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Lithuanian mythology

Lithuanian mythology is the mythology of Lithuanian polytheism, the religion of pre-Christian Lithuanians. Like other Indo-Europeans, ancient Lithuanians maintained a polytheistic mythology and religious structure. In pre-Christian Lithuania, mythology was a part of polytheistic religion; after Christianisation mythology survived mostly in folklore, customs and festive rituals. Lithuanian mythology is very close to the mythology of other Baltic nations and tribes and is considered a part of Baltic mythology.


Frescos with motifs from Lithuanian mythology at the Centre of Lithuanian Studies, Vilnius University.
Lithuania in the Mappa mundi of Pietro Vesconte, 1321. The inscription reads: Letvini pagani - pagan Lithuanians.
Žaltys and the Holy Fire are depicted in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina, above the inscription LITVANIE PARS

Early Lithuanian religion and customs were based on oral tradition. Therefore the very first records about Lithuanian mythology and beliefs were made by travellers, Christian missionaries, chronicle writers and historians. Original Lithuanian oral tradition partially survived in national ritual and festive songs and legends which started to be written down in the 18th century.

The first bits about Baltic religion were written down by Herodotus describing Neuri (Νευροί)[1] in his Histories and Tacitus in his Germania mentioned Aestii wearing boar figures and worshipping Mother of gods. Neuri were mention by Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. In the 9th century there is one attestation about Prussian (Aestii) funeral traditions by Wulfstan. In 11th century Adam of Bremen mentioned Prussians, living in Sambia and their holy groves. 12th century Muslim geographer al-Idrisi in The Book of Roger mentioned Balts as worshipers of Holy Fire and their flourishing city Madsun (Mdsūhn, Mrsunh, Marsūna).[2]

The first recorded Baltic myth - The Tale of Sovius was detected as the complementary insert in the copy of Chronographia (Χρονογραφία) of Greek chronicler from Antioch John Malalas rewritten in the year 1262 in Lithuania. It is a first recorded Baltic myth, also the first placed among myths of other nations - Greek, Roman and others. The Tale of Sovius describes the establishing of cremation custom which was common among Lithuanians and other Baltic nations. The names of the Baltic gods lt:Andajus, Perkūnas, lt:Žvorūna, and a smith-god lt:Teliavelis are mentioned.

When the Prussian Crusade and Lithuanian Crusade started, more first-hand knowledge about beliefs of Balts were recorded, but these records were mixed with propaganda about infidels. One of the first valuable sources is the Treaty of Christburg, 1249, between the pagan Prussian clans, represented by a papal legate, and the Teutonic Knights. In it worship of Kurkas (Curche), the god of harvest and grain, pagan priests (Tulissones vel Ligaschones), who performed certain rituals at funerals are mentioned.[3]

Chronicon terrae Prussiae is a major source for information on the Order's battles with Old Prussians and Lithuanians. It contains mentionings about Prussian religion and the center of Baltic religion - Romuva, where lives Kriwe-Kriwajto as a powerful priest who was held in high regard by the Prussians, Lithuanians, and Balts of Livonia.

Livonian Rhymed Chronicle which covers the period 1180 – 1343, contains records about ethical codex of the Lithuanians and the Baltic people.

French theologian and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, Pierre d'Ailly mentions the Sun (Saulė) as one of the most important Lithuanian gods, which rejuvenates the world as its spirit. Like Romans, Lithuanians consecrate the Sunday entirely for the Sun. Although they are worshipping the Sun, they have no temples. The astronomy of Lithuanians is based on the Moon calendar.[4]

Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, who later became the Pope Pius II mentioned Lithuanians worshiping the Sun and the iron hammer which was used to free the Sun from the tower. He mentioned also Christian missionaries cutting off holy groves and oaks, which Lithuanians believed to be homes of the gods.[5]

Jan Łasicki created De diis Samagitarum caeterorumque Sarmatarum et falsorum Christianorum (Concerning the gods of Samagitians, and other Sarmatians and false Christians) - written c. 1582 and published in 1615, although it has some important facts it also contains many inaccuracies, as he didn't knew Lithuanian and relied on stories of others. The list of Lithuanian gods, provided by Jan Łasicki, is still considered an important and of interest for Lithuanian mythology. Later researchers Teodor Narbutt, Simonas Daukantas and Jonas Basanavičius relied on his work.

