Revival of the ancient Baltic religions
by Jonas Trinkunas
Presented at the First International Gathering and Conference of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures in Mumbay, India.
Presentation sponsored by the Infinity Foundation.
The ancient Balts, ancestors of the Lithuanians, Letts, Prussians and many others related peoples, settled between the eastern shores of Baltic Sea and the upper Volga in the second millennium B.C. The name “Balts” deriving from Baltic Sea. New horizons for the explanation of Baltic origins opened with the discovery of Sanskrit in the 18th century. Sanskrit and Baltic are the two linguistic poles between which the languages of the Indo-European homeland are “found”.
The Balts are Lithuanians (3,5 mln) and Latvians(2,5 mln) – today oldest indoeuropean peoples in Europe.
When one thousand years ago Slavic neighbours (Russians, Poles and others) accepted Christianity, the Balts retained their pagan religion for another four centuries. During that period they established a powerful state which incorporated extensive old Baltic lands. The archaic Indo-European religion and mythology on which the Greek civilisation was founded was still surviving on the South-Eastern coast of the Baltic sea. The eternal fire was still burning in the pagan temple in Vilnius, and people still worshipped the mighty god Perkunas (Parjanya, Indra) and the even more archaic goddesses of Earth and Nature. The Balts were great venerators of fire. Fire was sacred and eternal. Tribes had official sanctuaries on high hills and on riverbanks where a fire was maintained, guarded by priests, and in each house was the sacred hearth in which fire was never extinguished.
In the 14th Century, Gediminas – the penultimate Pagan ruler of Lithuania – decreed that Lithuania must be a land of tolerance because Lithuanian religion fundamentally professes this virtue. This principal is encapsulated in his famous proclamation “Let everyone worship their own Gods in Lithuania”.
However the tolerance did not rescued the Balts from the Christian military agression. The Popes of the Roma had involved joint forces of Catholic States against the Balts in XIII-XIVc. Order of the Knights of the Cross and other Orders had been involved. The resistance of Balts against cruel Christian aggression was overall, but it can’t resist the power, which was based on all- European military forces and money. The consequences of aggression were thousands people killed, the imposing culture and religion of Western Balts (Prusians, Sudovians) destroyed. Lithuania was the only state in Europe, who resisted the agresion, but, was constrained to accept christianity in 1387 politically for surviving.
During the protracted two hundred years war between the Christian Teutonic Order and Lithuanians the chroniclers expressed shock at seeing how readily the Lithuanians took their own lives. The Lithuanians don’t want to be Christianised. The Teutonic Order carried the Christian cross to Prussia and to Livonia, and though they did succeeded in conquering these people politically, they could not subdue them spiritually. The Prussian villagers remained pagan until their extermination in the seventeenth century, even though officially they accepted baptism in the thirteenth century and all pagan rites and customs were strictly forbidden.
It was only in 1387 that the sacred fire was extinguished in Eastern, 1413 – in western Lithuania. At first these changes affected principally the nobility; the conservative Lithuanian population maintained the traditions of their ancestors and secretly worshiped their gods for several centuries more.
In 17th, 18th and 19th century Protestant and Catholic chronicles and church documents complain of wide spread Lithuanian heathenism practice and disinterest in Christianity. In 19th most Lithuanian were nominally Christian, i.e., they had been baptized as infants. They did not readily practice their new religion, preferred to celebrate the old holidays and traditions. The church for centuries has actively advocated the destruction and removal of Lithuanian Pagan Religion elements.
The Balts were the very last European Pagans.
Many Middle Age chroniclers describe the features of the Baltic pagan religion: cremation rites; the belief in reincarnation; the veneration of holy groves, trees, fields, waters and fire; the belief in the existence of many gods and spirits; sacrificial offerings and soothsayings.
The customs, beliefs, mythological songs and folk art symbolism of the Lithuanians and Latvians are amazingly replete with antiquity. The Christian stratum is recent and can be easily detached. For studies of comparative religion, the value of the Lithuanian and Latvian folklore and folk art is of the same importance as that of the Baltic languages for the reconstruction of the “mother tongue” of the Indo-Europeans. The pre-Christian stratum is so ancient that it undoubtedly reaches back to prehistoric times – at least to the Iron Age or in the case of some elements, even several millennia further.
Baltic Religion has many sources. Once the region became agrarian, the settlers practiced their version of Old European religion, later practiced their form of Indo-European religion. Each religious transformation incorporated elements from its predecessors.
