Lithuania's pagans try to turn back the clock

  • 2000-08-17
  • Darius James Ross

The Baltic tribes were the last peoples of Europe to receive Christianity. Overlooked for centuries because of their geographic remoteness, they had lived relatively peacefully for several millennia tucked away in their inaccessible, densely forested corner of the continent. Following their humiliating defeat by the Muslims in the Holy Land in the thirteenth century, the orders of crusading knights decided to turn their attention to the 'barbarian' Prussians, Letts (Latvians) and Lithuanians and, in the process, forever altered the course of Baltic history.

The Prussians, formerly a Baltic people with their own language and identity, were the first to be conquered by the Teutonic Knights in their quest to Christianize the Balts and were gradually assimilated over the ensuing centuries. Their ethnic homeland corresponds roughly to the modern Kaliningrad region (formerly Koenigsberg under the Germans). Had they survived, they might have formed a fourth modern Baltic republic.

In reference to the Northern Crusades, 1980 Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote: "The epic of the Christian mission was, in effect, an epic of murder, violence and banditry, and for a long time the black cross [of the Teutonic Knights] remained the symbol of an evil worse than the plague." Milosz referred to the medieval Balts as the 'redskins of Europe'.

Between 1340 and 1410, the Knights launched no less than 135 largely unsuccessful campaigns against the Balts culminating in their final defeat at the battle of Tannenberg, the largest battle of the Middle Ages, at the hands of a combined force of Poles and Lithuanians under the leadership of Lithuania's Grand Duke Vytautas Magnus. Despite the Lithuanian victory, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had become a permanent part of the European political landscape involving, as it did back then, participation in the religious foment of the times.

Ironically, the codexes and records kept by Christian missionaries are now among the most important primary sources for scholars of Baltic mythology and religion. One later Jesuit missionary recounted in disgust the Lithuanians' reverence of snakes as a sacred symbol of life and continuity:

Lithuanian peasants mowing grass with scythes would work around a snake sunning itself in a field for fear of disturbing it.

Common people would also keep a snake in a corner of their home in an earthenware jar along with some earth. This was the way of worshipping Zemyna, goddess of the earth. The snake was fed mare's milk and would be removed from the jar and placed on the kitchen table during harvest festivals to bless fruits of the earth. The word for snake in Lithuanian, gyvate, shares the same root as the words for living and life itself, gyventi and gyvenimas.

While the Lithuanian pantheon consists of dozens of household (i.e. minor) gods and goddesses, the two most important ones were Thor-like Perkunas and crafty Velnias (also Velinas). Velnias was the chthonic god of the underworld and was responsible for all mischief on earth - he was the misbehaving trickster god. Missionaries interpreted the cult of Velnias as a form of satanic worship, as Lithuanians would venerate him by sacrificing a goat: in modern Lithuanian, his name is now synonymous with the devil himself.

Yet, according to the lore of the time, Velnias was the god responsible for the Lithuanian victory at Tannen-berg. He had extorted the secret of working iron from the god Kalvelis and had supernaturally enhanced the Lithuanians' swords. He was also the keeper of the souls of the dead prior to their final separation from the earth. To this day, the Christian feast of All Souls in November is called Velines and is one of the most important family occasions of the year. People return to their ancestral homes and, in the evening, gather around the gravestones of their deceased relatives lighting thousands of candles. On a clear evening the resulting glow can be seen for miles. In the modern Lithuanian language one still refers to a recently deceased person as veliuonis: a soul under the protection of Velinas.

Perkunas was the chief god and protector of the Lithuanian state. He ruled over fire, thunder and lightning. Soil could not be tilled until he blessed it with the first rumble of thunder in the spring. An area struck by lightning was considered to have been touched by Perkunas and was thenceforth considered sacred. A boulder struck by lightning became a place of healing. Groves of sacred oaks near the site were fenced off and a fire would be lit and tended by vestal virgins day and night. The cutting down of one of the sacred trees was considered an offence punishable by death.

Perkunas was thus the protector of order in the world and was perennially at odds with rascally Velnias.

Modern Paganism: Romuva

Some scholars assert that Christianity did not really take root in Lithuania until the beginning of the nineteenth century and that a form of syncretism existed for many centuries until that time. Lithuanians would go to church on Sundays but the pagan gods still provided an insurance policy in case Christianity didn't work out. This was especially true for ensuring a good harvest and 'superstitious' offerings to the gods were practiced in secret.

Paganism began its modern revival in Lithuania under the leadership of Jonas Trinkunas during the Sajudis years leading up to Lithuanian independence in 1990.

