CHAPTER IV

 

LITHUANIAN MYTHOLOGY

 

GINTARAS BERESNEVICIUS

 

 

Lithuanian mythology underwent its formation at the time when the active and belligerent tribes who were the ancestors of modern Lithuanians were distinguishing themselves from the bulk of the Baltic protonation, circa 500 AD. At this time the Lithuanian tradition acquired its specific character. The mythologies of Lithuanians and other Balts are versions of the common Indo-European field of mythological images, but the Lithuanian and Baltic traditions preserved archaic Indo-European images, which disappeared from other European regions before the early Middle Ages. Since the most important characters of the Lithuanian pantheon were common to all Balts, we will begin by describing their common elements.

 

GODS AND HEROES

 

The highest figure in the Baltic pantheon is Dievas, in Prussian Deywis or Deyws, and in Latvian Dievs. This god is of Indo-European origin, and his name, as in some religions of the Near East, has been expanded to embrace all gods (God — the name of the highest of gods, god — the name applied to all gods). Earlier Dievas or Deivas simply denoted the shining dome of the sky, cf. ancient Indian deva ‘god’ and dyazts ‘sky’, Latin deus and dies, originating from the Indo-European root deiuo-s, which means both God and sky. Dievas, Dievs, Deivs is also related to the Greek Zeus. In Lithuanian dialects his name is sometimes Pondzejis, Avestian Daeva, Luvian Tiwat, Lidian Tiyaz, as the German Tiwaz. The Finns took the name of Dievas from the Balts, cf. Finnish taivas and Estonian taevas ‘sky’ .

In the mythology of the Balts, Dangaus Dievas (God of the Sky) retains quite a few original Indo-European characteristics — he lives in heaven, is related to shining celestial bodies and is imagined as a light, radiant person deciding fates. For Prussians and Lithuanians, however, Dangaus Dievas becomes an inactive god, deus otiosus. In some lists of Prussian gods he does not figure at all, while in Lithuanian tales he takes part in the creation of the world and its aftermath. In Latvian songs Dievas is much more active — he goes down the hill on which he lives and walks around a field of rye carrying bliss and fertility to the earth. And although traditionally it was possible to rely upon him when striking a contract, making a vow, or in times of crises, his cult among the Balts was doubtful. In any case, sacred places devoted to Dangaus Dievas are not even mentioned in Baltic mythology.

If Dievas was the highest character in the pantheon, then Perkunas, Latvian Perkons, Prussian Perkuns, Perkztno, the god of storm and thunder, master of the atmosphere and all celestial matters, and evidently Dievas’ son, was the most important and prominent. The name of this god is believed to have originated either from words denoting oak, cf. Latin quercus (from perkwus), Celtic herc, or a related root meaning a mountain, like in Hittite parunas ‘a rock’ or Sanskrit parvatas ‘The top of a hill’. In Baltic mythology Perkunas is linked both to a mountain — in Lithuanian mythology Perkunas lives on the top of a hill reaching the sky — and to oaks, growing in sacral places, or to sacred oak woods. Related to Perkunas are such Indo-European gods as Slavonic Perun, Parjanya who is mentioned in the Rigveda, the Germanic goddess Fjorgyn, the gods Donar, Thor, etc. Perkunas’s functions coincide with thunder gods of the Near East; with Baal, for instance, he is related by his care of fertility.

Perkunas is pictured as middle-aged, armed with an axe and arrows, riding a two-wheeled chariot harnessed with goats, like Thor. As is obvious, Perkunas enters the common field of Indo-European and Near Eastern thunder gods, just like Dievas, corresponding to deities of these religions — from An, or Anu, of the Sumerians and Babylonians, to Germanic Tiwaz.

The Balts must have been aware of a chthonic god opposed to the celestial ones. This is the Lithuanian Velnias, Velinas, Latvian Vels, Prussian Patolas (from pa- ‘under’, tula, tola ‘earth, ground’).This name is found in late sources, but the equivalents of a certain chthonic god are seen everywhere. It is the god of the underworld, cattle, magic and wealth, related to the Indian god Varuna and Iranian Ahura, Germanic Wotan, Odin, Slavonic Veles. From a historical point of view, however, Velnias lost its original meaning, and only in Prussia did Patolas remain significant, in some lists — the First, the god of wise men.

