Baltic mythology | gods & folklore of Lithuania & Latvia

Egle-the-Queen-of-Serpents

The Baltics were the last pagan nations in Europe to Christianize, between the 14th and 15th centuries. Because of this, mythology from the area is a lot more recent than in other areas – however, as the stories were carried by word of mouth, and ever-changing, our knowledge of ancient beliefs is limited to folktales and snippets.

 

Like many pagan beliefs, the Baltic religion was founded around nature. Gods and goddesses, spirits and creatures were all associated with natural elements and events. This means that god-myths and folktales vary from town to town, depending on local weather conditions and landscapes, as well as political situations and other cultural influences.

 

So, let’s jump into the top dogs (read: gods) in the Baltic pantheon, along with some of the fascinating mythical creatures from the region.

 

Baltic gods

1584 Prussian depiction of the gods Perkunas, Potrimpo, and Peckols

 

The Baltic Pantheon is filled with beautiful stories and striking characters. Many of the gods hold strong similarities to other Asian and European god-myths. While others are unique to the area. You’ll notice that most of these gods have different names in Lithuania and Latvia, and a few small, clear differences.

 

Saulė

Radiant and beautiful, Saulė is the sun-goddess. Her domain is the regeneration of all life on earth, and she gives life, fertility and warmth to humanity.

 

Saulė rides through the sky every day in a chariot pulled by tireless horses. Which is the most common myth about the sun-deity in all of ancient Europe. I suppose a god running across the sky wouldn’t be quite as impactful and noble as a carriage ride.

 

In Saulė’s god-myth, she is married to Mėnuo, the moon, before he falls in love with the morning star. For his infidelity, there are different accounts of his punishment. But the most common is that he is cut up by Perkūnas – and as he never learns from this, it happens every month. And thus, the phases of the moon!

 

Auseklis/Aušrinė

The morning star and deity of dawn. Auseklis is the Latvian star god, and male. In Lithuania, she is known as Aušrinė, and is female.

 

In Lithuanian mythology, Mėnuo, the moon, has the abovementioned adulterous relationship with Aušrinė. In Latvian myths, it is Saulė that Auseklis is interested in (or, in some stories, her daughter).

 

Mara

Perhaps the most important goddess in the Latvian pantheon is Mara. An earth goddess, at times she has been the deification of the earth, and at others simply the goddess of milk production. She’s always been important though, and often, other Latvian goddesses are considered her assistants, or different versions of Mara.

 

Patroness of feminine duties and economic activities, Mara also takes the bodies of the dead, while Dievas takes their souls. Her myths have been very much conflated with Mary after the Christianization of the Baltic.

 

Pērkons/Perkūnas

1979 Sculpture of Perkūnas on the Hill of Witches, Juodkrantė – Image by Turaids

 

The Baltic god of thunder, we already know a bit about Perkūnas – namely, that he has the authority and might to punish the moon for his infidelity.

 

Natural phenomena were almost all categorized as gods and goddesses in the Baltic, but thunder and lightning would seem to historic peoples to be the most authoritative phenomenon. Fair enough!

 

Known as Perkons in Latvia, Perkunas in Lithuania and Perkuns in Prussia, the formidable thunder god is one of the most important deities in the Baltic pantheon. Much like Zeus (from Greek mythology), the bearded Pērkons wields an ax and rides a chariot, bringing lightning and rain to the earth below him.

 

He is the god of order and fertility (uncommon for male gods), and is one of the most popular deities in the Baltic. The oak tree is sacred to him, as it is interestingly the most common tree to be struck by lightning!

 

Dievs/Dievas

Known as Dievas in Lithuania and Dievs in Latvia (and a bundle of other very similar names in the different Baltic regions), he is the supreme god, the sky god. Ruler over all, this primordial being created the universe and everything within it. Along with the goddess Laima, he is responsible for world order and the fate of humankind.

 

Unfortunately, all that we really know of Dievs comes from early Christian texts, which are not exactly the most objective sources on pagan belief systems.

 

Velnias

The brother of Dievas the creator god, Velnias is the counterbalance. As old as his brother, he is the god of primordial chaos and destruction. While Dievas rules over and represents air, light and fire, Vilnius represents the chthonic (subterranean/underworld) elements of earth and water. He also rules over the realm of the dead.

 

Considered the god of evil, an equivalent to the devil, and a trickster, Velnias can transform into various demonic animals and cause trouble among the living.

 

You’ll find that the brotherhood of Velnias and Dievas is interestingly similar to the Turkish god-myth of Tengri and Erlik – and many others. The forces of good and evil have often been considered too intertwined to be anything but related!

 

Laima

The Baltic goddess of fate and destiny, Laima determines the length of your life and the life span of all things. She is also the primary god in determining what a person’s fortunes will be throughout their life.

