Lithuanian Religion and Mythology

front cover


Senovės baltų pasaulėžiūra

Struktūros bruožai

Norbertas Vėlius

Vilnius, ‘’Mintis’’, 1983, 309 pp.


The present book is an attempt to analyse, on the basis of findings of various branches of scholarship, the general laws of traditional culture of the Balts, to trace the development of their ancient world outlook aid in support of these ideas to provide some facts about the ancient social structure of the Balts. A single book can hardly do justice to all the aspects of the world outlook of ancient Balts. We have limited our- selves, therefore, to one particular question, namely the world outlook of the Balts in its territorial variation from west to east. We have not analysed its north-south variations. For our purpose we have found Lithuanian and Prussian materials to be of greatest use, while Latvian, Jotvingian and other Baltic materials have been used to a much lesser extent.

The traditional culture of the Balts is analysed on the basis of the following” oppositions: low - high, west - east, water - fire, black - white, moon - sun, old - young etc. These oppositions enabled us to trace the contours of the system of the ancient Baltic world outlook.

The geographical distribution of the west - east opposition makes it possible to distinguish three Baltic areas which exhibit with great regularity the polarity of the above oppositions:

1. The Western Area occupies the Coastal Plain of Lithuania rising to 50 metres above sea level. In the south it merges into Plain of the Prieglius basin and in the north - into Coastal Plain of Latvia. Its eastern border in the south of Lithuania extends to the western part of the Jūra basin. In the north it extends to the upper reaches of the rivers Minija and Bartuva.

2. The Central Area comprises the Central Lithuanian Plain rising to 100 metres above sea level. In the north it merges into Central Plain of Latvia. Its eastern border runs along the Šventoji River. Reaching the Nemunas approximately at the spot where the town of Prienai lies, the plain turns to the west.

3. The Eastern Area comprises the Baltic Highlands rising to 200 metres and at places to 250 metres above sea level. In the north these highlands pass int6 the Vidzeme Highland of Latvia, in the east - into the Švenčionys Upland which merges with the vast range of the’ Byelorussian Highlands.

Baltic culture in the Western Area features the left members of the oppositions, in the Eastern Area - the right members of the oppositions, while the Central Area features the intermediate stage. This regularity can be observed as early as the Bronze Age and its traces are still evident today.

Chapter One (pp. 14 - 52) gives archaeological, ethnographic and other evidence based on folklore to show the regularity in the occurrence of the different members of the oppositions in separate areas. For example, at the beginning of our era (1st-4th centuries A. D.). the dead were inhumed (buried ”low”) in the Western Area, and were buried in barrows (”high”) in the Central Area. In the 5th-8th centuries A. D., the dead in the Western Area were buried without cremation; in the Central Area they sometimes were cremated and sometimes not, and in the Eastern Area the dead were cremated and buried in barrows. In the 19th-20th centuries low burial monuments ”krikštai” and roofed shrines (koplytėlės) not higher than 2 metres dominate in the Western Area; shrine crosses (koplytstulpiai) as high as 4 metres are found in the Central Area; while roofed crosses (stogastulpiai) as high as 8 metres dominate in the Eastern Area. Beginning with the Bronze Age domestic hearths in the Western Area were built in pits, while in the Eastern Area hearths were mostly built above ground. In the 18th-20th centuries hearths in the Western and Central Areas were built in pits, while in the Eastern Area they were built in’ stoves which were raised on wooden platforms. Even the height of cooking pots exhibits considerable differences. During the Bronze Age, low pots dominated in the west, and high pots in the east.

In the old burial monuments of the Western Area, the dominating elements were water and stone, of the Eastern Area - fire. The greater role of stone in the Western Area is still evident in the 19th-20th centuries. Here burial monuments - roofed shrines usually had stone base and the crosses were also of stone. Stones were used in building hearths; occasionally farms were enclosed with stone fences. Motifs of water occur more frequently in the folk art of the Western Area. The favourite colours were black and blue there. In the east, the dominant colours were white and symbols of the sun and fire figured prominently in the folk art of this area. Even in the 19th-20th centuries the dominant role of fire was still evident in family and calendar customs and beliefs. Odd numbers, especially ”one” were popular here. The Central Area gave preference to floral and animal motifs, symbols of the earth and even numbers (”two”).

An unequal distribution of the elements of the oppositions in different areas is also evident in the ornamentation of distaffs and their crow pieces, in national costumes, architecture and many other forms of folk art.

