Baltic Religion: New Religious Movements
BALTIC RELIGION: NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
In the context of Baltic religion, the designation "modern movements" refers to different movements in the Baltic lands, organized or unorganized, aiming at a revival or restoration of the autochthonous pre-Christian religions, as well as at a fusion of these religions with esoteric, metaphysical, theosophical, astrological, or environmentalist teachings and practices. The polysemantic term Baltic is used here as an ethnic denominator, with the modern Balts—Lithuanians and Latvians—as the primary focus, but with some attention paid also to Prussians and other Baltic-related groups.
Literary and Symbolic Constructions of Baltic Paganism
Among Baltic peoples, ideas about "genuine, inherited, local, natural" religion as opposed to "borrowed, superimposed, alien, artificial" Christianity were formulated in the second half of the nineteenth century, during the period of gradual transition from patriarchal to modern society soon after the abolishment of serfdom. This concept of natural, local religion was reinforced in public discourse by different means, among them the Latvian epic Lāčplēsis (Bear-slayer) by Andrejs Pumpurs (1841–1902), with its national hero Lāčplēsis opposed to the Black Knight, symbolizing the crusaders and, henceforth, the forceful Christianization of Latvia. At that time, some remnants of pagan practices still existed in remote rural areas, and this served as a conceptual permit to treat the revived religions as a continuation of a tradition.
The quest for a national identity created a demand for proof that the Baltic peoples were as developed culturally as other Europeans, especially the older nations. That was one of the reasons why certain efforts were taken to construct mythological pantheons as impressive as those of the ancient Greeks. By the end of the nineteenth century, a significant amount of research on Baltic mythology was published, and many facts about the ancient worldview and religion became broadly known. Still, most of the essential topics were studied insufficiently, and some of the analyses of these topics were quite controversial; for that reason, the missing elements, not necessarily documented in historical or ethnographical sources, were re-created in literature. Those new creations at times permeated serious studies, as with Teodoras Narbutas's Lithuanian Mythology, the first volume of his fundamental historical work Dzieje staroźytne narodu litewskiego (1835–1841).
Such a process took another direction in Latvia, where writers, poets, and publicists created new gods and goddesses in their literary works. In the opening part of his epic, Pumpurs created a pantheon in which well-known Latvian gods were featured along with deities from Prussian sources (and some invented deities as well). More or less invented pantheons are found in the publications of Juris Alunāns (1832–1864), but especially in the works of Miķelis Krogzemis-Auseklis (1850–1879) and Jēkabs Lautenbahs-Jūsmiņš (1847–1928). Thus, in the poetry of Auseklis one finds the names of almost sixty deities and spirits, of which only five—Dēkla, Laima, Lauma, Pērkons, and Ūsiņš—are taken from Latvian folklore texts. Two are from Lithuanian and seven are from Prussian sources, while the rest are invented by Auseklis or taken from uncertain sources and transformed to suit the stylistics of his romantic works.
Those mythologies, like the fundamental folklore collections published at the end of the nineteenth century, became one of the cornerstones of the new constructed national identity. As such, they did not promote ritual practice, but rather served as a symbolic marker of ethnicity. Those few practical activities that did occur still preserved their symbolic nature. Thus, for instance, the Lithuanian publicist Jonas Gediminas Beržanskis-Klausutis (1862–1936) tried to obtain written acknowledgment from the Russian imperial administration that he was Krivių Krivaitis —the successor of pagan Baltic priestly tradition. (Unconfirmed sources report that Beržanskis-Klausutis succeeded in getting such recognition shortly before the First World War.)
Religious Movements in the First Half of the Twentieth Century
The Prussian Lithuanian writer, mystic, and philosopher Wilhelm Storosta-Vydūnas (1868–1953) tried to synthesize theosophy with the Lithuanian pantheist tradition. Vydūnas was attracted by theosophy because he perceived it as a form of nonorthodox philosophical religiosity. For him, theosophy was a doctrine that declared none of the religions to be superior, claiming instead that all expressed the same esoteric truth through different languages. This was a crucial discovery for Vydūnas, opening up the possibility of honoring the old Lithuanian religion. He contributed to the justification of Lithuanian paganism through his dramatic works (the trilogy Amžina ugnis ["eternal fire"]), and through historical and philosophical writings. Particularly important in his writings has been the concept of Romuva —the pagan Baltic (originally, Prussian) sanctuary. Among the activities initiated by Vydūnas was the celebration of Rasos —the pagan Lithuanian midsummer solstice—by the Rambynas hill. The Tilsit Lithuanian singing society, led by Vydūnas from 1895, was at the core of those celebrations, and performed more or less regularly until 1935, when the society was closed by the Nazis.
