Lithuanian folklore as a source of Baltic religion: the fire ritual
by Inija Trinkuniene
Presented at the First International Gathering and Conference of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures in Mumbay, India.
Presentation sponsored by the Infinity Foundation.
Baltic religion is based on local mythology, folklore and ethnic heritage. The heritage of different ethnic and linguistic groups in Lithuania is rich, full of holiness and faith. This faith survived in many forms, regardless efforts of the Christian Church, until these times: nation’s traditions, songs, language and morals.
Romuva – Old Baltic religion – is the revival of the Baltic spiritual tradition that expresses the religious world concept of Old Europe and the Indo-Europeans. This culture survived in many national cultures of the Baltic region. Historically, in the Middle Ages, Romuva was one of the last important European Pagan temples. Today, the place is located in the Kaliningrad region, formerly known as East Prussia, and originally – the ancient Baltic Prusa. Besides the central Romuva, there were many local Romuvas that thrived in the wide region of the Baltic.
The goal of the Romuva movement is reviving and continuing the ancient Lithuanian faith.
Dainos (chants) in Romuva rituals
In Romuva’s worship rituals, Dainos (chants) play a special part, and like other traditional customs and symbols they take on holiness, power and meaning. Daina – song, to the Baltic nations has always been the most important means of spiritual expression. Balts, a land of songs, have their own holy scripture – songs “dainos”. Our kinsmen, the aryans, in their holy text the “Avesta”, use the word “daena”, just as the word daina, song, of the same origin, – its meaning – “faith, inner essence and the spiritual me”. Daina, song is life giving to the essence of man and shows man’s vitality. Old and young, men and women, all sang while working, merry making and grieving. Songs have been handed down from one generation to another as the greatest treasure, as the eternal fire.
Romuva rituals are often begun with a special type of song called sutartine. A Sutartine is a uniquely Baltic type of polyphonic canon, which produces unusual harmonies. It is a genre of ritualistic chants that often contains mystical texts, with archaic symbolism. Sometimes they include strange words of incantation, such as dobylio, tuta, lylio, chuta, chutyta, sadula, gadula. The manning of these words is not always known.
Holiness, worshipping ancestors – moral principles of faith
Holiness – is that unnamed vital power and spiritual strength, which occurs in people and nature. Baltic traditions preserved the ancient concept of holiness which differs considerably from the Christian concept. Holy are the rivers, springs, trees, stones and others – all part of the ancient prechristian legacy, connected primarily with nature and not so much with the people. The mysterious, creative strength is personified so that through visible feeling and understanding, it shapes man to draw him nearer to divinity.
God, the creator, as written by famous Lithuanian historian S.Daukantas, had many names among the Balts. Owing to this holy, world creating force – the world spreads, grows, taking forms which do not loose the link with their source, thus the world resembling a tree. Thus a tree – a significant sign and image of ancient religion explains the world’s structure. In Lithuanian harvest time songs, it is sung:
A poplar stood by the roadside,
Oh glorious plant of rye (refr.)
From below the roots – the ringing kankles,
In the middle – the buzzing bees,
At the summit – the falcon’s children,
A group of brothers rides by,
Please stop, young brothers,
Behold the falcon’s children,
Listen to the buzzing bees,
Listen to the ringing kankles,
The kankles rings for our dear father
The bees they buzz for our dear mother
The falcon’s children – for our brother
This is the main hymn of Romuva – Old Baltic Religion community. It is sung about the mythological world-tree and its three most important parts, which symbolize the three levels of the world. Roots – underground, death, the past, water – beginning and spring of life. The ringing of kankles at the roots – the world of the old, the wise, and the dead. The buzzing bees in the middle – the world of working, toiling people. The falcon’s children at the summit – the heavens, the world of warriors and heroes. Death and life – an uninterrupted linking of evolution. A tree, even though it drops its leaves in the autumn, goes into sleep in winter, but its life goes on and its soul remains alive. Such is man’s path – through birth, death and rebirth. The central meaning of this hymn is the equal importance and harmony of these three levels.
