Folklore: the Lithuanian-Celtic Connection

By Jonas Balys

2001-07-15-LHERITAGE 1

For ages Lithuanians lived in close proximity to the Germans and Slavs, and we would think their folklore was greatly influenced by both. Not so, as this article shows.

The folklore of the Lithuanians is rich and diverse. About half a million legends, tales, songs, customs, beliefs, and other folklore traditions have been written down, but only a small part printed. During the independent period of Lithuanian life (1918— 1940) the State supported these establishments: the Folklore Commission and the Lithuanian Folklore Archives. Folklore was also taught as a separate subject at the university and had a special chair appointed for the study. Some periodicals designed to explore Lithuanian folklore, such as “Our Folklore,” “Folklore Studies,” and “The Native Land,” were published.

One of the most interesting features of the folklore is the belief in humanlike, though at the same time superhuman beings or fairies. In Lithuanian they are called deives or laumes. The happy or unhappy life of a person is predestined at his birth by the deity of destiny, Laima (“laime” meaning “luck”). On the whole, these deives are peculiar nature-deities, but they have many human features and are social beings. They are thought to be young and extraordinarily beautiful women. They have blue eyes, very long fair hair, and a gorgeous bosom. Being very motherly they are very fond of children, take care of them, teach them, and present them with gifts. This love to people’s children is very dangerous because the fairies steal them or exchange them for their own. The children of the fairies are ugly, they do not grow, cry incessantly, and are unsatiable. The changelings are nicely taken care of by the fairies, well-fed, and beautifully clothed. Having grown up they are returned to the community of men. The fairies weave most beautiful linen for the dowry of their foster-daughters and marry them to wealthy men: on a wedding day they substitute their foster-daughter for the bride, thus providing a good place for her.

The deities or fairies are very clever at all womanly arts; they are excellent spinners and weavers. No ordinary woman is able to equal a fairy in beauty, motherliness, and the ability to perform womanly work. The fairies are kindly towards people. Full often they help them, preferring the poor, the wronged, and orphans. However, people shall not tease them and do certain kinds of work at the fairies’ own time: they shall not beat clothes with kultuves (laundry beaters) after sunset, or spin on Thursday afternoons. If people disregard these conditions, the fairies pay them out. They punish misers and people who want to profit from the fairies’ work or wealth.

On the whole, fairies like the company of human beings. They visit young men at night and long for the love of human beings. Very often a young man catches a fairy, his nocturnal visitor, and marries her. They live happily for some time: the husband is delighted with his good wife and excellent housekeeper, their farm prospers, and they have children. But this idyll ends suddenly as soon as* the husband makes a mistake (gives her old clothes away or unstops the hole through which she uses to get into the granary) or breaks a given promise, and his fairywife leaves him. Sometimes she secretly visits her abandoned home to look after her children. Thus we can well say that the relations between the fairies and men are not unfriendly. The worst is that they exchange unchristened children for their own. There are evil fairies as well: they are ugly and unkind, and do harm to people. Such qualities were ascribed to them when people began to believe in witches.

The attitude of the Lithuanian common people towards fairies is very much like the corresponding belief of Celtic nations. Neither the Germans nor the Slavs, our nearest neighbors, know of such fairy beings. It is very surprising to find similar things in more distant countries: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Upper Brittany, and, in short, everywhere where Celtic peoples used to live or are still living.

Looking over the folklore collections of Celtic nations as, for instance, T. C. Crooker’s “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland” (London 1825), P. Kennedy’s “Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts” (London 1866) or W. Y. E. Wentz’s study “Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries” (Rennes 1909), we are surprised to find many distinct parallels with Lithuanian folklore. Tales about changelings and fairy weddings are found in the whole of Northern Europe, and everywhere they are very much alike. I should like to point out some legends proving a wonderful similarity between Celtic countries and Lithuania.

1. A woman spins all by herself late in the evening. A fairy comes to help her, or she herself invites a fairy to come and help her. Fairies spin very quickly, and the woman sees that the fairy is running short of flax or wool, which is very bad because in such cases fairies start spinning women’s hair or bowels. Then the woman thinks of a trick. Coming in from out-of-doors she says: “There’s a fire somewhere, and the children are crying bitterly.” The fairy fears danger for her own children and runs out, while the woman locks the door carefully so that the fairy shall not able to return. “You are lucky to have been as clever as that.”

2. A man and a ghost go to a wedding. The ghost intends to cast a spell on the bride, to deprive her of health. When the bride sneezes the man says, “God bless you” and thus saves the bride from getting spellbound (with Celts — from being robbed).

3. A man takes part in a feast of ghosts (a wedding). In most cases he acts as a musician. All look very smart. He notices the others smearing their eyes with something and secretly smears one of his eyes too. Since then he can see ghosts with that eye. When he talks to a ghost later on, the latter asks him: “Which eye do you see me with?” and pierces his eye with his finger.

4. In the moonlight a man sees a strange shoemaker repair shoes with very expensive tools. The man frightens the ghost away or takes his precious belongings away from him but they (the tools and the leather) turn into worthless things in his hands (into the outer bark of a birch or a nail). Irishmen tell similar stories of a ghostly shoemaker whom they call Cluricaun or Leprechaun. A man catches him and tells him to show the hiding-place of his treasure, but the ghost succeeds in tricking the man.

