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DAINAS . In Baltic cultures, the songs known in Latvian as dainas and in Lithuanian as dainos deal with two fundamental cycles, the life cycle of humans and the festival cycle of the agricultural seasons. Although they are often referred to by the common designation folk song, this modern term is misleading, for the dainas, with their trochaic and dactylic meters, differ from the folk songs known to European scholars. The original Lithuanian dainos have to a great extent disappeared because of the influence of the European folk song, but Latvian dainas have survived in great numbers. About sixty thousand (not including variants) have been collected and published by scholars. Their content reveals that they were an integral part of daily agrarian life among Baltic peoples; as such, they bear directly on Baltic religion.

Regarding the etymology of the term, Suniti Kumar Chatterji has pointed out that

the Baltic word daina had unquestionably its Aryan [Indo-Iranian] equivalent, etymologically and semantically, which is perfectly permissible. An Indo-European root *dhi -, *dhy-ei, *dhei -, meaning "to think, to ponder over, to give thought to," appears to be the source of the Vedic dhēnā and the Avestian daēnā. An Indo-European form *dhainā as the sourceword can very easily and quite correctly be postulated. (Chatterji, 1968, pp. 6970)

From the age of Vedic literature words derived from this source word deal with the following notions: speech, voice, praise, prayer, panegyric, and song. The Pahlavi dēn ("religion") developed into the Avestan daēnā, which, in turn, appears in modern Arabic as dīn, meaning "religion," specifically, orthodox Islam. These etymological derivations and semantic relationships suggest that dhainā is an ancient Baltic word that has retained the meaning of "song" through the years.

Life Cycle

Dainas figure prominently in an individual's life cycle at three major points: birth, marriage, and death. Each of these events determines not only the content but also the form of the dainas.


In songs dealing with childbirth, the mother figure appears not only as the one who bears the child but also as the one who rears it and determines its fate. These dainas are characterized by their deep emotionality. This is particularly true of dainas dealing with the fate of foster children. Dainas sung directly after the birth of a child during the cultic feast (pirtīžas ) in the sauna, the traditional place of birthing, have a special significance because of their cultic character. These dainas are devoted to the goddess of fate, Laima.


Dainas dealing with love, the selection of a partner, and marriage are rather different from those associated with birth. They are imbued with joy and contain erotic and sexual elements intended to chafe and mock others. Some of the songs are so caustic that the seventeenth-century bishop Paul Einhorn, having heard the wedding songs of Latvian peasants, failed to comprehend their deep religious and cultic character. He wrote in dismay in his Historie lettice in 1649: "Afterwards such improper, brazen, and flippant songs were sung without interruption, day and night, that even the devil himself could not have devised and put forth anything more improper and lewd." Yet such fertility dainas belong to the very old family cult.


The third group of life-cycle dainas, those dealing with death, are rich in content, representing the individual's preparation for death. Their cultic character becomes evident in songs that describe the bearing of the casket from the home to the cemetery, which was the site of the cultic feast. There a particular type of daina was sung to guarantee that the dead person would have a favorable relationship with the ruler of the grave and the realm of death, occasionally referred to as Kapu Māte ("grave mother").

Festival Cycle

The second cycle includes dainas that describe the agricultural work routine and festivals. In their sequence they mirror the yearly cycle, including its holidays. The most important holidays are the summer and winter solstices. The commencement and conclusion of particular work phases also have an important place in the cycle. In the spring, when planting began, bread and meat were plowed into the first furrow. Similarly, the leading of the first cattle to pasture and the first horses to night watch were also observed as special events. All of these occasions were associated with sacral feasts under the leadership of the paterfamilias. Appropriate dainas were an integral part of these rituals. The commencement as well as the conclusion of certain jobs was observed, especially during the fall harvest. This was a time of relative abundance, and therefore the feasts were especially lavish.

Religious Dimensions

Both of these cycles mirror the framework of the Baltic peasant's life, which consisted of both hard work and joyous festivity, represented by work dainas and festival dainas. The peasants, in close harmony with nature, performed their tasks with songs that helped them to adhere to the rhythm of work. Festival dainas, whether of the first or second cycle, introduce another ancient element inherent in the name dainas itself: that of dance. The verb dainot really means "to sing and move rhythmically in a group," that is, "to dance" in the broadest sense of the word.

The great majority of dainas are songs describing various chores that have no specific religious content. Many describe nature, using explicit personifications of and metaphors for natural phenomena. A significant number of songs, however, do have a religious dimension, which can be explained by the significance of religion in Baltic daily life. Man's place in nature and his dependence on it forced him to ponder the basis of his existence and to determine his relationship with the forces of nature. The dainas are the clearest proof of this close relationship. Furthermore, because the source material relating to the religious life of the Baltic peoples is limited, the dainas represent an irreplaceable source for the reconstruction of this religious framework.


Barons, Krišjānis. Latwju dainas. 2d ed. 6 vols. in 8. Riga, 1922. An academic complete-text edition with variants of Latvian dainas.

Chatterji, Suniti Kumar. Balts and Aryans. Simla, India, 1968.

Greble, Vilma. "Tautas dziesmas." In Latviešu literatūras vēsture, vol. 1, pp. 22158. Riga, 1959. Historical survey of the different editions of dainas and a short introduction to the main problems.

Jonval, Michel. Les chansons mythologiques lettonnes. Paris, 1929. A selection of religious dainas concerning the pre-Christian Latvian deities.

Katzenelenbogen, Uriah. The Daina. Chicago, 1935. The only edition of dainas in English, with a brief introductory survey of their ethnological value.

Lietuviuh tautosaka, vol. 1, Dainos. Vilnius, 1962. A complete-text edition of Lithuanian dainos with a Marxist ideological introduction.

New Sources

Latviešu tautas dziesmas. Riga, 1979. Latvian folk songs.

Raudupe, Rudīte. Dievatziņa vēdās un dainās. Riga, 2002. Perception of God in vedas and dainas.

Sex Songs of the Ancient Letts. New York, 1969.

Švābe, Arvēds, Karlīs Straubergs, and Edīte Hauzen-berga-Šturma, eds. Latviešu tautas dziesmas. Chansons Populaires Lettonnes. 12 vols. Copenhagen, 195256.

Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira, ed. Linguistics and Poetics of Latvian Folk Songs. Kingston and Montreal, 1989.

Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira, and Imants Freibergs. Saules dainas. Latvian Sun songs. Montreal, 1988.

Haralds Biezais (1987)

Revised Bibliography