Honoring of ancestors – is a link with dead family members and relatives, remembering them on special days. Family, kinfolk, tribe – without contrasting the living and dead, has a perpetual, indivisible connection. Language, songs, customs, feelings, thoughts, is all just a part of this connection. After death, the deceased finds himself among his dead relatives, and during religious and traditional rites, the living and the dead meet. It is a strong field of unity, and oneness, for which the link with earth and native land is very important. In Lithuania it is said “the souls of the dead are the guardians of their living relatives, or their close ones, especially dead parents, who are guardians of their orphan children”. Ancestors are important; whom in honoring we refer to as the original mother, forefather and others. The dead become caretakers of fields and farmsteads. The living and the dead interrelate, unite through nature and earth. Funerals used to take place in nature. Only later they were moved indoors. Emigrants, who left their native land, should return to it and in doing so they will rebuild the most important connection. The life and death ring of family turns in such manner that the roads of both living and deceased create one, single path.
The fire ritual
The Fire Ritual is the most important ritual in the Baltic religion.
“To this very day fire is sacred to all Lithuanians. No other phenomenon fits religion so well as fire. Only the flame turns wisdom to the path of spirituality” wrote the prominent Lithuanian philosopher, Vydunas.
During every traditional Baltic holiday a fire (ugnis) is lit, whether such is in an altar or bonfire, or by candle. Fire is the most important symbol of Lithuanian traditions. During ancient times, the Baltic people were known as fire worshipers. The Eternal Flame burned at Sventaragis Valley at the very center of Vilnius. Every household had a hearth, which was particularly respected by each member of the family, but cared for and safeguarded by the mother. The fire had greater meaning than merely the source of light and warmth. It symbolized the unbroken lifeline of the family and its ancestry. The Eternal Flame of the community served to unify not only its immediate members, but was also the unifying link with ancestors who had long since died and were now with the Gods. It was believed that numerous generations of the dead continued to live on at the hearth of the fire.
“Throughout all of Lithuania, people held fire to be sacred. Thus it was required to honour it and behave before it with respect. Coals had to be closely accumulated. Fire could be extinguished only with cold and clean water. Fire was not to be insulted. It was not to be harmed nor polluted. People were not to spit into fire, nor was it permitted to kick it or to stomp upon it. All that was considered sinful, and any such actions were sure to invite punishment, either while the person was still alive or after their death” (J. Balys, Lietuviu Tautosakos Lobynas (Treasure Chest of Lithuanian Folklore), 1951, pg.39).
“No live coals nor smouldering ashes were to be extinguished on holiday days for that was considered a sin – it was necessary to wait until the fire burned out on its own accord.”(Salakas). “When salt is sprinkled on the fire and it begins to crackle, it is said: ‘Sacred Gabija, be nourished.’ ” The expression “to make the bed for the fire” – meant that it was to be carefully edged and ashes poured around delicately (Laukuva).
“When the fireplace was being lit at home, everyone had to remain quiet and were not to turn away, even in the event they were to hear someone calling” (1854 by A. Kirkoras). A cup of clean water was to be placed near to the fire, in order that “the beloved little fire would have the means to wash itself.” Ugnis, the fire, is honored in all Lithuanian celebrations and rites. When Ugnis is fed salt, it is said: “Sacred Gabija, be satiated.”
To “make a bed” for the fire – means to set her up nicely, surrounded by stones, and cover her in ashes – “Sacred Gabija, forged – may you lay, kindled – may you shine!” A cup of pure water is placed near the fire, so that “Ugnis may wash herself.” “Ugnis Gabija, gathered – may you sleep, uncovered – may you shine, and always be a helper of mine.” “Ugnele, Ramute, sacred Gabija, help us.” (Marijampole) “Ugnute, Ramute, sacred Gabija, our calmer, be still, be rapid. For ages and forever.” (Marijampole) Here are the words of prominent Lithuania phylospher Vydunas:
“Blessed is the man, who seeks the way to the eternal Romuva,
And desires, in the light of everlasting fire
To live forever. Naught will stand against him.
