The Church of the Divine Earth

The Baltic Rite - "Witch Way to Heaven"




Information paper of the Fellowship of Baltic Native religions

"Witch Way To Heaven"

"And 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).

Somewhere 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 choice.

In 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.

Despite 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.

Unlike 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 detached".

Jonas 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 traditional".

Official conversion

Christianity 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.

Religious 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 searingly unpleasant.

For two 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 heathens.

In 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.

Conversion in fact

Political 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.

Trinkunas 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 many villages.

It was 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 the fourteenth.

Though 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.

National revival

Just when traditional forms of the native religion were being eradicated in the country, a new awakening was beginning in urban intellectual circles.

Interest 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".

Romuva 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.

Beyond 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 language".

Folk art

The 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.

Folk songs retain fragments of prayers to Zemyna, the Earth Mother:
"Dear Zemyna ,
protect us,
Bless our tillages
Bless the forests, the fields,
Leas pastures and slopes."

The 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 musicians".

A 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.

The 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 misfortune.

Current debates

Though 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.

Mud-slinging 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".

Today 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?"

For 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".

The 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".

While 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.

Maureen Sharp (The Baltic Observer) 6-12. 04. 1995

"BR" address: Romuva - Vivulskio 27-4 LT - 2009 Vilnius, Lithuania

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