Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Order of The Brothers of Sword


Arms of Order

The Crusades are famous for their Orders – spiritual military organizations with their own social order and code of laws.

The name ordo in Latin means “class”. The first orders where clerical organizations for monks. At the Early Middle Ages when Christianity begun to took prime importance on every person’s life, there were many people who wanted to devote their life for God by becoming monks. The monks lived in Monasteries; they were barred from secular tastes like marriage and family. They lived an in closed communities where they spend time in prayers and studying the holy texts. At 9th century the secular leaders begun to take more pressure on church based organizations making many Monasteries to decay and lose it spiritual basis. The Medieval sources tell that some Monasteries had become so secular so they acted more as guest houses than spiritual surroundings.

This was watched reluctantly by conservative forces in the church and needs for new reforms that will bring spirituality back to the Monasteries were needed. At year 910  in Burgundia (present day France), Cluny the first Monastery which was inferior only to the Pope was founded. It followed the statutes written by Benedict of Nursia, those who followed his teachings were to be called the Benedictines. New statutes commanded to strongly regard the inner discipline of the Monastery and tackle the depravity of clergymen.  When in 1073 the new charismatic Pope Gregory VIII previously known as monk Hildebrand, the Benedictine statutes were amended with thesis of higher and unquestionable power of the Pope and give rights to depose every secular ruler and free his subjects from the duty of loyalty.  Gregor’s VII ambitions caused a bitter conflict with secular ruler Henry IV the Holy Roman Emperor, but his efforts for the Benedictine movement were successful; in 12th Century there were 2000 Monasteries following the statutes of Benedict of Nursia.

The Order of Benedict was the first order in world history but in 13 century new spiritual movements of monks emerged. The Cistercian Order objected the Benedictine lust for luxury and lack of desire for physical work. They made more ascetic lifestyle and built their Monasteries at remote places. Following the call of monk Bernard of Clairvaux they became a missionary and travelled to  Pagan lands such as Latvia. There were more monk orders like the Franciscans and Dominican Order.

When the Crusader movement started to gain it heights the new military orders emerged. They were based on desire to compile spiritual and secular beliefs. The knights joining the order lived just as monks except they had a stronger hierarchy and were allowed to kill. The Orders had special ranks, rules and intuitions. The head of the military order was the Master; he commanded the Order and set ranks of its members. Many ranks such as Marshal, Officer and Commander are common in today’s military organizations.  The oldest military order was the Order of Malta which still operates today. The most popular was the Knights Templar or Order of the Temple which was the richest and powerful knight organization of Medieval times. They were utterly destroyed by French King Philip IV who wanted to loot Orders wealth to clear his debt.  But the order who affected the Baltic region was Teutonic Order as all orders it started in the Holy Land to fight Muslims. But then the order discovered that fighting Pagans in Europe are more suitable. They were responsible for conquering the Western Slavs and Baltic Prussians and supporting the invasion in Baltic Region. Their state located in Eastern Prussia became a Secular Duchy in 1525.  The Duchy of Prussia was the prime essence of the future Empire of Germany therefore the Teutonic Order can be called as the prime root of the united German nation.

But the Teutonic Order was not yet ready to lead the Crusades in Latvian land for it had a hard time with Prussians. The Crusaders coming from Germany was not members of the Teutonic Order. So Bishop Albert needed strong force for his own to protect Riga and fight the Pagans. The Chronicle of Henry claims that Albert’s right hand man Theodoricus instituted ‘’some Christ’s brothers of knights”. This is recognized by historians as the foundation of new military order. Their emblem on their shirts was cross and swords that’s why they are called as Order of The Brothers of Sword. It is considered that the order was founded in 1202 in Riga. The Order was designed to protect Riga and was first consisted of local Germans of Riga. But they gained more recruits from Germany. Their statutes were derived from Knights Templars and bulla issued by Pope Innocent III made order an subjects of Bishop of Riga.  The Bishop also managed to bring The Cistercian Order to Latvian land. They established their Monastery at Daugavgrīva near Riga.  Conquer of the Latvian land could start now with everything ready.

It was first Livonians who suffered from the order. In year 1203 Livonians were attacked by Duke of Polock who wanted the fees from Livonians. Livonians surrendered and paid the fees to Russians but German knights forced them to leave.  At this same year the Lithuanians together with Visvaldis the ruler of Jersika tried to siege Riga but were forced to retreat. This forced Albert to look for more Crusaders because Lithuanians attacked again. It was clear that a mighty and unified force of Lithuanians was more danger than split Latvian tribes. However the Lithuanians did not care much about Latvian freedom rather for their own security and pillage. They raided Semigallians making them ask for Crusader help. Semigallian king Viestards did much to collaborate with Crusaders to hold off Lithuanians. He sent one hostage from each of his castles to gain German support. It was an old diplomatic practice to give the man as pledge to the other side. If the ruler breaks alliance he risks loosing pledged man’s life who often was his son. The Livonian rulers gave his sons as hostages to guarantee peace with the Germans.  In 1205 the Lithuanian raiders raided Estonian lands and as they came back they were destroyed by unified German-Semigallian force. Next year the Crusaders captured last hostile Livonian strongpoint -the castle of Sala. The surroundings of Riga were now clear from danger. The nobles of Sala requested help to Duke of Polock and his army came to Sala at 1206. Russians together with Livonians of Turaida tried to capture Sala but were forced to retreat.

