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Perkons

by Baiba Meistere
Perkons (Lithuanian Perkunas, Prussian Percunis, Russian Perun) - Thunder god - is one of the main deities in Baltic (i.e. Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian) folk religion. Etymologically, the word perkons is derived from the Indo-European stems per(k) (Ivanov, Toporov 1974, 1985.) or per+g(q) (Muelenbach 1904, Endzelins 1951). Three possible interpretations of the word's etymology are known (Biezais 1972):
  1. God of thunder and rain (Muelenbach, Wiedemann);
  2. God of height, mountain, comparable to Gothic fairguni - "mountain". Hethic peruna - "rock", old Hindu parvata - "mountain" (Karsten, Ivanov);
  3. God of oaks, perk-us as compared to Latin quercus - "oak" (Porzig, Hirt, Speht).

According to the archaeological data cult of Perkons in Baltic region was widely spread during the 2nd - 4th century CE along with the establishment of the agricultural society there. The first information about the cult of Perkons (Perkuns) practiced by Curonians (one of the Latvian tribes) can be found in the Livlaendische Reimchronic (1290). Perkuns, among other Lithuanian deities, is mentioned in the Russian addition of the Chronographie des Johannes Malalas (1261). In 1326 Peter von Dusburg mentions the sacral place Romove in Prussia, and these some sentences serve as a basis for the well-known Prussian pantheon, (re-)constructed by Simon Grunau in 1520. Percunis is one of the three central deities there.

This entry is based on Latvian folklore material as a notable source for the comprehension and reconstruction of Perkons' manifestations in Latvian folk religion.

The functional synonyms of Perkons' name in Latvian folklore are:

  • Perkonins, Perkonitis - likely a diminutive form, characteristic of Latvian folk song (dainas) meter, and rarely used in other texts.
  • Perkona tevs - father Perkons.
  • Vecais tevs - Old father (see further)
  • Dievins; - diminutive form of Dievs - the God, the a central figure in Latvian folk religion.

Although sometimes denoted with the same word - Dievins - each of the deities, Dievs and Perkons, maintain their own sphere of influence. As Latvian folk religion cannot be discussed in terms of a hierarchy of gods, a subordinate position of Perkons (e.g., in magic spells or some legend types), its substitution by Dievs (e.g., in the legends, where Perkons takes care of people's welfare), can be regarded as a display of the Christian syncretism. Formula Dievins in Latvian folklore serves also for denotation of mythic beings of lower strata, such as home spirits and spirits of the dead. The differentiation of meaning is determined by context. In the following example (LD 33700) clearly Dievins is Perkons.

Dievins ruc, Dievins ruc.
Zibenus met ozol....

(Dievins roars, Dievins roars,
(And throws lightning into an oak.)

Functions

1. Fertility god.
The origin of Perkons is closely connected with its natural appearance - rain, thunder, and lightning. The word perkons has two meanings in all three Baltic languages - "Thunder god" and "thunder". Catholic clergyman D. Fabricius writes in 1610: "During a drought, when there has not been rain, they worship Perkons in thick forests on hills and sacrifice to him a black calf, a black goat, and a black cock. When the animals are killed, then, according their custom, the people come together from all the vicinity, to eat and drink there together. They pay homage to Perkons by first pouring him beer, which is then brought around the fire, and at last pour it in this fire, asking Perkons to give them rain."

Consequently the main function of Perkons is promotion of fertility. All Perkons' family takes part in this process: the sons thunder, strike, lighten; the daughters and the mother (i.e. wife) sift rain; and the daughter-in-law thunders like Perkons himself. Obviously Perkons' family is created by differentiating the appearances of thunder phenomena. The origin of this greatest mythic family in Latvian folk religion is influenced both by the pattern of God's sons (Dieva deli) and Sun's daughters (Saules meitas) - the ancient mythical beings, having their parallels in Lithuanian, Hindu, and Greek mythology, and by the model of ordinary peasants' family.

In folksongs a peasant asks Perkons to bring rain, because the "shoots of barley are faded" (LD 33711) as well as thanks Perkons for the harvest in autumn. In some legend types traces of food offerings to Perkons are preserved. Examples:

  1. To entice Perkons a man holds in his hand bread with butter or a honey pot. In the other hand there is an axe or a knife to kill Perkons. Perkons strikes the man (LFK 1552, 8518).
  2. Perkons drowns a woman named Baba, because she has violated the ritual norms, offering Perkons spoiled food or grass. (LFK 828, 21517). A food offering was used also to prevent thunder. Folk belief has it that during thunderstorms honeycombs must be put into the fire to make the clouds disperse (LTT 23472).

2. Persecution of a Devil.
The notable contributors to the Indo-Europeistic theories V.V. Ivanov and V.N. Toporov in their reconstruction of "basic Indo-European myth" about the fight between the Thunder god and the Devil (Dragon) (Ivanov, Toporov 1974) regard Perkons/Perkunas/Percunis as one of the two central figures of the myth. Latvian folklore material cannot serve as evidence of this hypothesis. In most of the texts, especially in folk tales, legends and magic spells, the international motifs dominate. There, Perkons does not fight with the Devil (Velns, Jods), but persecutes and kills him. The ready-made opposition of the Devil as the evil force to Perkons (frequently substituted by Dievs as the Christian God) as one who implements an absolute justice, is obvious result of the influence of Christian worldview. There is no folksong text with the direct reflection of the fight between Perkons and Velns, although a few allusions are met: a man kills the Devil (Jods) with a sword, hammered of sparkles made by Heavenly smith (Perkons) (LD 33731).