Matthäus Prätorius in his two-volume Deliciae Prussicae oder Preussische Schaubühne, written in 1690, collected facts about Prussian and Lithuanian rituals. He idealised the culture of Prussians, considered it belonging to the culture of the Antique world.

The Sudovian Book was an anonymous work about the customs, religion, and daily life of the Prussians from Sambia (Semba). The manuscript was written in German in the 16th century. The book included a list of Prussian gods, sorted in a generally descending order from sky to earth to underworld and was and important source for reconstructing Baltic and Lithuanian mythology.

Romuva sanctuary in Prussia. From Christoph Hartknoch's Alt- und neues Preussen (Old and New Prussia), 1684.

History of scholarship

Surviving information about Baltic paganism in general is fragmented. As with most ancient Indo-European cultures (e.g. Greece and India), the original primary mode of transmission of seminal information such as myths, stories, and customs was oral, the then-unnecessary custom of writing being introduced later during the period of the text-based culture of Christianity. Most of the early written accounts are very brief and made by foreigners, usually Christians, who disapproved of pagan traditions. Some academics regard some texts as inaccurate misunderstandings or even fabrications. In addition, many sources list many different names and different spellings, thus sometimes it is not clear if they are referring to the same thing.

Lithuanians worshipping a grass snake and holy fire. From Olaus Magnus' Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples), book 3, 1555

Lithuania became Christianized between the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century, but pagan religions survived for another two centuries, gradually losing cultural influence and coherence. The last conceptions of the old religion survived approximately until the beginning of the 19th century. The relics of the old polytheistic religion were already interwoven with songs, tales and other mythic stories. It was difficult to have a whole, solid view about Lithuanian mythology. Another difficulty in this process is that Lithuanian mythology was not static, but constantly developed, so that it did not remain in the same form over the longer periods usually treated by mythologists.

Many scholars preferred to write their own reconstructions of Lithuanian mythology, based also on historical, archaeological, and ethnographic data. The first such reconstruction was written by the Polish-speaking Lithuanian historian Theodor Narbutt at the beginning of the 19th century. Two well-known attempts at reconstruction have been attempted more recently by Marija Gimbutas and Algirdas Julien Greimas.

An old sacrificial stone in Lithuania

The most modern academics exploring Lithuanian mythology in the second half of the 20th century were Norbertas Vėlius and Gintaras Beresnevičius.[6]

Relations with other mythological systems

Flag of Vaidevutis

Lithuanian mythology is perhaps closest to Latvian mythology, and according to the prevalent point of view, Lithuanians shared the same myths and basic features of their religion with the Old Prussians. On the other hand, individual elements have much in common with other mythological systems, and especially with those of neighbouring cultures.

There is a Finnic Mordvin/Erza thunder god named Pur'ginepaz which in folklore has themes resembling Lithuanian Perkunas. "Sparks fly from the cartwheels and the hooves of fiery-red horses of Pur’ginepaz, the Erza thunder god, when he drives across the sky".[7] In several mythical songs the thunder god Pur'ginepaz marries an earthly girl Litova (Lituva, Syrzha, etc.).[8] These also closely resemble the Vedic Parjanya.

The periods of Lithuanian mythology

Pre-Christian mythology is known mainly through speculation and reconstruction, although the existence of some mythological elements, known from later sources, has been confirmed by archaeological findings. It is reflected in folk tales, such as Jūratė and Kastytis, Eglė the Queen of Serpents and the Myth of Sovijus.

