By Gloria Kivytaitė O’Brien
Lithuanians were some of the last people in Europe to embrace Christianity. Among the reasons for this was their deep attachment to their old beliefs and the ruthlessness of the “baptizers.”
AS THE CRUSADES IN THE HOLY LAND raged on, the Roman Catholic popes, in the 12th century, opened a “Northern Crusade” against Lithuania and other European pagan nations. The Catholic kings of Europe, and the Teutonic military orders, responded enthusiastically by joining in battle against Baltic peoples, including Letts, Livonians, Estonians, Prussians, Curonians, Finns, and Lithuanians.
Raids, looting, slave-taking and burning ensued for the next few centuries. This resulted in the eventual extinction of the Old Prussians, and the subjugation, colonization and absorption by the Teutonic Knights (“Brothers of the Sword”) of the area known as Livonia (present-day Latvia and a major part of Estonia.) The Brothers of the Sword united with another Teutonic order, the German Order of the Hospital of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem, also called the Knights of the Cross (“Kryžiuočiai”), and Lithuania remained a constant target for these “holy” knights, forcing her rulers to expend blood and resources in defense against them.
The ostensible reason, or purpose, for these wars was a desire to rid the world of “the defilement of paganism,” and to convert Lithuania’s inhabitants to Christianity. The Lithuanians were characterized as “savage heathens” and “idolaters, beastly servants of the devil,” given to “barbarisms such as piracy, highway robbery, infanticide and human sacrifice.” Certainly it is difficult for us, the descendants of those ancient Lithuanians, to accept that our honored ancestors engaged in such barbaric practices.
Piracy and highway robbery occurred everywhere in the Europe of those times, and cannot have been a manifestation of the Lithuanians’ pagan beliefs. Infanticide and human sacrifice, on the other hand, may have happened as part of some early pagan rites, particularly ritual cremations and harsh treatment of prisoners of war.
So let us try, from our great distance of time, culture and geography, to examine the beliefs and religious practices of the pagan Lithuanians. What is known about their faith and customs? Can we guess what sort of influence their gods had on their behavior, at home and in regard to the world around them? How many gods did they honor, and were some more important than others?
First and foremost, they honored Dievas, the supreme god, sometimes called Praamžius, who created the universe, and even some other gods. Ponas Dievas was so exalted an almighty being as to be regarded with great respect, but not much affection and little familiarity. According to Maciej Stryjkowski, a Polish-Lithuanian his torian (1547-1593), people would sacrifice white cocks to the supreme deity by beating them and dividing them into three parts: the first to be eaten by peasants, the second by druids or priests, called Vaidilos or Kriviai, and the third part to be burned.
Second in order of importance stood Perkūnas, god of thunder, also sometimes called Dundulis. Perkūnas was regarded as the most powerful of the gods. His presence was imagined and felt in every occurrence; his influence was ubiquitous, and his main shrine was in the heart of Vilnius. Perkūnas was especially honored by the elaborate ritual cremation of the country’s rulers, which included the live burning of the ruler’s favorite servant and a number of prisoners as well.
Laima was the goddess of fortune. She governed luck, marriage and childbirth, and was petitioned by serious matrons and their daughters, praying for her help in the all-important matter of a successful birth; by ordinary individuals praying for a happy and lucky life; as well as by gamblers hoping for a winning. She was connected with the Fates, Deivės Valdytojos, sisters who made the garments of people’s lives: Verpenčioji (thread-spinner), Metančioji (threw the rim of life), Audėja (weaver), Gadintoja (thread-breaker), Sergėtoja (scolder of Gadintoja), Nukirpėja (who cut the cloth of life), and Išskalbėja (the laundress).
Gabija, also called Dalia, was the goddess of fire and guardian of the home’s hearth, to whom the Lithuanian housewife spoke a prayer as she rekindled the fire each morning, and “put it to bed” overnight. In Gabija’s honor the sacred fire was tended by the Vaidilutės. These were virgin priestesses, comparable to ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgins, who swore to remain untouched throughout their lives, and maintain the eternal flame. A terrible fate awaited any one of them who broke her vow: death by drowning, sewn up in a sack with a cat, a serpent, and a dog, and thrown into the river.
Teliavėlis was a hero, the powerful smith who made the sun, and threw it into the sky. He was honored by smiths and craftsmen.
Žemyna (Mother Earth, Žemelė) was the goddess personifying the fertile earth, honored by those cultivating the soil. Called Žemininkas in the male aspect, this deity was honored by the sacrifice of black hens, and by allowing grass snakes to occupy a corner of the home, and feeding them milk. House animals were protected by Sutvaras, and herds by Ganiklis, while Javinė and Jievaras were household spirits who protected grain during growth, harvest, and while stored in barns.
