Chapter VIII


And inasmuch as they [the Prussians] did not know of [the Christian] God, it so happened that they worshipped the entire creature-world instead of God, namely: the sun, moon and stars, the thunder, birds, even the four-legged animals including toads. They also had holy groves, sacred fields and waters.

(Chronicon Prussiae, by Peter Dusburg, 1326)

It is with great astonishment that the first missionaries in the Baltic lands, the annalists of the Teutonic Order and many later chroniclers describe all the “incredibilia” of the pagan religion: cremation rites; the belief in reincarnation; the veneration of holy groves, trees, fields, waters and fire; the existence of many gods and spirits; bloody sacrificial offerings and soothsayings. The Teutonic Order carried the Christian cross to Prussia and to Latvia, but they succeeded more easily in subduing these people politically than spiritually. The Prussian villagers remained pagan until their extermination in the seventeenth century, even though officially they accepted baptism in the thirteenth century and all pagan rites and customs were strictly forbidden. This was also the case in western Latvia. Lithuania joined the Christian Church only in 1387 when the Lithuanian grand duke Jogaila, son of Algirdas, married the Polish princess Jadwiga and became king of Poland. Even then, while the Christian faith infiltrated the palaces of the nobility and cities, the villagers retained the old religion for many more centuries.

The customs, beliefs, mythological songs and folk art symbolism of the Lithuanians and Latvians are amazingly replete with antiquity. The Christian stratum is recent and can be easily detached. For comparative religion, the value of the


Lithuanian and Latvian folklore and folk art is the same as that of the Baltic languages for the reconstruction of the “mother tongue” of the Indo-Europeans. The pre-Christian stratum is so ancient that it undoubtedly reaches back to prehistoric times — at least to the Iron Age or in the case of some elements even several millennia farther. What the Christian heralds, being foreigners and not understanding native languages, saw and described is usually superficial. The basic source in reconstructing the ancient Baltic religion is folklore, which splendidly supplements the passages of the recorded history and the archaeological monuments.

“Domos Sacros,” “Sacras Villas” and “Sancti Viri”

Baltic architecture was entirely of wood, as it was in all northern Europe. “Domos sacros” and “sacras villas,” known from the documents of the fourteenth century,1 have not survived; and on the sites of the pagan sanctuaries Christian churches arose during the succeeding centuries. It was not until the excavations of 1955–7 that, in the lands of the eastern Baits, remains of a number of wooden temples and large sanctuaries were uncovered. Excavations by Tret’jakov south of Smolensk clearly showed that some of the fortified hill-top villages were not regular habitation sites, but sanctuaries.2 The uncovered hill-top sanctuaries date from the first century B.C. to about the sixth or seventh centuries A.D., and some of them revealed several successive layers with residues of round wooden temples. These certainly are the predecessors of the “sacred villas” known to early history. Some of the “sacred towns” in central and eastern Lithuania, it is said, were important religious centers to which people from several provinces repaired for religious practices.

One of the best excavated sanctuaries is the small hill-fort of Tushemlja, 50 km. south of Smolensk and located on the small River Tushemlja, tributary of the Sozh. Its lowest layer, dating from the fifth to fourth centuries B.C., yielded many post holes, but it was not possible to reconstruct these earliest


Fig. 58. Plan of a Baltic sanctuary with a round temple inside. Tushemlja, south of Smolensk. a, remains of timber structures around the inner side of the rampart; b, pits from timber posts supporting the roof, and from remains of gate and temple; c, sandy rampart along the edges of the bill


buildings and we cannot tell whether the site was already a sanctuary in the Early Iron Age. In the layer from the second–third centuries A.D., traces of a round building 6 m. in diameter appeared. It had timber posts, about 20 cm. thick. Within the area were more post-holes, and in the middle a huge pit, 50 cm. wide and 70 cm. deep, presumed to be the remains of a wooden idol or altar. Superimposed on this layer was a cultural stratum dating from approximately the sixth or seventh centuries, with remains of another round temple, this one within a large structure covering the whole top of the hill-fort, which was surrounded by a sandy rampart 3 m. high. Small wooden rectangular, room-like structures adjoining one another and containing stone hearths encircled the inner side of the rampart. The entire oval structure, measuring 20 × 30 m., is presumed to have been covered by a single roof supported on two rows of large posts, the space between the inner and the outer rows being 4.5 m. The posts probably terminated in vertical mortises to hold the horizontal beams. Some additional pits and burnt timber beams between the two rows of posts hint at internal walls. It has not been possible to reconstruct the roof itself; the excavator thinks that it was covered over with earth. In the middle of the northern wall was a gate-like entrance. The round temple, 5.5 m. in diameter and standing in the north-eastern end of the sanctuary, had at its centre a large pit, all that remained of what had once been a huge timber post.

At Gorodok, 12 km. from Tushemlja, an almost identical sanctuary was brought to light. Its earliest cultural remains date back to the first century B.C., and its latest are contemporary with the upper layer of Tushemlja. Here too the remains of a round temple were found superimposed on an older one. The temple, 5 m. in diameter, was built of vertical split beams convex on the outside. Within the temple was found the skull of a large bear, apparently associated with the wooden


post that stood in the middle. Several other sanctuaries are now known from the area of Smolensk, Mogilev, and Minsk.

