Leo Tolstoy

The Three Hermits


An old legend
spread in the Volga district



Short story

Text translated into English


Russian literature


“The three hermits” is a short story by the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, written in 1885 and published for the first time in 1886, in the weekly magazine Niva (Ru: нива).

Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Three Hermits” is introduced by a passage from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, shown below, which anticipates its meaning.

In the story “The Three Hermits”, the writer Leo Tolstoy addresses the theme of the importance of prayer and words before a God. In history, Leo Tolstoy describes the meeting between a traveling bishop and three old hermits, illiterate and lost …

Below you can read the text of the short story by Leo Tolstoy: “The three hermits” with text translated into English.

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Happy reading and happy prayers!


Leo Tolstoy All the stories > here



Leo Tolstoy

The Three Hermits


Short story

Text translated into English


An old legend
spread in the Volga district



And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the pagan do:

for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Be not therefore not like them:

for your Father knows what things you have need

 before you ask Him.

Matt. VI. 7, 8



         A Bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery; and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrines at that place. The voyage was a smooth one – the wind favorable, and the weather fair. The pilgrims lay on deck, eating, or sat in groups talking to one another.

The Bishop, too, came on deck, and as he was pacing up and down, he noticed a group of men standing near the prow and listening to a fisherman who was pointing to the sea and telling them something. The Bishop stopped, and looked in the direction in which the man was pointing. He could see nothing however, but the sea glistening in the sunshine. He drew nearer to listen, but when the man saw him, he took off his cap and was silent. The rest of the people also took off their caps, and bowed.


– Do not let me disturb you, friends, – said the Bishop, – came to hear what this good man was saying.

– The fisherman was telling us about the hermits, – replied one, a tradesman, rather bolder than the rest.

– What hermits? – asked the Bishop, going to the side of the vessel and seating himself on a box. – Tell me about them. I should like to hear. What were you pointing at?

– Why, that little island you can just see over there, – answered the man, pointing to a spot ahead and a little to the right. – That is the island where the hermits live for the salvation of their souls.

– Where is the island? – asked the Bishop. – see nothing.

– There, in the distance, if you will please look along my hand. Do you see that little cloud? Below it and a bit to the left, there is just a faint streak. That is the island.


The Bishop looked carefully, but his unaccustomed eyes could make out nothing but the water shimmering in the sun.

– cannot see it, – he said. – But who are the hermits that live there?

– They are holy men, – answered the fisherman. – had long heard tell of them, but never chanced to see them myself till the year before last.

And the fisherman related how once, when he was out fishing, he had been stranded at night upon that island, not knowing where he was. In the morning, as he wandered about the island, he came across an earth hut, and
met an old man standing near it. Presently two others came out, and after having fed him, and dried his things, they helped him mend his boat.


– And what are they like? – asked the Bishop.

– One is a small man and his back is bent. He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven.

The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears a tattered peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish gray color. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful.

The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is unsmiling, with overhanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.

– And did they speak to you? – asked the Bishop.

For the most part they were silent, spoke but little even to one another. One of them would just give a glance, and the others would understand him. I asked the tallest whether they had lived there long. He frowned, and muttered something as if he were angry; but the oldest one took his hand and smiled, and then the tall one was quiet. The oldest one only said: ‘Have mercy upon us,’ and smiled.


While the fisherman was talking, the ship had drawn nearer to the island.

– There, now you can see it plainly, if your Grace will please to look, – said the tradesman, pointing with his hand. The Bishop looked, and now he really saw a dark streak -which was the island. Having looked at it a while, he left the prow of the vessel, and going to the stern, asked the helmsman:

– What island is that?

– It has no name. – Replied the man. – There are many such in this sea.

– Is it true that there are hermits who live there for the salvation of their souls?

– So it is said, your Grace, but I don’t know if it’s true. Fishermen say they have seen them; but sometime they’re just blabbing.

– Should like to land on the island and see these men, – said the Bishop. – How could I manage it?

– The ship cannot get close to the island, – replied the helmsman, – but you might be rowed there in a boat. You had better speak to the captain.

They called the captain.

– I’d like to see these hermits, – said the Bishop. – How this can be arranged?

The captain tried to dissuade him.

– Of course it could be done, – said he, – but we’ll lose much time. And if I might dare to say so to your Grace, the old men are not worth your attention. I have heard people say that these foolish old fellows live, without understanding of anything, can’t even speak a word, any more than the fish in the sea.

– Wish to see them, – said the Bishop, – and I will pay you for your trouble and loss of time. Please take me there.


They had no choice, so the order was given. The sailors trimmed the sails, the steersman put up the helm, and they turned the ship, and sailed toward the island. They placed a chair at the prow for the Bishop, and he sat there, looking ahead. The passengers all gathered at the prow, and gazed at the island. Those who had the sharpest eyes could already see the rocks on it, and pointed at a mud hut. At last one man saw the hermits themselves. The captain brought a telescope and, looked through it, handed it to the Bishop.

– That’s right. There are three men standing on the shore. There, a little to the right of that big rock.

The Bishop took the telescope, got it into position, and he saw the three men: a tall one, a shorter one, and one very small, they’re standing on the shore, holding each other by the hand.

