Celtic Belenos and Balto-Slavic Veles

There is a certain difficulty encountered in equating ‘Celtic’ with ‘Slavic’ gods, particularly because the two ethno-cultural denominations are largely historically and archaeologically independent. A similar problem – perhaps more political – arises from the distinction between ‘Balts’ and ‘Slavs’. Some of the interpretation of the paleology and ethnology of the lands of the peoples who today call themselves ‘Balts‘ and ‘Slavs’ is still coloured by 19th and 20thC academic work beset with ideological political bias framed through artificial ethno-nationalist constructs. These were largely designed to support a federalised atheist communist Empire whose western borders desired such a buttress against western European identity. Nonetheless, in the era of the European Iron-Age, there was much more in common and the cultures and religious practices of peoples of this region would have been less determinately ‘Slavic’ or even ‘Germanic’ as the terms would be understood today…

Perun and Veles - aspects of the 'Thracian Horseman' and 'Phrygian Sabazios'?

Croatian depiction of ?Perun and Veles – it demonstrates aspects of the ‘Thracian Horseman’ and ‘Phrygian Sabazios’

Although the pagan mythology of the Slavs is known to us from relatively late (medieval) accounts congruent with some of the pagan Scandinavian cultures, it contains a number of important characters for whom there is reasonable evidence to posit a link to western Europe’s older system of deities. The 12thC ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus mentions Volos and Perun as the principle gods worshipped by Slavs and Russ before their late conversion during the Viking era:

“…Thus tsars Leo and Alexander made peace with Oleg. After agreeing upon the tribute, they bound themselves by mutual oaths. The tsars kissed the cross, while Oleg and his men took oaths in accordance with Russian law, swearing by their weapons and by their god Perun as well as by Volos, the god of cattle…” (trans. Samuel Cross)

The same Oleg is recorded as visiting sorcerors – the word for which is given as Volkhi. These tell him that he must abandon his favourite horse as it will cause his death, which he assents to and turns it to pasture. The story given is that he then goes to visit it and is told it died, and on visiting its bones a snake emerges from its skull and bites him, causing his death… The relationship between Volkhi, the Scandinavian Volva and the god Volos might be worth mulling over!

Another reference in the Chronicle to Volos and Perun (again in relation to oaths) is a record of a treaty and oath given by the pagan prince Svyatoslav of allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor:

” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)

Interestingly, Cross translates ‘may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe’ implying the original sense was a singular god with two aspects: Perun and Volos. In fact, later folklore frequently conflates attributes of the two, suggesting this sense may be true.

Baltic Veles:

Marija Gimbutas examined the surviving 19thC Lithuanian and Latvian folklore attached to the spirits of the dead, who were there referred to as vėlės and to whom was attached a ‘leader’ known as Vélnias, Vélinas, or Véls – also used as a synonym for ‘devil’. In fact, an early dictionary of Lithuanian written by an ecclesiastic (Dictionarium Trium Linguarum by Konstanty Szyrwid, 1629) equates Velnias with ‘Piktis‘, another Baltic god-name associated with the ‘devil’, also known as ‘Pikùlas‘, ‘Peckols’ (Prussia) and ‘Patollo‘. These might be an example of the curious and widespread ‘Puck‘ hypostasis, possibly associated with local versions of Perun-Pirkons. The folkloric Vélnias was – like Odin/Wotan – one-eyed and led the troops of vėlės across the skies, causing storms and whirlwinds. He – like Veles – was also linked to herds. The vėlės themselves were – like Gaelic fairies – seen to troop between cemeteries and along their own special ‘paths’. Vélinas was explicitly a god of the hosts of the dead. Gimbutas notes the prevalence of placenames incorporating the name Vélnias that relate to bogs, pools, rivers, fields and forest clearings, suggesting the importance of such places to the local Otherworld mythology.

