The Samogitian Sanctuary, a reconstructed Pagan observatory and sacred place in Lithuania (Wikipedia).
I post a lot about old and new Pagan movements in the Baltic nations, a region that I have never visited, although some of my family members have.1)One of my older sisters lived the last couple of years of her life in Kaunas, Lithuania, but that had nothing to do with Paganism although I believe her choice had a strong “karmic” element. So here is an interview with the Britsh historian Francis Young about a forthcoming book,Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic.
The Baltic peoples of Prussia (Lithuania Minor, today’s Kaliningrad Oblast) and Lithuania were almost unique among European nations in retaining their ancestral pre-Christian religion until the late Middle Ages. While the conversion of the Prussians was the justification for the Baltic Crusades, which brought Prussia and Latvia under the rule of German military orders, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania not only remained officially pagan but also expanded into a vast Central European empire. Although Lithuania formally converted to Christianity between 1387 and 1413, according to some accounts the nation was not fully Christianised until the eighteenth century.
Paganism in Lithuania was curiously–and perhaps preternaturally– resilient. Notably, it persisted in the wilder regions of the Baltic state until the eighteenth century. For this reason, as Young has pointed out, descriptive texts by contemporary observers of its key rites and mores might be the “closest we can ever get to encountering an ancestral European paganism as an unbroken tradition”.
Read both posts to get a broader picture. And don’t forget to watch The Pagan King.
The university has published an interview with him — here is a sample:
What would you say are the main differences between Swedish, or Nordic, and Latvian and Lithuanian paganism?
That’s interesting. The biggest differences are in the source materials they have to work with. In the Scandinavian countries, what they have left over from the old pagan days, from the original pagan times, is literature. They have a lot of texts that were primarily written down in Iceland (mainly by Christian monks, strangely enough). These texts give a lot of information about the gods and tell stories about people who practiced the religion, but they don’t have any music. Old styles of music were forbidden by the authorities, particularly by Christian authorities. In the Baltic case it’s almost the opposite. Here you don’t have so much rich mythological literature, or rather, you don’t have it put into a form that’s very attractive and accessible. The Scandinavian written materials are very attractive, enjoyable, accessible, and obviously have worldwide appeal. In the Baltic case, while there’s not that kind of rich literary foundation, what you have here is the music, the folk songs, and that tradition is obviously very, very strong and appealing here.
It is quite detailed, with a chronology, bios of important figures, and a bibliography. It ends on this note:
The contemporary neo-pagan movement in Latvia is characterized by conflicting aspects. On the one hand, in pagan activities, a desire is expressed to juxtapose oneself and one’s national views against globalization trends, which do not conform to the unhurried and contemplative lifestyle of traditional cultures. On the other hand, the latest trends reveal that in Latvia too, paganism is following a similar trajectory to Anglo-American paganism. Respectively, it is gaining New Age features: scientific terminology and a self-reflexive character is entering pagan discourse. In the near future, paganism in Latvia is dependent on its capacity to respond to the challenges of the era. However, looking further into the future, there is some doubt about the existence of “traditional” Dievturiba as something that is capable of survival. This is because Dievturi currently exist on the periphery of social life in Latvia and are providing vitally important answers only to members of the movement. They have never exceeded a thousand members, and there are currently only a few hundred.
Some 13th-century Latvian Pagans get the bad news: the crusading Brothers of the Sword are coming, and their choice will be death, baptism, or both.
My “Pagan-ish” blog tag seems mostly to go to Latvian materials, and here is another one, The Pagan King.
Set in the 13th century, when the Baltic peoples were to be the last Europeans Christianized at sword’s point, it is the story of a young man named king of Semigallia, a region now mostly encompassed by the nation of Latvia.
He does not know it, but his land is the target of one Max von Buxhoeveden (probably based on this bishop), who has gained the pope’s blessing to lead a crusade against the Semigallian Pagans.1)This would probably be Pope Innocent III, who in the movie is capable of carrying out his own poisoning and stabbing — staples of the medieval pagacy — instead of contracting such activities out to professionals.
