Latvian culture, along with Lithuanian, is among the oldest surviving Indo-European culture. Much of its symbolism (an example is the pērkonkrusts or thunder cross) is ancient. Its seasons, festivals, and numerous deities reflect the essential agrarian nature of Latvian tribal life. These seasons and festivals are still noted, if not also celebrated today—for example, Jāņi
is a national holiday.
The legacy of Latvian mythology is also seen in contemporary Christian holidays. Christmas is called Ziemassvētki. Not only is Easter called Lieldienas, but the pussy willow has supplanted the palm frond in Christian symbolism. Palm Sunday is Pūpolsvētdiena, literally, Pussy Willow Sunday, and little children are awoken that morning by the ritualistic swats of a willow branch and the exclamation, "Apaļš kā pūpols, apaļš kā pūpols, apaļš kā pūpols!" ("Round like (the catkins of) a pussy willow!")
In AD 98
, a Roman
, mentioned the worship of a goddess-mother in the Baltic region (see Aesti
). Reports of Christianization
give unbalanced information. We do know that some tribes had had their religious beliefs declining for some time, and accepted Christianity willingly. Others, such as the Curonians
, resisted Christianization. Later texts by authors who presumably knew nothing of Latvian beliefs, substituted supposedly authoritative work substituting Prussian
deities, adding extremely unlikely explanations and etymologies
Latvian folklore was recorded mostly after the 19th century, therefore it sometimes can be quite Christianized. Still, the traditions are layered rather than merged. These records sometimes also contain the opinions of the mythographers, giving their ideas about how the folklore might have been transformed over time.
Latvian folk songs, named Dainas
by Krišjānis Barons
, presumably could be the best sources due to the need to keep rhythm, and therefore are learned word by word, thus even in one song the first verse can speak of the same subject in singular while others refer to the subject in plural, indicating that there has been innovation.
Most tales contain folklorised reality – information of ancient events or archaeological sites, and mythological tales concerning god and devil. Despite that, they give slight outline to ancient mythology – it is quite clear that "devil" is used to describe anything pagan, thus describing ancient cult places, and in a few cases they give a better idea about the original beliefs than the folk songs do; i.e. the folk songs do not directly point to Mēness adultery as the tales do.
Folk beliefs and proverbs
Latvian beliefs and proverbs give insight into everyday rituals and folk medicine.
Seasons and festivals
The Latvians recognized eight different seasons to the year. The end of one season and the beginning of the next was marked by a festival.
Other minor holidays:
- Barbes Diena (also Barbanas Diena) was a festival held on December 1, celebrating the fertility of lambs and ewes. Working with needles or other sharp objects was forbidden. Dumplings were eaten. Various rituals were performed to guarantee the health and fertility of the sheep.
- Bērtuļa Diena was a festival celebrated on August 24, commemorated the sowing of rye and the first day of the mushroom season. It was unlucky to pour water inside barns. In addition, rain on this day would off fires.
- Biezputras Diena ("Porridge day") was celebrated on February 4. It was held on the Sunday before Meteņi. On this day, uneaten porridge is supposedly taken into the hills to feed the shepherds all summer. The porridge is actually replaced with water. A new shepherd is initiated by bringing the crock of "porridge" to the hills, then being doused in the water.
- Bindus Diena was a festival observed on March 18, the day after Kustoņu Diena ("Day of Critters"). It was later named Binduļa diena, in honor of St. Benedict. It was associated primarily with insects. Everybody must be awake before the sunrise. Water must not be poured inside barns. The backs of the cows, and the barns' ceilings, must be washed. Bears were believed to wake up on this day, but then fall back asleep. Bringing firewood in on this day will bring snakes with you. Rushes, twigs and straw will also attract snakes. Potatoes and cabbages can not be planted on this day. Alternative names include Binduļa diena, Benedikta diena, Bimbuļu diena.
- Dvēseļu diena ("Day of souls"), also called Visu Svēto Diena ("Day of all saints"). It was held on November 2. Families (supposedly, both living and dead members) gathered at their burial plots during the evening to commemorate the continuation of life.
- Jurģu Diena ("Day of Gregory") was a minor holiday, similar to Groundhog Day. In this version, the fox emerging from his den signals the start of spring, which will otherwise sleep for two more weeks. It was held on March 12.
