A primer on the Latvian folk religion

To understand how dievturība, the Latvian folk religion, evolved, it is important to recall some information that everybody already knows, but does not think about on a daily basis. Latvia is located in the northern hemisphere, far enough from the equator to experience four distinct seasons. The Latvians and their ancestors have been an agricultural people for thousands of years, rather than being primarily hunters or nomads. Taking both geography and lifestyle into account, they have always been at the mercy of climate and nature.

The Latvians have always lived in close association with nature, and nature is also a very important part of their ancient religion. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga wrote that “the ancient Latvian did not think of himself as lord and ruler over nature, nor superior to nature, but rather he considered himself to be an inseparable ingredient of nature.” As opposed to the views of some religions, the Latvian is not the lord and ruler over all of creation, but rather lives in harmony with all of nature and the environment. The Latvian is not superior to animals and plants. The Latvian is good to all of God’s creations: “Ne sunīša es nespēru, ne uguns pagalītes: Ir sunīts Dievs laists, ir uguns pagalīte” (I did not kick the dog nor the firewood, For both the dog and the firewood are made by God.)

The whole world—from the smallest insect, grass seed and tiniest pebble, to the entire sea, stars and universe—is seen as a living organism. The Latvian is continually in awe of the world’s beauty, breadth, complexity and incomprehension: “Kas var dziesmas izdziedāt, kas valodas izrunāt? Kas var zvaigznes izskaitīt, jūŗas zvirgzdus izlasīt?” (Who can sing all songs and speak all languages? Who can count all stars and all the pebbles of the sea?)

Every Latvian farmer wished for wisdom in order to make it through hard times. Each generation wished to pass this wisdom on to the next generation. Latvians did this in poetic form, by crafting folk songs called dainas, into which this wisdom was “locked.” But, of course, the dainas didnt hold only planting and harvesting wisdom; they included all of life: the joys and the sorrows, the good days and the bad days. Universal questions and answers were also locked into the dainas. Why do things happen the way they do? Where does everything come from, and where will it go? Why is my neighbor doing better than I am? And so on. Each generation added its own experiences and conclusions and then passed on this inheritance of songs until it has reached us today.

Dievturība and dainas

Wishing for a “Latvian Latvia” for his people, the archeologist Ernests Brastiņš (1892-1942) turned to this inheritance of folk songs and was the first to devote himself to the wide and systematic research of Latvian religion. In the 1920s, together with his acquaintances, Brastiņš laid the foundation for dievturība, which is the renewed ancient Latvian religion. Long ago this religion probably never had a name, and one must realize that it is impossible to accurately recreate an ancient religion. So, dievturība as we know it is a religion, or more likely a “way of life” (as is Hinduism), based on the ancient Latvian deities, wisdom and values.

Dievturība invites one to live a Latvian life by listening to the Latvian sound and form of God’s wisdom. In other words, across the world there are many roads to God, and each group of people or ethnicity has developed a road that is most appropriate, most sincere, most comfortable and most understandable for itself. It is assumed that the nearest and dearest road for a Latvian will be the Latvian road, in other words the Latvian religion and way of life. Dievturība is based on the sources of spiritual strength of our ancestors, which have helped and strengthened Latvians for countless generations and through a variety of times and events. It is for this very reason that dievturība can also adapt to the modern person’s life.

Dievturība has no priests or priestly orders. Dievturība has no specified dogma and it does not require unquestioning faith and submission of its practitioners. Dievturība allows each individual to understand it according to their own needs and abilities. All new information and research in the fields of science, history, folklore and religion serve to further develop and enrich dievturība. This means that, for example, something like the introduction of the theories of evolution or multiple universes does not go “against” the beliefs of the adherents to dievturība.

The basis of dievturība are the folk verses, or dainas. The dainas are Latvians’ main fountain of wisdom—the most useful wisdom and observations, tested by life and by time. Dainas are timeless and can be applied to and understood just as well in our day as they were 1,000 years ago. The dainas arose from the people’s strength, and they have given and continue to give strength to this day. The dainas teach us to honor all of nature; they tell us how to live together with others; they stress the importance of work, but also the fact that one cannot live without joy.