May we see, what is eternal and sacred.
Throughout the ages, it will bless us all!”
The sacred cult of Gabija (the fire Goddess) with its prehistoric roots has survived to our present day. She has evolved through ornithomorphic, zoomorphic (the cat) and anthropomorphic portrayals (a woman clothed in red, sometimes winged). She is tended solely by women, traditionally the head woman of the household or clan.
The name Gabija is derived from the verb apgaubti, to cover up. This refers to the process of putting Gabija to bed by carefully banking the coals and ashes for the night and uttering prayers that entreat her to “stay put” and not to wander. This was an important duty of the mistress of the home, each evening. Repeating the prayers taught to her by her mother, she would carefully and lovingly cover the coals. To be neglectful or careless in this task would mean disaster for her home and loved ones, for under no circumstances was Gabija to be treated with disrespect or neglected. If angered, she would go “for a walk” leaving destruction in her path.
Gabija is “fed” traditionally with salt and numerous food offerings. If a bit of salt or food falls into fire while woman is cooking, she will say: “Gabija, be satisfied”.
Prayers ask Gabija to live with us in peace and to stay put. It is customary to leave a bowl of clean water by the hearth, in case Gabija feels inclined to wash, saying: “Bathe and rest, Fiery One”.
Should it be necessary to extinguish the flames, it can only be done by using clean water. Fire has eyes; thus no impurities can be thrown into the flames. Much folklore attests to the dire consequences for those who spit or stomp on her. Stray coals must be carefully retrieved and placed again in the hearth or stove.
The hearth fire was the focus of all family rituals and rites of passage with the head woman or male elder presiding. Lithuanians begin each ritual invoking her presence without which the rites would not be possible. She accepts the sacrifices and acts as a mediator and messenger to other deities. Her healing, protective and purifying powers are well documented in many other Indo-European societies. Here is not the reserved, passive, maiden aunt archetype of Vesta or Heslia. Gabija is the vital centre if each temple, grove and home. She is the flaming symbol of all that is truly alive on that planet and a deity and power to be treated with the utmost respect.
As population grew, a class of priestesses, known as vaidilutes, attended to the sacred eternal flame that burned for the family, for the tribe and, entirely, for the nation.
A set of days at the beginning of February are dedicated to the Goddess and the renewal of fire, the awakening of homestead gods.
February 2nd is the day of Perkunas. Visinski wrote about the Samogitian customs on this day. They would wrap a small wax candle, “perkunine”, (candle of Perkunas), made with a thick linen thread with wax, wrapping it about the peace of wood. This type of “wrapped candle” can be made by simple wrapping a linen thread. It symbolizes the life (the linen thread), the power of the everlasting fire. The candle of Perkunas is lit near dying person, during funerals, or for protection from thunderstorms and other perils.
February 5th is the day of Gabija. Gabija is the guardian of the home hearth. Sacrifices of power to Gabija are bread, salt, water. To bless by fire – a “Perkunine” candle is carried thrice around the table and around the hearth. Then each family member is blessed with fire in the shape of a cross (sign of Perkunas) – holding it at the forehead, the back of the head, and under each ear. Such a ritual is known as strengthening by fire.
