Senprūsija / Old Prussia
Some thousand years ago, the Old Prussians were the largest of the Baltic tribes, inhabiting the southern coast of the Baltic Sea from River Vistula to River Neman (Memel). The Old Prussians, just as their language, are now extinct, and nothing much is left of their past. However, many manuscripts and artefacts remain, along with tales and legends that tell us about these people, their love for their land, battle skills and their fierce and persistent resistance against the Christian Europe all through the 13th century.
We chose to dedicate this album to the legacy of the Old Prussians, as for us, the two remaining Baltic nations – Latvians and Lithuanians, it is very important that this part of our common history is not forgotten and remains known for the future generations.
Ancient Indo-European tribes – the forebears of the Old Prussians – are believed to have arrived on the Baltic shores around 2500 BC. Around the 12th century, the Prussian nation consisted of 11 tribes, each inhabiting a distinct territory.
Medieval chronicles tell us that Prussians did not have official monarchs or rulers, as all issues of importance were discussed and leaders were elected in an open gathering of free, adult males. The supreme authority among Prussians was wielded by Vitings (noblemen) and Vaidelots (priests). Noblemen were the heirs of reputable, ancient and wealthy families, and they rode to war on horseback, while Vaidelots were the intellectual authorities, keepers of spiritual traditions, sorcerers, fortune-tellers and healers. A grand gathering of all Prussian lands was conducted by the Krive Krivaito, their high priest, in the Romova grove. Also, Prussia was known as the Land of Amber, which was washed ashore in abundance by the Baltic Sea and traded all around Europe. Prussians valued amber more than gold!
Numerous conflicts battle hardened and solidified the Old Prussian nation. In the 7th and 8th century, they were attacked by Avars and Masurians, and in the 9th to 12th century by Polish dukes. Old Prussians successfully resisted and launched a number of devastating raids into enemy lands.
After a number of unsuccessful attempts of Christianizing the Prussians by Polish missionaries, in 1230 AD this task were taken up by the Order of Teutonic Knights under the Pope’s orders. This brotherhood of armed monks was among the mightiest military organizations of the day. Having arrived in Prussia, they started to build stone fortifications along with settling down German colonists across freshly conquered lands. Urged by the Pope, many European rulers joined the Northern Crusade against the heathens of Prussia. Until 1285, the Prussians resisted but eventually were forced to accept Christianity and the dominance of the Teutonic Order.
With time, Prussians were gradually assimilated by German colonists, Poles and Lithuanians, who, since 15th century, in large numbers arrived and settled in the formerly Prussian lands.
The wars and plagues of the 17th century nearly wiped out the remaining Prussian population and since the18th century, the Prussian language went out of use.
The Teutonic Order set up its own state in Prussian lands. In 1701, it became the Kingdom of Prussia and in 1871, it was merged into German Empire. The flames of World War II utterly devastated Prussia. After the war, the land was divided between the Soviet Union and Poland, its former population driven into exile and replaced by new settlers from Russia.
Still, it would be wrong to say that the Prussians and their language are now eliminated completely. A number of Prussian descendants in Germany and neighbouring countries claim Prussian ethnicity and learn the restored Prussian language.
Sudovians, also known as Yotvingians, were regarded by some historians as another Prussian tribe, while today most believe they were a separate Baltic nation. The Sudovians lived in a land of vast primeval forests and endless swamps.
Sudovians were known as tough people, hardened by many battles against Kievan Rus long time before the arrival of the Teutonic Order. They were also known as skilled hunters, and hunted such great beasts as Auroch and European bison; they were skilful horse riders and brave warriors.
German chronicler Peter von Dusburg says:
“The Sudovians were the most noble of all. In terms of wealth and power their status was higher than all the others. Their normal strength was 6000 horsemen and countless foot soldiers.”
When the Teutonic Order failed to beat them in an open battle, the Knights resorted to raiding and plundering the Sudovian lands, descending on small Sudovian villages, burning crop fields and taking women and children in slavery. If this was not enough, there were also constant attacks from Rus and Polish dukes.
The last great Sudovian warchief and priest Skomantas revolted in 1276 and, helped by the Lithuanians launched a raid into the lands of the Teutonic Order, but with no support from other Prussian tribes was soon defeated. He fled to Lithuania, but later returned and converted to Christianity. Sudovian lands were divided between the Teutonic Knights, Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1260 – 1287, one of the bloodiest and longest wars of the 13th century was fought in Prussian lands. It was a battle between two worlds – Paganism and Christianity.
The Prussians, eager to keep the faith and ways of their forefathers, entered an unequal battle of life and death against both the European Crusaders and their recently converted countrymen.
On the 13 July 1260, in the Battle of Durbe in Courland (now a part of modern Latvia) a Samogitian (a Lithuanian tribe) force had defeated the united army of Teutonic and Livonian Orders. On the 21 September, taking advantage of the current weakness of the Teutonic Order, five Prussian tribes rose against the Christians. The Prussians were led by their elected warchiefs: Herkus Monte from Natangia, Glande from Sambia, Glappe from Varmia, Auktume from Pogesania, and Diwanus from Bartia.
