The BALTIC RITE
paper of the Fellowship of Baltic Native religions
Way To Heaven"
in as much as they (the Prussians) did not know of the
(Christian) God, it so happened that they worshiped the entire
creature world instead of God, namely: the sun, the moon, the
stars, thunder, birds, even the four-legged animals including
toads. They also had holy groves, sacred fields and
waters". (From Chronicon Prussiae by Peter Dusburg,1326).
along the way, Paganism got a bad name. God-fearing Christians
trembled at the thought of naked women dancing around cauldrons
at midnight, casting spells that brought sickness to their
animals, infertility to their wives and drought to their fields.
It seemed only prudent to burn hundreds, maybe even thousands,
of women at the stake to protect society from these horrors.
Stories of blood rituals, devil worship and broomsticks still
haunt the imagination of the West, and the "evil
witch" retains her prominence as fairy tales' villain of
reality, native religions are not nearly so glamorous. Based on
humankind's inextricable bonds and relations with Mother Earth,
pre-Christian religions are concerned with the struggle for life
and welfare in the face of the destructive powers of death.
Various rituals and weapons such as fire, water and sound are
used to combat the forces of evil, which constantly threaten
nature's regenerative powers. Song, dance and the invocation of
special life symbols - such as sun, moon, swastika, spiral,
cross, wheel, etc. - form the basis of religious life.
all the bad press, Paganism has not only survived, but is
flourishing. Elle magazine reports that there are one million
Pagans in the UK. In much of the West Paganism is emerging as
the New Age religion, as its emphasis on natural forces and
ecology attracts those with '90s spiritual sensibilities.
Reverence for the Earth as mother and goddess has also won
support from feminists who find more hierarchical religious
structures patriarchal and paternalistic.
their Western counterparts. Lithuanians have a wealth of living
traditions to draw on which makes Paganism not so much a faddish
revival as a new phase in an ancient continuum. Lithuanian
archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, whose Pagan burial last year was
but one of many signs of the growing respectability of ancient
sects among today's intellectuals, wrote: "The customs,
beliefs, mythological songs and folk art symbolism of the
Lithuanians and Latvians are amazingly replete with antiquity.
The Christian stratum is recent and can be easily
Trinkunas, a scientist at Vilnius' Institute of Philosophy and
Ethnography and active member of Lithuania's Pagan Romuva
Society, agrees. "Western Pagans have many new forms, they
create new songs and new prayers", he told the Baltic
Observer. "But our rituals and songs are absolutely
got off to a bad start in the Baltics. The end of the tenth
century saw the first missionary, Czech Bishop Albert Waitiekus,
sally forth into the land of the ancient Prussians only to
unwittingly venture into a holy forest section which was
dedicated to the Pagan gods. He was killed there.
conversion subsequently took the more traditional and
time-tested forms of political pressure and the waging of holy
wars. The bloody clashes which consumed Europe in the Dark Ages
subsided at the end of the l2th century, leaving in their wake a
continent entirely christianized but for a tiny Pagan island in
the area known as Lithuania. This small nation soon discovered
that the focused attentions of the catholic world can be
centuries these attentions consisted mainly of biannual attacks
by the Teutonic Order of Cross-bearers and Sword-bearers, an
order of monks constituted in the Middle Ages in connection with
the Crusades. Out of work after the Crusades failed, the Cross-
bearers found employment under Masovian Prince Conrad in 1225.
In exchange for a promise to carry out missionary work in Pagan
lands, the order enjoyed privileges bestowed by the German
emperor and the people, as well as lands given by Conrad. They
were also allowed to keep any land they conquered from the
seeking to quell these attacks and gain greater security and
power by uniting and expanding Lithuania, Grand Duke Mindaugas
adopted Christianity in 1253 and was crowned king of Lithuania.
But the Cross-bearers were not put off, and Mindaugas' followers
and successors didn't follow suit. (Vytautas the Great finally
dealt the Order a decisive blow in 1420 at the battle of
Tannenberg, after which the Order lost its importance and
finally broke away from Rome in 1525). Officially, Lithuania
existed as the last European strong-hold of Paganism until Duke
Jogaila married Polish Princess Hedwige in 1385. The terms of
the union, both conjugal and political, were Jogaila's
conversion and his permission for the baptism of his subjects by
the Polish clergy.
maneuverings have more meaning on paper than they do in the more
complex realm of everyday life, however, and Paganism continued
virtually unchecked in rural areas long after a Polish Catholic
Church was established in Vilnius. Just as state Paganism had
little relevance to the more ancient forms of village worship,
official Christianity remained an essentially urban event for a
further 300 years.
believes the class and national differentiation of the upper
class Polish clergy contributed to Lithuania's' indifference to
their official religious occupation. "After official
Christianizing there was a period of about three centuries where
there was still a Pagan way of life and real traditions all over
Lithuania. Christianity lived only in towns and castles.
"In fact, there are many documents from as late as the l8th
century which give accounts of an essentially Pagan lifestyle in
the Jesuits who began the systematic and earnest fight against
Paganism in rural areas in the l6th century. One strategy
involved taking two young men from villages to the towns for
indoctrination, after which they could be returned to their
homes as good practicing Catholics. Open air gatherings in the
woods and the erection and consecration of crosses were banned,
and violators were fined. Clergy were also instructed to
desecrate holy places and relics. The 1650 prohibitive
instructions read: "All ungodly chapels, holy bushes and
crosses must be completely destroyed and demolished".
