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
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
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
and Gimbutienė (known in the West as Marija Gimbutas)
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
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
beautiful ritual bone staffs with she-elk head tops (Fig. 1)
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
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
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
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.)
by amber figurines of the Juodkrantė (Schwarzort) settlement
by a bone figurine found
near the Kretuonas lake
and the Nida pottery decorations
A number of bone and clay figurines of antropomorphic
beings has been found in the Neolithic settlements in eastern
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
The fourth millennium B.C. witnesses important historical
processes connected with the Indo-European invasion
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
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. The area of the Pamarian Corded
Ware culture and other cultures, the ancestors of the Baltic
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
Read second chapter
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