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SAULE . Written historical sources about the pre-Christian religion of the ancient Latvians are fragmented and often unreliable, but concur in condemning it as pagan idolatry and the worship of natural phenomena. In 1199 this attitude was consecrated in a papal bull from Pope Innocent III, who had conferred upon the conquest and Christianization of the Baltic region the status of a crusade.

Nature worship was attributed to the ancient Baltic tribes in a variety of historical documents, many of which were compiled and analyzed by Wilhelm Mannhardt in his impressive Letto-Preussische Gőtterlehre (left unfinished at his death in 1870, and only published in Riga in 1936). The earliest is a 1326 chronicle by the Christian knight Peter von Duisburg, in which he pithily states that Baltic peoples worshipped the sun, the moon, the stars, and four-legged animals. Later documents include occasional observations by travelers to the region, but mostly consist of records of witch trials or reports of ecclesiastical inspections, aimed at eliminating pre-Christian rites and beliefswhich seem to have survived many centuries of merciless persecution by both the Catholic and Protestant churches. The Romantic movement caused a radical reversal in attitude by kindling scholarly interest in popular antiquities and in oral traditions containing archaic elements.

Evidence of a cult of the saule ("sun"; pron. sow-leh ) as part of an archaic nature religion, as well as prehistoric cosmogonic concepts linked to the sun may be found in Latvian folk legends, magical formulae, traditions, and beliefs, but most of all in the hundreds of thousands of variants of lyrical folk-song, or daina, texts.

Within the most recent and complete collection of over 4,000 daina texts (Vīķe-Freibergaand Freibergs, 1988) containing words with the root form for "sun," around 2,500 texts refer literally to the sun as a celestial body or physical phenomenon, either in its chronological or its meteorological aspect (Vīķe-Freiberga, 1999; 2002). But even this physical sunwhich shimmers, glitters, glimmers, glares, blazes, shines forth, and conveys its presence in a dozen more ways for which there are Latvian words but no English equivalenthas a profoundly magical and beneficial influence on all aspects of human life. Thus, for a man to be born in the summer while the sun is shining ensures that his rye will grow tall, his barley will thrive, and his bay horses will breed vigorous and strong.

Around 1,500 numbered type-songs (some having over 100 variants) refer to the clearly personified, feminine figure of Saule, and contain motifs that are both mythological and cultic in nature. This mythical Saule appears as a resplendent, richly dressed, generous, compassionate, and also playful being: she dances "on a silver mountain, with golden slippers on her feet," she "strums her psaltery [kokles], while sitting in the East," she plays with golden apples. Saule rides in her chariot across the Hill of Heaven or sails in a boat that she leaves behind after setting into the sea. She sits on a hill, with golden reins in her hand, while her horses bathe in the sea.

Finally, a few hundred texts are "cosmological" in the sense of reflecting a "mental model" of the universe, both in its structural and in its dynamic aspects (Vīķe-Freiberga, 1997). The sun is a major point of reference in the spatial bisection of the Cosmos along the vertical plane between above and below, in which the world (the earth and everything on it) is pasaule, literally "the place under the sun." The sun also governs the temporal opposition between the brief limited span of a human life on earth (mūžs) and eternity as expressed in the concept of the "life span of the sun" (saules mūžs). Finally, a third cosmological dimension combines temporal with spatial aspects in distinguishing between temporal life in "this sun" (šī saule) and eternal life in "that sun" (viņa saule). The "other sun" or "nether sun" is the realm in which the sun sleeps at night. Each new dawn demonstrates anew that the sun has not been destroyed by darkness, but has only retired for a while into a different plane of existence, for "Does the sun rise in the same spot where it has set?" By being reborn every day, Saule becomes not just a symbol of immortality, but also the main mediator between Life and Death. Saule is the one who knows the path of transition between them, passing through double gates on the horizon, each marked by a verdant tree. The red tree of sunrise is the tree of life, youth, health, and beauty, and magically projects these qualities unto the East:

The sun rises every morning In a scarlet tree; Young lords grew old While seeking that tree. (Saules dainas, p. 175, song nr. 33786)

