by Elena Trečiokaitė
A Capstone Project
Presented to LCC International University in Partial
Fulfilment of the Requirements
for the B.A. Degree
To Lithuanian Loki, who lured me into the world of Norse mythology and helped not to lose my head there
This paper compares two mythological models of the world – Scandinavian and Lithuanian. Both traditions usually depict the structure of the world as a tree with the roots representing the Underworld, the trunk – the world of men, and the branches – the realm of the gods. Both models of the world contain not only similar structure, but smaller details as well, such as the functions of the gods, mythological creatures or symbols. Knowing that both Lithuanian and Scandinavian cultures are close geographically and also have the same roots, perhaps we can assume that both mythologies are telling the same story, only differently.
Although cultures can differ greatly in their traditions, finding similarities in the various myths and traditions of cultures suggests their proximity, which makes it particularly interesting to examine and compare different cultures and their attitudes toward various aspects of life. This is especially relevant if one of those cultures is a person’s native culture, because this enables one to look at it from a different angle.
In the modern world, the belief that, for example, thunder is caused by the Thunder god riding across the sky in his chariot, might be regarded as an outdated superstition and even laughed at. However, if one were to take this notion as a symbol, it could beautifully enrich one’s view on life and at the same time not contradict established scientific facts. Finding parallel ideas and images in foreign cultures (especially ones that are distant from each other) suggest that there might be a common “mythological language”, which enables cultures to better understand each other. Also the fact that different cultures come to similar conclusions regarding cosmology implies in a way that a certain view could be true, therefore allowing a person to feel more secure with their worldview.
The two cultures examined in this paper are the Balts and Scandinavians. According to anthropological data, Česnys & Butrimas (2009) suggest “an ancient interchange between gene pools on the West and East coasts of the Baltic Sea” (p. 7), which allows us to draw the conclusion that these two cultures have at least partially common ancestors. Due to vast amounts of topics and details in Baltic mythology this research will be narrowed down to the sources of Lithuanian mythology, while the information about Scandinavian (or Norse) mythology will be based on the one common to Sweden and Norway (Finland, although theoretically regarded as a Scandinavian country, has a different mythology). Norse mythology is written down as the Poetic Edda, which contains stories about their gods, various creatures, and events that have shaped the world in one way or the other. Meanwhile, Lithuanians do not have such a written mythology, and all the information about Lithuanian mythology that is known today is based on archeological findings, chronicles from other countries, folk songs (they have remained closest to their archaic form), and tales and myths that were passed through generations by oral tradition, although they obviously changed, especially after the Christianization of Lithuania. Nevertheless, due to the great contributions of researchers like Norbertas Vėlius, Gintaras Beresnevičius and Marija Gimbutienė (in some cases – Marija Gimbutas), we are able to see the picture of the ancient Lithuanian worldview through the myth much more clearly.
The aspects of mythology by which cultures can be compared and contrasted are also various, therefore this paper will concentrate only on the model of the world, represented by the image of a tree, because the world is the base on which various mythological events happen. The concept of the World tree (also sometimes known as the tree of life) is familiar to many cultures all around the world. Usually it is based on the notion of the three spheres of the world – the heavens (realm of the gods), our world, and the underworld (land of the dead).
The symbolism of the World tree in Lithuanian culture can be seen in artistic ornaments, folk songs and glees, mythological and etiological tales and other folklore, such as riddles. According to Vėlius (1983), the model of the world could take not only the appearance of a tree, but also things that are made from it, for example a house (perhaps this could be interpreted in a way that a house’s foundation, like a tree’s roots, are under the ground, the walls are in the middle and people live there, and the roof is near the sky, with the attic often being a mysterious place full of old things and perhaps mythological inhabitants). Another symbol for the model of the world can be a ship (also, like a house, connecting three spheres – the underwater, very often regarded as a different world, the deck, where people walk, and the sails in the sky). A more unexpected symbol could be a bridge (representing a connection between this and the other world, as usually it goes over the water), or even an armchair. These objects appear in the same situation as the World tree: on a hill, near water. (p. 184) Also, the tree sometimes can be imagined as a deer, due to the similarity between the branches and the horns. The hill and the water are important, because, according to various mythologies of the world, the World tree appears on the very first spot of land that rose out of the waters of chaos (Beresnevičius, 2004, p. 212).
