Ancestors: Baltic Cult of Ancestors

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Despite the cultural and historical similarities between the Baltic peoples of Latvia and Lithuania, several different approaches to research on Baltic religion have developed. Lithuanian scholars, who consider relics of the cult of ancestors as part of their pre-Christian world, have primarily studied written sources, drawing as well on archaeological, linguistic, folklore, and ethnographic data. By contrast, in reconstructing the Latvian religious tradition, Latvian scholars have looked to not only the previously mentioned sources, but they have leaned heavily on information found in a specific folklore genre, that of poetic quatrains called dainas, the majority of which are intended to be sung. Dainas have a specific formulaic structure and are characterized by a high level of abstraction, as well as a functional realism. These characteristics allowed strata of archaic, cultural, and historical information to survive up to the time when dainas were first written down during the second half of the nineteenth century. In these quatrains are found such religious beings from the pre-Christian era as the mother of the shades, the mother of graves, the mother of sand, and the mother of the earth, complete with elaborate character portraits and descriptions of their respective spheres of influence.

Few in-depth studies have been done either in Latvia or Lithuania on the question of ancestor worship. With the exception of a number of monographs, the most significant work in this field consists of isolated references within descriptive and analytical works on Baltic religion and cultural traditions regarding family feasts and calendar festivities. The most important work on pre-Christian Baltic religion continues to be Marija Gimbutas's The Balts (1963) and Wilhelm Mannhardt's Letto-Preussische Götterlehre (Latvian-Prussian mythology, 1936), in which Mannhardt analyzes works by various authors.


The preWorld War II era is considered the most productive period in research on pre-Christian Baltic religion and the cult of ancestors. The most important studies to come out of this period were by Pēteris Šmits, Mārtiņš Bruņenieks, Kārlis Straubergs, and Ludvigs Adamovičs. Šmits, in his 1918 study Latviešu mitoloģija (Latvian mythology), considers ancestor worship as a particularly important building block in the worldview of humanity. With that in mind, he describes Latvian mourning practices, the concept of an afterlife, and the religious images that link humans to the world of the dead, and he compares these to traditions of other cultures. Mārtiņš Bruņenieks, in his comparative study Senlatviešu reliģiskais pasaules uzskats (Ancient Latvian religious views of the world, 1937), applies the animism theory to analyze the Baltic cult of ancestors and compares it to the religious beliefs of other peoples, such as the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. In Senlatviešu reliģija agrīnā dzelzs laikmetā (The religion of ancient Latvians in the early Iron Age, 1930), Adamovičs devotes special sections to ancestor worship, examining archeological materials, written historical records from the thirteenth century on, documented accounts, ethnographic descriptions and folklore texts, and folk beliefs and songs recorded in the nineteenth century.

Eduards Šturms analyzes burial practices of the Baltic peoples in Chroniku un senrakstu ziņas par baltu tautu bēŗu parašām (Information on Baltic burial practices sourced from chronicles and ancient texts, 1938), using historical sources from the thirteenth, fourteenth, and first half of the fifteenth century. Using archaeological data, Šturms separates out distinct Baltic peoples consisting of Prussians, Curonians, Zhemaits, and Aukshtaitians, and he describes their burial practices. In Lettisk folktro om de döda (Latvian folk beliefs about the dead, 1949), Kārlis Straubergs looks at burial practices and the Baltic concept of the afterlife within the context of ancestor worship by other European nations. Similar aspects of the Latvian ancestor cult are discussed in other works by the same author. For example, Straubergs deals exclusively with this topic in his essay "Hanovijs par dvēseļu kultu pie latviešiem" (Hanovijs on the cult of the dead among Latvians, 1925). Straubergs also includes material on the cult of ancestors within the larger context of Latvian sacral issues in books like Pār deviņi novadiņi (Across the country, 1995) and in his collection of essays, Latvju kultūra (Latvian culture, 1948).