‘Velchanos’ in Crete:

The ancient Cretan/Minoan god Velchanos has been suggested as the origin for the Roman ‘Vulcan’. The Veles-Perun hypostasis mentioned in the Primary Chronicle of the Kievan Rus seems like it could link to this, particularly if the Weland link is correct. In Crete, he was also known as Zeus-Velchanos. The Latin words for thunderbolt, fulmen and fulgur, seem to have close etymological links to the Vul- prefix of the name Vulcan.

‘Vayl’ in the Isle of Man:

Vaayl‘ or ‘Vael occurs commonly in the Isle of Man (situated between Britain and Ireland) as a local word for ‘Michael’ (the thunder-voiced military archangel, leader of the heavenly hosts). For instance, there is a pagan burial mound referred to as ‘Carn Vael’, situated near the coastal village of Kirk Michael (Keeill Vaayl) – home to some of the syncretic Christian-pagan-era stone crosses and monuments. It is entirely possible that this name was introduced by Baltic settlers in the Viking Age, although convention usually holds to majority being Norwegians. A custom common to Lithuania, Latvia and the Isle of Man was the rolling down hills of burning wheels at Beltain or Midsummer (Manx source: Harold ‘Dusty’ Miller ‘It’s a Fact’). I have discussed the connection between St Michael the Archangel and Belenos elsewhere…

Etymological concordances:

The most obvious etymological link to the Celtic god Belenos is the ‘V’ of ‘Volos’ – a letter seemingly interchangeable with ‘B’ in the ‘Indo-European’ languages. This would suggest Bolos or Beles as a reasonable pronunciation variant of the Slavic divinity. Other versions of the name seem also to appear to in the 9th/10thC CE Old High German ‘Second Meresburg Incantation’:

“… Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza. Du uuart demo balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit. Thu biguol en sinthgunt, sunna era suister; Thu biguol en friia, uolla era suister; Thu biguol en uuodan, so he uuola conda: Sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki: Ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda, Lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin! … ““… Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods, and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained. So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it. And Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it. And Wodan conjured it, as well he could: Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain, so joint-sprain: Bone to bone, blood to blood, joints to joints, so may they be glued! … “

The names ‘Phol‘ and ‘Volla‘ (uolla, rhymed with uuolla = ‘well’) have sufficient similarity to be considered potentially related. Indeed, the English word for a young horse – ‘foal‘ – has in this context interesting connotations for the Iron Age Celtic coins’ equine/solar imagery, combined with the military sun-child head of Alexander they apparently used to represent Belenos. Going deeper into etymology, the Latin word for a lightly-armoured cavalry skirmisher (a notable form of Celto-Roman auxillary fighter) was Veles, no doubt having a link to the Roman word for warfare: Bellum. The horsemanship of the Dacians (Getae), Thracians, Macedonians and Anatolian peoples was legendary in ancient Europe. In fact, the religious iconography of the Thracian and Phrygian peoples was notable for their depiction of the dragon-slaying horseman figure who would later become incorporated in the image of St George the Dragonslayer, popular among the Slavs.

Another etymological and mythological link between Veles and the ancient ‘Germanic’ world is that to the ‘magical smith’, Weland/Wolund/Wayland/Volundr, who featured prominently in the folklore and legends common to a good number of ethnogeographical pagan cultures in ancient northern Europe. I have discussed the link between Volund, and ‘Vili’ of the Odinnic hypostasis in the Icelandic Eddas, and believe it is worth considering Slavic Veles in the same light.

Another example of this from the Baltic Lithuanians (one of the last European peoples to become officially Christianised in the 14/15thc CE) is the god or divinity called Teliavelis who was recorded in folklore as a ‘blacksmith god’, possibly identical with Vélinas. He has been compared to the Finnic Kalevala god-hero Ilmarinen,and can be linked to the Slavic smith-god referred to as Svarog in the 15thC CE Hypatian Codex. This collection of monkish ephemera claims that Svarog was father of Dažbog (‘giving god’) or the sun – the two are usually thought of as separate. However, the Serbian folklore variant Dabog or Dajbog is sometimes known as Hromi Daba (‘Lame Daba’) and depicted as a distinctly chthonic/demonic character similar to Veles/Velnias, called ‘Shepherd of Wolves’. Lameness (an inability to walk upon the earth) is a trait common to European smith-gods.