The World tree Yggdrasil in Scandinavian mythology seems to be fuller and more complex, because it consists of nine worlds. However, the works on Scandinavian mythology often emphasize three or four of them. Wagner (1884) suggests that the three worlds that Yggdrasil’s three roots connect with would be Hel (realm of the dead, all those who have not died in a battle), Midgard (the human world) and Jotunheim (the world of the Frost giants) (p. 26), while other authors offer Asgard (realm of gods), the world of the Frost giants and the world of the dead (also, depending on the source, called Niflheim) (Pigott, 1839, p. 216; Munch, 1926, p. 6). Du Chaillu (n. d.) provides both versions in which the worlds are the main three. He quotes Grimnismol, where the realm of the dead, the world of the Frost giants, and Midgard are clearly mentioned (p. 31), although right after that he quotes from the Younger Edda, which suggests that the three worlds were the realm of the gods, the land of men, and the world of the Frost giants (p. 32). Wagner’s view and what can be found in the Grimnismol suggest that Asgard then is somewhere beyond all other worlds (perhaps above?), while the views of the other researchers on the subject imply that the human world is somewhere other than the world of the gods, giants, and the dead. This does makes sense to modern logic, since what is seen now is exactly reality, the human world, while mythology and religious stories are usually imagined as happening somewhere “beyond”. A quite unexpected point of view could be that the human world and the world of the gods are one and the same. Du Chaillu (n. d.) later distinguishes between Midgard and Mannheim. He notes that Asgard was built “in the centre of Midgard” (p. 44), while “within the walls of Midgard, which encircled Asgard, was Mannheim” (or the home of men) (p. 45). This could end the confusion in trying to distinguish the three main worlds. But we should also note that a view such as Du Chaillu’s can be linked to the perception of the World Tree not as a vertical object, but as a horizontal one (this is discussed in greater detail further in the paper).
Of course it could also be that the Lithuanian image of the World tree also had more aspects which simply did not reach present times due to natural changes which appeared via the oral tradition. This idea can be supported by the lyrics of Lithuanian folk songs, which are considered a reliable and valuable source of Lithuanian mythological symbols and images. A rather common element in these sorts of lyrics is a tree with nine branches (similar to the Scandinavian nine worlds) as in the following example:
Oi ir išdygo
Su devyniom šakelėm (2x)
(quoted in Laurinkienė, 1990, p. 59)
Oh has grown
A green linden
With nine branches (2x)
Lithuanian folk songs also include an image of a tree with three trunks, such as the following:
O už jūružėlių,
O už maružėlių
Aug žalias ąžuolėlis
Su trimis liemenėliais. (2x)
(quoted in Laurinkienė, 1990, p. 57)
Oh beyond the high seas,
Oh beyond the seas
There grows a green oak
With three trunks. (2x)
Meanwhile, as discussed previously in regards to the Norse World tree, Scandinavian myths talk about the three roots of the ash Yggdrasil and those three roots connect with the three worlds that are mentioned in the Grimnismol (n. d.) -- the realm of the dead, the world of the Frost giants and the land of men (c. 31). Having found the basic similarities between the form of the World three in Scandinavian and Lithuanian mythology we move on to examining its separate parts.
The roots of a tree being under the ground were often regarded as a different world full of unseen chthonic beast—no place for living, breathing creatures. Furthermore, if the dead are buried there, no wonder the underground quickly becomes the underworld, the land of the deceased.
