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Baltic Religion: History of Study


Although the concepts of pre-Christian Baltic religion have not been systematized, they can be reconstructed using several sources that contain pre-Christian elements. These sources include: artifacts found in archaeological digs; folklore texts, in particular Latvian and Lithuanian formulaic folk songs, riddles, and magic incantations; written texts, such as medieval chronicles; records of witch trials from the sixteenth century to the first half of the eighteenth century; church visitation records; written accounts of travelers; geographical descriptions of the Baltic territories; and archaic elements retained in language, in particular in toponyms and hydronyms.

The earliest written records that provide information about the Baltic pre-Christian religion are found in Germania 45, written during the first century ce by the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who mentions that the Aestii, a term coined by him to refer to the "people of the East," worshiped the mother of God (Lat., matrem deum venerantur ). The Anglo-Saxon traveler Wulfstan visited the Prussian seashore between the years 887 and 901, and his description of that journey offers various items of information about the Prussian concepts of death and burial. There are several chronicles that also provide significant, although not systematically recorded, material about the early religious concepts. For instance, Adam of Bremen (d. 1081) in his chronicles has supplied testimony of the existence of fortune-tellers and prophets among the Baltic peoples. Relatively substantive information about Baltic religious concepts may also be found in Henrici chronicon Livonia (Chronicle of Henricus de Lettis), written during the first quarter of the thirteenth century, which describe various historic events in the Baltics occurring from 1180 to 1227.

At the end of the twelfth century, German merchants together with Christian missionaries settled in Latvia. In 1201, Bishop Albert built a fortified castle in the city of Riga, and a year later he founded the Order of the Livonian Knights to combat the pagan religion practiced by the Balt and Finno-Ugrian peoples. At about the same time, Christianization by sword of another Baltic population, the Prussians, began and lasted for several centuries. A significant information source for Prussian religious concepts is Petrus de Dusburg's Chronicon terrae Prussiae (Chronicle of the land of Prussia, 1326), as well as Preussische Chronik (Prussian chronicles, published only in the nineteenth century) by Simon Grunau (d. 1530). Chronicles and other historical sources name the major Prussian deities: Swāikstiks (the sun god), Perkūns (the god of thunder), Puskaītis (the god of the forests), and Pekols (the god of the netherworld and animals). Petrus de Dusburg's Chronicon mentions romow, the principal Prussian sanctuary, which was also worshiped and recognized as the most important in Lithuania and Latvia, part of Livonia. From these chronicles we learn that the oak-encircled sanctuary was ruled over by the Prussian high priest, called Krive krivaitis, and that the Prussians burned one-third of their spoils of war there as a sacrifice to their gods. Located in the center was an evergreen oak, in whose branches were located images of the three main deities.

The traveler Ghillebert de Lannoy (13851414) was in Livonia from 1413 to 1414 and wrote in his travel accounts, among other things, about the burial traditions of the Latvian Curonian tribe, specifically that the dead were burned in a bonfire built of oak. If smoke climbed directly to heaven, the dead soul was said to travel directly to the gods, but if the smoke blew sideways, then the dead soul was lost.

Information about the ways the Balts and the Finno-Ugrian tribe prophesized the future and discerned future events before critical moments in life is to be found in the Henrici chronicon Livonia. Using these same methods the Latgallians (a Latvian tribe) made their decision to become Christians according to the Russian or Latin precepts, and in a similar fashion the Zemgallians, also known as the Semigallians, and Curonians of Latvia, sought answers from their pagan gods about the outcome of their battles. Another ancient form of fortune-telling is described in the Reimchronik (Rhymed chronicles; c.12501300), where a Lithuanian military leader, finding himself captive, discovers the fate of his soldiers in the field by gazing at an animal's shoulder blade as if at some sort of film screen.

In his history of Poland, the Polish chronicler Ioannes Długoszius (or Johannes Długosz, 14151480) provides material about Lithuanian pagan rituals and deities. Following the style that was popular at that time in Europe, Długosz does not call the Lithuanian deities by their Lithuanian names, but, depending on their function, assigns to them their respective Greek and Roman namesVulcanus, Jupiter, Diana, Silvanus, and Aesculapius.