Namejs, the young king, is called to the throne just as he is about to lead a trading voyage to Constantinople. Without much preparation, he is thrust into a role of negotiating tribal alliances and trying to determine whom he can trust, all the while facing an invasion.2)In other words, 97 percent of human history. His people must adjust from celebrating Midsummer with happy lake-jumping and torch-lit Semigallian football matches (Shirts versus Skins) to all-out war.
In terms of the religion, The Pagan King punts the football, to use American rather than Semingallian rules. Although there is a wonderful sanctuary of standing stones and caves, the script speaks only of “the gods who are within us.” Not evenPerkons (Perkunas) is name-checked. On the other hand, Namejs’ wife does appear to speak a little Snakish — is that a Latvian motif?
The costuming and set design seems to be a spin-off of the 2013–2019 History Channel television series Vikings. There are not enough beehives in Semegallia to produce wax for that many candles!!
In this movie, however, keep your eye on characters with the shaven head-plus-long beard “Ragnar Lothbrok” look. They are never what they seem.
Unless you cannot tolerate medieval battle scenes, of which there are several, you should watch The Pagan King. Here is the trailer:
This would probably be Pope Innocent III, who in the movie is capable of carrying out his own poisoning and stabbing — staples of the medieval pagacy — instead of contracting such activities out to professionals.
The pagan [sic] religions have been spurred especially by a growing awareness of climate change and the rise of conservation movements that tap into a deep local connection to nature and a desire to protect sacred spaces.
“In Lithuania there is a strong movement against deforestation,” said Trinkuniene.
Outside Tammealuse Hiis, the sacred grove in the Estonian forest, a sign states that as late as the 1930s people would converge on the area to meet relatives, play music and dance. “The long tradition of get-togethers died during World War II, but the power of the sacred site continued,” wrote local author Ahto Kaasik, a folklore researcher, director of the Center of Natural Sacred Sites at the University of Tartu and key figure in the movement on the sign.
Rehela often celebrates Munadepüha, a folk equivalent of Easter, at the grove. During this event his community holds rituals where members strike knives on axes to make bell-like noises, and the ritual leader gives a speech to the old gods and their forefathers.
Crowded opening event alongside Latvian pagan exile pagan representatives and sanctuary creation of the people involved was also attended by other ancient white dievest?bas common to both the Latvian and Lithuanian and Belarus, as well as the folklore group “curbs”, “Werewolves”, “Delve”, ” boat, “” torque “and” P?rkonieši “.
“Monasteries and environmental objects layout vision developed by the pagan organization working group Valda Celma lead. Building architect is Ainars Markvarts, sculptor – J?nis Karlovs, room design authors – Andrejs Broks and Egons Garkl?vs, the costs incurred by the operator Dagnis ??kur, “reveals the organization’s representatives.
Lokstene temple keeper of the Latvian Dievturu Sadraudze that combines ancient white dievest?bas successors contemporary Latvian.
Sources tell me that the temple is on an island in the Daugava River. “Operator” Dagnis ??kur is a businessman who owns a group of bakeries and who paid for the temple. That is very traditional, if you think about it.
In central and eastern Europe, and maybe elsewhere, there is a tradition to end a group hunt for deer, boar, and other animals with a ceremony. I have never seen the like in America, but then all my hunting has been with individualistic Westerners — which is not to say that sometimes informal rituals are not performed, but not with everyone lined up and flaming torches.1)Clifton’s Second Law of Religion: If there are no torchlight processions, it’s not a real religion.
The Baltic people were the last old Pagans in Europe, Christianized at sword point in the Middle Ages.2)“The Last Pagans in Europe.” Their Pagan reconstructions in the 1920s–1930s, such as Dievturiba in Latvia, assumed that folksongs etc. preserved the Old Religion, a common assumption among 20th-century Pagans. Maybe, maybe not — is every tree in a folksong really the World Tree in disguise? Certainly the new Paganisms, with their strong ethnic and nationalist components, have gained respectability quickly.3)“Baltic Diaspora and the Rise of Neo-Paganism.”