Probably the most well known myth in Lithuania relating to the Underworld, and also one of the very few that survived to this day, is the myth about Sovijus, the guide of the souls. The story tells about a mortal man, who hunted a wild boar, took out nine spleens and gave them to his sons to roast. However, the sons not only roasted them but also ate everything. Sovijus became angry with them and tried to reach the Underworld. He tried unsuccessfully to go to the Underworld through eight different gates, but with the help of his youngest son he finally managed to get through the ninth. Because of that the other brothers became angry at their youngest brother and so the youngest brother promised to go back and find their father. When he did, the two of them had supper and then the youngest son made a bed for his father in the ground. In the morning he asked how the father slept and the father complained about being eaten by warms and slugs. The second night when the son prepared a bed for his father in a tree, the father later complained that he was bitten by bees and mosquitoes. The third night the son prepared a bed in a fire and, according to the father, he slept like a baby. (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 73) According to researches, this myth explains the three ways of burial in Lithuania and concludes that the best way to reach the Underworld is through fire. However, according to Christian chronicles this was a “satanic fallacy” and the way for pagans to sacrifice their dead to the “evil gods;” this is why the Lithuanian word “Pragaras,” which literally means “Hell,” was used to describe the place where Sovijus was going (p. 74).
A lot of images of the Underworld can also be found in fairy tales, and although many of them have woven together with the Christian tradition, archaic forms are still visible. As in many myths, the Underworld is described as dark and degraded (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 85). The ruler of this world, Velnias (or Vėlinas, with the same root as in a word “vėlė”, which means “spirit”), was demonized in the Christian context, and now his name has a direct meaning of “devil.” Sometimes he is portrayed as riding in a chariot with horses that are actually souls of malicious lords. The fact is that such an image is already Christianized, and although in later pagan beliefs metempsychosis was abandoned, in the early tradition reincarnation into animals or plants was an ordinary matter. Moreover, even if now an image of Velnias boiling bad people in cauldrons is quite prevalent, in the old tradition he was simply said to be guarding the living from the dead (so that they wouldn’t go back) and even rewarding those who were good in their lives (p. 90). A common motif in Lithuanian fairy tales concerning going to the Underworld is that a honest, humble and good person who gets there by accident (while still alive) is rewarded and safely guided back to the living world, while somebody who is greedy and goes to the Underworld only with the idea to get rewarded is beaten and often even killed (Beresnevičius, 2004, p. 205).
The ruler of the Norse Underworld is Hel, daughter of Loki and the queen of the dead. She is described as a hideous and cruel creature, half blue-skinned, half normal (Munch, 1926, p.38), who rules and looks after all who have not died in battle (the latter go to Valhalla, which is discussed further on in this paper). The world she dwells in is dark, gloomy and is also called Hel (sometimes Helheim, Niflheim or Niflhel, with the root “nifl” referring to “mist” and “darkness” (MacCulloch, 1930, p. 304)), although in other sources (such as in the Younger Edda) the realm of the dead is described as “decked with gold”, where “the dead ate and drank mead” (as cited in MacCulloch, 1930, p. 304). The same source suggests that perhaps Hel was only the place where old dead dwell, as the warriors, women, maidens and the drowned go to different places (p. 305). Du Chaillu (n. d.) distinguished between Hel and Niflhel and suggested that after going to Hel the wicked die again and then go to Niflhel (p. 35), while Munch (1926) states that according to general belief Hel is the place solely for the wicked (p. 38).
Scandinavian Queen of the Dead is also similar to Lithuanian Giltinė (now usually directly translated as the Reaper). She is not mentioned among one of the four main Lithuanian gods, but the image is quite popular even today. The reason why she is worth of mentioning is her similarity to the Norse Queen of the Dead, while Velnias by his features is more similar to the Scandinavian Loki. If we had to assign to each god of one culture an equivalent from another culture, putting Velnias and Loki on one shelf would probably make more sense. Moreover, Hel and Giltinė both have an unpleasant appearance. Giltinė is often imagined as tall, skinny, hungry and with a long tongue, full of poison – no wonder the name itself is connected with Lithuanian words such like “gilti” or “gelti”, which mean “to sting” (Gimbutienė, 2002, p. 40). However, Giltinė is also said to be the sister of goddess Laima (among many spheres, the weaver of the life-thread) (p. 28) and the ability to (pre)determine a person’s life makes them both more similar to the Scandinavian Norns: the goddesses of fate (Munch, 1926, p. 30).