Thousands of people attended the ceremonies and meetings he organized: a gesture of pent-up defiance following decades of religious nihilism under the Soviets. Trinkunas' organization, Romuva, is seeking to re-establish paganism as an official religion protected by Lithuanian law. Romuva was named after a temple of tranquility that existed in the pre-medieval period that was founded by the Lithuanian duke Skirmantas.

Trinkunas himself holds the title of Krivu Krivaitis, or Priest of Priests. "According to present Lithuanian laws, a religious organization has to have existed for 25 years before it can apply for recognition to become an officially sanctioned state religion. The government is telling me that Romuva does not qualify for this reason," he said.

Trinkunas thinks that because Lithuanian paganism predates Christianity by many millennia, it should be exempt from the law. His organization believes that the pagan religion is the native ethnic religion of all Lithuanians.

Romuva faces stiff opposition from the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Statistics indicate that over 80 percent of the country's inhabitants consider themselves Catholics, though it is extremely doubtful that this number reflects the actual number of those who practice the religion regularly. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Pentecostal churches, the ubiquitous Mormons and other newly arrived religious groups such as the Hare Krishnas have also been competing for the souls of modern-day Lithuanians.

Pagan summer camp

In addition to organizing traditional seasonal festivals according to ancient pagan traditions, Romuva also holds an annual summer camp popular with families and young people. This year's camp took place in the hamlet of Bradesiai near Lake Sartai in the Utena region. Ancient castle mounds and sites of worship dot the woods surrounding the area. Bradesiai also has one of the oldest oak trees in Lithuania, estimated to be around 700 years old.

It was under the Bradesiai Oak that the camp's opening ceremony took place. Under the shade of the massive tree, an altar of stones was built and decorated with dahlias, marigolds and hydrangeas. The entire camp, most of whose members were decked out in traditional linen outfits and wearing Baltic jewelry and headdress, then gathered before a footbridge that spans a small stream near the tree. Prior to crossing the bridge, Trinkunas and his wife Inija, poured water over the hands of each individual and offered a linen towel for drying them: a type of ritual purification.

Once all had crossed the stream, a circle was formed around the altar. A young boy who tended the flame for the remainder of the ceremony lighted the sacred fire. Trinkunas and his wife then took turns offering ale to the gods by spilling some on the earth, some on the altar, drinking some themselves and then passing the gourd around to the rest of those gathered. The same was repeated with a loaf of thick rye peasant bread.

The remainder of the ceremony consisted of the singing of ancient songs and brief invocations to the gods to bless those gathered for the camp. "Fire is a purifying force and all of life originated from fire," said Trinkunas. He went on to ask all members of the camp, young and old, to use the altar as a place of contemplation for the remainder of the week and not to let the flame die out.

"I don't think it necessary to post a schedule. This should just happen by itself."

While most of those in attendance were Lithuanians, the camp also had guests from France, Poland, Russia and the United States.

Denis Dorney, a Frenchman living in Denmark, represented both countries. Lithuania's Romuva and pagan groups from several other countries have recently formed the World Congress of Ethnic Religions , which is what brought him to the camp.

"Our aim is to discuss matters of mutual concern to all member countries. For instance, our group in Denmark has now earned state recognition to legally perform marriage ceremonies," said Dorney.

Paul is a native of the Punjab in India now living in the United States. "I'm here as part of the WCER as I'm interested in the welfare of all pagan people. I believe that Christianity, like Islam, is an imposition and is fundamentally undemocratic," he said.

Paul sees Christianity and Islam as gospels of hate, not unlike communism and fascism.

"Paganism is non-exclusive, tolerant, civilized and sacred. Wherever there are pagans, land and nature are sacred. In the ancient traditions man looked at nature and wondered. Christianity, Islam and Judaism say that only one place is sacred - Jerusalem - and no other place is sacred."

A visiting academic from Italy, Nikolai Mikhailov, presented a lecture on the history of Baltic mythology. "Above all we need an objective approach in studying the pagan religion. There is no need to refute Christianity or to proclaim the supremacy of paganism. The ancient religion is really part of Europe's common cultural heritage," he said.

Also covering the event was Lithuanian State Television. Ausra Kalinauskiene is a journalist working for their weekly "Traditions" program.

"Paganism is a part of the Lithuanian tradition," she said.

She feels it is the media's duty to remind Lithuanians of this aspect of their heritage.

"This camp is symbolically important as an aspect of our past that needs preservation," she said.