Dainas are the ancient songs of Latvia, collected as texts by Krišjānis Barons. In the first article I talked about the sun songs which call upon and celebrate the sun goddess, Saule, a mother goddess who is benign and blesses all, especially ‘orphans’ in the folk songs. The moon god Meness is somewhat less called upon, perhaps as he is a god of war, and many of the Dainas appear to have been shared by women whose concerns are more with the happy lives of their families and abundance of food. He appears as the suitor of Saule or sometimes of her daughter.
Another god frequently called upon in the Dainas is Pērkons, the god of thunder. He is invoked to summon rain and one incantation calls to him,
Thunder rode across the sea.
It rained in the sea.
The peasant praying to Thunder called,
‘Come, Thunder, to this land,
come, Thunder, to this land,
for here the barley shoots are withering!’
He represents fertility as well as war. He is associated with metal, stone and the colour black.
Thunder has black horses
fattened on stone.
They drink silver water
from a trough of steel.
He appears to have been called upon to help with healing. There are many small amber amulets discovered from the between the eighth and twelth centuries that are in the form of an axe, the symbol of Pērkons. Pērkons is depicted as using his axe to fell the mighty oaks. Pērkons and Thor of Norse mythology are versions of the same mythological figure.
Dievs is the sky god. Through him move the sun and moon and the stars. He appears closely linked to images of horses. Unlike Meness and Pērkons, Dievs has a more gentle presence, protective, sheltering. He is called upon to help bad luck, to assist agriculture. His blessing is needed for farms to work well, for crops to yield bountiful harvests. He is pictured riding a grey horse, wearing a grey mantle. Sometimes he rides through a rye field and is seen in the grey mist of a garden. He may go gently down a hillside not to disturb the wild cherry blossoms or as a hunter in the forest with two wolves.
Some descriptions of Dievs in the Dainas conflate his godlike qualities with those of Odin. Fighting against evil his bird is also the black raven and signs that he is near can be rooks calling and magpies quarrelling. He may hang children of the devil in the oak trees in this battle, sacrificing the enemies of good.
Another important female deity is Laima. She represents fate for the individual, a person’s luck. Laima determines whether life will be long or short, happy or sad, easy or hard. She determines this at the moment of birth and is associated with the bath houses where women go to give birth. These saunas and hothouses were appropriate places for birth by the standards of the time, being reasonably sterile and better than giving birth in the field or even in a bed, the nature of the bath house helping with labour. But giving birth was very much a matter of luck, whether a woman would have a successful and safe birth. Dainas call on her and also use her to express acceptance of fate. Like Saule she also blesses orphan maidens with a positive fate.
Laima determines the character of the husband the maiden will marry and the homestead the woman would marry into. Young women prayed to her to send her a young man to their liking, especially orphan girls. Note in the following Daina the linden tree. This is Laima’s special tree.
Laima sits in the linden tree.
The orphan gathers linden blossoms.
Says Laima, sitting in the tree,
why, orphan, do you gather blossoms?
dear Laima, I’m gathering blossoms
for fashioning my maiden wreath.
Says Laima, sitting in the tree,
don’t gather many, little orphan
you won’t be wearing it for long.
I’ll tie the white cloth round your head,
I’ll cover you with a hat of sable.
Fate will tie the white cloth of a married woman with the rich addition of sable. She will provide the orphan girl with a rich husband.
Laima is usually depicted as dressed in white but she may walk the world in disguise. Sometimes she and Dievs walk the earth together, he dressed as an old beggar, she as his daughter. Sometimes she is represented as three women, multiple fates working together to determine an individual’s destiny.
Mara is another important goddess although some, like the influential band Skyforger, argue that she is a version of Mary. Mara is invoked in spells during labour. She is described as gathering up newborn children or children’s souls. Sometimes they are described metaphorically as small animals or insects.
Where, dear Mara, are you hurrying
with a vessel of silver?
To the lake, to the lake,
to fish for small chub.
Mara is linked with cows and the holiness of cows and milk. In Ventspils the special animal is the blue cow which is said to feed on blue grass that grows at the sea shore. All over town there are models, statues of cows. They are on the beaches, on the side or roads in the parks.
Her cowgirls knit multicoloured mittens while herding their cattle, a symbol of creativity. Mara is associated with part-colour, the spotted animals, black and white, the patterned blossoms and plants.
Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga draws an analogy with the Latvian mythology and Hindu religion. Laima she compares with the goddess Lakshmi who presides over happiness and riches. Mara she compares to the reverence for cows and milk in the Hindu tradition.
The cow is venerated and loved. I had the opportunity to go to a farm with blue cows. We went down the coast to Jūrkalne. At this time of year, just freed from the barns, the cows are lighter than they will later become in the year. It is very difficult to find a very blue cow as the bloodlines are so mixed. These were smaller cows than I had seen before. And so friendly. So curious. I could feel the presence of the cow so strongly that I understood why people would worship these beasts.
There is so much so say about the pagan gods of Latvia and their relationship with nature worship. So many stories of the gods echo pagan traditions encoded in those mediaeval English texts and songs and neopagan stories that fascinated me as a child.
But in particular I enjoyed depicting the relationship between Saule and the horse god Ūsiņš, god of light and spring, carrying her across the sky and supporting the sun. A yellow foal symbolises energy from the sun and with Ūsiņš Day begins the summer.