PĒRKONS . In Baltic languages, the proper noun Pērkons (Latv.) or Perkūnas (Lith.) corresponds exactly to the common noun meaning "thunder." There is no agreement among linguists about the word's original meaning. In earlier research the essence of the god who bears this name was determined purely through etymology. Consequently, three different schools of thought emerged, each claiming a different Indo-European root as the base.
The first school, using *perg- as the root, regarded Pērkons as the sky god who controlled rain and storm. Typologically he was then likened to the Vedic Parjanya ("rain cloud"). The second school, deriving the god's name from *pergu(o), asserted that Pērkons is linked with perkuu-s, or ozols, meaning "oak tree." Pērkons was then considered to be the god of trees, in particular the oak, which was his symbol of power. The third school claimed that Pērkons is related to the Hittite peruaš, from pirua- (perua- ), meaning "cliff" or "mountain." As a result Pērkons was regarded as the god of mountains. These various hypotheses, based only on etymology, did not give a clear conception of the true nature of this god. From these hypotheses, however, emerged the definite conclusion that the name Pērkons is derived from Proto-Indo-European.
An examination of the Pērkons cult offers valuable insights. Peter von Dusburg, in a discussion of the history of Old Prussians in the Chronicle of 1326, notes that Pērkons was worshiped. That the Latvians also recognized him as their god is demonstrated by a reference in the statutes of the Church Synod of 1428: "a tonitruo, quod deum suum appellant" ("from the thunder, which they name their god"). These older sources, however, do not give more detailed information about the nature of the cult itself. They merely contain standard condemnations of pagan worship of natural phenomena, for which Innocent III had earlier criticized the Latvians in his papal bull of 1199. Not until the seventeenth century was a specific rite from the Pērkons cult described, by the pastor Dionysius Fabricius in his Livonicae Historicae Series (1611–1620):
At times of great drought when there is no rain, neighbors gather in densely wooded hills. They slaughter a she-calf, a black goat, and a black rooster. In accordance with their sacrificial rite a great number of people gather together and hold a communal feast. They drink together and invoke Pērkons, i. e. the thunder god. After filling the first cup of beer, they ecstatically march around the bonfire three times. They then pour the beer into the fire and pray to Pērkons (Percuum) to send them rain. (Mannhardt, 1936, p. 458; author trans.)
It should be noted, as this description of the feast clearly shows, that this rite was openly performed long after these peoples had formally been christianized. The gathering of worshipers in the thick forests can be explained by the fear of reprisals from the ruling German colonial church against non-Christian traditions.
This seventeenth-century account can be supplemented with another description, written 250 years later by an eyewitness who took part in the autumn threshing celebrations:
On beginning the threshing, a rooster was slain in a niche of the open oven and a cross was painted with the rooster's blood on the oven. The meat was cooked and eaten. On completing the threshing another rooster was slain in the same spot. A vessel containing meat, brandy, and bread was placed on the oven.… On Saturday evening relatives and friends were invited to a communal feast, which ended in singing and dancing.
This description shows significant differences from the seventeenth-century account in that it contains syncretistic elements; the cross, the bread, and the brandy. Nevertheless, the feast is the same, even though Pērkons is not mentioned by name in the description.
Folk songs from the same time, however, do mention the god: "What shall we give to Pērkons for last summer's thunder? A large quantity [laste] of rye, a large quantity [laste ] of barley, and a large quantity [birkava ] of hops." This text, like the previous one, refers to a sacrificial feast after the harvest. It is a feast of thanksgiving to Pērkons. His cult thus appears to have remained strong throughout the centuries.
A bloody animal sacrifice also has a central place in the cult. There is also mention of bread and the sacral drink of the Balts, beer, which is poured into the fire. Typologically the rite appears as a sacrificial feast shared by gods and men. On the one hand it is associated with a supplication, asking for assistance during hard times; on the other hand, it is a thanksgiving for a plentiful harvest. During the thanksgiving the peasant experiences ecstatic joy because he stands in a right relation with his god and because the god, in turn, provides for him. The singing and dancing associated with the feast, which lasts well into the night, even until morning, also shows this joy. The ecstatic joy may climax in the participation of the gods in the festivities, as expressed in the following folk song: "Dievs [the Baltic god of heaven] is dancing with Pērkons; I am dancing with my brother; Pērkons has the whole earth in his possession; I have nine brothers."
The function of Pērkons is clearly defined: he is a fertility god. Hence, all etymologically based guesswork is superfluous. So also are any attempts to explain his essence and character by referring to analogical divinities in other religions. It is in this connection that Pērkons has also been regarded as a war god (he has especially been likened to Jupiter Fulminans, one of the aspects of the Roman sky god) and as a guardian of justice. Such assertions lack evidence in Baltic sources. If these and similar aspects appear to be connected with his function, then this can be explained as a later modification of ancient religious tradition, or by the influence of Christianity, which may have led to the perception of Pērkons as a slayer of demons and a guardian of morality.
Balys, Jonas. Perkunas lietuviuh liaudes tikejimuose. Kaunas, 1937. Complete folkloristic material with a critical introduction.
Biezais, Haralds. Die himmlische Götterfamilie der alten Letten. Uppsala, 1972. The only up-to-date and complete historico-phenomenological and critical study, with an extensive bibliography. See especially part 3, "Der Donner," on pages 92–179.
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. New York, 1950.
Ivanov, Vyacheslav, and Vladimir Toporov. Issledovania v oblosti slavianskih drevnostei. Moscow, 1974.
Mannhardt, Wilhelm. Lettopreussische Götterlehre. Riga, 1936. The best sourcebook on Baltic religion.
Skardzius, Pranas. "Dievas ir Perkunas." In Aidai, pp. 311–318. Chicago, 1953. A comparative linguistic analysis.
Šmits, Pēteris. Latviešu mitoloģija. (Latvian Mythology). Rīga, 1926.
Zicāns, Eduards. "Der altlettische Gott Pērkons." In In Piam memoriam A. von Bulmerincq, pp.189–217. Riga, 1938. A comparative analysis of the Latvian folkloristic material.
Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge, 1995.
Mitoloģijas enciklopēdija 2. (Encyclopedia of Mythology, vol.2.) Riga, 1994.
Haralds Biezais (1987)