What was the purpose of the wooden post inside the temple? It may have been either an image of a god or just a post capped by animal skulls or heads. Until the twentieth century the skull of a horse or bull (or the horns alone) was believed in Lithuania to afford protection against the “evil eye,” illness in human beings or animals, hailstorms or other natural perils, and was raised on a high pole wherever the danger threatened. Until very recently, horses” heads, horns, he-goats, rams, cocks and other birds were used as gable decoration on roof-tops.

The presence of priests who performed rites and recited prayers cannot be doubted. In the early historic records they are continually mentioned, as “sancti viri,” “auguri,” “nigromantici,” “sacerdotes.” In 1075, Adam of Bremen, writing about the Curonians, said: “All their houses are full of pagan soothsayers, diviners, and necromancers, who are even arrayed in a monastic habit. Oracular responses are sought there from all parts of the world, especially by Spaniards and Greeks.”3 The priests were wise old men chosen by the people and held in greatest respect. Sixteenth century sources say they were regarded as divine personages, similar to the Christian bishops.4 Peter von Dusburg wrote in 1326 that in the Prussian province of Nadruva, in the place called Romuva, there was a powerful priest named Krivė, whom the people regarded as pope, and whose dominion extended not only over Nadruva, but also over Lithuania, Curonia and Semigallia. The only such “pope” known to recorded history, Krivė was highly respected by the kings, nobility and common people, and his rule covered almost all the Baltic lands during the wars with the Teutonic Order.5 It is doubtful whether such powerful priests existed in the earlier periods; the emergence of priestly power in the fourteenth century may have resulted from the old religion being endangered at this particular period by the


invasion of Christian enemies. Theocracy is not attested among the Baltic peoples; political power was in the hands of the kings. The pagan religion, however, was universal and profoundly influenced all spheres of life.

The Dead

The custom of cremation persisted long after the introduction of Christianity and was abolished only as the result of a fierce struggle against the practice by the Christian missionaries. Lithuanian kings and dukes were cremated with great pomp until the end of the fourteenth century. Algirdas was cremated with 18 horses in 1377 in the forest north of Vilnius. “He was cremated with the best horses, clothes, resplendent in gold and girdled with a gilted silver belt and was covered with a gown woven of beads and gems.”6 Algirdas’ brother Kęstutis was buried in a similar manner in 1382, “and splendidly could be seen a deep pit in man’s length full of ashes ... and nothing there escaped death: horses, clothes, weapons, etc., all were cremated; hunting birds and dogs were cremated with him.”7 The historian Dlugosz, writing at the beginning of the fifteenth century, mentions that Lithuanians had hearths in holy groves, each family and house its own, where they cremated their relatives and closest friends, along with horses, saddles and costly clothes.8 A French envoy, Ghillebert de Lanoy, who traveled in Curonia in 1413, noted that there was a sect among the Curonians who still cremated their dead in full dress and with the costliest ornaments on a pyre of pure oak trees in a near-by forest.9 The sacred groves where the cremation rites were performed were usually on a hill or elevation called “Alka.” Excavations have revealed large pits and hearths filled with charcoal and ashes, among which were found fragments of animal and human bones, swords and burnt ornaments, tools and weapons.”10

Without the written records to supplement what we know from cremation graves in barrows or flat graves we could not establish all that was involved in the funeral pomp. The Anglo-Saxon


traveler Wulfstan, during his stay in the lands of the Prussians (Aistians) about 880–90, happened to make extremely valuable observations about the preservation of the dead before cremation, and about the funeral races. I shall cite his text in full:

And there is a custom among the Aistians that when a person dies he lies unburnt surrounded by his relatives and friends for a month, sometimes two, and the kings and other nobles — the longer the more wealthy they are, sometimes for half a year they lie unburnt in their houses. And all this time while the corpse is in the house, drinking goes on and sports are performed until the day on which it is cremated. Then the same day they carry it to the pyre, they divide his property left after drinking bouts and games into five or six parts, or sometimes into more which depends on the wealth of the deceased. Then they lay the largest part about a mile from the town, then another, then a third, so until all his property is laid within the mile; and the least portion must be nearest to the town in which the dead man lies. Then about five or six miles from the property shall be assembled all the men who have the swiftest horses in the country. These men all run towards the property. He who has the swiftest horse comes first to the largest portion, and so one after the other, until the whole property is taken, and he takes the least portion who takes that which is nearest to the town, and then everyone rides away with the property, and they may have it all. On this account, swift horses are extremely expensive. When the whole property is thus dispersed, they carry him out and cremate him with his weapons and clothes. Almost the whole property of the dead man is spent while he is kept so long in the house, and through that they lay its part on the way to which the strangers


run for and take away. And it is a custom among the Aistians that people of every language shall be cremated; and if anyone finds a bone unconsumed, compensation must be made [they shall make a great atonement]. And there is among the Aistians a tribe that can produce cold, and therefore the dead whom they freeze can lie so long and do not putrefy. If anyone sets two vessels full of ale or water, they contrive that both be frozen, be it summer or be it winter.11

To preserve the dead and keep them unburied for a long period was a custom deriving from earliest antiquity, probably universal in all Indo-European groups. We know that the skeletons from the Kurgan Pit-Grave and Catacomb-Grave culture before 2000 and in the beginning of the second millennium B.C. north of the Black Sea are often found dismembered, which may be the result of keeping the bodies in the open for a long time. Signs of fly larvae having fed on the Bronze Age skeletons of upper-class people in Central Europe point in a similar direction.12 Various ways of preserving and embalming the dead were known to the Baltic tribes during the whole span of historic times.