 

Laima bestows both good luck and bad. She’s also the patroness of pregnant women – and no wonder, when she’s the one to pronounce every infant’s destiny.

 

Žemyna/Zemes māte

The earth mother and goddess of earth and fertility, Zemes māte personifies and holds dominion over all life on earth. She represents the feminine aspects of nature, and protects the earth.

 

In Lithuanian tradition, Žemyna is the mate or wife of Perkūnas. Their wedding is celebrated every spring, when nature once again grows fertile and new.

 

Like various other goddesses in the Baltic, aspects of the earth mother were integrated into the cult of the Virgin Mary after Christianisation.

 

Medeina

Protector of the forests, Medeina is a virginal goddess. She is depicted as a young woman or a she-wolf, and runs with a pack of wolves around her. Very cool.

 

Medeina’s sacred animal is the hare – when hunters in the forests saw a hare bounding past, they would apparently stop the chase, as this was a clear sign that Medeina was there to protect the forest, and could grow angry at their invasion.

 

Giltine

A number of gods in the Baltic pantheon have authority over death. But the duty of Giltine, sister of Laima, is to kill people when their time comes. This is uncommon, and plays a role in peoples perception of Baltic paganism as overly deterministic.

 

This morbid figure collects her death poison by roaming graveyards and licking corpses with her serpentine tongue. Quite an occupation for a goddess.

 

Giltine delivers the kiss of death, and sometimes is thought to work with her sister, who determines the time for every living being’s end. She is depicted as extremely thin and pale, usually wearing white. Sometimes she is a snake or an owl – two very common images of death.

 

Milda

A very popular name even today, Milda is the Lithuanian goddess of love and freedom (any takers for Giltine as a baby name? It’s not quite as popular). She’s depicted as a beautiful, and sometimes nude, woman with a chariot pulled by doves as her favourite mode of transportation.

 

The enemy of loneliness, Milda is a great goddess to have on your side. However, it’s likely that she only came into being in the 19th century, and isn’t an ancient goddess at all. Still, she has enough fans that numerous towns celebrate her every May.

 

Other gods & goddesses within Baltic Paganism

Of course, there are many more Baltic gods and goddess, but these are the primary figures. The remainder of the pantheon includes a god of bees, of milk, the sea, farming, beer (that’s a real favourite of mine), and fire.

 

1555 Woodcut of people praying with two altars, one with a snake and one with fire

 

Mythological creatures from the Baltic

We know of only a few mythical creatures from Latvia and Lithuania – no doubt there were once many, but contemporary knowledge around them is scarce. However, we could still find a few fascinating characters.

 

Aitvaras

Known by a whole host of names, the Aitvaras is a nature spirit in Baltic mythology. Like its names, the creature can take on many forms. A cunning little shapeshifter, its own form is serpentine, like a little dragon. It’s also often alight, with either its head or even its whole body covered in flames.

 

Aitvaras’ are family guardians, and can bring a lot of good fortune and happiness when they get attached. Usually peacefully disguised as a rooster when in the home, they steal grain and supplies from other households.

 

Interestingly, the arrival of Christianity brought about quite a change in perspective around these little fiends. They shifted from helpful tricksters and guardian spirits to greedy demons. Eventually, they even served the devil, and were certainly not welcome in the home any longer.

 

Raganos

A wooden sculpture of a raganos/ragana

 

The Baltic witch, Raganos, has quite a number of roles in nature. She has features common to witch-myths, like a hideous appearance, spell-casting, and the ability to turn humans into toads, pigs, and other animals.

 

More than these roles, though, Raganos are sages, seers and deities of the forest depths. They close the dawn, cut the moon, and obscure the sun.

 

Laumės

Joining the ranks of beautiful nymph ladies who frolic in water across pretty much all ancient mythologies are the Laumės. Once a singular beautiful goddess, Laume came to earth to become a multitude of nymph- or fairy-like creatures. There, they remain emissaries between earth and sky.

 

Beautiful maidens with fair hair, Laumės dwell in forests near water. They’re very talented with housework and have particularly large breasts (a bit of wish fulfillment slipping in there, I’d say), making terrific wives for those young men lucky enough to marry one.

 

But Laumės are temperamental, and can punish rude or disrespectful men. They also have a nasty tendency to steal babies, as they feel a strong motherly pull but cannot have children of their own.

 

Baubas

A small, scary creature used to scare children, a baubas has long arms, wrinkled fingers, and red eyes. Much like the more well-known boogeyman, baubai live in dark parts of the house. They’re evil spirits, and will stifle children or tear at their hair.

 

Lithuanian Folk tales

Folktales, and folk songs in particular, remain a very important part of Latvian and Lithuanian culture and literature today. Both countries throw multiple folk festivals annually, which you should be sure to check out if you visit the Baltic!

