Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth
In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.
The Witch-King of Lithuania
Europe's last pagan monarch was Gediminas (ca. 1275-1341), Grand Duke of Lithuania. He championed the Old Worship throughout his life, and although he tolerated various forms of Christianity—he even formed a political alliance with the pope against the Teutonic Knights—it was his policy to punish proselytizing with death; he was cremated according to traditional rites (including, allegedly, human sacrifice) in 1342.
Although his heirs eventually decided to throw in their lot with the Roman church, the Gediminid dynasty ruled Lithuania for more than 200 years. History remembers Gediminas as a tolerant and enlightened ruler.
Lithuanian folklore remembers its last pagan prince with fondness. He is credited with the founding of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital city. On a hunting trip he is said to have dreamed of an iron wolf, standing on a hill at the confluence of the Vilnia and Neris, whose howls filled the world. The high priest of Lithuania interpreted this dream to mean that a city built on that hill would be known throughout the world.
A song first noted in the 16th century and recorded in the 19th even implies a future “return”: Gediminas, the once and future king (Strmska 242-3).
Why did you sleep so long, O Duke?
Why did you sleep so long?
While you slept, they killed your men,
tore your castle down.
Which do you mourn the most, O Duke?
Which do you mourn the most?
I cannot mourn a castle, a castle,
more than I mourn my men.
I'll raise a new castle in two years, two,
I'll raise a new castle in three;
new men, alas, cannot be raised
even in ten, in ten.
Although the imagery is framed along political lines--castles and soldiers--this song can hardly be read as anything but a lament for a pagan Lithuania.
In fact, the Old Worship that Gediminas loved survived in Lithuania into the 17th century, and arose again in the early 20th, during the period of independence and cultural efflorescence between the First and Second World Wars. Today paganism is a legally recognized religion in the Baltic states and Lithuania once again, in our day, has an official High Priest.
Perhaps, almost seven centuries after his death, Gediminas has finally begun to raise up his new men after all.
Michael F. Strmska and Vilius Rudra Dundzila (2005). “Romuva: Lithuanian Paganism in Lithuania and America,” in Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, Michael F. Strmska, ed. Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO.
You can hear songs commemorating Gediminas on the 2008 album Giesmes Valdovui Gediminui, “Hymns for King Gediminas” recorded by Lithuanian pagan folk ensemble Kulgrinda.
For more on Gediminas, Europe's last Pagan Prince, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gediminas.
The definitive study in English of Gediminas, his life and legacy (including a chapter about the ancient Baltic religion and an account of the pagan temple unearthed under Vilnius in the 1980s) is: S. C. Rowell (1994) Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire in East-Central Europe, 1295-1345. Cambridge.
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