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Lithuanian mythology and folklore

Lithuanian mythology and folklore are closely intertwined. While Lithuanians have been the last European pagan nation to Christianise the pagans never had religious books and thus much of the old religion has survived in the folklore alone. What were once deities may have been relegated to mythical creatures or natural forces in later folktales, however.

Lithuanian pagan gods

There are probably as many theories on the historical Baltic pantheon as there are researchers. Many borrow on other faiths to explain it, speaking of "Baltic trinity" or "Baltic Olympus", others make the religion seem almost monotheistic by adding an omnipotent "God" above other deities. With researches based on descriptions by missionaries and archeological digs, the truth may stay hidden forever.

Nevertheless, some Lithuanian pagan gods are well known. Perkūnas (literally Thunder) is the prime god, punishing with his mighty force (lightning). Nearly every major natural phenomenon was considered to be a god or goddess in the Baltic pagan faith, among them Sun (female) and Moon (male), the parents of Earth. Other than that goddesses are better known than gods as it is common to name baby girls after them. They include Žemyna (goddess of earth and fertility), Medeina (forests and hunting), Milda (love and freedom), Laima (goddess responsible for fate appearing as a trinity of Laimas declaring good, mediocre and bad fate), Gabija (goddess of fire and the home fireplace; the latter provided heat and served for sacrifices, its position so important that "home fireplace" is now a euphemism for "family relations" in Lithuanian).

Perkūnas as depicted by the symbolist painter M. K. Čiurlionis in 1909. Little authentic images of Pagan pantheon survive inducing the 19th-century national romantic artists to create their own. Usually, however, the Lithuanian gods are depicted as bearded old men.

Lithuanian mythical and folktale creatures

Lithuanian mythological creatures are rarely plain "good" or plain "evil", most of them are able to be both depending on circumstances. These are the best known of them:

*Aitvaras (plural: aitvarai) may have been the god of water and clouds. Aitvarai may take a form of a bird, a serpent or a tornado. They bring riches to the needy people (yet may take them from the greedy). Aitvaras's riches can be useful but rarely bring happiness; furthermore, Aitvaras may start droughts by drinking rain. Aitvaras presence at home may be unnoticed but such a home would never be poor; however, the prerequisites of "creating" an aitvaras may also be bought intentionally.
*Raganos (witches) (singular: ragana) are antagonist old women with malicious supernatural powers. They are able to transform into any animal but when such an animal is hurt so is ragana (witch) herself. All the Lithuanian raganos (witches) are said to meet annually on certain hills to practice their magic together.
*Laumės (singular: laumė) are female intermediaries between Earth and Sky. They weave endless textiles and gift them to the people, yet they are unpredictable and could even weave a person. A Laumė may both endow a child and kill him/her, she may also replace a baby with her own (an especially introverted kid unable to show affection; arguably a mythological explanation for autism). In the myths, laumės are usually pretty but in newer folktales, they are more witch-like.

Representations (left-to-right) of Laumė, Ragana and Aitvaras in Naisiai museum of Baltic gods. As the descriptions vary and there is no single canon, these are partly artists' imagination. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Žaltys (serpent) have been the deity of home and health. As a creature, a serpent is considered immortal, magical and related to rain. Serpents, therefore, used to be cherished and fed.
*Kaukai (singular: kaukas) are very small creatures that may turn into a handful of dust (and vice-versa). If a kaukas settles in a home he makes all the things there to be enjoyed longer.
*Maumai (singular: maumas) are scary creatures living under the well or on the lakebed. Parents used them to scare misbehaving children. Baubai (singular: baubas) are similar to Maumas but they lurk in dark places.
*Velniai (devils) (singular: velnias) are usually smallish evil-yet-stupid creatures who may be tricked by clever men. However, they may take other shapes, and even may help a person when nothing else could. Devils also create hills and stones. Such representations of Lithuanian devil may be seen in the art of Devil museum in Kaunas (they are extremely different from the traditional Christian views).

Devil museum in Kaunas is a unique-in-the-world collection of folk art devil statuettes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian folktales and legends

Many of the most famous early Lithuanian folktales are actually legends: they explain the creation of various things, towns, and lakes through folk etymology. They tend to be especially popular in the related localities where they may have inspired street names and sculptures.

A famous Eglė the Queen of Serpent folktale explains why some trees are named the way they are:

Eglė the Queen of SerpentsFisherman's daughter Eglė finds a large serpent in her clothes after swimming in the Baltic Sea. The serpent talks in a human voice and returns clothes only in exchange for a promise to marry it. Thousands of serpents come to her family farmstead the next day. Initially, the family cheats them but then is forced to give up Eglė. Eglė's husband then becomes a handsome young man Žilvinas and they live underwater together, having 3 sons and 1 daughter. Eglė longs to visit her parents and siblings. With a help of a witch, she does so despite Žilvinas's protests. Žilvinas tells Eglė and their children how to call him when they will be coming back: "Žilvinas, little Žilvinas, if you are alive come in a milky wave if you are dead - in a bloody wave". After coming back Eglė's children get tortured by her brothers and the daughter betrays the calling phrase. Eglė's brothers call and then murder Žilvinas. When Eglė calls Žilvinas she sees a bloody wave and learns of the betrayal. Disheartened Eglė curses her children and herself to turn into trees (note: Eglė and her children names are Lithuanian words meaning various trees).

