Perun through history

Of all historic records describing Slavic gods, those mentioning Perun are the most numerous. As early as 6th century, he was mentioned in De Bellum Gothicum, a historical source written by the Byzantine historian Procopius. A short note describing beliefs of a certain South Slavic tribe states they acknowledge that one god, creator of lightning, is the only lord of all: to him do they sacrifice an ox and all sacrificial animals. While the name of the god is not mentioned here explicitly, the fact that word Perun in a number of Slavic languages today simply means "thunder" or "lightning bolt" suggests this was a reference of him.

Perun is mentioned in the Rus' Primary Chronicle, a history of early Kievan Rus. Together with a god named Volos he is sworn upon in peace agreements between Slavic overlords and Byzantine emperors. Here he is mentioned as a god of war and nobility, who punishes oath breakers with death in battle. In 980, when prince Vladmir the Great came to throne of Kiev, he erected statues of six or seven pagan gods in front of his palace. Perun was chief among these, represented with a silver head (hair) and a golden moustache and in some accounts, a golden mouth. Vladimir's uncle Dobrinja also had a shrine of Perun established in his city of Novgorod. After the Christianization of Kievan Rus, this place became a monastery, which, quite remarkably, continued to bear the name of Perun. Vladimir, The last pagan prince of Kiev, was baptized in AD 988. Afterwards tore down the idol, it was tied to a horses tail and dragged to the Dnieper. Amid much weeping it was then tossed in as men with poles made sure that he was not washed ashore or pulled out. The statue was ordered to be floated down the river "past the rapids," after which point Vladimir said he didn't care what happened to it. When the statue was past the rapids, it immediately came to a stop on the sandy shore, which from then on was referred to as Perunya Ren or Perun's sands.

Reference to Perun is perhaps made in a short note in Helmod's Chronica Slavorum, written in latter half of the 12th century, which states (quite similary to Procopius some six centuries earlier) that Slavic tribes, even though they worship many various gods, all agree there is a supreme god in heaven which rules over all other on earth. This could be a reference to Perun, but since he is not named, nor any of his chief attributes (thunder or lightning) mentioned, we cannot be certain.

As late as the first half of the twentieth century, in Bulgaria and Macedonia, peasants performed a certain ceremony meant to induce rain. A central figure in the rite was a young girl called Perperuna, a name clearly related to Perun. At the same time the association of Perperuna with rain, shows conceptual similarities with an Indian god Parjanya. There was a strong Slavic penetration of Albania, Greece and Romania, between the sixth and tenth centuries. Not surprisingly the folklore of northern Greece also knows Perperuna, Albanians know Pirpir?n? and so the Romanians have their Perperona. Also, in a certain Bulgarian folk riddle the word "peru?an" is a substitute for the Bulgarian word " " (grmotevitsa) for the thunder. Moreover, the name of Perun is also commonly found in Southern Slavic toponymy. There are places called: Perun, Perunac, Perunovac, Perunika, Peruni?ka Glava, Peruni Vrh, Perunja Ves, Peruna Dubrava, Perunu?a, Peru?ice, Perudina and Perutovac.

In addition, the Eastern Slavs, promised to uphold treaties with the Byzantines by invoking Perun in 907, 945 and 971. The Perun idol stood in Kiev, already by 945, when prince Igor swore to be true to the treaty at the shrine.

But there are more accounts and other evidence showing that the cult was widespread among the ordinary people and in various forms, survived christianization. It is worth noting certain passage in the "Russian Primary Chronicle". It stated that when the Perun idol and its sanctuary was destroyed, the people cried , while, according to the Chronicle of Novgorod, assault on the Perun shrine in Novgorod caused serious uprising and bloody fighting in the city. Surely, both cases implied that it was a well established people's cult.

The survival of worship well into the Christian era is also well attested. The following accounts strongly demonstrate the popularity of the cult among the ordinary people. In a Russian apocrypha of the 12th century, known as (Hozhdyene Boguroditsi Po Mukam), Perun and other gods were mentioned.

A fourteenth century source known as (Slovo Grigoriya) - "The Word of Gregory", says that in remote areas pagans still prayed to Perun. . In the late eighteenth century Russia an ecclesiatic ruling had forbidden the singing of Christian prayers in front of an oak tree. And it has to be remembered that the oak tree was closely associated with the cult of Perun. Also, an interesting custom was reported near Novgorod, as late as the early twentieth century. Here many travellers or boatsmen, sailing the Volkhov river, would cast a coin into the water, at the spot where Perun shrine was excavated in 1950's.