The fire for rituals was lit either on a hearth of stone or on an altar. Good oak logs were to be selected with care for the fire. A sutartine (archaic round refrain song) was chanted while lighting the fire:
The Fire is burning, tuta tuta
Gabija is burning …
On the mound
On the high hill
Shine as lit
Moulder as covered
Zemynele, dear earth
We are your children
Saule – sun, dear mother
We are your daughters
Menuo – moon, dear father
We are your sons
Stars, dear sisters
We are your sisters
Shine as lit
Smoulder as covered
Give us strength
Zemynele, dear earth
Help us prosper
The words can be improvised to express both desires, as well as wishes for others. All the participants to the ritual can approach the fire one by one, express their good will and offer their Contact with Gods and with one’s ancestors is sought through the fire. Sacrificial donations to the fire can be bread, grains, beer grasses and flowers. Circling the Fire clockwise, three times, strengthens the ritual. All those who have gathered can also walk in a circle around the hearth
Fire in calendar holidays
The worshiping of fire, the fire rituals are observed in calendar and family holidays. Two important holidays – Kucios and Kaledos – mark the end of the year – when the world returns to darkness and non-existence. However, as death begets birth, the two holidays also herald the rebirth of nature and the return of the sun. The Lithuanians distinguish the two subsequent days, now celebrated on 24 and 25 December with a variety of ritual customs.
Indo-European cultures traditionally greet the New Year with rituals and tales that reenact and relate the creation of the world.
Adults begin their preparation for Kucios and Kaledos by placing a cherry twig in water on the day when bears start to hibernate, which is the first day of winter according to folklore. The twigs sprout roots in time for the holiday. Children play games symbolizing the planting of crops such as the one wherein girls imitate sowing, by strewing hemp seeds, which prompts dreams about future husbands.
The ancient calendar feast days are special because they help man experience the main segments of life: birth – maturity – old age – death. Such calendar helps man realize and live through the circle of life, all the while preparing for the trip to the other side. Folk calendar songs and rites reveal the secrets of the circle of life. Creation of the world and its dispersion, is celebrated in an ancient Lithuanian Christmas song:
A pear tree stands in the middle of the field, Kaleda
Oh! And a spark fell, Kaleda
Oh! And the blue sea spilled over, Kaleda
On that sea – a ship is sailing, Kaleda
In that ship – a chair stands, Kaleda
On that chair – a girl sits, Kaleda
This is a Southern Lithuanian winter solstice song. The word kaleda refers to the time of Winter solstice. A candle burns in a pear tree – in the world tree. The fire of the candle is the sacred altar fire. A spark fals, creating the sea – moving the sacred waters, awakening the universal force of life. The song is usually sung during Winter Solstice, when lighting a new fire for the new year.
The solemn feast of Kucios unites the living with the dead as well as all forms of life: people and animals. The house requires special preparation. The family hangs up an iconic “grove:” birds made of wood- straw or egg shells surrounding a straw sun. This grove as well as a multitude of burning candles invokes the souls of the dead (vele) who sit at a small table with bread, salt, and Kucia on it. The Kucia contains many traditional grains which symbolize regeneration: cooked wheat, barley, peas, beans, rye, poppy seeds, hemp seeds, etc. mixed with nuts and honey water. The Kucia feeds the souls of the ancestors. as well as the living. The living sit at another table, covered with hay and a table cloth. In earlier days, hay also used to cover the floor. Symbols of the life force, which sustain the human world, decorate the main table. This includes a bundle of unthrashed rye, which the family used the next day to bind around its apple trees.
Kucios, an exclusively nocturnal celebration, begins when the evening star appears in the sky. Before gathering at the ritual table, everybody bathes in saunas, makes up with their neighbors, and forgives their enemies. In olden days, the head of the household, wearing high black boots, a large black sash (juosta), and a prominent black hat – used to circle the farmstead three times. He would approach the house door after evervbody else had entered. To the question “Who is there?”, he answered “Dearest God (Dievulis) with the Kucia begs admittance”.
Once the family gathers, the eldest member (man or woman) says a traditional invocation and breaks the Kucia bread, which everybody gives to each other. According to the sixteenth century historian Praetorius, every member of the family, placing a loaf of bread on the floor, prayed: “Zemepatis (God of the homestead), we thank you for the good bread you give us. Help us work the fields while blessing you, that Zemynele (Mother Earth Goddess, sister of Zemepatis ) would continue to give us your good gifts.” Then everyone, raising the bread to the sky, concluded with: “Nourish us”.
