By Jonas Trinkūnas
The Lithuanians’ ancient religion is inseparable from homeland, ancestors’ land, language; it takes its root in high antiquity and our ancestors are its originators. The ancestors pass on their most sacred knowledge to us as a traditional culture with its customs, morality, folk songs, etc. The religion itself formed as an expression of the sacrality of cultural traditions, closely related with the moral outlook.
Defining and specifying the religion itself is not an easy task, there is an abundance of its definitions even today. Normally, religion is described within the perception of dominant religions. Today, having a deeper perception of the world religions, it is already stated that religion is a system of beliefs, rites and moral values, uniting a human society (Webster’s dictionary). Encyclopaedia Britannica (1986) explains that religion is the human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred. In the opinion of Charles H. Long, religion is an experience, expression, motivation, intention, behaviour, style and rhyme (Significations, 1999, p.7). In other words, peoples’ religiosity stems from their existence and routine, not only theology. While deciding about peoples’ religion one has to consider their mode of life, behaviour, speech, communication, creation and thinking, and most of all – their moral behaviour and moral judgements.
Lithuanian religion should be addressed as a separate individual religious tradition. In his book “Lithuanian Religion and Mythology” (2004) Gintaras Beresnevičius wrote: “Lithuanian religion should be recognised as a religion of a union with saintliness-generating powers”. (42) This definition can be extended further with the author’s words abut the experience of saintliness and the divine powers’ link with the human world through an eternal fire. Here Beresnevičius is talking about the existence developed by the ancient religion and its peak in the times of the medieval state. Of course, the main qualities of Lithuanian religion have deep historic origins dormant in the depths of millennia; they have been retained even after the coming of Christianity. In order to get to know the ancient Lithuanian faith better, we need to discuss its most archaic form – the chthonic or underworld (subterrain) religion, which was the basis of religion in all times. Namely such religion forms the kernel of the ethnic or natural religion. It was for most long retained by peasants who were closer to the earth or just a part of it. This form of religion was reflective of its vitality and ability to survive under most unfavourable conditions. Religion has never been a stagnant form of spiritual tradition, it developed affected by external impacts and inner changes. Social processes influenced essentially the religious tradition. As sociality weakened, the evolving elite tried to alter this tradition to its own benefit.
Religion itself hinders comprehending its meaning and nature, as it is mostly like a tree which has forgotten about its genesis from a poor seed. One should view religion as this comparison. If we take the present developed religion with its theology and ecclesiastical structures as the model of religion, we will definitely be unable to grasp the meaning of religion.
Why in antiquity did people respect the Sun and the Earth? Because these powers emitted and spread good without requiring nothing to themselves – and doing this absolutely selflessly. This was realised very long ago, furthermore, man’s natural tie with mother was the same. This archetypical tie was also the prototype of religious ties. We could say it was an example of the most ancient morality for man.
Mother giving birth, caretaker, upbringer was a prototype of divinity. The Sun, the Earth and a simple mother of man were the beginning of everything, they gave good selflessly. Love for mothers and mothers’ love for their children was the beginning of morality and religion. The ancient religion was optimistic and good-willed, and manifested itself as Mother Goddess. Love was the most important tie which linked and united Mother Goddess and her children. The Goddess represented universal motherliness and good, which spread into the world like a simple mother’s love and good for her children did.
Mother Earth was respected, worshipped and loved, as for man it was the great mother. It is not long ago that in Lithuania the main way to respect the earth was kissing it. We could cite numerous texts of folk customs which speak about respect to the earth. “Earth, mother of mine, I come from you, you feed me, you carry me, you will shelter me after I die”. Matas Pretorijus wrote in the 17th century thatŽemynėlė “gives and maintains life for man and animal, and all living creatures” (BRMŠ, III, 300). “The Earth feeds and dresses people and therefore one has to kiss soil twelve times a day” (BIR: 49).
We have a most rich folklore, which has retained the most ancient non-written texts. In them, one can distinguish seeds of the essence of religion, the ancient faith of the Lithuanians lies there. The ancient Lithuanian folk songs have preserved their religious nature.
Rye harvest glees contain a greeting of the Sun – morning sacrificial offering. Chanting, everyone is standing turned towards the Sun: “What is rising over the estate? The rolling sun, Saulala. What else does it bring while rising? The rolling sun. It is bringing gifts, the rolling sun…” This is a morning sacrificial offering, which is performed both by the Sun and its worshippers, participants in the rye harvest.
