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Baltic Sanctuaries


BALTIC SANCTUARIES . There are two types of Baltic sanctuaries. The first and most important type is the pagan sanctuary, which no longer exists but which has survived in countless legends, documented accounts, and evidence of sacrifice rituals from archaeological digs. In addition, records of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Catholic Church visitations and some toponyms that have survived to this day suggest that sacrifice to pagan gods and spirits was still being practiced in certain places at that time. The second type is the Catholic sanctuary. This type pertains to present-day Lithuania, which is entirely Catholic, and to Latgale, the eastern region of Latvia, which is also Catholic, in contrast to the rest of Protestant Latvia. Christian sanctuaries were frequently superimposed in the Baltic Catholic region in places where pre-Christian sanctuaries had already existed; in some cases these pre-Christian sanctuaries were simply reactivated as Christian ones during Christian times. Although German missionaries, merchants, and crusaders brought Christianity into Latvian territory as early as the thirteenth century, Latvians remained fundamentally pagan well into the seventeenth century.

Latvia's inhabited territory in the thirteenth century included Livonia. At that time the Prussian peoples had not succeeded in joining together to create a strong and independent nation and had thus come under the power of the Teutonic Ordera religious military order, also known as Teutonic Knights, established in the southeastern Baltic lands from the thirteenth century until the mid-sixteenth century. As a consequence, the Prussian peoples had been Christianized. The fate of another Baltic group, the Lithuanians, was different in that Mindaugas, a Lithuanian prince, established an independent Lithuanian nation in 1240. Unable to maintain the upper hand in ongoing battles with Lithuania's neighbors, however, Mindaugas was forced to seek the help of the Teutonic Order. In gratitude for the order's support, in 1251 Mindaugas and his followers became Christians, and in 1253 he was crowned king with a crown sent from Rome by the pope. Subsequently, the Baltic peoples ruled by King Mindaugas, particularly the Zhemaits, rebelled against the crusaders and their forced conversion to Christianity. Mindaugas renewed his struggle against his former ally, the Teutonic Order, and eventually was slain in 1263. At this point people throughout Lithuania began turning back to their old pagan beliefs, and the wars with the German crusaders did not abate during the thirteenth century and even into the fourteenth century. During this period the Teutonic Order blocked trade activity between Lithuania and western Europe, forcing Lithuania's kings to seek compromise solutions regarding both trade and religion issues. Despite the strong resolve of the common people and the aristocracy throughout most of the fourteenth century to resist the government's desire to convert the nation to Christianity (and thus put an end to the onslaught by the crusaders). Lithuania was officially Christianized in 1387, in line with the tenets of the Catholic faith. On a practical level, however, Lithuanians maintained strong pagan beliefs, particularly the pagan worship of sacred places, as evidenced by the survival to the present day of a good number of place-names that pertain to ancient Balt sanctuaries.

During the thirteenth century, Prussians also engaged in ongoing and merciless struggles with the Teutonic Order. Because their territory extended the farthest west, the Prussians suffered the most on the battlefield against the order. However, on the religious front, which included the worship of pagan sanctuaries, they were able to maintain their beliefs and practices well into the beginning of the eighteenth century, when a massive epidemic of the plague struck their entire territory and wiped out many of the Prussians who had remained faithful to their pagan and linguistic identity.

