Latvian mythology

Unfortunately, Latvian mythology is not a topic that has so far been fully researched, and it is not likely that it will ever be, leaving much of the beliefs of the past a mystery. During the two decades of Latvian independence from 1918 to 1940, Latvian mythology was interpreted with very romantic and patriotic feeling, basing very little on historic fact of belief as it was in the past. Several gods and mythological beings were created on the spot and placed in the pantheon of ancient Latvian gods. In addition, the interpretation of mythology was greatly distorted by the “white Latvian” movement. For instance, the popular “Dievturi” ‘religion’, formed by Ernest Brastins as a set of beliefs supposedly based on Latvian mythology and folk tales, has very little to do with the fundamentals in which Latvians believed centuries ago, instead, it is a ‘religion’ built on the good old Christian Bible.

During the Soviet regime, the idea that Latvians had never had any pagan religion or cult, that it had never had any priests or holy places, was promoted widely.

In the early twenty-first century, people may have an idea of Latvian mythology that is somewhat closer to what it must have been centuries ago, yet perfection in this area is far away and perhaps unreachable. All we can do is try to reconstruct an image of Latvian mythology from whatever remains of it there are left after both Christian religiousness and Soviet anti-religiousness have done their best to destroy all memory of it.

The following is my personal interpretation of what Latvian gods and goddesses were as personifications of nature and its processes.

DIEVS, DIEVIŅŠ (GOD)

The Latvian name “Dievs” (“God”) is said to have originally meant “Sky”. “Dievs” is the creator of everything – the universe, the Earth, humans and animals, the rules by which they must abide. He often takes the form of an old, gray-haired man that walks over the world watching his creatures live, helping the good and punishing the bad.

“Dievs” is also sometimes delineated as a gray-haired rider in a gray cloak, a sword at his side.

SAULE (SUN)

She is the giver of light and warmth and the controller of human time. Sun is the ruler of the sky, often described as a woman – mother, clad in gold as she rides over the sky in a cart pulled by two yellow colts.

MĒNESS (MOON)

Moon is the god of night, originally also the god of war. Similarly to Sun, Moon controls human time. He is also the giver of light in the dark. He is the bridegroom of Sun who can never reach his beloved.

Moon is often shown as a majestic warrior on a white horse, clad in a star-covered cloak, by his side a mighty sword. He is the rider of the night sky.

PĒRKONS (THUNDER)

Thunder is the god of justice, fertility and war, a great enemy of the Devil. He punishes evil, grants rain to the fields of farmers and helps soldiers on the battlefield. He is traditionally shown as a grim bearded man on a black stallion with a war ax and sword in hand.

Often, Thunder is also called the blacksmith of the Sky (one who works the forges of the sky, by extension, Sky Forger), causing lightning to fill the sky and thunder to shake the ground. He is the one who made Sun. He is also the artisan in charge of making swords for the sons of God and wreaths for the daughters of Sun.

VELS, VELLS, VELNS, VELINS (DEVIL)

The god of darkness, the Dead and everything below the ground. Later, under influence from Christianity, became the god of evil (Satan).

He was also known as a protector of livestock. Due to Christianity’s influence, very little is known about the archaic “Velns”. He might have been known once as a black rider.

LAIMA

Laima is the goddess of fate, forming a threesome together with two other goddesses of fate – KARTA and DEKLA.

Laima determines the fates of men, is present at birth and other important moments in life. Often pictured as a woman in magnificent garb, either walking together with God or weaving the webs of fate by a weaving wheel.

DIEVA DĒLI and SAULES MEITAS (SONS OF GOD and DAUGHTERS OF SUN)

Most often mentioned in reference to celebrations and events taking place in the sky, especially marriages. Sometimes, they intervene with the lives of humans. They may have once been the personifications of the constellations. In most cases, two sons of God are mentioned together, depicted as magnificently clad riders. The daughters of Sun are depicted as young girls clad in gold and silver.

JĀNIS (JĀNIS, similar to JOHN)

A very complex god, especially because of his name which indicates a possible Christian relationship, although it is possible that the name is entirely Latvian. Janis is a personification of the summer solstice – at this time, he comes to the human world, possibly as a male personification of the Sun. Often called the son of God. Depicted as a young rider wielding a sword.

ŪSIŅŠ

Usins was originally the god of light, bringing the sun and news of a coming spring. Usins is a personification of the spring solstice. Later, Usins became a protector of horses. Depicted as a riding and bearded man, of course. The horse is a symbol of Usins.

MĀRA, MĪĻĀ MĀRA (MĀRA, DEAR MĀRA)

The name of Mara has also given ground to some controversy, making some stipulate that it might be a Latvian-style version of the Mother Mary. Still, the functions attributed to Mara in folk songs do not match the functions of the Mother Mary. Mara is in my opinion a decidedly pagan goddess.

Mara is known as the mother of the land, protector of women, being present alongside with Laima at childbirth. She is also a protector of livestock. Mara is often depicted as a black snake or as a simply clad woman.

AUSEKLIS

Personification of the morning star, participates in various events of the sky, depicted as a young man.

AUSTRA

Austra is a personification of the morning blaze. She is the messenger of Sun in the form of a young woman.

JUMIS

The god of fertility mostly connected with fields and grain. Finding Jumis means happiness, affluence. Jumis is the main object of harvest rituals.

This finishes my list of the main pagan Latvian gods and goddesses known to us now. Latvian mythology includes many demigods, spirits, demons and personifications of various celebratory events.

A very common goddess is a ‘Mother’ of something, representing a particular object or phenomenon of nature. For instance, the following Mothers are very well known: Mother of Wind, Mother of Woods, Mother of Sea, Mother of Fields, Mother of Road, etc. Most likely, these Mothers were created ‘upon demand’ for any needed occurrence in nature. The symbol of Mother and the importance of the mother were very well preserved in Latvian beliefs from ancient times.

It was also very common to worship spirits of the house, led by the Lord of House. Every house had a protector, which cared for the welfare of the house and the people in it.

There is much note of worship of the Veli (the Dead), which were ‘fed’ in the Veli time (October to November, depending on the area) and traditional pagan worship of ancestors. Veli lived in the ‘Aizsaule’ (“place beyond the sun”) from which they were allowed to return once each year to visit their descendents and relations.

Various objects and beings were respected and worshipped – stones, trees (oaks in particular), rivers, lakes, streams, forests, fire, grass snakes, toads, birds and animals.

Evil spirits affected human life also: Jodi (demons), Laumas, Spoki (ghosts), Vadataji, Sumpurni, Vilkaci (werewolves), Raganas (witches), Lietuveni, Puki (dragons) and others were common.

Latvians thought that celebrations were personified in gods and goddesses, such as Metenis, Ziemassvetki (Christmas), the already mentioned Janis and Usins, then Martins, Mikelis, etc. Some of the abovementioned were brought to Latvia’s territory by Christianity and ‘converted to paganism’ by Latvians.

As I said before, we still do not know much, because we have very little written evidence of olden times left. It may be that much more will one day be revealed; in any case, there is work for researchers in this field aplenty.

Peter