Veles (Volos), Slavic God of Cattle and the Underworld

Slavic home altar with portrait of Veles
Slavic home altar with portrait of Veles.

Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wojslaw Brozyna

Veles, or Volos, is the name of the pre-Christian Slavic God of Cattle, who in addition to his role as protector of domestic animals, was also the God of the Underworld and the bitter enemy of Perun, the Slavic God of Thunder.

Key Takeaways: Veles

  • Alternate Names: Volos, Weles Vlasii, St. Blaise or Blasius or Vlas
  • Equivalents: Hermes (Greek), Velinas (Baltic), Odin (Norse), Varuna (Vedic) 
  • Epithets: God of Cattle, God of the Underworld
  • Culture/Country: Pre-Christian Slavic 
  • Primary Sources: The Tale of Igor's Campaign, Old Russian Chronicles
  • Realms and Powers: Protector of farmers, the god of water and the underworld, the bitter enemy of Perun, a wizard; a guarantor of human treaties; clairvoyance and prophecies; traders and merchants

Veles in Slavic Mythology

The earliest reference to Veles is in the Rus-Byzantine Treaty of 971, in which the signers must swear by Veles' name. Violators of the treaty are warned of a menacing punishment: they will be killed by their own weapons and become "yellow as gold," which some scholars have interpreted as "cursed with a disease." If so, that would imply a connection to the Vedic god Varuna, also a cattle god who could send diseases to punish miscreants. 

Veles is associated with a wide variety of powers and protectors: he is associated with poetry and wisdom, the lord of the waters (oceans, seas, ships, and whirlpools). He is both the hunter and protector of cattle and the lord of the underworld, a reflection of the Indo-European concept of the netherworld as a pasture. He is also related to an ancient Slavic cult of the deceased soul; the ancient Lithuanian term "welis" means "dead" and "welci" means "dead souls." 

Appearance and Reputation 

Veles by Marek Hapon
Depiction of Veles. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 / Mhapon 

Although few images exist, Veles is generally portrayed as a bald human man, sometimes with bull horns on his head. In the epic creation battle between Velos and Perun, however, Veles is a serpent or dragon lying in a nest of black wool or on a black fleece beneath the World Tree; some scholars have suggested he was a shape-shifter.

In addition to domestic horses, cows, goats, and sheep, Veles is associated with wolves, reptiles, and black birds (ravens and crows). 

Cosmic Battle Between Perun and Veles

The best-known myth of Veles is found in several versions, or fragments of versions, from the various cultures claiming descent from the Kievan Rus'. The tale is a creation myth, in which Veles abducts Mokosh (the Goddess of Summer and consort of Perun, God of Thunder). Perun and his enemy battle for the universe under a huge oak, Perun's holy tree, similar to both Greek and Norse (Yggdrasil) mythologies. The battle is won by Perun, and afterward, the waters of the world are set free and flowing.  

Separating the Human and Nether Worlds

A second creation myth associated with Veles is the formation of the boundary between the underworld and the human world, a result of a treaty forged between Veles and a shepherd/magician. 

In the treaty, the unnamed shepherd pledges to sacrifice his best cow to Veles and keep many prohibitions. Then he divides the human world from the wild underworld led by Veles, which is either a furrow plowed by Veles himself or a groove across the road carved by the shepherd with a knife which the evil powers cannot cross. 

Post-Christian Changes

There are many possibly recognizable vestiges of Veles remaining in the Slavic mythology after Vladimir the Great brought Christianity to the Rus' in 988. Velia remains a feast of the dead in old Lithuanian, celebrating the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead, with Veles operating as a role of guiding souls to the underworld. 

The battle between Perun (Ilija Muromets or St. Elias) and Veles (Selevkiy) is found in many different forms, but in later stories, instead of gods, they are complementary figures separated from one another by a furrow plowed by Christ, who converts them. Veles is also likely represented by St. Vlasii, depicted in Russian iconography as surrounded by sheep, cows, and goats.

Sources 

  • Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. "Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend." Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Print.
  • Dragnea, Mihai. "Slavic and Greek-Roman Mythology, Comparative Mythology." Brukenthalia: Romanian Cultural History Review 3 (2007): 20–27. Print.
  • Golema, Martin. "Medieval Saint Ploughmen and Pagan Slavic Mythology." Studia Mythologica Slavica 10 (2007): 155–77. Print.
  • Ivankovic, Milorad. "New Insights on Slavic God Volos?/Veles? From a Vedic Perspective." Studia Mythologica Slavica 22 (2019): 55–81. Print.
  • Kalik, Judith, and Alexander Uchitel. Slavic Gods and Heroes. London: Routledge, 2019. Print.
  • Lurker, Manfred. "A Dictionary of Gods, Goddesses, Devils and Demons." London: Routledge, 1987. Print.
  • Lyle, Emily B. "Time and the Indo-European Gods in the Slavic Context." Studia Mythologica Slavica 11 (2008): 115–16. Print.
  • Ralston, W.R.S. "The Songs of the Russian People, as Illustrative of Slavonic Mythology and Russian Social Life." London: Ellis & Green, 1872. Print.
  • Zaroff, Roman. "Organized Pagan Cult in Kievan Rus’. The Invention of Foreign Elite or Evolution of Local Tradition?" Studia Mythologica Slavica (1999). Print.