Māra (and Great Mothers)

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MĀRA (AND GREAT MOTHERS) . A mythological female deity with features and functions of the Great Mother is frequently mentioned in the folk songs, legends, folk beliefs, and magic incantations of Latvian folklore. Opinion differs regarding the origin of the name Māra. In the first half of the twentieth century a group of Latvian folklorists and religious scholars that included Pēteris Šmits, Ludvigs Bērziņš, and Ludvigs Adamovičs tried to see a greater impact of Christian concepts in Latvian folklore, primarily based on phonetic similarities in the names Māra and Marija. They attempted to prove that Māra is nothing more than a phonetically transformed Holy Mary (Latvian, Svētā Marija). But one only needs to look at the text of a few folk songs, or dainas, that mention Māra to see that she is not Mary, the Christian Mother of God, but an independent mythological being. In Latvian folklore, Māra can be seen as a protectress of cows. She may be found sitting in a willow or under an aspen tree, and she is mentioned as guiding a boat of orphans across dangerous waters, but in some folklore texts she is also described as a harmful being, one who, for instance, takes away or disturbs sleep.

Other scholars have not expressed as categorical an opinion regarding the origin of Māra's image. The Latvian-born Swedish theologian Haralds Biezais believes that Māra incorporates features of an ancient fertility goddess whose name Latvians have long forgotten, so they now call her Holy Mary (Biezais, 1955, pp. 323337). In 1940 Mārtiņš Bruņenieks had advanced a hypothesis that partially corresponds to Biezais's theory. According to Bruņenieks, Māra's name was borrowed from Mary, the Christian Mother of God, replacing the Latvian goddess of fate Laima, while retaining Laima's functions as a deity of fate. However, this presents an obvious contradiction because both the names Māra and Laima can be found in Latvian folklore, even though their functions, such as the protection of women in labor, are partially duplicated.

An opposing point of view was proposed in the first half of the twentieth century by the brothers Ernests and Arvīds Brastiņš. They believed that both in function and name Māra is a genuine Latvian goddessa giver and taker of life and protectress of fertility, birth, and productivity.

During the Soviet occupation of Latvia (between 1940 and 1990), the topic of Māra was off limits to Latvian scholars. It was only during the second half of the 1980s that various scholars returned, with qualifications, to the hypothesis advanced by the brothers Brastiņš. Among them were Vjačeslav Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov, Moscow linguists and scholars of Baltic languages and mythology; Konstantīns Karulis, a linguist from Riga; Māra Zālīte, an author and folklore scholar; and, during the 1990s, the folklorist Janīna Kursīte. Their theory that Māra was not Holy Mary borrowed from Christianity but an independent female deity was based on both Latvian folklore and comparative source material from other Indo-European peoples. In this case, the name Māra hypothetically had been derived from the Indo-European root form *mā-, which was used to denote the concept of mother and archetypal maternal beginnings. Expanded by r, the *mā- root expresses the active creative force, the goddess of creation, and the goddess of destruction.

With the passage of time the female goddess or female chthonic spirit who carried this name (and had the ambivalent role of both giver and taker of life) took on different forms within the traditions of the various Indo-European peoples. For some, including Latvians, the name denoted a primarily constructive goddess who promotes fertility and productivity. For others, such as the Slavic peoples, it referred to a harmful spirit who comes at night to disturb human sleep and nocturnal peace, on occasion appearing as a forerunner of death or actual death itself. For Czechs and Poles she is Marena or Marana, a goddess associated with rituals devoted to the change of winter and spring seasons and the calling for rain. In Russian mythology she is Mara or Kikimora, a spirit who is either tiny or exactly the oppositea tall, bent, and ugly woman with matted hair who lives under the floor and at night weaves the thread of human lives and brings harm in various ways. A related comparison in English is the word nightmare, where mare, the second part of the compound word, incorporates the above-mentioned Indo-European root.

For Latvians, Māra appears in traditional folk beliefs, legends, and folk songs either as a woman in white clothing, a mooing cow heavy with milk, or a toad or snake. Usually Māra is called either Mīļā Māra (Dear Māra) or Svētā Māra (Holy Māra). In the first case this is a word formula, which people use to directly or indirectly approach Māra with a plea for her to be kind and protective to humans, which does not mean that the goddess is always kind and protective. The second word formula (Svētā Māra) has furnished an additional argument for scholars who have linked the origin of Māra's name to the Christian Holy Mary. Both the linguist Jānis Endzelīns and Pēteris Šmits proposed the theory in the first half of the twentieth century that Latvians had derived the word svēts (holy, sacred, blessed, or saint, before a word), along with the Christian religion, from their neighboring Russians. In fact, the word svēts is a Christian ecclesiastic term that originates in the ancient Russian language. It does not mean, however, that this word could not have existed before in the Latvian language as a way to refer to the concept of sanctity (svētums ) in the pre-Christian context, because the word is based on the Indo-European root *kuei (shining, bright, or white). If this ancient word svēts had arrived in the Latvian language by derivation, then there would not be as many toponyms and, in particular, ancient hydronyms throughout the Latvian and Lithuanian territory derived from this root form (e.g., Svētupe, Svēte, and Sventeļi). Moreover this root form appears in the synonym svētelis (literally, "white" or "shining"), used for the bird stork. More precisely Svētā Māra in its oldest, pre-Christian sense was seemingly used to describe the deity's essence and appearance, as in Baltā spīdošā Māra (White shining Māra).

