10 November 2014

Curses and Cures: "God, I am commanding you!" - Baltic pagan traditions

By M.J. Neary

You don't see many historical novels set in the Baltic countries. As an author, I am always looking to break new grounds and venture beyond the Knights Templar and the Tudors. For my next novel The Gate of Dawn I chose 19th century Lithuania. Having grown up in Central Europe and visited Lithuania frequently, I have a personal link to that part of the world and have experienced elements of that culture firsthand, I feel emboldened. Many of the folk rituals had survived the industrialization and cultural intervention by the Russians. Lithuanian folklore belongs to the Baltic tradition and shares links with many other old traditions of the Northern and Central Europe (Slavs, Germans and Celts). It was uncommon for pagan practices and beliefs to be incorporated into the official Christian mainstream. Lithuanians were among the last people to become Christianized. As late as the 16th century there were pockets of rural communities where spirituality revolved around the warlord-oriented pagan customs. 

The Balts perceived a curse as something self-inflicted, almost like an addition or an auto-immune disease. It was not a result of another person's malevolence but one's own failure to fulfill a moral obligation to one's family, community or church. In that sense, the Balts held an almost Calvinist point of view that the misfortunes in one's life were a sign of one's spiritual and moral shortcomings. Curiously, one of the greatest offenses was breaking bread with one hand as opposed to both hands. It was said that since it took both hands to earn your daily bread, it was appropriate to break it with both hands as well. Bread was considered sacred, and treating it with disrespect would bring serious illness or death to the family. The idea of inanimate substance possessing vengeful tendencies is far removed from traditional Christianity. It's another manifestation of pagan influences. A farmer could be punished by a tree for cutting it down, or by the soil itself for not cultivating it properly. In Lithuanian folklore, even stones had blood and breath, and therefore, will and spirit. All these elements of nature had to be revered and appeased. Failure to do so would bring tragedy upon the offender. 

At the same time, an inanimate object could be cajoled into becoming receptacle for human suffering. The Balts believed that pain could not be destroyed, only shifted onto another bearer. Another paradoxical detail that in the Lithuanian pagan tradition, which directly opposes the Christian notion of human subordination to God, is that man was viewed as the master of the deities and could command and manipulate the higher powers for personal needs. Here is an example of a healing spell cast by a spell-binder. "God, I am asking you, I am commanding you through Dougis the Stone and Bubis the Oak: utter the word, stop the blood from running out of my veins, from tempting the soul out of the body. You better tempt the soul out of the tree that has become parched, you better let the blood out of the grass that has been cut by a scythe." With enough chanting, the Baltic deities would be cajoled into serving the mankind.

About the author

Marina Julia Neary is an acclaimed historical novelist, award-winning essayist, multilingual journalist, dramatist and poet. Her areas of expertise include Neo-Victorianism, French Romanticism and Irish nationalism. Her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the Chernobyl catastrophe. Neary declares that her mission is to tell untold stories, find hidden gems and illuminate the prematurely extinguished stars in history. She explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand. Her debut novel Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of London Slums (Fireship Press) appeared on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. Her subsequent novels include Wynfield's War (2010), Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian (2011), Martyrs & Traitors: a Tale of 1916 (2011), Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels (2014) and Saved by the Bang (2015).


Joanna Waugh said...

Your observation about the Eastern European reverence for bread touched a cord. My father was Slovak and we never were allowed to toss someone a bread roll or slice of bread at the table. It had to be handed from one person to another.

marinajulianeary said...

Indeed! Slovaks are more of a Slavic tribe. Baltic people have more in common with Scandinavians, but there is a lot of cultural crossover.

andrea chiu said...

It is so good to see something very interesting in your site that I can't stop on reading. This is so good article ever. Thank you for sharing and for inspiring your readers. Have a good day!