This is a review of my reading of Veles in Slavic Myth by Kim Huggens, an article in the anthology “Horns of Power: Manifestations of the Horned God” (ed. Sorita d’Esta, David Rankine, Kim Huggens), link here.
Full admittance: I bought this book on Kindle only for this article. I’m interested in the others, but this was the reason I bought it. I was curious what someone else would say about Veles. Also – I was really curious why anyone would call him a horned god. I’ve not gotten around to reading the rest of the book in all honesty, though I do intend to.
I’m going to put my comments below and anyone can choose to skip who isn’t interested.
Therefore, into the review!
See, one thing that it does very good on is starting out with even passing mention of the dual-faith (of Russia, I should add, though the author does not) that is very well seen in the Russian Orthodox Church. Not that much is said beyond the setup. And she does not trouble to point out that it is historically only those of the Russian Orthodox Church who fall under the label of holding dual-faith. It is not an overarching concept to all Slavic people.
Then we sweep onto the names of Veles and his opposition with Perun. Which is in the Primary Chronicle – or so the author states. Now this is an important document, because it is one of the primary sources of pre-Christian Slavic (Russian) beliefs, even if filtered through the lense of an author who was staunchly Christian and trying to defame their predecessors. But nowhere does it definitively state that Perun and Veles are opposing.
The mentions of the statues and depiction are a bit…fuzzy.
After all, she focuses on Vladimir and his relationship with these deities. However, her quote about how Veles is the god of flocks, who they believed upon breaking an oath, Veles would ensure “[they] become yellow as gold” (Cross 90) – that is not in Vladimir’s reign, but in another’s suzerainty in the Chronicle. Though she does not explicitly state all her information is about Vladimir, the main points are to him.
There is the description of Vladimir’s reign in Kiev:
and he set up idols on the hills outside the castle with the hall: one of Perun, made of wood with a head of silver and a mustache of gold, and others of Khors, Dazh’bog, Stribog, Simar’gl, and Mokosh’. – (Cross 93)
At the first, there is no mention of Veles (or Volos as the Chronicle spells it). But she is indeed correct to note that Perun’s statue was near to the castle. That was indeed where the 6 major deities were stationed.
All that is at first mentioned of the destruction of the idols is that they “should be overthrown, and that some should be cut to pieces and others burned with fire” (Cross 116). But special destruction was saved for Perun. So nothing in particular about how Veles sees his end in Vladimir’s Kiev.
There is only mention of Veles as god of flocks, that during the oath sworn – the earliest mention of which is in a treaty by Oleg in the early 10th Century – 907 CE traditionally. Then Svyatoslav also posts the same oath. Vladimir’s gods are something else. And general consensus among linguist historians is that the god of the flocks and punisher by disease (turn your skin yellow) was different than Vladimir’s Veles.
And though I have read my copy of the Primary Chronicle detailing Vladimir’s reign 10 times over I cannot find the purported mention of Veles’ idol being erected in the marketplace at all.
If the one Veles is associated as the god of flocks and disease…that is one point. That is attested in the Chronicle. However, we have no clue what he was depicted as visually. Nowhere in the Primary Chronicle do we get a description of any god. We get one description of Perun’s idol in Kiev that Vladimir commissioned, that is it. Huggens contention that he was depicted as “horned” is speculation at best and modern reconstruction. Then she goes further – he was also god of the underworld and harvest. Again, in the primary source of premiere importance (Primary Chronicle – as the only one we have from near contemporary period, even with its definitive bias) – nowhere is this information mentioned. In fact, almost nothing is noted of any of the gods and what they represented to their worshipers.
Then she moves on to the depictions of him as commerce/trade god, god of the underworld, fighter against Perun every year, and god of music. Which while many of these things have been pieced together by Russian folklorists from folk songs, verbal traditions, and folk customs…they are not attested to in direct statements by the people who were closest.
And of course, back to Russia’s dual-faith. It is speculated that Orthodox saints were cover-ups for Veles. Some do say St. Blaise (saint of cattle, animals, etc) or/and St. Nicholas. Again, no definitive proof.
Finally she devotes a fairly reverential paragraph to the Book of Veles and how important this book is. A work that is universally, by all respected archaeologists, debunked as a 20th century forgery and fake. While it is important to acknowledge that many Slavic pagans do believe this text is real, a bit more of a fair warning on its problematic, fraudulent nature would be responsible and nice.
So that is the commentary on the actual text.
Now onto another major problem I have.
Absolutely none of her claims are cited in text. That means you have a mix of her summarizing other arguments, paraphrasing what other authors have claimed, and “facts” that are not cited; on top of her own personal assertions. So it is nigh on impossible to tell which are summarizations of others, what is her own summation, and what is her speculation.
That is a major problem when writing about a god that so much is speculation. As an author, she should have more care to being very clear on what she is writing. And citing (even just with surname of author page #) would help clarify who means what in everything that she states. And some of those things she states as facts, as though they were graven facts of pre-Christian Russian Slavs – those are modern recreation or speculation.
I am not a fan of a work where the author cannot even tell us who asserted each claim they bring up. It irks me, and generally detracts from the reading experience.
Second major problem: that bibliography.
I was taught as a historian and student who studies for a living – you take the old, but you also ensure to use modern work. Out of 13 works she cites as inspiration, only 3 are newer than 2000 CE for publishing dates. 5 were published before 1985. I’m not discounting those sources that are the cornerstone (such as Cross & Sherbowitz-Wetzor’s edition of the Primary Chronicle – which is still the judging standard) of the subject. But one should have a balance of sources.
I will give points to her for citing Linda Ivanits, who is one of the foremost authors on Slavic mythology and folklore in the 20th century. That is a point in her favor, but she should have cited where she used Ivanits’ conclusions.
So that brings me to a summation of my opinion.
It was an interesting read. Interesting. But it was mostly a summary of other authors reconstruction, research and translation. She did not state anything new or unique that I have not read in Cross & Sherbowitz-Wetzor’s commentary, or in reviews of folklore reconstructions from the 19th Century. Really, there was nothing of her voice or opinion at all in this piece. Not unless you count her wholeheartedly stating these ideas as fact as her own voice.
I am not a fan of an author who writes a whole article summarizing and repeating what others have said. If they cannot bring anything new, their own interpretation or their own personal thoughts into the picture – what is the point? At the end of this article, all I was left thinking (beyond my annoyance at reconstruction being presented as pre-Christian reported facts) was so what did the author really think? That is not stated.
This was a nice summary of prior research and reconstruction. But it is confusing if you are not familiar with at least some of the mythology and texts mentioned before you read it. Because she mixes cited comments and text from the Primary Chronicle with Romantic ideals from the 19th Century and modern research.
I would not recommend this article at all. Not unless one has a deep understanding of at least the Primary Chronicle. It is too easy to have issues parsing out what is attested in primary sources and what is recreation from later. Without that, it could be a very confusing article to read. However, given that very few things are written on Veles, I suppose it is okay to have it as something to supplement other readings.∗
Bibliography of what I cited:
Cross, Samuel Hazzard & Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (eds); The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text; Medieval Academy of America, No. 60.