Osvalds Līdaks's Latviešu svētki: Latviešu svinamās dienas (Latvian feasts: Latvian calendar festivities, 1940s/1991) describes, based on Latvian folklore material, annual Latvian celebrations, including those linked to the cult of ancestors. Haralds Biezais's Germanische und Baltische Religion (German and Baltic religion, 1975) offers an in-depth analysis of the Baltic and Latvian view of the world, including a discussion of the cult of ancestors and related deities.

Among later works that include some references to ancestor worship, Edīte Olupe's Latviešu gadskārtu ieražas (Latvian calendar festivity traditions, 1992) contains a segment describing season-based ancestor worship. In a doctoral thesis titled "Priekšstati par mirušo pasauli latviešu bēru tautasdziesmās" (Concepts of the world of the dead in Latvian burial folksongs, 1992) Guntis Pakalns charts the location of the world of the dead in the binary world model as described in Latvian mythological concepts. The unique features of Latvian burial practices and afterlife concepts as reflected in Latvian folklore have also been examined by Janīna Kursīte in Latviešu folklora mītu spogulī (Latvian folklore in the mirror of mythology, 1996) and Mītiskais folklorā, literatūrā, mākslā (The mythical in folklore, literature, and art, 1999). Kursīte has also delved into the semantics of two Latvian religious beings associated with the worship of ancestors: Zemes māte (the mother of the earth) and Veļu māte (the mother of the shades). Additionally, an analysis of the comparative Latvian and Lithuanian traditions of the feeding of dead souls and the development of those traditions over time can be found in Rūta Muktupāvela's essay "Ubagu mielošana: Žēlsirdība vai kontraktuālā darbība"(The feeding of beggars: Charity or contractual act, 1997).


In Lithuania, Jonas Basanavičius was one of the first scholars to do a comparative analysis of the Baltic perspective and beliefs on life after death. In Iš gyvenimo vėlių ir velnių (From the lives of dead souls and devils, 1903) Basanavičius begins his study of an extensive folklore collection by examining Baltic (Prussian, Latvian, and Lithuanian) ancestral culture. The book contains information on burial and remembrance practices from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, drawn from historical sources as well as from archaeological digs of the late nineteenth century. Jonas Balys's Dvasios ir žmonės: Liaudies sakmės (Dead souls and people: Folk tales, 1951) and Mirtis ir laidotuvės (Death and burial, 1981) cite and comment on Lithuanian folktales and beliefs recorded before World War II about the dead and life after death, including descriptions of the tradition of feeding the dead.

For an analysis of ancestor worship as it pertains to concepts of a chthonic world in traditional culture, an excellent source is Norbertas Vėlius's Chtoniškasis lietuvių mitologijos pasaulis (The chthonic world in Lithuanian mythology, 1987). This study is particularly useful for its extensive research data on the Baltic cult of ancestors. The same is true of Vėlius's fundamental work Baltų Religijos ir mitologijos šaltiniai (Baltic religious and mythological sources, 1996/2001), which has become more and more valued in modern research. Gintaras Beresnevičius's Dausos (The world of the shades, 1990), analyzes individual elements in Baltic afterlife concepts through symbolic images found in folklore related to death and the dead. Also worthy of mention is Beresnevičius's article "Protėvių kultas: Vėlių maitinimas" (Ancestor worship: Feeding of the dead, 1996), in which he interprets the semantics of the Lithuanian cult of ancestors and the factors behind its development based on historical, archaeological, ethnographic, and folklore material. Arūnas Vaicekauskas's "Nekrokultas kalendorinėse apeigose" (Calendar festivity customs of the cult of ancestors, 1999) emphasizes that at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century the cult of ancestors was an integral part of agricultural rituals; its followers viewed it as inseparable from nature and the concept of life and death as a unified whole. Daiva Vaitkevičienė and Vykintas Vaitkevičius's "Mirtis, laidotuvės ir atminai" (Death, burial, and prayers for the souls of the dead, 1998) provides an analysis, based on archeological and historical sources, of ancestor cult characteristics, and also interprets mythological and religious concepts reflected in Lithuanian ethnography.