Deities

The dainas also describe deities, which are often seen as aspects or laws of nature dressed in poetic language: Dievs—thought, universe, cosmic intelligence, unchangeable laws of nature and original energy; Māra—the material world and the feminine; Laime or Laima—fate and destiny.

The Latvians called the incomprehensible, overwhelming collective energy of the world Dievs. Modern science has uncovered many secrets of nature, but still cannot explain how and where thought originates. That is why possibly the best word to describe the essence of Dievs is thought, or wisdom. Dievs observes everything and offers advice: “Ņemiet, jauni, padomiņu no veciem ļautiņiem; Vecajiem ļautiņiem Dieviņš deva padomiņu” (Young people, take advice from the old people; The old people received their wisdom from God).

But only those who try to develop and broaden themselves to the best of their abilities and who always try their best will receive Dievs’ wisdom and help: “Dievs man deva, Dievs man deva, Dievs rokā neiedeva; Dievs rokā neiedeva, iekams pats nopelnīju” (God gave to me, but God did not put things right into my hands; God didn’t put things into my hands until I earned them myself).

Dievs is not harsh, he does not punish and he does not ask for submission in his presence. He is kind and his presence is almost imperceptible: “Lēni, lēni Dieviņš brauca no kalniņa lejiņā; Netraucēja ievas ziedu, ne arāja kumeliņu” (God rode down the hill slowly, slowly; He did not disturb the blossoms nor the ploughman’s horse).

The Latvian speaks to Dievs with familiarity, as with a friend. Latvians often show special kindness and closeness to Dievs by addressing him with the diminutive form, Dieviņš.

The second Latvian deity (or aspect of Dievs or the Universe, depending on one’s interpretation) is Māra. She symbolizes the material, or physical, world and is the so-called Mother Earth, or Dievs’ material side. Māra’s domain includes all of life, both in This World as well as in the Other World. She is both the giver and taker of life: “Sak’ zemīte ļaunu dara, zeme dara visu labu: Zeme deva ēsti, dzerti, glabā manu augumiņu” (They say that the earth does evil, but the earth does only good: The earth gives food and drink and shelters my body).

Because she attends births and therefore the beginning of life, Māra is very dear to women: “Kur Māriņa basa tek pa ābeļu līdumiņu? Pie jaunām sieviņām grūtajās dieniņās” (To where is Māra hurrying through the apple garden? To the young women during their difficult days (birthing)).

Just like nature, Māra is many-sided. Because of her multiform character, she has received some 60 different names. These names are all just different faces of the one Māra or personifications of certain natural phenomena, for example, Wind Mother, Sea Mother, Forest Mother, Milk Mother or Spirit Mother.

The third Latvian deity (or aspect of Dievs or the Universe), Laime or Laima, is the decider of fate. She personifies that unbreakable law of the world, where each action has its consequence, similar to karma: “Bēgu dienu, bēgu nakti, Laimes likta neizbēgu, Kādu mūžu Laime lika, tāds bij’ man dzīvojot” (I flee all day, I flee all night, but I cannot escape the fate set by Laime; I have to live the kind of life that Laime has given to me).

Laima gives everyone a certain kind of life, or fate, but one is still able to influence one’s fate for the better (or worse), depending on one’s good (or bad) deeds and thoughts. To use one’s mind and understanding, along with Dievs’ wisdom, to form and use the circumstances one has been given by Laima in order to fill one’s life with good work and good deeds is then, for lack of a better term, the “meaning” or responsibility of one’s life.

Values

We find many values (tikumi) expressed in the dainas. These reflect a very highly evolved ethical and value system and provide instruction for living better. These values are very old, passed down from generation to generation, yet they are timeless and apply just as well to us today as they did to people hundreds of years ago. Although much has changed over the years, the basic Latvian values have not changed. They are useful for urban as well as rural inhabitants.

