Perun, sole Lord of the Universe
The nature of Perun
In the 6th century, the Greek historian Procopius wrote of Perun:
He is the god who wields the thunderbolt, and they, the Slavs, recognise him as the sole lord of the universe.
Perun’s name means thunder and lightning bolt in the various Slavic languages. His name originates in the very earliest times of the Aryan race. It has the same root as Parjanya, which is one of the names of Indra, the Hindu god of thunder and war. Other variants of his name in Slavic languages are Piorun, Perunu, Pyerun, Peron, Perin and Parom.The Lithuanians worshipped him by the Finno-Ugric name of Perkaunas. Like Indra, Perun is god of thunder and war.
It is interesting to note that the Baltic Slavs saw Thursday as being Perun’s day and called it Perendan. This parallels the Norse dedication of the same day to their thunder god, Thor, which of course is seen also in the English name: Thursday (= Thor’s day).
Given Perun’s pre-eminence among the Slavic deities, it is important to understand, though, that he has two aspects similarly to the Hindu god Shiva Nataraj, who dances the universe into destruction, so as to dance it back, renewed, into new life.
Perun is not just an angry god of storms and war, hurling destructive lightning bolts from the sky and leading Slav hordes into bloody battle. In his association with rain and the electrical energy of lighting, Perun was also worshipped by the old Slavs as a creator god of life and fertility.
The oak god
Perun is associated with the oak, a tree that is a universal symbol of strength. The Serbs use the word “grm” for one variety of oak (nb, if you’re wondering how to pronounce this word, the r is used as a vowel and rolled very strongly: grrrrr-m). The same root is used in the verb “grmeti”, to thunder.
There are no records of any temples dedicated to Perun. Given his association with the oak, it is quite likely he was frequently worshipped in oak groves. Oaks struck by lightning were particularly venerated as being linked with Perun.
To my mind’s eye, this oak tree shown below, which has been blasted by lightning, could almost be a statue of Perun.
Other images and associations
Perun is portrayed riding across the sky in his fiery chariot drawn by horses of fire. The rumbling of the chariot’s wheels is heard on Earth as thunder. He uses a rainbow as a bow, shooting fiery arrows, which turn into lightning bolts. Like Thor, he is also frequently portrayed wielding an axe. The number 6 is attributed to Perun, thus the six-spoked wheel is his symbol. The iris was seen as Perun’s flower, possibly because it has six petals and is purple, the colour of a stormy sky. Its name in Croatian and Serbian is perunika (= little Perun).
As a storm god, Perun is associated not only with rain, but also with fire. It is said that six eternal fires were kept blazing around his statues by devotees. He is also said to hurl golden apples into the sky, where they produce lightning. These attributions signify that Perun was also seen as a solar god, which fits with his other aspect of life-giver.
Neopagan image of Perun
Perun and goddesses of the Slavs
Perun is sometimes associated with Zorya, goddess of the dawn. His influence on her is another sign of his warlike nature. Zorya is usually portrayed as a gentle girl, who opens the gates of the palace when the Sun rides out in the morning. In association with Perun, she transforms into a warrior maiden and protector of warriors.
Mater Sva is described in various sources as Perun’s mother, wife or messenger. Her name translates directly as Mother of All, but some also call her Mater Slava (Mother of Glory) or Ptica od Sunca (Bird of the Sun). The ancient Slavs saw her as encouraging warriors, calling them to battle, singing of their deeds and helping them by warning them of the enemy’s approach and giving strategic advice. When a warrior died in battle, she appeared as a Valkyrie-like figure to carry him off to eternal bliss in Perun’s realm.
In other stories, Perun’s wife is Diva-Dodola, the rain goddess. One story tells of how Veles, god of cattle, magic and the underworld, seduced Dodola during the celebrations of her marriage with Perun. Another speaks of Veles stealing Dodola and Perun’s people and cattle. In both cases, Perun fought and defeated Veles.
Dodola - Peperuda
Fights with serpents
The conflict between Perun and Veles is a theme that is often repeated and is used in pictures and statues. Often these depict Veles as a serpent, as can be seen in the image by Max Presnyakov above, where Perun is treading on the serpent.
Another story has Perun being abducted and placed into a deathly sleep by another chthonic serpent, the Skiper. He is freed by Mater Sva, who brings him the water of life, and he goes on ultimately to defeat the Skiper after facing a series of trials. A third story has him defeating a 3-headed serpent that rose out of the Black Sea and abducted Diva-Dodola, while Perun was asking her father for her hand in marriage.