From both the descriptions of Norse and Lithuanian myth the conclusion can be drawn that overall the Underworld is not a pleasant place. References to gloom and darkness also recall Greek myths about the realm of Hades. A slight conflict between an image of an unpleasant place and a quite acceptable place to be can be seen in both Scandinavian and Lithuanian cultures’ worldviews. On the one hand, the Norse myth suggests that Hel is a gloomy place; on the other hand, majestic halls and feasts are described. The Lithuanian image of the Underworld is also dark, but this contradicts the fact that the Balts overall were inclined towards suicide and would choose death whenever a disaster descended (Beresnevičius, 2004, p. 106). Also, if a ruler dies, his friends regard it as an honor to be burned together with the deceased and would fight over the right to accompany him (p. 110) There was a belief too that the suicide’s ghost haunts the place where he took his life for as many years as were given for him to be in this world (p. 111). Of course, this surely was not applicable to the ritual suicides as in the ruler’s funeral; however, if the image of the Underworld is so unattractive overall, should not people be eager to hold on to their lives? The situation probably could be explained by the fact that at different times and in different situations a different attitude towards death was needed. During times of war death was a very real issue and people had to get used to the idea that they or their family members would not return from war. Moreover, able-bodied men were attracted to war not only because of the potential material reward, but also seeking honor in the afterlife. According to McCulloch (1930), the concept of Valhalla, the world where warriors go after they die in a battle (the details are discussed further on in the paper), has appeared only in the Viking Age, while according to an earlier belief all people went to the world of Hel (p. 306). Knowing that death is a natural part of life, which is not needed to be feared of, people have created an image of a similar (or even better) world to live in after they leave this one. However, if in times of distress those people start to prefer escaping to the other world before time, the whole society would fall. Therefore perhaps an image of an unpleasant world was introduced by the people themselves or perhaps even the priests, just in order to keep the living from retreating, with appropriate exceptions for warriors, the sick and other necessary situations.
According to both Norse and Lithuanian mythology one can get to the Underworld in two ways: horizontally or vertically. The former refers to travelling on a road and the latter to falling down through “levels” of the world.
The horizontal travelling to the Underworld in Lithuanian myth is relatively simple: one only has to go without knowing the exact direction (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 89). Although the hero of the tales that tell about people going to the Underworld is often a man, the stories of girls and young women being the heroines of similar travels are regarded as relics from the times of matriarchy and suggest that in those days women were the ones who would travel to the Underworld for some purpose (p. 105). An example of such could be a sister traveling to save her brothers from a curse cast by their stepmother as in the well-known tale “Dvylika brolių, juodvarniais lakstančių” [“Twelve brothers, twelve black ravens”], where the girl has to climb a high mountain and do various tasks (the image of a mountain will be discussed later). The Norsemen also imagined their way to Hel as a road – the Helveg. It is described as a “troublesome road” (McCulloch, 1930, p. 304), which partially relates to the tasks that a hero or a heroine in Lithuanian folk tales has to accomplish on the way to the Underworld. People traveling to the Scandinavian Underworld could ride horses, most likely because horses were buried with their owners (p. 305). Although Lithuanians also had a custom to bury the horse with the owner, they could go to the Underworld only on foot or ride in a chariot (never on the horse, although the horse does know the way there) (Beresnevičius, 1990, p.97). Hermod, one of the characters of the Norse mythology, rode to Hel in nine days (McCulloch, 1930, p. 304). The time required for travelling to the Underworld in Lithuanian mythology is not always specified, but Sovijus, the guide of the souls, tried eight gates and was able to pass only through the ninth.