Soon after the First World War and the subsequent formation of the Baltic nation-states, ideas began to circulate concerning the form that the revived or renewed religions should take, and about how to organize them, but these proposals did not meet with much success and were not realized. Juris Lecs wrote a book on ancient Latvian religion and ethics and tried to organize a non-Christian congregation. The theologian Jānis Sanders (1858–1951) attempted to reform Christianity: he sought to abandon the Old Testament, to check and correct the Gospels by comparing them to the Greek originals, to view the teaching of Jesus in the light of Vedanta, and to shape Christian ritual in a way he supposed to be specifically Latvian. In 1930 he founded the Latvian Christian Society, which became the Latvian Christian Congregation in 1937, but was not much noticed by the public. The writer Eduards Meklērs (1884–1973) planned to establish a new, syncretic religion, comprised of elements of all world religions but with a sanctuary in Latvia and with Latvian forms of worship. Considerable were the efforts of the Lithuanian writer and publisher Domas Šidlauskas-Visuomis (1878–1944), who tried to revive the Romuva or Visuoma faith and religion, inspired by the ideas and writings of Vydūnas. During the second decade of the twentieth century he formulated the doctrinal basis for this religion, later partly published in the United States. But his repeated efforts to register Visuoma as a religion in 1926 were stymied. In spite of good publicity, his sermons were not permitted after 1927, and his lectures at the public university were banned in 1930. During the first half of the 1930s he organized Rasos celebrations in the vicinity of Sartai Lake in northeastern Lithuania. Not incidentally, he referred to the place of celebration as Romuva—a name meaning "natural sanctuary" for him—thus hoping to make it the central location of the revived religion.
Latvian Dievturība could be considered the most successful effort to put the revived religion into organized and legally recognized forms. Dievturība was founded by Ernests Brastiņš (1892–1942), an artist, publicist, and researcher, together with Karlis Bregžis-Marovskis (1895–1958?). They initiated the development of the doctrine, coined the terms Dievturība (Latvian religion) and Dievturi (adepts of Dievturība—literally, "those who keep their God"), and published the first manifesto in the brochure The Restoration of Latvian Religion in 1925. The new religious organization was registered under the name Latvju Dievtuŗu Draudze (Community of Latvian Dievturi) in 1926. Following disagreements between the two leaders, Brastiņš in 1929 founded and registered a new organization, Latvijas Dievtuŗu Sadraudze (Congregation of Latvian Dievturi), which kept its status as a religious organization until 1935, after that time continuing as a public organization. Latvju Dievtuŗu Draudze, which had become Bregžis-Marovskis's organization, ceased to exist at the beginning of the 1930s.
In the following years Brastiņš did the basic work to establish doctrines based on the ancient mythology, and to shape rituals and social practices. He published selections of Latvian folk-song texts, which were intended to serve as canonical texts revealing different aspects of the religion. The church's doctrine was published in the form of a catechism in Dievtuŗu cerokslis (1932), in which questions related to theology, religious life, ethics, and ritual were discussed. According to this publication, Latvians have worshiped only one God, Dievs; their religion has been monotheistic, or, more exactly, henotheistic. Dievs is progenitor of everything, and He is omnipotent. Dievs is one, but dual—He is spirit and matter, Father and Mother, the good and the bad simultaneously. Māra is a goddess representing the material aspect of Dievs, while Laima is the aspect of Dievs connected with causality, fate, and fortune. Brastiņš described humans as being threefold—they consist of augums (body), velis (astral body), and dvēsele (soul). The body is composed of rough matter and is subject to destruction; the astral body is formed of thin, subtle matter and enters Veļu valsts (the world of shades) after death, staying there until it gradually disappears; the soul is imperishable, eternal, and reaches Dievs's abode after death. The moral norms of Dievturība were expressed as imperatives, the most important of which is "Be good!" Humans were presumed to be naturally good, because that was Dievs's intention, and any deviation from that was considered to be a mistake.