There exist no doubts as to the existence of these gods in the Baltic nations, but occasionally historical sources mention distorted or euphemistic names of gods, which makes their identification in the early period rather difficult.

Russian sources of the 13th century mention Lithuanian gods, but unfortunately their names, as has been mentioned above, are not quite clear. Giving an account of the baptism of Mindaugas in 1252, the Chronicle of Volyn asserts that the baptism of the king of Lithuania was deceptive and that he secretly made sacrifices to his own gods, ‘the First — Nunadievis and Teliavelis and Diveriksas and Zuikio Dievas and Madaioa.’ In 1258 it goes further, to the effect that Lithuanian warriors called upon their gods, Andajus and Diviriksas. An insertion in the translation of the Malala chronicle of 1261 recounts that Sovijus, the religious hero, made sacrifices to Andajus and Perkunas called Thunder, Zvoruna called Bitch, and Teliavelis the Smith who made him a sun to illuminate the earth, and who "threw the sun to him in the sky."

The First — Nunadievis and Andajus, who was mentioned in two other places — would correspond to Dangaus Dievas, but the names do not carry any meaning in Lithuanian. It is possible that here we come across euphemisms applied to the same god. This is a usual case in Baltic mythology. the Prussians called Dangaus Dievas, Occopirmzts, i.e. ‘the First’, while Andajus could mean ‘Antdievis’ (super-god), i.e. the god of gods, the Highest God. The meaning of Nunadievis is not yet clear. The only Lithuanian word with the same root, nunai, means ‘now’, thus Nunadievis could denote the actual, reigning god, the God of the present. Still, this name remains obscure.

Diveriksas or Diviriksas is a euphemistic name for Perkunas. Till quite recently his name was avoided, replacing Perkunas by Dundulis , Barskulis, etc. In Lithuanian Diviriksas could mean either dievo/dievu rikis ‘bishop of god/gods’ , i.e. ruler of gods empowered by God (cf. rikis — Latin rex ‘king’), or ‘the rod of God’. He is mentioned immediately after the highest God, which would correspond to its religious meaning. Lithuanian mythology describes Perkunas as the master of thunder and lightning, living on a high mountain and in charge of worldly matters. To do that he was empowered by Dievas, who does not afterwards pry into worldly matters. Thus Dievas hands his might and actual power to Perkunas, and the latter becomes the senior god, just like Marduk in Babylon, Baal in West Semites, etc. In Lithuanian religion Perkunas also had a military function — he is the warrior called upon to cover the Daugava River with ice so that Lithuanian warriors could reach the other bank.

Judging from the glossary, in an insertion in the translation of the Malala chronicle, Teliavelis could be considered a cultural hero, the smith-god. His wondrous deed was the forging of the sun and throwing it ‘up into the sky,’ which implies that for Lithuanians the sun was not a deity, but just a piece of hot metal (as the Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras claimed). His name can be read as Telia-Velis, the first root relating to telias ‘a calf’, or tellus ‘the earth’, and the second to Velnias or Velinas, the god of the underworld. One more possible reading of Teliavelis is Kalvelis, i.e. kalvis ‘smith’, which does not remove him from the chthonic personages; it is said in Lithuanian folklore that the first smiths were devils, and that they taught men the smith’s craft. Teliavelis would thus take Velnias’s or Patolas’s place and complete the Lithuanian trinity.

The goddess Medeina or Zvorina, who is mentioned beside the three male gods, could mean one goddess, the mistress of forest and wild animals (Medeina originates from the root med-, meaning ‘tree’ or ‘hunting’ and Zvoruna from zveris ‘wild animal’). She would be close to Diana or Artemis, and in all probability originated from the image of some archaic Goddess, Mother Goddess, or the Mistress of Wild Animals. Zuikio Die, mentioned in the chronicle, is evidently a misunderstanding, which arose from Mindaugas’s habit or superstition while hunting — if a hare (zuikis) crossed the road, it was considered a bad omen, Mindaugas, retreated in this case, he did not ‘worship’ the hare, but simply observed a bad omen.