Water and crossing the water plays an important role in both mythologies. It is the source of life and, according to many mythologies, the very first living creatures come from the water (Laurinkienė, 1990, p. 46). A motif of sinking, which is common to Lithuanian folk songs, does not mean dying, but passing to another level of being, for example, marriage (p. 48). One clear interpretive option here is that when a person reaches a new level of life, the older “self” dies in a sense, and passing through the water from which life came is a symbolical rebirth. Going to the Underworld is also a certain change, therefore tales about people going there often involve images of rivers and bridges in Lithuanian mythology (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 97), while Norse mythology provides a clear picture of Hermod riding to Hel and crossing the river Gjoll (McCulloch, 1930, p. 304). In Lithuanian tales, the hero is sometimes taken to the other side of the river by a ferryman, who can only cut himself free from this duty by finding somebody to do it for him. Beresnevičius (1990) suggests that this might refer to a belief that the last person buried in the cemetery is guarding the gate of it until a newly deceased person comes and succeeds him (p. 98). It could be that Scandinavians also have a similar belief, because the bridge going over the river Gjoll also has a guardian (McCulloch, 1930, p. 304).
The entrance to the Lithuanian Underworld, according to Beresnevičius (1990), is often described as a door to a hill (p. 90). Such a notion might have formed as people saw caves and perhaps regarded going into them, just as if going under the ground. This connects with MacCulloch’s (1930) provided data about an early belief in Scandinavia that the dead live in their barrows, which visually resemble small hills (p. 306). Perhaps Lithuanians also had a similar view, because barrows can be found here as well. At the entrance appears a guardian. In the Lithuanian underground one can sometimes find a dragon (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 98), while Scandinavian Hel is always guarded by enormous dog Garm (who, like the queen of the dead is also Loki’s offspring) (MacCulloch, 1930, p. 303). Although the difference between a dragon and a dog is obvious, Scandinavian myth also mentions Jormungandur, the great serpent that circles Midgard and is so huge that it has “to lie with its tail in its jowl” (Pigott, 1839, p. 79) and, of course, the Nidhogg, who constantly gnaws on the root of the World tree with other worms and serpents (Munch, 1926, p. 6). The function of the Lithuanian dragon of the Underworld is unspecified; however, a serpent’s ability to renew itself was noticed in Lithuanian culture overall, which might at least slightly connect with Jormungandur’s pose forming a circle that signifies a constant change, yet coming back to the same point, a life cycle. Finally, in both Lithuanian and Norse myth a traveler to the Underworld usually finds a manor (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 98) or a “high house” (as cited in MacCulloch, 1930, p. 304), both of which might have parallels with the image of a mountain/hill and the barrows, as they symbolically became the new home of the deceased.
The notion of vertical travelling to the Underworld in Lithuanian mythology refers to falling through a well (again, a symbolical passing through water) or a suddenly opened hole in a grave (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 88). Nordic myth has a story of a king that was taken to the Underworld through the floor (McCulloch, 1930, p. 320). The Underworld in this tale, however, differs from the gloomy Hel, because the land the king sees is green and sunny. It could be that this image connects to the version Hel with golden halls as mentioned above, or simply (and probably more likely) that the myth among the Danes have been shaped differently than in Sweden and Norway. Nevertheless, such a story does connect with Lithuanian fairy tales where an orphan girl, fallen down the well, finds herself in a strange, verdant land.
Despite of the grim picture of Hel as the Scandinavian queen of the dead, according to some opinions, this image appeared later. Before that Hel was “the earth-mother who watches over life and growth” (Wagner, 1884, p. 11). This is important because the most ancient Lithuanian tradition also mentions the Mother of the Dead, also understood as Earth, who gives life for everything and in the end takes it all back into her motherly embrace (Gimbutienė, 2002, p. 69-70). In this way the life cycle goes on without end. Because both goddesses are female, this suggests that the image of such a Mother of the Dead reaches back to the times of matriarchy and only later both myths, in a way more primitive-looking, were enweaved with other details.