Finally, after Christianization the cult merged and was transformed into veneration of Saint Elias. This happened most likely because of the Old Testament which credited Saint Elias with the ability to bring rain and thunderstorms. Thus through these means, an obscure Christian saint became a major celebrity in Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy. In the later Christian iconography of Saint Elias, he appears like Perun traversing the sky in the chariot of fire or riding on the horse. He has been also associated with thunders, arrows and oaks. In the early twentieth century, in the north-east of Russia, the following celebration was reported. On the 20th of July (August 2), Saint Elias day, a cow was slaughtered and the meat prepared by males. It was then distributed in the church and eaten by the whole congregation. This custom, evidently not being Christian, resembles the sacrificial killing of an animal and the communal consumption of the meat.

The veneration of St. Elias with its mixture of pagan and Christian elements is one of the best arguments for the purely Slavic character of Perun and of the cult being widespread among all sections of Eastern Slavic society. Put simply, if Perun was only a deity of the elite and was elevated to prominence at Kiev only for a few years, ordinary people would not have retained the cult for centuries. Neither would the Orthodox Church be forced to accept and tolerate certain evidently pagan beliefs and practices.

The name of Perun also appears in Eastern Slavic toponymy. The most famous place is Peryn' near Novgorod, where the remnants of open site shrine were unearthed by archaeologists , and there was a place on the Dneper known as "Perun's Shoal".

Perun was also a deity of the Western Slavs, although the cult did not show up so prominently. In all Slavic languages, except Polish and Kashubian, the term for thunderbolt is "grom". The term is known to the Poles but more often they call it "piorun", a word clearly deriving from the name of Perun. In Silesia, even today, people say "Ty pieronie !", which in free-lance translation means "you bastard !". Theolder Poles' saying of dissatisfaction, "do pioruna !", could be translated as "by thunder !". It sounds like nonsense, but if we substitute the old meaning it would be "by Perun !". Very close to the familiar "by Jove !". Similar sayings have survived among Kashubians in the form of "na per?na !" and "ty per?nie !". It is worthwhile to note that in Kashubian thunder or lighting is called "par?n" not "per?n" , indicating that original saying refers to deity rather than to the thunder. In Moravian and Slovakian folklore there are spells using the term "parom" or "hrom" (original Slavic "g" replaced by "h" in Ukrainian, Czech and Slovak languages) interchangeably for thunder and lightning. Furthermore, the Slovaks would say "parom do teba" or "do paroma", meaning "may Perun strike you" and "by Perun !", respectively. Among the now almost extinct Polabian Slavs of eastern Germany, a deity called Porenutius (Porenut) was reported on R?gen island by a Danish chronicler of the turn of the 13th century Saxo Gramaticus. Some scholars have interpreted the name as a corrupted form of Perun. However, this interpretation is not uniformally accepted. Another deity called Proue was mentioned by Helmold as being worshipped in the 12th century near Oldenburg in Wagrien. Its idol stood in an enclosed sanctuary situated in an oak grove. Sacrifices of cattle and sheep were performed for this deity, and once a week tribal court and the assembly was held there. Again it has been postulated that the name Proue is a corruption of Perun, taking into consideration that in another version of the chronicle, known as Stettin manuscript, it appears as "Prone". Whatever the case, Proue's association with oaks and cattle sacrifice indicates close conceptual links with Perun-like deity.

Still, however, the strongest evidence for antiquity of the Perun cult, its universality among all the Slavs, and all sections of the Slavic society, comes from the western extreme of Slavdom. In the region of Hanoverian Wendland, west of Elbe river in Germany, a dialect of Obodrite Slavs survived till the end of the eighteenth century. Those Slavs called Thursday a " Perundan" - literally a "day of Perun". Evidently, these people were aware that the name for Thursday in German "Donnerstag" means "day of Donar", a continental Germanic war god. Clearly, they had substituted their god Perun for Donar, as it was the Slavic deity that most closely resembled the Germanic war god. There is no other explanation, unless we accept that the 18th century Slavic peasants of backward Hanowerian Wendland spent cold nights of the northern European winter passionately reading the "Russian Primary Chronicle".

The name of Perun is also commonly found in Southern Slavic toponymy. There are places called: Perun, Perunac, Perunovac, Perunika, Peruni?ka Glava, Peruni Vrh, Perunja Ves, Peruna Dubrava, Perunu?a, Peru?ice, Perudina and Perutovac. These names today mostly represent mountain tops, but in medieval times, large oaks, sacred groves and even entire villages or citadels were named Perun. Also, as mentioned already, in Ukrainian perun and in Polish piorun means "thunderbolt". Among South Slavs, a mountain plant Iris germanica is known in folklore as perunika ("Perun's plant") and sometimes also as bogisha, ("god's plant"), and was believed to grow from ground that had been struck by lightning.