Tag Archives: Prehistory

Old Prussians


Prussian warrior

Today there are two remaining Baltic nations- Latvians and Lithuanians. But in 13. century there was a third tribe living in present-day Kaliningrad oblast in Russia and Poland. They were Prussians- Pruzzen in German. Prussians encountered the German Crusader aggression first and fought for a long time, but lost their freedom and became assimilated. Today are no real Baltic Prussians in Kaliningrad just as there is no German Prussians in there. The Prussian nation became extinct at the result of the Crusade.

Just as the Early Latvians Prussians were not unified nation but were divided in various smaller tribes and tribal areas. The areas were called laūks– field, common to Latvian word lauks meaning the same. Laūks included fortifications and villages. Village was called kāims. Since the Prussians newer formed a united nation, they called them selves based on the names of regions from where they came from like Galindians, Sambians, Bartians, Nadrovians, Natangians, Scalovians, Sudovians. Chronicon terrae Prussiae (The Chronicle of the Prussian Land) is the prime source about the Old Prussians. The author Peter of Drusburg list eleven lands and ten tribes in Prussian region.


Map of Prussia

The Old Prussians were Pagans and this made the vulnerable to attempts of baptizing. Polish king Boleslaw I sent Adalbert of Prague to baptize the Prussian pagans. But in 977. he was murdered by locals. This was a large shock to Catholic Europe and Adalbert became a martyr and saint. His death triggered numerous Polish attempts to conquer Prussians.   In 1124. Poles attacked the Prussians of Pomerania. In 1147. Poles attacked Prussians for their involvement in inner Polish struggle. In 1200s Prussia became as field of interest for German knights. Since Poles could not conquer Prussians and force them to baptize the Pope of Rome issued the Christian of Olivia to mission of baptizing Prussian pagans. He became the first bishop of Prussia. Order of Dobrzyń was created to persuade Crusade to Prussia, but it was short lived and joined the Teutonic Order. In 1224.  Emperor Frederick II declared Prussia as part of Holy German Empire of Rome. The key land holder was to be Teutonic Order who was subjected to the Pope and Empire and made there their own monastic state. In 1233. the attack of 21,000 Teutonic Knights begun. They were also assisted by Poles and other German vassals.  Prussians resisted fiercely, but Crusaders were too strong, in 1286. a large rebellion took place but were stopped by Crusaders. Prussians received the Lithuanian support but it was not enough. Teutonic Order established a strong base of operation downsizing the Prussian rebellion. Order supported colonization of Prussia making Prussians exposed to assimilation. A large influx of German and Polish immigrants settled in Prussia in next centuries. Prussians were forced to live in slavedom and slowly they lost their national identity and language.   In 18. century the language became extinct. But thanks to German scholars and Clergyman who translated various works such as Bible in Prussians, the linguistics can record Old Prussian language. Some old Prussian poems also have persisted until this time.

Today is hard to tell whether the Baltic Prussian still exist. Surely they all have predecessors living in Germany, Baltic States or other places. After East Prussia was ceded to Soviet Union the ethnic cleaning took place and almost all German population was deported to East Germany. So there is small chance to find Prussians in Kaliningrad, but rather in Germany where there is many organizations calling them Prussians. Such organizations also exist in Baltic States. Today according to Latvian encyclopedic claims there are 100,000 people calling themselves Prussians.


Modern Prussians


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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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The forgotten tribe of Selonians

The colored part of map is Selonia

There is much to say about Curonians, Semigallians and Latgalians. But what about Selonians? Indeed history of Selonian tribe sheds in mystery, because there no popular stories to tell about them. They are discussions whether  the Selonians could be called an independent tribe or just assimilated subjects of Latgalians.  The knowledge about Selonians today is so weak that even region of Selonia is recognized as a Latvian region in rare cases.  Historically the region inhabited by Selonians is mostly aligned to Semigallia, because it was a long time part of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. Even some present day Selonians denies the fact that they are living in Selonia rather than Semigallia. The other name for Selonian land is Augšzeme (The Upper Land) is sometimes used. Most recently thanks to the new regional reform two Selonian counties were now considered as a part of Latgalia.  Such action was against any historical-cultural basis because those two districts never were in any way connected with Latgalia. This was met with disappointment and protest by locals who insisted they were Selonians not Latgalians.

Despite the calls for Selonian national efforts there is much truth in arguments arguing that Selonians are very close to Latgalians.  The early Selonians were much lesser developed than other Latvian tribes and were anthropologically close to Latgalians. Their burying practices were in many ways same as Latgalian and there were little differences in the way of dress from Latgalians. Despite that the main written    historical source about early Latvians- the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia tells that despite the large Latgalian influence, Selonians still preserved their identity as the Selonians. The national identification is one the most important arguments to call some group of people and sovereign tribe or even nation.  We can say that Selonians while heavily influenced by Latgalians were different tribe and the region of Selonia can be named so.