At last in Latvia we now have a chance to make lady hunters more pro-active. And we had the chance to organise first ever in Latvia a driven hunt for ladies – ladies are shooting, guys are helping. Now we are in the process of creating our own Lady hunting club under Latvian Hunters’ Association.
Watch and you’ll see lots of tramping in the snowy woods, but right at the end — wow. That’s an altar, folks. Folk-memory or reconstruction, they are tapping into Old Stuff. I suspect that they know what they are doing.
I recently completed an article on contempoary Paganism for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, so when it appears, I can at least say that I have been published by Oxford UP. Yay me. But is there still a market for academic encyclopedias in this day when undergrads must be taught how to use reference books? Someone must think so.
As to the article, instead of writing another “it all started with Gerald Gardner” article, I decided to give more space to (a) the Romantic movement and (b) the Latvian and Lithuanian reconstructionists of the 1920s and 1930s, that two-decade space when their nations escaped centuries of German and Russian colonization before being dumped in 1940 back into it—the Third Reich and then the USSR.
The editors wanted a brief bibliography, of course, with primary and secondary sources, so I just went along my Pagan-studies bookshelves, grabbing this and that, including some titles that I think have always been under-appreciated.
Jim Lewis’s edited collection Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft was published twenty years ago, yet it is still relevant in the questions that it raises. Some of the chapters later turned into books, such as “Ritual Is My Chosen Art Form: The Creation of Ritual as Folk Art among Contemporary Pagans,” by Sabina Magliocco.
Likewise, the collection Researching Paganisms (2004) discussed issues of “religious ethnography” that every scholar of religion should read, not just those studying some form of Paganism. From the description:
Should academic researchers “go native,” participating as “insiders” in engagements with the “supernatural,” experiencing altered states of of consciousness? How do academics negotiate the fluid boundaries between worlds and meanings which may change their own beliefs? Should their own experiences be part of academic reports? Researching Paganisms presents reflective and engaging accounts of issues in the academic study of religion confronted by anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, historians and religious studies scholars?as researchers and as humans?as they study contemporary Pagan religions.
Here is the rest of the bibliography. I do not claim that it is complete, but it is representative. For example, if you look into the The Paganism Reader, which Graham Harvey and I compiled, you will see material from ancient centuries up into the early twentieth, for example, so it covers a lot of ground. Pity it got such a boring cover.
Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1986.
Clifton, Chas S., and Graham Harvey, eds. The Paganism Reader. London: Routledge, 2004.
Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London: Ryder and Co, 1954.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.
McNallen, Stephen A. Asatru: A Native European Spirituality. Nevada City, Calif.: Runestone Press, 2015.
Murray, Margaret. The God of the Witches. London: Sampson Low, 1931.
———. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921.
Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.
Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon, ed. Green Egg Omelette: An Anthology of Art and Articles from the Legendary Pagan Journal. Franklin Lakes: New Page Books, 2009.
Aitamurto, Kaarina, and Scott Simpson, eds. Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Studies in Historical and Contemporary Paganism. Durham: Acumen, 2013.
Berger, Helen. A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Berger, Helen, and Douglas Ezzy. Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for Self. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Blain, Jenny, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey, eds. Researching Paganisms. The Pagan Studies Series. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004.
Clifton, Chas S. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America. The Pagan Studies Series. Lanham, Md., Altamira Press, 2006.
Davy, Barbara Jane. Paganism, 3 vols. Critical Concepts in Religious Studies. London: Routledge, 2009.
Doyle White, Ethan. Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.
Eller, Cynthia. Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
Harvey, Graham. Animism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Hutton, Ronald. Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
———. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
———. Witches, Druids and King Arthur. London: Hambledon and London, 2003.
Johnston, Hannah E., and Peg Aloi, eds. The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture. Controversial New Religions. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.
Lewis, James R., ed. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Myers, Brendan. The Earth, the Gods and the Soul: A History of Pagan Philosophy from the Iron Age to the 21st Century. Winchester: Moon Books, 2013.
Pike, Sarah M. Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001.
———. New Age and Neopagan Religions in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Rountree, Kathryn, ed. Contemporary Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Europe: Colonialist and Nationalist Impulses. New York: Berghahn, 2015.