After the exchange of the Kucia bread, each person sips some beer, spilling few drops onto the floor for the vele, the souls of the dead. Dinner follows. Kucios traditionally required 13 different foods, which echoed the 13 lunar months of the year. Under the influence of the solar calendar, the number changed to 12. The foods may not contain any meat or milk. The meal consists of Kucia (mixed grain dish described above), Kisielius (a type of cranberry jello), hot beet soup, mushroom dumplings, cabbage, fish, and seafood.
Animals partake in the ceremony by eating the same food that people eat. When people and animals used to live under one roof, everybody fed their household and farm animals from the table. On farms. families still feed their animals with the leftovers from Kucios. The families also share the food with bees and fruit trees.
After dinner, while everyone remains at the table, the children and young people pull straws of hay out from underneath the tablecloth. A long straw represents a long and prosperous life. The adults too would tell their own fortunes im a variety of ways.
Participants exchange wishes for each other by pouring grains into the hearth fire. The hearth becomes the sacred fire of the home. Each single grain sown in the fire grows and prospers. The family also ritually burns a birch wreath, stump, or log in the hearth, representing the old year The participants can also destroy evil by burning splinters they invest with meaning.
The merry rituals of Kaledos celebrate the rebirth of the sun, called Saule, Motule (Mother Sun).
People carry images of the sun through the fields and the towns, wishing everybody prosperity.
Greetings and wishes, expressed during Kaledos, posses a potency which guarantees their fulfillment.
Spring starts with the day of Perkunas (the Thunder God). On the first day that Perkunas strikes, the whole earth is shaken, awakening nature. The grass begins growing. As do the crops, the trees, and all life. Girls, desiring that their rue plants would grow luxuriant and beautiful, would plant them right after the first thunderstorm.
It is said, that if you bathe, after the first thunder, in a river, or lake, you shall be healthy and strong. Drinking water, unblessed by Perkunas, may make you sick. Before Perkunas blesses the land, it is not allowed to walk the land barefoot, lay on the Earth, nor sit upon rocks. Burning fire on an unthundered land is also forbiden or else Perkunas will burn down your home.” (B. Buracas, “Jaunasis ukininkas”, 1939, nr.15)
This is just a part of the old beliefs, showing how important Perkunas is in the spring – youthful, powerful, and always a bringer of rebirth.
The old fire of the winter is extinguished, and a new spring fire is lit up. The fire is brough home from the fire of a sacred altar (spring Perkunas’ fire).
From the woods, verbos are brought home. Branches of osier and willows are tied with a red thread or an ornamented tape. Verba is the magical branch, which gives one the power of life and growth, protects him from diseases. Homes are decorated with verbos.
During Velykos, when visiting gravesites, verbos are placed on the graves. Verba is used as a means of protection, rejuvenation, and purification. Even the water of a stream can be improved – by sticking a verba into the ground on each side of the river.
Verba is the people’s deep belief in the sacredness of the green branch. When the verba, at home, dries up, they remove it, leaving only the branch. The thorns are then stored in a bag, and are later burned as insence for Perkunas, or upon someone’s death.
During the holidays, everyone tries to get up early and whip the sleepy ones with a verba, for which they must repay with a margutis. That, which is touched by a verba, receives the force of life.
Margutis is a symbol of nature’s rebirth, has a sacred force of life. Eggs are painted during ceremonies and celebrations up until Jore. The first marguciai are red – during Lyge. Later – marguciai are decorated with meaningful ornaments – for rites, gifts, games, rolling. Velykos fir trees are decorated with marguciai. The old woman, Velyke brings an egg for the child, early in the morning, and puts it on the window sill.
Towards the end of June, at the time of the summer solstice, when night is the shortest and Nature bursts with blossoms and growth, we celebrate the Holy Day of Rasa.