There are quite many ancient folk songs the subject of which is giving gifts. This giving of gifts is totally selfless, here the man is communicating with the Sun as child and mother. The Lithuanians’ Sun is mother, the good mother, who takes care of her children and brings to them gifts – good. Lithuanian folk Christmas songs say that Christmas is coming with gifts, and Christmas (Kalėda) is namely the Sun. Giving is an act of cosmogonical ritual. Gift exchange on the New Year’s night in ancient India was meant to stimulate the creative cosmic powers. The Lithuanians’ treats in the fields by corn during festivals (Lith. Samboris) strengthened the vital forces of the fields.
Gift exchange is the oldest tradition of human communication, not economic or monetary, but moral. Furthermore, gift exchange between people is only a part of a wider moral space. Ancient man exchanged gifts with the entire surrounding world and felt grateful for the powers supporting his existence. One should grasp the meaning of religious offerings here as well.
Archaeologists believe that “additional” cerements discovered in burial sites could be gifts for the other dead that the buried persons were to take to heaven.
The meaning of a sacrificial offering is giving or sharing good. Giving is spreading of good. In the Balts’ most ancient tradition is the word “labas”, or good. When two people meet, they say to each other “labas”, as if declaring good, security and concord. When, during a ritual, greeting (Lith. “palabinimas”) is performed, the participants greet one another by drinking, doing it from one common scoop.
The old tales about fairies are reflective of the moral situation of giving. When a woman leaves her child by accident in a field, fairies find the child and give him clothes and presents. However, when another woman leaves her child in a field intentionally in hope for the same presents, the fairies tear the child to pieces punishing the cunning woman. Here, a fairy’s or goddesses’ presents reflect the sense of offering as if from the other side. People must understand that presents or offerings are given in pure spirit only. Many tales and fairy tales are based on moral requirements. One cannot contrive and seek benefit for oneself in a cheating way. Therefore presents-offerings are aimed at spreading good, but not bartering in search of benefit.
The meaning of goodness is familiar in ancient cultures. This idea or pajauta takes its root in high antiquity, and it competes with roughness and selfishness. Zoroastrians’ Indo-European texts say that goodness is the highest spiritual value. “Which good work is the best and requires no expenses? – Being grateful to the world, wishing well for everyone – this is the greatest benevolence.” Investigators come across this virtue in Lithuanian folklore as well. Bloody wars and subsequent oppression have not ousted the spirit of goodness.
Singing was the major rite creating a religious link between people, ancestors and gods. Lithuanian folk songs have best preserved the traditions of the ancient religion. Efforts to determine their oldness or age have not been very successful. It seems these songs intentionally avoided historical references. Due to this they are sometimes called cosmic songs. Ancient songs almost do not mention the names of gods. Everything is as if encoded, concealed, and in order to understand the symbols you need to learn doing this.
Cosmogonic images occur in a song’s first lines or stanza (mountain, tree, water, fire, estate, arm-chair, etc.), then the plot begins to unfold. Songs reveal cosmogonic actions. Where a song begins from mentioning cosmogonic elements, the man singing it occurs in a sacred reality. Singing such cosmic songs the man occurs in the very centre of the world, which is the most sacred and safe place.
Powers generating sacredness
The ancient Lithuanian religion had a large network of sacred sites generating sacredness. As it was the earthy, chthonic religion, it was by roots, like a tree, related to the earth. The descriptions ofLithuania’s ancient sacred sites published by V. Vaitkevičius are really impressive. “Žemaitija” ( ) contains about 1000 descriptions, “Aukštaitija” ( ) – some 1500. Another similar number of sacred sites may be published in the future.
These are sacred sites in nature: sacred rivers, lakes, springs, mounds (Lith. alkas), alkupiai, stones, trees, groves, different sites having mythological or gods’ names. These sanctums undoubtedly represent the heritage of millennia belonging to the oldest religion in the world.
Since many ancient sacred sites had been in use until quite recently, one can presume what the major ritual had been. It was the gift exchange mentioned above spreading good and in expectation of experiencing good. Sacrificial offerings used to be made to extraordinary stones, springs, trees, in certain holly places. One asked for health, having a child, etc, in other words – for vital forces, more strength. Such places were the sources of vital energy. Highly eloquent is a very old Baltic word šventas (Eng. “holy”), related with the Indo-European kuen-to, which means vital force or that which extends, grows, and strengthens. Several hundred place-names with the word šventas are known (Šventoji, šventupis, etc.). Our ancestors saw that force in the surrounding world. They saw it not only in celestial bodies, but also on the Earth: plants, trees, springs, stones, etc. The ancestors realised that the relation towards the world must be moral. The sacredness-of- life power spreads good selflessly, and so man’s relation towards good must be selfless as well.
