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Mythology : Lithuanian

  • Cultural Field
    Cultural Current
    Cultural Community
    Sniečkutė, Marija

    The customs and beliefs of the old Lithuanians were already mentioned in Jan Długosz’s Historiae Polonicae (written 1455-80, published in 1711) and Maciej Strijkowski’s Kronika Polska, Liteweska, Źmódzka i wszystkiéj Rusi (printed in Königsberg in 1582), where the Lithuanian deities were given Roman names and aligned with the classical pantheon. These works (which made no clear distinction between Lithuanians, Samogitians, Prussians, Yotvingians, Latvians, Curonians and their belief-systems) became a significant point of reference for 19th-century intellectuals.

    After the 1795 demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, mythology became one of the repositories for the memory of the vanished fatherland, which was cultivated by the “Warsaw Society of the Friends of Learning” (Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk, 1800-32). Scholarly interest in mythology initially centred around the University of Vilnius, and the Masonic organization Towarzystwo szubrawców (1817-1822; 1899-1914) with its satirical newspaper Wiadomości brukowe (1816-22); its members carried as pseudonyms the names of mythical characters, and were obliged to collect and publish information about them. The historian Joachim Lelewel, then teaching at Vilnius, published one of the earliest scholarly articles on Lithuanian mythology, Winulska sławiansczyzn (1816); in its comparison between Slavic and Lithuanian folk customs, he also mentioned a few Lithuanian gods.

    The century’s pre-eminent scholar on Lithuanian mythology was Theodor Narbutt, a Vilnius alumnus. His Mitologia litewska (1835, opening volume of a nine-volume Lithuanian history, Dzieje narodu litewskiego) used mythology as a tool for understanding the primeval history of the nation. He drew on earlier published sources, contemporary scholarly work (Karamzin; Johannes Voigt’s Geschichte Preussens, 1827-39), philology (Franz Bopp), as well as the Latvian studies of Gotthard Friedrich Stender and oral sources such as folk songs. In Narbutt’s view, pagan mythologies, reflecting a primitive mindset and limited understanding, were rooted in a monotheist religion based in India; his differentiation between “highest gods”, “smaller gods”, “mysterious deities”, etc. fancifully enhanced the Lithuanian mythological pantheon. Again, the term “Lithuanian” was used as an umbrella term to encompass various ethnicities in the Baltic region, including Latvians, Prussians, etc.

    Narbutt’s ideas were widely influential; witness Jaroszewicz’s Obraz Litwy pod względem jej cywilizacyi (1844-45) and L.A. Jucevičius’s Litwa pod względem staroźytnych zabytków, obyczajów i zwyczajów (1846; differently from Narbutt, he used mainly collected folklore rather than written sources). The most influential adept was Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, who used Narbutt’s ideas both in his Witolorauda (the first canto of his epic Anafielas, 1843) and in his historical study Litwa: Staroźytne dzieje, ustawy, język, wiara, obyczaje, pieśni, przyłowia, podania i t.d. (1847-50). Kraszewksi explained what he saw as Lithuanian-Polish characterological differences by deriving the former from Persian origins, the latter from Hindu ones. Kraszewski’s work introduced, and ensured the cultural popularity of the contrived but highly appealing goddess Milda, topic of a cantata by Moniuszko (1848) based on Witolorauda.

    However, Narbutt’s ideas also came in for much subsequent criticism, and in the process provoked later researchers into further mythological work. The philologist August Schleicher, in his Littauische Götternamen (1853), took exception to Narbutt’s speculation and himself adressed the beliefs of Lithuanians in Lituanica (1853) and Litauisches Lesebuch und Glossar (1857); drawing on folklore, he studied specific spirits in Berichte aus Litauen (Bildukai) (1852). Narbutt was also criticized by Simonas Stanevičius, mainly for his reliance on contemporary folklore. In his own philological study Wyjaśnienie mythologii litewskiej (1835-38, published in 1967), Stanevičius distinguished between “Prussian-Lithuanian” and “Lithuanian-Samogitian” mythologies. A third critical successor was Mikalojus Akelaitis, who in his Słówko o bogach litewskich (1858) criticized Narbutt for using unreliable material, discussed Lelewel’s list of the Lithuanian and Samogitian gods, philologically explained these names of gods, regarded many Prussian gods as Lithuanian ones, and argued that the old Lithuanians had one highest god called in different names.