The Cult of Ancestors at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century

Socially significant forms of ancestor worship, both in Latvia and Lithuania, fit into Christian-oriented beliefs and religious practices and are influenced by the traditions of all denominations. In Lithuania, ancestor worship coincides with the Catholic calendar, according to which November 2 is Vėlinės, a day devoted to the remembrance of the dead and designated as a national holiday. On this day Lithuanians light candles, place flowers on graves, and attend special church services dedicated to the departed. Within the family the dead are also remembered on Christmas Eve in a festival called Kūčios, named for a ritual meal of sprouted grains and honey. Even today the mistress of the household will leave a portion of the Christmas feast on the table all night to feed the souls of the dead.

The Latvian Dead Souls Remembrance Day falls on the last Sunday in November, but it has not been designated a national holiday. However, Latvians, unlike Lithuanians, continue to celebrate Kapu svētki (literally, "graveyard celebration," with the meaning of "celebration of ancestral burial places"), which includes features of ancestor worship. This celebration typically takes place in the second half of summer or at the beginning of autumn. During the celebration, hymns are sung at the graveyard and ministers hold a service and bless the graves. Loved ones and relatives of the dead usually attend the service in great numbers, and following the official ceremony they meet in a relative's home or even behind the graveyard wall to partake of a special meal. Remembering the departed and their good deeds, the celebrants drink beer or spirits. In many cases this celebration is the only time during the year when all the extended members of a family congregate in one place.

Elements of the cult of ancestors can be found in some contemporary religious systems, such as Dievturība (literally, "religion of those who keep their God") in Latvia and Romuva in Lithuania, both of which developed in the twentieth century. The ideology of these religious movements is based on an attempt to reconstruct the pre-Christian view of the world that included worship of ancient Baltic deities. Followers of these movements call on the authority of ancestors in life's critical moments, and with the help of ritual practices and offerings ask for their benevolence.

The Baltic Cult of Ancestors in a Cultural and Historical Context

Ancestor worship in the Baltics has survived in the tradition of Indo-European farming cultures, as evidenced specifically in the view that the dead continue to be present among the living, at least for a short period, or that after death they periodically leave the netherworld to "return home to take a look," according to the folklorist Vaitkevičienė (1998). The visiting dead seemingly have the power to affect the well-being of the community of the living, and to punish violations or disrespectful behavior towards the order of things as defined by the ancestors.

There are various cultural and historical reasonslow population density, single-family farms, and the presence of xenophobic elements in the traditional culturewhy, after the official introduction of Christianity into the Baltics, it functioned rather formally. As recently as the twentieth century, ethnologists in Latvia and Lithuania recorded original eyewitness accounts of practices that do not fit into the official Christian system of practices regarding honoring the dead and that are considered remnants of the Baltic cult of ancestors.

The Baltics were converted to Christianity relatively late: Latvia in the thirteenth century and Lithuania at the turn of the fifteenth century. The representatives of this new religionmissionaries, monks, and travelers from Christian Europeobserved, recorded, and interpreted local religious practices within the context of their own experience in the Baltic milieu. In its directives and edicts, the Christian Church recorded practices that it unequivocally considered pagan and therefore candidates for eradication. For example, it is written in the Riga District Council Statutes (Statuta Provincialia Concilii Rigensis ) of 1428:

Up to the present time, certain peasants in this country stubbornly maintain their archaic pagan customs, often holding feasts in the graveyard for their departed ancestors and friends, leaving them food and drink, in the belief that this will bring them peace. Sincerely hoping to destroy other such signs of paganism as well as this one, we order the lords and vassals of this land, particularly the leaders of the church, to make a special effort to threaten and punish these people for such destructive Godless evil. (Vėlius, 1996, p. 614)

Proof that the Christian church did not have an easy time destroying these "archaic pagan customs" can be found in seventeenth-century records of church visitations, which admit that Latvian peasants continued to feed the souls of the dead and that they could not "be dissuaded" from this practice (Šmits, 1941, 325220).