- Jēkaba Diena ("Jacob's Day") was a festival held on July 24. It was the start of the harvesting season. The townsfolk held feasts from their freshly harvested grain and gave neighbors gifts of bread. Weddings were lucky if held on this day. A bright sun was also lucky; a cloudy day was a portent of snow; rain caused a low harvest yield. Unless it was a new moon, old seeds had to be sown. It was unlucky to walk through cabbage fields; if the cabbage heads hadn't appeared yet, they would not. Hay was not allowed to be brought into a barn, or thunder may come, according to a belief.
- Sv. Kazimira Diena was a festival, held on March 24, which commemorated the return of the larks.
- Kustoņu diena was held on March 17, followed the next day by Bindus diena. It was associated with insects. To ward against insects and reptiles, this day has to be free of plant planting activities. The flour mill was rotated nine times in the morning, when sparrows were driven from the homes, to ward against them for the summer. Spinning linen was forbidden, because a belief is telling that this may attract wolves. Embroidering and sewing was forbidden, or else worms could infect crops and moles will dig holes, respectively. Alternative names include Ģertrūdes diena (Gertrude's Day).
- Labrenča diena was a festival celebrated on August 10.
- Pelnu Diena ("Ash day") was held on February 24. It was a celebration of the new year. Ashes were transported on this day from the homes of one generation, to the newly independent and married couple of the next, usually from the groom's father's fire to the new one.
- Septiņu brāļu diena ("Day of Seven Brothers") was a festival held on July 10.
- Septiņu gulētāju diena ("Day of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus") was held each year on July 27. Legend states that these Christian saints were Ephesians from Asia Minor, walled up by Roman Emperor Decius in a cave for their faith in 250 CE. Found by masons in the year 479, the Ephesians had thought they were asleep for only one night, instead of 229 years that had actually elapsed. Once awake, Malchus made his way into town to buy bread for the others, rubbing the sleep of more than two centuries from his eyes. He was amazed to see Christian crosses placed on all the buildings. This was in stark contrast to the earlier times when they had been persecuted. (In 250 CE Roman gods were all that could be worshipped.) The bakers were amazed at the coins he offered, and thought that the young man had found treasure. Latvians believed that if it rains on this feast day, there will be seven weeks and seven days of rain.
- Teņa diena was a sacred holiday held on February 17. It was held in honor of pigs and was transferred to the feast day of St. Anthony after Christianization. A pig's head was placed atop a stone to protect the people from thunder and lightning. During the day, the townsfolk went to pig pens and sang songs glorifying the fertility of the pig. At lunch, pig's head and feet were eaten, and the remains were buried at the location, where the pigs would be herded the following year. Sewing or other needle-work was strictly prohibited, as was drinking at home. A foggy day was believed to bring floods; a sunny day indicated a good barley crop; a dry day indicated drought, etc. Alternative names include Tuņņa diena, Tenīša diena, Cūkaušu diena, and Kunga diena ("Sir's day", "Master's day").
- Tipša diena was a festival held on April 15 to commemorate the beginning of the ploughing of the fields.
- Urbanas diena was a festival held on May 25, the luckiest day to plant oats, barley, flax and cucumbers. Potatoes, however, were not planted on this day. A sunny day signified a healthy crop, according to Latvian beliefs.
- Vēja diena ("Day of Wind") was a festival held on February 2. The day was regarded as a fiercely windy day, and various rituals were performed to ensure that the damage from the wind would not be too severe the following summer.
- Vīta diena or Saint Vitus' Dance Day was a medieval festival held on June 15 in ancient Latvia to commemorate the last day of planting. Rain on this day signified a bountiful crop, as well as the first appearances of bees and flies. "Saint Vitus dance" is another name for Chorea, an abnormal involuntary movement disorder.
- Zvaigznes diena ("Day of the Star") or Pagānu Svētdiena ("Pagan Sunday") was a festival held on January 6. Today it's still a tradition to leave the Christmas tree in a home from December 22 (the day of winter solstice) til Zvaigznes day. Three pointed apple cakes were eaten. If a dog was heard barking, the direction was said to also be that person's future spouse. Weaving and wood-cutting was considered as bad luck in beliefs. A very sunny day (so sunny, to have heated up the back of all the horse's in the household) signified a year without war. After Christianization, Zvaigznes Diena became Trīs kungu diena ("Day of Three Sir's", "Day of the Three Masters"). The three sir's refer to Caspar, Melchioru and Belceru. The initials "KMB" were carved on doors so that they would bless the house. Gypsies painted six-cornered stars on their foreheads. A clear night without signified a good season in beliefs.