Germans revenged at Turaida for helping the Russians and burned down the Turaida castle. But they failed to capture the castle of Darbelis on the opposite bank of the river. Therefore at 1207 the Order of the Brothers of Sword had captured all Livonian lands. The next post will show how the Crusaders captured the land of Latgallians and destroyed the beautiful town of Jersika.

Selected sources

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Militzer, Klaus. (2005) Die Geschichte Des Deutschen Ordens. Stuttgart. Kohlhammer.

Grīnberga L. (Ed.) (1999) Ceļvedis ordeņu vēsturē. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.


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First Crusaders in Latvia and the founding of Riga

When the Crusaders came to Latvian land they had to look for a suitable place to establish a base of operations. Since the mouth of river Daugava was a perfect place for merchants and port making they first landed on  the shores of Riga Bay and sailed in the inner waters of the Daugava. The place around the mouth of Daugava was perfect because it was located in the center between territories of four Latvian tribes and could be supported from Germany by supply ships.

The Christian missionary Meinard came along with merchants who knew the land before and brought him to the Livonian town of Ikšķile. Ikšķile is located further from Riga, the German could not get the permission to establish a trade base there because they had to deal with trade rivals from the Duchy of Polock. The local Livonians had to pay fees to Polock or risk bloody attack.  This was not a full time enslavement and the annexation of Livonian lands from Polock. It was rather close to protection payment as practiced by criminal gangs to extract money from weak shopkeepers. The Russians did not interfere much in local Livonian politics or their religion.  The Germans on the other hand wanted more power on Livonians mainly their land.

Meinard became the first Bishop on the Ikšķile he built the stone first church and stone palace in Latvia. There was records of Scandinavian built wooden church in Courland but its remains were never found. There was a wooden Orthodox Church in Jersika but no stone buildings built by Latvians themselves are not found until this day. The church of Ikšķile now lies in ruins and is located on the separate island in the result of flooding done by the Riga Hydroelectric power plant.

ikskiles baznica

Ruins of Church of Ikskile

As already mentioned in some previous post the mission of baptizing local Livonians was not successful. When Livonians discovered that Germans will be another oppressor far worse than Russians, they rejected the Christianity by simply “washing it away” in Daugava. Meinard was forced to ask to the Pope for permission to  organize Crusade. But he died in 1196 giving his job to his heir Bishop Berthold. He started to organize Crusade and managed to get justification for his war by getting a bulla (the sacred church delclaration against its enemies) against Livonian issued by the Pope. In year 1198  he on the horseback  accompanied by knights approached Livonian castle of Sala. He demanded Livonians to baptize immediately. The Livonians refused and Berthold returned at the “spot of Riga” (ad locum Rige), because the castle was located on the island and Berthold needed ships to attack it. Livonians realising the danger decided to make preventive attack by joining forces and surprise the crusaders at their weakspot. The battle resulted in defeat on both sides- Livonians were forced to flee, but the Berthold was killed. Livonians were forced to pay fees but Crusaders needed a new much better leader.

In year 1198 the new more greater and powerful leader came to Latvian lands. The new Bishop Albert had everything to manage Crusade against Latvian Pagans. At this same year the new Roman Pole Innocent III recognized as the most glorious Middle Age Pope was elected. They both had much in common- they willed for supreme power, they both organized Crusades and were far better diplomats than secular kings of their time. However they both suffered a crucial failure; Pope Innocent III was swindled by greedy Venetian merchants who diverted the Fourth Crusade (1204) from the Holy Land to Constantinople compromising the whole idea of Crusades because a Christian capitol was destroyed in the name of Holy War. Same thing happened to Albert when he was forced to give protection rights to the greedy knights of the Brothers of the sword. Albert outlived Innocent III by 14 years (Innocent III died in 1216) dying in 1229. The last resting place of both great church leaders is unknown until this day.

Albert did not rush to Latvian land; he wanted to “study the circumstances without the help of army first”. He first went to Gotland where he recruited men for his Crusade and then came back to Germany where he looked for more Crusaders. The Pope Innocent III issued bulla against Livonian barbarians “who gives the God’s honour to dull creatures and bushes”. In 1200 he finally entered the Latvian land visiting Crusader outposts at Ikšķile and Sala. He was attacked by Livonians on the way and escaped defeat with difficulty because according to Chronicle of Henry he was not supported by German knights. This however doubtful giving question where the 500 German knights whom Albert brought with him were hiding when Albert was in danger? That can be more a propagandist claim by Chronicler Henry making Albert’s achievements too great. The historian Indriķis Šterns insists that the story of Bishop Albert recruiting more than hundred men to Latvian land is a propagandist claim.  He rather entered the river Daugava alone without Crusaders or with smaller amount of them.