13th century writings reflect gods worshipped by warriors and rulers, and thus provide an ‘official’ pantheon. Later sources provide less competent descriptions of peasant beliefs, which were by then considerably degraded. With the disappearance of the layer of prophets, the ancient religion declined to the level of separate cults and superstitions — thus, the number of gods and demons. Jonas Lasickis’s notes on Samogitian gods in the middle of the 16th century, presented a great multitude of names of gods, goddesses and demons, which were very often unheard of either in other sources or in folklore. In 1582 Motiejus Strikovskis mentioned the main God, Prokorimos (evidently a euphemism stemming from prakorauti ‘to do something before others’); further, however, he lists fifteen other very specific gods, not known from other sources. Therefore, already by the 16th century there existed a non-unified pantheon; data from different sources did not correspond one with another, and local spirits, especially those of the economic field, became mixed up with more general gods and ascended to the level of gods.

 

MYTHOLOGY

 

The ritualistic myths which have reached us are actually those of cultural heroes. The insertion in the translation of the Malala chronicle contains a myth about Sovijus, who gave rise to the ritual of burning the dead and is, to some extent, about the first dead.

Sovijus kills a fabulous wild boar, but when his nine sons eat the boar’s nine spleens, he becomes angry and goes to ‘hell’, where he enters through the ninth gate. In hell one of his sons ‘causes him to sleep’; on the first night he buries him in the ground, but Sovijus complains that reptiles and slugs have been eating him all night. The second night Sovijus is put in a tree, but there he is bitten and stung by insects. The third night he is thrown into a fire — and in the morning he says he has slept ‘sweetly, like a baby in a cradle.’ From then on he becomes the leader of the dead, taking them to the after world, thus introducing a new cult of gods. It seems that the myth reflects the beginning of the burning of the dead in the Baltic countries (around the 13th century BC), but some of its elements are much more ancient.

The same myth mentions Teliavelis, who forged the sun and threw it up into the sky. A similar event was recalled by only ‘one tribe’, described by Jeronimas Prahiskis, who in 1401-1404 visited Lithuania. This tribe worshipped a hammer of enormous size, which had fallen from the sky. The story went that once upon a time a wicked king locked the sun in a tower of ice, but the signs of the Zodiac released it with a large hammer. It is plausible that this myth might reflect certain rituals of the New Year. However, it is not clear what these ‘signs of the Zodiac’ were, or to what extent this myth is related to that of Teliavelis.

Lithuanian ethnological legends recorded at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, are not myths in the true sense, although some of the things they contain do reflect ancient cosmogony. According to legend, in the beginning of the world there are two gods — Dievas and Velnias, who created the world together. Dievas sends Velnias to the bottom of the water to carry sand or soil, which he later places on the water, it expands and becomes land — the Earth. In the process of creation there was competition between Dievas and Velnias, but the present shape of the world is born from the activities of both. Velnias creates the lakes, marshes, rocks, fens, while Dievas’s idea was to create the Earth smooth. Dievas created all useful animals and birds, while Velnias — all that are harmful or possess chthonic features. This primordial pair of gods has twin-like traces, and it is not clear, whether some other Dievo Dievas — god of gods — does not exist above them, like Hittite Alalu, Anu, etc., especially bearing in mind the fact that there are gods with primordial names in Lithuanian mythology, but the sources where they are mentioned either do not describe their functions, or simply ascribe them to the economic sphere.

The legends contain an original cosmogony. Dievas, walking beside the waters ‘to answer the call of nature,’ spits and walks on. On his way back he sees in that place a creature which he cannot recall creating. Dievas asks this creature what it is and where it comes from, but it does not know. Dievas eventually remembers that he spat here on his way — thus, this creature sprang from his saliva, and this is man. Legends concerned about the origin of woman solve it in a rather simple way — according to them, Dievas spat twice, hence the first man and woman. Another legend says that while Dievas was washing his face in heaven, a drop fell on the ground, and that’s how man was created. From our point of view these legends are grotesque, but their main idea is clear — man is the copula of human and divine substance, it is only in form that the manifestations of this idea are rather unusual. It should also be noticed that in these legends man appears not as a purposeful product of divine creation, but as a completely accidental phenomenon, Dievas did not even think of creating him.