List of deities and other terms
Gods and deities
- Auseklis – (from root aust- (dawn-)) also called Lielais Auseklis ("Great Auseklis"). He was associated with Venus, and with both Mēness and Saule, the Moon and the Sun.
- Ceroklis – a fertility god, associated with agriculture and farmers. The Jesuit Joannis Stribingius discussed Cerklicing when he went to Eastern Latvia in 1606. The first bite of any food, and the first drop of any drink, was given to this deity. Alternative names include Dewing Cereklicing, Cerekling, Cercklicing, Greklicing, Cerekticing, Cerklicing, Cerroklis.
- Dēkla – (from dēt (to plant, lay (eggs))) was one of a trinity of fate goddesses that included her sisters Kārta and Laima. However, all three may have been aspects of Laima and in many ways Dekla doubles with Laima. She was associated with children and infants and was often depicted with them at her breast. In original Latvian mythology, as opposed to dievtuŗība, Dēkla was the goddess of fortune and destiny and was worshiped primarily in Western Latvia (as Kurzeme).
- Ūsiņš – was the god of horses, bees and light, mentioned by Jesuit Joannis Stribingius in 1606. He took care of horses during the summer, then transferred the power to Mārtiņš at the festival of Mārtiņi. He was especially associated with the festival Jurģi. Alternative names include Deving Isching, Usins, Dewing Uschinge.
- Dievs – (God) was the supreme god. The same word refers to the Christian deity in modern Latvian. In ancient Latvian mythology, Dievs was not just the father of the gods, he was the essence of them all. Every other deity was a different aspect or manifestation of Dievs; this is most true with Māra and Laima. The name Dievs was also interpreted as Sky. Though it is told in ancient beliefs, that he courted Saule, no actual wife is known. His sons are known as Dieva dēli. He is historically associated with the father gods of Indo-European religions as Tyr, Zeus, Jupiter and Dyaus Pita.
- Jānis – (or John) was a deity associated with Jāņi, the Midsummer's Night festival. After Christianization, he was associated with John the Baptist, through a process of syncretism. Once a year, Jānis came to bring luck and fertility to the people of Latvia. In modern Latvia, it is very popular male given name.
- Jumis – (from root jum- roof-) was a god of sky and fertility. He is associated with "double-plants," such as two crop stalks or trees which have grown together and share a trunk or stem. During harvesting, some stalks of the crops are bent to the ground and secured in that location with stones. During his holiday, Miķeli, a ritual called the "Catching of Jumis" is performed, it involves a procession that carries some grains (symbol of "captured" Jumis) home, thereby ensuring the following year's harvest will be at least as successful. He is depicted as a short man with clothes that resemble ears of wheat, hops and barley.
- Kārta (layer) – was one of a trinity of fate goddesses that included her sisters Dēkla and Laima. All three may have been aspects of Laima. Alternative names include Kārtas māte.
- Laima – (laim- (luck-)) was a goddess in both Latvian and Lithuanian mythologies. She is the personification of fate and of luck, both good and bad. She was associated with childbirth, marriage, death, proliferation, and domesticity. She was also the patron of pregnant women. Some sources proclaim three Laima's, which means that either this goddess had three aspects or this could have been general name for three deities. Alternative names include Laime, Laimė (Lithuanian), Laimas māte, Laimes māte ("Mother of Luck").
- Lauma – (Fairy) is a beautiful naked maiden, that cannot have children. So she often steals other children and rottens cow milk. They are very strong and cannot be killed by man in a fight, however they can be killed by touching their milk pail.
- Māra – (Mary) is the highest-ranking goddess, a feminine Dievs. She may be thought as alternate side of Dievs (like in Yin Yang). Other Latvian goddesses, sometimes all of them, are considered her alternate aspects.
- Mārtiņš – was a god who protected the Latvian people and their livestock such as horses, during the winter months, from thieves, cold and starvation. He took over the function of protector of the horses from Ūsiņa diena on November 10, the festival of Mārtiņi.
