Travel to Lithuania: The last pagan state

Last Pagans In Europe

Late Lithuanian paganism is interesting as a part of daily life, affecting some national customs and some of the local habits.

Spread of Christianity

Christianity comes from Holy land to Central Europe and Azia. The distance between the areas was one of the reasons for the later adoption of the new faith. The Grand duchy of Lithuania located far away from Rome and Constantinople, two big centers of Christianity. Compared with the central European countries, The neighboring pagans in Europe adopted Christianity also late. 

Polish and Russian lands adopted Christianity in the 10th-century, only. However, Lithuanians remained the last pagans of Europe till the late fourteenth century, because Balts still had many smaller tribes and where long before integration into the more significant political unit. 

There was also a powerful internal opposition to the adoption of Christianity; in the next paragraph, I will mention a few failed attempts to baptize.  

Grand Duke of Lithuania Mindaugas managed to unite the lands of the Baltic Tribes. 

A first mighty reason to betray Lithuanian pagan gods and to adopt Christianity arose in the middle of the 13th century. It was the most important and robust reason – to defend the lands of Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Even in modern history, this is a common reason that countries make allies to protect themselves from an external enemy. Balts needed to defend themselves from the German knight’s orders. Since Holy land been conquered by Muslims, Eastern and Northern Europe became a target to Crusaders. 

They used religion as a legitimation to fight with pagans and conduct the “real” faith to these lands. So it was a very natural decision to consolidate the tribes and to determine the ruler. Such a person was the first and the last King of Lithuania – Mindaugas. He did his best to protect lands against the Crusaders and adopted Christianity. They were hoping that Rome will not send the warriors. 

The first attempt failed, another 150 years of a pagan Lithuanian religion.

Unfortunately, Mindaugas’ efforts substituting religion to stop the war were bare. Knights continue to attack Lithuania, and Mindaugas Cousins, angry about his betrayal of ancestors, crooked him down. It was an unsuccessful attempt to adopt Christianity. After Mindaugas’ murder, Lithuania continues as a pagan state and fights with Crusader, Tatars, and Slavic tribes. 

The next great leader, who did a lot for Lithuania, was Duke Gediminas. He established the current Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Gediminas was liberal, and this gave him the advantage to enlarge Lithuanian land. Many times this was not through war and battles but by strategic marriages of his sons, to become Dukes in Russian Lands. 

They understood that it would be easier to control Slavic lands by having the same faith – orthodox Christianity. So usually, Lithuanian dukes that move through marriage to Slavic lands adopted Orthodox Christianity while Lithuania, in general perspective, was still a pagan state.

Gediminas Legacy

Gediminas’ liberal ideas affect all his family members. Two very important of his dynasty members were two his grandsons. Vytautas the Great, was one of the most loved by people and deserved a lot of respect for having equal rights to all Lithuanian people. Then, he enlarged Lithuanian territory to its maximum size. Nine hundred thousand square kilometers state was one of the biggest countries in Europe in the 15th century. 

The second grandson of Gediminas and the first cousin of Vytautas was Jogaila. He belatedly was the person who baptized Lithuania to Christianity. But still, we need to keep in mind that this happened because of strategic planning decisions and not because of the strong will to believe in Jesus Crist. Jogaila was offered by Poles to marry queen Jadviga and become King of Poland. Condition of Poles who were Christians, officially baptizing Grand Duchy of Lithuania as Cristian state. Jogaila agreed, and in 1387 Lithuanian adopted Christianity.

Changes brought with the new religion

The first change was in connections with Poland. From Jogaila’s marriage, the interweaving of the history of Lithuania and Poland states begins. Although Poles are Slavs and Lithuanians are baltic tribes, Catholicism unites these two countries. Polish priests baptized Lithuania, and it was the start of a long dominance of polish culture and language in Lithuania. Which brought to quite a complicated relationship and constant will of Lithuanians to get rid of the influence.

Pagan Lithuanian symbols in Christian customs.

The second interesting change was internal and cultural.  Lithuanian people are very conservative in keeping and preserving pagan heritage. You can feel that everywhere. For example, popular names in Lithuania relate to nature and have a deeper connection with pagan times, compere to the names from the Bible. 

Another example is pagan holidays practiced in Christianity. A good example could be Jonines (St. John Day). This holiday in pagan times called Rasos. The purpose of this holiday is to mark the shortest night of the year. The names are different, but the custom of making fires and searching for the flower of Fern is still the same. 

One more example is the Christmas name in Lithuanian – Kaledos. The word that today names the most important holiday in the Christian world has pagan roots. Koliada or “koleda” is an ancient pre-Christian Slavic pagan winter festival. 

Revival of Pagan faith: Romuva community

Today, in modern Lithuania, we have a pagan faith revival. Romuva is the name of the community of neo-pagans. It started in 1967 during the Soviet occupation. Today,  this community has from five to eight thousand members. There are thirty sub-communities, officially registered in different Lithuanian towns.  

Romuva priest is called Vaidila. As an acknowledged figure of spiritual authority, the priest must have the proper skills and knowledge to conduct religious ceremonies to honor the pagan mythical creatures

The Baltic fire altar “Aukuras” is a stone altar in which a fire is ritually lit. Participants wash their hands and face before approaching the platform, and then they sing ritual songs while the fire is lit.

Interestingly, pagans officially apply to the Lithuanian parliament “Seimas” to recognize their marriage certificate by the low. 

We hold a meeting with the members of the Romuva community in Lithuania on the tour of the baltic states tour. Latvian paganism is a bit different, and there are things to compare when we move between the republics.