Perun is the highest, most dominant god in Slavic mythology. Occupying a space akin to Zeus in Greek mythology, Perun is the god of the storms, thunder and lightning. Slavic god of thunder is considered a fearsome figure in terms of power, but like Zeus is also fatherly and is the head of the pantheon of gods in the mythology of the Slavs.
Although Perun is the equivalent of Odin in Norse mythology, his appearance is more akin to Thor instead. Boasting a long, copper beard, Perun is a very muscular, rugged man who rides a chariot pulled by a goat buck and carries either a large axe or hammer depending upon the mythological stories that are told.
Perun is not only the god of thunder and lighting, he is also the patron of soldiers and noble warriors, the ruling god and keeper of the law and the standard of male power and dominance. Perun occupies a familiar place in mythology as a powerful, temperamental god whose actions were based in part on his temper.
As with much of mythology in all cultures, the stories of Perun were meant at least in part to help explain the world in which the Slavs lived. Earthquakes, violent storms and other unpredictable acts of nature were often attributed to Perun and his fiery temper. As leader of the gods, he was the most visible example of how their power influenced the world in which the Slavs lived.
Axe of Perun
Perun’s axe is used to smite the evil and returns to his hand after being thrown. The Axe of Perun is sometimes called “hatchet amulet”, is an archaeological artifact worn as a pendant and shaped like a battle axe. It is mostly found in modern day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Scandinavia.
The axes range in length from 4 to 5.5 cm, and blade width from 2.8 to 4 cm. Bronze is the most common material of their construction. Most have been dated between the 11th and 12th century, and over 60 specimens have been collected.
Two basic designs of the axe have been found throughout Russia.
Both designs include a hole in the centre of the blade, and both have been decorated with zigzag lines, representing lightning or more likely imitating inlaid ornamentation patterns of real axes, near the edge of the blade.
The first type is a bearded axe (lower side of the blade is elongated) with a flat upper side. It resembles a battle axe. A knob-like protrusion is usually present on the lower side of the axe. These axes have been decorated with circles, believed to represent celestial bodies.
The second type is distinguished by its symmetrical shape and broad blade. Similar to the knob of the first type, the second has two horn-like protrusions diametrically opposite on the upper and lower side.
The Family of Perun
Perun is the son of Svarog and Lada whose birth was heralded with a mighty earthquake. He is the most famous of the Svarozhich brothers who rule the heavens. But Perun is also the most powerful and most temperamental of them all which may be why he was chosen to be the leader of the gods in Slavic mythology.
Even as a baby, Perun demonstrated both his power and his temper in stories where he overcame great challenges being taken to the underworld where he slept as his family searched for many years. He became a man during his slumber and when finally arisen tremors accompanied his steps. The god of lightning fought the beasts of the underworld and overcame many challenges which led him back to his heavenly home.
There, he met the daughter of the sky god, Dyje and moon goddess Divii and married her after overcoming numerous challenges. Perun began his reign as the head of the pantheon of the gods, overcoming even more challenges while maintaining his rule.
The Origins of Perun in Slavic Mythology
The myths of the Slavs go back thousands of years, but unlike the Greeks their stories were not written down until roughly the 6th century AD. As these myths and stories were gathered, Perun was the most prominent of the Slavic gods. A Byzantine historian Procopius was the first to record the triumphs of Perun as his exploits were mostly known by Slavs who lived in the eastern Europe. Interestingly enough, Slavs who lived in the western areas of Europe did not mention Perun directly by name, but there are plenty of references that indicate he was well known in their mythology.
By 980, Prince Vladimir the Great erected five statues of pagan gods as his palace in Kiev with Perun being the most prominent among them. From there, the mythology of Perun became more well known as stories developed over the centuries when Slavs began coalescing their power in Russia and Eastern Europe. Stories and statues began appearing across Eastern Europe and Russia which lasted unabated for a short time until the arrival of Christianity.
The Worship of Perun
For Slavs, the powerful god invoked many statues honoring his name. In fact, idols made of oak trees or stone were quite common in pre-Christian Slavic culture in the image of Perun. The oak seems to have been the most prominent form in which images were carved. Many Slav villages would carve an image of Perun into the most prominent oak tree that was nearby where festivals were often held.
Many shrines still exist today located in the foothills, tops of mountains or in sacred groves of ancient oak trees. Wherever there was a general place to worship, images of Perun could be found. Quite often, sacrifices of animals were held as well in offerings to the god. In addition to the oak tree, the day of Thursday and the metal tin were also associated with Perun.
The Rise of Christianity
Like all myths generated by the Greeks, Slavs, Romans and those living in Europe, the arrival of Christianity dampened the worship of these pagan gods over time. As part of the process, the Eastern Orthodox Church actually incorporated elements of Perun into a new Christian saint, Elijah the Thunderer who was a combination of Perun and Elijah, the prophet in the Old Testament. Elijah the Thunderer is described as riding a flaming chariot through heaven which is a close approximation of the old Slavic myth.
For Slavs in the western part of Europe, St. Michael the Archangel acted as a suitable replacement as a commander of heavenly armies that conquered and vanquished the Devil. By incorporating some of the Slavic mythology, both Catholic and Orthodox churches managed to bring in the Slavs to their faith.
Today, the rich, Slavic mythology that describes Perun and the Slavic gods consist of rich, fertile stories of great struggle and ultimate triumph.