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ZEME . In Baltic religion, earth (Latv., zeme; Lith., žeme ) is sacralized. On this basis, the Latvian goddess Zeme and the Lithuanian goddess Žemýna (diminutive, Žemynele) evolved. Called in Latvian Zemes Māte ("earth mother"), she takes a central place in the religious system of the Baltic peoples. Attested by Tacitus, who reports that the ancient Balts venerated a deum matrem, her role is determined by her femininity: Like a mother she is connected with the promotion of fertility. Everything in nature that is born, grows, and dies belongs to her. Thus humanity, too, is drawn into this all-embracing cult, beginning at birth and ending with death.

Description of Zeme as māte is dependent on which of a variety of mother roles she plays, a variety that can be seen particularly clearly in Latvian traditions. Here appear such descriptions as Lauku māte ("field mother"), Meža māte ("forest mother"), Krūmu māte ("bush mother"), Ogu māte ("berry mother"), and Sēņu māte ("mushroom mother"), among a number of others. In the main, these are poetic personifications of aspects of nature without any religious connotations. The juxtaposition of religious and poetic personifications is a well-known occurrence, but this does not deny that in differentiating the variety of functions of Zeme as māte, new beings are created. These then become independent and assume the particular specialized function that is appropriate in a given tradition.

The central place of Zeme is revealed especially in cultic practices; together with those of Laima, these are the most fully developed in Baltic religion. There was, for example, a notion that children are created from springs, lakes, trees, and hills, all places that are connected with the earth. It is therefore understandable that at the birth of a child offerings were made to Zeme. These offerings were placed either by trees and stones close to the home or were thrown into the hearth fire. The offerings were accompanied by prayers: "My dear earth, my mother, sustain me, feed me." More widespread still were rituals concerned with encouraging fertility in both crops and animals. Thus, at the commencement of work in the fields in spring, the farmer plowed a piece of bread into the first furrow. On this day, too, a special meal was eaten at which the first measure of ale was thrown on the earth together with a small piece of meat. In the spring, when the animals were sent out to pasture for the first time, offerings were made, normally eggs, a special gruel, and ale. The entire household, led by the paterfamilias, joined in the sacral meals, for which a piglet or cockerel was occasionally slaughtered.

More frequent still were rituals connected with the gathering of the harvest in autumn. After the last sheaf had been taken in, bread and salt were buried in the soil in its place, to the accompaniment of a prayer: "Dear earth, as you have given, so also do I give to you." A kind of cultic drama, in two parts, was then enacted. The first part, in which the female head of the household also generally participated, took place in the field. A festive meal was eaten, including special cakes, and, as at all country feasts, ale was drunk. This meal of thanksgiving was made festive by singing and dancing. The songs were commonly characterized by bravado directed at neighboring farmers who had not yet succeeded in harvesting their crops. After the feast, the participants returned home crowned with garlands made from ears of grain and bearing their tools, scythes and rakes, similarly decorated. The second part of the drama took place at the homestead. At the gate, the workers were met by the head of the household, who offered them a drink, usually ale, but often vodka in a later tradition. Afterward, the festivities continued inside the house, with more singing and dancing.

This résumé of the fertility cult of the Baltic earth mother shows that it embraced the countryman's whole life from the time of his birth, including all aspects of his activities at work. The practice of customary rites attests to the fact that by following them the individual believed that he secured the patronage of Zeme, the mother goddess. So intensive was this cult that even until the eighteenth century country people first said prayers to the earth and then kissed it both in the morning, at the beginning of their work, and in the evening, when their work was done. In these religious instances, the holy earth is the mother of all life. As the extensive collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklore materials demonstrates, this understanding was never completely lost, in spite of centuries of Christian missionizing.

Complementing this positive aspect of the cult of the sacred earth, the giving of life, is its negative counterpart, the taking of life, for the rhythm of nature shows that everything that comes from the earth must at some point return to it. Zeme, the mother of life, is ruler of everything created on earth and of everything that takes place there. That is her positive aspect. Yet experience of life forces the conclusion that the earth is also responsible for the individual's negative experiences, that is, death and one's fate thereafter. Thus the earth goddess adopts simultaneously her other morphological role, that of a chthonic goddess. In this role she rules what takes place below the earth, and she is given titles appropriate to this function. In Latvian she is called Smilšu Māte ("sand mother"), a name arising from the custom of burying the dead in sandy knolls, or she is described directly as Kapu Māte ("mother of the grave") or Nāves Māte ("death mother"). Thus the mother of life, promoter of bounty and fertility, becomes her opposite, the mother of death. Although paradoxical, this morphological transformation is nonetheless understandable, for in the eyes of the Baltic farmer the processes of birth and death were manifest both in nature and in his immediate and extended families. The dead were buried in a nearby grave mound, and were thus ever-present as a reminder to the living.

In Baltic religion there is no metaphysical ontology contrasting the notions of life and death. Instead, these notions are simply two aspects of a single goddess. In the sources this is stated metaphorically: Not only may one address petitions and give thanks to Zeme as Zemes Māte, but one may have an amicable discussion with her as Nāves Māte, offering her substitutes for a dying personan oak log to decompose or an ax or a plow to rust away. This final, unique trait of the Baltic earth goddess is explicable by reference to the farmer's close ties to the land.


Biezais, Haralds. Die Hauptgöttinnen der alten Letten. Uppsala, 1955. The basic concept of the goddess is discussed on pages 325342.

Gimbutas, Marija. Die Bestattung in Litauen in der vorgeschichtlichen Zeit. Tübingen, 1946. The role and functions of the goddess in Lithuanian burial customs.

Šmits, Pēteris. Latviešu tautas ticējumi IV. Rīga, 1941. Croyances populaires Lettonnes IV. Latvian Folk Beliefs.

Straubergs, Karlis. Lettisk folktro om de döda. Nordiska Museets Hanlingar, vol. 32. Stockholm, 1949. An extensive comparative study, but lacking a critical interpretation of the sources.

New Sources

Ankrava, Sigma. Vai Lāčplēsis bija karalis Artūrs? (Was Bearslayer the King Arthur?: A Study in Comparative Mythology ) Riga, 2000. Pp.176196.

Kusīte, Janīna. Mītiskais folklorā, literatūrā, mākslā. (The Mythical in Folklore, Literature, Art ) Riga, 1999. Pp. 3093.

Rudzīte, Anta, ed. Latviešu tautas dzīvesziņa. Vol. 2. (Latvian World Perception. Vol. 2.) Riga, 1990.

Haralds Biezais (1987)

Revised Bibliography