The powers of sacredness radiate light, which awakens and maintains life. These are the powers of divinity, and the word dievas itself has originated from * dei- “to shine, glow”. However, the worddievas can hardly be the proper name for one sacral creature because any deity can be called by this name (R. Balsys, p.17).
All sacred sites were a place of mutual religious interaction. Gintaras Bersenevičius wrote about that special religious link between the man and the sacred powers of life: “Lithuanian religion generally was a link-in-groves religion. Trees performed the mediation function.” The essence of religion is to get united with the sacred supernatural.
Marija Gimbutienė distinguished between two traditions of the Baltic religion: the Ancient Europe’s matricentric and the Indo-European. This is how she classified Baltic gods and goddesses, some of which related with the earth, the subterrain and water, others with heaven and celestial bodies. In reality, these two groups of gods formed a unified entirety, and the nature of individual gods and goddesses can be analysed separately one by one.
Types of religions
Today, dominant world religions are those that have extended beyond national limits and accept no limits at all. These include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other most recent religions that have just overwhelmed the earth-related ethnic religions. World religions are “book” religions; they have their own scriptures and globalistic ideological forces. Vitality of ethnic religions stems from the earth’s chthonic powers that are characteristic of quiet waiting and awakening in the presence of favourable conditions. Such religions do not need scriptures, prophets or saint martyrs. Natural religion always tries to breakthrough into daylight, like any plant or tree does. Natural religion is free and independent of anything. The Lithuanians have shown that living under conditions of most different oppressions it is possible the preserve the ancestors’ spiritual wealth. As soon as freeing begins, the old faith wakes up.
Religion evidences in two levels – the earthly human religion and the elite’s religion. The history of religion consists namely in the history of interaction between these two levels. The elite’s nature is not straightforward: it can be a social layer on the rise, but it can also be conquerors. The earthly or chthonic religion is not historic, as it is characteristic of natural phenomena. The elite, in forming the level of its religion, tries to subordinate to itself the expression of the earthly religion. For example, peasants respected the oak tree and, by instruction from a priest, a cross was hammered onto the oak and the peasants were required to worship it. Thereby the peasants are gradually involved into the religious expression of the elite. Well, of course, the peasants do not because of this become members of the governing layer; they only lose their religious independence. Why have pagans been attributed so many negative qualities? Because the name “pagan” was mainly attributed to peasants who persistently adhered to their parents’ religion and accepted the new religion most unwillingly.
Lithuanian religion has been described by many authors, but all of them were either people who confessed an alien or hostile religion or were “objective” scholars. Some of them were enemies to Lithuanian religion, others could not understand it, as they tried to look at it from aside, were alien to it. The thing is that the book and non-book non-written religions collided. It was the meeting of two different civilisations. Only now are we beginning to realise that writing was just a technical means which helped to destroy the different culture, not inferior, but for us, its children, more valuable and expressing our “self”. Well, all most majestic artistic or religious creations of humanity have been created within non-writing cultures and have been written down only later, when their survival was endangered. Millions of Lithuanian folk songs have been created in the non-writing epoch, but that entire nation’s creation began vanishing rapidly with the spread of writing and book culture. The richest Lithuanian language with many dialects and thousands of words formed in the non-writing epoch, but began deteriorating as books and writing occurred.
It would not be accurate to say that there was no writing in our ancient culture. “Writing” existed in our language and life when there were no books or those writing them yet. The Lithuanians distinguish patterns in fabrics, national sashes, wood or metal ornaments. Ancient signs – symbols were known to our ancestors in most ancient times. They had religious, magic and ritual meaning. The Christian writing was brought to Lithuania with one purpose – fighting and subduing the ancient culture and religion of the Lithuanians. The book “The Character of the Ancient Lithuanians, Highlanders and Samogitians” by Simonas Daukantas which was printed in 1845 may be called the first Lithuanian book. Why? Because “The Simple Words of Catechismus” by Martynas Mažvydas, printed in 1547, was Lithuanian in its form only, like the other books printed after it. Only after 300 years the book not only spoke in Lithuanian, but bore Lithuanian content as well.
Baltic culture and religion is one of the few in Europe which has retained the oldest continuous spiritual heritage uninterrupted. For a few thousand years the same tradition, with unessential hindrances and influences, existed like a tree, retaining its essence, its self. The territory inhabited by the Balts was vast, and various characteristics (hydronyms and dialects) are reflective of the unity and permanence of Baltic culture. Only within its tranquillity the rich language, thousands of hydronyms (from the Baltic Sea to the Volga), millions of songs and the ancient religion could be created. However, the last millennium invaded menacingly this ancient civilisation.
