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Latvian Witches

Guide woman at Tervete dressed as a witch.

Christianity was the leading religion in Europe and did everything to tackle their religious counterparts. Before Christianity became the main dogmatic religion in Europe, Pagan religion was the leading belief. Even so for centuries Pagan traditions remained within simple people. There were people who still practiced Pagan traditions like fortune-telling, magic healing and other things not recognized by the church. From the 14th century to 18th century these people became victims of massive witch hunt in all Europe. In Latvia witch hunting were severe because of strong Pagan traditions within local people.

Witches are women with supernatural powers. They practiced necromancy and were blamed for various calamities like making all the rivers stop flowing. In Medieval times witches were blamed for making deals with the devil by signing it with their blood. Not only that, they were also considered to make sexual intercourse with the devil and make big black mass meetings (Sabbaths). When various heretic movements appeared they were associated with the devil. The whole conception of witch appeared in 15th century when Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches 1486).  This work paved way for witch hunt. Based on this witches were accused for making bad deeds like poisoning, sorcery, killing and fortune-telling.

In Latvia witches were deep in Latvian folklore. They appeared in Latvian folk songs, tales and legends. In tales witch’s husband was the devil and they lived in strange houses on fowl’s foot. Witches could turn a man into animal or various things like rivers and meadows. They travelled in the air with broomstick and attended witch meetings. Also they did other bad deeds but the Latvian view on witches were not wholly negative because Latvian simple peasants were not fanatic Christians as in Europe.

Witch House at Tervete

But foreign rulers of Latvia made witch trials in Latvia just like in other parts of Europe. Bans on Pagan practices were made in Medieval times but no witch trial was recorded in Latvia until the 16th century. In 1537 at  Valmiera landlords were instructed to keep an eye for Pagan practices and prevent them if necessary.  When anti-witch literature reached Livonia from Germany the idea of witch hunting emerged here. First witch was burned at the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia in 1527. In Riga at 1531 men called Valdis Buhards was sentenced for sorcery. First burning occurred at Grobiņa 1559. When Latvia was under Polish rule witch hunting became widely used practice. Catholic Poles used barbaric torture practices. Even more witches were judged at 17 century Vidzeme controlled by Lutheran Swedes.  Between 1630.-1640 there were 40 trials or more. At local land courts no court session was without a witch trial. One accused person told that anyone here can practice witchcraft so all working men in farm fields must be killed. In the other half of 17 century because of changes in Swedish laws witch burning became less familiar.   At 1686 torture was banned and more liberal money fines were imposed instead of death penalty. Last death penalty was imposed in 1699.

After Vidzeme was taken by the Russians witch hunt ended completely. Witch hunt was also common in the Duchy of Courland and Semmigallia but less common in Latgallia. After all Latvia was included in Russian Empire witch hunt ended.

The Witch Burning in Riga.

The Witch Burning in Riga.

Because of strong Pagan tradition common in Latvians witch hunting occurred in Latvia. There are many sources from Western travelers who called Livonia a land of witches and wizards.  No doubt many of accused and killed man and women actually practiced some kind Pagan traditions not recognized by the church. Because of the  superstition and fear many people who did no harm were killed because of witch mania. Many women were completely innocent, and were killed because they differed from other women. Usually witch was considered women with long released hair usually black and rosy face and eyes. They differed by character from others and were looked with suspicion.  Many of them must have some mental problems that made them strange to others. In a time where psychology and tolerance was not known witch hunt was a useful tool to harm different people.

Today at age of multiculturalism Pagan practices are no longer harmed. Such person as Aleister Crowley would be killed and forgotten in at that time, but today he is still known as a famous black magician.  Neo-Pagan movements are springing so as the other beliefs. Let’s hope that there will be no time in the future where mass repressions are imposed because of some dogmatic religion.