In 1589, Salomon Henning (15281589), the duke of Courland and Gotthard Ketler's advisor in spiritual matters, wrote that the Latvians of Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemgale) worshiped as deities the sun, the stars, and such animals as the toad. Henning also wrote that the people themselves had the ability to turn into werewolves. He describes an incident that he himself witnessed in which the country folk fed milk to toads and snakes until they grew fat and swollen; when they were chopped in two, milk flowed from their bodies. Old women then came running, wailing and screaming that their "mother of milk" had been killed.

The sixteenth-century German historian and cosmographer Sebastian Münster (14891552) in his book Cosmographia (1544; supplemented in 1550) claims that even though the Latvian and Estonian peasants of Livonia had Christian names, they were ignorant and did not understand Christ's teachings. According to Münster these same people worshiped not only heavenly bodies as deities but also special trees and stones. Münster also describes marriage and burial practices of the time, claiming that food and drink, as well as money, were buried with the dead in a grave.

In 1581 a Polish chronicler of Italian origin, Alexander Guagnini (15341614), described celebration customs and Lithuanian and Latvian folk songs, both in terms of their content and how they were sung. Similar accounts of Lithuanian and Latvian folk beliefs, celebrations, and rituals can be found in the chronicles of Maciej Stryjkowsky (1547c. 1590), published in 1582. An important source of information about religious beliefs, specifically regarding the deities and sanctuaries of the Zhemaitian tribe of Lithuania and Latvia during the first half of the seventeenth century, is a book written in 1615 by the historian Jan Lasicki (or Joannes Lasicius, 15341599). In this book Lithuanians are depicted as not wanting to hew down trees that their fathers and forefathers considered to be holy. Lasicki also describes in this work Lithuanian and Latvian marriage and burial practices.

The Catholic priest Fabricius Dionysius, who died during the first half of the seventeenth century, wrote of the snake being perceived as divine and of the worship and feeding of milk to dead souls (called gari in Latvian) in his series of books Livonicae historiae compendiosa, published posthumously in 1795. He also suggests that abstract concepts associated with Christianity and morality could not be expressed in the Latvian language, thus such words as virtue (Lat. virtutem ), integrity (Lat. probitatem ), and piety (Lat. devotionem ) could not be communicated. The Latvian language is, in fact, characterized by forceful and well-developed concrete concepts, while the abstract philosophical and generalized religious terminology developed only during the nineteenth century in conjunction with the Latvian national awakening and cultural renaissance period. A significant source of information on Latvian folk beliefs of the first half of the seventeenth century is to be found in the works of Courland's governor Paul Einhorn's (d. 1655) Wiederlegung der Abgotterey und nichtigen Aberglaubens (Refutation of idolatry and erroneous superstition, 1627) and Historia Lettica (Latvian history, 1649), in which he describes Latvians as "semi-christiani oder ethnico-christiani " (semi-Christian or ethno-Christian) and as stubbornly resisting the observance of Christian church rituals while practicing semipagan family rituals and traditions at weddings, burials, and christenings. He also reports that at Christmas they performed a rite involving the pulling of an oak log and celebrated a special bluķa (log) night prior to Christmas. Also popular among Latvians is the summer solstice, known as Jāņi or the midsummer's eve celebration, the paying of homage to dead souls in autumn, and the worship of chthonic deities, among them the female deities Māra, Laima, and Dēkla.

The Catholic Jesuit priest Johannes Stribing, during his 1606 visit to inspect the operations of the Catholic Church among Latvians (Latgallians), wrote that Latvians continued to believe not only in one God the Lord, but also in their own heavenly and earthly deities. They made offerings and sacrifices to their gods at holy trees. The most valuable offerings were to Ūsiņš (the god of horses) and Mārša (the goddess of cows). Stribing also wrote that Latvians (Latgallians particularly) made a distinction between a masculine holy tree (oak) and a feminine holy tree (linden). Accordingly, men made their offerings under the oak tree, while women did so under the linden. Even such pagan rites as the feeding of dead souls took place at a special dead souls celebration in November. Stribing reports that Latvians believed in gods of fate, and he describes how they tried through various maneuvers to determine their own fate. As an example, he describes how a young Latvian woman who, trying to forecast what lies in her future and how long she will live, poured melted beeswax into cold water.

