Twins: Baltic Twin Deities

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The twin myth and various folk beliefs associated with the idea of twins and the concept of duality have an important place in Baltic religion. The divine or deified twins usually are demiurges, with various associated cosmogonic and anthropogonic functions. Thus, for Latvians, Dievs, the personification of light, is the twin of Velns. The world was created, according to ancient folk legend, as a result of their fight on a stone in the middle of the sea (vidū jūras uz akmeņa ) or on an island in the middle of the sea (vidū jūras saliņā ), a place that at a later date became the central axis of the cosmos.

The Baltic divine twins have often been associated with the cycle of death and rebirth. Thus in Latvian mythological folk songs the theme of the sons of Dievs marrying their twin sisters, the daughters of Saule (the sun), is widespread. Before the wedding a ritual wooing of Saule's daughters takes place, which Dievs's sons accomplish by looking through the petals of poppies (Caur magoņu lapiņām ), flowers that at weddings symbolize death, rebirth, and also puberty. On the wedding night, while waiting for the appearance of Saule's daughters at the vault of heaven, the sons light two candles at sea. These heavenly weddings end unsuccessfully because of an implied but never quite articulated suggestion of a serious violationincest.

In antiquity it is probable that sacral incest was differentiated from profane incest, the first being committed by a primeval human or demiurge, the second by a trickster. Incest demonstrably pointed to two diverse forms of sexual behavior: the cultured versus the natural (as exhibited in nature), or, in other words, the civilized versus the savage. Sacral incest likely occurred only in illo tempore (the beginning of time) when there was no other coupling possible except between brother and sister. Angered by the violation of incest being committed, Pērkons, the god of thunder, struck the cosmic tree, or tree of life. For three years Saule collected the scattered branches of the damaged tree, the oak. It was only in the fourth year that she found the tip of the tree and, by piecing together all of the branches, made rebirth of the cosmos possible.

Another variation of this theme has it that during the heavenly wedding a daughter of the sun drowned. Her body was carried down the river into the sea, from the sea it was washed ashore, and in this spot grew a linden tree with nine branches. In Latvian mythology the number nine is an indicator of time and space in the cosmos. While carving from this linden tree a kokles (psaltery), a Latvian musical instrument considered to be the embodiment of a female deity or, in a broader sense, the soul and life of a woman, the son of Dievs recognized his twin sister, the daughter of Saule. Death and rebirth of the gods and of the seasons is the basis of this myth; it is analogous to the ancient Greek myth about Persephone. Latvian mythology scholars have tried to interpret the daughters of Saule as the sunlight at dawn or dusk (in autumn and winter, but also in the evening, the sun and its beams seem to die, while in the spring and at dawn they appear to be reborn), while the sons of Dievs are interpreted as Venus, which the Baltic people believed to be embodied in the two stars Rīta and Vakara (morning and evening). The divine twin sons of Dievs, in both Latvian and Lithuanian folklore, sources are associated with horses. In mythological folk songs the twins travel by boat or by horse, often transforming into or fusing with the horse. They appear also as water-loving beasts, otters, or beavers, dancing in either otter or beaver skins. They are also associated with the cosmic tree, the oak.

The sons of Dievs, usually two in number, are typically both called by the same name, but in some instances, each has a different name. Thus, in the spring season, the son of Dievs, as the embodiment of rebirth, is named Ūsiņš (from the verb aust, literally, "the rising of the sun," or "the emergence of light"). In autumn, the son of Dievs is the embodiment of death called Mārtiņš, possibly linked to the word mirt (to die). Both twins mirror the mythological idea of sequential change and continuity of the cycle of life and death. The sons of Dievs are perceived as the protectors of humans, primarily of men and specifically during war, at sea, when fishing, and when caring for horses. In Latvian mythological folk songs they reveal themselves as two candles in the sea to fishermen and sailors, thus lighting their way:

Div svecītes jūrā dega Sudrabiņa lukturos;
Tās dedzina
Dieva dēli, Zvejnieciņus gaidīdami
Two candles burn at sea
In silver lanterns;
They're lit by the sons of Dievs,
Awaiting fishermen.

The divine twins are also associated with fertility cults and productivity. For Latvians this is revealed in a particularly striking fashion in the cult of Jumis and his twin sister Jumala, at one time either his betrothed or his wife. Jumis and Jumala are words for which parallels can be found in several IndoEuropean traditions: in ancient Gaelic, e(a)main ; in Avesta, yima ; in Indo-Iranian, yama as found, for example, in the hymn in gveda about Yama and his twin sister Yamī, wherein Yamī tries to entice her brother to take part in incestuous relations. The Iranian twins Yima and Yimāk, by getting married, become the predecessors of humanity. This theme is also found in Latvian mythological folk songs, where there is a direct allusion to incestuous relations between the brother and sister Jumis and Jumala (Jumīts and Jumaliņa are diminutive forms):

Jumīts meklēj Jumaliņu
Pa tīrumu staigādams;
Brālīts meklēj līgaviņas
No māsiņas vaicādams
Jumīts looks for
Walking in the field;
The brother is seeking a bride
Asking his sister.

