Late autumn heralds time of the spirits

In late autumn—October and November—when the leaves have fallen, the field work is done and the weather is often foggy, there is time for reflection. This time of year, once the wolves begin to howl, in traditional Latvian culture is called Veļu laiks (“the time of the spirits”) or sometimes Dievaines.

The same term or variations of it, such as Veļu vakars, is also used to denote a specific day of remembrance and of honoring the deceased. This is not really a traditional Latvian holiday in the sense of solstices and equinoxes. It doesn’t even fall on a specific date. Rather, Veļu vakars, a very personal and private doing, can take place anytime during mid- to late autumn.

Because of the obvious parallel with the “dying” of the natural world, autumn is associated with death all around the world, and therefore also with remembrance for the dead. Take the Christian All Saints’ Day (Nov.1), the Celtic Samhain (Oct. 31), the Mexican and Central American Dia de los Muertos (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) and the Chinese Ghost Month (August-September).

Whereas in some cultures the topics of death, dying and the afterworld are avoided—if not all-out feared—Latvian tradition tends to view death as a very natural thing. Latvians do not deny that death is sorrowful (sorrow is also a natural part of the world), but they usually do not dwell on the sadness. Death is sad for the survivors, of course, but it is generally not feared. Death is just life, or energy, passing on to another level.

Latvians usually divide the person into three parts: the physical body (augums), the soul (dvēsele) and the spirit (velis). Latvian tradition has no dogmatic definition about the afterlife, but it is often believed that upon death, the physical body returns to the earth, the soul returns to God to live in an otherworld often called “the other side of the sun” (aizsaule), and the spirit continues to live for a while in a parallel universe. The spirits’ lives in this parallel universe pretty much mirror their past lives here: farmers continue farming, women weave and sew clothing, children herd pigs. Unmarried spirits can even find mates and get married there: a folk verse says that if it rains while the sun is shining a spirit wedding is taking place.

Besides veļi, there are several other regional names for the spirits of the deceased, such as leļi, iļģi, ķūķi, vecīši, pauri and ēni. Spirits are not considered scary or evil. Rather, they are viewed as our memories of the dead, the leftover waves of energy of the deceased, or as go-betweens between the body and soul or between the living and the dead. Spirits are thought to eventually fade away, just as memories fade over time. When invited, though, as is usually done in the autumn, the spirit of a dead person is said to be able to come back to This Side to visit, thus forming a close and intimate bond between the generations.

The deceased were for the most part remembered only among their own families and local communities, and therefore Veļu vakars was usually a very personal and private occasion. Because of that, the actual customs varied a lot from household to household, and there are few historical descriptions of them. Some Latvian communities today have developed their own traditions based on what can be gleaned from folk songs and other folklore materials.

For example, at Dievsēta—a center organized by the Dievturi folk religion in Wisconsin—we gather every year in October for veļu laiks. Before dinner we take time to invite the veļi to join us for the evening. First we invite the spirits of well-known Latvians whom we have known and respected (authors, artists, community leaders, teachers). Then we pass a small object like a smooth stone or a candle from person to person around the table. As each person takes the object, they invite the spirits of those people whom they personally would like to invite. This is done without pressure—the person may do it silently or out loud, and they may even elaborate and tell a story about a deceased neighbor or relative. Once all of our veļi have been invited, we set out food for them to eat and proceed to eat dinner ourselves. Then we sing, visit and play games. In other words, we spend a sincere evening with each other and with the spirits.

Although this evening is on the whole quieter and more serious than other Latvian holidays, and there usually are some teary eyes, the overall mood is not somber or dispairing. As at a traditional Latvian funeral, singing and dancing and laughing are not at all out of place and are considered appropriate. A well-known folk song states, “Sing while you take me to the cemetery, do not cry, so that my soul will sing as it goes to meet God.” After all, we are remembering people’s lives and all the joy that they gave us.

First thing next morning we go back and eat up all of the food that the spirits have left uneaten and we shoo the spirits back to the Otherworld. We welcomed them to visit with us, but we understand that they do not live here on this side of the Sun anymore and that they must return to the other side, or else they might eventually cause harm.

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