Lithuanian religion and mythology
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Lithuanian religion and mythology

Lithuanian Religion and Mythology

General characteristics

Lithuanian religion belongs to the Baltic religions and through many links is related to Prussian and Lettish ones and, along with the old religions of the Northern and Central Europe (Slavs, Germans and Celts), reflects the realias of Indo-European religions. It’s distinctive feature is a certain social dimension, i.e.: neither Prussians nor Letts had formed by then a sovereign state, with either knighthood or warriors formed into a strong social strata; whereas the 13th and 14th century sources, as a rule, in reference to Lithuanian religion would mention the forms of religion honored by the warriors and lords. Because of the dominance of these social classes, in the 13th and 14th centuries it appeared that the most conspicuous is the military-aristocratic segment of the Baltic official religions. In the 15th – 16th century sources and in the folklore and the ethnography of the 19th and 20th centuries we trace a very powerful streak of believes kept by peasants, to some extent this is determined by the spread of Christian religion among the power-holding part of the society, its subsequent loss of the national identity and along with this slow conversion of peasantry to Christianity, scarce network of the parishes and renaissance of the farming mythology for a number of reasons made the streak even more acutely felt than in the 13th -14th centuries, when the unbridled Lithuanian peasants were both warriors and the military actions were no lesser source of living as farming.


Apart from rather dim mentioning in Tacitus’ „Germania“ of gentes aestiorum, who worship the Mother of Gods (most likely these were Western Balts) and some other sources ascribed to the Western Balts (by Wulfstan, Adamus Bremenensis); reports of the Arabic voyager Idrisius on Madsuna town citizens, who worship fire, could be attributed to source son Lithuania as well. Apart from the whole volume of reference of the Baltic tribes in the bulls of popes and other sources, Lithuanian religion is somewhat more clearly represented by Ipatijus Voluinė’ manuscript fragments speak about gods secretly worshipped but Mindaugas and were it is said about gods which were besought by Lithuanian warriors; also a short insertion of the Slavic translation of Malala chronicle on Sovijus myth, undoubtedly authentic but their interpretation is not clear, many god-figures cited there are never mentioned in the subsequent sources. A separate group of sources is formed by the Lyvonic and Teutonic Orders documents, yet they are also very fragmented and are not concerned with the securing of the authentic material. The sources increase in density in the period before accepting Christianity and right after it was accepted; data preserved by Hieronymus Praquensis and Jan Dlugosz (Johannes Longinus), though idealized, supply a lot of information.

Later renaissance sources, late manuscripts, give the legendary versions of Lithuanian history where there also emerge religious elements. „Lithuanian chronicle“ speaks about religious innovations that took place in the early Middle Ages, however, they are not supported by the earlier documents, yet, their authenticity can be witnessed by the overall religious innovations in the Baltic. Maciej Stryjkowski in the middle of the 16th century listed 16 Lithuania Gods, J.Lasycki listed numerous Samogitian gods and some minor mythological figures. These authors can be considered very reliable, however, they did not speak Lithuania and they were recording features of deteriorating religion, which was permeated by a number of locally worshipped „gods“ and some encrusted petty mythical figures. This jumble hardly lends itself to coherent classification. In the end of the 16th century, in the following 17th century and later Jesuit missions were very active in Lithuania passed a lot, though, fragmented information about the remains of pagan faith spotted in the province of Lithuanian, M.Preatorius wrote about the customs and beliefs in the Lithuania Minor (Mažoji Lietuva), his works are of paramount importance because they bear no comparison to the fragments found in earlier sources, they bear the character of a comprehensive ethnographic compilation of the beliefs, mode of life, rituals etc. in the Lithuania Minor at the end of the 17th century. All these materials matched together can be used for reconstruction of the Lithuania tradition, however, it is necessary to bear in mind that all these facts reflect certain stages in the evolution of Lithuanian religious tradition, its periods of existence and decline, and „mechanical summing up“ would not produce the overall image of the old Lithuanian religion. Also, here we could add some other group of sources: archeological and linguistic sources, folklore collections recorded in the 19th-20th centuries and the ethnographic material from the period. Yet, it is possible to assume that the specificity of different sources defines the answers to the inquiry we are concerned with; also the chronological factor is very important. Basically we should define at least 4 stages of the evolutionary processes as seen in the sources:

1. 13-14th centuries. The period of the official religion worshipped by the knighthood and the warriors; religion is strongly influenced by the „military mythology“. The class of priests is still in function.