Among Māra's specific functions, of significance is her protectorship of cows (as well as milk and butter). Māra is the giver of milk as a sacral drink to those going through puberty initiation rites. Thus, an etiological myth that has survived to the present day explains why the willow tree has slippery shiny leaves:

Aiz ko auga vītoliņš Glumajām lapiņām? Mīļā Māra sviestu sita, Vītolā rokas slauka. Why doth the willow tree grow With slippery leaves Dear Māra churning butter, Wipes her hands on the willow.

The gift of cows to an orphan girl about to be wed is dependant upon Māra's benevolence, since the orphan girl has neither father nor mother to provide her with the necessary dowry (property, goods, and farm animals, which were mandatory when getting married):

Mīļā Māra govis skaita Vītolā sēdēdama; Visas bija raibaļiņas, Dūmaliņas vien nebija; Nakti veda sērdienīti, Tai iedeva dūmaliņu. Dear Māra counts her cows Sitting in a willow; All of them spotted cows, None of them smoke dark; At night the orphan girl was wed, She was given the smoke-dark one.

The being, deity or human, who is able to count cows or other such things in great numbers, is considered the owner of those things. The spotted cows mentioned in the folk song, in accordance with Baltic mythological concepts, are the most fertile and productive of cows, more so than the smoke-dark cow. In giving it as a gift to the orphan girl, Māra demonstrates her benevolence but she also indirectly indicates the social status of the orphan as one without the usual rights. For instance, the orphan girl is wed at night and not during the day, as is customary. In this and other folk songs it can be seen that Māra's tree is the willow, which shows Māra's link with ancient healing ritualsas well as fertility, which in Latvian folk songs is often symbolized by the shiny leaves of the willow. Māra is expert in, and in charge of, healing herbs. Māras paparde, the legendary fern blossom linked in Latvian folklore to the summer solstice, is described through the use of a possessive adjective as belonging to Māra. Māra is the creator of the spotted flowers of the bean plant, a death and rebirth ritual plant, symbolizing fertility:

Pupiņai raibi ziedi, Kas tos raibus darināja? Mīļā Māra darināja, Debesīs sēdēdama. The bean has spotted flowers, Who has made them spotted?Dear Māra made them so, While she sat in heaven.

The structure of this folk song, which can be found in other folk songs mentioning Māra's name, is that of a sacral dialogue similar to the ancient Indian sacral dialogues brahmodia, which were created as oral components of a cosmogonic ritual.

Māra is invoked in magic incantations aimed at stopping bleeding (asinsvārdos; literally, "blood words"). In these verses Māra appears with a gold broom in her hand and is asked to sweep away the raven's blood or the fast-flowingriver, the latter being a euphemism for the taboo words of human blood. An important role for Māra is the healing of breaks and bruises. In several mythological folk songs, Māra pieces together a broken jug (renewing the cosmos or microcosmos). As she renews the cosmos she mends a broken limb or heals bruises:

Dieviņš krūzu (kannu) sadauzīja, Svēta Māra salasīja, Sastīpoja sudraba stīpiņām, Lai nesāp, lai netūkst, Lai netek kā akmeņam. Dieviņš [dim. of Dievs ] broke a jug, Holy Māra picked up the pieces, Circled the jug with silver hoops, So it would not hurt, would not swell, Would not leak as if [made] of stone. (Straubergs, 1939, no. 395)

Māra is appealed to with special invocations in instances of birth complications during a woman's labor. Sometimes in folk beliefs and in magic incantations Māra is personified as a woman's uterus. In such instances Māra (= dzemde in Latvian = uterus) is invoked to come and replace the uterus of a woman experiencing birth complications, and if Māra will not take the place of the woman's uterus she is threatened with black cats or dogs who will bark and tear her to pieces:

Mīļā Māriņa, svētā Māriņa, Stāvi savā vietiņā, guli savā vietiņā! Necilājies, negrozies! Ja tu cilāsies, ja tu grozīsies, Nāks trejdeviņiem striķiem, trejdeviņiem pinekļiem, tevi tīstīs, tevi saistīs. Dear Māriņa [dim. of Māra], blessed Māriņa, Stay in your place, sleep in your place! Don't shift, don't move! If you shift, if you move, They'll come with thrice nine ropes, [They'll come] with thrice nine hobbles, To tie you up, to bind you. (Straubergs, 1938, no. 394)