Chapter Two (pp. 53 - 176) analyses the territorial distribution of the above oppositions in terms of mythology, folklore, calendar holidays and place-names.

On the basis of the oldest records, three varieties of Baltic mythology can be distinguished:

1. The mythology of the Eastern Balts with the earliest established evidence in the Russian Chronicle of Volyn and the 13th century Chronicle of Jan Malala;

2. The mythology of the Central Balts attested by Jan Lasicki in 1615 and partially by Jonas Bretkūnas and the ”Sudovian Book” (16th century);

3. The mythology of the Western Balts described in the Chronicle of Simon Grunau (1529), in ”Episcoporum Prussie Pomesaniensis atque Sambiensis Constitutiones Synodales” (1530) and other records.

The mythology of the Eastern Balts is described as a sky-oriented mythology (after the celestial god the first place is given to Perkūnas, the thunder god); the mythology of the Central Balts is an earth-oriented mythology (after the celestial god the first place is given to žemėpačiai, the earthly gods); the mythology of the Western Balts is an underworld mythology where Patulas a god of the underworld, holds the first place. The mythology of the Western Balts corresponds to the left members of the oppositions, that of the Eastern Balts to the right members of the oppositions, while the mythology of the Central Balts corresponds to the intermediate stages. of the oppositions.

In the analysis of separate fields of culture, attempts were made to establish a relationship between one or another phenomenon and certain mythical images and trace their diffusion in different areas. The evidence shows that beliefs, magic rites and superstitions about the sun and thunder were more prevalent in the Eastern Area. Many more songs- have been recorded here about the anthropomorphic relationships between the sun, the moon, the stars and human beings. The Eastern Area alone has a few legends about the marriage of the sun and the moon, about the frozen bath-house of the sun, More common here are- mythological legends about Perkūnas, the thunder god, local legends about lakes travelling in the sky, about the origin of castle mounds etc. The Central Area, on the other hand, has more mythological legends- about aitvarai (domestic spirits), grass-snakes and tales about god as an old man. The Western Area has more mythological legends about underworld creatures kaukai (goblins), toads, also local legends about sub- merged manor houses and towns and their deliverance from a watery fate. In the folklore of the Eastern Area, the image of the sun, the epithet ”white” occur more frequently. In the folklore of the Central Area, the favourite image is dawn, epithets ”black” and ”dark” occur more frequently. As far as the various genres of folklore are concerned, the Eastern Area favours songs, while the Central Area prefers tales.

From among calendar holidays, the Eastern Area favours Midsummer which is clear manifestation of the right member of the oppositions, while the Central Area gives preference to Shrovetide and autumn holidays which are linked with the symbolism of fertility.

The three Baltic areas also exhibit different degrees of mythologisation of the various plants, animals and other objects of both the animate and inanimate world which played different roles in the mythical world- outlook of the ancient Balts. Birds associated with celestial gods are more frequently found in the folklore, folk art and calendar holidays of the Eastern Area. Animals related to earthly gods are more common in the Central Area, while the Western Area favours fishes and reptiles which are associated with water and the underworld. A more detailed analysis of different species of animals shows that in the mythical tradition of the Western Balts preference was given to the pig which is usually related to the underworld and death; the Central Balts favoured the goat and the horse which symbolised fertility, while the Eastern 33alts preferred cattle and sheep. From among reptiles, Western Balts preferred the toad, Central Balts - the grass-snake, and Eastern Balts - the snake.

Regular variations can also be observed in the diffusion of various cultivated plants in mythology and poetry. Root plants which according to an old tradition belonged to the underworld gods, were more commonly found in the Western Area, legumes in the Central Area, the cereals in the Eastern Area. From among cereals, rye which belonged to the celestial god was opposed to barley, oats and other cereals which belonged to earthly and underworld gods. Therefore, rye features in the mythical world outlook of the Eastern Area, while barley, oats and other cereals feature in the mythical world outlook of the Central and Western Area.

There is evidence that the Western Area showed preference to shrubs which are usually associated with underworld gods, the Central Area - to coniferous trees, and the Eastern Area - to deciduous trees. The Eastern Balts preferred the rowan tree which was related to celestial gods and the birch tree which was associated with the younger brother. The Central Balts preferred the willow, the osier and the alder, all noted for their bright green colour and associated with fertility; the ash tree and the maple were associated with middle brothers.