Albert at year 1200 already started to move to the site of Riga. The German merchants already may have even a wooden settlement there. Albert knowing that this is the best spot decided to establish his base there. The site of Riga was not first settled by Germans- there were small Livonian villages there already. He requested the Pope Innocent III for giving monopoly rights to the port of Riga.  It was done but the document is not preserved until this day, giving no details about it. But it sure was the juridical basis for Albert to start “building the city of Riga” in  1201 as claimed in Chronicle of Henry. So the year 1201 is officially considered as the founding date of Latvia. At year 2001 Riga celebrated the 800 year birthday. Albert moved his residence from Ikšķile to Riga. The first citizens of Riga were German merchants, Russian merchants, clergyman and Crusader knights as well as local Livonians. Riga started as a small German trade settlement absorbing nearby Livonian villages, gaining more emigrants from Germany and Western Europe and becoming a strong natural center of Latvian land. Riga has no clear date of founding because there were settlements before 1201 and there is no official founding document. The Bishop Albert also cannot be clearly called as the founder of Riga because he in reality just moved his residence to Riga were first settlements were already built. As Indriķis Šterns insists Riga can be compared to Rome which also started as an group of small settlements joined by the Romans, and founded with no documents and claimed to be built by two brothers Romulus and Rem. However this does not prevent us from considering that Riga founded in 1201 by Bishop Albert because the every good legend has the legacy of making history.


Commemorative coin of 800 years of Riga







Selected sources

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Caune, Andris, Ose, Ieva. (2010) Latvijas viduslaiku mūra baznīcas : 12. gs. beigas – 16. gs. sākums : enciklopēdija. Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.


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Latvia during the Crusades- an short survey


German Crusaders

In this post we will discuss the basics of the Crusades in Latvian land and in the next posts the aspects of this matter will be discussed in more detail.

The Middle Ages in Latvia have been studied professionally with the help of brilliant historians. The Latvian historian in-exile Indriķis Šterns has released two volumes of Latvian Middle Age history which are still considered as the prime source for Latvian Middle Age history. In present day Latvia the study of Middle Age history is pursued by Prof. Ilgvars Misāns- an author of many books in Latvian and German. Significant efforts done in Latvian Middle Age history by authors of many publications Valdis Klišāns and Andris Levāns. There is much done for translation and publication of Middle Age historic sources. There is many more historians and efforts to mention which helps to understand rather complex Latvian Middle Age history.

The Crusades are one of the most popular aspects of the Middle Ages, the bloody capture of Jerusalem, the war between two gentleman’s -Richard I The Lionheart and Saladin and the secrets of the Order of the Templar’s. But there is much to say about the Crusades against Pagans in Baltic Region.

The causes of the Crusader movement are many. The Catholic Church had enormous power of every Middle Age man from the town beggar to the king. It was unquestionable that the will of God affects every man’s life. People were driven by fears from making a sin causing God’s anger. So it was a duty of every living soul to commit something honorable for every man has to stand before the trial of God after his death. The fear from the torments of Hell and the belief that the Day of Judgment could occur every moment made the religious fanaticism stronger than before. One of the holiest ways to serve God was making pilgrimage to the Holy Land where Jesus and his apostles once lived. The Holy Land located in today’s Palestine was under the occupation of Muslims in 638. The Christians believed that the Holy Sights of Palestine posses a magical power which heals the pilgrim from illnesses and evil. There were many who desired to be buried in the Holy Land, so they moved there at the end of their lives.

However at 11 century the political changes in the Middle East made harder for pilgrims to reach their desired destination. The Jerusalem and large parts of the Byzantine Empire was taken by Seljuk’s the nomadic tribe from Central Asia. Seljuk’s are ancestors of the present day Turkish nation. Seljuk’s converted to Islam and was more radical Muslims than Arabs and was known as very vicious and brutal fighters. Seljuk’s attacked the pilgrims and made significant danger for emperors of Constantinople.  The request for help from Byzantium emperors and the will to secure the Holy Land from the infidels known as Saracens was enough to start the Holy Wars. Despite the fact that the Ten Commandments prohibits man to kill another man the murder done for religious goals was enough to get forgiveness for the sins and entry to Paradise.

The Holy War was declared by Pope Urban II in 1095 at the council of Clevro. The call to liberate Jerusalem gathered thousands. First Crusade started at 1096 and ended successfully in 1099 by capturing Jerusalem.  Despite that the strong resistance of Muslims forced t0 start more Crusades to Holy Land. They  ended in bitter failure in 1270 when the last Crusader palace was taken by Muslims. The failures in Palestine made the Crusader movement to look for other routes for more successful battles. Spain was one which was half-controlled by Muslims. The war against Spanish Muslims known as Reqonqista lasted till 1492 which ended in Crusader victory. But there were other lands for Crusaders to attack which was inhabited by Paganic Slavic- Baltic tribes. These lands were valuable piece to get in the name of Christianity. When the Crusaders came to conquer the Latvian lands they wanted the land more than the gates of Paradise, the Crusades to Baltic Region was driven by more economical goals than religious. The main mission was to baptize the Pagans but the real goal was to conquer them.