In 1009, the missionary Bruno tried to step into West Lithuania. He said he wanted to destroy the ancient religion and introduce Christianity. He was detained and ordered to leave the territory immediately. He was told that the Lithuanians had their own laws and customs, their religion and did not need any missionaries. If he does not leave the territory, he will be punished by death. This is what exactly happened, he was killed, and the Church declared him a saint. Lithuania defended itself from the Christians and led a quiet life for another 200 years, but then armed attacks by Christians and Teutonic Knights began, that lasted for another 200 years.
For us, Lithuanians, King Gediminas (1275-1341) is an authority of the ancient faith. At that time, Lithuania was at ardent war with the Christians who attacked from the west (German crusaders and Poles), the Livonian Order – from the north, and Moscow’s Orthodox believers and Muslims – from the east. The war lasted for nearly 200 years. Despite this pressure, Gediminas observed ancient tolerance. He wrote: “He allows the Christians worshiping their God according to their customs, the Russians according to their rituals, the Poles according to their customs, and we, Lithuanians, worship God according to our rituals, and all of us have one God”. Urged to accept christening, he replied: “What are you telling me about the Christians? Where will we find greater grievances, bigger injustice, violence, indecency and greed for wealth if not among Christian people, especially among those who pretend to be decent monks, as, for example, crusaders, who, however, are doing different evil/…/and so I no longer believe in any vows of theirs”.
And yet Gediminas allowed building a church for the Christians, but everything changed in 1387 when, having accepted christening, the Lithuanian rulers Jogaila and Vytautas no longer saw any possibilities for resisting the Christians’ pressure. Lithuanian religion was banned immediately; demolition of the old temples began. Having extinguished the Vilnius sacred site’s eternal fire and demolished the temple, a Christian church was shortly erected at that place. Persecution of the old religion and traditional culture began, which has continued until the present day. Therefore the existence of Romuva – the successor of the old religion – is not easy.
The history of the Lithuanians’ ancient religion should be familiar to the world, as many ancient ethnic religions are similarly endangered. I would like to finish my presentation in an optimistic note. As long as distinctive nations are still alive, as long as their culture is alive, no force will destroy the religion developed by their ancestors, which will always be there and rise when time has come for that.
Latvian virtue pathway
Every ethnic culture has its own value system, expressing and showing the quality of its world outlook. There are ethics, which are limited to survival, there are ethics, which characterizes the circumstances of life of people – defence or desire to dominate others, there are ethics in the context of climate and natural phenomena, providing for a specific behaviour and compliance with the law. Ethics in all these cases arranges and forms the social environment, rather than the spiritual structure of people. Latvian cultural heritage has no such ethical system, which would be based on law, regulations or prohibitions, because the Latvian people are a community of free people, not a steered and controlled crowd.
The law reads – you shall, or you shall not, but the folk songs – dainas – sing about the white soul, who travels the ways of the world, and it has the brothers – bāleliņi next to it, Dievs (God), Laima and Mara,and in every place, where the soul comes, the purity, clarity and a white light shines. The Latvian soul is guided by virtue – a high spiritual consciousness of the nobleness of the soul. Sadness, unhappiness comes to the place, where a soul has lost part of its virtue and has allowed darkness to dwell in its feelings and thoughts, and to allow this – or not – is a free choice of everyone.
The pathway of virtue is a pathway of spiritually free people that will lead to the primary source of divine truth. The God has set out all virtues for us to select them as the best guide of life, but everything is in your own hands and there is no law that can oblige us or prevent us from following them. Mental awareness is not the obligatory route, therefore the dainas folk songs express solely that experience, which people have undergone previously, and the knowledge, which they have managed to accumulate.
Dainas folk songs are the heritage of the life-history and knowledge since ancient, primeval times.
What enabled Latvians to maintain such understanding of virtue, instead of creating a dogma system based on ethics, over all those centuries of war, which destroyed the ethnic spirit of peoples both in Europe and the rest of the world?
The fact that our nation has not been involved in the great migrations and in sowing death in the times of the Roman Empire. We stayed aside and kept closely to peace. We have developed neither any cult of war, nor any war deities. Nobody ever organized Latvians to achieve his goals. We lived peacefully and wisely on the coast of the White Sea, unless the war was extreme necessity for defending the land. The war required a great self-sacrifice on the part of the men, as, on the one hand, it was the highest obligation, on the other, however, – soldier destroyed his pure white soul.
Es nocirtu jodiem galvu / Ar bitīšu zobentiņ’.
Sakapāju joda māti / Deviņos gabalos.
Man nošķīda brūni svārki / Joda mātes asinīm.
Mīļā Māra, mīļā Laima, / Kur es viņus izmazgāš’?