Honoring the Dead according to the Traditional Calendar

There are special words in the Baltic languages to refer to the dead: in Latvian, velis ; in Lithuanian, vėlė. Both words, according to linguists, originated in the common Indo-European root-form *wel-, which has several meanings, including "to wound" or "to kill." Many special names that can be traced back to the seasonal remembrance period honoring the cult of ancestors have survived in the Latvian language; examples include: Dieviņi, Pauri, Iļģi, and Veļi (different local names for the souls of the dead); and Tēvu dienas, Iļģu laiks, and Vecļaužu dienas (names for the festival commemorating the dead). For Lithuanians, even the name of their festival honoring the dead has survived to the present time: Vėlinės, originating in the word vėlė. Another name for the festival, Ilgės, is mentioned in written historical sources, and Lithuanian dialects include various names for the celebration, such as Diedai, Stalai, Uždūšinės, Ažinkai, and Šermenia.

The cult of ancestors in the lives of the Balts cannot be separated from the seasonal cycle because the ancestor cult is linked to the beliefs of a farming culture and the influence of the dead on fertility and productivity. Thus, in one way or another, the themes of ancestor worship, or at minimum their remembrance, show up in all endeavors associated with agrarian rites. Moreover, the dominant seasons in the cycle of ancestor worship were primarily autumn and winter. Thus, in Latvia the period of the dead was generally considered to be from September 29 (Saint Michael's Day) to October 29 (Simjuda's Day, a folk composite of the words Simon and Judas), or even up to November 10 (Saint Martin's Day). In some places only one night, from November 1 to 2, was dedicated to honoring the dead. Likewise, in Lithuania most rituals relating to ancestor worship took place in autumn, particularly in October and the beginning of November. Such rituals were also practiced at Christmas. For both Latvians and Lithuanians these were considered to be among the most important celebrations. Already in the fifteenth century, the historian Jan Długosz wrote in his Historia Polonica (History of Poland) that the annual October celebrations with their offerings to the souls of the departed were very important and could not be ignored. Latvians of the seventeenth century thought them no less significant, believing that "if one does not honor the dead, one will not have a good year but rather will experience a poor harvest and hunger" (Šmits, 1941, 32520).

Feeding of the Dead

Evidently in ancient times in the Baltic milieu, the cult of ancestors had not become standardized into one coherent system; hence, a great variety of ritual forms existed. Ethnographic material indicates that within a single era ancestor worship could take place either in a graveyard, in a birch grove considered to be sacred, or at the foot of big rocks or trees. Frequently the worship also took place in living quarters or farm buildings, such as a barn, granary, or bathhouse. Ritual practices were harmonized with local traditions, and, despite variations in such rituals, historical and ethnographic material allows them to be categorized into specific activities that were considered dominant in the Baltic cult of ancestors.

One of the important expressions of ancestor worship was the feeding of dead souls, a fully developed and logical outcome of traditional culture that aimed to harmonize and reconcile the world of the living with the netherworld, to maintain morality standards, and to guarantee the survival of existing lifestyle patterns. The dead souls feast was accompanied by prayer, calling out of the names of departed ancestors, and an invitation for them to cleanse themselves in the bathhouse. Frequently the event also included fire rituals. At times the meal was simply taken to the graveyard, bathhouse, barn, or granary and left there for the night. In the morning the mistress of the house would see if the food had been touched in order to learn whether the dead had a benevolent or malevolent relationship with the living. The feeding of dead souls constituted a contractual activity whereby the living remembered, honored, and looked after the departed, who in turn were responsible for a good harvest, productivity, and the well-being of the living, protecting them from cataclysms of nature and other undesirable events. According to traditional views, the departed had the ability to accomplish these feats because they existed in a sacral dimension that was superior to the profane. People believed that if the dead did not adequately fulfill their responsibilities, they could be punished: "The master of the house opened the door and taking up a whip struck all those places where he thought a dead soul satand thinking that he had sufficiently skinned them all, went to the doorway and said 'Now you can leave, but don't even think of repeating your performance of previous years.'" (Šmits, 1941, 32541).