Māra is also called upon in instances of snakebites, and as a precautionary measure against meeting up with snakes in the woods. Snakes as killers or as healers are under Māra's supervision and, therefore, it is she and no other deity who is entreated by anyone wishing to evade snakebites. Māra is mentioned in many folk songs as a deity who does harm and is feared by humans, and against whose appearance from the sea or other waters people try to protect themselves. Humans wind a silver hoop around their houses so that Māra will not appear as a destroyer of flowers in cases where flowers are associated with life. In other folk-song texts Māra is shown as standing under an aspen tree, shaking and making it tremble. The aspen tree is most often associated with dying and the underworld in Baltic religious beliefs. Depicting Māra as standing under an aspen tree obviously underlines her ambivalent nature and her link to the kingdom of the dead and her role as overseer of the underworld.

People, especially women, made offerings and sacrifices to Māra to encourage her to appear more frequently in her benevolent rather than her destructive and harmful form. The most common sacrifice was a hen or a sheep. Sheep's wool and colored strands of wool were placed as offerings to Māra on the branches or in the hollows of trees, which most often were linden trees.

Māra's opposite, a masculine deity, is Dievs, the god of light, who is in charge of the higher world, the heavens, whereas Māra is in charge of the netherworld and earth. In several Latvian mythological folk songs, Dievs is shown as the ultimate judge over humans, the deity who brings on a monstrous flood as punishment for some unnamed violation, while Māra is the one who averts Dievs's anger:

Grib Dieviņš šo zemīti Ar ūdeni slīcināt; Mīļā Māra Dievu lūdza, Ap galviņu glāsīdama. Dieviņš [dim. of Dievs] wants to drown This small land in flood waters; Dear Māra appeals to Dievs, Tenderly caressing his head.

Māra is associated with water. She helps fishermen threatened with danger and guides sailors' boats safely ashore, as well as a boat of orphans across the sea. She is the one who controls thunderstorms, tempests, and other natural disasters. The concept of Māras avots (Māra's spring) is connected to fertility. This is a special spring in which, during the summer solstice or other major ritual festivities, women wash themselves to gain fertility, health, and energy. In the best-known sanctuaries in Latvia, such as zilie kalni (blue hills), Māra's spring is often mentioned as a sacred object. The concept of Māras baznīca (Māra's church) also figures in folk beliefs and legends, often as a place (forest, cave, pile of stones, etc.) where Māra endows humans (primarily women) with their share or what they deserve of wealth or good fortune, or even poverty or ill fortune if the goddess has not received sufficient offerings.

Māra appears in mythological folk songs as the protectress of the world of the dead, most often together with the sons of Dievs. On the far side of a bridge fashioned of bones, across a river of blood, "shaking and trembling," she welcomes the souls of soldiers fallen in battle. This is a word formula that suggests an ecstatic emotional experience or epiphany and a transitional crisis situation.

Thursday night, the fifth night, specifically the time between Thursday and Friday, is frequently mentioned in references to Māra. Certain tasks primarily done by women, such as knitting and weaving, were forbidden on Thursday evening. This was considered to be the night of Māra's birth and this taboo was observed up until the nineteenth century (and even as late as the twentieth century in several far corners of the Latvian countryside). On this night one could not whistle or make any kind of noise because people believed that on the fifth night all magicians and witches had been born, and noise could accidentally call them forth. Certain parallels can be drawn with similar beliefs about the fifth night in other European countries. Thus, for example, Friday in English is derived from the German and Scandinavian chthonic goddess Freyja.

Māra's image among Catholics in the Baltics is quite different. This pertains, first of all, to Lithuania, and secondly to eastern Latvia, where the Catholic region of Latgale is located. Here the pre-Christian Māra's image has fused with the Catholic image of Holy Mary (Svēta Marija in Latvian). Prayers to Marija/Māra, the Mother of God, have become an important component of the Catholic faith practiced by the people. Thus, in Latgale on August 15 each year, on Svātōs Marijas debesbraukšonas dīna (Feast of the Assumption of Holy Mary into heaven), there are mass pilgrimages to Aglona Cathedral, where an altar painting of the Virgin Mary that is considered to be a special source of miracles is located. Māra's/Marija's sacred spring, whose healing power is renowned from ancient times, is located near the cathedral. However, the majority of Latvians have retained in their traditional folk consciousness their own Great "Mother of all Mothers" imagethat of Māra from pre-Christian times. In Latvian folk beliefs a special Māra's day is celebrated several times per year in honor of Māra.

See Also

Goddess Worship.


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JanĪna KursĪte (2005)

Translated by Margita Gailītis and Vija Kostoff