- Mēness – (Moon) was the god of the moon and war. According to beliefs and national songs, he was one of the suitors of Saules meitas ("The Daughters of Sun"). Mēness counted the stars and determined that Auseklis was missing, and stole Auseklis' bride. He was usually a rival of Saule, the Sun, his wife who sheared him in pieces after discovering his adultery. Alternative names include Mėnulis/Mėnuo in Lithuanian mythology.
- Metenis – was a mysterious deity, connected with the festival Meteņi, into which he rode during the celebrations on his sleigh. He has five sons and five daughters.
- Meža vīrs – was the god of the forests, associated with wolves. Alternative names include Meža Tēvs, Meža Dievs.
- Miķelis – was one of the Sons of Dievs, the supreme god. He was a god of astronomy, prophecy and abundance.
- Pērkons – (Thunder) was the common Baltic god of thunder, one of the most important deities in the Baltic pantheon. In both Lithuanian and Latvian mythology, he is documented as the god of thunder, rain, mountains, oak trees and the sky.
- Ragana – (witch) was a prophetess and sorceress, and a goddess of magic. After Christianization, she was turned into a minor witch bringing bad luck to humans and animals. She is also a Lithuanian goddess.
- Saule – (the sun) was the goddess of the sun and fertility, patron goddess of the unlucky, including orphans. She was the mother of Saules meitas and lived on top of a mountain and flew across the sky on her chariot. At night, she sailed across the sea. She is a beloved Baltic Sun Goddess sometimes recognised as a red apple, setting in the west. Saule is reborn as her daughter, the morning star at the Winter Solstice. Saulė is also a Lithuanian goddess.
- Zalktis – (Grass-snake) was a god of well-being and fertility, about whom little is known. He was associated with snakes.
Many female deities were known by the title mātes
, which translates as 'the mothers of'.
- Ceļa māte – (Mother of the Road) protected travelers on the road.
- Dārza māte – (Mother of the Garden) was governing gardens. She is described in Paul Einhorn's Historia Lettica, 1649, as one of the 'mothers' presiding over the practical aspects of everyday life.
- Gaušu mate – (Mother of the Sluggish) was a goddess representing laziness.
- Jūras māte – (Mother of the Sea) was the goddess of the sea. She was the patron of fishermen, sailors and healers (particularly invoked to heal bleeding). She protected ships, when sailors worshiped her, and sunk those, who displeased her.
- Kapu māte – (Mother of Graves) presided over cemeteries and graves.
- Krūmu māte – (Mother of Bushes) presided over bushes, shrubs and saplings.
- Lapu māte – (Mother of Leaves) a goddess who presided over the changing colors of the leaves in autumn.
- Lauku māte – (Mother of Fields) a goddess of fields. Farmers sacrificed to her in order to ensure a bountiful harvest.
- Lazdu māte – (Mother of Hazel-Trees) a goddess of hazel-trees.
- Lietus māte – (Mother of Rain) a goddess of rain.
- Linu māte – (Mother of Linen) a goddess of linen.
- Lopu māte – (Mother of Livestock) presided over cattle and other livestock. She may have been equivalent to Māra.
- Meža māte – (Mother of the Forests) a patron goddess of forests, the animals within it and hunters and woodcutters.
- Miglas māte – (Mother of Fog) held dominion over fog. She was especially venerated by sailors.
- Pirts māte – (Mother of the Bathhouse) a ruler of bathhouses, which were the scene of many important rituals and ceremonies marking births, deaths, marriages and other occasions.
- Rijas māte – (Mother of the Threshing house) oversaw the shelling of grain and other threshing-related activities.
- Sēņu māte – (Mother of Mushrooms) presided over mushrooms and mushroom gathering.
- Smilšu māte – (Mother of Sands) held dominion over death.
- Sniega māte – (Mother of Snow) held dominion over snow.
- Tirgus māte – (Mother of the Market) held dominion over a marketplace and commerce.
- Ūdens māte – (Mother of Water) presided over small bodies of water such as wells and ponds.
- Upes māte – (Mother of Rivers) presided over rivers.
- Vēja māte – (Mother of Wind) a goddess of the wind, forests and birds, as well as a patron of sailors.
