Lithuanian mythology
Lithuanian mythology is an example of Baltic mythology
The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

, developed by Lithuanians
Lithuanians are the Baltic ethnic group native to Lithuania, where they number around 2,765,600 people. Another million or more make up the Lithuanian diaspora, largely found in countries such as the United States, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Russia, United Kingdom and Ireland. Their native language...

 throughout the centuries.

History of scholarship

Surviving information about Baltic paganism in general is very sketchy and incomplete. 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 verbal
Oral history
Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews...

, 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.

Lithuania became Christianized
Christianization of Lithuania
The Christianization of Lithuania – Christianization of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that took place in 1387, initiated by the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila and his cousin Vytautas, that signified the official adoption of Christianity by Lithuanians, one of the last pagan...

 between the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century, but pagan religion survived for another two centuries, gradually losing its cultural influence and coherence. The Evangelical
Prussian Union (Evangelical Christian Church)
The Prussian Union was the merger of the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Church in Prussia, by a series of decrees – among them the Unionsurkunde – by King Frederick William III...

 Religion, established in Prussia
Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

 by Albert of Brandenburg Prussia promised to preach to people in their own language, rather than Latin. Duke Albert established the Albertina University in Königsberg
Königsberg was the capital of East Prussia from the Late Middle Ages until 1945 as well as the northernmost and easternmost German city with 286,666 inhabitants . Due to the multicultural society in and around the city, there are several local names for it...

, where languages of the neighboring countries were taught and the first books in those languages were printed. The last conceptions of the old religion survived approximately until the beginning of the 19th century. However, as it was the tradition, they were never documented by followers of the religion themselves, and all known facts are from documents left by outsiders.
Although the pre-Christian religion in Lithuania
Lithuania , officially the Republic of Lithuania is a country in Northern Europe, the biggest of the three Baltic states. It is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, whereby to the west lie Sweden and Denmark...

 died out much later than in any other European country, actual information on Lithuanian mythology is scattered and late. Interest in it has increased since the beginning of the 19th century, when the narrative material began to be collected. However, at this time the majority of Lithuanians had already ceased to live according to the beliefs and doctrines of their earlier religion, and story-tellers could not explain their meaning more adequately and precisely. Without these explanations, the folk tales and songs collected by scholars seemed to some mythologists and historians to be more the raw material out of which a mythology or a heroic epos
Epic poetry
An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form...

 might be composed than the mythology itself. The relics of the old religion were interwoven with other stories of folkloric mythology, and were subsequently documented quite well, including many testimonies written by storytellers themselves. However, the more syncretic character of this mythology raised some uncertainties and, subsequently, hypotheses and discussions, as to what the pagan Lithuanian religion actually was.

Because of this view, 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
Polish language
Polish is a language of the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages, used throughout Poland and by Polish minorities in other countries...

-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
Marija Gimbutas
Marija Gimbutas , was a Lithuanian-American archeologist known for her research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of "Old Europe", a term she introduced. Her works published between 1946 and 1971 introduced new views by combining traditional spadework with linguistics and mythological...

 and Algirdas Julien Greimas
Algirdas Julien Greimas
Algirdas Julien Greimas , known among other things for the Greimas Square, is considered, along with Roland Barthes, the most prominent of the French semioticians. With his training in linguistics, he added to the theory of signification and laid the foundations for the Paris School of Semiotics...

. This method of reconstruction is thorny, and none of the attempts has been satisfactory.

The two biggest difficulties in this process are, first, the fact 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. Secondly, Slavic mythology, which in general concepts seems very different from its Lithuanian and Latvia
Latvia , officially the Republic of Latvia , is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by Estonia , to the south by Lithuania , to the east by the Russian Federation , to the southeast by Belarus and shares maritime borders to the west with Sweden...

n counterparts, had a certain influence on people's thought, which affected the ethnographic data, and thus the judgments of scholars who made use of such data.

Thus, the first reconstructions and descriptions of Lithuanian mythology offer a far from true description of their subject, being little more than a patchwork of arbitrarily selected details from Lithuanian and Belarus
Belarus , officially the Republic of Belarus, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered clockwise by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital is Minsk; other major cities include Brest, Grodno , Gomel ,...

ian mythologies. The account offered by Narbutt, and ideas raised by Adam Mickiewicz
Adam Mickiewicz
Adam Bernard Mickiewicz ) was a Polish poet, publisher and political writer of the Romantic period. One of the primary representatives of the Polish Romanticism era, a national poet of Poland, he is seen as one of Poland's Three Bards and the greatest poet in all of Polish literature...

 (for example, in his play Dziady
Dziady was an ancient Slavic feast to commemorate the dead. Literally, the word is translated as "Grandfathers". It was held twice every year . During the feast the ancient Slavs organized libations and ritual meals...

