My Prima Donna Swamp Princess: 34. ANTIQUITY

  • 2006-10-25
I don't know much about Baltic paganism. Naturally, I came across many pagan terms and demi-god names during my linguistic research, but I never really considered either their ancient meaning or the contemporary relevance. I'm not one for religion and its requisite rituals, whether it involves the body and blood of Christ or a raging bonfire within a ring of stones. Still, by virtue of my career I couldn't avoid perusing various papers on the subject, including one by Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga on Latvian and Finnish folk poems.

Arva wanted to change my outlook. I didn't know it at the time, but the princess had plans to immerse me in the world of post-communist neo-paganism and its battalion of faithful proponents throughout the Baltics. At first, I didn't know why I let her do it. I suppose I wanted to save her from herself 's to prevent her from burning down any Catholic churches 's but later I realized that I was just along for the ride. The whole concept of re-emerging antiquity appealed to me, and I figured there might be a paper or two for the academic journals at home. Why not see what it's all about?

"You'll like it," Arva told me. "I can sense the believer in you."
"What's that supposed to me?"
"Or should I say 's the hippie in you," she said with a smirk.
"Me? Hippie? I'm wearing Levis and an oxford shirt, and you look like the goddess Laima. Who's the hippie here?"
"Whatever, professor," she said. "If I had all the weed you smoked back in the '60s I could fill a train car."
She had me there.

Anyhow, the Baltic people were Europe's last pagans. And quite ardent at that. Attempts by lone German missionaries to convert them to Christianity during the Dark Ages usually resulted in failure, if not tragedy. In 997, Adalbert, a bishop of Prague, was killed while proselytizing to the Prussians. Allegedly he went about his mission by desecrating holy oak trees and sacred alkos, or groves. Typical crusader bullying. After he refused to go quietly, the Prussians simply chopped his head in half with an ax. (For his efforts Adalbert was later canonized.)

But in the end the crusaders won, although it took the better part of the next millennium to accomplish their goal. In the process, many Baltic peoples 's including the Prussians, the Curonians, the Yatvingians 's were extinguished, along with their languages and customs. Not surprisingly, as a consequence many Balts feel cheated by history and believe that they were robbed of their uniqueness once they were converted to Christianity. Proud romanticists, they hark back to the bygone era of milk and honey, stone and flame, song and dance, and sincerely want to resurrect it all.

The dominant pagan movement in Lithuania is an organization that goes by the name of Romuva, which sprung out of the ashes of the Soviet Union and was established in January 1992. It has several thousand members, including diaspora Lithuanians in North America and Europe. Its Latvian counterpart, Dievturiba, has deeper roots and arose in the 1920s as part of a nationalist movement. It uses the Dainas 's or six volumes of folk verse compiled by Krisjanis Barons in the 19th century 's as inspiration for pinpointing the right mix of ancient wisdom and values to lead a better life.

"By leading a better life, do you mean returning to snake-worship and bathing in tubs of mead?" I asked Arva.
"Your sarcasm bores me, American crusader."
"Or does it entail participating in vast orgies?"
"One of these days I'm going to strangle you," she said.
"I can see the headlines now," I laughed. "'American Professor Murdered by Medieval Princess.' Gotta' love it!"
"No, it'll read: 'Idiot Iconoclast Beheaded by Born-Again Balt.'"
"Hey, you're pretty good with the alliteration," I said, poking fun at Arva's knowledge of multiple language, all of which were dead. "Maybe there's hope for you yet."
"Or this: 'Asinine Academic Assassinated by's"
"'sthe Walking Dead.' Sounds perfect!"