Ancient Lithuanian Mythology and Religion


The Lithuanian pagan faith and mythology, as well as the ritual connected with them, are among the oldest phenomena of human spiritual creation. Religious and mythic imagery permeated all the spheres of society life that was based on hunting and gathering already during the period of the early tribal system which comprised the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic.

The history of Lithuanian faith and mythology can be subdivided into three epochs. The first epoch is that of the early matriarchal tibal system, during which religious imagery (totem, animist and craft cult imagery) connected with feminine supernatural beings appeared in the hunters' and gatherers' society (the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic). The second epoch was that of the late matriarchal tribal system, based on hoe agriculture, during which religious imagery connected with the cult of feminine deities of the Sun, the Moon, the Earth developed as well as those representing fertility and water. In the period of matriarchy the goddesses were responsible for the birth, existence and death of man, fauna and flora. Those deities took care that the continuity of life and fecundity be maintained in the Universe through constant interchangeability of life and death. The goddesses supervised the sky, the earth, water, fire and the atmosphere. Art, especially the symbolic art, was created in the sphere of the cult of feminine divinities, while the rites of this cult was performed by women themselves survived into the the period of patriarchy. The third epoch was the period of the patriarchal tribal system and its disintegration, followed by the formation of class society. The chief gods appearead during this period, while most of the feminine deities lost their supremacy, though not all: some of them remained in the pantheon of Lithuanian gods together with masculine deities. After the state of Lithuania was formed and the Christianity was adopted in the country, the Lithuanians still refused to renounce their gods for a considerable period of time.

The tribes of the Aestii creted their religion jointly throughout millennia. In the middle of the Ist millennium A.D., as they began to split into separate pations, their religious imagery changed but a little.

The main sources of knowledge of the Lithuanian religion and mythology are the archaeological and etnographic data, as well as various written sources, toponymy and other objects of linguistic study.

In our attempts to disclose the genesis of religious beliefs and rites, to reconstruct their functional content and to discern their transformation under different social and economic conditions, we turn to traditional folk art and ritual, i.e., to the cultural layer that has reached us from under the cover of millennia. The semantics of archaic beliefs and of the traces of mythical imagery related to them require a thorough analysis based not only on local but also on general Proto-Indo-European or Indo-European materials that have partially survived in the Christian ritual, in the cult of the Christian god and various saints. The semantic analysis indispensable to the study of religion and mythology is inevitably connected with ancient philosophy.

A great deal of elements of ancient world-outlook have survived to this day through legends, fairy-tales, exorcisms and songs. Relics of the dissolving religion were transferred into these genres of folklore; rather undisputable evidence of totemism, animism and the cults of ancestors and different deities can be traced there. This evidence is especially noticeable in ballads and in epic and mythological songs that remind of, and are probably even more archaic than, the ancient Hindu Vedas.

Some religious elements of remote past, going back to the Stone age, can be in use together with the Christian iconology until the 18th century and even the first decades of 20th century. These elements reflect the essence of the religious outlook. The patterns of ornament in folk art are some kind of Holy Writ that needs deciphering, though it sometimes may be difficult to grasp the historical moment or the symbolic meaning of one or another ornament.

In the study of pagan religion, the support of certain written sources and iconological material is indispensable, though often it is already transformed and deprived of its original meaning.

The pantheon of Lithuanian gods is rather rich and diverse. Lithuanians, as well as other ancient nations, developed in the period of patriarchy an image of the unique supreme God, the creator and lord of the Universe and all life. 'Dievas', the name of God in Lithuanian, has a common root with the words of this meaning in all ide languages. The word 'Dievas' often personifies the shining sky, light, or day.

The Lithuanian supreme God, as the myth retales, had a wife, the primorial Great Mother, the goddess Lada, who had given birth to the first-born twins. God's twin children, in the shape of twin horses, are known from the myths; they are related to the fire of the sky , the Sun, and lighting.

The Lithuanian supreme God was considered to be as well the Master of Fate, the Lord of the world who ruled the Heaven and Earth, while his children assisted him.

The names reffered by to the supreme and most powerful God varied in Lithuania from region to region during the course of time. In the Highlands of Lithuania as well as in the major part of the Lowlands the word 'Dievas' was used together with personal name Praamzius, in Suvalkija the God's name were Prakurimas, Ikurejas, Sotvaras, while in the west of the Lowlands and in Prussia he was reffered to as Ukopirmas.