- Veļu māte – (Mother of Veļi) a goddess of the dead and Queen of Viņsaule, the world of the dead. She is clothed in a white, wool cape. Veļu māte is also called Kapu māte ("Graveyard mother"), and is said to receive the dead at cemeteries. She is also identified with the fertility goddess Zemes māte ("Mother of the Soil"). An expression in Latvian stated that "When a rainbow appears in the sky, Veļu Māte is dancing amongst the graves". (Mildly depressing, but many Latvian traditions tend to be like that.)
- Zemes māte – (Mother of the Soil) a fertility goddess, who was also identified with Veļu mate, the goddess of the dead.
- Ziedu māte – (Mother of Flowers) presided over blossoms and flowers.
- Kuka māte – (Mother of Kuks (ancient name for Wine)) presided over drinking and smoking.
Spirits and demons
- Mājas gari – was the name given to protective household spirits. They brought prosperity and good luck to the family living in the household, if they were properly placated with gifts. Alternative names include Mājas kungs.
- Pūķis (Dragon)– was a household spirit. Pūķis flew, stealing items for its master. They can be bought, bred or stolen. Alternative names include Pukys, Puhkis. Today word "Pūķis" means dragon or kite (toy).
- Vadātājs – (literally Leader, Driver) was a type of demon responsible for getting people lost. He can be either visible or invisible. If the vadātājs is in its invisible form, victim realises that he or she is walking in circles. In visible form, the vadātājs appears as friendly being such as a child or dog and leads victim straight toward death. If victim stopped to follow vadātājs they would later realise that they stopped one step from deep water.
- Veļi – were dead souls, associated with Velns and clouds. The underworld was called Viņsaule. The Veļi visited their old homes during autumn.
- Velns – (Devil) was a demon. He was married to Ragana. In many stories, the evil Velns was stupid and simply outwitted by shepherds and small boys. Alternative names include Jods.
- Vilkacis – (Warewolf) was a type of monster that was originally a person. In Latvian and Lithuanian mythology, Devil was a good hearted creature, who wanted to participate in the folk songs mentsioned animal digging of Daugava river. But he failed in every task and upset Dievs. He is described as a clumsy creature, who can be easily fooled by a boy or a farmer. It was similar to a werewolf. Occasionally, a vilkacis brought treasure or was otherwise beneficial. Alternative names include Vilkatas, Vilkatis.
Other terms and concepts
- Austras Koks – (Tree of the East or Tree of the Dawn) was a tree that grew from the start of Saules' (the Sun's) daily journey across the sky. It is usually considered to be an oak or birch. Austras Koks had silver leaves, copper roots and gold branches and is located on the shores of the Daugava River (Kurzeme), Vidzeme or Latgale.
- Debeskalns – (Sky mountain) was the mountain upon which the various gods and goddesses lived. Notwithstanding their homes on Debeskalns, it was believed that deities often walked among mortals posing as ordinary people. Debeskalns has many analogues among European myths, including Mount Olympus in Greek mythology and Asgard in Norse mythology.
- Dieviņš – (Minor god) was an epithet applied to several male deities, including Ceroklis (Dewing Cereklicing) and Ūsiņš (Dewing Uschinge)
- Dieva dēli – were the sons of Dievs and suitors of Saules meitas. Their number varied in different accounts. Alternative names include Ašvieniai in Lithuanian mythology.
- Dieviņi – refers to the minor gods, collectively. They were primarily patrons of households and other specific functions. They were more frequently honored by worshippers than the deities of more power and importance, who were only invoked for emergencies.
- Dievturība – is a modern revival of the traditional religion.
- Lāčplēsis is an epic poem by Andrejs Pumpurs, a Latvian poet, who wrote it between 1872-1887 based on local legends. Lāčplēsis is regarded as the Latvian national epic.
- Māte – (Mother) was an epithet applied to some sixty-seventy goddesses. They were clearly distinct goddesses in most or all cases, so the term definitely referred to the mother-goddess of specific phenomena. Alternative spellings include mahte, maate, mate.
- Saules meitas – were the daughters of Saule, the Sun. They were known primarily from their interaction with suitors, including the Dieva dēli.
- Viņsaule – (Beyond the Sun) was the land of the dead, ruled by Veļu mate. The shades of people were called veļi. Alternative names include Aizsaule.
Most sites which can be considered an authoritative source are in Latvian.