For the protracted funeral meals, the Baltic šermenys (the word being connected with “feeding,” šerti, to feed), oxen were slaughtered. Lamentation songs, the raudos surviving still in the villages of Lithuania and Latvia and mentioned in written records since the thirteenth century, must certainly have been a part of the funeral wakes at prehistoric burials. Even when at war, the Balts needed many days to lament the deceased and cremate them. Thus, in 1210, during the war with the Order of the Sword, the Curonians at Riga, had to stop the battle for three days for cremation and lamentation: et mortuos suos cremantes fecerunt planctum super eos.13 The dead were lamented, praised and bidden farewell so as to ensure that they would


safely arrive in the kingdom of the dead and stay among parents, brothers, sisters, and other relatives. The lamentation songs were regularly forbidden by the Christian missionaries, and the lamenters were fined; but even so the raudos have survived up till modern times, thus preserving beautiful pieces of lyrical and extremely touching folk poetry.

The death of a farmer had to be immediately announced to his horses and cattle, and when a bee-keeper died, the bees had to be told; otherwise, the animals and bees would die out. The horse was not allowed to carry its master to the cemetery; if it did, it would die or fall sick. These beliefs, still held in Lithuanian villages at the beginning of the twentieth century, are the last traces of the great love that existed between man and animal. In prehistoric times, it was believed that the animals went to the other world to live there with their master. During the first centuries A.D., in Prussia and Lithuania, horses were buried in the standing position and in full attire, ready to be mounted. Dusburg, in speaking of the Prussian religion in 1326, clearly stated that the Notangians, one of the central Prussian tribes, used to be cremated on horseback (in equo crematus or ligatus super equum suum est crematus).14 That horses were buried alive is shown by the fact that some of them had their legs bound with ropes, their eyes bandaged, and a nose-bag filled with oat stems attached to the head. From Dusburg we also learn that before the cremation the horse would be driven around as long as it could stand on its feet. Deceased warriors and farmers, it was said, rode their horses through the sky to the realm of the souls, and on horses they usually returned to earth to visit their families and to attend the feast of the dead in October and on many other anniversaries. Written records of the seventeenth century mention that during the feast of the dead, the intestines and skin of a horse were brought to the grave in order to help the dead come on horseback to the host’s house.15


During the protracted wars between the Teutons and Lithuanians, the annalists who described the gruesome fights and sieges in Lithuania often expressed shocked surprise at seeing how readily the Lithuanians took their own lives. The most horrifying incident occurred in 1336 in the castle of Pilėnai on the River Nemunas. When the Lithuanians perceived they could no longer hold out against the Teuton onslaught, they kindled a huge fire, threw all their possessions and treasures into it, killed their wives and children, and then offered up their necks to their chief, the duke Margiris, for decapitation. During this same siege, an old woman decapitated with an axe 100 men who voluntarily accepted death at her hands; then, when the enemy broke in, she split in two her own head with the same axe. The annalist, Wigand von Marburg, who described this scene in his rhymed chronicle of 1393–4, characterized the spectacle as superhuman and ended with the words: “However, it is not amazing, since they did that according to their religion and they regarded the death much easier.”16 After an unsuccessful attack by the Lithuanians in Estonia in 1205, 50 wives of the fallen warriors hanged themselves. “It is no wonder,” writes Henry of Latvia in his Chronicon Livoniae, “since they believed that very soon they would live together with their husbands.”17

In the light of these records, the many “collective” graves that occur in the Baltic area from the Chalcolithic period to the early centuries of history can be attributed to the obligatory death and burial of the surviving wife, husband, child or children upon the death of a member of the family. When the feudal chief or the king died, not only the members of his family but also his servants and favorite slaves had to follow suit. The practice of burying “with people” was forbidden by those who brought the Christian faith, but echoes of it are still to be found in some customs and folk songs of the Latvians and Lithuanians. Thus, at the funeral of a betrothed girl or


boy, the burial ceremony is more like a wedding: wedding songs are sung, dances are danced, and both the living and the deceased partner are dressed in wedding costume. It was believed that dead relatives and friends also joined in celebrating the wedding. Even in this century the Lithuanian girl has been known to bring a wreath of rue, the symbol of chastity, to the grave of her beloved. The wedding of the dead is not simply connected with belief in the continuity of the earthly life after death, but also with the belief that people who die unmarried and all those who die an unnatural death are a danger to the living since they have not lived through the whole span of life. In the Baltic languages, the word for the devil or the evil spirit, the velnias, derives from the dangerous dead who return and threaten the living.

The Baltic vėlės — etherealizations of the deceased — go to live their family and village community lives, to “a sandy hill, a hill of vėlės,” where they have their houses or chambers, tables and walls, and where they are covered with linen cloths. The “hill of vėlės” has gates through which the tides enter, and benches on which they sit, and these features recur in descriptions of the after-life in Latvian and Lithuanian folk poetry. The verses would seem to have preserved the image of the ancient burial mounds, the wooden chambers or stone cists. Many passages in the Latvian folk songs speak of a cemetery on a small sandy hill, often so full of graves that there is no more room for new arrivals.18 They may reflect the communal Bronze Age barrows with hundreds of graves, or the Iron Age barrows with a number of graves of one family.