Christianity:

Aside from the links to St George (from the ‘Thracian Horseman’), it is widely believed that Slavic Volos/Veles was used as the model for an early Christian saint, popular in the Orthodox Christian community, called Vlas, otherwise Blaise, or Vlasius. St Vlas (whose feast day is 12th February). He is popular in eastern Europe from Macedonia up to Russia, in which regions he has been associated with protection of cattle, in accordance with the Primary Chronicle account. Linda Ivanits (‘Russian Folk Belief’ Pub: Sharpe, New York 1989) notes the tradition of hanging icons of Vlas in cow biers.

like duality seems to explain the Slavic veneration along with George and Vlas all the more. To this observation must be added another: Given the tendency of Indo-European languages to ‘aspirate’ initial consonants, it is also interesting to note how ‘Veles’ can quite easily become a solar ‘Heles‘, implied in the Greek words ‘Helios‘ (a name held by Apollo, also called Phoebus) and, of course the country: ‘Hellas’. The fact that many mountaintop sanctuaries to the Greek god Helios (i.e. – the deified sun) later became dedicated to ‘St. Elias’ (‘the thunderer’), a Christianisation of the monotheism-promoting, Baal-denigrating Hebrew prophet Elijah, invoked by observant Jews at the advent of Sunday in the Havdalah ritual terminating the Shabbat. The Macedonian town with the theophoric name Veles is the site of one such shrine, but there are others. The connection with the sun, thunder and lightning suggests that Perun/Perkunas/Taranis was another aspect of the Veles/Vélinas/Belenos, both of whom took up places in Christianity as modified saints and the devil himself.

This old Serbian Dodola/Dodole (rainmaking) song illustrates the Elijah-Perun link:

Da zarosi sitna rosa,
oj dudula mili Bože!
Oj lija daj Bože daj!
Oj Ilija moj Perune!
Daj Bože daj, daj Ilija daj!
Let fine dew drizzle,
oh dudula dear God!
Oh Elijah give us, God, give!
Oh Elijah, my Perun/Thunder!
Give us, God, give, give, Elijah, give!

Dodola/Dodole was supposed to be Perun’s wife. She is sometimes viewed as a Slavic rain-goddess. The antagonism between Perun and Veles revolved around Perun’s wife being stolen – remember that all rivers were once believed to flow to the otherworld, and the connection between Velnias and water in Lithuania 😉 Elijah functions here quite obviously as the ‘bridging’ function, representing Helios (who travels daily to the underworld in his rotations)…

IN SUMMARY:

– Volos, Veles and Velnias were associated with both the Underworld (realm of the dead) and with herds and hosts, including the hosts of the dead. In the Baltic, Velnias was associated with bogs and pools of water – classic Celtic routes into the Otherworld.

– Veles was closely linked to the ‘thunder god’ Perun (Perkunas or Perkons in the Baltic states) who was a ‘polar antithesis’ of him, possibly representing the forces ‘above’: sky, lightning, the up-thrust of trees, particularly the Quercus or Oak (Try switching the ‘Q’ for ‘P’ after the insular celtic style…). The two were represented in a state of mutual antagonism in some Slavic mythology.

– Veles/Volos may be related to the Germanic smith-god Weland/Volundr. The 9thC second Meresburg charm relates to horses and mentions ‘Phol’ and ‘Volla’. ‘Teliavelis‘ was the name of a Baltic smith-god, and the Slavs had ‘Svarog’ in the same role. A possible association with horses is that smith-gods tended to be crippled, and hence would have used horses to move about. The concept of reincarnation is engendered in the art of smithcraft – a secret fiery re-forging in the otherworld.

– The etymological leap from Vel to Bel is so slight that it would be remiss not to consider a link to Belenos: himself possibly a chthonic war-god, similar to Roman Mars. Likewise the link between Vel and Hel (which would be an aspirated pronunciation of ‘Vel’).

