Witchcraft, holy trees and Lithuania’s last pagans

Grand Duchy of Lithuania
DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

The new book, titled Relics of Baltic Mythology and Religion in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Baltų religijos ir mitlogijos reliktai Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje), contains no stories about the pre-Christian times of Lithuania, like the ones found in classic works of nineteenth-century authors Jan Długosz or Motiejus Strijkovskis. Instead, Ališauskas studies texts from between the 14th and the 18th century that focus on the old Baltic mindset after Lithuania formally adopted Christianity in 1387.

Ališauskas picked out excerpts from several dozen historic texts, compiled and presented them in both Lithuanian and their original languages.

The material mostly consists of documents of Christian missionaries and Jesuits, and are presented to the public for the first time.

The Jesuit missionaries travelled to remote Lithuanian villages where priests had not gone before. They spread Christianity, taught people the Catechism and waged war against the remnants of paganism.

The Greek scholar Hesiod listed all the gods of ancient Greece. Is it possible to recreate the Baltic pantheon and mythological system?

Trying to recreate religions and belief systems which existed before the Christianisation of Lithuania is something one can do, but it is difficult to speak of just one religious system. Even if it existed, it is now irreversibly lost. Even Perkūnas, one of the most important deities in the Baltic pantheon, the god of thunder, isn’t mentioned often and any folklore that mentions him is only found in texts dating back to the 20th century, or 19th century at the earliest. This folklore of Perkūnas contains both archaic details and literary inventions.

Baltic religious systems were invented by writers who researched the Prussian religion. For example, Motiejus Strijovskis made it clear that his description of the Samogitian (Žemiaičiai) mythology was a fiction, a mash-up of Prussian gods and deities whose worship was never recorded.

Jan Długosz created his version of ancient Lithuanian mythology from bits and pieces of what he had heard. By not having access to any genuine Lithuanian mythology, we end up with these reconstructions. Their work is both important and interesting, but it is now time to look at reliable resources about life during those times. To do what Hesiod did is too much of a risk.

You write in the book’s introduction that the materials you studied can give you access to the “silent” segment of society in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the peasants, and their perceptions of reality.

The missionaries’ war on what remained of paganism is sometimes described as an attack on the people’s authentic way of life. But we shouldn’t forget that in the early modern period, both the clergy and the nobility started seeing peasants as religious subjects, as people who have a relationship with God. Some historians say that these missions “discovered” the countryside. Before that, the country was an anonymous invisible place and peasants were little more than a workforce.

The sources I studied give a glimpse into the beliefs and values of “silent” people who weren’t able to read and weren’t involved in politics. Whatever the intentions the authors of those texts might have had, they managed to capture some of the thoughts, lives and voices of the people.

The oldest source used in your book dates back to 1388, the latest is from 1797. What changes did the Baltic worldview undergo between those points?

Up until the middle of the 16th century, the image of people’s lives was bleak. Members of the Lithuanian nobility did not value education and did not see much prestige in the careers as clergymen. As a result, priests were mostly recruited from Podlachia or Polish dioceses. The priests weren’t always highly qualified, they didn’t know the language and had little respect for the peasant lifestyle.

Only when the Jesuits arrived in Lithuania and there emerged a Lithuanian-speaking clergy, was there a proliferation of records about peasants and their spiritual life. There are recorded stories about deities, animal offerings and community festivals.

In documents of the late 18th century, Franciscan monks, unlike Jesuits, contain representations of daily lives. Deity worship and mythology are not as much discussed, they are overtaken by more prosaic concerns and superstitions. For example, what to do when a farm animal wanders off, where to seat the bride on your way to the church, and so on.

Similar superstitions are still alive today, but they do not hold any ritualistic value any more. Towards the end of the 18th century, only several mythological beings are mentioned – Aitvarai and phantoms.

The most enduring rite is preparing a feast to feed the souls of the dead. In the early times, these difficult rites would be performed several times a year. These feasts weren’t an enjoyable undertaking, because after feeding ghosts of the dead, people had to carefully drive them out by sweeping out every nook and cranny. They didn’t want any of the ghosts to stay and do harm, and very unpleasant words were used to ask them out. If we said goodbye to our guests that way, they wouldn’t come back.

In the lands of present-day Belarus, the tradition of feeding souls of the dead on their graves endured until quite late.

Is Aitvaras a creature that brings good luck and fortune?

Everyone, including the Jesuits, believed in the existence of this strange being. Other deities were believed to be just empty words, but Aitvaras was talked about as a real being, something that Christians needed to fight using consecrations, crosses and images of the saints.