Ethnological legends present a rather peculiar version of thc fall: after the creation of man, his body was covered with a shell-like coat. People did not experience any disasters or illnesses and lived forever. Later, however, when they transgressed (usually through laziness or neglect, although the reasons are not always indicated), Dievas took away this coat, leaving as a memento, only the nails on fingers and toes.

Lithuanian ethnological legends abound in number, but in many of them it is difficult to distinguish between Christian and archaic contents. The legends mentioned above seem to be sufficiently original and reflect the elements of ancient mythology.

 

CULT

 

Genetically, the oldest Baltic sacral places had to be alkai, sacral places situated on hills close to waters; rites could be performed at sacred stones. In Lithuania alone over 250 of the so-called mythical stones have been found, and in the opinion of the archaeologists, rites were performed at them from the Neolithic or early bronze ages. It seems that offerings took place at these stones for an extended period, sometimes as late as the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of these stones have been turned over, evidently at the time of missionaries or after the christening of the country. Wayside shrines with figures of saints were built close to these stones in Lithuania till quite recent times. As late as the 17th century a post would be built in these sacral places — this would resemble the massera and ashera, a combination of a wooden and iron post at the sites of the cult of Western Semites and Hittites.

Sacred woods, mentioned in different sources from the end of the 12th century, and sacred trees should also be treated as the most ancient sacral places. In relation to this, some authors mention ‘the cult of nature’ in the Baltic region, but it seems that there was no ‘cult of trees’ as such. Trees were treated as the abode of gods or the place of their annunciation. Jeronimas Prahiskis, who was in Lithuania in the early 15th century, speaks of a very old oak, more sacred than all other trees, which was considered the abode of gods. Once, when Jeronimas was about to fell a sacred wood, women complained to the Grand Duke Vytautas about the missionary’s intention ‘to deprive the god of its abode where they would always beg the god to stop the rain or sun. Now they would no longer know where to look for the god as his abode had been taken from him.’ There exists sufficient evidence to assert that trees had religious meaning not by their own virtue, but because places of divine epiphany were discerned in them. Both stones and trees or sacred woods could mark the places of a cult as they did in other ancient religions. It is possible to observe here the performance rites under the open sky, which were characteristic of many religions in the early period of their development.

It is difficult to say when and why the Balts began to build shrines. In different Indo-European religions it happens most often under the influence of those of the Near East, while shrines are not built by those who are in the early stage of development. They appear later and either co-exist with open places of a cult or never acquire the classical forms of a temple (here the Baltic religion is close to the Germanic and Celtic religions). The first known Baltic shrines were simple and modest round or oval structures on the top of a mound. Inside, there probably stood an idol, and a fire was kept burning.

The center of a cult which functioned for a considerable length of time is believed to be on the site now occupied by the Cathedral in Vilnius. Traces of altars, steps, a well that was possibly related to rites (the well of offering, perhaps?) were uncovered beneath it. The description of Perkunas’s shrine found in the so-called Chronicle of Rivius would in fact correspond to the archaeological findings. The shrine was of an elaborate design, arranged in several levels, with different premises, and a wooden idol of Perkunas. On particular days animal offerings were burned there, and an eternal flame was burning. It is surprising that, according to the Chronicle of Rivius, the shrine was without a roof — this would resemble shrines dedicated to the celestial gods in other religions. Simultaneously it would manifest that the shrine in Vilnius developed from sacral places under the open sky. The most important temple of the Prussians was also without a roof. Jan Dlugosz mentions a cult structure in middle Lithuania, on the bank of the Nevé is river — a sacred flame guarded by priests was kept burning in a tall tower on a mountain. It is obvious that following the example of the ancient alkos/sacred an offering was to he performed under the open sky, not ‘enclosing’ the gods.

 

MAN IN THE PRESENCE OF GODS

 

The gods in Lithuanian religions are not very distant from this world. A Lithuanian Olympus never came into existence, therefore the most important gods live ‘above and below’, in heaven and in the underworld. Irrespective of their abode, they could appear among people. Perkunas lives in the clouds or on a high hill, but one can meet him in the woods or simply at the doorstep of one’s house, where he appears chasing his eternal enemy, Velnias.