3. Participant of Heavenly Wedding
In the Latvian version of the Indo-European myth of the Heavenly Wedding, reflected in Latvian folksong material, God's son (Dieva dels) or Morning star (Auseklis) or Moon (Meness, masculine in Latvian) marries Sun's daughter (Saules meita, Sun - female in Latvian), and Perkons is a relative of the bride (sometimes of the groom). On his way to the wedding Perkons strikes the golden oak. The oak is the Thunder god's tree, not only in Latvian folk religion. There exist some hypothesis why Perkons strikes the oak. They were discussed, amongst others, by Zicâns in 1936. The most appropriate version for Latvian folksong material is that, by striking the oak, Perkons performs an exorcist act to expel evil spirits. (sic! Velns frequently hides under the roots of an oak, see beliefs, legends, etc.) In Latvian wedding songs, when a bride comes in her new husband's house, the husband's relative (also Dievs - God, Laima - Fortune), cuts a cross in the door-post with the same intention.

4. Heavenly Smith
Can be found only in a small group of folksongs. There are two opposite viewpoints of what deity is represented by the Heavenly smith. The first: it is an independent deity, comparable to Hephaestus in Greek, Volundr in Scandinavian and Ilmarinen in Finnish mythologies (Ivanov, Toporov, Gimbutas etc.). V. Toporov supposes that the Lithuanian deity Teljavelis, mentioned in the chronicles from 1252, reflects three archaic motifs, later related to a mythical smith with no name (Toporov 1970). Unfortunately, the connection of these motifs (Heavenly smith as a servant of Perkons; Heavenly smith hammers magic arms; Heavenly smith takes part in the fight of Perkons with Velns (Devil)) with those of Latvian folksong material is vague.

More plausible is the second point of view: the Heavenly smith is Perkons himself (H. Biezais, V. Greble etc.). The well-known riddle textually doubling the introductive formula of most of "Smith songs" - "Smith hammers in the heaven / Coal bursts in the sea" has an answer "Perkons" (LFK 884, 1912). One of the later versions of the "Smith songs" tells: "Perkons hammers in the heaven" (LTDZ 10495).

5. War god
This hypothetical function of Perkons (see Ivanov etc.) is probably rooted in Dumezil's division of the main Indo-European deities according their social functions: juridical power, defense (war affairs) and promotion of fertility (Dumezil 1986). Although Perkons is well armed, he is not involved in war affairs. Therefore, according Dumezil's division, he undoubtedly fulfils the role of a fertility god.

Appearance
In Latvian folklore Perkons appears most often as a well-armed rider, e.g., the riddle: "Golden horse, silver rider" has an answer "Perkons". The diversity of arms differentiates him from other Latvian deities. Perkons has a sword, an iron rod, a golden whip, a fiery club, also a gun, a knife and a specific one - a thunder-ball. Perkons uses his arms to create thunder and lightning and in persecution of the Devil.

Archaeologists have discovered that among other adornments, small axes as the symbols of Perkons were worn on the clothing of the ancient Balts. It seems that the idea of Perkons' axe has its origin in beliefs about Perkons' ball, well known also in the other parts of Europe. Latvian belief states: "Ancient sharpened stone axes are taken for thunder-balls and it is believed that they can heal illnesses." (LTT 23341)

Perkons' horse, on the one hand, belongs to the paradigm of folksong horses, ideal of which is a well-kept and a splendidly equipped young man's horse. On the other hand, in some texts description of Perkons' horse has a specific mytho-poetical background - it is "stone horse" (LD 33705), "led mare" (LD 33712), etc. Perkons can ride also a cloud or lightning. The chariot is a well-known attribute of a Thunder god (e.g., in Lithuanian, Hindu, Scandinavian, etc. mythologies) and is not characteristic for Latvian Perkons.

Perkons' portrait in Latvian folklore is formed using the traditional formulas: "old man" and "tiny man". The first of them in version Vecais tevs (Old father, LD 33719) appears in folksongs, but in versions "Old man with white beard" (LFK 720,2, LFK 941,2681), "Grey haired man with long beard", (LP vol.7, p.465) - in folk legends. Taking into account that this formula in Latvian folklore texts fits for portraying also God, Devil and the Old man - leader of flying lakes (sometimes concretized as God and Perkons) as well as Old man in magic spells, it belongs to the internationally recognized archetype of the Old man. The formula "tiny man" does not express doubts in Perkons power, although sometimes it has a lightly humorous connotation. In one legend type the formula obtains a special meaning, opposing Perkons as a "tiny man" to the Devil appearing as a "tall (black) man". Generally the formula "tiny man" is less characteristic for the description of Perkons than of God, Devil etc.


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