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Elements of Latvian Design:An Exploration of Latvian Pagan Symbols

There exist myriad of traditional items that reflect the history of Latvian’s pagan roots and continue to hold the modern pride and patriotism of a people whose land has been the object of desire for centuries. When shopping for a personal reminder of your adventure in Latvia or a gift to remind loved ones back home that they are always in your heart, you can never go wrong with taking home an item inscribed with Baltic history and lore.

Riga was founded as a Christian capital in 1201, but the blood of the true Baltic heart began to flow much earlier with the first settlers in 4,000-2,000 BC. These ancient settlers of the Baltic region practiced Paganism, an early religion that attempted to make sense of the miraculous complexities of the natural world and exert some control on their surroundings through the ritual worship of Mother Earth.

These mysteries were little understood but vital to the circle of life, and as such, man tried to harness the powers of day and night, Earth and fire, fertility and death and other inexplicable mysteries of life by capturing the essence of these powers in symbols. In modern day, when you pass a tchotchke vendor peddling hand knit gloves and socks you are staring into a portal of early man’s feeble attempts to explain their rudimentary understanding of science and control the Earth.

The symbols that still adorn Baltic textiles, pottery, jewelry and wood crafts can be divided into two distinct groups; the first relating to all things of the Earth, and the second to the powers encompassed in the heavens.

Gods of the Earth: Laima (the Goddess of Destiny) is akin to the Roman “Fates”. She is responsible for the destiny of humans. She controls life span, happiness, poverty and death. She is represented by the “Fir- Twig” (skuja), the “Broom” (Laimas Slotina) as well as the “Serpent” (zalktis) which is an animal under her protection (thus, if you harm a snake you will incur Laima’s wrath!).

Mara (the Goddess of Birth and Death) has many functions, most notably as the protector of women (particularly mothers), children and the hearth, extending her “motherly” characteristics by protecting the land, waters and all living things. Oddly, she is also associated with death, often being depicted in the form of a black animal. Mara is represented by an inverted triangle, called Mara’s Sign (Mara Zime), the Cross of Crosses (krustu krusts) which incorporates five crosses in one symbol, and Mara’s Wave (Mara’s Zigzag) which represents the water over which Mara has dominion.

Usins is the Celestial Charioteer, the ancient keeper of light and, in more modern times, the keeper of horses and bees. He is represented by a diamond-shaped chariot between two large “E’s” (the “E’s” represent his horses).

Martins is the Keeper of Horses, and by extension, all livestock. Martins Day in November is the symbolic day when houses and barns are shuttered and outside work ceases for winter. He is represented by two interlocking and geometric designs, most likely the image of two fighting roosters.

Jumis represents the fertility of fields and is depicted through two stalks of grain bent around each other – a tradition still practiced in rural Latvia to ensure the bounty of the following year’s harvest.

While Janis (Summer Solstice) is the most popular and well-known deity in Latvia today, very little is known of his actual characteristics. He was a fertility god, and he is the central focus of the celebration of “Jani”, the most popular of Latvian holidays recognizing the Summer Solstice. He is represented by a triangleshaped hill with the sun high above it.

The traditional Latvian pagan symbols are illustrate on the Seven-Day ring. From L-R: Cross of crosses, Sun cross, Star cross, Laima cross, Thunder cross, Usins cross, Austra tree. Gods of the Sky: Dievs, the principal god, takes his name from the original Proto-Indo-European language spoken first in the Baltics which later evolved into many European (including English) and Indian languages.

The name Dievs was borrowed by the original Christian crusaders as they attempted to convert the Pagan Latvian masses to Christianity and to this day the pagan “God of Gods” shares his name with the Christian God. He is represented by the sky, or a triangle, often with a sun inside.

Saule, a female, is the Goddess of the Sun, caring for the immortal soul and eternal life. Her symbol looks like the blossom of a Gerber daisy and is said to bring the wearer perpetual life and good luck.

Perkons (Thunder God) is the protector of fertility and weather. As precipitation is vital to any society that relies on agriculture, Perkons’ happiness was considered tantamount to human survival; therefore, animal sacrifices were often made to please him. He made his home in forests of oak trees and his ability to create fire from lighting was revered through an ever burning fire of oak.

The “Sign of Fire” (ugunsraksts), or “Thunder Cross” (perkonkrusts) originally represented light, fire, health and prosperity. Sadly, in the 20th century, Nazi forces adopted this symbol as their own and, when viewed outside of Baltic paganism, this sign evokes connotations of evil.

Meness (The Moon) is the God of War. Baltic warriors marched at night, invoking the power of the moon for protection and victory. As such, Meness’ symbol was an important part of any warrior’s battle attire and weaponry and can be found on the earliest metallurgy from the Iron Age.

Auseklis, is the Morning Star. Along with Meness, he is a son of god (Dievs). He protects his slumbering charges from the forces of evil. He is represented by the complex eight-sided star, which must be drawn in one continuous line without lifting your hand to receive the benefit of his blessings.

Now that you are an acolyte of ancient pagan mythology, go ahead and indulge yourself in a priceless reminder of your days in this land steeped in tradition and meaning. As you wander the Baltics, whether in its picturesque cities or the charming country villages, take the time to peruse the fine wares created by our traditional artisans. Carefully study the intricate stitching of a sash, the delicate weaving of mittens or the embossed tassels of the jangling “Seven Day Ring” for evidence of ancient power and mystery. You never know when one of these ancient gods may choose to reward your favor.

By Hilary Joy Peters