Romuva movement started its activities in 1967, was suppressed by the Soviets in 1971 and is tolerated since 1988, although attempts to restore Baltic Romuva’s religion started in XIX century.
During 60-70 th of XX century emerged interest in the indigenous culture, especially pagan tradition. Many folklore song groups were formed.
The name “Romuva” were chosen in honour of the famous Baltic Prussian sanctuary Romuva, which was destroyed by Christians. “Romuva” means “temple” or “Sanctuary” as well as “abode of inner peace”. Sources from the 14th century state that in the center of Baltic lands (today Kaliningrad region), there existed Romuva sanctuary, which was revered by all Baltic nations, the eternal fire burning there spread her light and peace throughout the entire Baltic coast and even further.
Romuva’s philosophy’s central idea is the sacredness of Nature, which is based on Baltic beliefs and ethnic folkloric tradition. Christianity was half accepted only in 18th-19th century. For this reason Lithuanian folklore, beliefs and customs retained the pre-Christian features to high degree even to this day. Lithuanian Baltic folklore, especially the mythological dainas, legends and the traditional way-of-life, is the basis of Lithuanian Baltic religion, Such traditional our attitudes correspond very well with the contemporal ecological and spiritual ideas. Eternity of Life, holiness of Earth and Nature, aspiration for Darna (harmony) – some of our ideas
Converted to Christianity, people were forced to ignore the Zemyna – Goddess of the holy earth and were made to honour the virgin Mary. In Christian teachings Mary was not a deity, but just an instrument of God. Looking into folk traditions and art – we can see the true essence of the Goddess. The return of the ancient Goddess is unavoidable, it is demanded by nature and peoples’ conscious disposition. We begin to understand that we are the children of one Mother – people, animals, trees, plants, and that the Mother lives here, near us. Let us remember the words of M.Gimbutiene, “All that is alive – is a sign of the earth’s kindness. Every earth born object is full to the brim with life’s strength, granted by mother earth. Tree, flower, stone and man – all from the earth. They are all full of earth’s power, although in each, the power is of various shape and form.”
After Lithuania restored it’s independence in 1990, the majority of previously suppressed organizations were re-established. Romuva began to organize conferences, summer-camps and care of historical monuments and nature objects. These activities gained approval by Lithuanian public. The government limited itself only by formally recognising our organization, without supporting it. There are discussions in Lithuanian Parliament about including Romuva to the category of traditional religions. Lithuania Romuva embraces 10 communities and has several thousands members. Romuva is lead by Jonas Trinkunas. He was declared in 2002.10.19 as Krivis – highest priest of the Romuva.
In 1991-1992 Romuva congregations were established and incorporated in Vilnius, Kaunas, Chicago, Boston and Toronto.
People are joining Romuva community, because they recognize the natural essence of its religious world-view. The Romuva communities can help people rediscover forgotten or suppressed traditions. Within these communities it is possible to combine the worship of nature with rituals of christenings, weddings, burials and calendar feasts. In Romuva summer camp pagans from other countries are also present.
Baltic Religion – Romuva
“Baltic Religion” or “Romuva Religion” now identifies the ancient religion that is common to all Baltic nations (Lithuanians, Latvians, Prussians, etc.). “Lithuanian Baltic Religion” is the Lithuanian version of Baltic Religion.
Romuva embodies the oldest religion in the Baltic region, which has no beginning, predates recorded history, and extends its spirit indefinitely in the Baltic culture. This religion has no human founder, no major scriptures. It is based on folk beliefs, myths and folk songs (dainos).
Romuva worships one supreme reality, which encompasses the worlds of the living and of the dead, the family and tribe, including all ancestors, all of nature, and the universe. It proclaims no eternal hell, no damnation, nor eternal salvation — only the continuity of life in the presence of divinity. It accepts all genuine spiritual paths. Each soul is free to find its own way, whiter by devotion, meditation or service to society. Festivals, pilgrimage, chanting of holy hymns (dainas) and home worship are most valued dynamic practices.
Love, kindness, inspiration, embracement of the human manifestation, positive action, and conduct in accordance to the universal law of Darna define the path of Romuva. Romuva teaches great reverence for all forms of life. It is a religion of human nature and human life with nature.
The primary goal of Romuva is to create a true nobility of spirit through proper education of tradition and experience in meditation and action in family, society and nature. Old tales are studied and songs are sung to discover the ancient virtues. Such experience creates unity with one’s ancestors.
