The Music of the Past in Modern Baltic Paganism

Michael Strmiska
Michael Strmiska

Though modern Baltic Paganism is understood by its members and practitioners as a continuation or restoration of pre-Christian religions of the Latvian and Lithuanian peoples, existing Pagan organizations and activities are very much an outgrowth or further development of folklore and folk music studies of the nineteenth-century, rooted in the fertile soil of nineteenth-century nationalism and romanticism.

It might also be said that such nationalism and romanticism have certain roots in Baltic folk traditions.

German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Herder (1744-1803), a father of nineteenth-century nationalism and folklore studies, was intrigued by Latvian music and folklore during his years in Riga (1764-1769) working as a pastor.

Herder advocated the collection and preservation of folk art, literature and music as important expressions of a people’s peculiar national spirit or soul. He discussed Latvian folklore in this light in several publications, notably ‘Stimmen der Völker in Lieder’ (‘Voices of the Folk in Song’, 1807), stimulating interest in Eastern European and specifically Baltic folk culture across Europe as well as in the Baltic region itself.

Following Herder, nineteenth-century Baltic nationalist scholars and collectors of folklore and folk music devoted themselves to the preservation and popularization of Latvian and Lithuanian mythology, folklore, and folk music as a means of upholding national language, identity and historical memory against not merely political but also cultural and linguistic domination of their respective countries by German, Polish and Russian elites.

This historical phenomenon is often called the “National Awakening” in the Baltic States. The collections of Latvian and Lithuanian folk songs, called dainas and dainos, were published in multiple volumes.

Latvian and Lithuanian folk cultures were most predominant in the rural areas inhabited by peasants somewhat beyond the reach and beneath the interest of government officials and social elites, who typically favoured German and Russian languages and cultures in the case of Latvia, and Polish and Russian languages and cultures in the case of Lithuania.

The rising interest in native-language folk cultures was part of the formation process of a new class of cultural elite determined not only to preserve traditional folk cultures, but to build modern cultures in Latvia and Lithuania upon the foundation of the folk.

Collecting and documenting, publishing and popularizing Latvian and Lithuanian folklore from the largely illiterate peasant population went hand-in-hand with creating works of modern literature in the Latvian and Lithuanian languages.

The first activity served to demonstrate that the two nations possessed rich indigenous cultures on the folk level, while the second activity bolstered confidence in their capacity to participate in modern Europe’s level of cosmopolitan “high” culture.

However, folklore and folk cultures often furnished the themes, motifs and motivations for such supposedly higher art and literature, an inspirational dynamic that continues today, demonstrating the enduring influence of the folk cultures first collected and popularized in the nineteenth-century.

The archaic Baltic folk songs were rich in pre-Christian, Pagan mythology and spirituality. The religious dimensions of the Latvian dainas and Lithuanian dainos were seized upon with pride as evidence of distinctive indigenous religious heritages predating Christianization.

The comparative study of Indo-European languages inspired Baltic scholars to trace the pedigrees of Latvian and Lithuanian religions to the hypothetical time of ancient Indo-European unity some 4,000 years ago and to compare Baltic gods, myths and rituals with those of the ancient Greeks and Indians.

Even today, the Indo-European connections of the ancient Pagan traditions remain important to Latvian and Lithuanian modern Pagans. The dainas and dainos, for example, have been compared often with the Vedic hymns of ancient India.

For both Latvians and Lithuanians, then, the religious elements of native folklore were a source of pride and a support to ethnic identity, and for those who saw the Christianization of their countries as aspects of foreign domination and colonization, folk religion represented the possibility of recovering something from before the times of oppression and occupation.

It is this motivation that led to the formation of modern Pagan religious organizations, for which folk culture, and particularly folk music, was the wellspring of spiritual insight and religious activity, and remains so today.

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