|This article needs additional citations for verification. (September 2009)|
|God of autumn, western lands, underworld, earth, waters, fertility, cattle, pasture, snakes, wolves, medicine, music, and magic|
|Symbol||Bear, wolf, snake, bull|
|Roman equivalent||sometimes described as Apollo|
|Slavic equivalent||similar to Flins, Triglav|
Veles (Cyrillic: Велес; Polish: Weles; Czech, Slovak : Veles; Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic: Велесъ) also known as Volos (Russian: Волос) (listed as a Christian saint in Old Russian texts) is a major Slavic supernatural force of earth, waters and the underworld, associated with dragons, cattle, magic, musicians, wealth and trickery. He is the opponent of the Supreme thunder-god Perun, and the battle between two of them constitutes one of the most important myths of Slavic mythology. No direct accounts survive, but reconstructions speculate that he may directly continue aspects of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon and that he may have been imagined as (at least partially) serpentine, with horns (of a bull, ram or some other domesticated herbivore), and a long beard.
Veles is one of few Slavic gods for which evidence of offerings can be found in all Slavic nations. The Primary Chronicle, a historical record of the early Eastern Slavic state, is the earliest and most important record, mentioning a god named Volos several times. Many etymologists, however, suppose them two different gods. Here, Volos is mentioned as god of cattle and peasants, who will punish oath-breakers with diseases, the opposite of Perun who is described as a ruling god of war who punishes by death in battle. In the later half of 10th century, Veles or Volos was one of seven gods whose statues Vladimir I, Prince of Kiev had erected in his city. It is very interesting that Veles' statue apparently did not stand next to others, on the hill where the prince's castle was, but lower in the city, on the marketplace. Not only does this indicate that Veles was connected with commerce, but it also shows that worship of Perun and Veles had to be kept separate: while it was proper for Perun's shrines to be built high, on the top of the hill, Veles' place was down, in the lowlands.
A similar pattern can be observed amongst the South Slavs. Here the name of Veles appears only in toponyms, the best-known of which is the city of Veles in Macedonia, over which looms a hill of St. Elias the Thunderer. Also, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a part of Sarajevo is called Velešići. Another example is the town of Volosko in Croatia, situated on the seashore under the peak of Mount Ucka, nicknamed Perun. Amongst Western Slavs, the name can be principally found in 15th and 16th century Czech records, where it means either dragon or devil.
Another parallel to Norse mythology is that a 'Völva' was a 'Seeress' that was connected with water and foretelling, called 'Völuspa' (that is, Völva+Spake/Speech). In Norse myth, making Völuspas was connected to spinning/braiding the Thread of Fate for the one whose future had been foreseen. Völva is cognate to 'Wheel/Spinning Wheel'
One possibility is that the name derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *wel-, meaning wool (if so, the English word "wool" would actually be fairly closely related to the name of this god). "Volos" is also the Russian word for "hair." This seems logical, since Veles was believed to be the deity of a horned cattle.
The name may also be related to Slavic terminology for oxen, for which the South Slavs and Russians all use "вол/vol."
Enemy of Perun and storm myth
The Russian philologists Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov reconstructed the mythical battle of Perun and Veles through comparative study of various Indo-European mythologies and a large number of Slavic folk stories and songs. A unifying characteristic of all Indo-European mythologies is a story about a battle between a god of thunder and a huge serpent or a dragon. In the Slavic version of the myth, Perun is a god of thunder, whilst Veles acts as a dragon who opposes him, consistent with the Vala etymology; He is also similar to the Etruscan Underworld-monster Vetha and to the dragon Illuyankas, enemy of the storm god of Hittite mythology.
The reason for the enmity between the two gods is Veles' theft of Perun's son, wife or, usually, cattle. It is also an act of challenge: Veles, in the form of a huge serpent, slithers from the caves of the Underworld and coils upwards the Slavic world tree towards Perun's heavenly domain. Perun retaliates and attacks Veles with his lightning bolts. Veles flees, hiding or transforming himself into trees, animals or people. In the end he is killed by Perun, and in this ritual death, whatever Veles stole is released from his battered body in the form of rain falling from the skies. This ‘storm myth’, as it is generally called by scholars today, explained to ancient Slavs the changing of seasons through the year. The dry periods were interpreted as chaotic results of Veles' thievery. Storms and lightning were seen as divine battles. The ensuing rain was the triumph of Perun over Veles and the re-establishment of world order.