The image of a god or hero fighting a serpent (or dragon) is found in many mythologies and legends. It is often considered to represent the battle against the force of pure chaos. There is a parallel here between Perun and Set (Sutek), the Ancient Egyptian god of desert storms and destruction. Although later demonised as the killer of Osiris, in earlier times Set was often portrayed as the one who vanquished the Apep serpent, symbol of total chaos. Here, therefore, in the case both of Set and of Perun, we see a “destroyer” god playing a vital part in saving creation from falling victim to chaos.
Hymn to Perun
The video below is a modern hymn in praise of Perun by the Belarusian pagan folk-metal band Kamaedzitca. It shows many images of the god and also has some explanatory English text.
Perun in Kiev
Kiev, a city in what is now the Ukraine was a major cult centre of Perun. It is known that a statue of the god stood on a hill outside Kiev. The prince of Kiev served as his priest.
In the years 1112-1113, Nestor, a monk of Kiev, used ancient sources to compile his “Tale of Bygone Years” (often referred to as Nestor’s Chronicle). This included legends of the origins of Russia and the princes of Kiev.
Nestor writes of Olga, one of the first rulers of Kiev:
She led her warriors into battle; and according to the Russian law they swore by their arms and invoked Pyerun. Igor, prince of Kiev, climbed the hill where the image of Pyerun stood and there placed his arms, his shield...
However, in 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity and ordered the statue to be thrown into the river Dnieper.
G. Alexinsky, in his chapter on Slavonic mythology in the New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, maintains there are no records of any opposition to the tearing down of the Kiev statue. On this basis, he argues that the worship of Perun was confined to the warrior elite and that the god had no resonance with common people. He maintains that the worship of Perun died away. As we shall see below, that was not the case.
Two statues of Perun were again raised in Kiev in recent years, but as reported on the forums of Pagan Federation International, both were destroyed by vandals or religious zealots in October 2012
Perun in later history
Against Alexinsky’s assertion that people stopped worshipping Perun, we have the evidence that Perun’s name has survived in place names, for example, Perun's peak, and Perun's coast in Russia, Perunja ves in Slovenia, Perin mountain in Bulgaria, as well as in the Serbian and Croatian name perunika for the wild iris and the name Perendan (Thursday) used by the Baltic Slavs.
Furthermore, the German theologian David Fabricius, writing as late as 1610, describes ceremonies in honour of Perun, which were performed in times of drought:
During a drought, when there has not been rain, they worship Perkons in thick forests on hills and sacrifice to him a black calf, a black goat, and a black cock. When the animals are killed, then, according their custom, the people come together from all the vicinity, to eat and drink there together. They pay homage to Perkons by first pouring him beer, which is then brought around the fire, and at last pour it in this fire, asking Perkons to give them rain.
Perun and Elijah
The Christian church tried to suppress the worship of Perun by associating him with the Devil. Even today, Slovakians say “Do Paroma!”, meaning “Go to Hell!”.
Curiously though, within the Christian context, Perun became associated with the prophet Elijah. Possibly the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire formed a mental image similar to the one the Slavs had of their god.
This association can be seen, for example in a Serbian song, which also mentions Perun's wife, Dodola. The English verse is my translation of the Serbian words:
Da zarosi sitna rosa,
Oj Dudula mili Boze!
Oj Ilija daj Bože daj!
Oj Ilija moj Perune!
Daj Boze daj, daj Ilija daj!
Let the fine dew fall,
Oh Dodola, dear God!
Oh Elijah, give unto us Oh God!
Oh Elijah, my Perun!
Give unto us, Oh God, Oh Elijah, give unto us!
The lightning bolt in the image below further highlights the association made between Perun and Elijah. This illustration was produced in 1866 by Gustave Doré for The English Bible and refers to the story of the prophet featured in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 1:3-14.
With the fall of Communism, paganism is again finding favour among some Slavs who do not wish to place themselves under the renewed yoke of the Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches. I happened to be researching Slavic mythology and paganism during the period of the conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia. It was disheartening to find Internet forums filled with invocations asking Perun to smash the enemy. Let us hope it is Perun as giver of life and fertility that will prevail.
Esperanta (author) from Rhondda Fawr, Cymru on November 08, 2014:
I know, WA. I'm thinking of making a small series about them here :)
Krys W from Abertawe, Cymru on November 08, 2014:
Wow! Great article. There's not much written about the gods of the Slavs.