Eglė the Queen of Serpents statue in seaside Palanga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Yet other Lithuanian folktales are meant to give their listener a lesson. Their characters (human beings as well as anthropomorphic animals, plants, and natural forces) usually have their psychology limited to a few dominating traits. The traits in many cases depend on who the character is. E.g. the youngest one of three brothers is stereotypically stupid while a fox is a trickster.

Some of the most famous folktales/myths (such as the Jūratė and Kastytis love story) are actually much younger than they seem to be, dating to the 19th-century national romantic search for the long-lost "ethnic roots".

Jūratė and Kastytis

Goddess Jūratė was living in an amber palace under the Baltic Sea. She sent mermaids to warn fisherman Kastytis to stop catching her fish. He did not comply and Jūratė came to give the warning in person but fell in love with Kastytis instead. She invited him to her palace, but their love was not approved by the prime god Perkūnas (Thunder) who destroyed the amber palace, killing Kastytis. Jūratė was eternally chained to the ruins. Her moans and cries now cause the sea storms while the Baltic amber is what remains of her palace.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Hi.
    Is there anything correspond to the Lithuanian words: “Melinas paukstely tu dainele giedi”? (Song?) if you know anything about it, could you please let me know? Thanks, Demis
    P.s. According to some of our information, it have to be important. Thanks again.

    • Hi, I don’t know about it and Google search turns out nothing (the correct Lithuanian words are likely “Mėlynas paukšteli, tu dainelę giedi”, which means “Blue bird, you are singing a song” – but this also turns out nothing). However, Lithuania is quite a small country and there is still no extensive online repository for folklore. Therefore it may be so that such song exists but its lyrics and information about it are nowhere on internet – in which case a search on various collected folklore books would be necessary, unless somebody who knows this work of folklore would see this message.

      • Nežinau apie lietuvių folklorą ir ar tai turėjo bent kiek įtakos… Rusų folklore mėlynas paukštis ar paukštė simbolizuoja laimę, yra dainų apie tai. Gal mūsų šalyje tos spalvos irgi turėjo reikšmę?
        Don’t know about lithuanian folklore and if it had taken influence. In russian folklore a blue bird is the bird of luck (I know from songs). Perhaps it was also color-coded in lithuanian? The color had a seperate meaning?

  2. Sveiks, Ponas Zemaitis! I have a piece of Lithuanian artwork which I am hoping I can e-mail you a picture of, to see if you know the “story” behind it. I was given this piece many years ago by a relative who has since passed on, and at the time, she told me what the piece signified, but for the life of me I cannot remember the details. Basically, the piece (made of amber and colored stones on an etched, wooden background) is of a prince (I believe) holding a maiden, and there is – if I recall correctly – the equivalent of a convent in the background on top of a hill. I think if you see the piece, it might be helpful. Is there any way I can send a picture of this to you via e-mail? Please let me know. Aciu, ir viso geriausio! Tadas

  3. It seems that all Lithuanian tales are very sad and full of sorrow. Aren’t there any stories/poems which still have moral but are not of such deep frustration?

    • Lithuanian culture is quite pessimistic. Happyends are rare even in modern Lithuanian literature and cinema.

      This goes beyond art: the phrase “valley of tears” is used as an euphemism for “the world”, whereas Lithuanian suicide rates were the world‘s largest for many years. Maybe such views were forged due to a rather sad history of Lithuania where hopeless wars, occupations and discrimination were common.

      Therefore indeed most of the best loved Lithuanian literary works (including folk ones) are tragic or at least not happy.

      There are some brighter ones, but they have not reached the level of fame of the likes of “Eglė žalčių karalienė” or “Jūratė and Kastytis”.

  4. My given name is Danutė. The family lore is that she was a pagan princess who, having lost her lover, walked into the Baltic Sea and drowned. Her tears are supposed to be the source of amber. I cannot find any references to this mythological being – any help would be appreciated.

    • I don’t know of such legend myself and a search online of related keywords (in Lithuanian) also provided no results. However the Lithuanian folklore has no definite and complete source(s), in a way Greek mythology or Norse sagas have. That is, there are many stories, many of them local (e.g. one-to-several villages), passed through generations (after being probably invented by some generation and then “expanded” by others). Some of the stories became better known during the national romanticism of 19th century, but not all.

      Also there has been a major “kraštotyra” (ethnography) movement in the 20th century that collected such stories (and songs) accross Lithuania (by travelling accross villages and asking old people to tell them). However, their total collection results are not yet available online to my knowledge. It would certainly be interesting if they would be available.

    • Are you the Dana (Danute) Paramskas who led an Experiment in Int’l Living group to Norway in 1969? I was a member of the Sola group and remember you well. I was back in Norway two years ago and reconnected with my host family in Stavanger!

  5. Are there any books in english where it is possible to read about lithuanian mythology and folklore? It’s really fascinating.

    • Lithuanian mythology is indeed interesting. However, it has not been documented to the extent of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic or Norse mythologies, especially in the West.

      There are some English books on the issue, however, I don’t think there is one definitive encyclopedic-like book I could recommend. Many works tend to focus on just one particular interpretation (of the author). Maybe however somebody else knows good books that exist.

    • I just discovered a book called “Lithuanian Folk Tales” among my grandmothers belongings published in 1958 and 1959 by Stepas Zobarskas and illustrated by Ada Korsakaite. It tells 36 folk tales but has no interpretations of them. Very interesting to read though. The library of congress catalog # is 58-13716


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