The main centers of the Selonians were Koknese and Aizkraukle were wooden fortresses have been built with towns around them.  Another Selonian center was Sēļpils (The Selonian Castle) which is considered as capitol of Selonian statehood.

The Crusaders crushed the Selonian resistance with ease. Selonia was property of Livonian order. The main center was crusader built fortress of Koknese. After the fall of Livonia the Courland Dukes established new centers in Selonia. The Jekabpils or Jakobstatdwas named after Duke Jakob Kettler. The city grew rapidly during the centuries. At Soviet Era it was merged with much older city Krustpils (Kreutzburg) , (The cross city) which stood right across the river of the Daugava.  The other city established at that time was Jaunjelgava (The New Jelgava), Friedrichstadt, as it was named at that time derived from other Courlandian Duke Friedrich. Jaunjelgava did not manage to become a big center but rather a small town. In the Soviet Era when the new hydroelectric power station was built the new city named Stučka was founded. It was named after the famous Latvian communist leader Pēteris Štučka. After the fall of the Soviet Union the city was renamed to Aizkraukle (The Aftercrows) because it was an historical site of mentioned above Selonian center.  Aizkraukle is a large modern center located next to the Pļaviņu Hydroelectric power station which was named after an another smaller town Pļaviņas (The Grasslands).

Selonia is land of low plains and forests its main river is Daugava which stands as natural river. The Soviet practice of building hydroelectric plants has changed the width of the Daugava. Such natural wonder as a cliff of Staburags now lies under the sea level. There is also a large portion of Koknese flooded and other places near Daugava. It was luck that building of another hydroelectric plant near Daugavpils was cancelled, for it could destroy Daugava’s natural course completely (there are also two more hydroelectric plants before the Pļaviņu plant).

Today the most Latvian archaeologist’s recognise Selonians as integral tribe, there is still need to recognise Selonia as an sovereign region of Latvia, not as the part of Semigallia or Latgalia. If you drive thought Selonia and meet the locals you probably see that they differ from people of Senmigallia and Latgalia and the land of Selonia is not as Semigallia and Latgalia.


Selected Sources:

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

Strods, Heinrihs. (2011) Sēlija senāk un tagad. Riga: Jumava.

Demberga, Aija. (2008) Selonia. Riga:  Nacionālais Apgāds.


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The Latgalians- a distinct Latvians or a different nation?

Latgalian woman and man from 8th century.

Latgalians were the largest tribe of four Latvian tribes and still present day Latvian inhabitants of Latgale differs from Latvians in other Latvian regions. The most notable distinction is the Latgalian dialect which cannot be understandable even to other Latvians. The mentality of Latgalians also differs from other Latvians as well as the cultural ways. This why the question of Latgalian distinction from other Latvians persists until this day. During the recent years of independence the Latgalians have experienced a cultural rebirth, they are using their dialect more freely, and their dialect is popularized by the Latgalian singers.  In the ranks of nationally oriented Latgalians there are even some idle calls for separation from Latvia or at least calls for Latgalian cultural autonomy. Sadly in recent years the leading callers of the Latgalian autonomy has nothing to do with Latgalians and their heritage.

This situation is not severe as it sounds to be. Latgale or Latgale is not a Basque Autonomous region in Spain. There is no Latgalian ETA like in Spain.  In fact Latgale is not only populated by ethnic Latgalian Latvians, there is a long history of Russian, Polish and Jewish presence at Latgale. After the World War the Jewish presence which was in fact very large now is almost gone, but the Russian and Polish minority still makes an impact in Latgale.

The question why Latgale so differs from other parts from Latvia is answerable by checking the Latgalian history.  Now before we start there is one thing to note.  In Latvian language there is a difference between word Latgaļi and Latgalieši. The word Latgaļi is accorded to old Latvian tribe before the coming of crusaders. The word Latgalieši means the all present day Latvians who live in Latgale.

When Latgalians became subjects of the Livonian Confederation there was little difference from other early Latvians. The German rulers enforced Christianity to all natives. The borders of five Latvian regions were not completely settled. This changed in 16th Century. The Livonian War (1558-1561) destroyed the old Livonian order. Polish rulers divided Latvian Livonian territory in two parts- Courland, Semigallia and Selonia became a Duchy of Courland and

Semigallia. The Vidzeme and Latgale were joined in Duchy of Pārdaugava (means the other side of Daugava). The Pārdaugava Duchy however did not last long; it was changed as a simple province of Poland-Lithuania.  Before Polish rule as a result of the Reformation the Lutheranism as the leading church was established in all of Livonia. The Poles strived to change this- they tried to ban Lutherans and revert to complete Catholicism. It was not successful in Courland and Semigallia- the Dukes resisted the Polish efforts. In Riga it caused riots but in Latgale it was the other case. Polish policy of counter-reformation was successful in Latgale reverting all Latgalians completely to Catholicism.  Other confessions in Latgale are a minority until this day. To show how much Catholicism is important in Latgale there are two notable facts- the Basilica of Aglona is one of the sacred Catholic centers in Europe.  And the Cardinal of the Latvian Catholic Church as a Latgalian Jānis Pujats.