If the realm of the vėlės on “a high sandy hill” in the neighborhood of the village reflects the more realistic side of this people’s beliefs about life after death, there also exists an imaginary hill, or a steep stone hill, which the dead have to climb, and therefore they need to have good fingernails or the aid of animal claws. On this steep hill Dievas (God) resides and


summons the vėlės. Here we begin to see the connection between the god’s (Lithuanian Dievas, Lettish Dievs) abode and that of the dead. Further, we learn from the mythological songs that the goal is not the hill, which is the image of the sky, but is the place beyond the hill.

The way to this mystical place is long. The vėlės may ride on horses through the sky, they may rise with the smoke of the fire, or fly like birds through the Milky Way, which in Lithuanian means “the Birds’ Way”; they may also go by boat as does the Sun at night through the waters — the sea, the Daugava or Nemunas rivers — to the west. There the Sun sleeps, there she washes her horses and there appear other gods, Dievas, the Thunder god, the Moon, and the deity of the Sea. And somewhere in this remote place are the grey stone and the sun-tree, or the iron post, and at the post two horses. These represent the cosmic tree of the Balts, the axis of the sky, having close analogies in Hindu, Roman, Slavic and Germanic mythologies. In folklore it is usually the oak-tree or birch-tree with silver leaves, copper branches, and iron roots; sometimes it is an enormous linden or an apple-tree. It stands on the stone, at the end of “the way of the Sun.” The Sun hangs her belt on the branches, sleeps in the crown of this tree and, when she rises in the morning, the tree becomes red.19

“Beyond the hill is my mother, there where the sun is,” runs the Latvian song. The dead travel to the realm of the gods, to the realm of light, to the end of the visible world. It is still said: “He is in the realm of dausos.” The Lithuanian word dausos preserves the meaning of a mysterious realm and cannot be translated either into “paradise” or into “heaven.”

The departure of the vėlė does not mean the end of the physical ties of the dead with the living. Besides the vėlė, which is comparable to the Greek psyche, there was the siela, related to the Roman anima or the Greek pneuma, meaning a living power which did not depart from the earth. It was reincarnated in


trees, flowers, animals, birds. It would leave the body as a breath, a vapor, and immediately find a lodging in plants, animals or birds. Sometimes it would issue directly from the mouth in the shape of a butterfly, a bee, a mouse, a toad, a snake, or grow out of the mouth of a young girl in the shape of a lily. Most frequently, however, it would be reincarnated in trees: men’s spirits, in oaks, birches and ash trees; women’s, in linden and spruce. The Baltic peoples have extremely intimate relations with these trees. The oak and the linden are basic trees in folklore. At the time of one’s birth, a specific tree is assigned to one, and it grows imbued with the same life forces as its human counterpart. If the tree is cut down, the person dies. Trees growing in the old cemeteries of Lithuania are never touched by a pruner’s hand, for there is an adage saying that to cut a cemetery tree is to do evil to the deceased. Neither is it permissible to mow the grass: “From cemetery grass our blood flows,” runs the old proverb. Next after the plants, spirits were most likely to pass into birds — women into a cuckoo or a duck, men into a falcon, a pigeon, a raven, or a cock. Some would also be reincarnated in wolves, bears, dogs, horses and cats. In the Protestant cemeteries of the mid-nineteenth century in Prussian Lithuania (the area of Klaipėda), wooden tomb-stones were found resembling the shapes of toads or other reptiles, combined with motifs of flowers and birds, and other tomb monuments were capped with horses’ heads.

Earth is the Great Mother. All life comes from her: humans, plants, animals. In Lettish she is called Zemes māte, “mother earth,” in Lithuanian Žemyna, from žemė, “earth.” Her anthropomorphic image is vague; she is the Earth holding the mystery of eternal life. She is called by such picturesque names as “the blossomer,” “the bud raiser.” Her functions are distributed among the separate minor deities of forest, field, stones, water and animals, who in Latvian folklore acquired the names “mother of forests,” “mother of fields,” “mother of springs,”


“mother of domestic animals,” etc. Cardinal Oliver Scholasticus, Bishop of Paderborn, in his description of the Holy Land written about 1220, refers to Baltic heathens as follows: “They honour forest nymphs, forest goddesses, mountain spirits, low-lands, waters, field spirits and forest spirits. They expected divine assistance from virgin forests, wherein they worshipped springs and trees, mounds and hills, steep stones and mountains slopes — all of which presumably endowed mankind with strength and power.”20

Man is born of the earth; babies emerge from springs, pools, swamps, trees or hillocks. As recently as the eighteenth century, Lithuanians offered gifts to Žemyna upon the birth of a child. Earth was to be kissed in the morning and in the evening. Offerings to the might of the earth — ale, bread, grains, herbs, or a sheaf of rye — were interred, laid in front of stones, attached to trees or thrown into the sea, rivers, lakes and springs. According to seventeenth century records, there were no festivals in villages during which the earth deity, Žemyna, was not venerated.21

During the festival in the month of October, next after Žemyna the Lithuanians venerated the deity of the homestead, Žemėpatis or Žemininkas, who was considered to be a brother of Žemyna. The deity of the homestead also appears in Lithuanian as Dimstipatis (from dimstis, “homestead”). Latvians have Mājas Kungs, “the master of homestead.” A separate deity was the lord of the fields, the Lithuanian Laukpatis (from laukas, “field” and patis, “lord”) or Lauksargis, the “guardian of the fields” (sargas, “the guardian”), and there were deities or spirits of flowers, foliage, grass and meadows, rye or flax and hemp fields. The corn spirit hid in the rye or other grain fields and was believed to be incarnated in the final sheaf to be reaped. The Lithuanians used to make this sheaf of rye into the shape of a woman; it is still called rugių boba, “the old one of the rye.” She was brought home, celebrated at the harvest festival, and then kept


in the house until the next year’s harvest. The Prussian corn spirit assumed the shape of a cock, called Kurke (known as Curche in the Latin text of the treaty between the Teutonic Order and the Prussians of 1249).22 A cock was offered during the harvest festival, and in the fields some ears of corn were left for the corn spirit.

