The Dainas are a body of folk songs collected by Krišjānis Barons from the villages and towns of Latvia in the nineteenth century. There are over 200,000 tests, ascribed to a place of geographic origin, and assembled ingroups gave Latvia a monumental and well-organized body of oral literature. In April 2019 I went to the Writers and Translators House to research and write poetry in response to the Dainas.
I was surprised to discover myself not only in a world of song but in a world of visual symbolism. The mythology and the pagan reverence for nature, trees, water, weather, earth, sky, animals has been codified from ancient times. Symbols have been associated with both the gods and aspects of the natural world. These symbols have become like logos, short hand for divine characters. These have been developed in folk arts, such as knitting and embroidery, carved eggs and pottery. Since ancient times they were carved into stone, and signs in different crafted forms are still given as gifts. I am grateful to my Latvian friend Irene Huls for her gift of a wooden carved sign of Saule, the sun goddess which is to decorate my new house to invite good luck and blessings from this mother deity.
Another of my favourite symbols is that of the goddess Laima. Associated with young women, childbirth, Laima gives to all at the moment of birth our individual fate. Her tree is commonly thought to be the linden but her sign, three chevrons, or a variant, is more redolent of pines and their needles which are also used for her rituals. The shape also echoes feathers as well as leaves. In Lithuanian mythology the equivalent goddess also takes the form of a swan. This is a beautiful design for embroidery. It may elongate into a long line, a classic shape that I remember embroidering myself when a child.
Another powerful sign stands for Mara. Mara is another mother goddess like Saule, but associated with the earth and the holy life-giving care of the milk-rich cow. She is a protector of livestock. I have seen two alternative signs commonly associated with her, one is a square cross, the other waves that mimic the movement of water. Perhaps she has a dual role as goddess of earth and water and hence the two symbols.The cross may be displayed in different ways straight on or rotated, to indicate different aspects of Mara, goddess of the earth, death and life. There is a belief that she is the most important goddess of all, as the creator, wife of Dievs, the most important god but there are many disputes as well about her role. It is argued she is not originally a pagan goddess but a version of Mary, mother of Jesus, a Christian saint transformed into a god in the Lativan pantheon. I have also heard her described as the Winter goddess. This puts her in cyclical opposition to Saule as the sun’s day comes at midsummer.
Dievs, the sky god, has the sign of an incomplete triangle, two sides pointing to the sky like a mountain. It is not joined below with a line. This is the sign of the sky and the universe. Perhaps he is the supreme god. Perhaps he is a later association with the Christian god. When I was younger I used to imagine god as an old bearded man in the sky. I don’t think anyone really told me this was what god was like but this picture felt so real. When I mention the bearded sky god to others they say I must have seen the Renaissance pictures of white haired old white men sitting in the heavens but I don’t remember seeing these pictures as a child. I feel my visions might relate to this idea of Dievs, the patriarch, but one who is a grandfather, no longer head of the household. In Crumpsall they would be living on their own, like my granddad.
I am fascinated by the serpent goddess Zalktis whose sign is that of the adder. In ancient times a non venomous green snake was kept to feed with the family, the žaltys, this snake was considered a good luck sign to encounter, and to kill one would bring misfortune. My friend saw a green snake sunning itself on a bank and told me this was good luck. A shallow bowl of milk would be put out for the snakes. If they should feed from the bowl it was a positive sign for the family fortune.
Saule, the sun goddess has one of the most popular signs, and it is this design that will, I hope, bring good luck to a new place that I move to this summer, a Victorian house in the town of Hastings. The most simple form of this sun symbol is a circle, but there are many variants, increasingly complex. They resemble a flower or a wheel. Maidens, gods or human, are shown in paintings by symbolist artists concerned with breathing life into the figures and stories of misc, with the disc of Saule about their head. These women with halos are divine, bursting with mental and solar energy. I see them as imaginary depictions of Saule, echoing pictures of saints but within a pagan imaginarium. Sometimes flowers are painted inside the symbol. In these nineteenth and twentieth century depictions creatives are bringing together more realistic art styles with the graphic signs of the iron age and of craftspeople over the generations.
The divisions of the circle of Saule can be understood as dividing up the year into seasons and parts. It is reminiscent of the mediaeval year, with important markings of changes of seasons associated with divine characters. This is an idea popular in contemporary use of the symbols, deliberately indicating the equinoctial points. Commonly divisions are eight, sometimes four. Other natural and physical associations with Saule’s symbol are the egg, the ball and the golden acorn. Saule’s signs iares often found and used for women’s clothing or jewellery, or tools that women particularly use.
The most controversial and disturbing of all the signs for the Baltic gods is the swastika, the sign of Pērkons, the thunder god. Taken in one form by the Nazi’s for their stark logo in the twentieth century this is now branded upon our vision of their regime, and linked to the holocaust. Demonised by Hitler and his military, the sign cannot be rehabilitated, but it is an important symbol in Latvian mythology. As the Germans ruled and dominated the Latvian peasantry it seems an important piece of resistance to take back what the Latvians can of this symbolism after its terrible usage. But the problem is that if folk artists use the swastika in a simple form they will be mistaken for neo-nazis. The possibility is too likely to be casually resistant in the use of this symbol. We ive in the knowledge of the holocaust that took place on Latvian soil. In 2019 is impossible to use the sign of Pērkons without considering the history of the twentieth century. I do not want to rewrite history or pre-history. I won’t, I can’t, I could never forget the holocaust.
As a child, I thought of the thunder as being caused by a figure who lived in the sky. I imagined a man who lived on the clouds, causing thunder, causing the rain. Was this a natural paganism or some kind of folk memory. It felt like that to me. It did not come from stories but I saw him in my mind, the sky-thunder god, plain as day. It had nothing to do with stories of Jesus or biblical tales of Jehovah from the Old Testament.
The sign of Jumis is associated with double plants and twins. Another fertility god and his sign appears on wraps and jewelry from the Iron Age. His sign is also having a contested moment as it is used by a far right nationalist group. In 2019, nationalism is blazing in areas of the Baltic countries. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Latvia is excited by full membership of the European Union after a lengthy, nail-biting campaign. And ideas of Free Latvia are stirring thoughts to a previously occupied country, where workers are serfs and servants to Germans, Germanicised artistocracy and Tsarist russians.
The variety of designs fed the complex handiwork of Latvian culture including the Latvian mittens. These were given at weddings as gifts to many members of the family and no mitten could have had the same design as another. In the summer they could be worn from the belt as an adornment. And today the Latvian mittens are loved by so many. Mittens of Latvia on facebook has over 5,000 members and will continue to grow. There are mitten knitting retreats in Kurzeme at which you can learn. Tutors explainthe patterns, how one design indicates a ploughed field or another might indicate horses or the snake goddess.
The mittens were an important part of the marriage ceremonies for women. They were knitted by the bride, given to the minister, to all the patrons of the bride and groom, to the carriage driver and those who prepared food for the wedding. After the wedding the dowry chest would be opened and the bride would give out mittens and other knitted garments to her new in-laws. Such hard work. And if there was not enough variety in the designs it would invite contempt.
These symbols were deeply connected with the peasant life, and as a historian and writer, I can see and imagine many similarities with cultural practice once practiced on a wider scale. The costume of peasant Latvia from the nineteenth century bears great similarities to that unearthed from the iron age in the UK as well as in Latvia. Iron Age culture spread and connected across the European countries through trade, migration and meetings.
Investigating Latvian folklore and the Dainas has also helped me imaginatively connect with the far past of people of the British islands, back to the Iron Age and go further, further into the unwritten past.