According to the folklorist Jonas Balys, documented ethnographic accounts indicate that the peasants prepared special dishes to take to the graveyard and leave at the graves of their relatives. The worship of the dead was particularly impressive in Lithuania, even as recently as the nineteenth century. Relatives would gather, and led by the oldest member of the family they would go together to the graveyard, bringing food and drink and singing special hymns in honor of the dead. At the cemetery the family elder would point in all directions of the compass and call out all the names of the dead that he could remember. Then the family members would pour, again in all directions, beer, home-made spirits, mead, and milk, and they would place bread, meat, and other foods on the graves.

Information on graveyard feasts honoring the dead in Latvia can be found in written sources dating back to the fifteenth century. Seventeenth-century church visitation records include a reference to food, eggs, and beer being left on graves in the region of Vidzeme, with a written request asking: "Old folks, please help our barley and rye to grow well, and our horses and farm animals grow strong!" (Šmits, 1941, 32523). If the ancestor worship took place in the farmhouse or in a farm outbuilding, then one of the first things the worshipers did was to invite the dead souls in. When the mistress of the house had set the table, the master lit candles or kindling and called the dead ancestors by name, asking them to come dine and drink. The farmers of Vidzeme, hoping to receive especially benevolent treatment from the dead, saddled their horses and rode to the graveyard or to the nearest tavern in order to bring back the dead souls so that they could partake of the prepared feast.

The purpose of lighting candles or kindling at the beginning of the feast was "to provide the dead souls with better lighting for dining" (Šmits, 1941, 32545), so that "the dead souls can see their food" (Balys, 1993, p. 286). If the food was left in the barn or granary, lit candles or kindling was also left behind. According to nineteenth-century accounts, this custom sometimes caused fires, but the practice continued, regardless. The candles and kindling were also lit at the end of the feast to send the dead souls back to their graves. If the ancestors dined in the graveyard, certain rituals associated with fire were practiced as well. In the southern region of Lithuania that meant actually building a bonfire.

According to Vaitkevičienė, prior to the feast of the dead the worshipers thought it important to cleanse themselves and to heat up the bathhouse for the anticipated visitors from the netherworld, laying out clean linens and shirts for them. In the Kurzeme region of Latvia the custom was to leave a pail of milk, clean water, and a clean towel each night so that "the dead souls who were walking about that night could wash themselves" (Šmits, 1941, 32535, 32540, 32558).

One can also find in both Latvian and Lithuanian ethnographic accounts the practice of "pouring off" (Latvian, noliešana ). This custom referred to the pouring of a first drink or the throwing of the first or best morsel from the feast under the table, behind the stove, into a corner of the room, or into the hearth. The practice is also mentioned in historical sources, such as Długosz's Historia Polonica, as well as the sixteenth-century De diis Samagitarum caeterorumque Sarmatarum et falsorum Christianorum (About gods of Samogitians, other Sarmats, and false Christians) by Jan Łasicki. From the 1593 Annuae Litterae Societatis Jesu (Annual Jesuit report) we learn that the Zhemaits, the inhabitants of the western part of Lithuania, were in the habit of throwing the first morsel of food under the table, thereby "sending it off to the dead" (Vėlius, 2001, p. 618).

In the Zemgale region of Latvia, records show that the first morsel of food was intended for the deity of horses, the deity of the barn, and other spirits who lived behind the stove, in the piles of stones of collapsed buildings, or in big old trees with rotted hollows. The master of the house himself hid the first morsel of every dish in various places "so that no one would see or notice it" (Šmits, 1941, 32546). Similar practices also existed in the Vidzeme region of Latvia.

The relevance and persistence of this practice of leaving food morsels is evident in the following account recorded in 1996 in western Lithuania: "During the entire sacred feast period meat is served but the diners remain standing and do not sit. The whole family stands and then the food is served and the first spoonful is poured under the table. One spoonful. A second. A third. And only then the people eat for the food poured under the table is for the dead" (Vaitkevičienė, 1998, p. 255).