The vocabulary of Prussians, Lithuanians, and Latvians has common root forms that pertain to pre-Christian sanctuaries. One of them is the root *elk-/ *alk-, which means sanctuary. Traditionally, such a sanctuary was a designated deciduous tree forest, but it could also be a hill, river, lake, cliff, or cave. Until World War II one could find in East Prussia, and even today in Latvia and Lithuania, toponyms and hydronyms relating to sanctuaries, which indicate that sanctuaries once existed in those locations. Examples include Alkayne, Alkeynen, and Alkebirge in East Prussia (the Kaliningrad region of modern Russia and northeastern Poland); Elkupis and Elkus in Lithuania; and Elka, Elkasgals, Elkas Grava, Elkas Purvs, Elkezers, Elkleja, and Elkazeme in Latvia. With the advent of Christianity into the Baltic territory, the root form *elk-/ *alk- was used in words designating pagan worship symbols in the form of wood or stone sculptures, pre-Christian faith in general, and pre-Christian divinities, such as the Latvian elka dievi. From an etymological point of view the root form *elk-/ *alk is related to the concept of curve, bend, or turn. We see this root in the Prussian word alkunis (elbow) and in elkonis, the Latvian counterpart. For the ancient Baltic peoples the concept of curving and bending was linked to foretelling of the future; it was the ability, through the language of symbols and intuition, to see around corners. In other words, by looking straight ahead a person could see only objects linked to the profane material world, but by looking in an indirect manner (as through fortune-telling) one could see that which was hidden in both people and things. The pre-Christian meaning of elks, alke, or alkas for the Baltic peoples was that of the sanctuary where they worshiped gods and brought gifts to the images of those gods. The Lithuanian term alkas designated a hill overgrown with trees or, in a historic context, a hill where sacrifice with its accompanying rituals has taken place.

Another important sanctuary concept for the Baltic peoples is contained in the root form *rom-. For Lithuanians, it was romuva/romove ; for Latvians, ramava ; and for Prussians, romow/romowe. There are few documented records, other than legends, about this type of sacrifice ritual in Latvian and Lithuanian sanctuaries. However, the term romow is mentioned in many and varied sources, starting with Petrus de Dusburg's Chronicon terrae Prussiae (Chronicle of the land of Prussia, 1326), as the principal sanctuary for Prussians, and it is recognized as such also in Lithuania and Latvia. It was in this sanctuary that the Prussians burnt a third of the spoils of war as a sacrifice to their gods. During special celebrations the sacrifice consisted of various animals, with a white horse and a goat singled out as favorites. The romow sanctuary was encircled by large oak trees with an evergreen oak bearing the image of three of the principal gods at its center. The three Prussian gods represented three cosmic zonesthe heavens (Perkūns, the god of thunder), earth (Patrīmps, god of fertility), and the underworld (Patuls, god of the underworld). Typically, one romow is mentioned in regard to the Prussians. However, toponymy shows that in the territories inhabited by Prussians, in addition to the main and most important romow, there were smaller less significant romows in each neighborhood. According to an ancient legend, before the attack by the German Teutonic Order on western Prussia's Heiligenbeil (the town of Mamonovo in today's Kaliningrad region of Russia), there existed in the sanctuary an oak, which was supposedly always green, both in summer and winter. The leaves of the tree were considered medicinal, and people applied them to ailing parts of the bodies of humans and animals alike. The tree's canopy was so dense that no snow or rain could penetrate it. Even in Latvia and Lithuania you can still find toponyms with the root form *rom-, which shows that similar sanctuaries existed throughout the inhabited Baltic territory.

Dusburg's Chronicon terrae Prussiae makes a connection between the word romow and the city of Rome by comparing the power of the romow's high priest (Krive krivaitis ) to that of the pope. However, romow does not derive from the city name Rome. The origin is rather in the Indo-European root form *rem-, meaning "to be at peace" or "to be peaceful." In Latvian this concept is expressed by the word rāms (calm, peaceful), as in the folk song "Rāmi, rāmi Dieviņš brauca / No kalniņa lejiņā" ("Calmly, calmly Dievs [dim.] rode / From the hill down to the valley"), and in Lithuanian as ramus or romus (peaceful, silent). Peace and calm in romow' s sacred grove, described in a mythical Latvian folksong as "when no leaf stirred" (ne lapiņa nečabēja ), was seen as a universal manifestation of a cosmic order. A special ritual of cosmic order was conducted by the Krive krivaitis. Typically, ordinary mortals were not allowed to enter the romow sanctuary, and those who were allowed in were not permitted to touch anything. In this sense the romow sanctuary was perceived in the way paradise is by Christians; that is, the sanctuary knew no chaos and was in total harmony with the cosmos. It is interesting to note that the Latvian language has a related root verb, ramīt, which means "to grieve" or "to mourn the dead" in the sense of allowing the spirit to leave this world: aizlaist no šīs saules viņsaulē (literally, "to leave this sun to go to the nether sun") and "be at peace."