The information about the deities and religion of the Baltic peoples that is found in chronicles and travel records written by foreigners contains errors and imprecise facts as a result of a lack of understanding of local languages, as well as distortion due to a Christian perspective from which everything associated with pre-Christian beliefs is seen as abnormal or strange. Taking into account the imprecision and, in some cases, fabrications, these chronicles, as well as later records, remain valuable sources of information about the deities and religious concepts of the Balts. In most cases, these sources can be verified by comparison with information drawn from Lithuanian or Latvian folklore texts describing mythical folk songs, folk beliefs, magic incantations, and so on.

Since Christian religious precepts were introduced in Latvia through force and disseminated in foreign languages (Latin, German, or Polish), for a long time they did not make a meaningful impression but remained at the level of a formal religion. Perhaps because of this, even as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries one can find in written sources, especially visitation records and Jesuit reports about the state of religious belief among the peasants, condemnation of certain pagan practices and rituals, such as paying homage to trees or feeding milk to toads or snakes.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a relatively large number of people wrote about Baltic pre-Christian religious concepts, but for the most part these works reflect collected eyewitness accounts or information compiled in the preceding centuries. The most noteworthy author of that time was Matthäus Prätorius (16361704), who wrote about Prussian religion and culture, and the linguist and writer Gotthard Friedrich Stender (17141796), who, in a special supplement to a Latvian grammar text published in 1783, tried to determine which deities were worshiped by the ancient Latvians.

Until the nineteenth century, Baltic religious concepts were studied primarily by Baltic writers, cultural scholars, historians, and theologians of German or Polish origin, but in the nineteenth century scholars of Latvian and Lithuanian origin, fluent in the local languages, became involved in this research. They had the advantage of being able to dialogue freely with Latvian and Lithuanian peasants who, to a large extent, were the people who transmitted the living oral tradition, as well as various taboos linked to this or that sacred item or activity.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, two areas of Baltic religion were explored simultaneously. One was associated with Baltic mythology and consisted of the extensive collection, interpretation, and publishing of Baltic folk songs, fairy tales, and legends. The second dealt with the collection of oral folk texts, as well as artifacts gathered in archaeological digs. The most significant nineteenth-century research into Baltic mythology was done by the Latvian scholar Jēkabs Lautenbahs (18471928), who published a study on the Laimas, the three Baltic goddesses of fate, basing his research on the rich source material of Latvian and Lithuanian folk songs and fairy tales. In 1896 Lautenbahs also published the first comprehensive comparative study on Lithuanian and Latvian mythological concepts, which he arrived at through an analysis of folk songs. In 1901 his extensive research on Latvian religion and pagan deities appeared in German in the journal Magazin. Drawing on Latvian and Lithuanian mythological folk songs and the available, though limited, material on Prussian deities, Lautenbahs tried to pull together a comprehensive compilation of the pantheon of deities of the three Baltic peoples.

Also published in Magazin were a series of essays by the Latvian minister and mythology scholar Roberts Kārlis Auniņš (Robert Karl Auning, 18341914). These essays dealt with the hitherto little researched Using (German) or Ūsiņš (Latvian), the god of light whose responsibilities included guardianship of men and their horses and who was associated with the spring equinox. Another subject appearing for the first time in published research was the pūķis, literally "dragon," which in Latvian mythology is linked to wealth and well-being and not to evil, as in many foreign mythologies. These essays aroused much interest and a great wave of discussion about the Latvian deities of light.

