Perun: Slavic Pagan God of War, Thunder and Storms

Also: Perom; Peron; Pikker; Piorun; Pyerun the god of thunder and rain, known as Perkonis in Prussia, Perkons in Latvia, Perkunas in Lithuania, Perusan in Bulgaria, Peron (“curse”) in Slovakia, and Perun in Russia and the Czech lands.

His name is possibly cognate with that of Paranjanya, an epithet of the Hindu storm god Indra.

Perun’s powers and place in Slavic pagan mythology

The chief god of the pagan Russians was Perun, whose wooden idol, set by Prince Vladimir on a hill before his palace at Kiev in 980, had a silver head and a golden beard.

Vladimir’s uncle, Dobrynya, erected a similar image in Novgorod on the river Volkhov or near Lake Il’men’, around which six eternal fires burned. The inhabitants of the city sacrificed to this statue of Perun.

Regarded as the lord of the universe, Perun lived in the sky and had absolute control over the weather. When he was angry, he caused thunderstorms and sent lightning to strike down people who had offended him. Perun and two other ancient gods, Khors and Mokosh, together form a trinity.

Belemnite fossils, which formed around the arrow-like internal bone of a creature similar to the cuttlefish, traditionally were regarded by those who found them as missiles flung down by Perun, and they were thus called “thunder arrows.”

Perun’s thunderbolts also were considered a potent fertility symbol because they were thought to awaken the earth in spring from its death-like winter sleep.

God of war, protector of soldiers

God of war as well as thunder, Perun was believed to ride across the sky in an iron chariot pulled by an enormous billy goat and to carry a bow and arrows as well as a heavy cudgel, a spear, and a battle-ax that always returned to his hand after it was thrown.

The protector of soldiers, the god could bestow victory on those he favored. For this reason, when military or commercial treaties were concluded, it was by their naked swords and by Perun that the Russians swore to keep their word.

God that upholds treaties and destroys those who break them

Perun was held in high honor by the Russians. In his name they swore not to violate their compacts with other nations, and when Prince Igor was about to make a treaty with the Byzantines in 945, he summoned the envoys in the morning and betook himself with them to a hill where Perun’s statue stood.

Laying aside their armor and their shields, Igor and those of his people who were pagans took a solemn oath before the god while the Christian Russians did likewise in the church of St. Iliya (Elias), the formula directed against those who should violate the treaty being:

“Let them never receive aid either from God or from Perun; let them never have protection from their shields; let them be destroyed by their own swords, arrows, and other weapons; and let them be slaves throughout all time to come.”

How Perun was worshipped, sacrifices and festivals

Very much an exclusive deity, Perun had no priests, his rites being performed by princes and military leaders. However, the common populace did regard him as necessary to their everyday existence, for without his intervention every morning, Darkness would hold the Sun prisoner in a cell whose door was impregnable to everything but Perun’s lightning.

Cockerels and other animals were offered as votives to Perun, and human sacrifices in his honor also were common. One recorded example of the latter was a Viking living in Kiev who was chosen by Vladimir I to be the sacrificial victim following a successful raid. The Viking, a Christian, refused to be the votive for a pagan god, but he was nonetheless sacrificed as Vladimir I had ordered.

Perun was especially honored in pre-Christian times at a spring festival where young maidens would dance themselves to death in his honor, a practice that later became the inspiration for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Over time, the rite was modified to become a ceremonial ring-dance in which all the virgins of a village or a nomadic group took part.

In many old Russian manuscripts of the twelfth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries mention is made of Perun in connection with other Slavic deities, such as Chors, Volos, Vila, Rod, and Rozanica, but nothing certain is known about his worship.

Christianity replaces cult of Perun

In 988, when Vladimir I made the political decision to accept Christianity as part of a pact with the Byzantine emperor Basil II, Vladimir ordered that all the pagan idols be destroyed.

Beating & destoying Perun’s statues and idols

The statue of Perun that stood outside Vladimir I’s palace in Kiev, was tied to a horse’s tail and was dragged down to a brook where twelve men were ordered to beat it with metal rods.

They beat Perun’s statue not because the wood was believed to feel any pain, but because the demon which had deceived men must be disgraced. Finally, the statue was cast into the waters of the Dnieper.

As the idol was taken to the Dnieper, the pagans wept, for they had not yet been baptized; but when it was finally thrown into the river, Vladimir gave the command: “If it stops, thrust it from the banks until it has passed the rapids; then let it alone.”

This order was carried out, and no sooner had the idol passed through the rapids than it was cast upon the sands which after that time were called “Perun’s Sands” ( Perunya Ren).