The myth was cyclical, repeating itself each year. The death of Veles was never permanent; he would reform himself as a serpent who would shed its old skin and would be reborn in a new body. Although in this particular myth he plays a negative role as bringer of chaos, Veles was not seen as an evil god by ancient Slavs. In fact, in many of the Russian folk tales, Veles, appearing under the Christian guise of St. Nicholas, saves the poor farmer and his cattle from the furious and destructive St. Elias the Thunderer, who, of course, represents the old Perun. The duality and conflict of Perun and Veles does not represent the dualistic clash of good and evil; rather, it is the opposition of the natural principles of earth, water and substance (Veles) against heaven, fire and spirit (Perun).
The Ivanov/Toporov conception of "the key myth" of Slavic mythology has been criticized by several authors, including Leo Klejn and Igor M. Diakonoff. Many, including Klejn, pointed out that Ivanov and Toporov often tended to unjustified generalizations and considered many of their arguments "far-fetched". Supporters of the theory, on the other hand, include Boris Uspensky, T. Sudnik and T. Tsivyan, and others.
The saga of the creation of the place "across the sea" also begins with a stormbattle between Veles and Perun. Volos (or Veles) is king of the underworld and death and Pyerun (or Perunu, Perun) is ruler of heaven and the human living world. Volos hears the echo of a lone widows’ moan in the kingdom of Pyerun and invites her to come to him and his herds for company and comfort. In exchange, he only askes for her faith but Pyerun dismiss it as a trick and think that Volos wants to take her life and recruit her to his flock of spririts. Furious with anger of Volos thievery, Pyerun gathers an enormous thunderstorm to fight Volos, who responds by summoning a flock of birds from the air, a flock of frogs from the water and flock of trees from the earth to defend the woman and her choice. Guided by greed over compassion, Pyerun ignore the whispering wishes of the widow to be released from her loneliness. In one strike he sends his lightning over the army of birds, frogs and trees and they all fall dead into the middle of the bay in the inlet of the world. The bodies from the flocks each create a small isle raising up through the water, a reminder from Volos to his enemy of the unrighteous crime to the lone widow.
According to the myth, the isles emerging from the underworld form a gateway between the living and the dead, between human and non-human and between body and thought. The voice of the whispering widow is said to never have left the isles but to have lingered inbetween them as company and consolation to anyone or anything that is ever subject to loneliness.
The myth is speculatively referring to the Isles of Årsta (Årsta Holmar), close to Södermalm Stockholm.
God of the underworld and death
Ancient Slavs viewed their world as a huge tree, with the treetop and branches representing the heavenly abode of gods and the world of mortals, whilst the roots represented the underworld. And while Perun, seen as a hawk or eagle sitting on a tallest branch of tree, was believed to be ruler of heaven and living world, Veles, seen as a huge serpent coiling around the roots, was ruling the world of dead. This was actually quite a lovely place, described in folk tales as a green and wet world of grassy plains and eternal spring, where various fantastic creatures dwell and the spirits of deceased watch over Veles' herds of cattle. In more geographical terms, the world of Veles was located, the Slavs believed, "across the sea", and it was there the migrating birds would fly to every winter. In folk tales this land is called Virey or Iriy. Each year, the god of fertility and vegetation, Jarilo, who also dwelt there during winter, would return from across the sea and bring spring into the world of the living.
Veles also regularly sent spirits of the dead into the living world as his heralds. Festivals in honour of him were held near the end of the year, in winter, when time was coming to the very end of world order, chaos was growing stronger, the borders between worlds of living and dead were fading, and ancestral spirits would return amongst the living. This was the ancient pagan celebration of Velja noc (Great Night), the relic of which still persists amongst many Slavic countries in folk customs of Koleda, a kind of combination of carnival and Halloween, which can happen anywhere from Christmas up to end of February. Young men, known as koledari or vucari would dress long coats of sheep's wool and don grotesque masks, roaming around villages in groups and raising a lot of noise. They sang songs saying they travelled a long way, and they are all wet and muddy, an allusion of the wet underworld of Veles from which they came as ghosts of dead. The master of any house they visited would welcome them warmly and presented them with gifts. This is an example of Slavic shamanism, which also indicates Veles was a god of magic and wealth. The gifts given to koledari were probably believed to be passed onto him (which makes him very much like a dragon hoarding treasure), thus ensuring good fortune and wealth for the house and family through entire year. As seen in descriptions from the Primary Chronicle, by angering Veles one would be stricken by diseases.