Trees and flowers, groves and forests, stones and hillocks, and waters were endowed with miraculous life-giving forces. They were thought to bring blessings upon human beings by healing diseases, safeguarding them against misfortunes, and assuring health and fertility. All manifestations of the earth’s fecundity were lovingly cared for and protected; the written records from the eleventh-fifteenth centuries repeatedly mention a profound respect for groves, trees and springs, and the “ignorant ones” (i.e. the Christians) were forbidden access to the sacred forests or groves (“sacrosanctos sylvas”). No one was permitted to cut trees in sacred forests, to fish in sacred springs, or to plough in sacred fields, which were referred to variously as Alka, Alkas or Elkas, and were guarded by “tabu.” The name itself shows that these reservations of virgin nature were untouchable and protected places: the root alk-, elk-, is related to Gothic alhs, Old English ealh, Old Saxon alah, the “protected,” “invulnerable.” In the holy Alkas votive offerings to the gods were made and human cremations took place. The usual animal offerings were boars and pigs, he-goats, sheep, calves, cocks and hens, as testified by the excavations and the historical records. Here too, by decapitation and cremation, the Baltic heathens offered their enemies to the gods.

Since the holy places were imbued with silence, a number of sacred hills and forests in East Prussia and Lithuania carry names having the root rom-, ram-, which means “quiet”; one of these is the sacred hill of Rambynas on the north bank of the lower Nemunas near Tilžė (Tilsit), mentioned in records ever since the fourteenth century. A stone with a flat surface


formerly crowned this hill and votive offerings were placed on it by newly married couples seeking fertility at home and good crops in the field. The water found up on Rambynas was eagerly sought after for drinking and washing. Forests and towns called Romuva, Romainiai and the like have historic traditions going back to the ancient sacred places. The fourteenth century records mention a sacred town (“villa”) Romene in central Lithuania.23

Oak, linden, birch, maple, pine and spruce were prominent among miraculous trees. Particularly the old, mighty, twin-boled trees were believed to possess strong healing powers. They were untouchable, none dared cut them down. Historic records since the thirteenth century mention “sacred oaks,” consecrated to the god Perkūnas, or “sacred linden trees,” consecrated to Laima, the goddess of fate, to which offerings were brought. Such trees were surrounded by a ditch or a stone circle. A stick from an ash tree, a twig of juniper, elder, willow, or southern wood (artemisia), or any green bough were regarded as effective weapons against the evil spirits.

Forests had their own goddesses and gods. Medeinė (the name comes from medis, “tree”) was the Lithuanian forest goddess, attested in the thirteenth century records.24 Seventeenth, and eighteenth-century sources mention a male god of forests, Giraitis. In Latvian folklore we encounter a “forest mother” and a “forest father,” and there was also a “mother of shrubs.” A peculiar earth deity living under elderberry bushes was Puškaitis, who ruled over good little subterranean manikins called Barstukai (or Parstukai) and Kaukai. If offerings were made to Puškaitis, the little men brought plenty of corn and did the household work. During special feasts for Barstukai, tables laden with bread, meat, cheese and butter were left in barns, where the little men used to come at midnight and eat. In return for this generous treatment the farmers were rewarded with bountiful crops.25


In songs trees and flowers are not realistically described, but their essential parts are emphasized, the bud and the crown, their vitality and fecundity. “A green linden has grown, with nine branchlets and a gorgeous toplet.” A tree is usually three, seven, or nine “storeys” high. It is a living symbol, guarded in folk art by twin figures or heads of male animals — horses, bulls, stags, he-goats, swans — or it is encircled by suns, moons and stars; or else a bird perches on it. Plants in the folk-songs have golden or silver buds, and the bird atop the tree is a cuckoo, the prophet of human fate.

A peculiar cosmogonical tree of the Baltic peoples was the, wooden, roofed pole topped with symbols of sky deities — suns, moons, stars — and guarded by stallions and snakes. Right up to the present century, roofed poles as well as crosses with a sun. symbol around the cross-arms could be encountered in Lithuania in front of homesteads, in fields, beside sacred springs, or in the forests. [Plate 79] They were erected on the occasion of someone’s marriage or illness, during epidemics, or for the purpose of ensuring good crops. Though none of these perishable monuments are more than two hundred years old, their presence in pre-Christian times is attested by historic documents describing them as relics of the old religion. Christian bishops instructed the clergy to destroy the poles and crosses before which the peasants made offerings and observed other pagan rites. The Lithuanian roofed poles and crosses managed to escape destruction because the people fixed some of the Christian symbols to them, and gradually they came under protection of the Catholic Church. They are, nevertheless, monuments stemming from the pre-Christian faith, as well as illustrious examples of Lithuanian folk art, their symbolic and decorative elements manifesting direct ties with the art of the Iron Age.26