Latvians and Lithuanians also give the name jumis to any two fruits or nuts that have grown together, or to two sheaves of grain on one stalk. In ancient times (and still today), having harvested the rye, barley, and wheat, people tried to find and save two sheaves of grain intertwined, or they tied two bundles of the harvested grain together, saving this jumis over winter to ensure fertility and productivity for the coming year. On the subject of birth and fertility, according to Latvian folk beliefs, if a young woman wanted to have twins, she had to find and eat a jumis, such as two nuts or berries or some other fruit that have grown together. The Latvian Jumis and Jumala are associated with the idea of the death and rebirth of nature. Another testimony to the Jumis myth can be seen in the jumis nut found buried in a young girl's grave during an archeological dig of an eighth- to eleventh-century burial ground in Latvia called Kaugaru Beites.

Another son of Dievs who is mentioned in Latvian folklore, particularly in summer solstice songs called Jāņu dziesmas (Jānis's songs), is Jānis ('Ai Jānīti, Dieva dēls; Oh Jānītis [dim. of Jānis], son of Dievs). Jānis is typologically similar to Baldr in the Scandinavian indigenous religions; that is, he is a seasonal deity embodying the ideas of fertility and productivity associated with summer. We can assume that Jānis, like the Roman Janus, is two-facedthe two sons of Dievs united in one person, one linked to the spring and summer seasons, the other linked to autumn and winter. When one of them appears in the sky as a heavenly body (a star), the other, being underground, is not visible. The idea of promoting fertility predominates in the summer solstice songs. Folk-song texts indicate that during this time the mythical heavenly wedding takes place between the divine twinsthe sons of Dievs and the daughters of Saule.

Twins also figure as the founders of ancient social organizations, such as tribes, nations, states, and cities. For the Prussians, the twin brothers Widewuttis and Brūtens are the founders of a tribe. Widewuttis is the founder of secular power and the first king of the Prussian tribe, while Brūtens is the founder of its spiritual power and the romow sanctuary, being its first Krive krivaitis (high priest). In later times the Prussians worshiped Widewuttis and Brūtens in the form of two posts, one called Worskaito (the elder), the other called Iszwambrato (i.e., Svais brāti, "his brother").

Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century (and into the twentieth), twins appear in Lithuanian and Latvian historical legends. A Latvian legend recorded in the nineteenth century tells of the twin brothers Turo and Tusko, who both loved the same girl. They were so similar that the girl could not tell them apart, and for this reason gave one a gold ring and the other a silver ring to wear. Turo finally succeeded in winning the girl's love, but Tusko, in a dreadful act of betrayal, posed as his twin brother and stole his betrothed. When the betrothed of Turo, on recognizing the ring, learned that she had been deceived, she killed herself with a sword, while the twin brothers killed each other. The graves of all three are located in Zilais kalns (Blue Hill), an important and legendary sanctuary in Latvia, located near the city of Valmiera. This legend about the twins, along with other legends that abound regarding Zilais kalns, reflects the concepts of death and rebirth associated with the twin myths.

There is another interesting element in the Turo/Tusko legend. The names Turo and Tusko start with the same letter. This also occurs in the Roman Romulus and Remus, the Germanic Hengist and Horst, and in another Latvian myth about twins, Auseklis and Ūsiņš (both of which are derived from the Indo-European root-form *aus/*us, with the ancient form of the latter being Ausiņš).

The divine twins as special patrons of the fertility and productivity cult are also revealed in traditional wood architecture in Latvia. Even today, one can find fastened to the ends of gables on houses or buildings two identical, symmetrically placed wooden horses, goats, or figurative carvings of other animals and birds. This tradition was practiced by all Baltic peoples, as can be seen from ethnographic drawings and written records of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as from photographs taken during the first half of the twentieth century in Latvia, Lithuania, and East Prussia. Paradoxically, one of the places where zoomorphic and ornithomorphic images of twin deities have been preserved is East Prussia, which was most devastated during World War II and which now forms part of the Russian Federation as the Kaliningrad region and part of northeastern Poland. In districts where prewar buildings have been preserved, one can still see carved twin horse heads at roof gables and in the wooden trim above windows. This tradition has also been retained in the Curonian Spit in the Baltics. One part of the Curonian Spit territory is located in Lithuania, while the second part belongs to Russia; in Lithuania this twin-horse tradition at gable ends is being preserved, with the horse heads being restored, whereas in Russia such carvings are going to ruin, along with the buildings themselves. It is significant that in Latvian Jumis and jumts (roof), as well as the verb jumt (to roof, to thatch) and the term debesu jums (vault of heaven), are derived from the same root-form, based on the Indo-European root *ieu (to tie together). Not only does the twin deity Jumis consist of two tied into one, but also a house roof having two sides joined into one whole.

The significance to the Baltic peoples of the twin myth, particularly as it relates to the birth of twins, was noted in the nineteenth century by such scholars as the German-born ethnographer and folklorist August Bielenstein. However, the Baltic twin myth has merited special attention and comparative analysis only since the 1960s, when it was included in an overview of various Indo-European twins written by Donald Ward (1968), and later by Vjačeslav Ivanov (1972 and 1983) and the Latvian-born folklorist Liene Neuland (1977). Evidently scholars have noted the similarities between the Baltic divine twins and the broader Indo-European twin concept, as in, for example, the Greek Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux (Polydeuces), and the ancient Indian twin, Aśvin.


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Translated by Margita Gailītis and Vija Kostoff