The next period of Lithuanian mythology started in the 15th century, and lasted till approximately the middle of the 17th century. The myths of this period are mostly heroic, concerning the founding of the state of Lithuania. Perhaps two the best known stories are those of the dream of the Grand Duke Gediminas and the founding of Vilnius,[9] the capital of Lithuania, and of Šventaragis' Valley, which also concerns the history of Vilnius. Many stories of this kind reflect actual historical events. In general, these myths are coloured by patriotism. Already by the 16th century, there existed a non-unified pantheon; data from different sources did not correspond one with another, and local spirits, especially those of the economic field, became mixed up with more general gods and ascended to the level of gods.[10]

The third period began with the growing influence of Christianity and the activity of the Jesuits, roughly since the end of the 16th century. The earlier confrontational approach to the pre-Christian Lithuanian heritage among common people was abandoned, and attempts were made to use popular beliefs in missionary activities. This also led to the inclusion of Christian elements in mythic stories.

The last period of Lithuanian mythology began in the 19th century, when the importance of the old cultural heritage was admitted, not only by the upper classes, but by the nation more widely. The mythical stories of this period are mostly reflections of the earlier myths, considered not as being true, but as the encoded experiences of the past. They concentrated on moral problems, and on a heroic vision of the past, rather than on individual heroes, who very often even lacked proper names, being referred to as "a duke", "the ruler of the castle", etc.

Elements of Lithuanian mythology

Gods and nature

Worshiping of oaks was related to the cult of Lithuanian thunder god Perkūnas

Stories, songs, and legends of this kind describe laws of nature and such natural processes as the change of seasons of the year, their connections with each other and with the existence of human beings. Nature is often described in terms of the human family; in one central example (found in many songs and stories), the sun is called the mother, the moon the father, and stars the sisters of human beings. Lithuanian mythology is rich in gods and minor gods of water, sky and earth. Holy groves were worshipped, especially beautiful and distinctive places - alka were selected for sacrifices for gods.

Lithuanian myths


Lithuanian mythology serves as a constant inspiration for Lithuanian artists. Many interpretations of Eglė - the Queen of Serpents were made in poetry and visual art. In modern Lithuanian music polytheistic rituals and sutartinės songs were source of inspiration for Bronius Kutavičius. Old Lithuanian names, related to nature and mythology are often given to the children. Many pagan traditions slightly transformed were adopted by the Christian religion in Lithuania. Oaks are still considered a special trees, and grass snakes are treated with respect.

See also


  1. ^ Matthews, W. K. (1948). "Baltic origins". Retrieved 23 May 2020.
  2. ^ Senvaitytė, Dalia (2005). "ISTORINIŲ ŠALTINIŲ INFORMACIJA APIE UGNĮ IR SU JA SUSIJUSIUS RITUALUS". Ugnis senojoje lietuvių tradicijoje. Mitologinis spektas (PDF) (in Lithuanian). Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas. p. 7. ISBN 9955-12-072-X. Retrieved 23 May 2020.
  3. ^ Vėlius, Norbertas (1996). "Baltų religijos ir mitologijos šaltiniai" (pdf). (in Lithuanian). Retrieved 23 May 2020.
  4. ^ "Teliavelis – saulės kalvis" (in Lithuanian). Retrieved 23 May 2020.
  5. ^ "Požalgirinė Lietuva Europos akimis" (in Lithuanian). Retrieved 23 May 2020.
  6. ^ "lietuvių mitologija". (in Lithuanian). Retrieved 23 May 2020.
  7. ^ Yurtov, A. 1883. Obraztsy mordovskoi narodnoi slovesnosti. 2nd ed. Kazan. p 129.
  8. ^ Jakov, O. 1848. O mordvakh, nakhodiashchikhsia v Nizhegorodskom uezde Nizhegorodskoi gubernii. Saint Petersburg. p 59–60.
  9. ^ "Legend of Founding of Vilnius". Archived from the original on 20 October 2007.
  10. ^ Beresnevičius.