Old legends cluster about huge stones containing holes or “footprints.” To drill a round hole into a stone was to fecundate


the earth force which resides in the stone. Rain water falling into these holes acquired magic properties. Until quite recently, Baltic peasant women coming home from work would stop by such stones to cure their aches and pains by washing themselves with the water. Stones found in the Baltic lands were often incised with symbols of suns and snakes, much as they were elsewhere in northern and western Europe from the Bronze Age onward. A huge stone in the shape of a woman’s torso, known from Lithuania in the nineteenth century, was believed to possess magical qualities that would bestow fecundity on allegedly barren women. From a description given in 1836 we learn that in Lithuania there were stone monuments — usually about 6 feet high, smoothly cut, and surrounded by a ditch — which were dedicated to goddesses who spent their time at the stones spinning the fates of men. In 1605, a Jesuit reported a stone cult in western Lithuania: “Huge stones, with flat surfaces, were called goddesses. Such stones were covered with straw and venerated as protectors of crops and animals.”27

Great numbers of rivers and lakes are called Šventa, Šventoji, Šventupė, Šventežeris, in Lithuania, and Svētā upe, Svētupe, Svētais ezers in Latvia, the names coming from the words švent-as, švent-a (Lithuanian) and svēt-s, svēt-a (Lettish), that which is “sacred,” “holy.” Also, there are many rivers called Alkupė, Alkupis, all of which were sacred and venerated in antiquity, and some of which are still held in esteem. No one dared soil their life-giving water, which had purifying, healing and fertilizing properties. If one gave them holy water, flowers, and trees would blossom bountifully. The fields were sprayed with holy water to ensure good crops, the animals were sprinkled with it to keep them healthy. Washing with clear spring water would heal eye and skin diseases. At the beginning of summer, during the sun festival (the present St John’s night), people would go swimming in the holy waters so that they would be healthy and beautiful and so that young people


would soon marry. Holy were those springs and streams which flow toward the east, toward the sun.28

Water spirits were beautiful women with long breasts, very long blond hair and a fishtail. They were mute. When people happened to see them, they would stare back silently, spread their wet hair and hide their tails. Historic records mention, and folklore has preserved, the names of separate deities of rivers (Lithuanian Upinis), of lakes (Lithuanian Ežerinis), and of the sea-storm (Lithuanian Bangpūtys, the “god of waves,” who sails over the wild sea in a boat which has a golden anchor). The Latvians had juras māte, “mother of the sea.” In sixteenth century descriptions of Prussian gods we find Autrimpas, god of the sea and large lakes; Patrimpas, god of rivers and springs; and Bardoyats, god of ships.29 There was also a separate deity of the rain: the Lithuanian Lytuvonis, known from sixteenth-century sources.30 The deities of the waters demanded offerings. To the river god Upinis, for example, white sucking-pigs were offered lest the water be not clear and transparent.

Fairies, called laumės, peculiar naked women with long hair and long breasts, dwelt in forests, near expanses of water and stones. They were constantly mingling with humans and, yearning for motherhood, frequently used to kidnap infants or small children and dress them in most attractive clothing. They could be extremely good-natured as well as extremely short-tempered. They were the irrational women. They could work fast and spin and launder rapidly, but once angered, they would destroy their handiwork in an instant.

A kind of superior goddess, common to all Balts, was Laima, the goddess of fate. She dispensed human happiness and un happiness as well as determining the length of a person’s life. She controlled not only human life but also that of plants and other living things. Her name is inseparable from laimė, “happiness.” Fate usually appears in the shape of this one deity, but recalled in stories are three or even seven goddesses of fate,


analogous to the Greek moirae and German Nornen. In Lithuanian songs she is sometimes called by a double name Laima-Dalia, “happiness” and “fate.” The Latvians also had Dekla, who was very sympathetic to human life, took care of small children, and grieved over the birth of a baby who was destined to have an unhappy life. Laima, although standing close to the earthly life, is related in her functions to Dievas, the sky god, and to the Sun.31

The earth’s great impulse for giving birth was matched by the dynamism of the sky and the male element in nature, endowed with the life-stimulating and evil combating powers. The animate and dynamic forces of the heavenly bodies — the sun, moon and stars — and phenomena such as thunder, lightning, fire and the rainbow; male animals like the stag, bull, stallion, he-goat, ram, cock, swan and other birds; and such reptiles as snakes and toads were all believed to exercise a great influence on the development of plants and of animal and human life. The divine significance of the life- and light-bringing powers inspired the personification of the sun, moon, morning and evening stars, thunder and bright sky, giving rise to the images of sky deities. Male animals and birds and reptiles, because of their sexual nature or their ability to prophesy a change in the weather and the regular awakening of nature, became inseparable associates of the sky deities.