Perkunas is heard — it is said that in a storm the thunder comes from the rolling of his iron wheels. His fiery arrows are visible and appear on earth as little stone axes. Dievas lives in heaven, but many legends say he walks on the Earth disguised as a beggar. He checks whether people follow his commandments; he punishes those who violate the virtues of hospitality, mercy and generosity, and awards the righteous by inviting them ‘to visit him’, i.e. to heaven. Velnias lives in the underworld, but the underworld emerges at the surface in marshes, lakes or other low-lying places, and in times of trouble man goes to these places to ask for Velnias’s help, or, if there is a need, descends even into hell itself. Velnias himself offers his help in village inns, roadsides, appearing at entertainments of young villagers or at weddings. When a baby is born, the goddesses, who wait under the window, determine its fate. Humans and gods are very close in the Lithuanian outlook on the world, which would resemble the mythologies of the Greeks or Celts.

All around there is a great number of signs of the gods; one only has to know how properly to read them. The chronicles of the Orders often mention Lithuanians telling fortunes — about the future or things taking place far away. Unfavorable lots make one reject some previous idea and retreat as fast as one can. A Lithuanian marching at the head of a platoon casts lots right there in the road; if it is unfavorable the soldier announces danger — and at once German knights attack from ambush. The imprisoned Lithuanian duke is looking for omens in the cracks on a bone — and exclaims that judging from the signs his brother is in grave trouble, which before long turns out to be true. Jogaila, a Lithuanian king of Poland, would not make any decision prior to throwing lots. All these signs can provide the answer to any question, ranging from meteorological conditions to issues of life and death. Thus, the gods check, reward and punish, and in this way supervise whether moral commandments are observed. ‘Outward’ things such as a feat of arms, weather conditions, or crops also depend on their will which can be experienced from signs.

And still, this rational and transparent relation is accompanied by a rather gloomy background. Man is not the product of the purposeful activities of the gods, but came into being when Dievas spat incidentally. Man himself is not valuable, but purely accidental. He can live in a community and in it experiences the manifestations of divine will; he functions in the community and for it. In cases where disease, misfortune or the death of a relative disturbs his balance or makes him a burden to the community, he very easily resorts to suicide. Such habits of the Lithuanians have been mentioned in sources from the 13th century. In one village 50 widows hang themselves because their husbands did not come back from war. Lithuanian warriors scattered around enemy territory after a lost battle hang themselves in woods. Because they do not want to be taken prisoners, defenders of a castle commit suicide when the enemy is attacking. In the Middle Ages life in Lithuania was resolute, energetic and short, after which the journey to the gods awaited.

 

THE IMAGE OF THE POSTHUMOUS LIFE

 

Death and the other world are separated by a shorter or longer period during which the deceased has to stay in this world. First of all it was believed that Dievas allots a certain ‘number of years’ to each. If one does not survive all these years — is killed or commits suicide earlier — he must stay on the Earth till his allotted day, reincarnated in plants, or more often in trees, animals and birds. There was also a belief that the dead can only leave this world on the Easter of Souls, i.e., Holy Thursday, or at Halloween, until which time the dead must stay on Earth. Thus, a certain number of the dead remain on the Earth. Under the influence of Christianity such souls are identified with the dead repenting in purgatory, and in folk belief the Christian purgatory was moved down to the Earth. A very archaic system of belief in metempsychosis, the remains of which abound in the Lithuanian tradition, facilitated images of this kind.

The cosmic mountain, on the top of which Dievas or Perkunas lives, is the centre of the afterlife. The heavenly abode of the dead is right behind it or at its top, where it is warm and light, a wonderful garden. Sometimes it is believed that in climbing that mountain souls have to use their own nails and those of predatory animals that are burnt in the funeral pyre. Sometimes a dragon is mentioned at the foot of the mountain. One rare belief asserts that there is a little bridge leading to the top of the mountain; the souls of the righteous cross it very easily, bad ones, however, fall down and are taken by the dragon.

Vicious people are doomed to the place of posthumous punishment ruled by Velnias. This image has also been influenced by a system of belief in metempsychosis: in hell vicious masters, having turned into horses, drag heavy loads — tar, logs or tree stumps. Despite the influence of Christian images and ecclesiastic iconography, such images survived up to the 20th century.

 

Lithuanian Institute of Culture and Arts