The 1998 WCER Congress, Report by Audrius Dundzila

The 1998 WCER Congress (21st – 23rd June 1998)
Report by Audrius Dundzila, Ph.D.

The World Pagan Congress was held 20-25 June 1998 in Lithuania. Lithuania was selected to host the Congress because it was the last Pagan country in Europe. Although the country was officially Christianized in 1387-1410, the last Pagan temple in its capital city Vilnius was closed around 1790. About 200 people participated in the Congress, including 50 guests from abroad: USA, England, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and India. UNESCO even sent a representative. The Congress began with Solstice celebrations, continued with presentations and meetings, and concluded with Pagan Lithuanian sightseeing.

Saturday, 20 June, the traditional Lithuanian Solstice called Rasa was celebrated at Kernave, the first capital of Lithuania. The village hosted Rasa together with the Lithuanian Ethnic Church Romuva. In 1967, Romuva held the first public Rasa under Soviet occupation in Kernave. The Congress was given a tour of the castle hills and the historical museum. The temple stood on one of the hills, while quarters for temple personnel (kriviai, vaidilai, vaidilutes – priests, prophets, nuns) stood on an adjacent one. Wooden castles and fortifications stood on the remaining hills. The museum displayed numerous exhibits on Lithuania’s Pagan past, and the guide explained these displays very eagerly. A town hall meeting with the villagers followed, and concluded with refreshments.

The castle hills were decorated with Kupolines, herb-poles, while the entrance was decorated with Rasa gates. After dancing through the gates, everybody gathered herbs and wove wreaths. During Rasa, herbs attain their strongest potency. They need to be collected before witches will pick them that night. A fire ritual was held at the fire altar built at the base of the temple hill. Bonfires were lit at sunset (11 PM) to provide nocturnal illumination until sunrise (3 AM). People danced around the bonfires to the tune of ethnic music. Floats with herbs and candles were set adrift on nearby Neris river. Many predicted their fortunes for the coming year. During the white night, everyone followed the Sun’s journey through the land of the dead across the northern sky. At dawn, some bathed in the dew and jumped over the remnants of the bonfires to grant themselves luck, fortune, and health. About 2000 people attended Rasa. Neighboring villages and towns were also seen celebrating Rasa.

Sunday, 21 June, the Congress toured Vilnius’ old town which is on the United Nations register of historic places. The Congress was officially opened at 3 PM at the Gediminas Statue. Grand Duke Gediminas was the penultimate Pagan ruler of Lithuania. He declared that Pagans, Catholics and Orthodox worship the same divinity in different forms, and granted religious freedom in Lithuania. Gediminas Castle with its breath-taking vistas of the city was the next stop on the tour. Guides at the castle were overwhelmed by the questions about Lithuanian Pagan culture and history. The day ended with Kliova’s ballet “Egle, Queen of the Garden Snakes” at the Lithuanian State Opera and Ballet House. The ballet is based on a very popular Lithuanian myth.

Monday and Tuesday, 22-23 June, were presentation and meeting days. The Assistant Chair of the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) Romaldas Ozolas addressed the Congress and wished it great success. Some 30 individuals lead sessions about their organizations and Paganism in their countries. Presenters reported that Pagans do not face any persecution or discrimination in most countries. In the Czech Republic and Greece, civil and church authorities oppose the Pagan movement. In Greece, the government continues to tear down ruins of ancient Greek temples despite protests. In India, Hindus still suffer enormous persecution from Muslims. In Germany, Paganism is often incorrectly associated with Nazism. A few presentations focused on the Pagan heritage in modern Lithuania.

A cultural program entertained the Congress Monday evening. Evaldas Vycinas, who is a renowned folkloric singer, sung a sampling of Dainas, Lithuanian Vedic hymns. His selections came from very old published renditions of Dainas. Next, the Vilnius Indic Music Trio entertained the audience with a North Indian raga.