Newer sources discuss a relation between Aitvaras and incubus, a demon who’d have sex with women. Aitvaras would bring grain and other stolen goods to the master of the house and also meet the mistress. It is not always clear what these texts are talking about. Still, at least a couple of new sources say that Aitvaras is in fact incubus.

What most widespread phenomena were recorded by the Christian missionaries?

Interestingly, superstitions aren’t mentioned as often as other moral problems or deviant behaviours. It could be that people didn’t talk about superstitions with their priests, as they didn’t find them important. One might think that witchcraft was widespread back then, but a wealth of archival material clearly show that wasn’t so. True, oracles who would help find stray animals or lost items were numerous. During those times, haunting was a big thing, and missionaries would perform exorcisms. Evil spirits of the dead were called using a Roman name – lemurs. It seems that exorcisms were effective, because people would often ask priests to perform them.

What about witchcraft and witch hunts?

Witchcraft was an important component of life in those early times and it was feared by many. Some witching rituals are still known today. Nijolė Laurinkienė in her book Žemyna And Her Mythical World (Žemyna ir jos mitinis pasaulis) mentions a way to make field grain turn into lumps. Some of the things used today are mentioned in very early sources, and the longevity of these practices is fascinating.

Both good and bad incantations existed, such as those protecting you from snakes or diseases. Some Lithuanian villages didn’t have any doctors, so sorcerers were the only people peasants could turn to for help in sickness. They would use charmed herbs to heal patients.

Jesuits weren’t the ones to take on witch hunts. Sources say that very early on, the Church protested harsh punishments that noblemen and sometimes peasants would inflict on witches. Some punishers, as mentioned in Church documents, could not even read. As an example, there was once a woman who was very bad-tempered, and for that the village community proclaimed her a witch.

Ancient Lithuanians are also believed to have kept grass snakes (žalčiai) behind their furnaces.

Grass snakes are mentioned quite late, and the beings mentioned in the early sources, gyvoitos, probably weren’t grass snakes. Travellers in olden times sometimes mention black animals with legs and fur. It is worth noting that 19th century folklore clearly states that žalčiai, grass snakes, were different in ancient times, similar in appearance to cats and fond of milk. It’s hard to imagine a grass snake living in a farmhouse and drinking milk. Authentic folklore coincides with tales of travellers, as it seems that Lithuanians did keep marten-like animals at home. Recorded folklore of the 19th century mention a place near the furnace where ferrets lived. It’s unclear whether or not these were really ferrets, they might have been weasels or stoats.

Even though most of the sources are from Lithuania, some of them are from Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Latvia. Are there any geographical differences among them?

Tree worship survived in Latvian territory long after it was no longer mentioned in Lithuania. I believe the difference could have to do with religious battles of the Reformation in Latvia. Protestantism, which was introduced as a religion for the elites, was not easily adopted by the peasantry, but since they were already cut off from Catholic traditions, the vacuum allowed some pre-Christian elements to resurface.

It’s interesting that even though Christianity was dominant, it didn’t completely erase every manifestation of the old worldview: some pagan traditions were Christianized, others were given a new meaning. What are the most distinct examples of this?

The war waged by missionaries was of two kinds: in some places, they tried to convince people and explain things in sermons. Where they had the backing of the local nobility, they used more resolute actions. Monks would destroy cult objects, oftentimes what was called Pagirnis or Dugnas. Some think that these were snakes or other reptilians, held in homes under millstones, but it’s still unclear. Monks would also cut and burn worshipped trees and use other drastic methods to show that those plants weren’t a source of supernatural power.

Instead of charmed herbs, they would give people holy herbs and bless their crops. In Latvia, Jesuits blessed the Baltic Sea several times, because fisherman asked them to. Afterwards, they would be happy and give half of the fish to Jesuits.

Jesuits would give people various sacramental items as medicine, such as holy water and the grain of St. Joan, which were blessed seeds.

Does modern fortunetelling and dream explanations have anything in common with the worldview of ancient Baltic people?

This is all learned from books, the internet or simply invented. They don’t have many similarities with old traditions. You could embellish Tarot cards and crystal balls with inventions about ancient Baltic history, but it is an entirely different world. It has nothing to do with peasants who lived with their chickens and pigs and were looking for meaning in their daily lives, using both archaic rituals and their new Christian experiences.

Translated from Lithuanian by Aivaras Medeubetovas

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