Rasa, which means dew, was regarded as a fundamental manifestation of life force in ancient times. It has divining qualities on solstice morning.
S.Daukantas wrote “Before that holiday, everything under the sun went to the sacred rivers and lakes to bathe, to become young, and if one followed the rites carefully, he would become wise and clairvoyant. There was no happier holiday than Rasa, because, as they say, on that morning the sun dances.”
At this time, most healing herbs are possessed of great strength and potency. On the eve of Rasa, young women engage in the holy gathering of herbs (kupoliauti). The specific herbs for this day, or Kupoles, as they are called are: daisies, St. John’s Wort, bilberries and any yellow blossoming herb (melampyrum nemorosum). “Kupeti” – means to grow healthily, to sprout through the earth.
The kupole is a branched pole is placed in the center of the ritual area. The top of the pole is triple branched (which is reflected in the rune ascribed to this feast day). In eastern Lithuania it is explained that this is a miraculous growth with three branches, one of which blooms like the Sun, the other – like the Moon, and the third – like a Star. Young women who wish to wed, play a divinition game: standing with their backs to the kupole, they throw a wreath over their heads and hope that it will land on the kupole. The number of tries that it takes to get the wreath on the Kupole indicates the number of years until marriage.
Rasa is a wreath-making holiday. Maidens make wreaths from magical herbs (kupoles) and place them on their brows. Wreaths decorate homes, doors and gates. The men adorn themselves with wreaths of oak leaves. During the night, everyone goes to sacred rivers and lakes and cast these wreaths in the water. Candles are attached to the wreaths. If the wreaths of a woman and man float together, it is a sign that they will wed.
Gates are constructed from poles with the appropriate rune atop and decked in greenery. Each person that enters through the gates becomes a participant in the Rasa rites. Around one pole of the gate, maidens circle and around the other – young men. They bow and greet each other as they pass, circling through the gate while a daina is sung. One strives to greet the summer solstice partner of choice.
According to our custom, the “old fire” is extinguished with pure water and a new, holy fire is kindled. The sacred “aukuras” (ritual fire) is addressed. We bid goodbye to the setting Sun and honour nature by the placing wreaths near the fire. Newlyweds carry the new kindled fire to their homes. This fire is sacred and blesses their home.
Apart from regular campfires, fires are lit upon poles made with naves, birch-bark, tar, etc. The flaming “sun wheels” are set loose to roll down hills.
Throughout the night everyone feasts and rejoices. Then everyone addresses the dawn, the rising Sun and delight in Her dancing.
The revival of traditional Lithuanian ethnic religion is connected with the sign of fire as well. The sacred fire was lighted as aukuras (the special name for fireplace, derived from aukoti – to sacrificed) in1967 during the celebration of summer solstice festival in Kernave. The group of young Vilnius University students and professors started celebration of Rasa – dew – summer solstice in Kernave. It is called the start of new reviving Lithuanian Pagan or Baltic faith tradition. This year we’ll have the anniversary – 35 years of celebration. The sacred fire according ancient customs is lit.
The Romuva of today – is the total of several Baltic traditions, continuing the universality of the ancient Prussian Romuva and exploring folklore surviving in Lithuania up to the 21st century as the most important source of Baltic spiritual wisdom.
The Romuva movement is part of the movement of rebirth of ancient spiritualities in Europe. This renaissance is occurring very naturally and regularly, because its time has come. We can rejoice that the Baltics and other European nations have preserved the richest resources for this movement – their ethnic cultures, which will serve faithfully in the movement of nature worshipers in Europe. The main action, which Christian church had made in Baltic land to destroy the Baltic religion was the extinguishing the holy fire. The rebirth of ancient Baltic religion and tradition means the lighting and keeping burning the holy fire of our ancestors.
The leader of Vilnius Baltic Religion Community
Research fellow, Institute for Social Research