The other Sun Tree grows at the gate through which the sun exits at the end of her daily path, entering the "other sun" of night and death:

Stately grows the oak tree At the end of Sun's path; There Saule hangs up her belt Each evening at sunset. (Saules dainas, p. 186, song nr. 33827v4)

The setting sun has lost the hale hues of morning and has grown pale, wan, and tired, just like a person who in old age has lost the rosy bloom and vigor of youth. As she leaves our world, Saule takes along with her everything that has fulfilled its mission in this world and has come to the end of its cycle. As shown in magical formulae and incantations, the setting sun takes with her our sighs and our sorrows, our mishaps and misfortunes; she carries away blight, illness, disintegration, and decay. Most important of all, the main task of the setting sun is to bring along with her the souls of all those whose mortal bodies have been lain to rest that day:

My dear mother has left Along with the sun. I called out, but she couldn't hear, I ran after her, but in vain. (Saules dainas, p. 91, song nr. 4110)

Several texts stress the importance of completing burials before sunset, for Saule carries away the keys to the gates to the World of the Shades, which then become locked for the night. Saule (just like the ancient Greek god Hermes) is thus clearly a psychopompos or leader of the souls of the dead. For this reason, the period just after sunset each day had to be celebrated by interrupting all work in honor of the sacred "path of the Sun," "under-the-sun's steps," or the "grey hour." Women in labor (and their husbands), however, also pray to Saule not to take away the keys. This suggests that Saule may hold the entrance key to "this sun" as well as the exit keys.

In many texts the Sun Tree that stands at the entrance gate between the worlds has clearly become the World Tree, or Axis Mundi. It grows on a stone in the middle of the seathe Cosmic oceanor, paradoxically, it may be a mere reed on which the sun rests at night. Or again, the live tree is replaced by the axle of a celestial hand-mill:

Whose is this waxen mill At the crown of a clear oak? The son of Dievs is the owner, The daughter of Saule the miller. (Saules dainas, p. 181, song nr. 33796)

Each night the constellations make a full circle around the pole star, the only one to remain in a fixed position, as if it marked the tip of a cosmic axis around which everything turns. The sons of Dievs (the supreme deity and sky god) are linked (among other things) to the constellations. The daughter of Saule acting as a miller, turns the axle of a heavy, stone hand-mill like those formerly used by women on Latvian farms. Yet a vision of the Sun Tree may also refer to a purely subjective state, acting as the symbol of a moment of spiritual revelation. A number of longer songs describe a marvelous oak tree suddenly discovered on a holy morn, with its roots of copper, golden branches, and silver leaves. This tree becomes a symbol of the dual nature of mankind: with the roots of its physical existence deriving from Mother Earth, the human soul in its evolution grows with arms stretched up like the branches of a tree, with fingers like leaves reaching for the sky.

The status of Saule as a cult object becomes evident in such motifs as that of the goddess in the tree, the numerous variants of which interchangeably describe Saule or Laima (the goddess of fate) or Māra (a form of the earth goddess) as sitting in a tree (willow, apple tree, or other), and bestowing gifts upon humans (on the tree and gift-giving, see Bynum, 1978). Saule as benefactor is also a rich godmother, "Reaching out her hands across the river, All fingers of both hands Covered with gold spiral rings" (Saules dainas, p. 228, song nr. 33932). In her generosity, Saule (just like Dievs and Laima) singles out the dispossessed and the needy, and even stands in for her dead mother at the wedding of an orphan girl, just like Mēness (the Moon) stands in for her father. In contrast, the maiden crown (i.e. the coronet that was the traditional head-gear of unmarried women) of a girl who had died was to be hung to bleach in a tree on the grave as a sort of offering to Saule.

