Monthly Archives: May 2010

Latvian Witches

The Witch Burning in Riga.

Witch burning in Riga

Christianity was the leading religion in Europe and did everything to tackle their religious counterparts. Before Christianity became the main dogmatic religion in Europe, Pagan religion was the leading belief. Even so for centuries Pagan traditions remained within simple people. There were people who still practiced Pagan traditions like fortune-telling, magic healing and other things not recognized by the church. From the 14th century to 18th century these people became victims of massive witch hunt in all Europe. In Latvia witch hunting were severe because of strong Pagan traditions within local people.

Witches are women with supernatural powers. They practiced necromancy and were blamed for various calamities like making all the rivers stop flowing. In Medieval times witches were blamed for making deals with the devil by signing it with their blood. Not only that, they were also considered to make sexual intercourse with the devil and make big black mass meetings (Sabbaths). When various heretic movements appeared they were associated with the devil. The whole conception of witch appeared in 15th century when Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches 1486).  This work paved way for witch hunt. Based on this witches were accused for making bad deeds like poisoning, sorcery, killing and fortune-telling.

In Latvia witches were deep in Latvian folklore. They appeared in Latvian folk songs, tales and legends. In tales witch’s husband was the devil and they lived in strange houses on fowl’s foot. Witches could turn a man into animal or various things like rivers and meadows. They travelled in the air with broomstick and attended witch meetings. Also they did other bad deeds but the Latvian view on witches were not wholly negative because Latvian simple peasants were not fanatic Christians as in Europe.

Witch House at Tervete

But foreign rulers of Latvia made witch trials in Latvia just like in other parts of Europe. Bans on Pagan practices were made in Medieval times but no witch trial was recorded in Latvia until the 16th century. In 1537 at  Valmiera landlords were instructed to keep an eye for Pagan practices and prevent them if necessary.  When anti-witch literature reached Livonia from Germany the idea of witch hunting emerged here. First witch was burned at the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia in 1527. In Riga at 1531 men called Valdis Buhards was sentenced for sorcery. First burning occurred at Grobiņa 1559. When Latvia was under Polish rule witch hunting became widely used practice. Catholic Poles used barbaric torture practices. Even more witches were judged at 17 century Vidzeme controlled by Lutheran Swedes.  Between 1630.-1640 there were 40 trials or more. At local land courts no court session was without a witch trial. One accused person told that anyone here can practice witchcraft so all working men in farm fields must be killed. In the other half of 17 century because of changes in Swedish laws witch burning became less familiar.   At 1686 torture was banned and more liberal money fines were imposed instead of death penalty. Last death penalty was imposed in 1699.

After Vidzeme was taken by the Russians witch hunt ended completely. Witch hunt was also common in the Duchy of Courland and Semmigallia but less common in Latgallia. After all Latvia was included in Russian Empire witch hunt ended.

Because of strong Pagan tradition common in Latvians witch hunting occurred in Latvia. There are many sources from Western travelers who called Livonia a land of witches and wizards.  No doubt many of accused and killed man and women actually practiced some kind Pagan traditions not recognized by the church. Because of the  superstition and fear many people who did no harm were killed because of witch mania. Many women were completely innocent, and were killed because they differed from other women. Usually witch was considered women with long released hair usually black and rosy face and eyes. They differed by character from others and were looked with suspicion.  Many of them must have some mental problems that made them strange to others. In a time where psychology and tolerance was not known witch hunt was a useful tool to harm different people.

Today at age of multiculturalism Pagan practices are no longer harmed. Such person as Aleister Crowley would be killed and forgotten in at that time, but today he is still known as a famous black magician.  Neo-Pagan movements are springing so as the other beliefs. Let’s hope that there will be no time in the future where mass repressions are imposed because of some dogmatic religion.

Selected Sources:

Švābe, Arveds (Ed.) (1938) Latviešu konversācijas vārdnīca. Vol 17. Riga: Grāmatu apgādniecība A. Gulbis

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


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Latvia 1990-2010 Twenty years of independence

20 years ago Latvia restored its independence

 May 4 199o is a landmark day in Latvian history. On this day Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR adopted declaration On the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia who made way for regaining independence from the Soviet Union. Even though the real independence was gained in 1991 August 21, May 4 has been celebrated as second independence day in Latvia.

It’s complicated to discuss the whole process of making the declaration possible there is a need a for a few big posts, so this post will give a short survey what has happened in Latvia since May 4 1990.