 

Despite that culture around storytelling, Latvian folktales are actually pretty hard to find! So we’ve found the two most popular Lithuanian folk stories. Expect lost loves and shapeshifting.

 

Eglė the Queen of Serpents

Sculpture “Eglė the Queen of Serpents” by Robertas Antinis in Palanga, Lithuania – Image by GraceKelly

 

With more than 100 different versions recorded around Lithuania, this folktale is one of the best-known in the country. It’s also my absolute favourite – but I’ll try to keep this retelling relatively short.

 

An unusual marriage proposal

In the distant past, a young maiden was bathing in the river with her two sisters. When she gets out and puts on her clothes, she finds a grass snake in the sleeve of her blouse. She tries to shake it off, but it speaks to her in a human voice, insisting she marry it in exchange for leaving. Bit of an unfair trade, but eventually the distraught young woman accepts.

 

After three days, thousands of snakes slither to her home to claim her as their queen and wife to their master. But Eglė’s horrified family trick them three times, into taking a goose, a sheep, and a cow as their master’s bride. Each time they return to the family when they notice the ruse, until finally they threaten a year of famine if she doesn’t go with them.

 

King and Queen of the serpents

So Eglė is taken to their king, who lives at the bottom of the sea. But instead of seeing another snake, she meets a handsome young man – Žilvinas, the shapeshifting Grass Snake Prince. Pleasantly surprised, and more than a little relieved, Eglė finds that she enjoys the man’s company, despite circumstances. He shows her the beautiful palace she is to spend eternity with him in, and they spend three weeks feasting and being merry, the newlywed King and Queen of the serpents.

 

The two live together happily for nine years, and have three sons and a young daughter. Eglė forgets about her own life, until one day her son asks about her parents. Feeling suddenly homesick, Eglė decides to return home for a visit – but her husband forbids her from leaving. When she insists, he sets her three impossible tasks.

 

Eglė must spin a never-ending thread of silk. Wear down a pair of iron shoes. And bake a pie with no utensils. With help from a sorceress, Eglė completes these unusual tasks. Žilvinas honors the agreement, and lets her go, taking their children to see her family. First though, he instructs them all on how to call him from the sea, and swears them to secrecy.

 

Eglė’s return to her family

When they finally see Eglė again, her family doesn’t want to let her go. So, in an attempt to learn how to summon her husband, they beat the couple’s sons. They won’t betray him though, until the frightened young daughter gives in and tells them the chant.

 

Eglės twelve brothers call on the Grass Snake Prince, and kill him with scythes when he emerges from the water. Eglė only discovers the betrayal days later, when she speaks the chant, and finds nothing but bloody foam.

 

Sculpture of Eglė at Glebe Park – Image by huw-ogilvie

 

Inconsolable over the death of her beloved, the serpent queen whispers an enchantment, and turns her daughter, who betrayed them through her fear, into a quaking aspen. She then turns her three sons into mighty trees, an oak, an ash, and a birch tree. In a final act of magic, Eglė transforms herself into a spruce.

 

Jūratė and Kastytis

A far shorter, and similarly popular Lithuanian folk tale, Jūratė and Kastytis follows two star-crossed lovers. Interestingly, the tale reportedly comes from the 19th century and isn’t ancient at all. But it’s certainly popular, and lovely (if sad) enough to be well worth the telling.

 

Sculpture of the goddess Jūratė in the Lithuanian village of Jurata

 

In a time when gods still roam the earth, the sea goddess Jūratė lives in an amber palace beneath the sea. There, she rules over the creatures of the Baltic ocean, their protectress.

 

A young fisherman, Kastytis, begins to disturb the peace of her domain, catching too many fish on the coast. Jūratė decides to punish him, but when she sees the young mortal man, she falls instantly in love.

 

The two become lovers, and live for a time in Jūratė’s amber castle. But one day, the thunder god Perkūnas discovers their relationship, and grows furious at the goddess for stooping to the level of their mortal creations. And so he strikes her amber castle, shattering it into a million pieces and killing Kastytis. Worse, he chains the goddess to the ruins, leaving her there to mourn her loss for eternity.

 

In some versions of the story, it is Jūratė’s tears that form the amber pieces that wash ashore in Lithuania. In others, Baltic amber is the remaining pieces of her ruined castle.

 

Last thoughts on Baltic gods & myths

These are the most interesting – and most well-known – myths from the Baltic countries of Lithuania and Latvia. Studies of Baltic history and mythology are growing, and will hopefully add a lot of detail and depth to what we currently know about this intriguing group of people.

 

If you know any myths, legends, folktales or god-myths that should be added, let us know! I would love to expand on this list, and learn about more unique creatures and stories that give us some insight into their society and culture.

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