A similar distribution of the world outlook of ancient Balts can also be detected in the differences in place-names. The Eastern Area has more place-names linked with the names of thunder and the sun, the Central and Western Areas have more place-names linked with the names of chthonic mythical creatures (kaukai, velniai). Many place-names of the Eastern Area are etymologically derived from the names of birds, those of the Central Area - from the names of animals, and those of the Western Area - from the names of reptiles. The Eastern Area exhibits more place-names with the root balt-(white), while the Western Area exhibits more place-names with the root juod-(black) etc.

The three areas of traditional Baltic world outlook, spread along a west-east axis on the territory inhabited by the Balts, exhibit with great regularity the polar members of the oppositions and reflect, as it were, three vertical spheres of the model of the world. The Western Area corresponds to the underworld, the Central Area to the earth, and the Eastern Area to the sky. It is-reasonable to infer from these correspondences that many phenomena of traditional Baltic culture were based on the general model of the world.

The system of the world outlook of the Balts, based on the principle of the most general model of the world, is discussed in the first section of Chapter Three (pp. 137 - 216). This chapter offers a number of examples reflecting the image of the general world model in Lithuanian folklore (songs, fairy tales, riddles). The second section of Chapter Three (pp. 216 - 261) attempts to establish the factors which determined the peculiarities of traditional Baltic world outlook.

In our analysis we proceeded from an assumption that the world outlook. of any community is determined by its material culture, environment, social relations, geographical conditions, relations with its neighbours etc. We wanted to see which strata of society played the dominant role in the separate Baltic areas and how their various views and interests were reflected in the world outlook of those areas.

Thus we can assume that in the Eastern Area the dominant mythology and ideology was that of warriors, in the Central Area that of farmers and cattle rearers and in the Western Area that of priests. We can also suppose that the above mentioned strata of society played the dominant role in the separate Baltic areas.

The evidence of ancient culture which has been discussed so far suggests that beside the priests, another category of people, those who made their living out of the underworld and water, formed a sizeable proportion of the population of the Western Baltic Area. This category of people might have been fishermen, boatmen, and sailors, amber collectors and workers, as well as all craftsmen who got their livelihood from working the non-ferrous metals extracted from the earth. With regard to plants, root vegetables prevailed here and hogs were the most prevalent animals. In the Eastern Area, besides war-making, hunting must have been popular, rye was the commonest plant and cattle and sheep the commonest animals. Though the whole of the Central Area belongs to so-called economic zone, judging by some oppositions, cattle rearing must have been more popular here than arable farming; with regard to crops, barley, oats and legumes were the most common, while the horses and goats were the most widely reared animals.

The book offers archaeological evidence to support the theory about the varying role of different social groups in separate Baltic areas as reconstructed on the basis of the mythical world outlook.

A great number of fortified castle-hills of the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, comparatively frequent finds of axes with narrow heads which were used not only in farming but also as weapons and shield umbos of the 3rd-6th centuries A. D., and the great role that hunting played in the first centuries of our era, all stand as evidence that warriors played a greater role in the Eastern Area. Judging by the remnants of bones in castle-hills, cattle and sheep, and rye prevailed here.

In the Central Area, however, pastoral and arable farming played a greater role. This is evidenced by numerous finds of tools, remains of animals found on the castle-hills, by the graves of horses as well as by the more advanced agricultural practices which were introduced into this area earlier than in other parts of the Baltic territory. Archaeological finds indicate that legumes, wheat, barley and oats were the most commonly found grains and that horses were the predominant domesticated animals.

In the Western Area, the flourishing of material culture from the oldest times up to the historic period, the abundance of burial sites, the lavishness of grave gifts among which one may find Baltic axes and urns with the symbols of the world tree indicate a strong association of this culture with the caste of priests. Archaeological evidence indicates that amber was collected and worked in the Western Area, that amber, ferrous metals, glass and other artefacts were traded here and a great number of Baltic tools and ornaments were produced.

Differences in the Baltic world outlook, partially determined by the domination of different social groups in different areas had their effect on different political evolution of their inhabitants in the early feudal epoch. In the eastern Baltic territories, the power of dukes emerged earlier and social stratification proceeded faster than in the western territories of Lithuania. The Western and Central Balts at that time had communal federations led by a group of elders.

Differentiation of ancient Baltic world outlook and social life on all Baltic territories according to the opposition west-east is not a unique phenomenon. The book offers typological parallels from the nations and tribes of America, Africa and Asia. It is reasonable to infer that the majority of Indo-European communities were built on a similar principle. The Balts, however, who inhabited the same territory for a longer period and exhibited greater stability and were less subject to foreign influences must have maintained the polarity of the opposition better than other Indo-Europeans.