Another guardian of the home was Dimstipatis, who protected the home from fire. Once each year, the family would hold a feast, and sacrifice two black hens, which they consumed, and all the remains – bones, soap dishwater and dishrag – would be thrown into the fire and burned. Housewives, in honoring Dimstipatis, would sacrifice a suckling piglet, slaughtered by the eldest female, and the meat consumed.
The goddess Krūminė was honored as the inventor of agriculture, and protected the new growing crop. Krūminė can be compared to the Greek goddess Demeter. Every aspect of agriculture was ruled by ancient custom that prescribed homage to the spirits of the earth.
Spirits of the fields and meadows, Laukų Dvasios, were seen in everything that moved the crops in the fields, and were named after various animals according to their characteristics. Among them were Kiškis (hare), Meška (bear), Lapė (fox), Katinas (tomcat), Smauglys (boa), Arklys (horse), Vilkas (wolf).
Kupolė was the spirit of springtime vegetation and flowers, whose festival, Kupolinės, also known as Rasos, (Rasa – Dew) came to be associated with Joninės, in honor of John the Baptist.
Dvyniai Ašvieniai – the twin white stallions who pulled the cart of the Sun through the heavens, and symbolized the annual round of farming and all its duties. Their feast day on April 23 has grown into the Feast of St. George – Jurginės – when horses are brought out of the barns, and taken to the river to be bathed. Their stalls and troughs are blessed with the blood of a black rooster, and they must not be required to do any work that day.—-
Medeina was the goddess of hunting and forests, certainly important to almost everyone in the olden days, but now she is protecting forest wardens and watching the doings of the privileged elite and foreign nobility who travel to Lithuania for the hunting season.
Bubilas and Austėja were male and female aspects of the god of beekeeping. Bitininkystė – beekeeping – has always been, and still is, very important to the Lithuanian kaimas. The Museum of Beekeeping in Stripeikiai displays carved wooden representations of these spirits, and employs knowledgeable docents to make a visit more enjoyable.
Raugo Žemėpatis, Rugutis or Raugupatis was the deity of sourdough, leaven and fermentation. He governed the baking of bread and the brewing of beer, as well as wine and other similar products. People would sacrifice the first swallow of fresh beer, and the first loaf of bread.
Lakes and rivers were protected by spirits named Ežerinis and Upinis, who were invoked by fishermen and boatmen, and by those walking across a frozen river in winter. Bangpūtys was the fishermen’s fierce god of seas and storms, whose boat had a golden anchor, and who angrily blew away unwary sailors when he had a mind to stir up the oceans.
Velnias was the devil himself. The early Lithuanians were wary of the devil, but they didn’t really fear him. As a matter of fact, they held the devil up to scorn and ridicule, as a determined troublemaker who often found himself a victim of his own machinations. People had to be careful, that they should not become involved in the devil’s doings, that they shouldn’t be lead astray and find themselves in the demon’s clutches, but the devil could easily be outsmarted by a shrewd Lithuanian person. The Devils’ Museum, located in Kaunas, has a fine extensive display of materials that demonstrate Lithuanians’ attitude towards Satan – Šėtonas, and many, many folktales feature stories of people who were fooled by the devil, and others who outwitted him.
Giltinė was the Grim Reaper, the goddess of death, wearing raggedy grave clothes or a long white sheet and carrying a big sickle, with her bare skull grinning at the world. She was accompanied by her sacral bird, the owl, and proclaimed disaster everywhere she went. She had a poisonous tongue, collecting poison from bodies of the dead in graveyards, and if she licked a person’s face, they would die instantly. She was familiar with the goddesses of Black Death, Maro Deivės, who were said to build fires on the hills, spreading the black death wherever the smoke would reach.
Pykuolis was the master of the underworld. The Lithuanian historian Teodoras Narbutas, in 1841, told the story of Pykuolis, who kidnapped Nijolė, the daughter of Krūminė, and took her with him to his home in Pragaras (Hell.) This legend is comparable to the Ancient Greeks’ myth of Hades and Persephone.
Lithuanians also looked to the sky for guidance, and honored a wide group of heavenly bodies, including Mėnulis – the Moon, Saulė – the Sun, and all the rest of the stars – Žvaigž- dės. Aušrinė was the morning star, who ushered in the dawn (Aušra) and Vakarinė, the evening star, who prepared a bed for Saulė’s nightly rest. The Milky Way, as we call it, was known by early Lithuanians as Pauk- ščių Takas – the “Way of the Birds.”
The positions of various stars and events of the celestial calendar had influence on a deeply agrarian society. Farmers accepted guidance from auguries that they received from priestly interpreters regarding the best days and times to turn the soil, to sow, to water, weed and harvest their precious crops. Wedding days and other family festivals were also determined by the celestial calendar.