Meklē tādu avotiņu, / Kur deviņas upes tek.
Mīļā Māra, mīļā Laima, / Kur es viņus izkaltēš’?
Meklē tādu ozoliņu, / Kur deviņas saules lec.
Mīlā Māra, mīļā Laima, / Kur es viņus izvelēš’?
Meklē tādu māmuliņu, / Kam deviņas velētāj’s.
Mīļā Māra, mīļā Laima, / Kur es viņus noglabāš’?
Meklē tādu oša ladi, / Kam deviņas atslēdziņ’s.
Mīļā Māra, mīļā Laima, / Kur es viņus novalkāš’?
Ej, puisīti, taisnu ceļu, / Runā taisnu valodiņu.
Valkā svārkus tai dienā’i, / Kad deviņas saules spīd.
I cut off the head of devils / With the bee’s sword.I chopped the devil’s mother / Into nine pieces.
My coat was splashed brown / By the devil mother’s blood.
Dear Mara, dear Laima, / Where shall I washed it?
Search for a spring, / Where nine rivers flow.
Dear Mara, dear Laima, / Where shall I dry it?
Search for such an oak-tree, / Where nine suns are rising.
Dear Mara, dear Laima, / Where shall I dolly it?
Search for a mother / Which has nine daughters.
Dear Mara, dear Laima / Where would I keep it?
Search for an ash-tree chest, / Whit nine locks.
Dear Mara, dear Laima, / Where do I wear it?
Go straight path, / Speak straight language.
Wear the coat on the day, / When nine suns are shinning.
The most important way forward has always been the spiritual development and the path of self-examination, which led towards knowledge and the highest spiritual values.
The virtue starts, where the uphill road to knowledge begins, because to know means to raise oneself to the sun space of purity and heart. Any other kind of knowledge is just the brain training.
Virtue is the only value that will weigh the souls at the hour of death. And their weight is the measure of virtue.
Virtue, firstly, is to keep the heart clean and the truth as the highest value.
Secondly, virtue is to know that the road goes, where the heart leads.
And, thirdly, a virtue is to be in the space of universe, rather than in oneself.
These are the Great circles of the virtue that are firstly in hands and only then truly in heart. So, at first, these are laws of virtue, and only after the experiencehas been undergone, they get into the heart.
Now, let’s see, how they are interpreted in our folk songs.
First and foremost, in dainas folk songs, the virtue is to keep the space around us clean – the space of mind and the living space. The heart is the clear source of living and truth, which shows us the divine laws of the Universe. The heart is the home of Dievs, of Laima, and also Mara.
Dievs (Latvian Dievs, lithuanian Dievas, prusian Deiws, means “sky”) – the higher regularity and advice,
Laima (latvian laime, means “happiness”) – guide of destiny, the law of cause and consequence,
Mara – maker of material world.
Dievs is the virtue, because Dievs is the regularities. And the Latvian God – Dievs, which is included in folk songs, is the supreme rule, since it is not anthropomorphic, mortal or a different creature. Dievs in Latvian folk songs is the highest measure of the Universe. To keep a clean heart means to keep Dievs there. To keep Dievs in one’s heart means to keep Virtue and the Laws of the Universe there.
And there are different virtues outlined in dainas folk songs. The basic virtue of life is – be good, the first self-virtue is – be clever, the second self-virtue – be working, the third self-virtue – be beautiful and the fourth self-virtue – be joyful. First common virtue – be kind, the second common virtue – be harmonious, the third common virtue – be generous and the fourth common virtue – be just. The Dievs’s only virtue is – be devoted (obedient to Dievs).
Laima is the second circle of virtue. She guides those, who have a clean heart and a sincere desire to be truthful in one’s whiteness, because any further virtues are rising from truth. Only what is in one’s heart is true. Laima is only where there is cleanness, where her road is made with all one’s heart, and the wives’ virtue is raised above all. Wives’ virtue is to manage events not by mind, but by common sense. And the common sense is the advice that comes from the heart.
The third circle is the Mara’s circle. It makes the whole space to be placed in the heart, emphasizing its magnificence and praising its beauty and goodness.
All circles make people to keep Virtue; therefore to keep the God – Dievs is to feel one clean, clear and true. And there is no law as a prohibition, because free people, which is the people of the Sun, have no higher virtue than the virtue of freedom of choice, and no higher wisdom than the experience of previous generations.
|Tēvu tēvi laipas meta,
Bērnu bērni laipotāj’.
Tā bērniņi laipojat,
Ka pietika mūžiņam.
|Fathers of fathers made the footbridges,Over which children of children would walk.Go over them so|
That they would do for your life!