God of magic and musicians
Veles' nature for mischief is evident both from his role in Storm myth and in carnival customs of Koledari shamans. In his role as a trickster god, he is in some ways similar to both Greek Hermes and Scandinavian Loki, and like them, he was connected with magic. The word volhov, obviously derived from his name, in some Slavic languages still means sorcerer, whilst in the 12th century Russian epic The Tale of Igor's Campaign, character of Boyan the wizard is called Veles' grandson. Since magic was and is closely linked to music in primitive societies, Veles was also believed to be protector of travelling musicians. For instance, in some wedding ceremonies of northern Croatia (which continued up to 20th century), the music would not start playing unless the bridegroom, when making a toast, spilled some of the wine on the ground, preferably over the roots of the nearest tree. The symbolism of this is clear, even though forgotten long ago by those still performing it: the musicians will not sing until a toast is made to their patron deity.
God of cattle and wealth
Veles' main practical function was protecting the cattle of Slavic tribes. Often he was referred to as skotji bog, meaning "cattle-god". One of his attributes, as mentioned, were horns of bull or a ram, and probably also sheep's wool. As stated already, Veles was a god of magic, and in some folk accounts, the expression presti vunu (weaving wool) or, particularly, crnu vunu presti (weaving of black wool) stands as allusion to magical crafts. In some of surviving Koledo songs, Koledari sing they are coming along and "weaving black wool".
Thus, being a "wooly" god, Veles was considered to be a protector of shepherds, which reveals one additional trait of his enmity with Perun, who, as a giver of rain, would be god of farmers. Veles, however, did have some influence over agriculture, or at least harvest. Among many Slavic nations, most notably in Russia, a harvest custom persisted of cutting the first ear of wheat and tying it in a sort of amulet which protected the harvest from evil spirits. This was called 'tying of the beard of Veles', which also indicates Veles was imagined to be bearded. In several South Slavic languages, witty expressions such as puna šaka brade (full fist of beard) or, particularly, primiti boga za bradu ("to grab a god for [his] beard", the forgotten god in this expression most likely being a pagan Veles), allude to exceptionally good fortune and gaining of wealth.
After the advent of Christianity, Veles was split into several different characters. As a god of the Underworld and dragons, he, of course, became identified with the Devil. His more benevolent sides were transformed to several Christian saints. As a protector of cattle, he became associated with Saint Blaise, popularly known among various Slavic nations as St. Vlaho, St. Blaz, or St. Vlasiy. In Yaroslavl, for example, the first church built on the site of Veles's pagan shrine was dedicated to St Blaise, for the latter's name was similar to Veles and he was likewise considered a heavenly patron of shepherds. As mentioned already, in many Eastern Slavic folk tales, he was replaced by St. Nicholas, probably because the popular stories of the saint describe him as a giver of wealth and a sort of a trickster.
It is remarkable that Veles managed to hold so many versatile attributes in ancient Slavic mythology and was not split into more characters until the arrival of Christianity; by contrast, his opponent, Perun, was never venerated as anything more and nothing less than a god of thunder and storm, a very narrow sphere of influence compared to Veles' versatility. In other Indo-European mythologies, similar gods were schematically divided into several different deities.
- Vitomir Belaj "Hod kroz godinu, mitska pozadina hrvatskih narodnih vjerovanja i obicaja", Golden Marketing, Zagreb 1998., ISBN 953-6168-43-X
- On rudiments of pagan cults in Slavic "folk Christianity" see: Успенский Б. Филологические разыскания в области славянских древностей. Published by Moscow State University, 1982
- Клейн Л. С. Воскрешение Перуна. К реконструкции восточнославянского язычества. — Saint Petersburg: Евразия, 2004.
- Дьяконов И. М. Архаические мифы Востока и Запада. Nauka, 1990
- Boris Rybakov. Ancient Slavic Paganism. Moscow, 1981