My Prima Donna Swamp Princess: 36. RASA

  • 2007-01-17
Wouldn't you know it, but we tracked down the pagan group Romuva just as its members were preparing to celebrate Rasa, or summer solstice. The Latvians call it Ligo, but regardless of the name, it is generally a time to sing ditties, burn pine boles, imprecate the enemy and generally behave like a pagan sybarite.

Honestly, I was looking forward to it. After all these miles, stuck in the same car with the 600-year-old princess, I was ready for oblivion.

I don't even know how it started. But the setting was predictable. The locals were dressed in immaculate white robes and adorned with large wreaths on their crowns and a mix of amber and silver on their necks. Others wore the familiar folk costumes. Everyone, of age and below, was on their way to inebriation. (I've always admired how Europe is indiscriminating when it comes to drink. Heck, I still get carded when I enter campus bars back in the States.)

Rasa means dew, and the ancients believed that dew was, in a modern manner of speaking, a divine detergent, something to purge the system of spiritual detritus. Many Lithuanians believe that dew possesses healing powers, and if you roll around in it as the sun rises, you can exorcise all maladies and grace your skin with a patina of everlasting youth.

Arva was distraught to find out that the festivities would end at dawn. She thought this heretical. Back in the 15th century, she said, we celebrated Rasa from the solstice to the end of July. Yeah, none of you had jobs and a mortgage to keep, I said. Everyone who heard the conversation looked at us as if we were crazy, and I told the princess that, for the sake of next year's harvest, she ought to be quiet and enjoy the show.

A kupole, or a special pole with branches, stood in the eye of the ritual area. All the maidens gathered around the kupole, and after what seemed like endless giggling, stood with their backs to the pole. They then took the wreaths off their heads and tossed them over their shoulders, aiming for the top of the kupole. The tradition: however many times it takes to ring the pole is the number of years a girl will have to wait before betrothal. It was riotously funny. Only one girl nailed it on the first try, while the last one, after much direction from her mother, required twelve tosses. From the looks of it, she'll be getting married when she's 30.

Meanwhile, several men had started a small blaze, openly speculating about who would jump it how many times, and after how much beer. One joked about a collective extinguishing effort by the men while the women were looking the other way. To which another replied, "Let 'em look 's there's no better sign for the harvest." At a long table to the side, several people busied themselves with the evening's nutrition, which consisted of cheeses, eggs and potato salads. Beer and wine were aplenty, and I saw jugs that most likely contained mead. Unfortunately for me, there was no Jack Daniels.

Soon the dancing and singing was in full swing. I was three sheets to the wind, so the impression was of being surrounded by a bunch of loud-mouthed dervishes. I couldn't keep up, but the carnival atmosphere was invigorating. It swept up the princess. The smile on her face was riveting, and I found myself looking over my shoulder to see what she was doing, who she was talking with.

Eventually a tall, brunette sylph approached me, and we started talking in English about this and that, Lithuania and America, God and Perkunos. She was attractive, not beautiful, and she reminded me of some of my students. Suddenly she yanked me toward a fire, and we began dancing and singing. I'm the clumsiest dancer on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, so I figured it would be a matter of time before she dumped me for a younger pair of legs. But apparently that evening belonged to the gods, and anything went. The sylph took a liking to me, and next thing I knew we were downing beer and cheese together.
Suddenly I recognized her. "You're the one who took 13 tries to get the wreath on the pole," I said.

She smiled coyly. "Yes, and I'm going to use you to spite the gods and lift the curse," she said, standing closer to me.
For some reason I recalled a certain book by Nabokov, and the imp on my shoulder started a jig.