Dievturi propagated the use of vernacular names for calendar months (these are still are in use in Lithuania). Additionally, they used their own method of reckoning time: for the adepts of Dievturība the starting point was "the period of the formation of Aryans (meaning Indo-Europeans)," which was assumed to be some 10,000 years ago. To mark this, a 1 was added to the year of the Christian era, so that, for example, 11926 corresponds to 1926 ce.
According to the statute of the Congregation of Latvian Dievturi, membership in the church was open to Latvian nationals of both sexes. There was an elected Dižvadonis (Grand Leader) at the head of the organization, while the regional sections were permitted their own leaders. Also, no ordained priests were intended; instead, there could be only the performers of ritual actions. The movement gained ground during the 1930s, its members and supporters being mostly intellectuals—students, artists, academics, and teachers. The congregational activities included meetings, holy services, calendar celebrations, and life-cycle celebrations such as weddings and funerals. The Congregation of Latvian Dievturi published their magazine Labietis (The good, noble man), from 1933 until 1940. Before that, Bregžis-Marovskis also published a magazine, Dievtuŗu Vēstnesis, from 1928 until 1929, as well as his version of Dievturība's doctrine, The Teaching of Latvian Religion (1931).
Religious Movements during the Soviet and Nazi Occupations
The devotees of Baltic paganism can be characterized as the modelers of a new, national faith that was intended to support national statehood and lay a new, firm spiritual foundation for it. After the occupation of the Baltic countries by the U.S.S.R., pagan movements were claimed to be of a chauvinistic character, and thus inherently inimical to the ideas of communism and internationalism. They were destroyed and their members persecuted. Brastiņš was deported and shot dead in a Russian prison in 1942.
These movements partly survived in exile and in secret during the whole occupation period, but the story of this requires a special study, as only a few facts are known concerning their status during the Soviet period. Stasys Jameikis, the follower of Šidlauskas-Visuomis, tried to organize some religious activities even under the extreme conditions of life in a Soviet forced labor camp. Certain elements of Dievturi's rituals, or at least some outward signs, were present at weddings and funerals when nonconformist pagans were participants.
The first initiatives to revive the Dievturi movement in exile were started in Germany by 1944, and in Sweden by the beginning of the 1950s. The most vigorous development of the movement occurred in the United States starting at the end of 1940s, under the leadership of Ernests Brastiņš's brother Arvīds. Arvīds Brastiņš became the Grand Leader in 1947, and he kept this position until his death in 1984. The religion has been registered as the Latvian Church Dievturi in Illinois. To meet congregational needs, a church complex named Dievsēta was built in Wisconsin. The magazine Labietis was relaunched in 1955, and has been published continuously since then. Smaller groups of Dievturi emerged at different periods in Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. The exile Dievturi church was by led by Jānis Palieps from 1985 until 1990; by Marģers Grīns, the son-in-law of Arvīds Brastiņš, until 1995; by Juris Kļaviņš until 2000; and, since 2000, by Palieps again.
New Religious Movements in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century
A resurgence of ethnically based religiosity in the Baltics emerged at the end of the 1960s, a development that should be viewed in the context of global cultural changes. The new religious movements were less uniform, less dogmatic; they displayed much more interest in the preservation of nature and of cultural heritage. At the same time, these movements were much more open to other traditions and influences; they were essentially pantheistic. Most of the neopagans displayed marked interest in folk tradition and folklore in general; therefore they can often be viewed as the extremist wing of folklore movements.
One of the characteristics of most Lithuanian and Latvian religious movements in the modern period is the presence of pan-Baltism. This encompasses the study of the traditions of kindred peoples—Lithuanians, Latvians, Curonians, Prussians, Yatvings—with the goal of finding a quintessential primitive spirit, which would embody the ancient heritage when followed consciously. Feelings of ethnic kinship have led to closer cooperation between modern Balts, as well as between Balts and neighboring peoples—Poles, Belarussians, German Prussians—who are presumed to have inherited certain aspects of ancient Baltic religion.
