Baltic Languages and Baltic Paganism

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There are several languages in the Baltic language family, including Old Prussian which is no longer spoken, and Lithuanian and Latvian which are the spoken languages of their respective modern countries.

Baltic Gods by Olaus Magnus History and Geography
Today, the Baltic languages are spoken in northern Europe along the Baltic Sea, in the modern countries of Lithuania and Latvia. The earliest mention of these languages are the names of some tribes referred to by Ptolemy in 150 CE. The people of this area were known to the Romans and Greeks as the source of amber which was an important item of trade. During the Middle Ages occasional references appear in Scandinavian, and German sources, mostly Christian and generally hostile or just ignorant. The Lithuanians became known to history when King Mindaugas ruled over a great swath of territory from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. This didn't last long and the area of territorial control soon returned to the shores of the Baltic Sea.

The oldest Baltic language attested in any detail is the Old Prussian language which is known from some reports about the traditional customs of the people, made by Christian missionaries such as the Prüssische Chronik by Simon Grunau (1530) and similar reports from the 1600's. Unfortunately, the Teutonic Knights, who were German Christians, methodically exterminated the Prussian people and replaced them in the geographic area with German-speaking people, and the Prussian branch of the language family has been extinct for centuries. However, it turns out that people of Prussian heritage have set out to reconstruct their form of Paganism and they have a site on Facebook. There is also a good site discussing the reconstruction of the Old Prussian Language written by Mikkels Klussis.

The Germans were equally hostile to the Lithuanians and Latvians but they did not manage to wipe them out. Their languages are hardly attested at all until the 1600's when German Lutherans began to translate Christian texts into Latvian in an attempt to compete for converts with the Catholic church and later the Russian orthodox church both of which flatly refused to produce religious texts in a language that anyone could understand. The Balts weren't interested, but in a brief window of political freedom they managed to make collections of dainas, traditional folk songs sung by the people as part of their daily lives. Thousands of such poems are published in two series of volumes. The Lithuanian collection of dainas runs to 13 volumes and the Latvian collection is 7 volumes. These songs are rarely translated into English but the languages are so regular that they aren't difficult to learn. Both Lithuanians and Latvians have very active Pagan communities with discussion groups on the internet.

Linguistics
The Baltic languages are closely related to the Slavic languages, but have uniquely conservative linguistic features. Lithuanian still retains a pitch accent which is thought to have been in the original Proto-Indo-European language. Lithuanian and Latvian are very similar to each other, and both are very similar to the Slavic languages, especially Russian, however, the Russians and Balts hate each other so much that they prefer to be in separate language families. They are sometimes grouped together as the Balto-Slavic language family. [fuggle26]

The Baltic states include Estonia, with its own language Estonian which is not an Indo-European language--it is more closely related to Finnish. Since it is not an Indo-European language, I do not address it here, but in broad terms, much of the culture and traditions, and many elements of the old religions are continuous across the northern cultures. This must be at least partly because the Indo-European speakers learned customs and ways of life from the older indigenous culture, while linguistic study shows that elements of Indo-European culture and religion were borrowed into the far north as well.

Religion
The Baltic pagan religion is first described in the area of Prussia, by Christian evangelists in for example the Prüssische Chronik by Simon Grunau (1530) and some later reports from the 1600's. There is not much information in these reports but they do give the names of several gods and they give descriptions of the rituals. The Prussians were exterminated by the Germans by the 19th century, but a similar type of religion can be reconstructed for the more easterly branch of the language family, based on the folksongs and other material collected in the 1800's. Some elements of the Lithuanian sacred poetry are so conservative that they closely echo themes and deities in the Rig Veda. The effect is so striking that at one time, even some linguistic scholars thought that Lithuanian was a descendant of Sanskrit. Instead it is the descendent of a language that is closely related to Sanskrit, and ultimately the Baltic languages and Sanskrit descend from a common ancestor--Proto-Indo-European.

Some attempts were made starting in the 16th century to christianize the Balts, but the religious authorities (Catholics, Lutherans and Russian Orthodox) were seen as representing hostile governments, mainly Germany and Russian who turned the Balts into serfs in their own country. Consequently the Balts considered Christianity part of the hostile military regime of foreign invaders and ignored it whenever they could. The only schools in many areas were religious schools and the Balts wouldn't even send their children to school long enough to learn to read and write. During the Russian occupation of the Baltic countries, it was illegal to write or publish in the native Lithuanian or Latvian languages or in the Roman alphabet. These restrictions had the effect of conserving the language and culture that they were intended to destroy.

