“The night is dark and full of terrors” may be a quote from a fantasy show but it echoes deeply with the Baltic mythology. The night is a magical and powerful but terrifying time when witches and wizards have more power, and various sorts of critters come scurrying out from the deep corners where they hide during the short winter days. In north the winter nights can become very long and cold which makes the winter solstice and rebirth of the sun worth a hearty celebration.
The winter solstice signifies the longest night of the year, after which the daylight slowly starts to return. This great victory of light had to be celebrated, but first – people had to endure the long night. In the pre-Christian Baltic region, same as elsewhere in Europe, this night was spent in loud and cheerful activities, not allowing the evil spirits to creep in and spoil the fun. And speaking of fun – masked processions are not only a feature of the cult of the dead festivities in autumn but were often encountered throughout the wintertime until the beginning of spring. Some of these traditions are still alive in Latvia.
Different types of masks tend to come at different times of winter and different regions but around Christmas time the most popular mask types that can be met practically anywhere in Latvia are different objects, such as the haystack, the broom and the sieve and animals – the bear, the crane and most notably – the wolf and the goat.
This symbolic duo not only gets the party started – they are the very heart of it! Together they represent what happens on the cosmic plane – on this night the darkness (the wolf) finally catches the light (the goat) but don’t despair! Death gives way to a new life – and the light can finally be reborn.
In this cosmic unity both animals are symbols of fertility which shows how closely the winter solstice activities are linked to granting a prosperous harvest the following year. The wolf is usually seen as male, while the goat, just like the sun in Baltic mythology, is a symbol of womanhood. It is also important to note that both animals were supposedly created by Velns (Latvian) / Velnias (Lithuanian) who, before acquiring the face of the Devil under the Christian influence, was the opposite to the deity of sky – Dievs (Latvian) / Dievas (Lithuanian) and the representative of the primal fertile chaos. The wolf in the Baltic mythology is especially revered. This is showed by its many nicknames in songs like “forest brother” or “grey one”. There are also superstitions telling you to revere and not to harm the wolf – such as “when you meet a wolf – wish something good to him and he will not touch you.” And also, there is a specific mask type commonly used in the North-western part of Latvia called Miežvilki (“Barleywolves” in Latvian). Dressed in wolf skins they represent fertility spirits who come and bless you with their presence. Loud singing and repeated requests for beer were a crucial and fun part of it.
This cosmic duo has played an important role for the Baltic tribes for centuries. The motif of the wolf and the goat is not only present in the masking traditions, games and folk songs. There is a beautiful archaeological example from the 4th century – on a necklace from Virgas Kalnazīverti showing how important the motif of this cosmic chase is.
If you find yourself willing to channel the ancient power of the solstice but can’t find a fitting wolf or goat costume for yourself, there is a game you can play. “Vilks un kaza” (“The wolf and the goat”) is still often played by children in Latvia which shows that some ancient rituals change form and find a way to exist in a modern community. Here’s how it goes – the players form a circle with one player in the middle – “the goat”. Another player – “the wolf” goes outside. The players in the circle holding hands are “the garden”. They walk or dance in a circle and sing, meanwhile, the wolf tries to get inside the circle and catch the goat but the garden holding hands tightly tries to keep him out. Just like with anything in folklore, this game has variations in how it is played and what song is sung but it’s the idea that counts. You can try singing any song you like but if you are confident with your Latvian, try this:
Gani, gani sargiet kazu,
Kazai jāja preciniek;
Gani, gani sargiet kazu,
Kazai jāja preciniek.
Škic, kaziņa, mežiņāi,
Liepu lapu lupināt!
Bet tik pati piesargiesi
No tā meža junkuriņ!
Vilciņš kazu dancināja
Smalkā lazdu krūmiņā;
Vilciņš kazu dancināja
Smalkā lazdu krūmiņā.
About the author
“There’s a lot we don’t know about the past. What I try to do is push the veil of time and the unknown aside and create visions that help the modern viewer to experience the rituals of the past themselves.
“Pekle” is the name of the Latvian underworld and I submerge down into the earth, in the archaeological heritage of Latvian culture, but view it from a different, very personal point. I’m also not afraid to use black and paint the darker side of the folklore – the stranger, chaotic and primal beings that are part of the harmonic Latvian mythology.
In my illustration work, I combine digital and traditional tools to bring the modern and the ancient mythological ages together.”