Jarilo

Originally known as Jarovit, Jarilo was an important fertility god for the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. He was honoured annually with the coming of spring, and his birthday was said to be the last day of February, traditionally the Slavic New Year.

According to reconstructed myths, Jarilo was the tenth son of the supreme god, Perun, snatched at birth by Veles, ruler of the Underworld. A loyal son to Veles, Jarilo travelled to Earth as an adult, falling in love and marrying a nature goddess named Morana. Little did the pair realise that they were twins, and that their union ensured bountiful crops for their worshippers. However, Jarilo became unfaithful, and was murdered by his sister-wife, whose bitterness brought death to crops. And so, Jarilo returned to Veles and the Underworld.

The legend itself represents the widely-held belief that the life of fertility gods paralleled the birth-life-death-rebirth cycle of nature. Those well-versed in European mythology may also note it bears striking similarities to the fertility twins Frey and Freya of Norse lore, and the Ancient Greek tale of Persephone’s annual journey to and from Hades’ Underworld.

Lada

A goddess of spring, love, protection and beauty, Lada was an important figure of the Slavic pantheon, her name loosely translating as “harmony”. Often called “Lady of the Flowers”, she was generally depicted as a young woman with long golden hair, surrounded by flora, and associated with fertility in both humans and animals. Similar to corresponding figures in other mythologies, Lada spent the winter in the Underworld, Irij, emerging again to usher away the snows. Her role was separate to Jarilo and Morana, however, twin gods who represented the cyclical nature of the seasons. Lada’s worshippers believed that her presence instilled a sense of warmth and belonging, and prayers said in her name usually occurred at marriage or coupling ceremonies, though her main festival was celebrated at the summer solstice when she was at the peak of her power.

Perun

While little is known of the Old Slavic religions that existed prior to the Christianisation of Europe, the most recurring figure in historical texts is Perun, considered to be the supreme deity of the Western and Southern Slavs. Equated with Zeus of the Ancient Greeks and Thor of the Norsemen, Perun was primarily seen as the god of thunder and lightning, though he was also affiliated with war, fire, mountains, weapons, horses and carts, the Oak, and more. His name is thought to derive from an Indo-European root – reconstructed as Perkwunos – and he shares near-identical qualities to the Baltic thunder god, Perkunas.

Perun was generally depicted as a bearded or moustached man wielding an axe, or as an eagle who watched over all life from the highest branch of the World Tree (the Oak). Having replaced the primordial creator god, Rod, as chief of the Western Slavic pantheon – corresponding to Svarog of the Eastern Slavs – Perun ruled the Heavens and the Earth, and was in constant battle with Veles, the serpent-like trickster god who ruled the Underworld. It is thought that the most important myths told by the Slavs concentrated on this eternal duel, where Veles would kidnap cattle or other gods from Heaven, and Perun would strike him down with thunderbolts. Slavic peoples would often engrave “thunder marks” on their roofs to ward off lightning strikes, and by extension to discourage Veles from hiding in their home.

Perun was also closely affiliated with weapons, particularly axes and arrowheads made of flint. Whenever a Stone Age artefact of this kind was unearthed by the Slavs, they believed it to be a remnant from where lightning had struck the ground, and commonly referred to these items as “thunderstones”. The thunderstone axe became a symbol of Perun, just as the hammer became the symbol of his Norse counterpart, Thor. Perun also mirrors Thor in being an apparent champion of the common people, despite the latter not being the supreme Norse deity – that honour belonged to Odin.

Veles

In Slavic lore, Veles (or Volos) is a trickster, and the opposing force to the supreme god, Perun. He dwells in the Underworld – called Vyriy or Irij among other things – a forested and watery realm where he is overlord of the dead. Like Hades of Ancient Greek mythology, his role is complex, and he is neither definitively good nor evil, but more a main participant in the cyclical nature of the world. Though feared for his obvious association with death, he was venerated at times by common men as a fertility deity, not to mention his links to music, magic, and merchant wealth. Where Perun judged the souls of heroic men, the Slavs believed Veles judged sinners and those who had failed to lead extraordinary lives.

Veles is often described as being dark and bushy-bearded, but could take on several different forms, such as a dragon or a bear- or ram-headed chimera. Like most Indo-European cultures, a principal fable told by the Slavs was the so-called “Divine Myth”, where the thunder god would do battle with a monstrous serpent. In the Slavic version, Veles would ascend from the Underworld as a dragon, climbing the cosmic World Tree to Heaven to steal Perun’s wife, son, or cattle. The ensuing conflict would see Perun hurl bolts of lightning at the fiend until he was killed, releasing his captives as water, and returning to the Underworld to shed his skin and be reborn in a new body. The story helped explain why thunderstorms precede life-giving rain and atmospheric equilibrium, or why the seasons changed without this defeated deity of land and rivers to manage them.