A variety of romow source materials also indicate that the oak trees that typically populated the sanctuary were evergreen. However, the climate in Prussia, Lithuania, and Latvia is such that there is usually snow in winter. Therefore, deciduous trees, including oak trees, would lose their leaves in autumn. One school of thought suggests that on the sanctuary's sacred oak trees grew the evergreen mistletoe, which is considered by the Baltic people, as well as by Romans, Germans, Scandinavians, and others, to be linked to immortality and fertility. It is mistletoe that guarantees one's resurrection after death. Mistletoe is the "golden bough" mentioned in Scandinavian and German source material and also by Vergil, who describes the blossoming of the miraculous "golden bough" upon Aeneas's entry into the underworld.

Many toponyms include *kriv/ *kreiv-, a prolific root form in all Baltic languages. Examples include the word Krywyen in Prussian, mentioned in written sources dating back to 1419; Krivonys, Krivičiai, Krivai and Kreivupė in Lithuanian; and Krīvi, Krīviņa, Krivaši, Krievaiņi, Krievaceļš, and Krievapurvs in Latvian. As with the root *elk-/ *alk -, the meaning of these words is linked to the concept of indirect, not straight, crooked. The Latvian archaic krievs and the Lithuanian kreivas both mean "crooked," and kryvuoti means "to stumble" or "to walk in a crooked fashion." Similarly, kreivakis refers to someone who is cross-eyed. This root word can be found as well in Krive krivaitis, whose symbol of spiritual power was a crooked staff. He was also considered the priest of fire, who along with his disciples maintained the eternal flame.

A relatively large number of pre-Christian sanctuary names have as their root *svent-, which can be traced back to the Indo-European *kuen-. In Prussian the comparative form is swints, in Lithuanian šventas, and in Latvian svēts. Many Baltic hydronyms are also formed from the same root. Examples in Prussian are the names Swent (a river), Swentyn (a lake mentioned in literary sources dating back to 1297), Swyntheynen (another lake mentioned in a 1340 source), and Swentegarben (mentioned in 1351). Lithuanian language examples pertain both to the names of bodies of water and hills, as in Šventas, Šventėlis, Šventė, Švenčius, Švenčiukas, Šventā, Šventupė, Šventežeris, Šventākalnis, and Šventrāgis. In Latvian, the root form can be found primarily in the names of rivers and lakes, but in some isolated cases it also appears in the names of inhabited regions. Examples include the rivers Svēte, Svētupe, Sventa, and Sventāja/Šventoji (a river on the Latvian and Lithuanian border); the lakes Sventes and Svētavas ; and the inhabited regions of Svente and Svenči. One can conclude that for the Baltic peoples the epithet svēts (sacred, holy) was closely tied to the idea of certain rivers, lakes, and springs that had been specifically identified as sacred. The root form's association with the names of hills or mountains is less frequent, and it is even less common in names of forests or groves. One can therefore hypothesize that the Latvian svēts and the Lithuanian šventas, in their various forms in hydronyms, symbolized for the Balts a certain brilliance, shininess, or brightness, and ultimately a supernatural light.

