Pagan holidays in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania


A slightly more detailed description is provided of the issue in question by the Lithuanian historical sources of the 15th century. However, in the 15th century the pagan context of holiday traditions and rituals was already fading away due to the development of Christianity, or, as in the case of burning the bodies of the deceased, such rituals were destroyed. The truth is that according to Christian faith, sinless phenomena were transformed into fold customs and therefore survived. Bearing in mind the aforementioned circumstances of civilization development, little can be said of the pagan holidays of the 13th-14th centuries.

It is clear from fragmentary evidence that the main holidays and rituals were related to the cycle of life (birth, marriage, funeral, respect for the souls of the dead) and farming activities. Their celebration and rituals, common merrymaking and feasting usually brought extended family and friends together. Unlike daily life, such holidays were full of joy, abounding in food, long-lasting and resulting in inebriation of the participants.

To illustrate the point, in 1286, a nobleman Pelužis, humiliated by the person, who was second in line after Lithuania’s King, took a Crusaders’ squad of marauders to his offender’s manor, in which a wedding celebration was taking place. The robbers attacked the manor when the wedding guests, ‘having got sufficiently drunk, as was the custom during such parties, had gone to sleep in order to get some rest’.

Birth and death

The bloodshed which stemmed during the wedding of the young offspring of the Lithuanian Duke and was caused by the nobleman Pelužis, is regarded as a highlight in celebrating a stage of one’s life-cycle. Birth ceremony was as important as wedding celebrations. The Prussian sources provide evidence about the importance of the following vestiges in legalizing the newly-born in the community: water rite (performed in the river); the choice of pagan baby names, which annoyed the Church; feasts celebrating the child’s birth (plenty of gifts, lasting for a long time, with an abundance of food provided). Lithuanian pagan funeral rites were described by the chronicler John Dlugosz (15th century). The body of the deceased person was burnt in a special sacred grove, in the traditional family pyre.

During the burial ritual, the whole family (extended family) was present. The graveside was regularly visited by family members, thus paying respect for the deceased and treating their spirits to a meal which reminded of cheese, to be followed by mead, the oldest alcoholic drink known to man. The offerings of ‘cheese’ and mead, made during such rituals, were meant to soften the hearts of Gods and strengthen the spirits of the deceased loved ones. Prussians are known to have bitterly lamented and wailed at the graveside, annoying the Teutonic authorities and servants of the Church.

Considering the fact that pagan customs in the Baltic countries were similar in character, the situation in Lithuania could not have been different. Wailing mourning accompanied the burial rite of Morta, the late wife of Lithuanian Ruler Mindaugas in 1262. According to John Dlugosz, the ceremony of commemorating the dead was held at the beginning of October, therefore such rites could be related to harvesting, a holiday of the farming cycle. All of Lithuania is said to have gone to the gravesides of their ancestors, located in the forests, and feasted there for several days. They are believed to have eaten plenty of food, consumed plenty of mead, enjoyed a lot of merry-making and made offerings.

Awakening the land with songs

There is scanty evidence about the celebration of starting spring farming in credible historical sources. According to scientific prediction, the martyrdom of St. Adalbert (St. Wojciech) on 23 April 997 could be related to the roistering Prussian ritual held in spring to awaken the Land from hibernation. The Bishop’s efforts to convert the Baltic Prussians clashed with the pagan rituals. When Christianity became entrenched in pagan lands, situated to the east of the Baltic sea, the ritual of awakening the Land was gradually converted into St. George’s (Jurginės) feast. ‘George, please unlock the land!’, – one folk song says. The pagan feast of starting spring farming and the accompanying rituals were known to hostile Christian neighbours.

In a similar time of the year, on 17 April 1373, the Lithuanians from one village were feasting together. Well aware of that, a band of Germanic marauders subordinate to Jelgava Knight Commander, attacked the village. Even though Christians were celebrating Easter on that particular day, the marauders murdered 60 participants of the feast and set fire to the house they were feasting in, burning it together with the bodies.

The Christian authors writing about pagan Lithuanians could not help describing the songs, laments and unusual sounds of music accompanying pagan holidays and rituals. Numerous fragments of musical instruments (Jaws harp, clay whistles, fife, nebulae, sleigh bells), excavated by archaeologists in the Lower Castle of Vilnius (Rulers’ Palace) serves as sufficient proof of the importance of music during pagan rituals. The Court of the Polish King still nurtured the memories of free customs, brought by Ona (Aldona) Gediminaite, wife of King Casimir, from her parents’ house. Such free customs did not draw admiration from the ever-moralizing John Dlugozs. Historical evidence has also survived about the musicians performing in the Polish King Jagiello’s court. Among the instruments played were the whistle, the bandore, the drums, the trumpet, etc. The King could have been enjoying their performance even as a pagan. Professional musicians, exquisite musical instruments, the need for music, luxury and entertainment – these were the attributes of the pattern of life among the highest walks of society, found in Grand Dukes Jagiello’s and Vytautas’ courts of that time.

Games played by the Rulers

Archaeological excavations of the main Lithuanian pagan centres of the 13th-14th centuries (Kernavė, Trakai and Vilnius) disclosed less known or new facts about the recreational activities of the local residents. A dice dating back to the 13th century, unearthed in Kernavė, on the Altar Hill, on the site of the Duke’s Residence, confirms the fact raised by the chronicler Peter Dusburg that this table gambling game was played not only in Prussia but in Lithuania as well.

The Kernavė finding provides preconditions for transferring this game to the court of Gediminaičiai (Giedyminowicze) dynasty and even to the Lithuanian Ruler’s Court. A dice is believed to have helped pagan Lithuanians in casting spells, interpreting the will of Gods, making offerings, judging or sharing something. Such table gambling games were much more popular in the Russian lands. Gambling games with dice in Catholic countries were restricted and even prohibited both by secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

Chess must have been quite popular in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This game was brought to Lithuania in the 14th century from Russian or Teutonic Order lands and quite often played in the end of the century. This is testified by various abstract figures and fragments of the chess board, discovered by archaeologists in the castles of Trakai and Vilnius as well as in important peripheral castles of Grodno, Nowogrodek, Volkovysk and Veliuona. Chess appears to have been the game enjoyed by the highest, the richest and the most privileged walks of society.

The leisure and entertainment of the ruling elite and their children living in the castles of the Lithuanian capital and the Grand Duke’s Court in the 14th century was made more challenging with the introduction of such activities as the games with a hard leather ball stuffed with different materials, bowling, dribbling (like in cricket) a wooden ball with sticks, ball (small balls) games, dice games, etc. One can only speculate to what extent the games played in the Lower Castle of Vilnius in the 14th century were popular all over Lithuania. Some of the aforementioned games must have been popular among Lithuanians, particularly those the attributes of which were easy to produce. Unfortunately, due to the lack of data it is impossible to tell today which games were available or allowed to the lower strata of society.

Literature: Baltų religijos ir mitologijos šaltiniai. T. 1: Nuo seniausių laikų iki XV a. pabaigos. Sudarė N. Vėlius. Vilnius, 1996; P. Blaževičius, Seniausieji Lietuvos žaislai, Vilnius, 2001.

You may like