Further reading

  • Gintaras Beresnevičius on periodisation and Gods in Lithuanian mythology.[1]
  • Algirdas Julius Greimas, "Of Gods and Men: Studies in Lithuanian Mythology", Indiana Univ. Pr. (November 1992). ISBN 978-0253326522
  • List of Lithuanian Gods Found in Maciej Sryjkowski chonicle by Gintaras Beresnevičius
  • Lithuanian Religion and Mythology by Gintaras Beresnevičius.
  • Cosmology Of The Ancient Balts by Limbertas Klimka and Vytautas Straižys.
  • (in Lithuanian) Norbertas Vėlius. Mitinės lietuvių sakmių būtybės (1977) OCLC 186317016
  • (in Lithuanian) Norbertas Vėlius. Laumių dovanos (1979) OCLC 5799779 (translated into English as Lithuanian mythological tales in 1998)
  • (in Lithuanian) Norbertas Vėlius. Senovės baltų pasaulėžiūra (1983) OCLC 10021017 (translated into English as The World Outlook of the Ancient Balts in 1989)
  • (in Lithuanian) Norbertas Vėlius. Chtoniškasis lietuvių mitologijos pasaulis (1987) OCLC 18359555
  • (In Lithuanian) Norbertas Vėlius. Baltų religijos ir mitologijos šaltiniai (Sources of Baltic religion and mythology), 4 volumes. Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidybos centras: 1996–2005, Vilnius. ISBN 5-420-01518-8
  • (In Lithuanian) Jonas Basanavičius. Fragmentą mithologiae: Perkūnas - Velnias" (1887 m.; BsFM)
  • (In Lithuanian) Jonas Basanavičius. Iš senovės lietuvių mitologijos (1926 m.; 9)
  • (In Lithuanian) Lietuvių mitologija: iš Norberto Vėliaus palikimo (Lithuanian mythology. From the legacy of Norbertas Vėlius), 3 volumes. Mintis: 2013 ISBN 9785417010699
  • Arūnas Vaicekauskas, Ancient Lithuanian calendar festivals, 2014, Vytautas Magnus University, Versus Aureus. ISBN 978-609-467-018-3,ISBN 978-609-467-017-6
  • (in Lithuanian) Rimantas Balsys. Lietuvių ir prūsų pagonybė: alkai, žyniai, stabai. Klaipėdos universiteto leidykla: 2015, Klaipėda. ISBN 9789955188513
  • (in Lithuanian) Rimantas Balsys. Lietuvių ir prūsų religinė elgsena: aukojimai, draudimai, teofanijos. Klaipėdos universiteto leidykla: 2017, Klaipėda. ISBN 978-9955-18-928-2
  • (in Lithuanian) Gintaras Beresnevičius. Lietuvių religija ir mitologija (Lithuanian religion and mythology). Tyto Alba: 2019, Vilnius. ISBN 978-609-466-419-9
  • (in Lithuanian) Rolandas Kregždys. Baltų mitologemų etimologijos žodynas I: Kristburgo sutartis (Dictionary of Baltic Mythologemes I: Christburg Treaty) . Lietuvos kultūros tyrimų institutas: 2012, Vilnius. ISBN 978-9955-868-50-7
  • (in Lithuanian) Ilja Lemeškin. Sovijaus sakmė ir 1262 metų chronografas (Myth of Sovius and the Chronograph of 1262). Lietuvos literatūros ir tautosakos institutas: 2009, Vilnius. ISBN 978-609-425-008-8
  • Compiler Adomas Butrimas (2009). "Baltų menas / Art of the Balts“. Vilnius : Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla. ISBN 978-9955-854-36-4
  • (In German) Adalbert Bezzenberger: Litauische Forschungen. Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Sprache und des Volkstums der Litauer. Peppmüller, Göttingen 1882.
  • (In German) August Schleicher: Lituanica. Abhandlungen der Wiener Akademie, Wien 1854. (über litauische Mythologie)
  • (In German) Edmund Veckenstedt (Hrsg.): Mythen, Sagen und Legenden der Zamaiten (Litauer). Heidelberg 1883 (2 Bde.).