The first victims were north- western Slavs who lived on the borders of the Holy German Empire of Rome. At the 12th century slowly the Slavs were conquered and assimilated and their lands became part of German Empire.  The same thing was done by Swedes who attacked the Finnic Pagans. Finland became a part of Sweden for many centuries.

The Latvian land was first visited by German merchants around 1160. Soon the first missionaries came to introduce Christianity to Pagans. It was done by Augustinian monk Meinard (who became a bishop later) and his comrade Theodoricus. They established the center of Crusader operations at Iķšķile were the first stone buildings were built on Latvian lands. The attempt of peaceful baptism was not successful. The Livonians rejected the new religion. Meinard decided to call the first Crusade against Livonians. But he died before the Crusade was made. The attack was carried by Bishop Berthold. His army was defeated and he was killed in battle near Riga. The leadership was now taken by Bishop Albert (1199-1229). In his time of rule the Crusaders using force and guile defeated the Latvian tribes. In 1202 The Order of the Brothers of Sword was established to fight Latvian tribes. The order was mostly made from German knights who looked for new adventure and lands. At 13th century the Danish King Valdemar II also wanted to take Baltic lands. The Danes defeated Estonians at the battle of Lindanise (near Tallin) and wanted more, but Valdemar was deposed in inner Danish fights and the Danish advance stopped.

At 13th century the Teutonic Order (also known as German Order) became the main Crusader force. The Order conquered the Baltic Prussian tribes and established their own state at today’s Kaliningrad which belongs to Russia now.  The Prussian nation was assimilated completely. The Teutonic Order managed to enclose the Order of The Brothers of Sword when it was destroyed in Battle of Saule in 1236. The Livonian Order was made which was dependent to the Teutonic Order.  The German Knights conquered the Estonian and Latvian lands. The attacks on Lithuania continued until the 14th century when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was recognized as the rightful Christian state.

The Latvian and Estonian lands were joined in the Livonian Confederation for the next three centuries. The Crusades made Latvia as a part of the Western world and culture. The early Latvian land was never a part of Russia as today Russian nationalist historians argue. Certainly there was Russian presence, there was Orthodox Churches in Latgalia and the presence of Russian merchants, but it was not as significant as the Western. Never the Baltic Region was the part of Russia, because the numerous Russian Duchies were too small to conquer the Latvian land and the claims that Balts are actually a part of the  Slavs is nonsense. Latvia only became a Russian territory at 18 century when it was gained by Russian Empire. The Latvia is a part of Western World right from the beginning of the Crusades and even before because Balts came from today’s Germany. We can surely propose that much of cultural heritage in today’s Latvia comes from Germany and Latvia has more significant cultural relations with western mainly German culture rather than Eastern Russian although it’s a question wetter the Russia really is part of Eastern civilization or it’s another member of Western civilization.

Selected Sources

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Misāns, Ilgvars. (1999) Baznīca un krusta kari 12. un 13. gadsimtā : eksperimentāls mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Zvaignze ABC.

Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis (2000). Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Biļķins, Vilis, (1973) Zemgaliešu brīvības cīņas. Minneapolis. Sēļzemnieka apgāds.

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Early Latvian statehood and civil order before the Crusades

There were and there is right now a discussion about the question of early Latvian statehood’s. The nationalists insist that there were real Latvian kingdoms with kings and castles. The skeptics see this as much as fantasy and try to solve this question more on the middle ground, that there was an existing statehood’s but they cannot be compared to the kingdoms in Western Europe and neither in Eastern Europe. The early Latvians were on the first basic steps to form a feudal kingdom but the Crusader invasion halted this advance.

As we found out in previous posts the main centers of early Latvian people were wooden fortresses and towns around them. The all forms of ruling were concentrated in those fortresses. Fortresses had their own districts they are called pilsnovadi in Latvian. In most cases they were not large in size that’s why I call them micro-states. At the end of the 13 century a new administrative form appeared-  parishes (pagasti in Latvian). The name comes from Russia where the word  погостиь means the rights of rulers regale basically meaning fee paying to the ruler. From that the Russian word погост evolved as the territory for fee collecting. It was called mark in German. Parish consisted of many villages which were subjugated to fortress districts. There is 450 known castles and fortresses today. Manny fortress districts united in larger territorial unions called lands in German chronicles (terra, land). At Courland there were nine lands called Vanema, Bandava, Ventava, Piemare, Duvzare, Megava, Pilsāts, Ceklis and the Land between Skrunda and Semigallia. At Semigallia there were seven lands- Silene, Žagare, Dobene, Spārnene, Tērvete, Dobele and Upmale. Within Dobene and Spārnene there were smaller administrative units called provinces (in Dobene- 16, Spārnene- 19). There is no complete amount of Livonian and Latgalian lands known today we can guess that there were many. There was no unified state which would unite all tribes in Latvia.