———. Embracing the Witch and the Goddess: Feminist Ritual-Makers in New Zealand. London: Routledge, 2004.
Salomonsen, Jone. Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London: Routledge, 2002.
Weston, Donna, and Andy Bennett. Pop Pagans: Paganism and Popular Music. Studies in Historical and Contemporary Paganism. Durham: Acumen, 2013.
Wise, Constance. Hidden Circles in the Web: Feminist Wicca, Occult Knowledge, and Process Thought. The Pagan Studies Series. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2008.
York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
It is not a complicated festival. All you have to do is head out to the countryside, get a fire going, stay up all night waiting for the sun to come up and drink lots and lots of beer – which, I can only assume, is why it is called Ligo, the Latvian word for “sway.”
I have been feeling the energy boost from more sunlight, but I live at just past 38° north, whereas Riga, Latvia’s capital, is at almost 57° north. So even the “shortest night” is longer here.
Jekabs Bine (1895–1955) “Perkons (Thunder),” 1941. Oil on canvas, 53 x 65 cm. The Janis Rozentals Saldus History and Art Museum, Latvia.
The next issue of The Pomegranate will include a special section on the revival of Paganism in Latvia, a revival that blossomed in that Baltic nation’s first period of independence, 1917–1940, or between the Russian Revolution, which released Latvia from the old empire, and the beginnings of World War II, when the small nation was scooped up first Soviet Union, then by the Third Reich and then by the Soviet Union again, a crushing embrace that lasted until 1991.
I was partway through layout on an article by the Latvian art historian Kristine Ogle on Pagan themes in Latvian art before World War II, when M. came in from the veranda, saying that she could hear the emergency siren from down the valley.
Drop editor persona, assume volunteer firefighter persona. Over my clothes I put on my “wildland interface” jacket and pants, since the sheriff’s dispatcher was saying this was a report of smoke, not a structure fire. I grabbed pack, radio, helmet, and was off, soon to be driving one of our brush trucks (wildland engines) up a county road that might lead to the site. But nothing.
Eventually we ended up with another firefighter and me in the brush truck, two more following in personal vehicles, a sheriff’s deputy, and an engine from the Bureau of Land Management. We split up to investigate different muddy ranch roads — still nothing. So after an hour, we called it off.
It had already hailed briefly in the morning, and soon after I came home, another little thunderstorm went through. So it seemed reasonable not to worry too much, not this week. People are still jumpy after the fire last October that took out 15 houses near mine—a wisp of low-hanging cloud might have looked like smoke.
Back at my computer, I continued where I had left off on the article. I had been just about to place a graphic in the file, and you can see it up above — the god of thunder.
Thunder has been much in evidence today here in the Wet Mountains, but given the painting’s date, you have to wonder if the dark clouds over the peaceful Latvian farmstead were more than thunderheads.
The next issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies will be devoted largely to new forms of Paganism in the Baltic countries, if all goes as planned.
One article that I have been reading is entitled “The Dievturi Movement in the Reports of the Latvian Political Police, 1939–1940.”
This movement itself started in the 1920s—and promptly fissioned. (Insert “Peoples’ Front of Judea” joke here.) But that origin does make it an old-timer in contemporary Paganism.
Latvia gained its independence in 1919, following the collapse of czarist Russia and Latvia’s own factional war. It became a republic, but a politician named Karlis Ulmanis dissolved Parliament and seized power in a bloodless coup in 1934. His authoritarian nationalist government lasted until the Soviet Union occupied Latvia in 1940.
During that time, however, the political police were spying on all political, dissident, and unusual groups, including the Pagans. I don’t want to steal Prof. Anita Stasulane’s thunder, but she made an interesting discovery in the national archives: notes on Pagan meetings and rituals made by a police “mole” in the group.
There is so much there: who attended the meeting, what was talked about, what songs were sung, how the altar was decorated . . .
Imagine, for example, if someone had infiltrated that Yeshua ben Yusef’s group two thousand years ago — and that the scrolls had survived and been re-discovered. New Testament studies would sure look a lot different.