The St. Mary Ascension basilica of Aglona.

However it was the War between Swedes and Poles (1600-1621) which set Latgale apart from other parts of Latvia. The war divided the Vidzeme and Latgale into two pieces. One- Vidzeme became a Swedish possession- the other- Latgale stayed as a Polish province known as Inflantija. The Swedes were Lutherans and Catholicism was frown upon from Vidzeme.  Now Latgale became a completely internal region of Latvia.

After the succession of Poland, Latgale became a part of the Russian Empire. The Russian government didn’t bother to make a standalone Latgalian province, instead they joined Latgale with Vitebsk- city in today’s Belarus.  The province of Vitebsk was formed.

During this time of foreign power imposed separation the Latgale preserved its unique dialect, the ways of national dress and cuisine.  To show how Latgalian dialect differs lets compare words written in official Latvian and Latgalian.  The mother- māte muote, father- tēvs tāvs, he- viņš-jis, her- viņa-jis. Riga- Rīga- Reiga. Latgalian dialect is more similar to Lithaunian and even Belarusian than official Latvian language. It may mean that during the centuries of separation from rest of Latvia, the Latgalians kept the most authentic Latvian language dialect, while Latvian language was influenced by German and Latvian languages.

The question of Latgale became important when Russian Revolution took place in 1917, and there was a chance to establish a sovereign Latvian state.  Considering the fact that Latgale was a part of the Province of Vitebsk there was a real fear of Latgale becoming part of Russia rather than Latvia.  There were even poetic calls for unification of Latgale, the Latvian poet and leftist politician Rainis (Jānis Pliekšāns) wrote “The both sides of Daugava will be never part! One  Courland, One Semigallia, One Latgale is ours!” However at April 26 1917, in Rēzekne the Latgalian Second congress made an historical resolution claiming Latgale as different region than Vitebsk and associated themselves with Latvia. This paved the way for all four Latvian region unification in one country of Latvia.

At the time of the First Republic of Latvia, Latgalians were active politicians. They participated in all five parliamentary elections. There were plenty intellectual writers who justified Latgalians as an independent nation, but many approved either – one nation two languages, or one nation one language.  Prominent Latgalian politician Francis Trasuns wanted Latgalian dialect to become a juridical equal to Latvian language, while others hoped the language differences will disappear. There were 20 political Latgalian movements, not just national but religious, farmer, and even socialistic.

After the Soviet Occupation all national movements were considered as enemies of the state. Despite that Latgalian dialect perceived.  Today the Latgalian national movement is once again alive. There is not a large influx of Latgalian parties but there is Latgalian music bands and folk bands and even Hollywood movies translated in Latgalian.

At the end I must say that we could not clearly depict Latgalians as a different nation which is not an integral part of the Latvian nation. The two most visible differences are Catholic Conversion and Latgalian dialect. We however can compare Latgalians to Ukrainians as they got different  Slavic language but close to Russian, but the Latgalians newer completely ideologically separated themselves from Latvians or Latvia as Ukrainians did. So the most correct way to perceive Latgalians is describe them as Latvians with different dialect and cultural differences.

Since last year few Russian nationalist groups sponsored by the Kremlin have made calls for Latgalian autonomy. These people are mostly Slavic origin and have no connection with original Latvian Latgalian activists and personalities. Their supporters are Russians, Byelorussians and Poles of Latgalia who live there. In such way they are ignoring that Latgalia is a historical Latvian region and all the other minorities who entered there have no right to abuse the ideas of Latgalian autonomy, for their political means. It has been reported that people striving for such fake autonomy is supported by the Russian foreign intelligence service. Therefore such actions are hostile to the Latvian state. So we must remember that Latgalia and Latgalians are integral part of the Latvian nation.

Selected Sources:

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

Zeile,Pēteris. (2006) Latgales kultūras vēsture : no akmens laikmeta līdz mūsdienām. Rēzekne: Latgales Kultūras centra izdevniecība.

Bleiere, Daina, Butulis, Ilgvars, Stranga, Aivars, Feldmanis, Inesis and Zunda, Antonijs. (2006) History of Latvia : the 20th century. Riga: Jumava

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