Baltic architecture, as in all Northern Europe, was entirely
wood, and these instructions lead to the loss of many
historically valuable structures as Christian churches arose on
the sites of Pagan sanctuaries during the centuries succeeding
slowly, this gradual infiltration of Christian teaching
eventually accomplished what holy wars and politics could not,
and by the l9th century it could truly be said that the Catholic
Church had conquered Paganism in Lithuania. Today, 70 percent of
Lithuanian, who make up 79 percent of the country's population,
describe themselves as practicing Catholics.
when traditional forms of the native religion were being
eradicated in the country, a new awakening was beginning in
urban intellectual circles.
in Pagan rituals was growing among a small set of academics at
Vilnius University, headed by Simanas Daukantas. Interest in a
return to traditional forms of worship was helped at the end of
the century by a growing national revival movement, which took
issue with the still very Polonized church. Says Trinkunas -
"Lithuanian cultural activists began to think that Pagans
have more native features".
was first established in 1928, taking its name from an ancient
holy place. Soviets destroyed this group, although some secret
activities continued in Siberian work camps during Stalin's
rule. Trinkunas reestablished the group in 1967, and now there
are about 200 members. Today the group is concerned with
scientific problems and research, as well as worship. They also
maintain contacts with Pagan groups all over the Europe.
this "hard-core" group, an interest in Lithuanian
traditions has fueled a broader revival of the symbols, songs
and arts that find their roots in Paganism. Inge Kriksciuniene,
author of U gavÇnÇs (the name of the ancient spring festival),
is part of a wider movement of Lithuanians who are trying to
restore old celebrations. After three years of organizing Pagan
festivals, participants now number in the thousands. "It is
important for people to celebrate and to remember how, where and
when they are living", says KrixÁüišnienÇ. "Pagan
festivals represent an important association between culture,
aesthetics, nature and beauty. It's very important for people to
feel this connection with nature. Furthermore, we wouldn't be
Lithuanian if we didn't have our traditions and our
relatively new Christian strata is intermingled with the more
ancient elements of the Lithuanian imagination. Memories of an
ancestral past continue to surface in the symbols and styles of
Lithuanian folk art. ornamental carvings on distaffs, dowery
chests, laundry heaters, furniture and gables, as well as on
painted Easter eggs often portray the segmented stars,
concentric circles, rosettes, and sun symbols which are
impregnated with Pagan import.
songs retain fragments of prayers to Zemyna, the Earth Mother:
"Dear Zemyna ,
Bless our tillages
Bless the forests, the fields,
Leas pastures and slopes."
legacy of a Pagan lifestyle is, according to Gimbutas,
"incarnate in the cosmic and lyrical conception of the
world of present-day Lithuanians and Latvians, and is an
unceasing inspiration to their poets, painters and
changing world and religious view can be traced through various
conceptions of folk art. The peculiar Lithuanian roofed poles
which are still seen in rural areas, serve as a particularly
good example of this metamorphosis. marked for destruction first
by the clergy and later by Moscow, they have survived because
people began to affix Christian symbols to them, causing them to
eventually come under the protection of the church.
Nevertheless, their conception and significance stems from a
pre-Christian faith which manifests direct ties with the art of
the Iron Age in both symbolic and decorative elements.
famed "Hill of Crosses" near Siaulai, now rife with
Christian symbols, began as a Pagan place of reverence from a
time when the symbol of the cross was variously employed to
ensure good crops, or as protection from sickness and
their symbols now "cross" each other so intricately
and subtly that they could probably never again be separated,
even if that were desirable, Pagan and Catholic leaders do not
always coexist so peacefully.
between religious factions is, of course, historically
unprecedented. Written records from the 11th to the l5th century
document Pagans referring to Christians as "the ignorant
ones", and forbidding them access to sacred groves and
forests. In their turn, Christian missionaries, such as those
visiting Estonia in 1641, expressed sympathy for the beliefs of
"the poor blinded people".
friction has been stirred anew by the possibility of changes to
Lithuania's religious laws. Church leaders fear the erosion of
privileges which come with state recognition, as the Seimas
(parliament) considers extending recognition to several
established religions. Vytautas Alisauskas, editor of the
Catholic magazine New Hearth explained to The Baltic Observer
that "the main problem is that some religious movements
will also be recognized as equal. It's not a problem of
recognition, but status... must these new religious movements be
equal in schools and social life?"
their part, today's Pagans resent the church's suggestion that
their religion is not traditional. Alisauskas claims that
nowadays Paganism is entirely reconstructed and therefore not
authentic. "Nobody can say what real Paganism is. It is
purely scientific investigation. We don't have any Paganism in
Lithuania, only romantics, some ideas." Even more
inflammatory are his comments regarding the faith of modern day
Pagans. "Today don't even see themselves as a religious
movement. Perhaps as a cultural movement or an ecological
movement, but New Age, and it's not a religious movement".
Pagans are also prone to barring none when speaking of the
Catholics. Sociologist and member of Romuva Inija Trinkuniene
freely expresses her contempt for church leaders by invoking
comparisons with the hated communists. "Earlier it was
communists who guarded the state, and all people were afraid.
Today Catholic Church is trying to take on the task of
instilling fear. Many members of the Communist Party have become
very active supporters of the Catholic Church today. There is
something in the way communists and Catholics think".
such comments suggest there is still much need for understanding
and respect for the beliefs of even historically opposed sects,
there is plenty of evidence that Pagans and Catholics should be
able to live together. Catholic scientist and journalist Saulius
Zukas has a more positive approach to the presence of Paganism
in his essentially Catholic country. When asked by New Hearth
for his opinion on the significance of a public Pagan ceremony
he replied, "Both Scientism and Buddhism exist and live
side by side in Japan". So they do. And with a shared
history that has given the country some of its most beautiful
traditions, Lithuanian Pagans and Catholics alike have a great
impetus to behave likewise.
Sharp (The Baltic Observer) 6-12. 04. 1995
address: Romuva - Vivulskio 27-4 LT - 2009 Vilnius, Lithuania
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