Through chanting of the Dainos the soul is cleansed and the wandering mind is stilled. Spiritual fulfillment is also achieved by meditation in nature. It is believed that man is put on the earth to affirm and approve the world, not to deny it, not to escape from it, thus spirituality is sought and found in active life and spiritual participation therein. Romuva value an ethical life most highly.
A central feature of the faith is the sacred fire that is constantly kept burning in every home. Fire is considered the only worshipful symbol, the great purifier and sustainer, of the nature of the sun itself.
In the rituals practiced by Romuva dainos – folk songs play an important role and like other traditional customs and symbols become imbued by special power and meaning.
Respect of ancestors is an essential part of Baltic religion. It is expressed in a multitude of ways.
The idea of Darna (harmony) lies in origins of Baltic culture. The rule of darna harmony will lead to change and growth. Morality is the most important ideal of nature and man and is attained and maintained through persistent effort. Darna – the rule of harmony has always been of significance in the ancient faith. Man lives and the world exists due to harmonious interactions rudimentary to life and through man’s own correct and moral behavior. Such differing pairs like light – darkness, fire – water, man – woman and others, do not necessarily imply a good – evil relationship. These opposite pairs are not static. They not only interact but also change and grow. From the human standpoint, there are neither absolutely good nor absolutely evil gods or goddesses. Goodness is born from interaction of differing but not of hostile forces, with man’s interactive participation. Blogis – Evil is harmony’s downfall, the absence or inability to restore harmony. This is most evident in nature’s devastation, man’s activity against nature and her order. The communities of man and nature and of family and community bear the fruit or create dora (morality) and darna (harmony). Darna is the most important nature’s and man’s ideals, attained and maintained with constant work and toil. Darna is not a steady and unchanging happiness, good fortune. It depends heavily on the efforts and concerns of man and his Gods. Baltic Darna – harmony is very close to the Hindu Dharma – the principle moral order of the world.
The Romuva movement is an integral part of the revival and recovery of Europe’s ancient religions. This revival was partially connected with the national revival by people of Baltic culture, thus it sought to strengthen the national identity. This renaissance is proceeding naturally because its time has arrived.
The Creation of The World Congress of Ethnic Religions – WCER
During the Rasa festival (summer solstice) of 1998, representatives of pre-Christian or pagan faiths from Europe, United States and India gathered in Vilnius. The groups of indigenous religion exist in almost all countries of Europe, as well as in other continents. This event signs the situation of cultural isolation is coming to an end for believers in the traditional faiths.
Romuva cooperates actively with it’s closest neighbours Latvia’s “Dievturi”, Polish “Rodzima wiara”. Later we come in contact with Wicca of England, with Asatru from Island, heathen communities both of Germany and Austria.
What was the background for this international meeting in Vilnius? The history of the city of Vilnius and Lithuania contributed to the choice of location.
The cultural heritage of the Balts can be classified as a cultural bridge between East and West. Lithuanian pagan king Gediminas was honoured during the opening ceremonies of the June 1998 International Conference of Ethnic Religions.
The conference had several goals – “To become acquaint ant with each other, to come to an agreement concerning further cooperation and to found an organisation”. By majority decision the name chosen was the “World Congress of Ethnic Religions” – WCER. The conference closed by drafting the included Declaration.
The 1st Declaration of the WCER:
“We, the delegates of the World Congress of Ethnic Religions, held in Vilnius, Lithuania, from 20 to 24 June 1998, have gathered to express our solidarity for the ethnic, indigenous, native and/or traditional religions of Europe and the other regions of the world.
All cultures as well as native religions and faiths should be equally valued and respected each region and each people have their distinctive local traditions (native faith, world outlook, mythology, folklore etc.) which articulate their love of their land and history, and cultivate a regard for the sacredness of all life and the divinity of Nature. Just as Nature survives through a white variety of species, so can hurnanity be allowed to develop freely and without interference along a wide variety of cultural expressions.
According to our ancient traditional ethics, the Earth and all creation must be valued and protected. We as human beings must find our place within the web of all life, not outside or separate from the whole of creation.
We share a common understanding of our position in the world, based upon our common historical experience of oppression and intolerance. Ethnic and/or “Pagan” religions have suffered great injury and destruction in the past from religions claming they possess the only truth. It is our sincere wish to live in peace and harmony, and to strive for cooperation with the followers of all other religions, faiths and beliefs.
We believe that the dawn of a new era of individual and intellectual freedom and global exchange of views and information gives us an opportunity to start again to return to our own native spiritual roots in order to re-claim our religious heritage. We are worshippers of Nature just as most of mankind has been for the greater part of human history.