Despite that there were small statehood’s or micro-states. In Western Courland the king (rex in the chronicle) Lamekin is said to be an king of Ventava. The chronicle of Rimbert calls Kursa as as the kingdom (regnum) with five civitats (civitās) the districts in it. In Latgalia there were rulers acknowledged as kings. The most largest state was the state of Jersika (regnum Gercike). Its ruler was Visvaldis (The ruler of all ) he also was the warlord or unified Jersikian- Lithuanian army. Visvaldis took rule of many territories which stretched from river Daugava to river Gauja. The state was consisted of many fortress districts so the state of Jersika can be called as a confederation. Some districts on the right bank of river Aivekste formed their union called Lettia. The neighbor of Jersika was the state of Koknese ruled by a king or Duke Vetseke. The Tālava was called in many sources differently from simply a province to land union. It was ruled by Tālibalds and his sons. Tālava consisted large territory at the Gauja river basin. There are no sources of Selonian kings and states there were four castles in Selonia. Chronicle of Henry of Livonia says that there were many Livonian kings and four Livonian lands. The land of Daugava, Turaida, Metsepole and Idumeja. Ako was recognised as the mightiest Livonian ruler and bitter fighter against Crusaders. The Kaupo recognised as the king on the other hand was very friendly to Crusaders and even took the legendary trip to Rome to meet the Pope himself.

There was an organized society in Latvia within the early type states. It was based on a confederation of lands and fortress districts. But there were no state organizations like in Lithuania which could unite all Latvian tribes. The Lithuanians managed to settle their differences and at the time of Crusader invasion was ready counter the Crusader threat.

Senlatvijas karte

The map showing early Latvian statehood’s

According to the archaeological findings and written sources the early Latvian society was socially divided. The Latvian Pagans occasionally placed the most worth belongings in the dead man’s grave. From that the archaeologists can tell the social status of the berried man. The graves with weapons and jewels were probably belonged to Noble’s. They could be the elders of the village or even districts. Other social class according to archaeologists was the members of warhoods who took a prominent position in the states military. Third class was the free peasants of the village who took part in wars, but was second handed in state politics, because all decisions were made by Noble’s. The Fourth Class with poor grave inventory was the prisoners of the war and other unfree peoples.

The leader of the early Latvian states was the rulers (valdnieks) or the kings (ķēniņš) as named in chronicles. The taxes were collected by special taxman’s. The amounts of taxes were measured in ploughs or horses.

There were also early forms of parliament. The ruler could not make military decisions without consulting the members of war-hood. The meetings of nobles decided the state’s internal and external questions. There were also records of meetings between the elders which could make the same decisions as the war nobles like signing a peace deal with the Crusaders.

The early Latvians were not an uncivilized barbarians, but were at much lower levels than the rest of Europe’s feudal nations.  That’s why early Latvians could not fight with German Crusaders equally.

Selected Sources

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Apals, Jānis and others. (2011) Latvijas senākā vēsture : 9.g.t. pr.Kr. – 1200.g. Editor: Mugurēvičs Ēvalds. Riga : Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Šnē, Andris. (2002) Sabiedrība un vara: sociālās attiecības Austrumlatvijā aizvēstures beigās. Riga. Intelekts.

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The Latvian Prehistoric neighbors – early Lithuanians and Estonians

It would be unwise to exclude Latvian Baltic neighbors Lithuanians and Estonians from aspects of Latvian history because both three nations share much in common in the basis of Baltic history. Let’s take a brief survey about Prehistoric aspects in Lithuania and Estonia.

Estonia as much as Latvia was under the ice shield during the last Ice Age. Some minor parts of Lithuania were not covered by the ice shield. First country inhabited by humans was Lithuania in 9000 BC at the same time the humans came to Latvia. Estonia was covered by ice much longer than other two Baltic states.  The first traces of humans in Estonia were dated at 8000 BC.

During the Stone age the Baltic settlers practiced hunting and fishing lifestyles. After the beginning of the Bronze age the slow move to productive economy started. Lithuanians were first to make fortifications, Estonian made very complex roundly set rock molds still visible today at Jõelähtme.

During the 9-13 century in both Baltic states just as Latvia the new organized tribes formed. The early Lithuanian tribes were Samgotians, Aukštaitians, and tribal peoples simply known as Lithuanians. The present day Kallinigrad and Poland were inhabited by many no extinct Baltic tribes mainly Prussians, Skalvians and Youtwingians. The Samgotians are common with Latgallians as they have a different dialect than other Lithuanians. The Estonia was inhabited by Estonians and Seths who lived North-eastern Estonia and Russia.


Just as early Latvians the Lithuanians and Estonians established wooden fortresses however the Estonians was first to build stone fortifications like the Varbola Stronghold built in the 10 -11 century. One of the main centers of Lithuania was Kernave which was the first capital of Lithuania before it was burned down by the crusaders.

The Ruins of Varbola Stronghlod. The Kernave- first capital of Lithuania.

At the time of Viking raids the Estonians were also a victim of Viking raids.  At the 11 century Estonia was invaded by Russians. The Grand Duke of Kiev Jaroslaw the Wise attacked Estonians and established a support base called Jurjevo at 1030.  The Russians occupied the South eastern Estonia until in 1061 the Estonians drive out the invaders. Russians also attacked Lithuanians but at 12th century the Kievan Russia resolved in many minor states unable to conquer Baltic lands. Plus the invasion of the Mongolians halted the Russian development for many hundred years. There are Russian historians who say that if the Mongol invasion had never accrued; the Baltic region would be conquered by Russians long before western crusaders.

