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Veles – The Slavic Shapeshifting God of Land, Water and Underground

The iconic guardian of nature and at times a evil draconic rival to Perun

Photo © Slavorum / source: slavorum.org

Veles or Volos is the Slavic god of fields, pastures, forests or crops, cattle, and animals. His animal form is a bear, while in Christianity he took over the role of Saint Basil. Veles alternative name is the Lord of the Forest and he is credited with a wide range of characteristics.

veles symbol
Neo-pagan Symbol of Slavic God Veles

Slavic people believed that this god is often shown in a form of a bear, even though Veles is capable of transforming into other animals too. But, in later writings, this god is presented as a demon, where he lost his old functions and then linked to the devil and the underworld. Fact is that mythology among early Slavs also developed as their own turbulent lives, so naturally even the gods changed during ages in the eyes of the common folk. When their crops would die out due severe droughts they created a myth how Veles stole the heavenly cows and rains stopped. Even thought Veles with no doubt was considered a “mischievous” God, he was still a subject to worship and respect. It was him that protected farmers cows from plague or improved their crops and land fertility. Average people didn’t want to interfere in mythological fights between Veles and Perun, but in fact worshiped them both as major forces of this world, often according to their own needs.

Etymology and origin of name “Veles”

There are two different versions of names – Volos and Veles. Back in 1979 Max Vasmer has discussed the fact that the origin of the name of Veles derives from old-Bulgarian word for “big”.

Veles appears in: Old Russian it’s name is know from a poem about Igor’s raid (around 1200). Also Balkans are full of toponyms such as town Veles in Macedonia, Greek Βελεσσα and Albanian Veles.

Volos in turn appears as a Christian saint in Laurentian chronicle in 907 year, and also in other lists of saints, and is associated with Saint Blaise (serbo-croatian: Sveti Blaž), patron saint of animals.

Indo-European etymology of the name is unknown, but there is a suggested similarity with Val, Indra’s enemy in the Vedas; and Wales a demon in the Baltic mythology; in Norse mythology, the deity called Vǫlsi.

It is most likley Veles as a name originates from the Indo-European root * wel = “wool“, which would be logical as he is the protector of cattle.

The Lord of the Forest, Nature and Waters

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Veles is the son of a cow Zemun and Rod. He is presented as a horned, strong young man, but also as a gray-haired old man with a white beard and a shepherd’s staff (here he represents the patron of shepherds and wisdom).

Slavs had respect for Veles because they saw in him a god from whom they sought survival. He was in charge of the crops, the fields, and the animals, both wild and domestic. The whole community depended on Veles. The bear was a forest emperor in Slavic culture, and Veles, as the God of the beasts, had its form.

The rivalry and conflicts between Veles and Perun

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According to many legends, Veles is the sworn enemy of Perun, the god of thunder. One legend says that the Veles stole Perun flocks, women, and followers, so there was a conflict. According to another legend, Veles wanted Dodol, Perun’s wife. Veles tendency to deceive can be seen just from these two myths.

There is also a third myth where the battle between Veles and Perun is actually the immortal battle between the earth and sky since Veles is on the earth and Perun is in the sky. Even though Perun wins the fight, Veles always appears again.

According to one legend, after Perun’s victory Veles was banished to the underworld, where he imposes his authority. There is a belief linked to the Veles and Perun’s fight that talks about the arrival of chaos and victory over chaos. It was believed that during the winter Veles’ power, and thus chaos, strengthens, and before the summer he gets defeated and returned to the underworld.

Unique God in Indo-European mythologies

Velíz,_Veles,_hlava

Only in Celtic mythology, there is a god similar to Veles, a god called Cernunnos (he is the god of the Druids, nature, and horned animals). Cernunnos symbol is a horned snake and Slavic people once saw Veles like that.

Veles has a wife and her name is Devana. She was the goddess of the hunt and the queen of forests and forest creatures, just like her husband.

In some Slavic tribes Veles was seen as the creator of the world and the impact of Veles was undoubtedly great, and his cult more than strong. Next to Perun (even though they are enemies) the only Slavic deity who is respected by all Slavic people. This is evidenced by a large number of cities, carrying Veles’ name.

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