Today is Midsummer Day in many of the Scandinavian and eastern European countries. In Finland, Latvia, and Estonia, for example, Midsummer Day is second only to Christmas as the biggest holiday of the year. Bonfires, feasting, parades, dancing and carousing fill the countryside. All sorts of divination and spells are common practice, and reveling outdoors in the beauty of Nature is the top priority.
Interestingly, some historians consider that in Latvia and the other Baltic countries, Christianity never really triumphed, certainly not to the extent it did in western Europe and the English-speaking world. The Baltic countries were never absorbed by the ancient Roman Empire, and they were not incorporated in the later Holy Roman Empire until well into the fifteenth century (and then only after great reluctance and resistance). For hundreds of years, Latvia’s neighbor, Lithuania, which had converted its local folk-pagan beliefs into a powerful and coherent Pagan state religion, served as a buffer between the Baltics and the advance of Christian Europe.
In a recent article, Pagan writer Mark Dalton notes that Baltic and Latvian Paganism was always an earth-centered set of beliefs. Around the year 1400, Father Peter of Dunsberg wrote “[Latvians] worship all of creation… moon, stars, thunder, birds… they have their sacred forests, fields and waters in which they dare not cut wood, nor work, nor fish.” Important deities in the Baltic pantheon include Dievs, the sky God; Mara, Goddess of earth and water; Laima, the Goddess representing destiny or fate — and Janis (John), son of Dievs, the fertility God of the Summer Solstice!
“In spite of the official ‘Christianizing’ of Latvia and the other Baltic states,” he writes, “Pagan beliefs were neither eliminated, nor, outside the major cities, even driven very far underground. The language of Christianity was Latin, and later with the rise of Luther, German, and they were also, as in many nations, the language of the oppressor.
“Latvians, in response, perpetuated their folk customs and Pagan beliefs through songs and celebrations in their native language. Early in the twentieth century, the Pagan oral tradition of Latvia was collected and published in six volumes (the “Laviju Dainas“), followed by the collection of sacred Latvian folk songs in the 1920s (the ‘Dievturi‘).
“These works offer invaluable documentation of the survival of Pagan beliefs and folkways down to the present time. Lithuanian Paganism was again officially recognized in 1967, and since 1988 a shrine-site at Romuva has again become a place of pilgrimage and celebration for modern Baltic Pagans. Similarly, after a long period of repression under the Soviet Union (including a total ban on Midsummer festivities), modern Latvian Paganism is experiencing a rebirth under the name Dievturi, after the sky God, and has become a national movement, ‘Dievturiba.’ Again, in Latvia, the Midsummer’s Eve festivities, or ‘Jani,’ are back on a large scale!”
In an article written for the 5th World Congress of Central and Eastern European Studies in Warsaw, historian Piotr Wiench writes, “The rapid emergence of neo-Pagan groups in Central and Eastern Europe seems to be a fruitful object of study; it took place in a region where national tensions burst out after the fall of communism with extreme intensity, following a long period of the artificial freeze.” He notes that the explosive resurgence of Paganism is “.. neither a fad nor merely a reflection of Western neo-Pagan ideas.
“For the majority of people interested in neo-Paganism, the Western neo-Paganism is rather unknown, and Pagans in the region are much less interested in magick than the Western Pagans…[it is] one of the directions of quest of identity in the region, an attempt to find a key to a new situation, to trace back the roots and explore tradition. These attempts are in no way an escape from reality or sectarian activity. On the contrary, they try to exploit tradition in order to create a new response to the contemporary challenges.”
So raise a glass with me today, and let us toast those who are again able to celebrate their ancient Midsummer rites in freedom. May the Solstice light of tolerance, awakening, and healing shine for all.
Tuesday, June 26:
An update, thanks to a magical sister of mine, Allison who sent me this in email:
” I noticed you didn’t mention a deity particularly dear to me: The Baltic goddess Soule, Goddess of the sun, the Goddess whose tears are the amber that has made the region so famous. I secretly believe that even though it’s not one of the classical faery religions, Baltic faith had lots of connections to faery, especially the amber. Maybe She has a different name in Lithuania, but since this is Her time, I thought I’d give her a shout out.”
Thanks, Allison, for letting me know about Her! Yes! Blessings and praises to Soule! Perhaps I’ll be writing more about Her in the days ahead! — Beth