Just as the Latvians the Lithuanians and Estonians were divided in small statehood’s or micro-states ruled by king like rulers. When the western invasion begun in the Baltic region the three Baltic nations witnessed different fates. Estonians were attacked by Danes and Germans and together with Latvians enslaved by German crusaders. But Lithuanians repulsed all invasions and established their own kingdom which lived until 16th century when it was unified with Poland.

Selected Sources:

Maisalu, Ains (Ed.) (2000) Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Plakans, Andrejs. (2011) A concise history of the Baltic States. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

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The Latvian Mythology

The painting by Jānis Bīne showing three main Latvian Deities - Māra, Dievs (God) and Laima

The painting by Jēkabs Bīne showing three main Latvian Deities – Māra, Dievs (God) and Laima

Christianity only came to Latvia in 11th Century but was enforced completely by crusaders at 13th Century.  So Latvians were one of the last people in Europe to convert to Christianity. Even when Christianity was the official religion in Latvia, the elements of Paganism remained active even until 18. Century. Latvians managed to keep their Pagan practices and myths and they are very well known to this day. Many grand Latvian intellectuals like Krišijānis Barons recorded the old Latvian folk songs and sayings. Today Latvian mythic folklore is studied by such famous people like Doc. Janīna Kursīte, now a deputy of Saeima and ex president of Latvia Vaira-Vīķe Freiberga. Latvian mythology is a rather complex thing to discuss but I will give the basics in this post.

The first accounts of Latvian Pagan beliefs come from archaeological findings such as sacred objects, amulets and other findings. The written sources, mostly made by German Catholic chroniclers show rather subjective accounts.  The bull (special Papal declaration) by Pope Innocent III tells about “barbarians who gives the God’s honor for dull creatures, leaf trees, clear waters, green trees and unholy spirits”.  The 16 Century Jesuits reports that “everyone here around Ludza and Rezekne is horrific Pagans. They make offerings to Pērkons, Ūsiņš and other fetish. Almost in every house a witchdoctor, shaman and other kinds of devil servants.” The geographer Sebastian Miller (1489.-1552) in his 22 volume encyclopedia “Cosmographia” with an unpleasant surprise finds out that in the ranks of peasants of Vidzeme “are many of those, who know nothing of God and his saints. One worships sun, other- moon, one chooses a beautiful tree to worship, while other a stone or whatever he pleases”. Chronicler Baltazar in his “Livonian Chronicle” (1578), reports that “Livonian Pagans were devoted to many dreadful fetishes, like Sun, Moon and Stars, just as snakes and other creatures. They hold some brushwoods as holy sights, which were forbidden to cut down. Their superstition was so great that one who would cut down a tree in the holy place would be killed immediately”. These are just some of the accounts who tell that Latvian peasants worship god Pērkons, Ūsiņš, and smaller deities. The sources make a conclusion that Latvian Pagan religion was based on natural and cosmic phenomena like Sun and Moon and other stars.  The sources have however given no details about special priests who carry special rituals, the Latvians made rituals themselves. The holy sites were groves and trees. One the main Paganic celebration was Jāņi which takes place on the summer solstice of June 23 to June 24. Jānis is most common male word in Latvia.  Jāņi are officially celebrated today as the summer holiday and are one of the most active Latvian celebrations.

The other sources of Latvian mythology are folk songs, gathered since 19 Century and tales (Teikas), and legends. The ethnographic source like ornaments and symbols gives good information about Latvian mythology. Latvian mythology is full of syncretism’s from Christian beliefs, and traditional customs which affects all Latvian life.

The main groups of Latvian deities are divided into six. 1. The gods of nature and space. 2. The universal being- The God. 3. The gods of human destiny. 4. The gods of fertility. 5. Mothers. 6. The minor deities of various functions.

The worshiping of nature was shown by wearing special jewels and amulets- crosses, rounds, snakes and special axes. The main cosmic god as noted by many sources is Pērkons (The Thunder), same god is also known to Lithuanians as Perkūns, Prussian Perkun, ancient Indian Parjanja, Scandinavian Fjorgin. He is close to ancient Greek god Hephaestus. He is the Skyforger who rides across the sky hitting Suns word tree making sun cry (an explanation for thunderstorm), when Pērkons roars the god angers ridding the stone carriage. He is also a fighter against the Devil and other evil spirits. The main symbol of Pērkons is the swastika. The swastika is one of the most oldest religious symbols found in India, Russia, Europe and even America, long before Adolf Hitler made swastika as the symbol of evil. The swastika is Pērkoņkrusts (Thundercross) in Latvian. When you see a swastika used in Latvian traditional celebrations and dresses it has nothing to do with Nazi ideology. At the time of the Republic of Latvia before the Second World War swastika was a popular national symbol and was associated with Nazism in very rare cases.

The Sun cult was associated with the cycles of time. The Sun got children- the Moon, Auseklis and Sun Daughters. The Sun raided a carriage around the sky and took sleep at the sea at night.