The image of the Baltic “middle lands” seems to be quite simple – it is the realm of the humans, our world. Norse Midgard is more confusing: it is tightly connected with the realm of the gods – Asgard – and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish whether they are two separate worlds or one world. Also, knowing that one of the worlds connecting with the three roots of Yggdrasil is the world of the Frost-giants, a problem arises as this world at first glance is not connected with either spheres of the Scandinavian World Tree that are similar to the ones of the Lithuanian World Tree, that is the Underworld, the world of men and the realm of the gods.
The world where the Frost-giants dwell – Jotunheim or Utgard – is said to be in the North, “outside the limits of earth and sea, assigned to them by the gods” and separated from them by a never-freezing river (MacCulloch, 1930, p. 276). Although the gods and the giants are hostile towards each other, this doesn’t prevent the gods from marrying giantesses and the giants seeking for goddesses (p. 278). Regarding their hostility, there are several hypotheses, all of which seem to be logical, though some of them perhaps more so than others. The first of these hypotheses suggests that the giants were the earlier race of men, “with stone weapons, opposed to the more cultured race which uses the plough” (p. 281). This does relate to their savageness and hostility towards the human race, but does not explain the belief in them overall. Another theory suggested by the same author is that the giants were the earlier gods (mainly personified forces of the nature) later superseded by the Aesir (the race of the current gods); however there is no trace of such a cult (p. 282), although Wagner (1884) also thinks that they were worshipped (p 43). Munch (1926) even notes that they hated sanctuaries for the new gods, and when Christian culture came they fought the new deities and saints as well (p. 39). The view on giants as the forces of nature forming the landscape is probably the key concept connecting the giants to the human world and the Lithuanian World tree as well.
According to Greimas (1990), there is no doubt that according to the mythology the earth was inhabited by the giants. He also explains that the gods of the Lithuanian pantheon were earlier regarded as giants and even had their own higher god (p. 222). Vėlius (1983), meanwhile, compares a giant with the World tree itself: according to one legend, a giant is laying on a hill and a wolf is gnawing his legs, which is very similar to the image of the serpent Nidhogg gnawing Yggdrasil’s roots (p. 211). As for the giants being personified forces of nature, many Lithuanian tales mention giants as the ones who brought sand or spilled it by accident and in this way formed various hills. The most well known of them is probably the legend about the giantess Neringa, who, wanting to protect her beloved fishermen from the raging Baltic sea, built the Curonian Spit by bringing sand in her apron.
Similar stories about giants carrying rocks can be found in Scandinavian mythology as well. The world itself is said to be created by the Aesir from a dead giant (one more cause for hostility between the giants and the gods): the earth of his body, the sea of his sweat, the hills of his bones, the trees of his hair, the sky of his skull, the clouds of his brain and the Midgard of his eyebrows (Wagner, 1884, p. 24).
Having reviewed the relationship between the giants, the gods and the humans, we can see that the giants (especially in Norse mythology) are somewhat connected both to the gods and the humans after all. However, being creatures of the past (before the creation of the world and even before the gods themselves), they do not fit into the newest picture of the World Tree with Hel for the dead, Manheim for the living and Asgard with Valhalla for the gods and dead warriors. With this in mind, we move on to the discussion of the trunk of the World Tree, that is, the world of men.
