Contributed by Baiba Meistere
"Thunder." Pērkons (Lithuanian Perkūnas, Prussian Percunis, Russian Perun) — Thunder god — is one of the main deities in Baltic folk religion. Etymologically, the word pērkons is derived from the Indo-European stems per(k)1 or per+g(q).2
There are three possible interpretations of the word's etymology:3
- God of thunder and rain;4
- God of height, mountain, comparable to Gothic fairguni, "mountain." Hethic peruna, "rock," old Hindu parvata, "mountain;"5
- God of oaks, perk-us as compared to Latin quercus, "oak."6
According to archaeological data, the cult of Pērkons in the 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 Pērkons (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 few 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 Pērkons' manifestations in Latvian folk religion.
The functional synonyms of Pērkons' name in Latvian folklore are:
- Perkonins, Perkonitis — likely a diminutive form, characteristic of Latvian folk song (dainas) meter, and rarely used in other texts;
- Pērkona tēvs — father Pērkons;
- Vecais tēvs — Old father (see further);
- Dievins — diminutive form of Dievs, the God, the central figure in Latvian folk religion.
Although sometimes denoted with the same word — Dievins — each of the deities, Dievs and Pērkons, maintain their own sphere of influence. As Latvian folk religion cannot be discussed in terms of a hierarchy of gods, a subordinate position of Pērkons (e.g., in magic spells or some legend types), its substitution by Dievs (e.g., in the legends, where Pērkons takes care of people's welfare), can be regarded as a display of Christian syncretism. Formula Dievins in Latvian folklore serves also for denoting 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 example7 clearly Dievins is Pērkons:
- Dievins rūc, Dievins rūc.
- Zibenus met ozol...
- "Dievins roars, Dievins roars,
And throws lightning into an oak."
1. Fertility god.
The origin of Pērkons is closely connected with its natural appearance — rain, thunder, and lightning. The word pērkons 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 Pērkons 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 Pērkons by first pouring him beer, which is then brought around the fire, and at last pour it in this fire, asking Pērkons to give them rain.
Consequently the main function of Pērkons is promoting fertility. All of Pērkons' 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 Pērkons himself. Obviously Pērkons' 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 Pērkons to bring rain, because the "shoots of barley are faded"8 as well as thanks Pērkons for the harvest in autumn. In some legend types traces of food offerings to Pērkons are preserved. Some examples:
- To entice Pērkons, 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 Pērkons. Pērkons strikes the man.9
- Pērkons drowns a woman named Baba, because she has violated the ritual norms, offering Pērkons spoiled food or grass.10 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.11
2. Persecution of a Devil.
The notable contributors to the Indo-European 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)12 regard Pērkons/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, Pērkons 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 Pērkons (frequently substituted by Dievs as the Christian God) as one who implements an absolute justice, is obvious the result of the influence of the Christian worldview. There is no folksong text with the direct reflection of the fight between Pērkons and Velns, although a few allusions are met: a man kills the Devil (Jods) with a sword, hammered of sparkles made by the Heavenly smith (Pērkons).13
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 dēls) or Morning star (Auseklis) or Moon (Mēness, masculine in Latvian) marries Sun's daughter (Saules meita, Sun - female in Latvian), and Pērkons is a relative of the bride (sometimes of the groom). On his way to the wedding Pērkons strikes the golden oak. The oak is the Thunder god's tree, not only in Latvian folk religion. There are some hypotheses as to why Pērkons strikes the oak. They were discussed, among others, by Zicâns in 1936. The most appropriate version for Latvian folksong material is that, by striking the oak, Pērkons performs an act of exorcism, expelling evil spirits. (Velns frequently hides under the roots of an oak.) 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, Völundr in Scandinavian and Ilmarinen in Finnish mythologies.14 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.15 Unfortunately, the connection of these motifs (Heavenly smith as a servant of Pērkons; Heavenly smith hammers magic arms; Heavenly smith takes part in the fight of Pērkons with Velns)) with those of Latvian folksong material is vague.
More plausible is the second point of view: the Heavenly smith is Pērkons himself.16 The well-known riddle textually doubling the introductory formula of most of "Smith songs" - "Smith hammers in the heaven / Coal bursts in the sea" has an answer "Pērkons."17 One of the later versions of the "Smith songs" tells: "Pērkons hammers in the heaven."
5. War god
This hypothetical function of Pērkons (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.19 Although Pērkons is well armed, he is not involved in war affairs. Therefore, according Dumezil's division, he undoubtedly fulfils the role of a fertility god.
In Latvian folklore Pērkons appears most often as a well-armed rider, e.g., the riddle: "Golden horse, silver rider" has an answer "Pērkons." The diversity of arms differentiates him from other Latvian deities. Pērkons has a sword, an iron rod, a golden whip, a fiery club, also a gun, a knife and a specific one - a thunder-ball. Pērkons 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 Pērkons were worn on the clothing of the ancient Balts. It seems that the idea of Pērkons' axe has its origin in beliefs about Pērkons' 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.20
Pērkons' horse, on the one hand, belongs to the paradigm of folksong horses, the ideal of which is a well-kept and a splendidly equipped young man's horse. On the other hand, in some texts the description of Pērkons' horse has a specific mytho-poetical background - it is "stone horse,"21 "led mare,"22 etc. Pērkons can ride also a cloud or lightning. The chariot is a well-known attribute of a Thunder god and is not characteristic for the Latvian Pērkons.
Pērkons' portrait in Latvian folklore is formed using the traditional formulas: "old man" and "tiny man." The first version, Vecais tēvs,23 appears in folksongs, but the versions "Old man with white beard,"24 "Gray haired man with long beard,"25 appear in folk legends. Taking into account that this formula in Latvian folklore texts fits portraying also God, Devil and the Old man - leader of flying lakes (sometimes concretized as God and Pērkons) 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 Pērkons' power, although sometimes it has a light humorous connotation. In one legend type the formula gets a special meaning, opposing Pērkons as a "tiny man" is the Devil appearing as a "tall (black) man." Generally the formula "tiny man" is less characteristic for the description of Pērkons than of God, Devil etc.
Pērkons is depicted armed with weapons.
- Ivanov, Toporov 1974, 1985.
- Muelenbach 1904, Endzelins 1951.
- Biezais 1972.
- Muelenbach, Wiedemann.
- Karsten, Ivanov.
- Porzig, Hirt, Speht.
- LD 33700.
- LD 33711.
- LFK 1552, 8518.
- LFK 828, 21517.
- LTT 23472.
- Ivanov, Toporov 1974.
- LD 33731.
- Ivanov, Toporov, Gimbutas etc.
- Toporov 1970.
- H. Biezais, V. Greble etc.
- LFK 884, 1912.
- LTDZ 10495.
- Dumezil 1986.
- LTT 23341.
- LD 33705.
- LD 33712.
- Old father, LD 33719.
- LFK 720,2, LFK 941,2681.
- LP vol.7, p.465.
- Jordan, Michael. (2004). Dictionary of Gods and Goddesses, Second Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc.