On the way into Stari Grad from Dol, there’s a small chapel by the roadside, with a rather curious stone relief above the door. You could debate whether it’s an ox or a bear, but what is it doing there, next to St Helena? She’s the cross-bearer, not generally associated with any animals. Rumour had it that the ox/bear was a remnant of an earlier cult brought over from the mainland by refugees.
Recently, a notice has been added to the chapel, explaining that the “bearded bear” is related to the older worship of the Slavic goddess Mokoš (Mokosh) on this site. She was apparently the mother earth goddess, also associated with the sun, and formed a threesome with Perun (god of thunder) and Veles (god of the underworld). Their worship sites nearby have also been replaced by Christian churches – Sv Vid / St Vitius on Mount Hum near Vrbanj for Perun, and St Michael in Dol for Veles. The triangle joining these locations has an angle of 23 degrees, and this is the first such example of this type of sacred triangle to be discovered on the island of Hvar.
Well, that’s interesting, but I’ve never heard of Mokoš before, or have the least idea why 23 degrees should be important. So, time for a bit of research to fill in the gaps! It turns out that these gods date from the dark ages, around the 7th and 8th centuries, when the Slavs moved into the area, and sadly they didn’t write. What we know about Mokoš, Perun and Veles comes to us from the early Christian chroniclers, as they destroyed or replaced the previous traditions. These gods and their worship are part of an ancient Indo-European culture, related to other Slavic traditions across Europe.
Mokoš was the goddess of fertility, protector of women, especially when pregnant, watching over activities such as spinning, weaving and sewing, and she also represented the sun. As the earth mother, she’s probably from an even older tradition than the male gods she’s associated with. Wife of Perun, and mistress of Veles, her festival was the equinox, when the sun changed from being high in the sky (with Perun) to spending more time below (with Veles).
Perun was the chief Slavic god, who lived up in the clouds, throwing thunderbolts around. He’s associated with mountain tops, oak trees and other high places. He had a running conflict going with Veles, who he used to vanquish each year, sending him back down to the underworld as light triumphed. His festival is in July/August. Shrines of Perun were on top of mountains or hills, or in sacred groves beneath ancient oaks. Sacrifices to Perun involved bulls, oxen or rams. He first appeared in written history in the 6th century chronicles of the Roman historian Procopius and he lives on in place names, especially high mountains, such as above Podstrana near Split. The Iris flower is known locally as Perunika, as it was believed to grow from ground where lightning has struck.
Veles, as god of the underworld, is associated with water, meadows and low-lying places, where his tree is the willow. He’s usually represented by a snake or dragon, or as a dark hairy bear or wolf. Not all bad, though, as he’s the protector of cattle, farmers and musicians, and brings wealth, magic, music and trickery. His fights with Perun bring rains after the thunderstorms. His festival is in January / February during the darkest part of the year, and Veles was believed to be the protector of travelling musicians. Even in recent times, in some wedding customs of northern Croatia, the musicians will not start to to play until the bridegroom pours some wine on the ground, preferably over the roots of the nearest tree, giving tribute to Veles.
Slavic mythology represents the world as a sacred tree, usually an oak, with Perun at the top, in the shape of an eagle. The branches and trunk were the living world of mortals while the roots represented the underworld, with Veles supporting everything from the bottom. Between them is the fertile earth, represented by Mokoš. The trio can be found all over Europe, for example Vladimir the Great built statues of them in Kiev, where Mokoš was the only female among the gods. The situation of a shared wife/mistress was seen as the cause of the conflict between Perun and Veles, which finally led to a battle with the dragon being vanquished and forced to retreat underground again. The whole thing repeats every year, as the cycle of the seasons, and thunderstorms bringing rain and new growth.
With the advent of Christianity, the sacred sites were taken over, and chapels built over them. Mokoš, because of the association with mother earth was most usually turned into the Virgin Mary, but in this case she became St Helena ( Sv Jelina). Perun usually became St Vitius (Sv Vid) as being associated with the light, while Veles was replaced by a saint portrayed as killing the dragon, so St George or St Michael, although in other places he became St Nicholas. Using the the current location of the replacement churches, you can still see the pattern of the earlier sacred sites.
In 1996, Slovenian archaeologist and historian Andrej Pleterski discovered that the names of the three Slavic deities, Perun, Veles and Mokoš, often appear together in the landscape in a characteristic pattern. Research by anthropologist Vitomir Belaj shows that there were several of these sacred triangles in Croatia, with 12 so far having been identified. Each triangle is arranged on peaks, with the highest dedicated to Perun, and the lower to Veles. Mokoš is usually near water, and there was in fact a seasonal stream that runs from Dol down to the sea. The narrower angles of the triangle are around 23 degrees, because the sun’s deviation between the solstice and the equinox is 23 ° 27΄. This is the only sacred triangle found on Hvar, with others on Brač and Pag, one on the mainland near Split and the largest yet found being up north, on the Pannonian Plain. In 2014, there was an event in Zagreb at the National and University Library aimed at understanding the topography of these sacred sites.
So what about that “bearded bear” in the relief? It seems to me that it should belong to big hairy Veles, not feminine Mokoš. The chapel of Sv Jelina dates to the 16th century, so it’s certainly possible that the stone carving has been relocated from Veles’ site in Dol. Or is this a deliberate statement that Mokoš is now permanently in the underworld with Veles?
Find out more:
Other articles in Croatian:
Povratak Peruna, Velesa i Mokosi, otkrivanje njihovih kozmicko – ljubavnih trokuta article from Slobodna Dalmacija 30 listopada 2014:
Nasa stara vjera Nova Akropola