Latvian mythology

by Aldis Pūtelis

There is no mythological system in the Latvian tradition resembling that of Greeks or Romans. The majority of data termed this way is just a derivation from Latvian folklore material, and mostly song texts. This makes the study of it just speculation.

Not much clarity is added by the written documents of the ancient days. All of these accounts are analyzed in the book Letto-Preussische Goeterlehre by the outstanding mythologist Wilhelm Mannhardt (prepared 1870, published in Riga, 1936). The first ever account mentioning any of the Baltic tribes (Mannhardt created his term "Letto-Preussen" to designate the same by the Southern and Northern extremes) is that of the Roman senator and historian Tacitus in 98 CE. It mentions the worship of female deities (see mātes). Mannhardt suggests to think twice before relying too much on it as Tacitus definitely did not speak the language and spent comparatively little time in the region. Still, it is all we have.

The first chronicles deal mostly with the Christianization of the natives, telling very little of their ancient religions and myths. It provides some descriptions of traditions along with facts, which may lead one to conclude that certain Latvian tribes have had a period of decline of their religion, turning into merely formal rituals (allowing the Christianity to substitute it easily) while other tribes (like Curonians, Semigallians) were not willing to give up their rites. Later texts show clear attempts to "create" Latvian deities, planting a number of actually Prussian ones, adding unlikely explanations and etymologies.

After such an introduction it might seem that there can be no Latvian mythology at all. Still, there are several outstanding researchers who have contributed to this field of study. Let me mention some of them.

Wilhelm Mannhardt is the greatest of the well-known scholars having ever dealt with the Baltic mythologies, including that of Latvians. His highly informative work covers all the known accounts on the Baltic religions, deities and myths, giving examples of texts in the original language — Latin, Old Russian, Old German, even Greek — but this also makes it difficult to read.

The first of Latvian mythologists is Prof. Pēteris Šmits (1869-1938), Dr.h.c. of Uppsala University. He has studied Slavic languages, received a masters degree in Chinese, and devoted himself to ethnography and folklore, both Latvian and that of other nations. This gives him the comparative perspective.

Latvians have had no national state or significant kingdom before 1918 when the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. Literacy also was brought to Latvia by outsiders - German knights and missionaries, not interested in local pagan traditions. This led to an absence of any texts written by the actual bearers of the tradition or non-biased persons. Šmits took the scarce material of chronicles and church visitations and tried to re-establish some truth about the existence of cults and deities. His book Latviešu mitoloģija (Latvian Mythology) was first published in 1918, with a second edition in 1926. He deconstructed to some extent the romantic views of the first Latvian revivalists of the mid-19th century, who insisted on the presence of wide polytheism and established cults in ancient Latvian tradition.

Another scholar who has contributed much is Prof. Dr. theol. Haralds Biezais (1909-1995). He had a different background as he was a theologist, having studied in Zurich and Strasbourg. By some irony of fate he had to do most of his work in Uppsala, while being in exile after World War II. His main works on Latvian mythology are in German, therefore it seems worth mentioning them:

  • Die Hauptgöttinnen der alten Letten (1955);
  • Die Göttesgestalt der Lettischen Volksreligion (1961);
  • Die himmlische Götterfamilie der alten Letten (1972). This work has the widest scope, analyzing the whole system of Latvian deities;
  • Lichtgött der alten Letten (1976).

It is obvious that he has approached the same problem from a different and very interesting perspective. Although his ideas are sometimes debatable (but every theory of a mythologist is so), they are worth knowing.

There are more Latvian scholars to be mentioned, such as Ludvigs Adamovičs and Kārlis Straubergs, but this would make this survey too large and non-comprehensible. It is of greater use to say that in 1925 a revivalist religion based on folklore — Dievturiba — was established in Latvia and it was done by a man of strong character and strong national passion: Ernests Brastiņš (1892-1942). He himself has completed a statistic scholarly index of Latvian mythological notions for the Archives of Latvian Folklore. However, the system he claims to derive from the same material is hardly provable and has completely different aims. It was called Dievturiba, which can be literally translated as "having God." It was established to strengthen the Latvian identity through a Latvian religion supposedly coming from the glorious ancient past, intended as strictly national, but at the same time very similar to the neo-paganism known in the rest of the world. It still has great influence on the understanding of folklore and mythology of the average modern Latvian.

Possibly this lengthy introduction is of no use as it does not give the whole scope of this field. But it had to be explained as anybody trying to follow some genealogy or find out about the relations of the deities will face serious problems of inconsistency, because of quite natural variations in the material used as sources. Although the general view that Latvian gods had households the same way as the Latvian peasants did (the eternal problem — what was the original: the heavenly or the earthly), it is hard to prove definitively. Therefore Latvian mythology as a system is to be sought in the treatises by scholars (Biezais, Šmits, Straubergs, Adamovičs) and poetic works (as Andrejs Pumpurs' national epic Lāčplēsis, "The Bear-Slayer," published in 1888, poems by Auseklis; both of them represent the first generation of Latvian revivalists). Still it is possible to generalize the data acquired from the folklore material and theories of the scholars. Of course, it should be kept in mind that all these ideas cannot be taken for anything more than hypotheses and therefore those expressed by different scholars may differ greatly.