The value of work, or the work ethic, has been held in particularly high esteem by Latvians. It most likely grew out of the northern environment, where nature offers little without hard work, and therefore “work is life.”

The goal or meaning of life for a Latvian is to live in harmony with the cycles/rhythms of nature and other people. In other words, to live well and thoughtfully: “Visi man labi bija, kad es pati laba biju; Visi mani naidenieki, ja es naida cēlējiņa” (Everyone is good to me if I am good myself; Everyone is angry with me if I am the source of anger).

A person decides for themself how they will act towards the world, whether well or badly. Even though there are dishonorable people, the idea of sin and redemption (and especially of original sin) is foreign to the dainas and the Latvian understanding of life. The greatest punishment for a dishonorable act is the experience of shame: “Ej, bāliņ, taisnu ceļu, runā taisnu valodiņu; Tad ij Dievs palīdzēs taisnu mūžu nodzīvot” (Brother, walk a straight path and speak straight(honest) words; Then God will help you to live a straight(honest) life).

Yearly holidays and life’s celebrations

People are connected to events in nature and also to the heavenly bodies—especially the sun, which determines the cycles of the seasons and along with them the rhythms of agriculture. These rhythms also dictate the yearly Latvian holidays. That is not at all surprising, because the path of the sun and the corresponding length of day is very noticeable in a northern land.

Adherents to dievturība, called dievtuŗi, strive to keep the ancient Latvian holidays and celebrations alive. The biggest holiday, Jāņi, falls on the longest day of the year or summer solstice. Ziemassvētki is celebrated on the shortest day of the year (winter solstice, Dec. 21). On those days when day and night are of equal length (equinox) Latvians celebrate Lielā diena (March 21) and Miķeļi (Sept. 21). Still more holidays occur at the midpoints between the above-mentioned holidays: Meteņi (Feb. 10), Ūsiņi (May 10), Māras (Aug. 10) and Mārtiņi (Nov. 10). Every holiday period has its own traditions, many of which are associated with fertility and the agricultural and growing cycles.

Dievtuŗi observe three rites of passage: a newborn’s name-giving (krustabas), marriage (vedības, līdzināšana or kāzas), and the funeral (bēres). Dievtuŗi also take time in the late fall to remember those who have died and passed on to the spiritual world (veļu laiks or dievaines).

Life and death

Dievtuŗi believe a person consists of three parts: the physical body (augums), the soul (dvēsele) and the spirit (velis, plural veļi). After death the physical body returns to the earth. The dvēsele—a person’s consciousness—eventually returns to Dievs, or the collective energy of the Universe. The velis is a go-between between the body and soul: it is a part of the physical body, but consists of particles that are too small for us to see and which continue to exist for a while after death. The velis is also the deceased person’s thoughts, wisdom and words, as well as the memories about that person: “Veci koki izpraulējši, tāses vien atlikušas; Veci ļaudis nomiruši, valodiņa atlikuse” (The old trees have rotted, only their bark remains; The old people have died, only their words remain).

The more time has passed since a person has died, the fewer people are left who remember the way the deceased looked, moved and spoke. But that does not mean the person’s velis has ceased to exist. Their velis is not lost, just harder to notice and less clear, as is any object that one views from a great distance. During the time of the veļi in late autumn, dievtuŗi invite the veļi of their friends and relatives to return and visit. Even though the veļi are invited to visit with the living, one must remember to “send” them back to their spirit world afterwards.

Dying is seen as the separation of the body, soul and velis. Latvians tend to await it calmly, without fear. Often Latvians speak of This World (šī saule, pasaule), where we are currently living, and the Other World (viņsaule) or the world Behind the Sun (aizsaule), where the veļi continue their lives after their bodies have died: “Šai saulē, šai zemē, viesiem vien padzīvoju; Viņa saule, viņa zeme, tā visam mūžiņam” (I lived only as a guest in this sun, in this world; The other sun, the other world – that is forever).

Dievturība does not try much to explain what goes on in the Other World, because that is not known to us. But it is thought, anyway, that the veļi continue their lives in the Other World in much the same way as we live our lives here.

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