The Baltic pantheon of sky gods is very closely related to that of all other Indo-European groups. To it belong Dievas (proto-Baltic Deivas), the god of the shining sky, related to Old Indic Dyaus, Greek Zeus, Roman Deus; the Thunder god, Lithuanian Perkūnas, Latvian Pērkons, Prussian Perkonis, in name and function closely associated with the Slavic Perun, Hittite Peruna, Old Indic Parjānya, Celtic Hercynia, as well as to Scandinavian Thor, German Donnar and Roman Jupiter (the oak, the tree of Perkūnas, in Latin is quercus which comes from percus); Saulė, the Sun, very closely related to Vedic Surya and


Savitar, the early Greek Helios, and the other Indo-European sun-gods, though the Baltic Saulė is of a feminine gender; Lithuanian Mėnuo, Latvian Mēness, the Moon god; Latvian Auseklis, Lithuanian Aušrinė, the morning star and goddess of the Dawn, related to the Vedic Ushas, and its counterpart, the Lithuanian Vakarinė, the evening star, both being personifications of the planet Venus. Among the sky gods there was also the divine smith, called simply Kalvis, “smith,” or in diminutive form, Kalvelis and Kalvaitis. Most prominent among the divine animals was the horse, the escort of Dievas and Saulė. In mythological songs, the horse (Lithuanian žirgas, Latvian zirgs) is so intimately related to Saulė, the Sun, that sometimes it seems to stand as a symbol for the sun. Next in importance was the he-goat (Lithuanian ožys) escort of the Thunder god, a symbol of virile power and a weather-prophesying animal.

Common Indo-European roots of these gods and their associates are incontestable, especially in that the Baltic gods preserved very ancient traits in not loosening their ties with natural phenomena, the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, the thunder. Except for Dievas and Perkūnas, the anthropomorphic images of the gods were not very strongly developed.

The name of the god Dievas is directly connected with “the sky.” The Lithuanian dievas and Lettish dievs still have preserved the meaning “the sky” as in Sanskrit. The etymology of the god’s name is made clear through the Sanskrit verb dyut, “to shine,” “to beam,” and the adjective deiuos, “of the sky.” Dievas is represented as an extremely handsome man, dressed in a silver gown, a cap, his clothes adorned with pendants, and with a belt and a sword attached. This image undoubtedly goes back to the Late Iron Age, being very much akin to the appearance of a Baltic king. He is inseparable from his horses, one, two, three, five, nine or more, in silver harness, with golden saddle and golden stirrups. His large fenced homestead recalls a castle, having three silver gates and comprising manor,


farmhouses and vapor bath, with a garden and forest trees around. It is located beyond the sky; beyond the stone, silver, gold or amber hill. From this hill Dievas rides on horseback, or in a chariot or sleigh of gold or copper, holding golden reins ending in golden tassels. He approaches the earth very slowly, extremely carefully, lest he shake off the dew drops and snow-ball tree blossoms, lest he stop the growth of shoots, lest he hinder the work of sower and ploughman. He raises up the rye, he steps on weed-grass. In Latvian mythological songs he appears sowing rye or barley from a silver container and, among other things, hunts and brews ale. Dievas is the guardian and stimulator of crops. In these functions he is closely related to the Sun, Moon and Venus. He is endowed, too, with the power to control human destiny and the whole order of the world. On his account, the sun and moon and the day are bright. With Laima, the goddess of human fate, he determines the life span and the fortune of man. Although Dievas possessed higher powers than other gods, he was not considered to be the supreme god and to rule others. In the pantheon of the sky, Dievas was friendly and democratic. His homestead and his sons, Latvian Dieva dēli, Lithuanian Dievo sūneliai, were particularly closely associated with Saulė, the Sun, and her daughters, who also had a castle with silver gates beyond the hill in the valley or at the end of the water.32

Saulė’s anthropomorphic image is vague, but more important is her journey over the stone or silver hill in a chariot with copper wheels drawn by fiery steeds, who are never tired, never sweat and never rest on the way. Toward evening she washes her horses in the sea, after which she sits on top of the hill holding the golden reins, or goes down to the apple orchard, in nine chariots drawn by a hundred steeds. She also sails in a golden boat, or is herself a boat which sinks into the sea. The ball of the setting Sun is picturesquely portrayed as a sinking crown, or a ring, or a red apple falling from the tree into the water. The


falling apple makes the Sun cry and the red berries on the hill are her tears. The sun’s sphere is also a jug or a ladle, since the light of the sun is conceived as a fluid substance. In the evening, Saulė’s daughters wash the jug in the sea and disappear into the water. The daughters may have signified the light the sun sheds at dusk and at dawn, and may have been connected with the morning and evening stars. During the midsummer festival on June 24, the rising sun was thought to be adorned with a wreath of braided red-fern blossoms and she “danced on the silver hill wearing silver shoes.” In songs, Saulė is “rolling,” “swaying,” “hopping.” The Latvian solar songs have the refrain līgo (līgot means “to sway) or rotā (from rotāt “to roll,” “to hop”). In art the sun is depicted as a ring, a wheel, a circle, a circle with rays, a rosette or a daisy (in Lithuanian called saulutė, “little sun,” or ratilas, “wheel”), the flower of the Sun. The dynamic vigor of the sun, the regularity of its daily journey, its influence on verdant life and on human happiness was a great source of inspiration for countless pieces of ancient Baltic poetry and Baltic works of art. Spring and midsummer festivals (present Easter and St John’s Day) were festivals of joy, of the resurrection of nature, during which sun symbolism played the central role. The farmer’s life was regularly patterned by prayers to Saulė at sunrise and at sunset, for all fieldwork was entirely dependent on the sun’s beneficence. Prayers to Saulė had to be said with one’s head uncovered.33