    A similar monotheistic view was taken by Simonas Daukantas, the first Lithuanian historian, who reworked Narbutt’s ideas in a new direction. Daukantas and Narbutt had long-standing contacts which resulted in a conflict on publishing Lithuanian documents. Like Narbutt, Daukantas considered mythology a part of history; the study of mythology took up a significant part of his historical works Darbai senųjų lietuvių ir žemaičių (1829), Istorija žemaitiška (1838; published 1893-97), Būdas senovės lietuvių, kalnėnų ir žemaičių (1845) and Pasakojimas apie veikalus lietuvių tautos senovėje (1850; partially published in 1893). Daukantas’s work was avowedly popularizing: his intended audience consisted of mothers who would tell their children about their ancestors; his focus was Lithuanian and Samogitian mythology, into which he introduced three major Prussian gods under the Lithuanianized names of Perkūnas, Patrimpas and Patulas. Like Narbutt, Daukantas saw polytheism as a debasement of primeval monotheism; but unlike Narbutt, he considered Perkūnas as the supreme deity; that idea was taken up by other intellectuals such as Akelaitis, and gained a firm foothold in the literary and cultural Lithuanian imaginary.

    A new scholarly line in Lithuanian mythological studies in opposition to Narbutt was started by the German mythologist and folklorist Johann Wilhelm Emanuel Mannhardt, the Austrian scholar Julius Lippert, the Polish philologist and historian Anton Mierzyński, and the German scholar Hermann Usener. They argued that initially the old Lithuanians believed not in one god but in many deities as personifications of the powers of nature. Mannhardt, an adept of the Grimm brothers, Max Müller and E.B. Tylor, researched lower deities as expressed in folklore and folk customs; his articles were published in Magazin der lettisch-literärischen Gesellchaft and in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie. Important is his article Die lettischen Sonnenmythen (1875) and influential study Letto-Preussische Götterlehre (1936). Lippert, for his part, saw the old Lithuanian beliefs as archaic and primitive proto-stages for an as-yet undeveloped mythology. Drawing mainly on the poetical works of Adam Mickiewicz, he discussed Lithuanian mythology in Die Religionen der europäischen Culturvölker, der Litauer, Slawen, Germanen, Griechen und Römer, in ihrem geschichtlichen Ursprunge (1881). Mierzyński’s articles on Lithuanian and Prussian mythology were published in various languages (Polish and Russian) from 1870 on; among these, the outstanding publication is his commented edition of pre-15th-century written sources on the Baltic mythologies: Źrodło do mytologii litewskiej (2 vols, 1892-96). Usener, finally, elaborated a comparatist frame in his Götternamen (1896). In his view, Lithuanians, Latvians and Prussians retained the most archaic stage of religion, when momentary and local deities (extensively listed by him) were not yet personified. Usener himself came in for criticism from the Polish Slavicist Aleksander Brückner (1836–1939) in his Mythologische Studien (1878, 1886), Beiträge zur litauischen Mythologie (1889), Die Slawen und Litauen: Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (1924) and Dzieje kultury polskiej (1931). The history, culture and mythology of the Yotvingians, Prussians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Samogitians were studied in Staroźytna Litwa: Ludy i bogi: Szkice historryczne i mitologiczne (1904). Importantly, Brückner regarded mythology as a branch of ethnology; mythological works were supposed to reveal the emergence and development of beliefs, which would eventually reveal the features of the national soul.

    Somewhat similarly, the Vilnius-based Russian officer Vasilij Alekseevič von Rotkirch studied Baltic mythology as the collective belief-repertoire of poetry and of the nation’s national spiritual life. He recycled the ideas of Narbutt and his followers for a Russian readership; his study on pagan Lithuanian mythology appeared in 1890.

    The last prominent 19th-century figure who contributed to scholarly thought on Lithuanian mythology was the “Lithuanian patriarch”, Jonas Basanavičius. He did not specifically study mythology, contenting himself to echo, in his writings, the works of Narbutt, Kraszewszki and Daukantas. Mythological issues were addressed in Apie vėles ir nekrokultą senovės lietuvių (1903), which was the introduction to the book on folk tales Iš gyvenimo lietuviškųjų vėlių bei velnių (1921). In Trakų ir lietuvių mitologijos smulkmenos (1921), he looked for parallels between Thracian and Lithuanian gods in order to substantiate his hypothesis on the origins of the Lithuanian nation. Lietuvių kryžiai archeologijos šviesoje (1912) was intended to showcase the richness of old Lithuanian culture prior to the detrimental introduction of Christianity.

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Sniečkutė, Marija, 2022. "Mythology : Lithuanian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 02-03-2024.