Lithuanian Ramuva (Romuva) was revived in 1967 as the Association for the Study of Local Culture. Its first and most important activity was the organization of Rasos celebrations, which involved an ever-increasing number of participants. A strong impulse for the movement's development was provided by Professor Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994), who visited Lithuania in 1968 and delivered one or (most likely) two lectures on Baltic history and mythology at Vilnius University. The association was dissolved and the Rasos celebrations stopped in 1971 after the group was accused of becoming increasingly nationalistic and of being involved in religious activity, but the organization was reborn in 1988 as the Association for Lithuanian Ethnic Culture. To distinguish between cultural and religious activities, a new organization—the Community of Baltic Faith Romuva—was officially registered in 1992. Additionally, a terminological distinction was agreed upon: Romuva would refer to the religion, and Ramuva to the much broader movement of preservation, study, practice, and dissemination of ethnic culture. As of 2001, twelve regional Romuva organizations had emerged in Lithuania, with a collective membership of about two thousand members and numerous supporters. There are Romuva organizations in Canada, Russia, and the United States. Vilija Witte, a member of the Canadian Romuva, published six issues of the magazine Sacred Serpent in Canada in 1994–1995, with a focus on traditional Baltic culture, old beliefs, and indigenous Lithuanian religion.
The Romuva faith emphasizes the sacredness of nature and of humans first and foremost. The contact of adepts with the divine is based on tradition and personal experience. Traditional Lithuanian gods—Dievas, Laima, Perkūnas, Žemyna—are preferred, but not mandatory. One of the core concepts of the faith is Darna (harmony); believers aspire to inner harmony, endeavor to create harmony at home and in the community, pursue harmony with ancestors, and seek harmony with the universe—with life and with the divinities. The essential moral concept is Dora. This encompasses respect for Nature, for all expressions of life. It asks for a confident and loving attitude towards the world, refusing violence and vengeance. On account of its doctrine of Dora and the traditional toleration of other faiths in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Romuva claims it does not negate other religions. This claim is perhaps best understood in light of its very flexible doctrinal formulations, with their emphasis on the experience of the divine. Humans (male žmogus, female žmona ) are children of the Earth (Žemė), and therefore are responsible for other life forms. There is no essential difference between the status of men and women, and the dominant view is that both can participate in all rituals and on all hierarchical levels.
The three biggest Romuva communities joined to make the Union of the Religion of Ancient Balts in 2001. Restoring the priestly class, a circle of ritual elders (Vaidilų Ratas) was established, and the highest priest (Krivis) was chosen and ordained in 2002. The new Krivis, Jonas Trinkūnas (b. 1939), was given the name Jaunius after an elaborate ritual on the Gediminas hill, which is believed to be the burial place of Grand Duke Gediminas of the fourteenth century, one of the last pagan rulers of the Grand Duchy.
Following these developments, a public discussion has been sparked concerning the validity of the Krivis institution. Arguments in favor of it cite the continuation of pagan practices up until the twentieth century, and claim that "native or ethnic religiosity" is a significant constituent part of modern Lithuanianness. Additionally, a discussion was initiated in Parliament in 2001 on the question of whether or not the Religion of Ancient Balts should be recognized as a traditional religion, alongside Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, and others. As of 2003 there has been no resolution to this issue.
Romuva has initiated the organization of the World Congress of Ethnic Religions (WCER)—an institution consisting of "ethnical and/or traditional and/or native religious groups." It is primarily concerned with the protection and development of ethnic cultures, religions, and identities, and the "ethnic religions" are defined as "surviving ancient religions, such as Hinduism, or animism of various other cultures, as well as religions in the process of restoration, such as the Icelandic Asatru, Latvian Dievturi, Lithuanian Romuva and others." The objectives of the WCER, as stated in its regulations, are to:
- Spread educational knowledge about ethnic cultures and their religions, while propagating mutual trust and tolerance for the peoples of Europe and the entire world.
- Through education, propagation and the organization of support for the appropriate projects … preserve ethnic cultures and religions, safeguard them from extinction and propagate such ideas.
- Unify people and organizations engaged in ethno-cultural and ethno-religious activities within Lithuania and outside its borders.
- Fight against religious discrimination.
- Undertake other kinds of activities concerning ethnic culture and ethnic religions.
The first Congress was held in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1998, and several countries were represented there: Belarus, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, India, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United States. Six congresses were arranged by the fall of 2003, all in Lithuania. A newsletter, the Oaks, has been published since 1999.
Dievturi: Contemporary Developments
The Dievturi organization was restored officially in 1990, shortly before the regaining of Latvian national independence. A few years later, in 1995, the Latvian parliament recognized it as one of the traditional religions of Latvia.