Mėnuo or Mēness, the Moon god, was a very close associate of Saulė’s. Like the periodical appearance of the sun, the moon’s disappearance and renewal in the form of a young moon brought well-being, light and health. It is still believed that flowers must be planted either at new or full moon. Prayers were especially useful to the young moon. The Moon god (of masculine gender) wore a gown of starry night and was drawn by grey horses. Frequently he was at the silver gates of Saulė’s castle, courting her daughters (in Latvian mythology); he even


married Saulė herself, but being unstable, fell in love with Aušrinė (Lithuanian, “morning star”); this angered Saulė, and the Thunder god Perkūnas broke him in two (Lithuanian mythology). He finally married the weaver of the star-canopy, and while counting the stars found that all were there except Auseklis (Latvian, “morning star”).34 The Prussian mythology knows another god of light, who in the records of the sixteenth century appears as Swayxtix or Suaixtis, which in present Lithuanian will be Žvaigždys, from žvaigždė, “the star.”35

Kalvaitis, the heavenly smith, hammers at the end of the waters or in the sky a ring or a crown for the Dawn and a silver belt and golden stirrups for Dievas’ sons. Every morning he hammers a new sun (“a ring,” “a crown”), When he hammers in the clouds, silver pieces fall down upon the waters. In Baltic mythology, Kalvaitis or Kalvelis is a figure similar to Hephaistos in the Greek, Volundr, Wêlant in the Scandinavian, and Ilmarinen in the Finnish mythologies.36 His hammer was gigantic; Jerome of Prague, a missionary in Lithuania, noted in 1431 that Lithuanians honoured not only the sun, but also the iron hammer of rare size, by whose aid the sun was said to have been freed from imprisonment.37

Perkūnas, the Thunder god, ruler of the air, is a vigorous man with a copper beard holding an axe in one hand. He traverses the sky with great noise in a fiery two-wheeled chariot, drawn by a he-goat. When thunder is heard, a proverb says, “God is coming — the wheels are striking fire.” His castle is on the high hill (in the sky). Perkūnas is very just, but restless and impatient; he is the great enemy of evil spirits, devils, and unjust or evil men. He seeks out the devil and smites him with lightning.. He throws his axe at evil people or tosses lightning bolts at their homes. He does not tolerate liars, thieves, or selfish and vain persons. The tree or stone that has been struck by lightning gives protection from evil spirits and cures maladies, especially


the toothache, fever and fright. The stone axes dropped by Perkūnas possess a peculiar power of fecundity. They are still called “the bullets of Perkūnas.” (Stone or bronze axes, “battle-axes,” were frequently ornamented in prehistory by zig-zags, the symbol of lightning, and by circles, the sun symbols. Miniature axes of bronze were worn as amulets up to the last epoch of the prehistoric era.) Perkūnas also purifies the Earth by exorcising evil winter spirits. The first thunder in the spring moves the earth to action; the grass begins to grow rapidly, grains take root, trees turn green.38

In addition to horse and he-goat, the bull, the stag and the swan were symbols of virile, life-bringing power, but the harmless green snake, the Lithuanian Žaltys, played a prominent part in the sexual sphere. It was a blessing to have a Žaltys in one’s home, under the bed or in some corner, or even in a place of honour at the table. He was thought to bring happiness and prosperity, to ensure fertility of the soil and an increase in the family. Encountering a snake meant either marriage or birth. This mystically endowed creature is known to Lithuanian folklore as “the sentinel of the gods.” Žaltys is loved by the Sun, and to kill it is a crime. “The sight of a dead Žaltys causes the Sun to cry,” says the proverb. The very name for “snake” in Lithuanian, gyvatė, shows association with gyvybė, gyvata, “life,” “viability.” Another mysterious, wealth-bringing creature, known from the early records as well as folklore, is Aitvaras. He sometimes has the head of a Žaltys and a long tail which emits light as he flies through the air. Sometimes he is a golden cock.39

The Balts were great venerators of fire. Lituani sacrum colebat ignem eumque perpetuum appellabat.40 Fire was sacred and eternal. Tribes had official sanctuaries on high hills and on river banks where fire was kept, guarded by priests,41 and in each house was the sacred hearth in which fire was never extinguished. Only once a year, on the eve of the midsummer festival, was it


symbolically extinguished, and then kindled again. Fire was a goddess, who required offerings. She was fed and carefully guarded and covered over at night by the mother of the family. The Latvians call this flame “mother of the fire,” uguns māte; in Lithuanian it is Gabija (from the verb gaubti, “to cover”); in Prussian Panike, “the little fire.” Fire was the purifying element and the symbol of happiness. Legends relate that fire was transferred to earth by Perkūnas in a storm, or that it was brought by a bird, usually a swallow, who burned itself while bringing it.42

This is not the place to present in more detail all the “incredibilia” seen by Christian missionaries in the Baltic lands, or to portray the folk religion which still lives in folklore in surprisingly pure elements going back to earliest antiquity; but from this short survey I hope the reader will have gained a general impression of their character. The Baltic religion has faithfully preserved the basic elements of ancient history, which relate it closely to the early recorded religions of the Indo-European peoples, particularly to that of the Indo-Iranian, as seen in the cult of the dead, the burial rituals, the cures of the sky and air deity, as well as the sun, snake, horse, water and fire cults; at the same time, it has remained true to the peasant’s perception of the real world and to his rich natural environment, sustaining his profound veneration for the living land — forests, trees and flowers — and his intimate relationship with animals and birds. In speaking of the legacy of Baltic pre-history, we mean above all the ancient religion, which is incarnate in the cosmic and lyrical conception of the world of present-day Lithuanians and Latvians, and is an unceasing inspiration to their poets, painters and musicians.