A major function of Saule is to produce vegetal fruitfulness, which is the central focus of the numerous all-night rituals of Jāņi, the celebration of the midsummer solstice. The bright vernal sun is not just an icon of growth and general fertility; like the Greek goddess Demeter and the Roman Ceres, Saule is also the special patroness of grain crop fertility:

What shines, what shimmers, Back yonder field? It's Saule sowing silver Among stumps in the clearing. (Saules dainas, p. 183, song nr. 54924)

The gray cloud of pollen hovering over a rye field in bloom becomes a manifestation of Saule in her aspect as provider of fruitfulness:

Saule walks over the rye field, Wearing her grey skirts. Oh Saule, lift up your hem, Take care of the blossoms. (Saules dainas, p. 212, song nr. 32532v6)

As the primal cause of the fertility of the earth, Saule best embodies the boundless generosity of the Cosmic, scattering her gifts over the earth as from a bottomless cornucopia: "Dear Mother Saule, What are you doing in the granary?I'm sifting silver, I'm filling the bins" (Saules dainas, p. 231, song nr. 16566).

As inhabitants of a cool and frequently damp climate, the Latvians feel an especial affinity with the sun as giver of warmth, who lightens the burden of all those who have to labor in the open, exposed to the elements. To the young children sent out at dawn to herd the flocks, the sun that dries the morning dew and dissipates the mists is just like a human mother who comforts her child by drying its tears and warming it on her lap. Shepherd children and orphans become a metonym for the dispossessed and the destitute in general, who have only Dear Mother Saule as their patroness and protector:

Saule, dearest mother, Wearing your golden cloak! Take pity on all orphans, Dry (all) their tears. (Saules dainas, p. 230, song nr. F17,28624)

With its measured and rhythmical daily and yearly course across the vault of heaven, the sun serves not just as a heavenly timepiece, but also becomes a visible embodiment of divine law, order, regularity, and justice. On the social plane, these are translated as norms of social equity, fairness, and justice. Any transgression against these social norms then becomes a contravention of divine law as well, a threat to the harmonious equilibrium of the Cosmos. Thus, brutal masters, who require their serfs to work in the fields even past sundown, represent an abomination in both a social and a cosmic sense. The consequences of such transgressions are symbolized by the Black Snake that grinds its grain on a stone in the middle of the sea. Evildoers are meant to taste of this bitter meal of divine retribution, for the white Sun is also the all-seeing eye and ever-present witness. One turns to Saule with a prayer for help both in suffering and with regard to social injustice:

Dear, white Saule in your course, Please "even out" this earth: The rich are quite ready To bury the poor alive. (Saules dainas, p. 226, song nr. 31244)

The solar myth of the celestial wedding is not a narrative fixed in any canonical form, but rather a large corpus of variants on a number of wedding themes. Either Saule herself or her daughter is enjoined to dress in silver, for their drivers have come with "water horses, a stone carriage, a silvery sleigh," or with "Dievs' carriage, the horses of the wind." The link of myth to metaphor can best be seen in the motif in which Saule as the bride's mother distributes gifts (veltīdama) from her daughter's dowry by handing patterned mittens or a woven belt to the oak tree, a woolen cloak to the linden tree, and golden or green copper rings to the slim alders, just as the setting sun simply gilds (zeltīdama) the treetops in other song variants. The Daughter of Saule (Saules meita) is variously described as being courted by the Sons of Dievs (Dieva dēli; clear analogues of the Vedic Ashvins and the Greek dioskuroi ), by Auseklis (the Morning Star, or by Pērkons (Thunder). Many poetic texts picture the Sons of Dievs as looking at the daughter of the sun through blossoms or branches, as heating the bathhouse for her (think of mists swirling on summer evenings), as tangling up the golden cloth that they are weaving in the sky, or as teasing her or even doing her violence. A separate motif involves the wrath of Pērkons over the abduction of the Daughter of Saule; he strikes the Sun Tree standing at the gate and smashes it to pieces. Saule weeps for three years while picking up the pieces and only picks up the tip of the tree during the fourth year. In other variants, Pērkons as the heavenly smith is forging a golden brooch or belt for the dowry of the Daughter of Saule.

In parallel to the purely celestial wedding, another motif has the sun shining during rainfall as a sign that the Daughter of Saule is getting married. But rather than coming from heaven, her suitor comes from the land of the dead: "my brother died young, he is now taking a bride." This motif ties in with the concept of Saule as the gatekeeper to the land of the dead.