All Christians who lived outside their fortified castles were killed or taken into slavery, churches and chapels were torched, and priests slaughtered without mercy.
By 1264, the Knights had lost nearly all their castles except Konigsberg, Elbing and Balga. The Teutonic Order was about to lose all the lands they had conquered, provided there was no further aid from the European rulers and their armies.
But then, in 1265 – 1272, Duke Albrecht of Braunschweig, Landgraves of Thuringia and Brandenburg, Margrave of Meissen, the Czech king Ottokar II of Bohemia and a number of other Christian rulers joined the conquest. Christian forces were also strengthened by many Prussian noblemen, who remained faithful to Christianity; a show of loyalty that the Order repaid handsomely by granting them land and peasants.
While the Teutonic Knights could rely on a constant flow of reinforcements from Europe, the Prussians had reached the limit of their resources and men, and their resistance dried out around 1273.
Herkus Monte (born around 1225, Latin: Henricus Montemin) was the son of a Natangian nobleman. As a child, he was taken hostage by Teutonic Knights and brought to Germany. There, for about 10 years he was raised and educated in a monastery. The monks tried to raise a new missionary, hoping that one day Monte would return to Prussia, and bring Christianity and western lifestyle to his folk.
When Herkus did return to his homeland, he defied his former masters by joining the Great Prussian uprising to fight for the freedom of his own people.
Owing to his thorough knowledge of Teutonic military tactics, Natangians elected Monte as their commander in chief. Monte taught his kinsmen how to use German weapons, such as crossbows and siege equipment, against the invaders and soon distinguished himself in the battlefield and scored numerous victories. Together with other Old Prussian leaders, Herkus nearly succeeded in driving the Teutonic Order out of Prussia.
Unfortunately, the Order soon recovered, as it received constant reinforcements from Western Europe. The uprising fizzled out and the Prussian troops dispersed. The Prussian tribes rarely worked together as a single military force, thus becoming an easy prey to the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Order.
So Herkus Monte went into hiding in the woods and continued his fight. Some years later he was found by German troops and killed while he was out on a hunt.
We, the Baltic peoples, have few legendary heroes, and Herkus Monte undoubtedly is one of them. He was a man who abandoned the easy and comfortable life of an up-and-coming Christian knight and sacrificed himself to the fight for his own homeland and its freedom.
In the land of Nadrovia, there was the most sacred place for Old Prussians – the Romuve grove (also known as Rickoyot). It was only here where they were allowed to worship and bring sacrifice to their three main deities – Perkuns, Peckols (or Patollo) and Potrimpus. These were three supernatural powers ruling the world and manifesting themselves in every Prussian’s daily life.
Legends tell that in the very heart of Romuve stood an ancient oak and in its hollow trunk stood idols of all three Prussian gods.
Perkuns was depicted as a middle aged man with angry red face and bearing a crown of fire – fit for the god of war and justice. Peckols looked like an old man with long grey beard and white shroud wrapped around his head. He was the god of Underworld and the dead. Potrimpus bore the likeness of a young man wearing a crown of ears of grain; he was the god of birth and fertility.
The highest of Prussian priests Krive Krivaito along with Vaidelots (priests) resided in the Romuva grove on a permanent basis. The Krive communicated and brought sacrifice to gods, performed rituals and summoned the Prussians to important gatherings.
Some sources indicate that the last known Krive Krivaito lived in the 14th century in Lithuania – his name was Lizdeika and he served as an advisor to the Grand Duke Gediminas.
There are historians who believe that all this is mostly a fancy legend made up by German chroniclers to make their writings more captivating. However, it may not be entirely so, as across the Baltics, there is still a lot of place names containing “alkas” or “elks”, a reference to a sacred pagan place. Also, in Latvia in particular, there is a considerable number of places containing the affix “Krīv-“ and “Rām-“, and, of course, many more references to Perkuns, the pagan deity well known across the whole Baltic region.
Christianity – how much suffering it has brought to this world!
Baked up in Roman Empire as a great political tool to keep the common folk obedient, it swept across the world like a tornado, leaving waste and destruction in its wake.
Forced upon people by their own power hungry leaders, it destroyed the old European culture. Centuries of mass murder, torture, destruction of everything that does not conform to their point of view and yet here they are, pretending as if nothing has happened, playing hypocrite, like all this had been done by some other, not “true” Christians!
With first steps on the Baltic and Prussian shores, along with preaching their new faith, Christian missionaries eagerly sought to destroy sacred pagan places. When they met the resistance, the invaders called for military reinforcements, and the Pope himself obliged by declaring a crusade against the Baltic tribes!
Through centuries, they have tried hard to destroy anything that links us to our pagan past; however, our people have always remained stubborn, proud and defiant.
But despite of the massive effort to the contrary, we still have our folksongs about old gods and sing them merrily; our sacred places and trees are kept dear; the bonfires of summer solstice burn bright and numerous other traditions of old are very much alive.
They may call this paganism, we call this our culture!