The Celtic Sun God

“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan –Pharsalia 1stC AD

Lucan’s famous account attempts, in a few lines, to sum up the whole religious worldview of the defeated Gauls – one which he portrays as once savage and dangerous. He names four gods – Teutates, Hesus and Taranis, and very interestingly ‘Diana, goddess of the north’. It is perhaps surprising that he fails to mention by name the two particular gods who seem from epigraphic, numismatic, literary and historical evidence to have been very prominent in religious landscape of the Celts: Bel(enos) and Lug.

Julius Caesar, instigator of the ‘glorious’ events recounted in the Pharsalia, claimed that Mercury was the Gauls’ chief god:

“…They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions…” (De Bello Gallico, Book 6)

Secondarily he mentions that they also worshipped Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. ‘Teutatis’, ‘Esus’ and ‘Taranis’ are the names Lucan gives for Caesar’s interpretatio romanum of ‘Apollo’, ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’ but in Pharsalia, he substitutes ‘Minerva’ with ‘Diana’. Given that he was writing almost 100 years after Caesar’s Gaulish conquest, it is fair to say that he may have had better information, but it is clear from the tone of Pharsalia that Lucan considered continental Celtic culture (except, of course, for the poetic arts) to already have been largely smashed and replaced by the Romans. So what of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’ mentioned by Caesar? On this he seems – on the face of things – to be silent, but analysis reveals a more interesting aspect:

It is fairly self-evident from Pharsalia, that Lucan has used Caesar as his source, albeit updated with the names of the indigenous gods. Lucan’s version, however, commences not with a mention of Mercury but with the allusions to the overly-proud barbarians and their fiery flowing locks of hair. Pride, as they say, comes before a fall – and perhaps the greatest and well-known example of this for the people of the ancient Roman world was the story of Alexander of Macedonia – whose ambition so famously over-reached his ability to outlive his conquests. The Celts were well aware of Alexander – they used his image on almost all of their coins.

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

So, what is the connection between Celts, Roman Mercury and Alexander? Caesar’s statement about the ‘many images’ of Mercury is interesting when one considers the most prevalent images created by the Celts were not apparently statuary idols, but coins. To the Romans and Greeks, Mercury (Hermes) was the god of trade, crafts and was generally seen as what Plato might have termed a Daemone or spiritual intermediary between man and the gods. He was also the god of poets such as Lucan perhaps being the reason Lucan does him honour with a form of circumlocution when repeating Caesar’s account of Celtic religion. Mercury was also the psychopomp who conveyed the souls of the dead on their mystical journey – something which was of core interest to Celtic religion, and upon which Lucan remarks. He was usually depicted wearing a winged traveller’s sun-hat or petasus and with winged shoes. It is therefore not inconceivable that the similarity between the ‘horned Alexander’ iconography of the coins and the images of Mercury common in the Greek and Roman world led to Caesar’s assertion that the Gauls venerated Mercury as their chief god. Indeed, on the Gallo-Roman ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’ from Lutetia (modern Paris) on the Seine, the horned figure ‘Cernunnos’ occurs. Note that his horns are adorned with rings – possibly symbolic of the older form of Celtic money before coins became popular:

Horned figure from the 'Pillar of the Boatmen', named 'Cernunnos'.

Horned figure from the ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’, named ‘Cernunnos’.

‘Cernunnos’ is a name obviously derived from the Celtic name for ‘Soldier’ (Cern), and he appears to be wearing a helmet with stags antlers on it: The image of the stag with adorned antlers is specifically associated with therut’ during which combats occur over mating rights, typically at territorial boundaries such as on plains near river crossings (such as with the battles in the Irish epic tale Tain bo Culainge). In a warrior-pastoralist culture the link between battles and fecundity is explicit in this image. In the same way, the branch is a symbol of fecundity for more arable-agrarian societies, and was widely used in Greek and Roman iconography. In fact, the antlers combine both images on account of their shape.  Wings for that matter are also branched, as are bolts of lightning and rivers. The Pillar des Nautes is awash with Roman-Celtic syncretism.

