Calling on Gods of Thunder: the Crusaders and Lithuania’s pagan warriors

DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

Leading Lithuanian Historian Ričardas Dediala said that ancient Baltic gods accompanied Lithuanian warriors from the beginning to the end of their military campaigns. Victory or defeat in a battle was decided by gods – they were the ones to warn Lithuanian warriors about the enemy’s trap or to lead their armies to victory.

After battle, the gods were offered their share of the spoils and were called on to help warriors who had fallen in battle to speed their journey to the afterlife. For pagan Lithuanians, their gods were forces of good and justice, and wars with Christians were battles just as clearly between good and evil, between one’s own good gods and evil foreign gods.

Perkūnas and the Devil

Little is known of the pagan Baltic religions but historians agree that Perkūnas, the Baltic god of thunder, was also the Baltic god of war. Folklore describes him as a combative and fierce deity, a warrior against the forces of evil and the Devil. The latter, too, would often take on military attributes.

In mythology, war is often depicted as a struggle between the gods, between the forces of good and evil. It is therefore likely that in Lithuanian battles, Perkūnas would be facing off against the Devil.

Interestingly the devil in Lithuanian folklore is sometimes depicted as German but not as other nationalities, and Dediala said that this portrayal dates back to the times when Lithuanians were fighting the Teutonic knights.

In the lap of the gods

All the important decisions in pre-Christian Lithuania were made after “consulting” with the gods, making sure that a particular course of action had their favour, according to Dediala.

Before battles, soldiers and their leaders would hold gatherings (consilium, as they are called in Latin annals) to discuss the campaign, to feast and make offerings to the gods in order to secure their favour.

Chronicles describe rituals of sacrificing an ox. The gods would also be promised offerings after the battle by the warring armies.

Magic and charms and fortune or future-telling were important rituals by which Lithuanian leaders and warriors would try to determine whether their military ventures would be successful.

One of the best known pagan rituals before a battle was taking a horse over a spear. A spear would be laid on the ground and a horse led to step over it. The success or failure of the future battle would be predicted depending on which leg stepped over the spear first.

Bones, wood chips or the sound of birds would also be used to make predictions about the will of gods.

Lithuanian generals would also regularly consult with their gods during their campaigns. As the army approached the battlefield, they once again turned to their most powerful deities asking to know what their gods had in store for them and trying to woo them with promises of future offerings if the signs were unfavourable.

“We know of an instance when Daumantas was marching on Briansk just before Mindaugas was murdered. His army made a stop to foretell how the battle would end. The signs were that it would fail, so Daumantas turned back,” Dediala said. Lithuanians, like other Baltic tribes, were very serious about their gods’ favour.

Equally religious

When approaching the enemy, pagan armies would make as much noise as possible, screaming, rattling their spears and shields. Henry of Latvia, a thirteenth-century Livonian historian, mentions the ritual at least three times. The point was to intimidate their rivals and showcase their determination, and their physical and spiritual strength.

Battle cries were also a way for Lithuanian, Latvian, Livonian and other Baltic tribes to assert their collective identity. Chronicles describe the cries as “customary” to Lithuanians.

After the battle, an important pagan ritual was lamenting and burying the dead. This could be done on the battlefield itself – if after a decisive victory there was no chance of the enemy returning. Sometimes, however, the remains of the dead would be carried back home by Lithuanian warriors.

Including offerings to gods in burials was a core part of Lithuanian pagan traditions after a battle.
“There are recorded instances of German knights catching up with Lithuanians on their way back after successful battles, specifically when they would be sacrificing to gods,” Dediala said.

Lamenting the dead was less an expression of emotional grief than about religious ritual. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle makes several references to mourning rites or “jamersanc” – or sorrowful songs.

This mourning ritual with its sorrowful songs was necessary to make sure that the brethren fallen in battle would reach the afterlife.

The rites could last up to several days or even weeks. It was the last opportunity for the living to “make peace” with the departed, since Lithuanians believed that unless the dead were properly sent off to the afterlife, the departed could not find peace and would come back to haunt the living.

Burying the dead

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Lithuanians universally adopted the custom of burning the remains of the dead – this is supported by discoveries in the key towns of the time, Kernavė and Vilnius. However, burning of the dead remained a viable ritual even after Lithuania embraced Christianity in 1387.

However, there is also evidence of burials in the ground before 1387. This was particularly prevalent in ethnically and religiously mixed communities and such pre-Christian burial sites have been discovered in Kernavė and Vilnius.

The ashes of the dead could be put in both individual and collective graves or they could be buried in the ground or scattered in water.

In central Lithuania, such was the link between man and beast that archaeological finds suggest that Lithuanian people were regularly buried alongside their horses. Whatever the ritual, the pagan gods played a key part in Lithuanian customs, before and after battle.

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