from the robbers and helper to the ones in fever or bleeding. In Russia the Saint is considered patron of airborne troops and all aviators.
Pagan origins of the celebration.
In the ancient Greece Elias was often associated with Helios, the personification of the Sun, probably because of the similar pronunciation of both names. In the Bible, the prophet Elias was taken to heaven in the chariot of fire, just as Helios drove his chariot of the sun across the sky. Another Greek god, connected to Elias, was Zeus, in their associations with mountains and powers over rain, storms, thunder, lightning and wind.
In Slavic tradition Elias has replaced Perun, pagan god of thunder and lightning, horses and cart, weapons and war. In the traditional image Perun was riding in a chariot pulled by a goat buck, with a mighty axe in his hand, intended to strike evil people and spirits. St Elias’ Day in Slavic countries has inherited most of the ancient beliefs and rites, celebrated during the feast of Perun.
In the pre-Christian period, Romans and Celts honoured their deities of thunder during all the year, while in Nordic traditions there was a festival of Thorrablot, dedicated to the god of thunder Thor and celebrated at midwinter period. The Finnish god of thunder Ukko was honoured at Midsummer.