The Congregation of Latvian Dievturi has sections and regional organizations: according to the 2001 census, their number is twelve, with the total number of members exceeding six hundred. There have been significant changes in the approach to leadership questions within the community. The first Grand Leader after the restoration was Eduards Detlavs (1919–1992); it was his initiative to drop this title. From 1992 to 1995, Dievturi in Latvia accepted the leadership of Marģers Grīns, who was the head of the Dievturi church in exile. He was followed by Jānis Brikmanis and, since 1998, by Romāns Pussars (b. 1932). Simultaneously, Grīns has been regarded as the Dievturi's highest authority globally.
The main forms of Dievturi's religious activities are congregational meetings, celebration of calendar holidays, and life-cycle celebrations—weddings, funerals, and so on. The Dievturi church has the right to register marriage, and in 2001 four couples availed themselves of this possibility. Members of the Dievturi church organize summer camps and lecture courses, and have effectively tried to introduce Latvian folklore, mythology, and ethics teaching into the curriculum of general education schools. The magazine Dievtuŗu Vēstnesis was published from 1989 until 1996.
Two opinions of what Dievturība is have emerged recently in public discourse. According to the first, it is a religion, practiced by members of the Dievturi church. The other position tends, in reaction to the decreasing significance of the Dievturi church, to treat a much broader spectrum of modern folkloric expression as part of Dievturība practice.
Movements and Groups with Marginal Religious Involvement
The Latvian folklore movement was started in the second half of the 1970s as a grassroots effort seeking the preservation, study, practice, and dissemination of ethnic culture. While concentrating on songs, dances, and calendar and life-cycle celebrations, folklorists occasionally performed rituals, incantations, and offerings to deities, claiming to do these things "as they used to be done in the olden days."
This approach to religion, as well as the doctrine of Dievturi giving higher status to nation than to God, has been criticized by Modris Slava (b. 1946), the leader of the Latvijas Viedas Sadraudzība (Latvian Fellowship for Spiritual Knowledge)—a theosophical circle with the aim of interpreting Latvian (and more generally, Baltic) religion from a theosophical viewpoint. According to Slava, the spiritual life of a society has three hierarchical levels: spiritual knowledge (Vieda) on the top, spiritual practice or religion (Līga) thereafter, and paganism or remnants of previously existing religious systems on the bottom. Through the adaptation of supranational spiritual knowledge to specific national conditions, a national religion emerges. Slava concludes, however, that Dievturība does not possess the requisite spiritual knowledge and is therefore on the level of paganism. Because of this statement and later frictions, the two organizations—Dievturi and Latvijas Viedas Sadraudzība—have, despite initial intentions to cooperate in the field of re-creating Latvian/Baltic religion, distanced themselves from each other more and more.
The fellowship of Lithuanian pagan faiths Senasis Žynys (The Old Sorcerer) has emerged in the 1990s as a circle centered around Andželika Tamaš—a controversial person claiming to be a successor of Baltic Selonian sorcerers. Some issues of the newsletter Senasis Žynys have been published in Lithuania, presenting the fellowship's vision of a Baltic worldview, religion, symbolism, and healing (Gaiva). The group has tried to register as a religious community at the Ministry of Justice, but so far with little success. Tamaš has a group of followers in Latvia, too, led by Uldis Zandbergs and closely related to another spiritual community.
This related community is the center of spiritual culture known as Baltais Aplis (The White Circle). Since its foundation in 1991, the center has been led by the painter Lilita Postaža (b. 1941). Aiming at the promotion of personal freedom and spiritual development, they practice Hindu, Agni Yoga rituals, combining them with Baltic religious and magic ceremonies—solstice celebrations and offerings to deities.
Certain aspects of Baltic religion are present in several groups having no official status or institutionalized form—practitioners of different energy and healing arts, paleoastronomers, and environmentalists and the green movement. Particularly interesting is the Pokaiņi phenomenon in Latvia. Pokaiņi Forest, located close to the town of Dobele in southern Latvia, received public attention in the second half of 1990s due to the efforts of publicist and paleoastronomer Ivars Vīks (1933–2002), and of Rasma Rozīte, follower of the teaching of Babaji and an active member of Baltais Aplis. Pokaiņi was claimed to be an ancient healing and ritual place, a doorway to Shambhala, providing intense radiation of cosmic energy. This hilly, forested spot with numerous stone piles, scattered in an area of about four hundred hectares, has become a place of healing, worship, and pilgrimage not only for Latvians but for visitors from other countries as well, more than a thousand of whom visit weekly in season.
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