Of note in the field of Latvian and Prussian mythology is the work of the German scholar Johann Wilhelm Emanuel Mannhardt (18311880) on the sun myths of the Baltic peoples (published in 1875) and the Latvian and Prussian deities (published only in 1936). Mannhardt's research, following mythological or solar-research school practices, was the most extensive in Europe at the time. It included Latvian and Prussian mythology interpreted within the context of Indo-European religious and mythological concepts. Mannhardt's studies greatly influenced some of the early broader-based researchers, specifically Lautenbahs. It should be noted that Lautenbahs was not only on the teaching staff of the University of Tartu (then called Dorpat) but he was also a poet who wrote a series of epic poems with mythological themes based on Lithuanian and Latvian folk songs, legends, and fairy tales, with the intent of reconstructing epics lost in distant antiquity. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Latvian writers and folklore researchers searched for and tried to piece together and restore seemingly lost fragments of grand epics. They also sought the deities and ancient religious concepts that were forgotten under conditions of captivity and violence during the Latvian peoples' seven hundred years of subjugation beginning in the thirteenth century.

Intensive restoration or reconstruction work on the ancient pagan deities was begun in the mid-nineteenth century, coincident with the start of a strong Latvian nationalistic movement and the Romantic movement in literature and art. Latvian folklore texts of the time contained references to a relatively long and seemingly adequate list of pre-Christian deities. This list included Dievs (the god of heaven); Velns (the chthonic god of the underworld); Saule (the sun goddess); the daughters of Saule; the sons of Dievs, including Ūsiņš; Mēness (the lunar deity); Pērkons (the god of thunder); Māra (the goddess of the earth), who incorporated features of the great archetypal mother linked to death and rebirth; Laima, Dēkla, and Kārta, the three deities of fate; Jumis, a twin deity linked to fertility; and many spirits, including more than one hundred archaic female maternal spirits, each with its own significant sphere of influence in nature, such as Vēja māte (mother of the winds), Meža māte (mother of the forests), and Lauka māte (mother of the fields). The scholars of the second half of the nineteenth century thought this long list of deities found in folklore sources was inadequate and proceeded to reinstate deities they considered forgotten over the passage of time. Thus, writers of the Romantic period, along with folklore enthusiasts, introduced many new deity names into the field. Later, in the first half of the twentieth century, this nineteenth-century folklore and mythology research came under criticism and was called the "creation of the Olympus of pseudo gods."

How were these new deities created? The first and most common approach was to take deities from the neighboring peoples, especially the ones appearing in Lithuanian and Prussian folklore, and to conclude that Latvians must have had the same deities, but that they had been lost with the passage of time. Thus, in the nineteenth century the following appeared on the list of Latvian deities: Anšlavs (the god of light, phonetically adapted from the Prussian Aušauts), Antrimps (the god of health, from the Prussian Autrīmps, god of the sea), Potrimps (from the Prussian Patrīmps, god of the rebirth of spring and fertility), and a series of other deities borrowed from Prussian mythological sources. The second source for the creation of new deity names and functions was ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Totally new deities with new functions were invented in response to areas of importance to nineteenth-century Latvian peasants. Most were modeled after ancient Greek or Roman deities. In the Olympus of newly invented Latvian deities appeared Krūģis (the god of fire and blacksmiths, drawn from the Roman god Vulcanus and the Greek god Hephaistos). Just as quickly as this process of inventing new deities started in the middle of the nineteenth century, it ended at the end of the century when realism replaced romanticism in literature.

The next wave in broader-based research into Latvian and Baltic religion began just before the proclamation of Latvia's independence as a nation in 1918. This wave is associated with the linguist, cultural historian, and folklorist Pēteris Šmits (18691938). In 1918 he became the first to publish a comprehensive and systematic study into Latvian mythology, with a second edition in 1926. In this study Šmits examines Latvian deities as they were revealed in various folklore and historical sources. Whereas nineteenth-century researchers had looked for ways to expand the list of Latvian deities, inventing them if they did not exist, Šmits's approach to Latvian folklore material was characterized by great scrupulousness and perhaps too excessive a skepticism. Šmits was knowledgeable about Latvian fairy tales and legends, having served as editor of the fifteen-volume Latviešu pasakas un teikas (Latvian fairy tales and legends), published between 1925 and 1937, complete with commentaries and compiled according to the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarnes's system. Šmits was also an expert in folk songs and folk beliefs. Under his editorship, four volumes of Latvian folk songs and four volumes of Latvian folk beliefs were published in the 1930s.