2. 15-16th
centuries. The upper strata of society are converted to Christianity. The peasants, who are not touched by the Christianity, pass on the old tradition. In the more isolated villages the evolution of religion, rather destructive, continues in a peculiar way. The province produces agricultural Pantheon of gods; in the villages religious rites continue.

3. 16-18th centuries. Jesuits start to attract to Christianity Lithuania province and complete the process. The old Pantheon comes to depletion, gods are being replaced by ghosts, minor mythological figures, whose cult is practiced through occasional devotional offerings. The old religious ceremonies live through dramatic alteration, they cease to be community act but are restrained to a family circle.

4. 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries. Deliberate repetition of the ancient religious elements is not observed or almost not observed. Old mythological images and rituals developed naturally enter the field of Christian faith. In the church services, festivals and folklore there abound elements of the old tradition but they are tinted with Christian meaning (or rather embedded in Christian mythology). On the one hand this situation can be conceived as the ultimate victory of Christianity against the old faith and the old mythological vision, on the other hand we can speak of an obvious penetration of the old tradition into Christianity. The result is religious syncretism sprung due to the victory of the Christianity, in reality the adaptation of the Christianity to the invincible tradition. This fusion was programmed ever since the middle of the second millennium and finally brought to life in that period.


The 13th Russian manuscripts mention gods worshipped by Lithuanians. Ipatij’s manuscript around 1252, documenting the baptizing of Mindaugas insists that the royal baptizing was feign and Mindaugas would continue present offerings to his old gods: to the chief Nunadievis and Teliavelis and Diviriks and to the God of Hares and to Medeina (BRMŠ I 260-261). Approximately round 1258 it is recorded that Lithuanians were beseeching their gods Andajus and Diviriks (ibid). In the translation of chronography of Jon Malala, 1261 and its insertion, it is said that Sovijus imposed sacrifice to Andajus and Perkūnas, thunder, to Žvorūna, a canine bitch, and Teliavelis, an iron-monger who coined the sun for him to light the earth and swung it into the sky. (BRMŠ I 266-268). This is a very wide description of the Pantheon and it is considered trustworthy because both sources complement each other and confirm the information.


In reconstruction of the Lithuanian Pantheon of the 13th and 14th centuries it cannot escape attention that the chief Gods of the Pantheon even in the same source may be referred to by different names, e.g. in Ipatij’s manuscript (else known as Voluinė manuscript), while recording Mindaugas baptizing about 1252 and speaking of the Gods worshipped by Mindaugas the first comes to be mentioned Nunadievis, around 1258, speaking of the gods worshipped by Lithuanian warriors the first is Andajus, the researchers practically agree that in both cases we read of one and the same god, the supreme god in Lithuanian. Only he is referred to by two names. In the same sources speaking of Mindaugas’ gods we come across another similar case, god Diviriks, who most likely meant Perkūnas (he is in the mentioned also in the insertion of Malala chronicle). Diviriks must be understood as the bishop of the gods (Dievų rikis) i.e. the bona fide god of the gods, because the supreme god in Lithuania has a strong deus otiosus genus. Diviriks corresponds to the Indo-European realia as the god of Celts Teutates who is sometimes known as Toutiorix „the ruler of the nation, the bishop“. Celtic gods in the written sources are often referred to by different names, too, i.e. one god may have several names, one is clearly a name while the others its attributes or euphemisms. To this manner of double naming belongs the name of the only Lithuanian goddess from the 13th century. In the manuscript of Ipatij she is mentioned as Medeina, in Malala chronicle as Žvorūna. It is quite possible that these are also two different names of the same goddess both are attributes and appear to be related to hunting, because Žvorūna else is referred to as a canine bitch and also recalls hunting through the word „žvėris“ (beast), and a bitch here is read as a hunting hound, Medeina is related to the trees (medis); Lithuania word „medžioklė“ indicates that hunting is associated with a forest, trees (cf. Polish polowac, Russian polovanije „to hunt“, „hunting“ from the Slavic word „field“). Thus Žvorūna-Medeina could be a name of one and the same goddess associated with hunting.

