Sitting on the Baltic Sea with their backs to Russia and eyes toward Northern Europe is a group of three small, highly sophisticated countries that a generation ago was unwillingly part of the Soviet Union. They are called the Baltic States or simply the Baltics. Of the trio, Lithuania is the largest, most beautiful and zaniest.
The locals call their country Lietuva, a land of large sand spit, flat fields and forests inhabited by 2.8 million mainly tall, fair-haired people who speak an ancient Indo-Aryan language that astonishingly resembles Sanskrit.
Its inland, Central European location and long links with Poland sets Lithuania apart from its fellow Baltics.
Unlike Latvia and Estonia ( both mainly Lutheran states), Lithuania is Catholic in spirit and appearance as testamented by the many southern-styled Baroque buildings punctuating the white, pretty and swirling skyline of its capital Vilnius.
Lithuania was Europe’s last official pagan nation. Its thick forests of pine and spruce provided cover for its medieval traders, artisans and peasants hiding from Teutonic missionaries and knights with swords who came to force a foreign faith upon them.
Lithuania finally became Christian on 14 August 1385 when Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Poland’s packaged proposal to convert to catholicism and become its king.
Despite their country’s conversion many Lithuanians kept their indigenous religion up until perhaps the 16th century and even beyond. A German writer in 1775 remarked this about the Lithuanians:
“This is the most superstitious nation among all Christians. They are so persistent that no measures bring desired fruits”.
Traces of this ethnic belief remain and have been revived in a contemporary ritualistic form called Romuva.
In common with other polytheistic faiths like Hinduism and Taoism, the basic tenet of Romuva is the sanctity of nature and respect for all living things.
A prayer recorded in 1938 contains the following verses:
Those who today kill animals with delight will tomorrow drink human blood. The more hunters live in Lithuania, the further fortune and a happy life escapes us.
That I may not fell a single tree without holy need; that I may not step on a blooming field; that I may always plant trees.
That I may love and respect Bread. If a crumb should accidentally fall, I will lift it, kiss it and apologise. If we all respect Bread, there will be no starvation or hardship. “
All words and images copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2015