True indigenous religions should give us love and respect for all that we see and feel around, to accept all forms of worship which emphasize sincere hearts, pure thoughts and noble conduct at every moment of our life, towards all that exists.
Let us be proud of our reborn ethnic religions. Our new Universalism induces people not to remain closed within walls of hatred and jealousy against those who are not inside our walls. Let us break these walls and expand the horizon and vision of the whole humanity.
We established the “World Congress of Ethnic Religions” (WCER) to help all ethnic religions groups survive and cooperate with each other. Our motto is “Unity in Diversity.” (Signed by 23 representatives in Vilnius, Lithuania, 23rd June l998 )
The WCER is primarily concerned with the protection and development of ethnic Cultures and Identities. We understand the term “Ethnic” as referring to religions and cultures that are related to a particular people’s cosmology as it is expressed in cultural and social terms as well as ancestral. We recognize that many factors makes up people’s identity.
Historically those of other ethnic backgrounds have been adopted into new ones if they took on the beliefs and mores that are a larger part of the identity of that people. Although we are convinced that every human being has the best possibilities within his/her own culture to re-establish the harmony with the divine aspect, it does not, however, exclude anyone from participation in their activities.
The WCER is therefore categorically opposed to discrimination, suppression or persecution based on race, colour, social class, religion or national origin.
Soon after the creation of the WCER, it was decided that the WCER should be represented on the world-wide web. A website was created under the URL: http://www.wcer.org – outlining the principles of the organization, the declarations, providing information on conferences, events, as well as contact information. Please visit the website for the latest news on the WCER.
For the second WCER conference in 1999, a provisional pre-congress booklet was printed under the name of “WCER News”. It was well received and it was decided to release a larger publication under the popularly chosen name “the Oaks,” which would inform about the nature and the condition of ethnic religions around the world, as well as about the progress and agenda of the WCER. All members of the WCER are entitled to receiving this publication. Those interested in the WCER may also receive copies upon request.
At the 2001 conference it has been decided to organize more common regional events in the name of the WCER. This includes regional conferences such as the Antwerp conference in Belgium, which can be co-organized with the WCER, or the regional WCER conference planned in France in the autumn of 2001. There is also the possibility to organize international cultural events, concerts of traditional music, seminars on traditions and ecology, etc..
The WCER Agenda for the new millennium outlines a few main goals. One of the first, most important goals is to attaint Non-Governmental Organization status in the United Nations. The WCER plans to expand beyond Eurasia, and draw in members from African, Native American and Native Australian groups. This long-term goal coincides with the plan to build up infrastructure by drawing in more individual members able to devote time and effort to work for the WCER, searching out contacts and carrying out diplomatic missions on its behalf. As the WCER expands and develops its diplomatic potential, it plans to open up forums on how ethnic religions can practically solve regional problems by using common experience.
At the 1999 conference, the 5-person administrational council was elected from among the representatives. This council will remain in session until the next election in 2003. The council members are: Jormundur Ingi – Iceland, Denis Dornoy – France, Koenraad Logghe – Belgium, Jonas Trinkunas – Lithuania, Kostas Kehagias – Greece.
Goals of the WCER:
- To spread educational knowledge about ethnic cultures and their religions, while propagating mutual trust and tolerance for the peoples of Europe and the entire world.
- Through education, propagation and the organization of support for the appropriate projects, to preserve ethnic cultures and religions, safeguard them from extiction and propagate such ideas.
- To unify people and organizations engaged in ethno-cultural and ethno-religious activities.
- To fight against religious discrimination.
- To carry out other activities supporting ethnic cultures and ethnic religions.
The aims of the Institution’s activities are first and foremost the ethnic cultures and ethnic religions, especially those, which are in danger of extinction or loss of cultural identity. The WCER consists of ethnical and/or traditional and/or native religious groups. Ethnic cultures are the complex of many peoples and distinctive and natural cultural traditions. The current conditions of civilization place these cultures in danger of extinction. National ethnic religions face the same danger of ex-tinction. We define “Ethnic religions” as surviving ancient religions, such as Hinduism, or animism of various other cultures, as well as religions in the process of restoration, such as the Icelandic “Asatru”, Latvian “Dievturi”, Lithuanian “Romuva” and others. It has been accepted that the rights of such ethnic and religious groups are a part of human rights as expressed in the declaration pertaining to national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1992.
We believe the principal of ethnicity and respect to different traditions and religions is a way to harmonious and peacefull World.