Double naming of gods could be interpreted differently. On the one hand the god could really be named by a few names, each would be brought up, let’s say, in regard to the circumstances. Double naming could appear because Lithuanian gods in different regions of Lithuania could have local or „dialect“ names. But the most plausible appears to be the explanation that he real names of the gods were not to be announced were „taboo“ and in the history of religion this is not uncommon. The real name of the god could be announced only on very exclusive occasions or else never uttered at all because of respect or of fear to bring
proximity of deity. This could be supported by the many names of other known gods in Lithuanian folklore and their number. This is Perkūnas named Dundulis, Bruzgulis, Dievaitis, Grumutis etc. Velnias – kipšas, pinčiukas, vokietukas etc.

Still the highest position in the hierarchy of Lithuanian Gods belongs beyond any doubt according to the 13-14th century’s sources to Andajus and Nunadievis. Both names could be regarded as euphemisms.

The God

Lithuanian God, Prussian Deywis, Deiws, Latvian Dievs is derived from the Indo-European name of god Deivos. At some time this word was to describe the lighted dome of sky, cf. old Indo-European deva „god“ and dyaus „sky“; Latin deus and dies, cf Lith. god and day; these words stem from indoeuropean root deiuos, that means both God and the sky, divine heaven etc. Baltic Dievas, Dievs, Deivs is related to Greek Zeus, Dzeus (cf. Lith dialect Pondzejis), avest. Daeva, luvian Tiwat, German Tivaz. From the Balts the name of God was borrowed by Finns, Finnish and Estonian taivas, taevas „heaven“. As is believed in the Baltic Dangaus Dievas, the god of the Heaven, shows a number of Indo-European features – it lives in the heaven, and is related with luminous bodies in the sky, but this is more characteristic of Latvians, it is pictured as a bright luminous person ruling the fates. Yet the researchers of mythology may paint Dangaus Dievas too abstract, unintentionally trying to make it more akin to the Indo-European image of the God of Heaven. In Lithuanian ethological sagas the connection between the God and the lustrous dome of sky aren’t numerous. The god here appears in a very concrete shape.

This first of all is a figure of an old man. In the ethological sagas the god is an old, grey crooked, clumsy person; he hurts his toe on the stone, cannot chase a dog, his appearance often is funny and he is ridiculed. Generally in the image of the God as Old man figure the old age is being hyperbolised to the verge of grotesque, yet this is quite understandable, because the first and the oldest god has to be old, because he is the oldest person in the whole world. However, the appearance should not fool anyone because the Old man-god is far from helpless.

The Old man-god is often being depicted on the background of daily life, realias of daily peasant existence. He lights the fire and smears his face with soot etc. He enters the village cottages and cabins and eats, rests and stays for the night i.e. he acts as an ordinary peasant and this is justifiable because the image of God is here transferred through the signs of the environment understandable for the peasants.

The Old man-god is also very powerful, he enjoys enormous creativity power and this power occasionally is used for explanation of the creation of the existing facts. While the God washes himself a drop falls on the ground and a man is born. The god hurts his toe on the stone and the stone stops growing. The God visits the homes of people in disguise, in the attire of an old vagabond. Those who let him in and give him food are usually rewarded and those who reject the vagabond with disgust give him neither shelter nor alms are turned into animals: pigs, polecats, bears, wolves, dogs, geese, storks etc. This positions the god in the care of the norms of ethics, but his sentence often is exceedingly severe. For a simple breech of norm, e.g. a hearty laugh from the Old-man god he may turn the person without any hesitation into an animal. This rigor of the Lithuanian God is close to the god Varūna from Rigveda period in India, also the highest and relentless god who portions punishments in compliance with the strictest code of law. In some ways Lithuanian god Old-man reminds Indian god Avatar or sometimes Greek God Zeus also prone to appear incognito, it may appear that this kenosis of gods is generally a feature known to all Indo-European tradition.


Perkūnas is the most important Lithuanian god, though God ‘Dievas’ (in lith. Dangaus Dievas, Dievas senelis) is nominally the highest person, Perkūnas is the central figure in the Pantheon. Perkūnas is mentioned in the 13th century sources, he is known to Prussians and Latvians (Percunis, Perkons). In Russia his equivalent is Perun, the main god of the Dukes’ army, the analogues are seen in the figure of Pirva the main god figure of Hetits, in the figure of the Indian rain and storm cloud goddess Parjanya, cf Germanic version of the name Toro Porr. The etymology of Perkūnas is not entirely clear. He is associated with the Latin quercus „oak tree“ (the tree of Perkūnas), also is derived from the word „strike“ (in lith. „smogti“) and „beat“ (in lith. „perti, mušti“) etc.

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