The people behind the regaining of independence were Latvian Peoples Front a large national organization turning into a political force. Since the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed opposition to communist party LPF gained large success in the election. A large representation of LPF in Latvian SSR Supreme Soviet made possible to restore independence.  Also important factor was support of progressive communist party members. The chairman of Supreme Soviet was Anatolijs Gorbunovs who backed whole process. The Latvian Communist party was split in the orthodox anti nationalists lead by Alfrēds Rubiks and progressive communists who were ready to support independence. Strong opposition was International Workers Front an organization created to tackle LPF. However the nationalist politicians won the upper hand. The soviet government from Moscow were unable to shut down the Latvian independence movement completely, it had all necessarily armed force in hand, but it lingered to use it until the end. The two episodes of Moscow response the January 1991 barricades and failed Soviet coup in August were not enough to prevent Latvia from separating from the union.     

After the complete restoration of independence leading politicians were quickly thrown in big challenges.  Before it the main goal was the restoration of independence, few had exact ideas what to do after. Latvia needed to quickly switch socialism to capitalism and communism to democracy. First years of restored freedom were painful as reforms drastically changed the situation in Latvia.

Economy got a big hit because new leaders lacked a clear view on how things should be done. In the Soviet period Latvia was the industrial center in the USSR. Soviets build a large amount of factories in Latvia and sent thousands of workers from whole union to Latvia. This caused mass immigration and downsize of Latvian majority. This leads to speculate  that massive industrialization was intended to assimilate Latvian nation. Large industrial enterprises worked only for Soviet market and were associated with main company bodies in Moscow. Also they were deeply connected with the Soviet military complex and half of the civilian industrial production was actually used for military purposes. After the fall of USSR these factories could no more compete with free market and lost contact with state and Russian military.  Large enterprises such as State Electronics Factory, Red Star, Alfa and others bankrupted. State officials done little to prevent whole industry collapsing. Today is still hard to answer could industry be saved and what should be done. However many say that it was impossible to save it. But the loss of large enterprises made a large amount of unemployed people. In the Soviet era there were no unemployment possible since everyone could find the job in a factory.

Reforms hit hard also on agriculture. In Soviet era all agricultural property was in state hands. Collective farming (kolkhoz)  was the main subject in the country. When private property was established kolkhoz’s failed as the land was privatized.  In Soviet times all farm land was sowed and farms were rich, now because of poor handling of private property land became poor and undeveloped.

Despite those large problems politicians finished reforms and introduced capitalism in Latvia. This was done on high prices on peoples wallets. One side became poor other side became rich. Social inequality is eminent today in Latvia.

Politics in Latvia after the restoration was divided more than ever. Latvian Peoples Front quickly split in many political forces. Progressive communists became democrats and assembled new political carriers. The two main leaders of national revival Dainis Ivans and Anatolijs Gorbunovs lost their power. New leaders came from numerous parties. Latvian Way won first election and pushed the reforms ahead. But in next elections new parties showed up. Parliament was divided into small fractions, it was impossible to make stable government. At every election new “savior party”  showed up. Parties like Saimnieks (lord), and For Latvia promised more than they accomplished.  The first stable party was Peoples Party lead by Andris Skele who won two elections. Party New Era was its main counterpart. Left wing parties always failed in elections. Before the World war Latvian Social-democratic workers party was an eminent elected leader in Latvia, now party is a weak reflection on past party. Russian parties always posed as left wingers and the today Harmony Center is a most successful left-wing party in Latvia. Far right parties have been present in Latvia but   not attracted big popularity.  An eminent factor in Latvian politics is oligarchs- the gray cardinals. Latvian journalists name three men- major of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs, politicians Andris Skele and Ainars Slesers. The so-called A- team plays a big role in Latvian politics.

Latvia was hit by large financial crisis many times. In 1995 the large bank Banka Baltijai collapsed, Latvia was hit by the Russian default in 1998.The world financial crisis in 2008 hit Latvia so hard  that the government had to make big cuts to save the state from bankruptcy.  The large unemployment,  expensive education forced Latvians to look for work in the European Union. Ireland and Great Britain have large Latvian diaspora. Latvia is again losing its  Latvian majority thanks to Latvian migration to the west.  However Latvian Russians are migrating to Russia  also.

Despite the impending difficulties Latvia achieved many victories. It accomplished its goal to enter the European Union and NATO. The Latvian army took part in NATO missions in Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Latvian sportsmen won many victories  in international competitions.   We have Olympic champions, strong hockey team and other sports achievements.   Latvian artists especially in the classical music field are worlds best.

The restoration of independence was a logical and important step. The difficulties that go with sovereign state are always present. 20 years are a small period in one states life so Latvia needs to work more to survive in a globalized world. Moses needed 40 years to carry his Jews around the dessert so they could rule on their own, Latvians may need 20 more years to gain more than they have gained today.

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