In the nineteenth century another important custom developed as part of the ritual associated with ancestor worship. Even though food intended for the dead continued to be taken to graveyards well into the twentieth century, people also started giving it to beggars. In Dzūkija, the southwestern region of Lithuania, prior to every holy day and every day of remembrance for the dead the mistress of the house baked beggar's bread called dziedu duona. In the morning, after breakfast, prayers, and various other remembrance rituals, she put four loaves of this bread in a basket, along with porridge, meat, and other food items; then, instead of taking them to the graveyard, she took them to church and distributed them to beggars. In return, the beggars would promise to pray for the dead and also for a good harvest and a lot of honey in the coming year. Similar accounts in other regions of Lithuania encourage scholars to conclude that the functions of the ancient ancestor cult were slowly transferred to beggars. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, beggars were considered in the traditional culture as the dregs of society, but also, like departed ancestors, as intermediaries between this world and the netherworld.

Food and Libations Served at the Dead Souls Feast

The remembrance of the dead celebrations typically took place in autumn, after the harvesting was completed. The feast for the dead souls was prepared using certain grains and meat from animals raised and slaughtered on the farm. An enormous variety of food and drink was included in the feast, ranging from common milk products, such as cheese and butter, to more unusual items made from hemp and poppy seeds. Baked goods were common feast items, and included plāceņi or pīrāgi, types of buns and filled pastries made from newly harvested grains. Often the dead would be offered legumes, such as peas and beans. In Latvia the dead dined on grūsli or pītes, little round dumplings made of cooked peas, beans, and potatoes mixed with finely chopped hemp seeds.

Lithuanians, during the autumn and winter calendar festivities, made, and still make, tiny rye and wheat dumplings called kleckučiai, which were eaten accompanied by hemp or poppy milk. This milk was prepared from seeds that were roasted, crushed, and mixed with sugared water. It was considered important during the feast to partake of the meat dishes, along with offering them to dead souls and beggars. The meat could be homegrown fowl, pork, or beef. A much valued meat, especially on Saint Martin's Day, was rooster, as well as pork with sauerkraut and blood sausage. Soup made from fatty meat, grits, flour, and potatoes was also highly regarded in Lithuania. In addition, milk and honey are often mentioned as part of the dead souls feast in both Latvia and Lithuania. As for alcoholic drinks, beer, mead, and homemade spirits were all specially prepared and taken to the graveyard as part of the celebration.

Religious Icons Associated with the Cult of Ancestors

The religious aspect of the cult of ancestors is reflected in concrete icons or images whose responsibilities coincided with those accredited to ancestors, namely, benevolence, fertility, and productivity. In describing the fifteenth-century dead soul festivities of the Zhemaits, Długosz writes that on October 1 throughout the western region of Lithuania, people celebrated "a great festival" during which they made offerings to their pagan gods, including first and foremost the god they called Perkuno (Deo lingua eorum appellato Perkuno ). Their hope was that through these offerings they would strengthen their ties with their ancestors (Vėlius, 1996, p. 560).

Various Baltic deities and spirits mentioned by the following folklorists deserve further scholarly research since their function or role has not yet been fully determined. Alexander Guagnini describes sixteenth-century autumn festivities during which the first morsels of food were offered to the god Ziemiennik with the words "Haec tibi o Ziemiennik deus " (This is for you, oh God Ziemiennik), (Vėlius, 2001, p. 471). Jan Łasicki confirms that offerings were made to the god Ziemiennik during the festivities of Ilģi (Vėlius, 1996, p. 596). Łasicki refers to the god of dead souls as Vielona, to whom offerings were made during the feast of dead souls (Vėlius, 2001, p. 595). Matthäus Prätorius considers the deity representing dead souls to be a goddess by the name of Źeminėlė (Mannhardt, 1936, p. 62). The Jesuit Petrus Culesius, in his account of a dead souls remembrance day in the Rezekne area in the seventeenth century, mentions Lelo Deves and Zemes Deves (Straubergs, 1939, p. 777). And Latvian researchers of folklore, such as Šmits and Kursīte, associate non-Christian deities with the world of the dead, including Zemes māte and Veļu māte, as well as Rūšu māte (the mother of rusty earth), Kapu māte (the mother of graves), and Smilšu māte (the mother of sand).


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RŪta MuktupĀvela (2005)

Translated by Margita Gailītis and Vija Kostoff

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