The Slavs initially believed that Veles exclusively appears in the shape of a bear even though he is able to transform into various other animals that he protects.
In later scriptures, like almost all major gods, Veles became a demon, lost his primary functions and was associated with the devil and the underworld probably because of his human form that looked like a strong, young man with horns.
Like most gods of the ancient Slavs, Veles too was a warrior god who was willing to fight to defend his domain. The Slavs respected him because they saw him as a god on which their survival depended on.
Veles in Southern Slavic Tradition
In southern Slav tradition Veles is known as the Lord of the forest, and there he’s a wolf god, Lord of all wolves. He later became St. Vlaho (Blaise), patron saint of Croatian city of Dubrovnik . This connection is implied in a folk tale about St. Vlaho in which he persuades the wolf to return his prey safe and sound. Other than that, according to a legend from Dubrovnik, Vlaho was a friend to all beasts who used to live among them and heal them.
There’s also an interesting belief among all of the Slavs that once a year, summoned by their master all of the forest creatures gather at the center of the forest.
The image of Veles as a bear might have come from the Slav belief that the Bear is the king of the forest that protects and takes care of all other animals, plants and the forest itself.
The bond between Volos and animals goes so far that some believe that his very name originated from the word vlas which means a single strand of hair or fur. Because of that, Volos is sometimes called the bear god.
Related post: Book of Veles
Veles, a Russian Saint
Later his image changed to one of a bull, probably under the influence of Christianity.
When Christianity really caught on he became St. Vlasiy, a Russian saint, portrayed as an old shepherd guiding his sheep. This claim is backed up by the fact that in Novgorod, Russia the temple of St. Vlasiy was built on the exact spot where Volos’ idol stood for centuries and of course, this ’’transfer of functions“ was really common.
There is a difference though, this Christian saint, St. Vlasiy, is considered the patron saint and protector of the cattle and Volos was first and foremost the god of the wild who shape-shifted into wild and dangerous animals.
In fact, in Russia, Veles had the image of a one-eyed giant so there’s a theory that his name comes from the adjective velij which means big.
Perun and Veles: Sworn Enemies
It is said that Perun, the god of thunder, and Veles are sworn enemies, a metaphor for the eternal battle against heaven and earth. Perun wins but Veles always grows again.
There’s no doubt that this god was held in high regard by all of the Slavs. He was a prominent figure in the mythology of all Slav tribes, especially the eastern and the southern ones. Veles is the only god, except Perun, that was respected and worshiped among all Slav tribes.