Portrayal of Gods

Piggybacking off the last post (Slavic Mythology), I guess I can discuss a bit more on portrayal of deity.

See, while those are the original images that drew me in to researching Slavic polytheism, I don’t see the gods like that. They’re old-world, ancient…probably far more accurate than any modern day portrayal with a modern aesthetic – or at least, in some respects they are. But I wonder about it. Because to me, who has never lived rurally and who lives cloistered up in the city itself–what kind of connection can I have to ancient portrayals for a people who lived remotely and not in a large city like I always have?

Portrayal is, for me, something a bit funny. I’m fairly particular on what I see as spirit/deity and how I see those particular entities. Which does sometimes seem a bit rigid, but it happens, so I guess I don’t need to worry too much on it. Still, it is interesting how different people see different deities in separate lights. After all, artistic license is something everyone has a different eye to.

Rusalka - Igor Ozhiganov
Rusalka – Igor Ozhiganov

This is just…not right, at least to my mind. Rusalka are water spirits, sure. But I do not see them as he portrays them, as mermaids. That is just a portrayal that is innately foreign to me. After all, mermaids are a whole different sort of creature from mythology.

That is not to say that mermaids are all like Disney and pleasant. Mermaids have different varieties (depending on culture), and really some of them are downright terrifying. Not to mention the folk tales, i.e. Hans Christian Anderson, and how the Little Mermaid becomes a human. Not pretty.

Still, rusalka are not mermaids. Not to me. So to see them portrayed in such a manner is jarring for me. From the earliest I read about them, they are female spirits. Weed-like hair (or at least water soaked regular hair) that they are constantly combing. And depending on region, they could be either terribly frightful in appearance or beautiful. Some legends speak of them luring men by dancing. It’s kind of impossible to dance with a fish tail.

Not even Rusalka by Dvorak portrays them as mermaids. And that’s one of the more fanciful appearances I’ve seen or heard of. Still, not a mermaid. Now, I do admit that each person is entitled to their own imaginings. But this is one where I just don’t agree with the artist. Interesting, drew my curiosity, drew me in, sure. But not how I see these spirits.

Perun - Igor Oghizanov
Perun – Igor Ozhiganov

Then there is the portrayals of Perun and Veles. These two I have real disagreements with portrayal by most artists. And I can admit I might be the one with strange ideas about how these two look.

This artist is just one of many who portrays Perun almost Odin-like: old, grizzled, astride a horse and riding forth from lightning. Now, I’m not going to argue that Perun is also a god of lightning and arguably of warriors. So I can understand why people like to portray him like that. It’s easy and familiar. But it’s not really how I see him. Sometimes I think that a lot of artists (especially not raised in central/eastern Europe), tend to conflate Perun with Odin and Thor.

I see Perun more as a bit younger. Not like 20s young, but perhaps more about in his 40s or so, not the ancient, grizzled man. Lightning yes, and a weapon, definitely. But I see him as more clean-cut than grizzled and worn down. Personal idea, definitely. It’s just a feeling I have about him. Strong as a warrior, and able to control lightning, and regal, as considered the god of the kings and rulers.

Veles - Igor Ozhiganov
Veles – Igor Ozhiganov

Then there’s Veles. Lots of people portray him as old man, wandering through the forest. Either that or a snake-man. (I will admit that as I am slightly afraid of snakes, I do not like to picture him with snakes – that is definitely personal bias and I will not deny the truth of that) I don’t see that. Again, I see him as younger than ancient, probably the same age as Perun. And I don’t always think that he has to be dark in appearance, i.e. dark hair and eyes. He might be redheaded or even with brown hair. I’m not so sure on specifics, really. And while I do think of his connection to forest animals (like bear or wolf), I also see him as somewhat scholarly and perhaps prone to hang out in dark library corners – which I get from his being linked to magic. And definitely always dressed impeccably, as a god of merchants and trade.

Veles Slavic God
Veles – unknown creator

Then there is this image here, of Veles.

(just a note: I have no clue who created this image. I tried reverse searching it, and can only find links to old live journal compilations and Wikipedia articles – none of which tell me who made this. So if you know who made this, let me know!)

This is actually the very first image of any Slavic deity I ever saw, but I had no clue who it was at the time.

The overarching forest spirit, looking down…which is the other popular image of Veles, also does not fit for me. It makes no more sense than the ancient man. He might be a god of the forests, and forest-dwellers…but I don’t see him as really incorporeal and just floating about above the forest. And he’s not just a forest spirit, which I kind of feel like this image focuses solely on that part of his attributes. This portrayal reminds me more of a leshy than of Veles.

So sometimes I wonder if it isn’t also possible for people to conflate their beliefs of particular aspects to overlap with other entities that fit that mold also.

Portrayal is a bit of a fickle thing. Our own personal biases shape how we see gods and spirits. We like to think they are accessible and relate-able. Sometimes I think they are just that. Other times I think not. And sometimes I wonder if perhaps they have adapted to be understandable by modern folks without the original associations that they had back hundreds of years ago.

It’s one of those questions about images that I doubt I’ll ever have an answer for. After all, my ideas are just that – ideas. I have no way of knowing if my personal ideas are even what the gods appear like. I just know that what I think and have as idea makes more sense to me, which is really all I have to go off of.


2 thoughts on “Portrayal of Gods

  1. I don’t know where the modern idea of portraying Zeus and Poseidon especially as elderly came from; however, in ancient times the Gods were always portrayed as “in their prime,” so I understand how you feel about certain portrayals. But, these are not the icons of orthodoxy. They don’t have to look exactly like the first person who had ever portrayed them. So, yeah, occasionally I imagine Hermes in running shoes and faded, torn jeans. I also promise they don’t zap you for it, either.


    1. Hehe. Yeah. And logically I know that.

      I think a big part of my hesitance to kind of “UPG” the appearance and portrayal is that I’m by nature very historical, hell, history degree and all. So sometimes I have a bit of a trouble separating my general history interest with my spiritual practice on things like this, where there is no real stakes to imagining.


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