The other day I happened to stumble across the Slavic god, Veles, and immediately knew (since I come from western Slavic ancestry) I just had to do a post about this intriguing mythical character. You may be asking yourself, just as I did—who is Veles, anyway?
As I found out, there is much to Veles, and I will not go into too much detail, but I will give you an overview. Veles is a Slavic god linked with many things: cattle, serpents, dragons, the underworld, magic, sorcery, musicians, wealth, trickery, travelers. He was also known as Volos, although some etymologists believe Veles and Volos may have been two separate gods.
Data indicates that Veles (or Volos) existed in all Slavic traditions, which is not true of all the Slavic pagan gods. In the earliest and most significant record of Volos, he is the god of cattle and peasants, and if you break an oath with Volos, you can expect to be punished with a disease. (In contrast, Perun, who is also acknowledged in this archetypal record—called The Primary Chronicle—is illustrated as the ruling god and a god of war who punished oath-breakers by death in battle.)
What would a god such as Veles look like? Since the word veles means “hairy”, he is commonly believed to have been wooly and bearded. In addition to his long beard, he is depicted as partially serpentine with the horns of a ram, bull, or ox.
But enough of just who Veles, or Volos, was. Let’s get to the Slavic storm myth. Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov, two philologists studying early Slavic folk tales and songs in addition to Indo-European mythologies, pieced together a story about the god of thunder in a battle against a huge serpent or a dragon: the Slavic storm myth.
In the Slavic storm myth, Veles appears as a serpent/dragon and challenges Perun, the god of war and thunder, by stealing his wife, son, or (most commonly) cattle. Taking the shape of a giant serpent, Veles then slithers out of the underworld caves and coils himself around and up the Slavic world tree. (The Slavic world tree is portrayed as a large oak tree, which separates the world into three parts: Prav, or the heavens, Yav, or the earth, and Nav, or the underworld.) Veles slithers up the tree toward the sky and Perun’s heavenly domain. Perun wreaks vengeance upon Veles for the possessions he has stolen. Veles flees, racing down the tree and either transforming himself into or hiding behind people, animals, or trees. Eventually, Perun finds and kills him. With Veles death, whatever he has stolen is released and returned to the earth in the form of rain.
Some variations claim it is when Veles wriggles up the tree to steal Perun’s possessions that Perun would chase him back down, shooting lightning bolts to the earth as he did so, and that Perun would not kill Veles, but only either chase him back to the underworld or banish him.
Whichever version you choose, this storm myth explained to ancient Slavic peoples the reason for the changing of the seasons; dry periods were viewed as chaotic—Perun not yet having defeated Veles. Storms and lightning were the supernatural battles between the two. The resulting rain at the end of the battle signified Perun’s triumphant defeat of Veles, which returned the world to its proper order. And although Veles would come to be viewed as the devil or a demon in some Christian traditions, the epic battle between Perun and Veles was not interpreted by early peoples as a struggle between good and evil.
Going back to the Slavic storm myth, Veles’ demise never lasted, for he would reform himself into a serpent, shed his skin, and return in a new form. Thus, the Slavic storm myth is cyclical.
There are many other aspects to Veles that I cannot come close to covering here all in one blog post. But he is so interesting that I promise to return to Veles and tell you more about him in the future!