16th century chronicles sometimes refer to a legend about people who came across the Baltic Sea and settled in the lands which later became known as Prussia. The settlers were led by two brothers – Widewuto and Pruteno. The two earned the respect of locals and soon Widewuto was elected their chief and his brother Pruteno – the high priest, or Krive Krivaito.
The brothers taught their savage subjects how to build fortifications, brew mead, cultivate land and, last but not least, established a legal system.
When the brothers reached a ripe old age, both sacrificed themselves to the gods – the legend says the two walked into a sacred pyre at the Romuve grove, rejoicing and singing as they burned alive.
The legend tells that when the brothers entered the sacred fire, a great storm erupted with thunder and lightning, and people knew at once that the Gods have accepted the sacrifice and now both Widewuto and Pruteno are among them in the heavens. After their death, the Prussians began worshiping them as deities and proceeded with setting up carved stones along their borders and dedicating these to their former leaders.
Some believe that the name of Prussia was given to this land in honour of Pruteno.
During the Great Northern War (1700-1721), several plague outbreaks hit Europe, especially around the coast of the Baltic Sea. It spread from Central Asia via Constantinople into Poland, as it followed the Swedish army route.
Prussia was struck hardest between 1709 and 1711, when about a third of the East Prussian population was killed by plague and famine. Unfortunately, it took the last native speakers of the Old Prussian language. Also, it struck a devastating blow to the old pagan traditions around the Baltic coast, as many of those who still kept the old ways alive, passing them from generation to generation, died in the plague and with them, went a great deal of the old lore and knowledge of the Balts. We can say that after the plague, the Old Prussians had ceased to exist as a nation.
Sometimes it seems that nothing much has changed in this world since olden times!
Even today, there are “bigger and more important” nations, and “smaller and less important” nations – no one wants to be simply “human”. The truth belongs to those who wield the most power, and for them there is no shame in faking the history, or erasing any embarrassing facts they don’t like.
Also, people and nations still hate each other like they have always done – just because someone lives in another land, speaks a different language and has different traditions, religion and so on.
To this day, there are those who want to force their way of life upon others and also many who are willing to give their lives as they follow all sorts of nonsensical ideas or religious dogma. They are ready to kill only because someone else had brainwashed them or simply told them that it is the right or only way!
And then there are those who are forced to abandon their daily life and take up weapons, to face these others who have come to kill or to take everything they hold dear.
Who are the brave men who, through history, have stood up to defend their family, their people and their land? Most of their faces and names are long forgotten and only few are known to this day. But we will never forget them, because it is only thanks to these people that we still have our own land, our language and our freedom. The lives and blood of heroes have not been shed in vain; they live on in our hearts, poetry, art and music!
Even after the forced Christianization, pagan traditions were anything but extinct in Prussia. Old Prussians, like all other Balts, only pretended to be Christian; once away from German eyes, they went immediately back to their pagan ways.
Chroniclers recount an event that had happened in 1525. As a large Polish fleet was about to attack the Prussian coast, the Grandmaster of Teutonic Order, Albrecht, in desperation turned for assistance to the local Vaidelot (pagan priest) Waltin Supplit. With Grandmaster’s agreement, local peasants promptly supplied Waltin with a black bull and two barrels of fine ale.
Everyone gathered by the sea. The Vaidelot then killed and skinned the bull. He burned the bones and innards, and boiled the meat, only adding some salt. While doing so, Waltin Supplit performed various rites, gestured oddly, and chanted prayers to pagan gods. When meat was ready, all present males were invited to eat and drink.
In a couple of days, the Polish fleet arrived, but did not land. Later, the Polish sailors had explained that to them, the Prussian coast had appeared dreadful and full of danger: steep banks of sand, covered in thick forest, making landing impossible!
Even fish had fled from the coastal waters, putting the local population in danger of starvation. Therefore, Waltin had performed another magic ritual and the fish then had returned.
While Old Prussian and Latvian tribes took the first and hardest blow from the Northern Crusades, Lithuania, being situated deeper in the European mainland, had a chance to develop genuine statehood, uniting its tribes and later becoming the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the last pagan state in Europe!
In the 13th century, the Teutonic Order had managed to more or less conquer the Baltic coast and now Lithuania, still not Christianized, became their main target.
Still, there were many among the peoples of Latvia (which was called Livonia at the time) and Prussia, who refused to submit to their new masters. They left for Lithuanian lands to carry on fighting against the invaders. Some chronicles say that up to 100 thousand Semigallians had burned down their castles and went to Lithuania. It was likely the Old Prussians had done the same. German chroniclers of the day mention that once Prussia was conquered, its lands lay barren and deserted, and not a single living soul could be seen over several days’ ride! People were slaughtered, villages burned and many escaped to Lithuania.
Helped by Lithuanians, Prussians made several attempts at staging an insurrection which ended in a failure and they were forced to submit again. Nevertheless the final blow to the rule of the Teutonic Order was yet to come. It came in the battle of Grunwald in 1410 (also known as battle of Tannenberg or Battle of Žalgiris), where the Teutonic troops were soundly defeated by united Lithuanian and Polish forces, and the Order never regained its former might.