5. At the bottom of water there is another world where life is like that on land. Drowned people go on living there as if nothing had happened.

6. The Lithuanian deity of death, Giltine, looks and acts very much like the Irish Banshi.

7. In the night a ghost in the shape of a he-goat jumps on the shoulders of a traveller who has to carry this strange burden and gets very tired.

There is neither space nor time to point out all the similarities between Lithuanian and Celtic legends. They prove quite clearly that there was a prehistoric time when the Celts and Lithuanians were close neighbors. Today not only hundreds of kilometers but even the sea and Germany separate the Lithuanians from the Celts. The Germans having no such popular traditions about fairies, the above mentioned traditions are not likely to have gotten to Lithuania through Germany. There must have been a direct contact between the Lithuanians and the Celts. At what time this contact existed arid what it was like, is as yet a mystery. Perhaps archaeology and philology will add their share to the answer of this question. Experiments have been made by Piersen and Rozwandowski, but their work has been paid little attention to. To one who has studied folklore it is quite evident that the relations between the above people were interrupted long ago. This is proved by the fact that although we notice a certain number of common motifs, the latter have evolved in a different way among the Lithuanians and the Celts, and thus many peculiar features have appeared. Let us, for instance, compare two very interesting stories: the Irish “Black Horse” 0. Jacobs, “More Celtic Fairy Tales,” London 1894, p. 57- 66) and the Lithuanian “Septyni broliai ir vandens karalaite” – The Seven Brothers and the Water Princess 0. Balys, “Reading-book of Lithuanian Folklore,” Tubingen, 1947, p. 48-66). In both tales we meet with so many common features that there can be no doubt as to the congeniality of the tales. But there is a considerable number of unlike elements as well, showing that the tales existed a long time and evolved independently from one another.

The ancient interruption of relations must also be thought to account for the distinctions in the belief in fairies, e.g. Lithuanian fairies do not like to meet and dance round dances in the moonlight which is very popular with Celtic fairies. They do not live on hills, or in old forts like the Irish fairies but dwell in woods and on riversides or in saunas (bathhouses) where they enjoy bathing and beating clothes or linen with kultuves. A roll of linen, presented by fairies, lasts as long as it is unrolled or measured out of curiosity. Nothing is known to Lithuanians about presented cakes or bread which never gets exhausted.

In short, we see that folklore is not only interesting as a study of traditional legends, customs, and beliefs of a certain people, but that it also extends into research into old relations between various nations.

2001-07-15-LHERITAGE 3

Acertain woman used to leave her small child at home when she went out to work. After a while, she noticed that the child was not normal — he screamed and screamed for food. However much she fed him, it was never enough. She thought, “What can be the matter? Why is he always crying and screaming?”

One day she decided to find out if he was swapped by a laume. She didn’t give him anything to eat, but left potatoes steamed for the pigs on the stove. She peeked in through the window to see her child hop from his cradle to the stove, where the potatoes were, and start eating. He ate and ate out the whole pot of unpealed potatoes meant for pigs. The woman opened the door, came in, and saw her child sitting on top of the stove. She then understood that this was really a laume’s changeling. She asked the other women, “What should I do?”

The women told her, “Take a broom, beat him on the behind, and then throw him on a pile of manure.”

The mother did all of this: She took a broom, beat the child on the behind, and threw him on the manure pile. She heard someone say from outside her window just as it was getting dark, “Oh, you cow! You shameless cow! How could you throw my child on a manure pile? I raised and taught your child, but you beat mine and threw him on a manure heap?! Come here and take your own kid back!”

So the woman opened the door and saw that there, on the manure pile, sat her own child wearing beautiful clothes and reading from a prayerbook. You could say he could read. In place of the laume’s child there was only a broom. This was all the laume had left in place of the woman’s child. The mother took back her child and raised him from then on.

(Recorded in 1957)-

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They say that a long, long time ago, people began to die in terrible numbers. One old man, who felt he was going to die soon, called his children, relatives, and neighbors to his bedside. He had something to tell them. When everybody came, he told the people standing around him.

“Brothers, I feel I’ll have to leave you soon. Judging by my pains, giltine has licked me with her tongue. Her poison is weighting down on my heart. I am old, so I’m not angry about that, but I can’t forgive her for killing my two sons, my relatives, my neighbors and all the young people she keeps pushing out of this world.”

He stopped talking for a while and, after thinking a long time, said, “When I die, put the sheep shears here by my side,” and he showed the spot with his hand.

“When I die, put the sheep shears here by my side,” and he showed the spot with his hand.

“What are you going to do with the shears?” asked the people around him.

“You’ll see for yourselves.”

“How? Will you come visit us and tell us what you’ve done?”

“You’ll know,” he said.

“How can we know if you don’t tell us now?”

Then he thought for a little and said to the people around him, “So I ask you to put a pair of shears by my side. When giltine comes to me to restore her strength, when she pushes her poisonous tongue close to me, I’m going to turn the shears in her direction and cut off her tongue.”

And that’s what he did.

After the old man died, death left the area and people stopped dying in awful numbers.

(Recorded in 1898)
From “Lithuanian Mythological Tales,” Vilnius, 1998