The old pagan religion is more or less continued in the Baltic states today, but it often has influences from the more shamanistic elements of neopaganism, and some factions in the Old World are right-wing to the point of being fascist and anti-Semitic. This is partly a legacy of the Soviet regime, but even that is a simplification of a complex situation that is still changing, since the three republics (including Estonia) only became free in 1990. However that may be, for many Baltic people the traditional customs and songs at the seasonal festivals are just part of the fabric of everyday life. Lietuvos Romuva is the name of the pagan religion in Lithuania, while the Latvian version is called Dievturiba. Both have websites with members in the Old World and wherever there is a substantial diaspora, as there is in the United States.

Pantheon
The earliest references to Baltic pagan deities are given in the reports of foreigners and include references to Perkuno, etc. There is little detail or context for these, but they confirm the priority of material that is known better from later sources. Many pagan gods and goddesses are referred to in the dainas. These are carefully indexed, so it is easy to look up all references to any particular deity.

The Baltic Pantheon includes Dievs, a grain god; the horse twins; the Sun maiden and many other deities that correspond linguistically and in their general characteristics to Indian gods and to the Indo-European gods in general. The reason for the very close correspondence to Indian religion is not known though it is thought to be related to the very conservative quality of the culture of the Lithuanians and Latvians which was isolated geographically and politically. Most native speakers could not read or write and they lived in comparative isolation in the countryside. Under these circumstances, the only cultural influences people had were other villagers like themselves, often members of their own families, so that culture was conserved over time in the same place.

Festivals
The annual calendar of festivals is well known and corresponds to other Indo-European calendars, especially for the northern European climate and agricultural practices. Christianization was nominal so that a few festivals have Christian names, but the greater part of them continue the old pagan traditions. An example of this type of festival is the Apjumibas Festival for Jumis.

Myths
Generally, the dainas do not include information that is narrative in nature, so that myths cannot be extracted from them, although some references to myths can be found. Some folktales do tell old myths, as is shown by the example of the Lithuanian folk tale that makes up part of the Primal Cow Creation Myth connected to Yama. The part of that folktale that tells the myth of Yama is only a small part of a much larger folktale, otherwise unconnected.

Rites
The sources describing customs of the Prussians give some very specific rituals, though they were mostly recorded by non-native speakers. There are drawings of temple precincts with portraits of pagan gods placed on oak trees in the early reports and this custom continued until recently so that there are photographs. It probably still continues in out of the way places.

Aside from the sacred songs recorded in the nineteenth century there are plenty of native speakers now who know the proper way to do things. It seems that Baltic Paganism still has some special features. Worshiping trees either directly or as repositories of the souls of the dead is a major part of their belief system.

References for Baltic Religion and Languages

Primary Sources
Primary Sources for the Baltic religion are mainly folklore collections. One of the earliest publications known to English speakers is the Songs of the Russian People in the Sacred-Texts Archive. This is mostly Lithuanian folk tales anyway. It is not scholarly at all but it is quite charming.
The most important part of the collections in Baltic languages are the Dainas or folk songs.
Lithuanian Dainos, first published in 1825, by L. Rhesa.
Latvian Dainas or Latviesu Tautas Dziesmas, ed. by A. Svabe and K. Straubergs, Imanta, Copenhagen, 1952. (first published 1894).
The Latvian Dainas are available on the net at two sites:
www.dainuskapis.lv
etext.virginia.edu/collections/languages/latvian

There are excellent books on folklore including dance and music, but they are usually in the native languages without translations. Many of the dainas are still sung from memory and the rituals and dances have been recorded in writing and on film. There are professional folk dance groups that perform them in the United States and in Europe.
Dance of Lietuva by F. V. Beliajus, Clayton F. Summy Co, New York, 1951

Secondary Sources
Linguistics and Poetics of Latvian Folk Songs, ed. by Varia Vikis-Freibergs, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 1989.
Balts and Aryans in their Indo-European Background, by Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Calcutta, 1968.
Of Gods and Men, Studies in Lithuanian Mythology, by Algirdas J. Greimas, translated by Milda Newman, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1992.

General References on Indo-European Linguistics
Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture by Thomas V. Gamkrelidze, and Vjaceslav V. Ivanov, (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995.
Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997.

This page was originally published at pierce.yolasite.com/baltic but Yola was hacked on Nov. 22, 2011 so the page has been moved here.

© 2009, last updated 2/12/2012, piereligion.org/baltic.html