LAIMA is one of the few goddesses of the Baltic peoples who can be said to personify a number of elemental concepts. She incorporates a wide variety of both individual and societal functions, of which two are particularly noteworthy: architect of destiny and agent of fertility. In connection with the former, the etymological link should be noted between the name Laima and the common noun laime, which in its general sense means "happiness." Notwithstanding the apparent restrictions of this definition, Laima embraces a wide range of functions. As goddess of destiny, Laima holds supreme power to determine an individual's life. Her decisions in this context are not rationally motivated; they are radical and unchangeable.
In Baltic religion, Laima's role became prominent at life's critical moments. The first and most significant of these was birth. Here Laima acted as determiner of the individual life of both mother and child. Her concern for the woman in childbirth began before the onset of labor. Traditionally, the place appointed for childbirth was the sauna, and in preparation for the event the woman was ritually cleansed, as was the route to the sauna, so that Laima could make her way unimpeded to aid the woman. As childbirth was frequently a life-threatening event, the woman would offer prayers to Laima before giving birth, asking her assistance in ensuring that both mother and infant would survive the birth. The prayer was accompanied by offerings to Laima (generally in the form of dyed threads and woven braids of wool or flax). On a religious level, the most significant moment occurred after successful childbirth: it took the form of a thanksgiving meal, held in the sauna and consisting of flat cakes, honey, and ale. Only married women were allowed to participate, with the place of honor reserved for Laima.
A similarly fateful moment was marriage, and Laima traditionally was held responsible for a happy as well as an unhappy married life. It is understandable, therefore, that an unmarried girl turned directly to the goddess with prayers that she be provided with a good and suitable husband so that her life might be happy. As determiner of the future, Laima alone was responsible if the girl was later unhappy because her husband was a drunkard or because he had died an untimely death, leaving her a young widow with sole responsibility for young children. In such cases, the conflict between the unfortunate woman and Laima could grow into an open feud. Folklore material shows that in these circumstances a woman might demand that Laima carry a heavy load of stones as punishment or even threaten to "drown" the goddess.
Laima also determined a person's death. Two forms of dialogue took place around the time of death. The first involved the dying person, who attempted to persuade Laima that it was not yet time to die because important work still had to be accomplished, of which the care of children was the most compelling. This form of appeal was generally unsuccessful. In the other type of dialogue, the dying person was represented by Dievs, the Baltic god of the heavens. An argument took place between Dievs and Laima over the issue of the person's death and whether it should occur at that particular moment. Clearly, Laima was one of the most rigid and extreme of the goddesses of destiny, and the extent of her radicalism was demonstrated by her inability to alter her own decisions. If the individual's future was determined at any one moment, it then remained unaltered, whatever the circumstances. If a man was destined to suffer all his life, then Laima could do no more than weep with him. A possible explanation for the evolution of this fatalist conception in Baltic religion is what many have seen as the centuries-long enslavement of these peoples by the German colonialist Christian church.
In addition to her role as determiner of the future, Laima's obligations included the encouragement of fecundity and of well-being in general. This is comprehensible in light of the structure of Baltic religion, which is that of an agrarian community. The basis of existence and well-being was determined by the fertility of the fields and animals. As Laima's name indicates, her primary raison d'être was happiness. Consequently she alone could make the farmer happy, and by dint of this she takes her place alongside the other fertility gods of Baltic religion. In this context she is further differentiated. Depending on which animals she was considered to aid, Laima was given an attributive qualification: thus she became Laima of Zirgu ("horses"), Laima of Govu ("cows"), Laima of Aitu ("sheep"). In the oldest agricultural tradition, the horse was held to be of particular worth; hence Laima was linked most closely with horse rearing. Yet she also aided crop cultivation by participating in hoeing and by circling the farmer's fields to protect them from evil spirits.
The iconography of Laima is very clearly delineated in the sources. She is represented as a beautiful young blonde woman dressed in clothes such as those worn by the wives of wealthy farmers on festive occasions. On her head is a splendid garland and on her shoulders a colorful shawl held together with one or more silver brooches. Only on rare occasions does she disguise herself as a poor old woman.
The interpretation of the essential qualities of Laima is nevertheless complicated by certain unresolved questions, one of which concerns the source of her frequent description as Laimas māte ("mother fortune"). On the one hand, it could be argued that the idea of "mother," one of the fundamental notions of religion, is clearly linked with Laima. Yet on the other hand, it is also true that for centuries the Baltic peoples were subject to the influence of Christianity, particularly the Marian cult. Hence it could be held that Laima's description as "mother" is a later development based on this influence.
Another problem concerns Laima's creative role. In the sources she is occasionally described as laidēja ("main-spring"), from the verb laist ("to let," in the dynamic sense of "to cause to happen"; its synonym is radīt, "to create"). The epithet laideja and the name Laima are etymologically derived from the same root (lei), and this common derivation suggests that the act of creation is one of Laima's basic functions. Precise statements to this effect are sparse, however.
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