Latvian Signs and Symbols and their explanation according to Agne Liesma

Latvian Signs and Symbols and their explanation according to Agne Liesma

The main ruler of everything is God or Dievs as called in Latvian. The name is close to ancient Indian deva meaning God and dyaus meaning sky. He could be close to ancient Greek Zeus. The name Dievs is close to other Baltic languages and the name comes from the word deuio– the shining sky of the day. The name Dievs is recorded in 9750 texts of Latvian folk songs (Latvju Dainās). The God is the rightful ruler of all the guider of stars, nature and humans. The God is a fighter against evil the judge of human destiny. The God is personified, but he got no children or family. There are no direct offerings to God but God could be prayed like the Christian God. Māra is not close to Christian Virgin Mary.

The dieties of destiny are Māra and Laima (Happyness, luck), and other minor deities. The Laima regularly persists in Latvian tales as a guider and judge for individual human destiny.

There are numerous minor deities for all kinds of spheres of life. The Ūsiņš was the god of horses. Jumis is the God of fertility. Māršava and Māra helps the cattle breeding activities.

There are many Mothers as the Deities of many natural and spiritual aspects. There are Forest Mother, Sea Mother, Garden Mother, and Wind Mother. There is even War Mother.  One of the main Mothers is Mother of Dead Souls (Veļu Māte) which takes care of dead humans in their afterlife. There is a belief that at certain nights the dead souls come to their lifetime houses to visit them. They must be greeted with the goods or the souls could get angry and bring bad luck to present day housemates.

There are more minor spirits- Dieviņi. They need offerings to bring good luck. One of the best known spirits is the god of the fireplace who takes care for every single family.

Jānis is the deity of fertility he could be close to the Roman god Janus. The leader of evil is the Devil (Velns, Jods), who is to blame for bad happenings and calamities, however it is not clear whether the Devil comes from Christian beliefs, because there is no Latvian universal deity of evil.

Latvian Paganic beliefs persisted so long because Christianity was not fully introduced to them. They were baptized by force, but there was little done to explain the basic teachings of Christianity to them. All ministrations and Holy texts were in Latin- the official church language, which was unknown to simple Latvian peasants. Only in 16-17 century when the Reformation came to Latvia the first ministration and holy texts were translated into Latvian. During the 18 century the movement of the Congregation of Brothers or Hernhutism made a large effort of teaching Christianity to Latvians.  At the end of 19th century Christianity finally defeated Latvian Paganism. Despite that the old beliefs and customs were kept for generations until this day. At 20th Century there was a neopagan movement like Dievturība which is a new Latvian religion based on the Latvian mythology. It’s not very popular among Latvian and faced repressions during the Soviet Era but lives until this time.  The Latvian old rituals are carried at special dates by folk groups and bands and active nationally minded Latvians.  Latvian mythology is a complicated subject to discuss but some aspects here had been witnessed and probably will appear in future posts.

Selected Sources:

Akmentiņš, R. (Ed.) (1994.) Mitoloģijas enciklopēdija : Pasaules tautu mitoloģiskās būtnes un priekšstati. (2. Vol) Riga: Latvijas Enciklopēdija.

Kursīte, Janīna. (1999). Mītiskais folklorā, literatūrā, mākslā. Riga: Zinātne.

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The disappearing nation of Livonians

The four early Latvian tribes the – Curonians, Semigallians, Selonians and Latgalians in the next hundred years of foreign rule slowly turned into one Latvian nation. There is of course differences between Latvians which are inherited from the old tribes, like already mentioned differences between Latgalian Latvians and Latvians in other parts in Latvia. But besides those Latvian tribes another completely different tribe the Livonians lived in the territory of Latvia. As mentioned in the article about Prehistory, Finno-Ugrian language group speaking peoples entered Latvian land before the Baltic tribes driven them away further to the north.  The last Finno-Ugrians remained at the shores of Northern Courland and by the shores of Vidzeme. They were the first natives met by Crusaders and first to be exposed under the Crusader rule.  From the word Livonian, the name of the future Livonian Confederation emerged. In Latvian they are called līvi or lībieši. They speak a rather archaic Finnic language mixed with Latvian phrases. Today is there are estimated 177 Livonians living mostly at one small area near the Cape Kolka the area which belongs to Slitere National Park and is officially recognized as Livonian Coast the Līvõd rānda in Livonian. The amount of fluent Livonian speakers is even smaller an only less than 10 Livonians are regarded as fluent Livonian speakers. So there is a small hope for the continued existence of Livonian language and nation. Without its language the Livonians will be an assimilated nation bound to disappear. The only hope is that young Livonian predecessors will at least try to keep the very basics of Livonian tradition and language.