Scholarly Debates

In spite of the richness and diversity of oral materials about Saule, no major study on the Latvian Sun-myth is available in the English language. The first serious study of the Latvian Sun-myth is to be found in Wilhelm Mannhardt's monograph of 1875, in which he analyses a corpus of ninety Latvian Sun-songs. Mannhardt points to the numerous analogies with the folklore and mythology of other peoples found in Latvian Sun-songs, which he terms a "rich treasure trove of mythological poetry" (reiche Schatzkammer mythologischer Poesie ). Referring to the then popular theories of Adalbert Kuhn, Mannhardt concludes that the Latvian folk songs contain genuine fragments of the original Indo-European Nature religion in its still nascent, "precrystallized" form. Eduard Zicāns (1936) has expanded this approach by analyzing the motif of the solar wedding in the dainas, along with its Indo-European parallels. A fascination with the Indo-European Sun-myth culminated in the nineteenth century with the wildly popular scholarship of Max Müller, who came to see solar motifs or a "solar hero" in practically every myth and tale ever recorded. After decades of unbridled enthusiasm, however, the mid-twentieth century (at least in North America) saw not just "an eclipse of solar mythology" (Dorson, 1955), but also a veritable scholarly taboo on interest in the Sun-myth as well as in Indo-European studies.

The thread was picked up again within the Swedish sociological school of religious studies by Haralds Biezais (1972), in an extensive and detailed study of Saule as a member of "Die himmlische Gőtterfamilie der alten Letten" (The Heavenly Family of God of the Ancient Latvians). Biezais stresses the "sociological background" of gods or mythological figures, whereby their functions are expressed mainly in terms of the family relationships among them. The feminine Saule is presented as a heavenly farm wife (die himmlische Hausfrau), married to the masculine Mēness (Moon) and living in what is essentially the projection upon the Hill of Heaven of a prosperous Latvian farmhouse, with all its tools and implements. Similarly, under the influence of Émile Durkheim and the Swedish school of interest dominance among historians of religion, the German scholar Bauer, in his 1972 doctoral dissertation, stresses the importance of "technomorph concepts" in Baltic (i.e., Latvian and Lithuanian) mythology.

The concrete objects and activities linked to Saule in the Latvian dainas are certainly such as would be known from the singers' everyday life experiences and circumstances, only richer and shinier. Saule has servants who have to mow silver meadows and plough golden mountains. She has silken skirts which she puts out to air in the evening. The Daughters of the Sun (Saules meitas) in turn, may be washing tankards, bleaching cups, scrubbing linden tables, knitting mittens, weaving shirts, herding cows, sweeping paths, grinding meal, cooking dinner, and altogether as busily engaged in womanly tasks as any farmer's daughter ever could be. But do these poetic images derived from the "poorly differentiated life of the Latvian peasants" reflect a religious experience that is equally undifferentiated, narrow, limited, and obtuse, when it is not outright incoherent and irrational (Biezais, 1972, p. 391; Bauer, 1972, p. 194)? I would argue that they do not.

Along a different line of thought, some scholars have argued that the Latvian dainas contain little of what could be called "mythical" in the narrow sense of the word (adopted by Mircéa Eliade, among others): that is to say they do not form a coherent, solemn narrative about the birth, life struggles, and adventures of gods or superhuman heroes. By taking narrative as a central defining characteristic of what is mythical, Albert Lord (1989), for example, concludes that we should not talk of "mythical" dainas just because they refer to a god or mythological figure, but should treat them instead as courting, wedding, funeral, or other kinds of songs, according to their content or performance context.

Yet the very principle that narrative is a major defining characteristic of myth may be seriously questioned. Narrative involves character as well as plot, like two sides of the same coin, while lyrical poetry puts the accent on characterization. In his seminal work of 1875, Mannhardt offers a useful, broader definition of myth, proposing to treat "hymns, songs of praise, adoration and respectful prayers" as genuine mythical materials. In other words, the attitude expressed toward the mythological figure should be a crucial component of our understanding of its significance.