) are among these, but mythologists since the second half of the 19th century have become more accurate, as a result of their knowledge of contemporary linguistic research which shows the structural differences between Lithuanian and Slavic languages.
The most modern academics exploring Lithuanian mythology in the second half of the 20th century were Norbertas Vėlius
Norbertas Velius
Norbertas Vėlius was a Lithuanian folklorist specializing in the Lithuanian mythology.-Major works:*Mitinės lietuvių sakmių būtybės...

 and Gintaras Beresnevičius
Gintaras Beresnevicius
Gintaras Beresnevičius was a Lithuanian historian of religions specializing in Baltic mythology. He together with Norbertas Vėlius is considered to be the best specialist in Lithuanian mythology....

. Their works are considered as the most objective. They are very critical and careful about mythological sources.

Reconstructions of the mythology

According to Marija Gimbutas
Marija Gimbutas
Marija Gimbutas , was a Lithuanian-American archeologist known for her research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of "Old Europe", a term she introduced. Her works published between 1946 and 1971 introduced new views by combining traditional spadework with linguistics and mythological...

, the initial structure of Lithuanian mythology was based on a matriarchal system of goddess
A goddess is a female deity. In some cultures goddesses are associated with Earth, motherhood, love, and the household. In other cultures, goddesses also rule over war, death, and destruction as well as healing....

es representing various pieces of the natural world, e.g., earth, sky, moon, water, air, etc. Later developments took on a patriarchal format, many of the female goddesses losing their power and significance.

Relations with other mythological systems

Lithuanian mythology is perhaps closest to Latvian mythology
Latvian mythology
Latvian culture, along with Lithuanian, is among the oldest surviving Indo-European cultures. Much of its symbolism is ancient. Its seasons, festivals, and numerous deities reflect the essential agrarian nature of Latvian tribal life...

, and according to the prevalent point of view, Lithuanians shared the same myths and basic features of their religion with the Old Prussians
Old Prussians
The Old Prussians or Baltic Prussians were an ethnic group, autochthonous Baltic tribes that inhabited Prussia, the lands of the southeastern Baltic Sea in the area around the Vistula and Curonian Lagoons...

. 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 " (Yurtov, A. 1883. Obraztsy mordovskoi narodnoi slovesnosti. 2nd ed. Kazan. p 129). In several mythical songs the thunder god Pur’ginepaz marries an earthly girl Litova (Lituva, Syrzha, etc.) (Jakov, O. 1848. O mordvakh, nakhodiashchikhsia v Nizhegorodskom uezde Nizhegorodskoi gubernii. Sankt Peterburg. p 59–60) 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
Jurate and Kastytis
Jūratė and Kastytis is one of the most famous and popular Lithuanian legends and tales. For the first time it was recorded in 1842 in the writings of Liudvikas Adomas Jucevičius. Since then it has been adapted many times for modern poems, ballets, and even rock operas...

 and Eglė the Queen of Serpents
Egle the Queen of Serpents
Eglė the Queen of Serpents, alternatively Eglė the Queen of Grass Snakes , is a Lithuanian folk tale.-Details:Eglė the Queen of Serpents is considered one of the most archaic and best-known Lithuanian fairy tales and the richest in references of Baltic mythology. Over a hundred slightly diverging...


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
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, and its largest city, with a population of 560,190 as of 2010. It is the seat of the Vilnius city municipality and of the Vilnius district municipality. It is also the capital of Vilnius County...

, the capital of Lithuania, and of Šventaragis, 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.

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 an 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

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.

Inner heroism

Lithuanian myths often reveal the inner heroism of a human being, symbolising this inner being in terms of various feats in the mystic lands on the opposite side of the Earth, or in the sky of the South polar regions, commonly describing these places as "The Land over All the Seas" and "The Cosmic Underwater Kingdom", respectively.

The God of Morality

Myths that talk about problems of morality are the simplest, and are close to popular fables common to all European nations. The main idea in these stories is that the God often visits people to guide them in moral questions, but people are not able to recognise him. According to these stories, a human should listen to his or her inner voice of harmony and justice, in order to act morally in the presence of God, for people do not know when and under what circumstances they are under his gaze. Some scholars stress the mixed Christian and pre-Christian character of these stories.

See also

  • List of Lithuanian gods
  • Latvian mythology
    Latvian mythology
    Latvian culture, along with Lithuanian, is among the oldest surviving Indo-European cultures. Much of its symbolism is ancient. Its seasons, festivals, and numerous deities reflect the essential agrarian nature of Latvian tribal life...

  • Romuva (church)
    Romuva (church)
    Romuva is a Baltic ethnic religious organization, reviving the religious practices of the Lithuanian people before their Christianization. Romuva is a folk religion community that claims to continue living Baltic pagan traditions which survived in folklore and customs.Romuva primarily exists in...

  • Tree of the world
    World tree
    The world tree is a motif present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions, Siberian religions, and Native American religions. The world tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the earth, and, through its...

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