Selected Sources:

Švābe, Arveds (Ed.) (1938) Latviešu konversācijas vārdnīca. Vol 17. Riga: Grāmatu apgādniecība A. Gulbis

Akmentiņš, R. (Ed.) (1994.) Mitoloģijas enciklopēdija : Pasaules tautu mitoloģiskās būtnes un priekšstati. (2. Vol) Riga: Latvijas Enciklopēdija.

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The Latvian Mythology

The painting by Jānis Bīne showing three main Latvian Deities - Māra, Dievs (God) and Laima

The painting by Jēkabs Bīne showing three main Latvian Deities – Māra, Dievs (God) and Laima

Christianity only came to Latvia in 11th Century but was enforced completely by crusaders at 13th Century.  So Latvians were one of the last people in Europe to convert to Christianity. Even when Christianity was the official religion in Latvia, the elements of Paganism remained active even until 18. Century. Latvians managed to keep their Pagan practices and myths and they are very well known to this day. Many grand Latvian intellectuals like Krišijānis Barons recorded the old Latvian folk songs and sayings. Today Latvian mythic folklore is studied by such famous people like Doc. Janīna Kursīte, now a deputy of Saeima and ex president of Latvia Vaira-Vīķe Freiberga. Latvian mythology is a rather complex thing to discuss but I will give the basics in this post.

The first accounts of Latvian Pagan beliefs come from archaeological findings such as sacred objects, amulets and other findings. The written sources, mostly made by German Catholic chroniclers show rather subjective accounts.  The bull (special Papal declaration) by Pope Innocent III tells about “barbarians who gives the God’s honor for dull creatures, leaf trees, clear waters, green trees and unholy spirits”.  The 16 Century Jesuits reports that “everyone here around Ludza and Rezekne is horrific Pagans. They make offerings to Pērkons, Ūsiņš and other fetish. Almost in every house a witchdoctor, shaman and other kinds of devil servants.” The geographer Sebastian Miller (1489.-1552) in his 22 volume encyclopedia “Cosmographia” with an unpleasant surprise finds out that in the ranks of peasants of Vidzeme “are many of those, who know nothing of God and his saints. One worships sun, other- moon, one chooses a beautiful tree to worship, while other a stone or whatever he pleases”. Chronicler Baltazar in his “Livonian Chronicle” (1578), reports that “Livonian Pagans were devoted to many dreadful fetishes, like Sun, Moon and Stars, just as snakes and other creatures. They hold some brushwoods as holy sights, which were forbidden to cut down. Their superstition was so great that one who would cut down a tree in the holy place would be killed immediately”. These are just some of the accounts who tell that Latvian peasants worship god Pērkons, Ūsiņš, and smaller deities. The sources make a conclusion that Latvian Pagan religion was based on natural and cosmic phenomena like Sun and Moon and other stars.  The sources have however given no details about special priests who carry special rituals, the Latvians made rituals themselves. The holy sites were groves and trees. One the main Paganic celebration was Jāņi which takes place on the summer solstice of June 23 to June 24. Jānis is most common male word in Latvia.  Jāņi are officially celebrated today as the summer holiday and are one of the most active Latvian celebrations.

The other sources of Latvian mythology are folk songs, gathered since 19 Century and tales (Teikas), and legends. The ethnographic source like ornaments and symbols gives good information about Latvian mythology. Latvian mythology is full of syncretism’s from Christian beliefs, and traditional customs which affects all Latvian life.

The main groups of Latvian deities are divided into six. 1. The gods of nature and space. 2. The universal being- The God. 3. The gods of human destiny. 4. The gods of fertility. 5. Mothers. 6. The minor deities of various functions.

