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My Prima Donna Swamp Princess [ 18 ] : Pilgrimage

  • 2006-01-25
Other than a few jibes at my taste in music, Arva was quiet for most of the ride. It's not every day that you learn an entire people has been extinguished. So I kept to myself and figured that, if I was correct in assessing her pain, then I was spot on in guiding her to Klaipeda.

Or so I thought at the time. Little did I know that my impromptu pilgrimage - which was actually a desperate attempt at catharsis - would ultimately awaken the beast within the princess's breast. For once she gazed upon the rebel, Arva only wanted to rebel.

But let me back up a few hundred years.

Herkus Monte was the leader of the Great Prussian Uprising of 1260. By the sheer number of years alone, that makes him as much a mythic legend as a genuine historical protagonist. Given Monte's importance to the ancient Baltic cause, it's hard to separate the Robin Hood from the William Warden in what was left for posterity. With Monte there is probably a bit of both. All we know about him comes from German scribes who harbored no sympathy for the Prussians and their culture. For them and the knights of the cross they chronicled, Monte was a pagan scoundrel, a lecherous turncoat, even Satan incarnate.

One thing's for sure: he fought hard to earn the reputation. Monte was a Nattangian, one of the 12 Prussian tribes that occupied a swath of hardwood forests and swamps between the Poles to the south and the Lithuanians and Curonians to the east. The tribes had minimal contact with each other, and this more than anything ultimately led to their extinction at the mighty sword of the German crusader, who came to the Northern forests after years of service in the Holy Land. Anyway, the Nattangians were systemically routed in the years 1238 - 1256. Monte, the son of a noble, was captured at a young age and, after being compelled to accept a Catholic baptism, was conscripted into the crusader armies and used as a soldier in the campaigns against the Warmia and Sambia, two other Prussian tribes.

It didn't last long. In a dramatic change-of-heart, Monte fled his crusader-masters and organized a rebellion. Naturally, he used all his knowledge of Teutonic tactics and language acquired over the years to slay the enemy, and his successes were astounding. And brutal. I mean medieval-style brutal. He sacrificed and slaughtered prisoners, often by setting them ablaze while tied to their horses. Women and children he enslaved or sold into slavery. After having seen so many of his own brethren brutalized by the crusading knights, he responded in kind.

But Monte never managed to build on his successes. Like so many modern-day revolutionaries, he was an excellent rebel but a lousy politician. When it came to managing micro-economies or running a government, he failed miserably. Eventually he was captured, tied to a tree and slashed up by the sword.

For Arva, Baltic purists and various Germanophobes, Monte was a hero. He stood up for Prussia like Mindaugas for Lithuania. (No, he was even better. Mindaugas acquiesced and accepted baptism, but Monte died fighting it.) He embodied the timeless virtues of Baltic paganism and naturalism. He saw Catholicism for the sham that it was and defied Rome's avaricious expansion plans.

When I told Arva, the 600-year-old princess riding shotgun whom I found yesterday morning in the middle of a swamp, that there was no trace of the Prussians, that the only Balts left were the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians (okay, okay, and a handful of Latgalians and Liivs), I hadn't been the slightest bit disingenuous. The Prussian language is dead; the people wiped out. Only a few place names in Poland and Kaliningrad remain.

And one statue.

It's in the center of Klaipeda, on the central avenue that carries the warrior's name 's H. Manto gatve. On the east side of the street, tucked into a tiny bench park up against a brick wall. It stands about two meters high, carved from sad pink granite; its curves are broad and opaque and testify to the dearth of detail about Monte's physical description.

Arva and I stood at the head of the flagstones that led to the statue, my silence a sign of confusion and hers one of supplication. This was the martyr she was raised to emulate, whom she and her supporters idolized and exulted. When Arva fell asleep almost six centuries ago, she was continuing Monte's mission to free the Balts from the Romano-Germanic plague. I could see her lips trembling but didn't know what to do. We had made arrangement before we made this pilgrimage, and so when she asked me to leave her alone for a while, she meant what she said.

I wouldn't see her for almost a month, and when she did it took my breath away.