Praamzius is described as the omnipotent ruler of time, the inescapable fate. The sky and the air, water and all live creatures had to obey him, with none exclusion even for other deities. All decisions made by Praamzius are inscribed in stone and thus is no escape from them; while ordering the present, he is awere of both the past and the future. Similar functions are ascribed as well to Prakurimas and Ukopirmas.

The chiel ritual addressed to the supreme God was performed during the winter solstice. The importance of this ritual especially increased by the time agriculture became known and was cultivated. The rites permeated with archaic totem, animist, symbolic imagery would continue for twelve days associated with the twelve the twelve months of the year. Together with rites addressed to the supreme God, souls of remote ancestors from the other world were paid homage to.

In Lithuanian religion, just as it is the case with other religions, the trinity of gods is known: Perkunas, Patrimpas and Pikuolis. The most prominent among these gods was Perkunas, the master of the atmosphere and the "waters" of the sky, as well as the fecundity of flora, human morality and justice. Beside the supreme God, Perkunas occupied perhaps the most important place in the Lithuanian divine pantheon. Under the influence of Christianity the supreme God's image was transformed and Perkunas acquires the position of the Lord of Heaven.

The major imagery representing Perkunas is of zoomorphic character, while later on it becomes antropomorphic, sometimes retaining certain zoomorphic attributes. Perkunas used to inspire awe and punish people, thus he was often called the "god's scourge". He was supposed to punish by throwing at the culprit his stone axes, that often had symbols of the Sun and lightning. People knew then how to turn away Perkunas's wrath.

The second god was Patrimpas. He was supposed to bring the spring, joy, peace, maturity, abundance, as well as to take care of domestic animals, ploughed fields, and crops. Sheaves of corn, amber, vax, etc., were offered to him during the rites.

The third member of the Lithuanian divine trinity was Pikuolis, otherwise called Pikulas. He was the god of the underworld, all kinds of evil and death.

When presented in a horizontal and vertical lines, the divine, trinity of the Aestii corresponds to the model of universal space, i.e., the sky, the earth and the underworld. The analogy may also be seen with the time recurrence: adolescence, maturity and old age, or otherwise, spring, autumn and winter.

The sky gods form a separate group. Here belongs the heavenly smith, who had forged celestial bodies, as well as the god Menulis (Moon) and the goddess Saule (Sun). The latter tho constituted the celestial family: Menuo (another forms of the name Menulis) and Saule are represented as spouses, while the planets and stars as their daughters. The god's sons are known too. It is interesting to note that in the mythologies of some other nations the Sun and the Moon may be of opposite sex.

The Lithuanians respected the gods and goddess of the farmstead and home. The cult of these deities originated from the deified remote primordial mother image; later on the father image influenced it too. These deities protected the house, the people living there, farm- buildings, domestic animals and fowl.

Some archaic elements of the primordial mother cult survived as long as the 19th century. During the wedding, as the bride bade farewell to her paternal home and its gods, she would pray and make sacrifices to a female idol made of a sheaf of straw, begging to forgive her for leaving home and moving to a new one, where she would have to adore other gods. Nonadieve, a godness mentioned in the Voluine Chronicle (middle of the 13th century), must probably have been the domestic goddess. She corresponds to J.Lasickis Numeja. The sentence "Numeias vocant domesticos" should be translated as "Numejas are called domestic goddesses".

The goddess Dimstipati mentioned in the written sources was later transformed into a male deity Dimstipatis, but the offering rites addressed to him were performed by women, which may indicate his feminine origin. Women used to take care of the most important place in the house, the corner behind the table, where goddess were supposed to live. Zeme pati, the goddess of the farmstead mentioned in the written sources, was also later transformed into a male god Zemepatis.

Since ancient times, the Lithuanians used to respect fire. In the course of time, fire was personified and at first it assumed a zoomorphic image, which later became ornitomorphic and, finally, antropomorphic (female). The personified and deified fire was reffered to as Gabija, while the fire in the threshing barn (jauja) was called Gabjauja. These goddess protected not only fire but also the farm itself, the cattle and women's chores in the whole.

The goddesses of birth and death were, respectively, Laima and Giltine. They both belonged to the senior generation of goddesses. Laima was responsible for fertility, predetermined the fate of the newly-born, took care of women in childbirth, ordained the cosmic phenomena. Originally her image was ornitomorphic, but gradually she acquired human shape. In the area of Aestii, the flint birds found in the ground must have represented the goddess Laima. These bird-figurines express the idea of the feminine element. The cult of lime-trees is kindred to that of Laima-bird. As Laima acquired an antropomorphic image, she became the protectress not only of the earthly but also of the heavenly life.