With respect to the Latvian Saule, Ludis Adamovičs (1956, pp. 567568) has noted that, along with undeniably mythic and cultic elements in the Latvian materials, there are evident nature metaphors that may be merely the subjective products of poetic fantasy. This implies a questionable dichotomy between myth that is "real," that has some literal meaning in the prosaic sense, and poetic imagery or metaphor that is an "unreal" product of the imagination. In the same vein, the Lithuanian folklorist Jonas Balys (1953, pp. 79) claims that Latvians tend to overestimate the importance of their own songs for mythological studies. According to Balys, folk poetry is much more unreliable than prose narrative in that regard, and he quotes with approval an assertion by Emil N. Setälä (1934) that poetry, after all, is only poetry, and contains precious little of religion in the proper sense of that word. But if religion should be prosaic in order to be taken seriously, one wonders what to make of so many books of the Old Testament?

Along the same lines, the famous Finnish scholar K. F. Karjalainen (1921, pp. 2021) has criticized the studies of Bernát Munkácsi on Vogul mythology (based on Vogul folk poetry), claiming that the corpus examined by Munkácsi needed a serious weeding out of images of poetic fantasy and random contributions by individual singers before such a "song religion" could be placed on an equal footing with "true" (prosaic?) folk beliefs. Even Biezais, who unconditionally accepts Saule as part of the "heavenly enlarged family" of ancient Latvian divinities, sees the poetic fantasy aspect as a sort of contamination in the otherwise valuable and rich source of materials of the Latvian dainas. Poetic images are said to appear without "rationally meaningful" motivation (Biezais, 1972, p. 264) or details that are difficult to interpret are treated as the meaningless products of poetic fantasy, due to confusion (or worse) on the singers' part (Biezais, 1972, pp. 270271).

To proponents of the sociological school of religion, the fact that the personified Saule appears dressed and equipped in gold and silver is sufficient proof "that she belongs to the celestial realm and is divinised" (Biezais, 1972, p. 214). This, however, cannot be the sole criterion, since such ornamental or "focusing" epithets (Vīķe-Freiberga, Mosaic 6, 1973) are applied to everything in the dainas, starting with the humblest blade of grass. The metaphorical personification of a natural phenomenon is a legitimate step in its divinization, but not the ultimate one. The personified mythological figure must also have divine powers and functions attributed to it and must be linked to metaphysical and cultic concepts. In the case of the Latvian materials, where sociological reductionism would see Saule and her entourage as a projection unto the Hill of Heaven of the ordinary ancient farmstead, one could argue for the very contrary psychological process. Personified nature metaphors, in this view, are the expressions of individual subjective experiences of the numenous, of epiphanies linked to moments of religious revelation or of Cosmic illumination. The mythopoetic metaphor is an attempt to express the inexpressible by encoding it in images derived from everyday experience. In the Latvian dainas, the whole of nature and its phenomena are seen as manifestations of divine forces, as the incarnation of the divine spirit in matter. It is the divine or the spiritual that is projected downward into matter, not the sociological or the meteorological that is projected upward. One could go even further and claim that a nature divinity such as Saule is seen as consubstantial with its analogue in physical nature.

See Also

Baltic Religion, overview article; Sun.


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Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira [Vaira Vīķis-Freibergs]. "The Poetic Imagination of the Latvian Dainas." Mosaic 6, no. 4 (1973b): 209221.

Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira [Vaira Vīķis-Freibergs], and Imants Freibergs. Saules dainas. Montreal, 1988.

Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira. Trejādās saules: I. Kosmoloģiskā saule. Riga, Latvia, 1997. An analysis of the themes in Latvian folksongs about the sun.

Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira. Trejādās saules: II. Hronoloģiskā saule. Riga, Latvia, 1999.

Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira. Trejādās saules: III. Meteoroloģiskā saule. Riga, Latvia, 2002.

Zicāns, Eduard. "Die Ewigkeitsahnung im lettischen Volksglauben." Studia Theologica II (1940): 41-63.

Vaira VĪĶe-Freiberga (2005)

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