Legends, ritual and the modern marriage

  • 2007-04-25
  • By Holly Morrison

CROSSING CENTURIES: Age-old Baltic wedding traditions like crossing seven bridges are steeped in symbolism. They also create a feeling of connection between the generations.

RIGA - For years I've wondered why the most revered and longstanding love stories are those with catastrophic endings. Orpheus and Eurydice, Romeo and Juliet, Arthur and Guinevere, Anthony and Cleopatra… among these legendary relationships there is not one role model that any sane couple would replicate. Yet these stories, thought to epitomize "true love," have flourished over the centuries.

And contemporary love stories appear destined to follow the same tragic format. Let's look at the predictability of the latest version of "Titanic." (No, I'm not talking about the fate of the ship.) Because the movie was billed as an unforgettable love story we knew, twenty minutes in, that Rose and Jack were not going to escape safely to shore, get married and raise their 2.5 kids, along with their little dog Scruffy, in a house in Tarrytown.

But for now, let's move back to ancient legends 's Namely the tragic Latvian legend "The Rose of Turaida."
In 1601, after a battle near Turaida castle, a castle clerk found a surviving baby girl in the arms of her dead mother. (We have not yet entered the sad part of the story; it gets much worse.)
Maija 's as the baby girl was named 's was raised by the clerk and his wife as their own child.
Maija grew into the loveliest maiden imaginable, inspiring the community to dub her "the Rose of Turaida." In spite of her great beauty and potential for many loves, there was but one man in Maija's heart: Victor, a young gardener living in the nearby castle of Sigulda, who returned Maija's love wholeheartedly.

A certain Polish nobleman (by birth, not breeding) named Adam Jakubowski, disregarding Maija's and Viktor's love for one another, decided that he was a better match for the young beauty. Apparently, within Jakubowski's insanely narcissistic world, coercion, cruelty and deception were acceptable elements of courtship. One August afternoon, convincing Maija that she would be rendezvousing with her beloved Viktor, Jakubowski lured her into the cool shadows of nearby Gutmanis Cave where he then shared with her his evil intentions to forcibly take her for his wife, presumably right then and there.
The clever Maija (apparently lacking all self preservation instincts) quickly convinced Jakubowski that the silk scarf in her pocket was magical, rendering its wearer immune to injury. If Jakubowski agreed to let her go, she said, the scarf would be his. As proof of the scarf's magic, Maija offered her own precious neck. Wrapping the scarf around her throat, the young girl valiantly told Jakubowski to strike her with his sword, which (the apparently not too bright) Jakubowski did. Within an instant, in the isolation of the cold dark cave, Maija lost her life while maintaining her honor.

Unlike many legends, papers found in the archives of Sigulda castle seem to corroborate this story (with some varying details), as well as to confirm the eventual fate of Jakubowski (which involved his neck, a noose and, I'm guessing, an angry mob).
From that day forward newly married couples have left flowers on the grave of Maija: The Rose of Turaida.
Once again we are faced with the age-old question: why are the legends that almost exclusively end with ill-fated (frequently prematurely dying) lovers the stories that we cling to? And why, after four hundred years, does the Latvian wedding ritual of leaving flowers on Maija's grave persist?

I drove to a cafe to put this question to Beata Berzina, a wedding producer. After ordering our coffee I tell Berzina that, although I plan to write about "The Rose of Turaida" and the tradition of laying flowers on Maija's grave as part of the wedding ceremony, I want to know about other typical Latvian wedding rituals and traditions.
Berzina laughs good-naturedly and tells me that it has become very difficult to define a "traditional Latvian wedding" since fifty percent of the weddings that she organizes are cross-cultural. "This week I have a Latvian-English wedding. In two weeks, a Latvian-Danish… all weddings are different. There are no typical weddings for me because every couple has different needs," she says.

"Then is it safe to say that a traditional Latvian wedding may soon be a unique, as well as frequently multicultural, experience?" I ask.
"Yes! I think we can say that we are in a time of making new traditions, new rituals," she replies, "although we still have the Vedeji [roughly equivalent to the Maid/Matron of Honor and Best Man in an American wedding]."

Berzina explains that this older couple, or Vedeji, has duties that can range from being very hands on in the arranging of the wedding to simply showing up on the wedding date and standing next to the couple. It's up to the people involved.
Another ritual that Berzina believes is significant is the ancient tradition of micosana, which dates back to when a woman's marital status was reflected in her headdress. An unmarried woman wore a scarf until the time of her marriage. She then switched to a bonnet. The micosana is the ritual of changing the headdress.
Today a new bride is offered the bonnet but she must refuse it twice, saying, "I want to be your wife but I don't want to be old!" before finally accepting it.

Berzina says that accepting this bonnet is ritualizing the bride's acceptance of her new role. "This is such a small thing, but I suppose it's…" she hesitates for a moment before finishing, "I believe it's very important!"
Berzina says that it's equally important that rituals make sense to the people involved. "We can make old rituals new… update them to modern times… like an old ritual involving seven bridges. Each bridge had a different sense; childhood, health, love… And the couples did something different on each bridge. I once took this ritual and used lifts 's each lift represented something different and the couple acted these things out in the lifts. A bridge is a symbol of something that allows you to get from one place to another, a connection. So is a lift…"
Being a believer in the power of rituals, I am impressed by Berzina's inventive ways of creating rituals that are relevant to today's world as well as applicable to the individual couples.

I ask Berzina about her most surprising or extraordinary story.
"I believe that in life we prepare for bad surprises. We must learn to prepare for and accept the good surprises," she says.
Sensing that I'm lost, she clarifies, "For example: I knew a man who proposed to his love. He had planned it, told all of his friends and had a restaurant dinner reserved for later that evening… but when he proposed, the woman had a heart attack and ended up in the hospital; so the restaurant dinner was in the hospital. She is fine and they got married… but I think that many people prepare for sorrow and bad things but aren't ready for the good surprises!"

"I am careful with surprises; but they're important on a wedding day," Berzina continues. "It's not just another day. It must be memorable for a lifetime. It's quite a responsibility for me to make it so… and some surprise is important."
As we prepare to end our interview I ask Berzina if there is anything that she wishes to add. "Yes," she says, "when you told me that you were going to tell the story of Turaida's Maija, I thought 'It's an accepted legend; okay. But why do we need to remember someone who was never even really married? We have wonderful examples of people who spend their lives together, but still we look at these tragic stories and imagine what might have been. In real life marriage takes work, hard work. It's the people who do this work who should be celebrated!"

Berzina then tells me about a couple she helped celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. "They still had a sparkle in their eyes when they looked at one another," she said. "So I invented a ritual for them. I asked them to each write a letter to somebody, anybody, and tell their secret for getting along so many years. I made 3 copies of the letter. One copy we threw from the top of St. Peter's church. We gave the next copy to a saleswoman in Sigulda and instructed her to give it to the next bride that she saw. The third copy we gave to a couple who had their wedding on this same day. This new bride was so surprised that she threw her bouquet to the lady [who was celebrating her fortieth anniversary]. It was so wonderful!"

"So you are making new rituals based on old ideas but incorporating new values!" I say excitedly. "Maybe a hundred years from now people will say, 'this tradition or ritual was created by Beata Berzina way back in 2007.'"
And perhaps these new traditions and rituals will prepare our great grandchildren for the hard work ahead, as well as the great and beautiful surprises that marriage promises us. And maybe… just maybe, legends like Turaida Rose and Romeo and Juliet will be considered what they truly are: tragic stories that have very little to do with the type of love, commitment and hard work that it takes to live together for forty years and still maintain the sparkle in your eyes!