The captain turned to the Bishop:

– Your Grace, we have to stop the ship here. If you wish to go ashore, you must go in the boat, while we anchor here.

They let out cable, cast the anchor, and furled the sails. There was a jerk, and the vessel shook. Then they lowered the boat, the oarsmen jumped in, and the Bishop descended the ladder and took his seat. The men pulled at their oars, and the boat moved rapidly towards the island. When they came within a stone’s throw they saw three old men: a tall one half naked, a shorter one in a ragged peasant coat, and a very old one bent with age, in an old robe – all three standing, holding each other hands.


The oarsmen pulled in to the shore, and held on with the boathook. The Bishop got out.

The old men bowed to him, and he gave them his blessing, at which they bowed still lower. Then the Bishop began to speak to them.

– Have heard, – he said, – that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I
wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.

The old men remain silent, smile, look at each other.

– Tell me, – said the Bishop, – what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God.

The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:

– Servant of God, we do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves.


– But how do you pray to God? – asked the Bishop.

-We pray in this way, – replied the hermit. – Three are you, three are we, have mercy upon us.

And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and all three have repeated:

– Three are your, three are we, have mercy upon us!

The Bishop smiled and said:

– Clearly you have heard about the Holy Trinity, – said he. – But you do not pray properly. You have won my affection, godly men. I see you wish to please the Lord, but you do not know how to serve Him. That is not the way to pray; but listen to me, and I will teach you. I will teach you not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him.

And the Bishop began explaining to the hermits how God had revealed Himself to men; telling them of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, and said:

– God the Son came down on earth, to save people, and this is how He taught us all to pray. Listen and repeat after me: ‘Our Father.’


And the first old man repeated after him, “Our Father,” and the second said, “Our Father,” and the third said, “Our Father.”

– Which art in heaven, – continued the Bishop.

The first hermit repeated, “Which art in heaven,” but the second blundered over the words, and the tall hermit could not say them properly. His hair had grown over his mouth so that he could not speak clearly. The very old hermit, having no teeth, also mumbled indistinctly.

The Bishop repeated the words again, and the old men repeated them after him. The Bishop sat down on a stone, and the old men stood before him, watching his mouth, and repeating the words as he uttered them. And all day long the Bishop labored, saying a word twenty, thirty, a hundred times over, and the old men repeated it after him. They blundered, and he corrected them, and made them begin again.


The Bishop did not leave the elders till he had taught them the whole of the Lord’s prayer so that they could not only repeat it after him, but could say it by themselves. The middle one was the first to know it, and to repeat the
whole of it alone. The Bishop made him say it again and again, and at last the others could say it too.

It was getting dark, and the moon was appearing over the water, before the Bishop rose to return to the ship. When he took leave of the old men, they all bowed down to the ground before him. He raised them, and kissed each of them, telling them to pray as he had taught them. Then he got into the boat and returned to the ship.


And as he sat in the boat and was rowed to the ship he could hear the three voices of the hermits loudly repeating the Lord’s prayer. As the boat drew near the vessel, their voices could no longer be heard, but they could still be seen in the moonlight, standing as he had left them on the shore, the shortest in the middle, the tallest on the right, the middle one on the left.

As soon as the Bishop had reached the vessel and got on board, the anchor was weighed and the sails unfurled. The wind filled them, and the ship sailed away, and the Bishop took a seat in the stem and watched the island they had left. For a time he could still see the hermits, but presently they disappeared from sight,
though the island was still visible. At last it too vanished, and only the sea was to be seen, rippling in the moonlight.


The pilgrims lay down to sleep, and all was quiet on deck. The Bishop did not wish to sleep, but sat alone at the stern, gazing at the sea where the island was no longer visible, and thinking of the good old men. He thought how pleased they had been to learn the Lord’s prayer; and he thanked God for having sent him to teach and help such godly men.

So the Bishop sat, thinking, and gazing at the sea where the island had disappeared. And the moonlight flickered before his eyes, sparkling, now here, now there, upon the waves. Suddenly he saw something white and shining, on the bright path which the moon cast across the sea. Was it a seagull, or the little gleaming sail of some small boat? The Bishop fixed his eyes on it, wondering.

– It must be a boat sailing after us, – thought he, – but it is overtaking us very rapidly. It was far, far away a minute ago, but now it is much nearer. It cannot be a boat, for I can see no sail; but whatever it may be, it is following
us, and catching us up.

And he could not make out what it was. Not a boat, nor a bird, nor a fish! It was too large for a man, and besides a man could not be out there in the midst of the sea. The Bishop rose, and said to the helmsman:


– Look there, what is that, my friend? What is it? – the Bishop repeated, though he could now see plainly what it was – the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming white, their gray beards shining, and approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not moving.

The steersman looked and let go the helm in terror.

– Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!

The passengers hearing him, jumped up, and crowded to the stern. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say:

– Servant of God, we have forgotten your teaching. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember
nothing of it. Teach us again.


The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:

– Men of God, your own prayer will reach the Lord just fine. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us, sinners!

And the Bishop bowed down before the old men; and they stopped, turned, and went back across the sea. And until morning a light shine was visible from the spot where they went.



Leo Tolstoy The Three Hermits

An old legend spread in the Volga district (1886)

Short story – Text translated into English

Russian literature




Leo Tolstoy All the stories > here






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