Saint Elias Muromets of the Caves, nicknamed “Shoemaker” or “Cobbler,” was from the city of Murom. Popular legend identifies him with the famous warrior hero Elias Muromets, who was the subject of Russian ballads and of Gliere’s Symphony No. 3.
Reliable evidence of Elias’ life is scant. It is believed that he was born circa 1143 in the family of a peasant in the village of Karacharovo near Murom. As a child, he suffered from leg paralysis. His illness taught him great patience and humility and also strengthened his character. One day, he was lying alone at his home. He was 33 years of age. Three elders came to his house dressed as beggars and asked him for some water. Forgetting about his paralysis, Elias rose to his feet and brought water to the strangers. At their insistence, he drank it all up himself. The water gave him great bodily strength and the elders told him: “You are not going to die in a battle”. After hearing these words, the young man resolved to dedicate himself to the defence of his country and people.
For many years, Elias served in the druzhina (militia) of Vladimir Monomakh, a Kiev duke. He was victorious in all his battles, but he never prided himself on it, and he let the defeated go in peace.
Eventually, Elias Muromets was badly wounded in the chest in a battle with the Tartars. At that point, he ended his military service and became a warrior of the spirit by taking tonsure as a monk at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. At his time, many former warriors did the same. Yet we find no mention of the venerable Elias in the Patericon of the Lavra, which suggests that his life as a monastic did not last very long. His tonsure likely took place under Hegumen Polycarp of the Caves (1164 – 1182). He died circa 1188 before reaching his old age. Yet he already had a large record of ascetic deeds to be venerated as a saint. His relics are kept at the Anthonian caves of the monastery.
St Elias died with the fingers of his right hand formed to make the Sign of the Cross in the position accepted even today in the Orthodox Church: the first three fingers together, and the two outermost fingers folded onto the palm [in contrast to the Sign of the Cross used by the “Old Ritualists”]. During the struggle with the Old Ritualist Schism (seventeenth-nineteenth centuries), this information about the saint served as a powerful proof in favor of the present positioning of the fingers.
Elias Muromets was canonised in 1643. His feast day is celebrated by the Church on 1 January. Since 1643, many military and battlefield churches in Russia have been consecrated in honour of the Venerable Elias.