About one thousand year or a bit less had passed since Vesta’s fire in Rome had been set off, in 391 e.v. after one of many Theodosius’ edicts forbidding various pagan practices, when the last European Pagan fire was esinguished and the last European nation that was still officially pagan converted to christianity.
From a certain point of view, the conversion of Jogalia, grand duke of Lithuania, christened in 1385 with the name Wladislaw II Jagello, is very similar to those of Costantine (if ever he converted) and of Clodoveo king of Franks. It has been a politic manoeuvre to ensure the union between Lithuania and Polony: thanks to his conversion, Jogalia could marry Jadwinga (Hedwig), heir of the Polish kingdom, and so got its army to deploy against Teutonic Knights pressing at the borders. But his christening, on 15th of February, was merely a symbolic act and the christianization of Lithuania was still very far.
As happened before, for Clodoveo’s conversion, the nobles very fastened on their customs didn’t like that conversion or took it as a symbolic act, christening themselves but continuing ancient practices. Not to mention the faint interest that christianism met among common people.
Still in 1547, Martin Asvydas, a protestant pastor, complained that was still necessary to condemn the worship of Perkunas again and again; Perkunas was a God of thunder, fire, war and fertility, and had a sacred area in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. At that time, Lithuanians didn’t attend the church, didn’t know even simple prayers, didn’t stop their work on Sunday and continued to cremate the dead together with a bull or a horse. Some Lithuanian lords rebelled against the change and the grand duke of Lithuania, now also king of Polony, had to fight against them for a long time. One of the signs of changing was the exstinguishing, in those years, of Perkunas’ fire in Vilnius. Over his sacred area, the cathedral was built.
Some years ago, a Lithuanian television beamed a report on the instability of Vilnius’ cathedral, that have been hit by lightning several times and incurs the risk of collapse because of a subterranean river, whose channel is collapsing under the weight of the cathedral. The report included and interview with groups of people following Lithuanian traditional religion, especially with prof. Jonas Trinkunas, their Krivis (High Priest), talking about the features of the sacred enclosure.
Perkunas’ temple was in the valley of Sventaragis and it was attended especially by nobles and soldiers, worshipping Perkunas as the god of war. A 16th century book about Lithuanian history describes the temple as a huge stone temple built where the river Vilija flows together with the river Neris, near a forest. The stone temple had been build on order of duke Gereimundas in 1285 and it has no roof; the only entrance was on the side of the greater river, the Neris, and in the temple there were many sacred objects as offerings, some of them even expensive. The whole area was about 22 meters long and wide and the god was represented by a wooden idol. Perkunas’ eternal fire was on a square altar of 12 steps. At the time the book was written, there were no more remains of the temple, destroyed in 1387. We don’t know what the fate of the wooden sculpture was, but since, when Russians converted to orthodoxy, the statue of a god similar to Perkunas had been hit with wands and thrown in the river Dniepr, we can think that it ended like this, or that it was burnt.
As happened in other Slavic (but not only Slavic) countries, Lithuanian gods were both assimilated to saints, who absorbed some of the gods’ attributes to make themselves more acceptable to people, and demonized, especially in 16th century, when protestant preachers came to Lithuania: they didn’t distinguish among cult of gods and cult of saints, calling both “idolatry”. To understand how indifferently common people looked at this new religion, we can keep in mind the example of Velinas, a deity protecting houses, with effigies in all houses: since missionaries said that Velinas was the devil, Lithuanians, instead of throwing out the images, accepted the idea that the devil protected their houses and some of the more recent images have more devilish features, and are often very funny. The images were not abandoned: in Lithuania many are gathered in the “devil’s museum”, and still nowadays children create their own at school and then keep them at home to augur well.
The bound between Lithuanian people and their traditional religion has never been lost, contrary to what happened in Western Europe and today many people in Lithuania practise it or come back to practise it, but nowadays they can do it openly.
In Lithuania the WCER, World Congress of Ethnic Religions, was born in 1998, led by Jonas Trinkunas himself and the Romuva (this is the name of Lithuanian traditional religion) group; it gathers many members all over the world.
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