Vėjopatis (Lord of the Wind) or Vėjas (Wind) was honored by the Lithuanians and their nearest cousins, the Prussians. He was the father of the winds, and depicted as wrathful, with a beard, wings, and two faces, with a fish in his left hand, a dish in the right, and a rooster on his head. His sons were Rytys, Pietys, Šiaurys and Vakaris – gods of eastern, southern, northern, and western winds. Dausos or Dangus was heaven on a high mountain between two rivers, where golden apple trees grew, and it was always daylight. Vėjopatis was the ruler of Dausos, and the gatekeeper, along with Auštaras, the northeast wind. Auštaras stood at the gates and welcomed good souls, while Vė- jopatis blew bad souls away and into oblivion.
Other spirits were: Laumės – feminine fairies or pixies; Nykštukai – gnomes; Vėlės – spirits of the dead; Baubas – the Lithuanian bogeyman; Ragana – the witch; Žiburinis – forest spirit – a phosphorescent skeleton; Milda – goddess of love; Aitvarai – mischievous spirits who lodge in a house and refuse to leave, causing both good and bad luck for the inhabitants; Kovas – the god of war; Rasa – Kupolė’s daughter, goddess of summer’s greens and flowers.
Besides these few, there were several score other minor gods, spirits and mythical heroes in the Lithuanian pantheon.
It should be obvious that medieval Lithuanians paid homage to a great many forces that controlled their daily lives and agricultural activities. But it doesn’t seem that they would have spent much of their time in carrying out the kind of barbarisms imputed to them by Christian Europe.
Mindaugas, Lithuania’s first king, accepted baptism with his family and retinue in 1251, in an attempt to stop the attacks by the Germanic Orders, but the rest of Lithuania remained stubbornly pagan, and the Knights continued their depredations. Vytautas and Jogaila Christianized the whole of Aukštaitija (Upper Lithuania) in 1387, but this did not stop the attacks either. The Kryžiuočiai continued their “Crusade,” and their actual purpose was thus made plain. Territorial expansion had been their goal, not the spread of Christianity. Only the decisive victory against the Teutonic Knights in 1410 by the combined Lithuanian and Polish forces led by Vytautas and Jogaila, put a final stop to the so-called Baltic Crusade. Stubborn Žemaitija (Lower Lithuania) was brought to Christianity by Vytautas himself, in 1417.
Pagan Lithuania is not quite dead, however. It lives in Christian traditions that were adaptations of ancient pagan festivals, such as Vėlinės, Užgavėnės, and Rasos or Joninės. And a new version of the ancient pagan religion is alive and well in Lithuania and elsewhere.
Romuva is a modern religious community espousing Baltic nationalism and revival of regard for the beautiful ancient mythology of Lithuania and the other Baltic countries. Adherents celebrate traditional festivals and art forms, gather information on folklore and traditional music, and practice ecological responsibility.
This faith supports the practice of ancestor veneration and affirms the sacredness of all nature. They gather before a stone altar with a ritual fire which they may approach after washing hands and face, singing dainas or hymns, then food, drink, or flowers are offered to the flame. Participants may offer their own contributions, and all believe their offerings are carried to the gods and ancestors with the smoke and sparks of the flame.
Romuva is led in Lithuania by its Krivis or Seniūnas (Elder), Jonas Trinkūnas, former director of the Division of Ethnic Culture of the Ministry of Culture and Education of the Lithuanian Republic. The tenets of Romuvan faith may be found in a “Lithuanian Prayer”:
“That I may love and respect my mother, father and old people; that I may protect their graves from rending and destruction; that I may plant oaks, junipers, wormwoods and silverweed for their rest in cemeteries. Those who do not love and respect their bearers will await hardship in their old age or will not grow old at all.
That my hands may never become bloody from human blood. That the blood of animals, fish or birds may not soil my hands, if I might kill them satiated and not hungry. Those who today kill animals with delight will tomorrow drink human blood. The more hunters live in Lithuania, the further fortune and a happy life escapes us.
That I may not fell a single tree without holy need; that I may not step on a blooming field; that I may always plant trees.
That I may love and respect Bread. If a crumb should accidentally fall, I will lift it, kiss it and apologize. If we all respect bread, there will be no starvation or hardship.
That I may never hurt anyone; that I may always give the correct change; that I may not mistakenly steal even the smallest coin. The Gods punish for offenses.
That I may not denigrate foreign beliefs and may not poke fun at my own faith. The Gods look with grace upon those who plant trees along roads, in homesteads, at holy places, at crossroads, and by houses. If you wed, plant a wedding tree. If a child is born, plant a tree. If someone beloved dies, plant a tree for the Vėlė (spirit of the deceased). At all holidays, during all important events, visit trees. Prayers will attain holiness through trees of thanks. So may it be!”