Ancient Lithuania: fire and amber

Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity and has retained a connection with the Old Gods in a way that has not been preserved elsewhere. Therefore, through exploring the mythologies of the Old Balts, it is possible to gather threads and weave a colourful picture of the traditions and way of life that stretched back to our Indo-European ancestors, and possibly even beyond to the Corded Ware culture of the Neolithic. The Old Ways are still very important in Lithuania and attempts have been made to recreate them all over the country, notably at the Naisiai Museum of Baltic Deities near Siauliai and the Hill of Witches on the Curonian Spit.

Fire altar, Vilnius (author’s photo)

Of central important is the fire ritual, still held sacred in Lithuania to this day. Fire is regarded as the vital life force, the link between the ancestors and the fecundity of nature and the Earth.  In ancient Vilnius, in the Sventaragis Valley at the conference of the Vilna and Neris rivers, the Eternal Flame burned and was tended by priestesses called the ‘Vaidilutes’ in the temple of Perkunas, the thunder god closely linked to the sacred fire. [1] Today the cathedral stands over the site, and in the crypt you can see the archaeological remains of the twelve steps, and twelve altars, on which the sacred fire was burned.  And in nearby Kalny park in a grove on the side of the Hill of Crosses there is a well-tended fire altar, set up to honour the ancestors in a way that would have been done from old.

Fire was also central to ever Lithuanian household, where the mother would have had the sacred role of tending the hearth and carrying out the sacred rituals. The fire itself was the sacred Ugnis, and the goddess of the hearth Gabija, the fiery one who had healing, protective and purifying powers. Pure water, bread and salt were commonly used in rituals as sacrifices, or sacred gifts, to the fire.  ‘When Ugnis is fed salt, sacred Gabija is satiated.’ Each night, the mother of the house would cover the coals and bank the ashes for the night so the the fire would not wander and cause damage in the home. Indeed her name is derived from the verb meaning to ‘cover up.’ [2]

‘Birute’ in Palanga

On Birute Hill, in the centre of Palanga there was once a very important fire altar situated right next to the Baltic Sea. Still regarded as a sacred site at the time of the Grand Duchy, the fire was tended by Vaidilutes, the fire priestesses, until legend has it, one of them named Birute was kidnapped and married to Grand Duke Kestutis. A small chapel on top of the hill tells in stained glass the story including a beautifully depicted fire priestess, and retaining the memory of how the Christianisation of the Grand Duchy resulting in a ‘kidnapping’ of the Old Ways.

Fire is also intrinsic to that other prize of the Baltic nations, amber. Though amber is found world- wide it is Baltic Amber that it is the most valued and is enshrined at the heart of the mythology of the Old Balts as follows:

Baltic Sea, Palanga (author’s photo)

‘Once there was a goddess called Jurate who lived in an amber palace under the Baltic Sea. She tried to stop a fisherman from catching her fish but ended up falling in love with him instead. She invited him to live with her in the palace, but the god Perkunas disapproved of the liaison. He sent a storm to the Baltic, destroying the palace and killing the fisherman. Now the moans of Jurate are said to be what cause the sea storms, and the Baltic amber is what remains of her palace.’

Amber from the Amber museum, Palanga (author’s photo)

Science informs us that Baltic amber originated around 40 to 45 million years ago during the Eocence period. Since the greenhouse conditions of the Cretaceous, there has been a general cooling trend in climate but during the Eocene there were some periods of extended warming, not dissimilar to today. In response to the heat, the Baltic pine tree started to release copious amounts of resin from within, an act that ultimately led to the drying up and therefore death of the tree. In the process, creatures that lived in the ecology of the pine forest became engulfed in the sticky resin, entombing and therefore preserving them for prosperity. The amber museum in Palanga has a stunning collection of some of the 3000 species of Eocene fauna that became fossilised in amber, including spiders, ants, centipedes, early bees and flies. The many specimens show amber in all its different colours and forms, including rich cognac, crimson red, black and coral green, even white, and the largest piece of amber known today, called the sunstone.

Amber figurine (author’s photo)

For millions of years Amber lay at the bottom of the ocean, until about ten thousand years ago, when the melting ice and crustal adjustments created the Baltic Sea (again) and brought the long since buried fragments of amber up to the surface. In this warming world, the amber was ‘reactivated’ and human beings were on hand to search it out. Artefacts in the museum go back to around 4000 BC, and amber disks have been found in Nida with delineation marks dividing them into quarters, like the seasonal solar year. For thousands of years amber has been highly prized and used for ritual purposes, trade and a commodity on a par with salt and much later, silk, and it is accredited with many properties from healing, cleansing and protecting.

Above all though it is its fiery, piezoelectric qualities that make it unique, first named, though not necessarily first recognised, by the Greeks.  They named amber Elektra or ‘shining light’ on the account that it can cause an attraction when rubbed with a cloth –a phenomena later called static electricity. Gilbert, Franklin and Volta all conducted experiments with this magic force that they called ‘electricity’ and in 1897 when JJ Thompson discovered the negatively charged electron’ he named it after the goddess Elektra, thereby cementing the link.

Perkunas, God of Thunder

 Amber was probably used to create fire by rubbing or striking, and as Franklin also discovered with his famous kite flying experiment, lightning and electrical sparks are the same thing – another reason that Perkunas (the god of thunder and lightning) was also closely associated with fire. Amber then held not only the secrets of the past within its fabric, but also the key to one of the most transformational commodities of the future – electricity. This is just one of the many secrets associated with the Sacred Fire so revered by the Ancients.




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