The Livonian national flag

The Livonian national flag

The first written sittings of Livonians come from the chronicle of Sax the Grammarian where they are mentioned as fighters in Danish king Harald war fleet in 750. The more trustful sources come from famous Russian chronicle “Primary Chronicle”– where they are mentioned as one of the 12. Century tribes who paid aliments to Russian   Duchies and fought in their armies. The Crusader sources show more detailed accounts about Livonians. Chronicle of Henry of Livonia tells detailed description of Livonians from the end of the 12th Century to the twenties of the 13th century. The account tells how hard it was for the first crusader missionaries to convert Livonians to Christianity. Livonians even wanted to sacrifice Christian priest Theodoricus to get more fertile land and protect it from large rainfalls. They set God’s trial by using horse and javelin. If the horse steps over the javelin from right side the priest is saved. To prevent Christian God from riding horse the right side they cleaned the horses back so the Christian God will slope from the horseback. Despite that horse stepped the right way over the javelin and the priest was saved. Even when Germans managed to baptize Livonians they re-converted to Paganism simply just bathing in Daugava, believing they washed down Christianity from their bodies.  Confronted by this failure the missionaries decided to start Crusade against Livonians. It first failed when Crusader leader Bishop Berthold near the present day Riga was killed by Livonian leader Imaut in 1198. However the Bishop Albert led more successful war against the Livonians and gained victory. In 1206 the Livonians revolted, the Crusaders defeated the revolt and forced Livonians to convert and give their land to the Order of the Brothers of Sword.

During the era of foreign rule the Livonian nation slowly vanished from Vidzeme. This happened for many reasons. The amount of Latvians continued to grow excluding Livonians from Vidzeme. The Latvian language became the leading native form of expression used in churches and schools.  Livonian language was only used in home and due to the mixed marriages it was used more lesser. But the wars, famine and plague destroyed a large portion of Livonians. The plague of 1710 was an ethnic catastrophe for Livonians.  At the 1840ies they were 25 Livonian speaking vicinity’s in Livonia. In 1868 the last Livonian of Vidzeme Gusts Bisnieks died.

The region around the Cape of Kolka was a more remote place for mass Latvian migration. The region is filled with endless forests and sand dunes. The only places where to live was near the shores. Since the land was rather filled with infertile sands and forests the only way to survive was fishing. In this small piece of land the 12 Livonian villages became only Livonian inhabited places to this day. They are- Melnsils (Mustānum), Kolka (Kūolka), Vaide (Vaid), Saunags (Sǟnag), Pitrags (Pitrõg), Košrags (Kuoštrõg), Mazirbe (Irē), Sīkrags (Sīkrõg), Jaunciems (Ūžkilā), Lielirbe (Īra), Miķeltornis or Pize (Pizā) and Ļūžna (Lūž). At the times of German landlords the villages were owned by Dundaga and Pope Manor’s. At the pre-war period (1920-1939) the villages became a part of Ventspils district and were divided into smaller sub-districts.  At 1923 Livonians applied to make a Livonian sub-district which would enclose all 12 Livonian villages but it was turned down by the Latvian government.

Livonian Coast

Livonian population since the middle of the 19th century started to decline. From 2052 Livoniabens to 1312 Livonians at 1897 according to first Population Census of Russian Empire. However this number is proved to be mistaken because small amount of Livonians were added to Lithuanians or even Latvians.

The First World War caused a large refuge fro Courland and made a big blow to Livonian population. At 1935. Population Census of Republic of Latvia showed that more Livonians could not speak their language.  Due the return of refuges the amount of Livonians raised. At 1935 there was 935 Livonians living in Latvia.

The end of Second World War drastically affected the Livonian population. The refuge, deportation and emigration and Soviet anti-nationalist policies, declined Livonian population sharply. At 1959 Soviet Population Census there was 185 registered Livonians.  Another more economic blow to Livonians was the establishment of a Soviet border zone on the Livonian coast. The Soviets regarded the Baltic Coast as the border of the Soviet Union which needs to be protected from possible western capitalist invasion. Because of this the border protection bases were established with garrisons. The villagers were forced to leave their homes and those who stayed could not even step on the beach not even considering such action as fishing.  Before Soviet Era, the Livonian villages were sprawling centers near the sea. They were active churches, clubs, pubs and local rail connected the villages. Now because of Soviet military policies the villages became abandoned and poor. The Lielirbe was a large Livonian center- now there are no inhabitants there just summer stayers.


Coastline at Cape Kolka

At this day the villages are mostly inhabited by summer stayers who builds summer homes. The only places with active communities are Mazirbe, Kolka and Miķeltornis. However, the empty beaches where you can meet just one person at every meter is good for people who don’t like the overcrowded beaches near Riga. The modern day Livonian centre is Mazirbe. The Livonian Peoples Hall located in the center of Mazirbe is the main Livonian cultural place. With limited support of the government the Livonians are trying to save the remains of Livonian nation and its culture.  The Livonian song and dance collectives regularly take a role in Song and Dance festivals. Many scientific publications about Livonians have been released to this day.  Lithuanians have survived to 21th century is the question whether they survive more, but if there is a national will in every nation than there is a hope that the nation could survive.

Selected Sources:

Boiko. K. (Ed.) (1994) Lībieši : rakstu krājums. Riga: Zinātne.

Marija, Valda, Šuvcāne. (2002). Lībiešu ciems kura vairs nav. Riga. 2002.

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