COSMOLOGY OF THE ANCIENT BALTS

Vytautas Straižys and Libertas Klimka

Institute of Theoretical Physics and Astronomy, Gostauto 12, Vilnius 2600, Lithuania
Vilnius Pedagogical University Studentų 39, Vilnius 2600, Lithuania

Summary. The paper reviews the outlook of ancient Balts on the structure and origin of the world as reconstructed from the archaeological excavations, folklore, mythology, linguistics and chronicles. Conclusion is drawn that 4 - 5 thousand years ago the ancestors of the modern Baltic nations (Lithuanians and Latvians) had developed views on the relations between man and natural forces, on the origin of the world and its construction, based on religious and mythological notions. Later on, this cosmological interest developed into astronomical observations, finding the regularity of celestial phenomena, and calendar management.

CONTENT
1. Historical background
2. Religion and mythology of the ancestors of the Baltic nations
3. The concept of the World-Tree
4. Astronomical symbolism in folk painting
5. Natural rythms and calendar
6. Heavenly bodies and phnomena in the Baltic religion
7. Astronomical knowledge
8. Conclusions

1. Historical background

In the present territories of Lithuania and Latvia archaeologists find habitation sites of the ancient man established 11-12 thousand years ago, at the end of a 60000 year long glacial period during which the Baltic region was under the ice sheet at least for three long periods. With the recession of the ice, the land gradually turned into tundra with herds of reindeer going further north in the summer. Reindeer were followed by hunters who left their permanent settlements somewhere in the northern parts of Central Europe. These were men of the Paleolithic Swiderian and Magdalenian cultures, armed with spears, bows and flint-head arrows, bone and horn harpoons, stone slings, and followed by their domesticated dogs. Art finds that reflect the spiritual world of the Paleolithic man are scarce. However, burial grounds of that period survived to our time. The fact that ancient people were buried together with their clothes, decorations, daily life utensils and arms witnesses their belief in afterlife. An image of the heaven, as an extension of the earth, might also appear in the Paleolithic. The starry sky has been inhabited by different animals, while the Sun and the Moon were symbolically imagined as the deer.

In the Mesolithic (7500-3500 B.C.) the Baltic area was gradually covered by forests with abundant fauna. The people of the Nemunas and Kunda cultures who inhabited these forests, lived on hunting, fishing and gathering the food that nature provided. From that period, a number of artifacts, made of bone and decorated with the ornaments, demonstrating some kind of a symbolic script, have survived to our day. Among them is the symbol of the Sun, a circle, and the symbol of fire, a cross with equal-length arms. It is quite probable that the myth of European and Asian nations which explains the world being formed from a duck egg, originated in the Mesolithic or even earlier. According to one of Lithuanian versions of this myth, the primordial egg exploded into fragments which gave birth to different parts of the world: the egg yolk turned into the earth, the egg white turned into the waters and the egg shell gave birth to the heavenly sphere, full of stars. More information on the Paleolithic and Mesolithic in the Baltics can be found in the monographs by Rimantienė [1] and Gimbutienė (known in the West as Marija Gimbutas) [2, 3].

In the fourth millennium B.C., artifacts made of polished flint with perforated holes, fishing nets and fired pottery appear on the coasts of Baltic sea: these products belong already to the Neolithic age. At that time in the continental Baltic area, people of two Neolithic cultures, Nemunas and Narva, were living. They differed in their pottery types and comparative distribution of bone and horn artifacts. Besides hunting, fishing and food-gathering, there were also rudiments of cattle-breeding and agriculture. From that period, we find considerably more art objects made of amber, bone and wood. Pottery is decorated with geometric ornaments and the imagery of animals, birds and men [4]. It is quite probable that both Mesolithic and Paleolithic man had totems, i.e. worshiped some chief animal; in western Lithuania such an animal was she-elk.

Excavations in the Šventoji settlement [5, 6] revealed three beautiful ritual bone staffs with she-elk head tops (Fig. 1) [5]. Such staffs may have been used by wizards in performing pre-hunting rites. In eastern Lithuania and in Latvia numerous deer figurines have been found. From analogy with other mythologies, we can suppose that the men of Nemunas and Narva cultures considered the Goddess-elk or Goddess-deer to have specific power, such as life-, fertility- and birth-giving. Even the present Lithuanian Advent songs mention a she-deer with nine horns. Some European myths reveal two she-elks, women, birth-givers of the world [7].

Fig.1 Fig. 1. One of the ritual bone staffs with a she-elk head found in the Šventoji settlement (2400 B.C.).

It is also probable that Neolithic man started worshiping the grass-snake which is often represented by bone and horn figurines and frequently in pottery decoration [8]. Primeval worship of gods and demons in the shape of animals expressed the idea of human identification with them after death, metempsychosis. An important place in cultic rites was given to fire [9, 10].

In the Neolithic, anthropomorphic gods appear as evidenced by a two-meter high wooden sculpture of a man found in the Šventoji settlement (Fig. 2.) [5], by amber figurines of the Juodkrantė (Schwarzort) settlement [11], by a bone figurine found near the Kretuonas lake [12] and the Nida pottery decorations [13]. A number of bone and clay figurines of antropomorphic beings has been found in the Neolithic settlements in eastern Latvia [14].

Fig. 2 Fig. 2. The wooden sculpture found in the Šventoji settlement.

There is no doubt that in the Early Neolithic the people of Nemunas and Narva cultures lived in a matriarchal community. It is also thought that main deities of that time were female, i.e. goddesses. This is a common feature of all cultures of Old Europe [15].

The fourth millennium B.C. witnesses important historical processes connected with the Indo-European invasion [16]. First, in the steppes of eastern Europe (in the basins of the Donn, Dnieper and Dniester) appear the so-called Kurgan tribes, mobile and warlike horsmen, stock-breeders and nomads, who assimilate the Charpathian-Balkan culture of Old Europeans. A millennium later another wave of occupants invades the Danube area and Central Europe reaching the Baltic sea around 2500 B.C. A rapid change of pottery ornaments and axe forms is observed. Amphoras, pots and bowls become decorated with imprinted cord ornaments, which gave name to the whole culture: the Corded Ware culture.

The Indo-European culture brought by the invaders to the Baltics assimilated the local Nemunas and Narva cultures, and a new culture, the Pamarian (Rzucewo or Haffküstenkultur) Corded Ware culture appeared (Fig. 3). People of this culture are direct ancestors of the Baltic nations. Other related cultures of that time were the Dnieper culture living in the upper Dnieper area and the Fatianovo culture in the upper Volga area. Over a large part of these two areas, numerous place names and hydronyms of Baltic origin are still found.

Fig.3 Fig. 3. The area of the Pamarian Corded Ware culture and other cultures, the ancestors of the Baltic nations:
1. Pamarian culture,
2. Upper Dnieper culture,
3. Fatyanovo culture,
4. Balanovo culture.
Arrows show the directions of the Indoeuropean spreading.

The Baltic parent language was formed at that time; later on it split into Prussian, Lithuanian, Latvian and other languages and dialects. However, these Baltic languages preserved many archaisms of the Indo-European parent language [17].

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