In his writing, Šmits attempts to find a credible explanation and basis for Latvian mythological deities. However, the research method he used, while applicable for the natural sciences, often restricted the parameters of Šmits's field of study. Influenced by the Finnish school, which focused on geographic elements in the comparative study of folklore, Šmits tried to determine the initial place of origin for both deities and folksong motifs. He thus arrived at some curious conclusions, proposing that the chthonic deity Māra was not a genuine Latvian deity, but rather derived from Germans or Russians, who themselves had lost traces of the goddess in antiquity. The result was a paradox. On the one hand, Russians of that period seemingly knew nothing about the paranormal being zmeja Marina (snake Marina), uncovered by Šmits in some obscure Russian sources. On the other hand, following Šmits's hypothesis, zmeja Marina became popular among Latvians for some reason. There is no documented proof that Latvians had previously ever mentioned or known a deity by this name. It is likely that the adopted zmeja Marina subsequently fused with the Virgin Mary worshiped in the Catholic Church, to become the deity Māra of later times.

Šmits, like the majority of the religion researchers of the 1920s and 1930s, was guilty of an overzealous search for foreign models for Māra, as well as for other Latvian deities and myths. This pertains as well to his approach to religious terminology. Upon finding a related root form in the Russian or German language, Šmits almost automatically assumed that Latvians had borrowed the wordfor example, baznīca (church) or krusts (cross). However, despite his several exaggerations about deity names and assumed foreign sources for religious terms, as well as his view on the Christian influence on Latvian mythology, Šmits did provide in his research a generally coherent overview of the Latvian mythological system, which included a comprehensive description of the cult of the dead and related customs of the period, such as offerings and sacrifices.

At the turn of the twentieth century, researcher Mārtiņš Bruņenieks (18661950) published several essays about Latvian deities based on the animism theory. In his opinion, all or almost all gods and spirits in Latvian folklore were animated from dead souls and from the worship of departed ancestors. Another extensive treatise, Senlatviešu reliģija (The religion of ancient Latvians, 1937) was published by the Lutheran theologian and folklore researcher Ludvigs Adamovičs (18841941), who was exiled in Russia. Citing folklore as well as historical sources, Adamovičs's study explores in depth various topics, including Latvian cults and rituals in ancient times, in particular the fertility cult practiced during the summer solstice and the autumnal cult of dead souls; the Latvian concept of soul (dvēsele, from the verb dvest, literally translated as "to breathe"); the world of the dead and its inhabitants and patrons; sanctuaries and ritual celebrations; and communal festivities of ancient times. In his work, Adamovičs focuses on the ancient belief in spirits, attempting to list by function the many "mothers" to be found in Latvian folklorethe ambivalent female guardian spirits who determined success or failure in various spheres of human activity and nature. These spirits included the mother of berries, the mother of mushrooms, the mother of bees, the mother of the sea, and the mother of night. Adamovičs categorizes deities into deities of heaven and light (Dievs, Pērkons, Mēness, Saule, Auseklis), deities of fate (Laima, Dēkla, Kārta), and agricultural deities (Ūsiņš, Māršala, Jumis). Even though, like Šmits, Adamovičs traces without substantiation Māra and some other deities and religious concepts back to Christianity, his study continues to be the most comprehensive research to date on the ancient Latvian religious system.

Several other significant studies of the 1920s and 1930s deserve mention, specifically a study of Baltic sanctuaries by Kārlis Straubergs (18901962), research into possible totemism traces in Latvian folklore by Arveds Švābe (18881959), and a study of Latvian masks used in connection with beliefs in magic by Jānis Alberts Jansons (18921971).

After 1940, during the Soviet occupation of Latvia, in-depth research into mythology, and religious concepts in particular, was not feasible. However, such research continued with Latvians in exile. Of note is research done in Sweden by Andrejs Johansons (19221983) into Latvian water spirits and the ancient snake cult, and a study of the cult of the dead by Kārlis Straubergs. Research into Latvian religious concepts was taken to a new level by the theologian and historian Haralds Biezais (19091995). Living in exile in Sweden beginning in 1944, Biezais published a series of studies in German, including systematic comparative studies of Latvian female goddesses (1955), gods of light (1976), and the gods of heaven viewed as prototypes of the ancient family (1972). Biezais's scientific reconstruction of mythological beings and deities is immaculately done and includes comparative foreign material. To date, his research is considered to be the most comprehensive overview of the Latvian religious system in terms of factual content and documented testimony. However, his research is perhaps not as comprehensive as it might have been had he also explored the much broader oral folklore tradition, instead of taking the somewhat pedantic approach by which only that which is recorded in writing has research value.

Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, an eminent folklorist and scholar, lived and worked in exile in Canada until the end of 1990, when she returned to live in Latvia. Her work on Latvian concepts of magic as expressed in oral incantations and her study of ancient Latvian religion, including extensive comparative analysis of Latvian deities vis-à-vis the hypotheses of Robert Graves, Georges Dumézil, and Algirdas Greimas, have been published in Latvian, English, and French. Vīķe-Freiberga has published the most comprehensive research into the Latvian (Balt) sun cult and the various aspectscosmological, chronological, and meteorologicalof the sun in Latvian folklore.

Lithuanian folklorist and ethnologist Jonas Balys, working in exile in Germany and later in the United States, continued research into mythology, publishing systematic studies of Lithuanian and Latvian folklore in encyclopedias in German and English, as well as specific research about the Baltic god of thunder and his adversary, the chthonic devil god (Latvian, Velns; Lithuanian, Velnias). A fellow Lithuanian, Marija Gimbutas, also working in exile in the United States, published an overview of Balt religious beliefs based on artifacts from archaeological digs.

When, due to ideological prohibition during the Soviet period, research into mythology ceased in Latvia and also partially in Lithuania, Vladimir Toporov and Vjačeslav Ivanov, two adherents of the Moscow school of structuralism (a method of analysis practiced in twentieth-century social sciences and humanities), published a series of studies about Baltic mythology in various periodicals in Russia. They also wrote a series of articles, Balto-slavjanskie issledovanija (Balt-Slav research), first published in 1970, in which they look at Balt and Slav mythology, folklore, and language on a comparative basis.

Research into Baltic religion resumed during the 1980s, first in Lithuania and then in Latvia. In Lithuania the most significant work was by Norbertas Vėlius (19381996). A disciple of the structuralism movement, he used its system of analysis to explore links with the religious concepts of other Indo-European peoples. While the majority of his many studies were published in Lithuanian, the quintessence of Vėlius's research can be found in his book The World Outlook of the Ancient Balts (1989). Vėlius's goal in Baltų religijos ir mitologijos šaltiniai (Baltic religious and mythological sources, 1996/2001) was to consolidate source data on Baltic religion and mythology both in the original language and in translation into Lithuanian. Several scholars have continued the comparative research in Balt mythology and religion begun by Vėlius. Nijolė Laurinkienė has published monographs about the Lithuanian god of thunder, and Gintaras Beresnevičius has published a series of monographs about Lithuanian and Prussian religious concepts, as well as broader-based research on Baltic religious concepts. The methodology, both structural and comparative, used by these scholars is similar to the one used in the monographs Latviešu folklora mītu spogulī (Latvian folklore in the mirror of mythology, 1996) and Mītiskais folklorā, literatūrā un mākslā (The mythical in folklore, literature, and art, 1999) by the Latvian mythology researcher and scholar Janīna Kursīte, wherein the author reexamines Latvian deities within a broader context and deals with subjects previously ignored or minimally researched, such as amulets and talismans, the symbolism of dreams, and the concept of a sacral landscape.

In both Lithuania and Latvia at the turn of the twenty-first century, research in Baltic mythology started to show a marked tendency to focus on comparative aspects, to critically reevaluate the role of chronicles from the Middle Ages, and to incorporate oral materials into the reconstruction of Prussian, Lithuanian, and Latvian mythology within the global context. Thus, new themes have appeared in research on Baltic religion, themes that were previously ignored or only considered from one point of view, such as the view that the Christian beliefs of the Latvian people are a (new) symbiotic religious structure formed from a fusion of Christian and pagan religious concepts.


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JanĪna KursĪte (2005)

Translated by Margita Gailītis and Vija Kostoff

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