A new book is the first in English to make available the key historical texts about the ancient religions of the Baltic.
Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic, edited and translated by Francis Young and published by Arc Humanities Press, includes English translations of ten descriptions of beliefs and practices of the pagans of Lithuania and Prussia from the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Baltic peoples famously remained pagan for longer than almost anyone else in Europe, with Lithuania adopting Christianity only in the 14th and 15th centuries. Even then, however, many Lithuanians, Latvians, Prussians and Estonians remained pagan or practised a mixture of Christianity and paganism into the 18th century.
The historical record is full of instances of the Church and others denouncing the Balts’ reluctance to receive Christianity – which had, after all, been the justification offered for the centuries-long Baltic Crusades. In the 15th century, however, a new kind of curiosity emerged about Baltic paganism which was more than just an attempt to stamp it out.
With its union with Poland and the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Žalgiris in 1410, Lithuania became a major player in European affairs and therefore attracted a great deal of attention from both Lithuanians and others who wanted to understand how the recently pagan Jagiellonian dynasty came to dominate Central Europe.
The idea that the Lithuanians were a lost group of Romans, speaking a form of Latin and following a form of Roman religion, was a popular theory; Perkūnas was compared to Jupiter, the worship of snakes to the cult of Aesculapius, and the priestesses who tended the perpetual fire on the hill of Šatrija in Samogitia to the Vestal Virgins. While efforts to convert the pagan Lithuanians to Christianity continued into the 18th century, the erroneous association with the prestigious culture of Rome meant that the ‘Old Lithuanians’, people who continued to follow the old pagan faith, received some degree of toleration within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The accounts collected in Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic are of particular interest because they represent the last European encounters with indigenous paganism in the Old World before Europeans began meeting a new kind of pagans – the indigenous peoples of the New World.
The idea that pagans had a right to national sovereignty was one first advocated in Poland-Lithuania, with reference to the pagan Samogitians’ right to be free of occupation by the Teutonic Knights in the 15th century. It was an idea that would go on to be contested again and again in the New World, and remains the source of contemporary debates over indigenous rights and the nature of sovereignty in the Americas. The Baltic was a proving ground, therefore, for debates that still resonate today. Yet accounts of historic Baltic paganism also offer a glimpse of the only ancient form of Indo-European religion that survived into early modernity – enduring long enough, in fact, to be studied by researchers employing early versions of modern methods of ethnography.
The surviving body of evidence for Baltic paganism is a precious witness to a neglected aspect of the religious history of Europe, and the Baltic was a place where ideas would be formed that would go on to play a key role in world-changing debates about religion and the nature of humanity in the New World.
Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic makes these texts accessible to the English-speaking world, but the book also aims to show that the history of Baltic religion is a subject of European and global importance, as a glimpse into Europe’s pre-Christian past and a forestate of Europeans’ coming encounters with Native Americans. These texts are about the Baltic, but they also raise wider questions about religion, the sacredness of nature, and humanity’s relationship with the environment that remain urgently relevant in the present.
Francis Young is the editor and translator of a book which will be published by Arc Humanities Press in April this year, Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic, the first English edition of the key historic texts describing pagan Baltic religion (mainly in Lithuania).
The Lithuanian Embassy in London is planning to host an online launch for the book in May. The book will make the sources for Baltic religion accessible to the English-speaking world for the first time.
Buy the book: https://bit.ly/36ANMtD