Throughout Latvia certain hills were considered sanctuaries known as the zilie kalni (blue hills). Records have survived that show nine such blue hills were or still are in existence on Latvian soil. The most important of these is the blue hill located not far from the city of Valmiera. In ancient times, this hill was considered sacred and was widely known for its spring waters, to which were ascribed countless miraculous healing powers. It was forbidden to break off even the smallest branch of a tree in the hill's grove. A severe punishment awaited anyone who disobeyed this edict. People from near and far flocked to the sacred hill on June 23, midsummer's eve. Seventeenth-century literary sources describe several trials of witches who held secret meetings on the blue hill outside Valmiera. For instance, during a 1636 trial in Riga a woman confessed that she and her mother had attended a secret gathering on the blue hill. Both were found to be witches by the court and were burned to death. The following year, a trial took place in Riga regarding five individuals from the village of Liepupe who had met on the blue hill in order to cast a curse on their neighbors' flax and barley. Even in the twentieth century certain stories about Valmiera's blue hill lend this particular sanctuary special status among all the blue hill sanctuaries. In the 1970s, during the Soviet period, a widely known healer nicknamed Blue Hill Marta (Marta Rācene, 19081992) lived near the blue hill sanctuary. Many eyewitness accounts have been recorded about her supernatural healing powers. A common denominator among all the blue hill sanctuaries is the existence of a spring of healing waters and the profusion of rare and protected plants. Today, Valmiera's sanctuary is more of a tourist attraction than a sacred place. But when, towards the end of 1990, a proposal was put forth to build a gigantic garbage dump at the base of Valmiera's blue hill, protests were heard throughout the country objecting to the defiling of ancient sacred places. Obviously, the principle of protecting sacred sites has survived to the present day.

The symbiosis of pre-Christian and Christian sanctuaries in Catholic Lithuania is most evident, from the sixteenth century on, in the affixing of images of Christ or other sacred symbols on vertical posts with crosses called kryžius in Lithuanian. At first these crosses were made exclusively from wood, and in later times from both metal and wood, at an initial height of 1.5 to 2 meters, and eventually extending to several meters high. Frequently, a special fence encircled the crosses, and colorful flowers were either planted at the base of the cross or cut flowers were placed below the cross. In May, people still gather at these crosses to sing songs in honor of the Virgin Mary. Since the nineteenth century, people who have survived some serious illness or disability, or who hope to guard against one, flock to the Hill of the Crosses (Kryžių kalnas) near the Lithuanian town of Šiauliai, bringing with them homemade crosses of various shapes, sizes, and materials. Several attempts were made during the Soviet period to remove these crosses. For example, in 1961, following an edict from the Communist Party's Central Committee, more than two thousand such crosses were removed from the hill, but people secretly replaced them with new crosses. Since Lithuania regained its independence in the early 1990s, more than 100,000 new crosses have been placed on the hill. Today, the Hill of the Crosses is one of the most popular sanctuaries and it is visited by a large number of people from Lithuania and other countries, who come to pray and place their own homemade crosses. The location has also become a major tourist attraction.

Findings from archaeological digs indicate that in the pre-Christian period a place called Aglona, in the western part of Latvia, was a pagan sanctuary. Vague records and legends point to the existence of a nearby spring with healing powers. In the seventeenth century a Catholic Dominican cloister and cathedral were built on this site. In the eighteenth century the cathedral inherited a painting of the Virgin Mary by an anonymous artist. In time, Catholics started to attribute miraculous powers to this painting, including the power to answer prayers and grant good health and protection during crises. Even during the Soviet occupation of Latvia (19401941 and 19451991), when the practice of Christian faith and church attendance were considered major crimes against the state, Aglona Cathedral was the secret destination of many pilgrims. The biggest pilgrimage (approximately 100,000 people) takes place annually on August 15 (the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to heaven) when Catholics from Latvia and neighboring Lithuania and Poland, as well as people of other faiths, descend on Aglona. To this day, visitors to Aglona make sure they also seek out the nearby spring.

See Also

Sacred Space; Sanctuary; Shrines.


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JanĪna KursĪte (2005)

Translated by Margita Gailītis and Vija Kostoff

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