Giltine, the death goddess, ordained the end of human life and took care that people be not superfluous on the earth.

The most prominent flora gods were probably Puskaitis and Pergubre. Puskaitis took care of the earth's fruit, and of the cereals in particular; he lived under the elder, which was considered a sacred tree associated with fertility and the underworld kingdom). The name Puskaitis is associated with blossom ('puskuoti' means 'to blossom'). Feasts to his honour were held twice a year: in spring and in autumn. Early in spring the ancient Lithuanians used to worship goddess Pergubre (which was by mistake called in written sources by the male name Pergubrius). She supplied the earth with blossom and protected the first field-works. Her dedication feasts were held early in spring.

Among the goddesses that had survived from the Neolithic there was Kaupuole, or Kupuole, associated with the luxuriance of flora, the activation of vegetative powers. She was the goddess of field vegetation, while her daughter Rasyte used to water the vegetation with silver dew. Thus Rasyte assisted her mother Kaupuole. The both goddesses took care of the growth of flora. In earliest times, still before the rise of agriculture, this idea was personified by a dying and resurrecting goddess.

Another archaic Lithuanian goddess promoting the vegetation growth was Vaisgamta, who was worshipped by women engaged in flax growing and breaking. Ritual addressed to her was performed on the day of Ilges festival (corresponding to the Halloween).

Harvesting ritual was performed in honour of the deities of the cereals, the so-called rye-wives (rugiu boba), the idols made of the last sheaf of rye and carried ceremoniously home.

An ancient custom to respect water sought to preserve it clean, and forbade polluting it. Taht was associated with the belief that variouss deities lived in water: mermaids, spirits, souls, especially those of the drowned. The queen of the Baltic Sea was the beautiful mermaid Jurate. By will of god Praamzius, she was killed by another god Perkunas, for a love affair with Kastytis, a son of the earth.

The atmosphere is represented by the wind gods and spirits. Since ancient times their images had been zoomorphic (those of a bear or a horse), later they become anthropomorphic. Myths recount of the Mother of winds and her spouse, her daughter and four sons; the most quick-witted among them was Siaurys (the North wind). The wind gods, and sometimes the spirits, were represented with wings. They were supposed to communicate with Saule and Menulis (the Sun and the Moon). Bangputys, or Vejopatis, is depicted in Rusne as a winged man.

Aitvaras should also be grouped with the atmosphere gods. The image of this creature originated while watching flashing meteors, most probably after agriculture had already spread. At first aitvarai were supposed to live in the sky or in the woods; under the influence of Christianity they were settled in garners and denounced as thieves. On the whole, aitvarai were considered to be divine creatures, to regulate human relations and to influence the state of wealth. Being of divine origin, they were supposed to be immortal. Kiled or wounded, an aitvaras would regain his strenght after touching the ground, similarly as Anteus in the Greek tradition.

Among other gods Pilnytis, the wealth god, may be mentioned, as well as the war god Kovas and the goddess Junda, the health god Ausaitis, the schepherds' god Ganiklis, the god of roads Keliukis, the love and freedom goddess Milda, the goddess of corn ears Krumine, the underworld god's wife Nijole, the goddess of woods and trees Medeine, and finally, Austeja and Bubilas, the goddess and the god of bees.

Among the oldest goddesses there were as well laumes, and goddesses of earth, water and sky. Raganos (witches) were supposed to practise sorcery and perform different magic actions ordaining the cosmos, the fates of people and animals. They were lunar nightlife creatures. Supernatural powers to order and regenerate not only the live world, but the whole Nature were attributed to them.

Among the underworld spirits kaukai were best known to the Lithuanians. The image of this creature originated from still-born babies or those that died without the birth rites. Kaukai were represented as little manikins, both men and women. Beside kaukai, the underworld also had spirits which guarded treasures hidden in the ground.

Since earliest times the Lithuanians had idols of their respected divine creatures (first totems, later zoomorphic-antropomorphic and finally purely anthropomorphic deities). This was proved by archeological and written sources, as well as linguistic and etnographic data.

Our remote ancestors used to perform their religious rites in sacred forest, near sacred streams. Later, especially in the Metal Age, temples appeared; relics of temples have been discovered in different places of Lithuania. Lately remnants of temple (an altar, a pit of offerings) were found in the vaults of Vilnius Cathedral.

This abstract was taken from Prane Dunduliene book "Senoves lietuviu mitologija ir religija" translated into English "Ancient Lithuanian Mythology and Religion"

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