The worshiping of nature was shown by wearing special jewels and amulets- crosses, rounds, snakes and special axes. The main cosmic god as noted by many sources is Pērkons (The Thunder), same god is also known to Lithuanians as Perkūns, Prussian Perkun, ancient Indian Parjanja, Scandinavian Fjorgin. He is close to ancient Greek god Hephaestus. He is the Skyforger who rides across the sky hitting Suns word tree making sun cry (an explanation for thunderstorm), when Pērkons roars the god angers ridding the stone carriage. He is also a fighter against the Devil and other evil spirits. The main symbol of Pērkons is the swastika. The swastika is one of the most oldest religious symbols found in India, Russia, Europe and even America, long before Adolf Hitler made swastika as the symbol of evil. The swastika is Pērkoņkrusts (Thundercross) in Latvian. When you see a swastika used in Latvian traditional celebrations and dresses it has nothing to do with Nazi ideology. At the time of the Republic of Latvia before the Second World War swastika was a popular national symbol and was associated with Nazism in very rare cases.

The Sun cult was associated with the cycles of time. The Sun got children- the Moon, Auseklis and Sun Daughters. The Sun raided a carriage around the sky and took sleep at the sea at night.

Latvian Signs and Symbols and their explanation according to Agne Liesma

Latvian Signs and Symbols and their explanation according to Agne Liesma

The main ruler of everything is God or Dievs as called in Latvian. The name is close to ancient Indian deva meaning God and dyaus meaning sky. He could be close to ancient Greek Zeus. The name Dievs is close to other Baltic languages and the name comes from the word deuio- the shining sky of the day. The name Dievs is recorded in 9750 texts of Latvian folk songs (Latvju Dainās). The God is the rightful ruler of all the guider of stars, nature and humans. The God is a fighter against evil the judge of human destiny. The God is personified, but he got no children or family. There are no direct offerings to God but God could be prayed like the Christian God. Māra is not close to Christian Virgin Mary.

The dieties of destiny are Māra and Laima (Happyness, luck), and other minor deities. The Laima regularly persists in Latvian tales as a guider and judge for individual human destiny.

There are numerous minor deities for all kinds of spheres of life. The Ūsiņš was the god of horses. Jumis is the God of fertility. Māršava and Māra helps the cattle breeding activities.

There are many Mothers as the Deities of many natural and spiritual aspects. There are Forest Mother, Sea Mother, Garden Mother, and Wind Mother. There is even War Mother.  One of the main Mothers is Mother of Dead Souls (Veļu Māte) which takes care of dead humans in their afterlife. There is a belief that at certain nights the dead souls come to their lifetime houses to visit them. They must be greeted with the goods or the souls could get angry and bring bad luck to present day housemates.

There are more minor spirits- Dieviņi. They need offerings to bring good luck. One of the best known spirits is the god of the fireplace who takes care for every single family.

Jānis is the deity of fertility he could be close to the Roman god Janus. The leader of evil is the Devil (Velns, Jods), who is to blame for bad happenings and calamities, however it is not clear whether the Devil comes from Christian beliefs, because there is no Latvian universal deity of evil.

Latvian Paganic beliefs persisted so long because Christianity was not fully introduced to them. They were baptized by force, but there was little done to explain the basic teachings of Christianity to them. All ministrations and Holy texts were in Latin- the official church language, which was unknown to simple Latvian peasants. Only in 16-17 century when the Reformation came to Latvia the first ministration and holy texts were translated into Latvian. During the 18 century the movement of the Congregation of Brothers or Hernhutism made a large effort of teaching Christianity to Latvians.  At the end of 19th century Christianity finally defeated Latvian Paganism. Despite that the old beliefs and customs were kept for generations until this day. At 20th Century there was a neopagan movement like Dievturība which is a new Latvian religion based on the Latvian mythology. It’s not very popular among Latvian and faced repressions during the Soviet Era but lives until this time.  The Latvian old rituals are carried at special dates by folk groups and bands and active nationally minded Latvians.  Latvian mythology is a complicated subject to discuss but some aspects here had been witnessed and probably will appear in future posts.

Selected Sources:

Akmentiņš, R. (Ed.) (1994.) Mitoloģijas enciklopēdija : Pasaules tautu mitoloģiskās būtnes un priekšstati. (2. Vol) Riga: Latvijas Enciklopēdija.

Kursīte, Janīna. (1999). Mītiskais folklorā, literatūrā, mākslā. Riga: Zinātne.


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