Where the statue once stood Vladimir built a church in honor of St. Basil; but it was not until the end of the eleventh century that Perun’s worship finally disappeared from the land.

Similarly the pagan idols of Novgorod were destroyed by Archbishop Akim Korsunyanin in 989, and the command went forth that Perun should be cast into the Volkhov.

Binding the image with ropes, they dragged it through the mire to the river, beating it with rods and causing the demon to cry out with pain.

In the morning a man dwelling on the banks of the Pidba (a small stream flowing into the Volkhov) saw the idol floating toward the shore, but he thrust it away with a pole, saying, “Now, Perunisce [‘Little Perun,’ a contemptuous diminutive], you have had enough to eat and to drink; be off with you!”

Even though Christianity was the new official faith in Russia, Christian missionaries found it enormously difficult to stamp out worship of this king of the gods.

In Novgorod he was apparently tolerated well into the Christian era, as records show that the statue of Perun was solemnly flogged each year to rid it of demonic forces.

Replacing Perun with the Saint Elijah

In other areas Perun was simply amalgamated with the prophet Elijah—or Ilya, as he was known in Russia—because according to the Old Testament, Elijah shared many of Perun’s powers, including the ability to call down rain or fire from heaven.

Because of this amalgamation, some say Perun became Il’ya Muromets, the bogatyr’ [Slavic equivalent of knight’s errant], although separate legends of Perun and Ilya Muromets appear to have sprung up side by side.

In the Christian period the worship of Perun was transferred to St. Iliya (Elias ) ; and, as we have already seen, Nestor tells how the Christian Russians took oath in the church of St. Iliya, while the pagans swore by Perun.

On July 20 St. Iliya’s Day is kept with great reverence in Russia to the present time; in some places they still cling to the ancient custom of preparing a feast and slaughtering bulls, calves, lambs, and other animals after consecrating them in church; and it is considered a great sin not to partake of such banquets.

The Serbians call St, Iliya Gromovnik or Gromovit (“the Thunderer”) and pray to him as the dispenser of good harvests. Among the Southern Slavs Tlijevo, Tlinden (“St. Iliya’s Day”) is most reverently celebrated; no man does any work in the fields at that time, and no woman thinks of weaving or spinning.

He who dared to labour then would make St. Iliya angry and could not expect him to help in garnering the crops; on the contrary, the Saint would slay him with his thunderbolt.

In the Rhodope Mountains the festival is kept on a lofty summit, and a bull or a cow is killed and prepared for the solemn banquet. All this is doubtless nothing less than a survival of the feasts that, long before, were celebrated in honor of Perun.

Origin of the name Perun

The word “Perun” is derived from the root per- (“to strike”) with the ending -un, denoting the agent of an action; and the name is very appropriate for one who was considered the maker of thunder and lightning, so that Perun was, in the first place, the god of thunder, “the Thunderer,” like the Zeus of the Greeks.

The old Bulgarian version of the Alexander-romance actually renders the Greek Zeus as Perun; and in the apocryphal Dialogue of the Three Saints Vasiliy, when asked, “By whom was thunder created?” replies, “There are two angels of thunder: the Greek Perun and the Jew Chors”, thus clearly pointing to the former as the originator of thunder .

Though history proves only that the worship of Perun existed among the Russians, there are, nevertheless, data to show that it was known among other Slavs as well, the most important evidence being the fact that the word perun is a very common term for thunder ( pjeron , piorun , parom , etc.).

Locations and other deities named after Perun

In addition to this numerous local names in Slavic countries remind us of Perun.

In Slovenia there is a Perunja Ves and a Perunji Ort; in Istria and Bosnia many hills and mountains go by the name of Perun; in Croatia there is a Peruna Dubrava, and in Dalmatia a mountain called Perun; while a Perin Planina occurs in Bulgaria.

Local names, such as Peruny and Piorunow in Poland, Perunov Dub in Little Russia, or Perun and Peron among the Elbe Slavs, are further proof that not only the name, but also the worship, of Perun was known in these regions.

It is even believed that some appellations of the pagan deities of the Elbe Slavs, such as Porenutius, Prone, Proven, etc ., may be closely connected with Perun, being, in fact, merely corruptions of the original name, due to foreign chronicles; and in this connection special attention should be called to Helmold’s mention of a great oak grove on the way from Stargard to Lubeck as sacred to the god Proven.

Sources:

Mike Dixon Kennedy, Encyclopedia of Slavic Myth and Legend

Jan Machal, The Mythology of all races, Volume III, Slavic Section

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