Returning to Lithuania's deep religious roots

  • 2002-11-14
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

There was something other-worldly happening on Vilnius' Gediminas Hill on Oct. 19. A sacred bonfire blazed while a man in his 60s waved a wooden stick decorated with the image of a grass snake. Several young women dressed in prehistoric clothes sang songs dedicated to various deities.

But however incongruous these images may seem in the center of a bustling capital that will soon lead its country into NATO and the European Union, the ceremony had great significance for Lithuanians. The man with the stick, Jonas Trinkunas, had just become Lithuania's first "krivis," or pagan priest, to be consecrated in 600 years. And he along with several dozen other followers of the ancient Baltic Romuva faith gathered for the ceremony were continuing a tradition that has had enormous importance in Lithuania's history.

Furthermore, Trinkunas thinks that it is still very relevant today.

"Lithuania will join the EU starting from 2004," he said. "I think many Lithuanians understand that it is important to preserve our ethnic traditions in this great European family. We worship the powers of nature, and contact with nature is especially important for man in our modern world."

Sacred fires

In pre-Christian times, like the ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, Germans and Slavs, the Lithuanians had many gods and goddesses. The pantheon included Perkunas, god of thunder and lightning. Zemyna, whose name derives from the Lithuanian for "earth," was the goddess of harvests, while Laima was responsible for happiness and was represented as a young woman with wings and a bird's feet. Patrimpas was the guardian of warmth, plants and fruit.

Although according to census data 79 percent of Lithuania's population considers itself Roman Catholic, many elements of pagan culture are still alive in Lithuania. Every Nov. 2, Lithuanians place candles on the graves of their departed loved ones. The day is known in the Catholic calendar as All Souls' Day, but Lithuanians also refer to it as Velines, after the pagan goddess Veliona, the guardian of the souls of the deceased. In ancient times, great feasts were held to honor her.

"Pagan and Christian traditions are mixed in Lithuania," said ethnologist Zilvytis Saknys. "It is difficult to separate them now to say what is pagan and what is Christian in Velines."

Most Lithuanians do not see any contradiction in this overlap. But since the Middle Ages, this tension has been a central part of Lithuania's history, and there is still some uneasiness today.

When in 1387 Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas Gediminas and his cousin the Polish King Jogaila baptized the Lithuanians, Europe's last pagans, it was a political decision. Catholicism tied Lithuania into Western civilization and enabled it to hold an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

But some Lithuanians think the church repressed the pagan religion. Flash forward about six centuries to September 1993. During a visit to Vilnius by Pope John Paul II, about 20 pagans demonstrated and called for a papal apology for what they considered to be bloody crusades by the church against Lithuania.

Although this was a protest by a tiny minority, the Lithuanian authorities also seem unsure about where to place paganism. Although the country's constitution does not provide for a state religion, the 1995 Law on Religious Societies and Communities recognized nine traditional religions: Roman Catholicism, Uniates, the Orthodox Church, Old Believers, Evangelical Reformers, Lutherans, Sunni Muslims, Jews and Karaites. These groups receive financial support. Others - including the pagans - do not.

In 1993, Lithuania's President Algirdas Brazauskas was inaugurated with a pagan ceremony on Gediminas Hill, after which he was blessed by a Catholic priest. When the current incumbent Valdas Adamkus was sworn in in 1998, the ceremony included a Catholic Mass at Vilnius Cathedral, but no pagan rites.

The church is skeptical about paganism.

"The current so-called religion of the ancient Balts is just a restoration of old village culture. It is ethnography, not religion," said Sigitas Tamkevicius, the archbishop of Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city.

But although their numbers are tiny - just 975 people, or 0.03 percent of the population, listed paganism as their faith in the 2001 census - the followers of Romuva have a few supporters in high places. Four members of Parliament from both opposition and government factions have proposed giving the pagans the status of a traditional religious community. One of them, the Social Liberal Gediminas Jakavonis, is himself a practitioner of paganism. Jakavonis thinks that the faith deserves some compensation now for being persecuted by the Soviets.

Trinkunas knows what this is all about. After he helped establish the Romuva community in the 60s, he was not allowed to finish university or to work in state institutions. Only after the Soviet collapse was he able to complete his education and get a job in the Institute of Ethnography.

In spite or because of these tribulations, Trinkunas believes that his is now a growing rather than a dying cause.

"I believe that the old Baltic faith will return to Lithuania," he said.