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.

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The Bearslayer: A Latvian Epic of the Pagan Resistance



In the Halls of Heaven, the gods are meeting in council to discuss a problem of utmost urgency.

Perkons, god of thunder, tells the gods the ill tidings. Evil, power-hungry men, called “Christians,” have enslaved all the world; now they are coming to enslave Latvia as well.

As the gods weigh what actions to take to protect their people from this terrible threat, the goddess of the Daugava River arrives. She tells them of a handsome youth with the ears of a bear whom she wishes to take into her crystal palace at the bottom of the river.

“This is the youth himself!” cries Thunder. “He is the very hero who will protect our people from the slavers!”


So begins the tale of Láchplesis, the Bearslayer, Latvia's national epic. Folklorist Andrejs Pumpurs (1841-1902) wove together—à la Kalevala—old Latvian folk tales that tell of the time, 800 years ago, that the Teutonic Knights, in a crusade against Europe's last pagans, conquered the Baltic states with fire and sword.

The Bearslayer is a fine, romping tale of love, friendship, and treachery, filled with monsters, evil enchantresses, and magicians. Characters include the Bearslayer's true love, daughter of Fate the beautiful Laimdota, his best friend the hero Koknesis, and Kangars, the traitorous pagan priest who seeks to betray his people to the Christians.

The Bearslayer rallies the people and fights the good fight, protecting Latvia from enslavement for many years, but in the end he himself is betrayed.

Through the treachery of Kangars, the renegade pagan priest, the Black Knight learns the secret of the Bearslayer's strength: his furry bear's ears.

In a sword fight, he lops off both ears. As they grapple, locked together, they topple from a cliff into the waters of the mighty Daugava, and are never seen again.

So begins Latvia's 700 years of enslavement to a foreign people and a foreign creed.


The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine. In our day, the Bearslayer has come once again from the waters of the mighty Daugava, and throughout the Baltics, the Old Ways arise again, renewed.


The Epic of the Bearslayer, alas, has yet to be translated into English.

You can read a synopsis of it in Siri Lise Doub's 2000 Taste of Latvia, pp. 115-121.

The Tribe of Witches know of a similar hero, called the Bear's Son. You can read about him here.


Above: Lachplesis (detail)

From the Freedom Monument (1935), Riga




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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