Before Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were Christianized, their people followed a pagan belief system. Polytheism—or the belief in multiple gods—nature worship, and sacrifice were a part of their religious rituals. Some leftovers of pagan times can be seen as a part of modern holiday customs—think decorated eggs. Furthermore, some holidays that come to us directly from pagan times (such as celebration of solstices or equinoxes) are still acknowledged in these countries today. So, what should you know about Baltic paganism?
*Note that this article is about paganism in the Baltic states, which overlaps with information relevant to the paganism of the Baltic tribes. Estonia is considered one of the Baltic countries, but Estonians are not descended from the Baltic tribes and do not speak a Baltic language like Lithuanians and Latvians.
Ancient Baltic Paganism
While it’s clear that forms of paganism predated the arrival of Christianity to the Baltic states, evidence for how paganism was practiced in ancient times must be gleaned from folklore and folk songs as well as the few historical sources available from the Middle Ages. Throughout time, pagan practices have evolved and many have been lost; however, anthropologists and others who study folk customs have been able to identify their original remnants by studying song, the practices of today, ancient burial sites, and historical sacred sites.
For example, because song has long been important to the Baltic peoples, folk songs of today have an imprint of the ancient Baltic pagan belief system about the world, the cyclical nature of time, and what happens to the soul after death.
Mixed Belief Systems
This belief system has its roots in the cultural mixing of different tribes that came to live in the area. Mara Kalnins in her book Latvia: A Short History describes how the belief systems of the ancient peoples who lived in the region of what is now Latvia and Lithuania merged with that of the encroaching Indo-European tribes—the female deities of the indigenous people and the male deities of the Indo-Europeans merged to form a hybrid pantheon of gods. She writes:
. . . the great natural powers that govern and shape the world remained female, with a corresponding sense of nurturing and benevolence. The Sun (Saule) who drives her horses across the sky is also the matron of a vast cosmic household.
The Indo-European newcomers and their masculine deities— the shining sky-god Dievs (later conflated with the Christian God) who rode on horseback through the heavens, Pērkons (god of thunder who smote evil-doers), Mēness the moon (shepherd of the stars who taught mankind mathematics) and others—shared the power and worship of the older female deities.
Some other aspects of paganism in the Baltics included:
- Belief in the power of spells and magic
- Adherence to superstition
- Use of sacrifice to appease a higher power
- Being in harmony with and worshiping nature
- Belief in multiple deities
- The use of fire as a part of ritual
- Both male and female spiritual leaders
- Use of magical items, such as amulets made from Baltic amber
Christianization and Soviet Cultural Suppression
The peoples of the Baltic countries were Christianized rather late, with Estonia and Latvia undergoing the process in the 13th century and Lithuania, “the last pagans of Europe,” holding out until the 14th century. Nevertheless, paganism could not be 100% stamped out, and the endurance of traditional songs and other folk traditions created continuity with the pagan past even while people existed in an officially Christian world.
A renewed interest in paganism in the Baltic countries could be felt at the beginning of the 20th century. The interest in Baltic pagan belief systems was also tied up with a sense of nationalism. Therefore, when the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in the middle of the 20th century, policies to suppress the practice of Baltic paganism were implemented.
Neopaganism in the Baltics
Independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s allowed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to return to exploring the “native” religion of paganism. However, the organizations that sprung up in this time period had to largely recreate and reconstruct belief systems and rituals that had been mostly lost. Each country had its own take on new Baltic paganism.
In Lithuania, the Romuva religion has a high priestess and is based on reverence for nature and ancestors. Fire is an important aspect in practitioners’ rituals, and one symbol of the organization is the tree of life.
Latvian Baltic neopaganism is influenced by mythology and folklore. The number three is of significance in this organization. It also focuses on the cycle of life and what happens to the soul after death.
Maausk and Taarausk
Maavalla Koda is the umbrella organization that unites Estonian pagans, both adherents to Maausk and Taarausk. Maavalla Koda is heavily invested in protecting the sacred sites of Estonia as well as folklore research, and it does so with the support of the Estonian government. Estonian neopaganism emphasizes harmony with nature.
Baltic Pagan Holidays
While pagan organizations’ low membership (with only a few hundred official members in any country) may make it seem as though few people are interested in paganism in the Baltic states today, the fact is that these three countries’ culture is a hybrid of their pagan background and more modern Christianity.
The people of the Baltic countries, in addition to recognizing typically Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, also widely celebrate pagan holidays, some which, though they may have some Christian elements, maintain their folk or pagan flavor.
Solstices and Equinoxes
For example, the equinoxes and solstices are often celebrated, with the summer solstice widely celebrated with bonfires, herb markets, and other folk practices. Christmas in Estonia is closely associated with the winter solstice.
Carnival–The Scaring Away of Winter
The celebration of Carnival (called Uzgavenes in Lithuania, Meteni in Latvia, and Vastlapaev in Estonia) is another day, though it marks the last day before Lent, a Christian concept, that is deeply steeped in pagan ideas.
Burning effigies, mask wearing, and the ritual of shooing away winter to welcome spring are some practices that date back to a pagan past.
The Pagan Origins of Easter Eggs
Furthermore, the coloring of eggs, while most commonly associated with the Christian Easter today, is a practice that predates Christianity and was deeply meaningful and symbolic for people who used them for protection, to send messages, or for luck.
Sacred Pagan Sites in the Baltic Countries
If you’re interested in Baltic paganism and you’re traveling through the Baltic states, you may be interested in visiting pagan sites.
In Lithuania, a pagan site is located right in the heart of Old Town Vilnius, the capital city! The altar to Ragutis, god of beer and fermentation, is located on Pilies g., typically hidden by the stands of a permanent outdoor souvenir market.
If you go to Palanga and Sventoji, on the Baltic Sea coast, you can visit the sanctuary there, where wooden sculptures with pagan imagery stand watch on a hill.
Furthermore, Kernave, one of Lithuania’s most historical locations, is often considered one of its pagan sites.
The Kaali meteor craters—in addition to being wonderful to visit in their own right—are believed to be a site of sacrifice for ancient peoples.
Palukula Sacred Hill, located near Tallinn, is a forested area that today’s pagans have long sought to protect. Evidence, such as of ancient shrines, and folklore indicate this place was used for prayer and sacrifices.
If you’re in Tartu, it’s possible to visit the sacred boulder located near the cathedral. The hollows in the boulder may indicate it was used for sacrifices.
Throughout Latvia, ancient oaks, sacred hills, caves, and stones with hollows on the top give rise to evidence of pagan rituals and ancient peoples using these sites regularly. A PDF file of the ancient sacred sites of the Riga Region of Latvia is a good resource for finding some of them.
Baltic Paganism for Visitors
When you’re in Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, you can visit ancient pagan sites, witness pagan holiday rituals, and learn more about the ways of life of ancient peoples by visiting museums or finding out information from guides.
However, you’ll also notice how folk art in these countries often depicts pagan symbols and patterns, many of them geometric. You can buy jewelry, pottery, clothing, and other souvenirs with pagan symbols that have long been a part of the cultural aesthetic of these countries.