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VELES-VOLOS . The alternative names Veles and Volos denote different aspects of a deity of the pre-Christian Slavs, the god of death and of cattle. The bifurcation in meaning must have taken place in the East Slavic area, since Volos is confined to East Slavic; in South and West Slavic, the only known form is Veles. Volos very likely derives from the older *Velsu. Some scholars (e.g., Michael Shapiro) consider Veles-Volos not as a composite figure but as distinct twin gods. It is true that the names Veles and Volos never occur together; however, both are associated with death and evil and with pastureland and cattle, as linguistic analysis suggests. Furthermore, the two aspects of Veles-Volos have close parallels in individual gods of other Indo-European pantheons, such as the Baltic Vels and Velinas, the Germanic Odin, the Indic Varuna, and the Iranian Ahura Mazdā.

Downgraded to a demon in the Christian era, Veles is known in Czech demonology of the fourteenth to sixteenth century as well as in the toponymy of the South Slavic area. The medieval Czech phrase k Velesu za more, used to denote "beyond the sea (or water)," literally means "to Veles in the otherworld."

The character and function of Veles-Volos can, to some degree, be reconstructed by linguistic analysis, especially of names of parallel deities in other Indo-European pantheons. The Lithuanian name *Velinas (now Velnias,"devil ") and the Latvian name Vels or Velis, for example, identify a Baltic god of death and the underworld (recorded as a god at the end of the eighteenth century and later described as a devil, an adversary of Perkūnas, the Lithuanian god of thunder. The Lithuanian term vėlė or velė means "shade of the dead." Other related terms include the Latvian Velu laiks and Lithuanian vėlinės ("days of the dead"), the Tocharian wäl ("to die") and walu ("dead"), and a host of Germanic relatives: Old Icelandic valr ("dead on the field of battle") and Valho̜ll (abode of warriors fallen on the field of battle), Old English wæl ("corpse left on the battlefield"), and Old Norse vollr ("meadow," i.e., "the pastureland of the departed"), a term paralleled in meaning by the Hittite wellu- (*wel-nu ).

The Indo-European root *wel- ("sight, insight, foresight") underlies the name of the Baltic deity Velinas or Velis, whose clairvoyance (by means of a single eye) is one of his chief attributes. The Old Russian "Velesov vnuk " ("grandson of Veles") is an epithet for the musician and prophetic poet Boian of the epic Slovo o polku Igoreve, and the Old Russian word v'lkhv means "sorcerer, magician, poet."

Another name for Veles is Chernobog, signifying the "black god" known to all Slavs. This name is still preserved in Slavic toponymy, and a curse invoking Chernobog is still used in the Ukraine: "May the black god kill you."

Volos is first mentioned in the Russian Primary Chronicle (c. 1111 ce), and in two tenth-century treaties with the Greeks, as skot'i' bog ("god of cattle"). The etymology of the phrase reveals connections with theriomorphism, disease, and evil spirits. The Russian word volos ("hair, fur") also refers to a parasite that lodges under the skin of human beings and animals; the disease it causes is variously called volos, volost', or vo-losti. The carrier of the disease, a worm, is also called volosets or zmeevik, from zmei ("serpent"). The related Russian words volosen and volosatik mean "evil spirit" or "devil." Medved' ("fierce beast"), a term meaning "bear" in Russian dialect, is known from literary texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is used as an epithet to describe the adversary of the prophet Elijah, the Christian successor of the Slavic thunder god, Perun.

The importance of Volos is indicated in various references to his idols. The eighteenth-century Russian collection Skazanii o postroenii grada Iaroslavlia (Legends about the Founding of Yaroslavl), first published in 1876, mentions a place where a statue of Volos once stood: "The sounds of heavy breathing, of the psaltery, and of singing could often be heard from there, and dancing could be seen." Another text in the Skazanii mentions that cattle were driven around the idol of Volos. Of great interest also is a description of how a priest, Volkhv, first offered by fire a sacrificial victim, prophesied in the name of Volos, and was then himself sacrificed to the god, a parallel of the Germanic deity Odin's sacrifice to himself.

Etymologies, historical records, and comparative studies of Indo-European mythologies allow us to reconstruct the ancient Veles-Volos as a multifaceted god who was, on the one hand, a frightening god of death and, on the other, a divine seer: a god who ruled over the magic art and over cattle, who was a steadfast protector of peaceful settlements and a stern chastiser of their violation, and who was an adversary of the thunder god.

In the Christian era, Volos became identified with the saints Blasius (Vlasii) and Nicholas (Nikola), the patrons of flocks and crops. The connection between Volos and Blasius may be based on actual and functional similarity, considering that Blasius was "the guardian of the flocks" to the Byzantines. Northern Russian icons portray Vlasii seated on a horse or on a stone, surrounded by cows, sheep, and horses. In central and northern Russia, particularly in the Yaroslavl and Novgorod districts, the cult of Vlasii was popular up to the end of the nineteenth century. On February 11, his name day, peasants did not work, thereby appealing to the god to preserve their village against epidemics of plague or cholera. Icons depicting Vlasii were placed in stables, and there was a custom of carrying the icon around each sheep, horse, and cow. In springtime, when the animals were driven out to pasture, special prayers were said: "Let the smooth lambs, the fat oxen go out playing, and let them come back hopping." The saying "Those who celebrate Saint Vlasii will always be in plenty" points to his ancient role as god of wealth.


Gimbutas, Marija. "The Lithuanian God Velnias." In Myth in Indo-European Antiquity, edited by Gerald J. Larson, pp. 8792. Berkeley, 1974.

Ivanov, Viacheslav, and V. N. Toporov. "A Comparative Study of the Group of Baltic Mythological Terms from the Root *vel-." Baltistica (Vilnius) 9 (1973).

Ivanov, Viacheslav, and V. N. Toporov. "K probleme dostovernosti pozdnikh vtorichnykh istochnikov v sviazi s issledovaniiami v oblasti mifologii: Dannye o Velese v traditsiiakh severnoi Rusi i voprosy kritiki pis'mennykh tekstov." Trudy po znakovym sistemam 6 (1973): 4682.

Jakobson, Roman. "The Slavic God Veles and His Indo-European Cognates." In Studi linguistici in onore di Vittore Pisani, edited by Giancarlo Bolognesi et al., pp. 579599. Brescia, 1969.

Marija Gimbutas (1987)

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