So – the god of wealth and fertility whom Caesar likened to Mercury and had ‘many images’ made of him was represented using the traditional image of Alexander with a cornucopia attached to his head. Lucan’s triple-set of names: Teutates, Hesus and Taranis (and their ‘blood-stained’ altars) may well all be a ‘triple aspect’ of the one he leaves un-named, teasing us with his palpable circumlocution of the underlying divinity he must have realised was represented. Lucan was a clever lad, and the gods (no doubt Mercury himself) were to receive him into Elysium at a young age – a ‘rock and roll’ life and death.

But what about ‘Belenos’? Or, for that matter, ‘Lugus’? What even of the ancestor-god Caesar remarked upon as being called (or like) Dis Pater…. Might they all be one and the same?

In terms of likeness to Mercury, it is Lug(us) who has usually been given this honour, and for whom there have been parallels found in the mythology of the ‘surviving’ Celtic language cultures of Wales (Lleu) and Ireland (Lugh), both of which associate with crafts. Lug (like Belenos) appears in placenames and inscriptions from all across the Atlantic European world, and into the reaches of the Danube river basin.

Evidence for Belenos’ prominence is shown by tribal or kin-group designations such as ‘Belgae‘, and personal names such as that of British King Cunobellin(us) (1stC AD).   In the early medieval ‘Harleian Genealogies’ (British Library Harleian MS 3859) of the Kings of west Britain (Wales) and the ‘Henn Ogled’ (Old North – Southern Scotland down to Lancashire), ‘Beli’ and his wife ‘Anna’ are named as the ultimate ancestors of King Owen of Gwynedd. Anna is even said (like Brighid in Ireland) to be a relative of the Virgin Mary – further proof of attempts at early christianising attempts at syncresis with biblical narratives:

“…Beli magni filius, et Anna, mater eius, quam dicunt esse consobrina Mariae uirginis, matris Domini nostri Iesu Christi. …”

With the Romanisation of the barbarian Celtic cultures, the worship of Bel/Belenos would become submerged in the cult of Apollo, demonstrating that Bel/Belenos was an overtly solar deity.

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of 'Minerva Aquae Sulis' at Bath displayed this magnificent head of 'Manannan'. Note the 'solar' rays of the hair and the 'watery' appearance of the beard...

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of ‘Minerva Aquae Sulis’ at Bath displayed this magnificent head of  ‘Apollo  Grannus’. Note the ‘solar’ rays of the hair and the ‘watery’ appearance of the beard…

The association of Apollo Grannus with Mars at various spa shrines in the Romano-Celtic world maintains the martial link of the Celts’ beloved warrior/sun-god icon, Alexander, whose conquests (and failure) had inspired the Celtic invasion of the Balkans, Thrace, Macedonia, Greece and Phrygia in the 3rdC BCE. At some of these, the ‘Celtic’ Mars is also sometimes depicted in attire we would more associate with Mercury, demonstrating a syncresis between the two Roman gods in the Celtic mindset:

A 'Celtic Mars' - note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

A ‘Celtic Mars’ – note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

Some depictions even show Mars with wings – perhaps a convenient spiritual representation of what the Celts desired: Death in glorious battle and an ‘autopsychopompic’ flight to the Otherworld.

A 'winged Mars'. Cunobelinus had a winged figure on some his 1stC CE coins.

A ‘winged Mars’ – A winged figure is also seen on some Celtic 1stC BCE/CE coins. The horse depicted is also sometimes winged.

The conjecture I should like to raise again is this:

That the Atlantic Europeans before the Romans had a principally duotheistic religion comprising of a god and a goddess who each had a ‘triple’ identity. The imposition of Roman culture and then the overlay of Christianity created a ‘Celtic Pantheon’ which in truth never really existed. ‘Lugh’, ‘Belenos’, ‘Teutates’, ‘Esus’, ‘Taranis’ were all epithets of the same solar deity who conducted the souls of the dead in their Otherworld destinations. His companion ‘Diana’ (De Áine) had similar multiple-epithets and was associated with the worldy creation and manifestation.