After the program, the Congress went to Gediminas Gave Hill where Romuva has its open-air temple and fire altar. A stop was made at the Ragutis temple altar stone which was recently recovered in an archeological dig. Ragutis is the Lithuanian Mead God. His temple was replaced by an Orthodox church during the Middle Ages. The altar stone is now enshrined in a city square adjacent to the church.

The Lithuanians, Latvians and Belorussians conducted a Baltic fire ritual at the Romuva temple, followed by Russian, Ukranian, and Polish rites. After the fire was lit, Dainas were sung as the participants slowly circled the fire altar. Beer was sacrificed first to the Fire Goddess Gabija, then to the Earth Goddess Zemyna and the Ancestors, and finally to deities of the skies. Everyone was then offered a sip of the sanctified beer. The Russians smudged everyone’s third eye with ashes from the fire, in accordance with their traditions. They also blessed amulets.

Tuesday afternoon, Congress delegates discussed the continued work of the World Pagan Congress at great length. The Congress was renamed to the World Congress of Ethnic Religions (WCER), and headquarters were established in Vilnius. The WCER will serve as an international body that will assist Pagan/Ethnic Religion groups in various countries and will oppose discrimination against such groups. A WCER declaration was also drafted and later ratified via e-mail. The next Congress is very tentatively scheduled for the Summer Solstice 1999 timeframe in Greece. Plans were also made to hold an extraordinary Congress during Winter Solstice 2000 in Jerusalem.

Tuesday night, the Congress participated in the Vilnius City St. John’s Day celebration. Most Lithuanian cities and villages celebrate Rasa in its marginally christianized form. The festival was essentially a modern rendition of Rasa: Rasa gates, herb poles, bonfire, folk and rock music, fireworks, and food vendors.

The last two days of the Congress were devoted to excursions. Wednesday, 24 June, the Congress visited the Romuva open-air temple at Pailgiai, near Vilnius. Romuva met here in secret under Soviet rule, and built an altar to the ancestors called a Shadow Path. The altar is used at Velines, when the ancestors are commemorated (October). The dead are offered food on the altar, and candles are lit on it. Light from the candles guides the dead. Recently, Romuva helped clean the surrounding forest and built a fire altar nearby. A fire ritual was held, and the Vilnius Forest Ranger Corps provided refreshments. During the fire ritual, everyone was blessed with the sign of the Perkunas Cross (X), using a Thunder Candle. Perkunas is the Lithuanian Weather and Oak God. This blessing affords protection and is traditionally given on 2 February, Perkunas Day.

Next, the Congress visited the Moletai Ethnocosmological Observatory. The observatory is one of a kind. Its researchers study ethnic and religious cosmologies from around the world and compare them with the actual cosmology. The museum houses a vast collection of astrological data and time keeping instruments from around the world. The guides were very happy and eager to discuss Lithuanian Paganism at great length. Finally, the Congress visited the cottage of the Congress organizer Jonas Trinkunas. He is also Chief Elder of the Lithuanian Ethnic Church Romuva. He and his family invited everybody to a traditional Lithuanian dinner, followed by folk dancing. Janis Brikmanis, President of the Latvian Church Dievturi, offered Jonas and his household a traditional blessing.

Thursday, 25 June, the Congress visited Trakai castle, the medieval capital of Lithauania, and Kaunas, the second largest city. Guides at the castle could not answer a single question about Lithuanian Paganism even though the castle was the capitol of Pagan Lithuania. Lunch was taken at a traditional Karaite restaurant. The Karaite ethnic minority served as castle guards in Medieval Lithuania. In Kaunas, the Velnias Museum, Statue of Liberty, and Freedom Allee shopping district were visited. Velnias is the Lithuanian chthonic trickster God.

At the end of the 6-day Congress, the participants were tired, but happy.

Audrius Dundzila, Ph.D.

For more information, see the WCER Declaration.
Read excerpts from the internet-based WCER discussions of August-Semptember, 1998 on the theme of proposals for the WCER.