Similarly to the world of the dead, the world of the living in Lithuanian mythology can be symbolized by a hill or a mountain: in the old mythologies it is imagined in the centre of the world and connects the Underworld and the Heavens (Beresnevičius, 2004, p. 200). Knowing this we again have a picture of the structure of the world. As it was mentioned earlier, the entrance to the Underworld can be a door to a hill, which means it would lead under it. The hill itself is then the world the people live on, while the top of it is the realm of the gods (see below for further details). Lithuanian mounds, where the castles stood, also had a special meaning: they were political and religious centers (p. 209) According to Vėlius (1983), any sacred tree under which rituals were performed was regarded as the World tree, symbolically putting the ritual performed at the centre of the world (p. 182). Perhaps the mound as the centre could be regarded in a similar way: because the hill as a symbol is equivalent to the tree, then what is happening on the hill could also be symbolically perceived as happening in the centre of the world. Knowing this and the fact that the gods then would be dwelling on the top of the hill, we can assume that the symbolical living in the centre of the world automatically puts the people symbolically closer to the gods, which is then similar to the Scandinavian image of Asgard being a fortress in the Midgard (which suggests that then the gods and the humans basically live in the same world).
Scandinavian Midgard is said to be circled by a sea, which is “all round it like a snake” (Wagner, 1884, p. 47). In it lives the serpent Jormungandur, which is so big that it is “able to encompass the earth and to bite his own tail” (Munch, 1926, p. 22). Munch here directly quotes the Poetic Edda, while Wagner, as it seems, allows himself to add an interpretation also suggested by Magnussen, which is that the serpent is actually a symbol of the sea (as cited in Piggott, 1839, p. 79). Water is also an inseparable part of the image of the Lithuanian World tree, although the Scandinavian view seems to be a more practical one: when the people did not know that the world is round, and beyond the lands that they discovered they saw only water, they naturally thought that their world is encircled by the sea. In Lithuanian mythology the water surrounds the spot of land/hill where the World tree itself grows (such motif can be often found in Lithuanian folk songs as well (Laurinkienė, 1990, p. 63)), which makes it larger in a sense, than just the sea circling one sphere. On the other hand, the human world is the only one from the three spheres that is actually visible. The roots, or the Underworld, are hidden under the ground, while the branches – the realm of the gods – are high above. If we imagine a picture of an island on which a tree grows, the visually closest part of the tree to the water is the trunk, that is, the lands of the humans. Therefore, perhaps, in a way it is possible to argue that the Lithuanian mythological human world also has a sea surrounding it, a similar one to the image of the one surrounding the Norse Midgard.
Of course, both Scandinavian and Lithuanian mythology have various mythological creatures and small deities that often interact with humans in positive or negative ways; however there are so many of them that it would require an entirely different, separate research to examine them all, therefore this theme will not be further expanded in this paper.
The third and the highest part of any tree and the World tree as well are its branches. Since the roots are the realm of the dead and the trunk is the land of men, it logically follows that the branches should be the home of the gods. However, by examining the Heavens in both Lithuanian and Scandinavian mythology one quickly notices that they inhabit not only the gods, but also the dead.
It appears that at some point in the history of these myths the world that is beyond ours shifted from being under the ground to being above it, in this way leaving pieces of myth about the same idea related with both spheres. In the Scandinavian case MacCulloch (1930) suggests that Odin, once being regarded as “the father of the slain”, was the god of the dead and when Scandinavians began to believe that he dwells in the sky, the ones connected with him (the warriors who were killed in a battle) also moved there (p. 315). Meanwhile, one of the symbols showing a similar situation in Lithuanian mythology is Velnias (the ruler of the Lithuanian Underworld) carrying a soul to the sky (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 118). Although it is pointed out that he carries the soul not to the Heavens (“dangus” in Lithuanian), but to some place under the Heavens (the Lithuanian word used is “padangė”). Another detail showing the sky as the realm of the dead can be found in Lithuanian folk songs, providing the image of the World tree, such as this:
Ant kalnelio jovaras žydėjo,
Slaunasai žolyne, rugeli,
Pašaknėlėj dūzgiančios bitelės,
Ant šakelių skambantys kankleliai,...
Viršūnėlėj sakalo vaikeliai,...
(quoted in Laurinkienė, 1990, p. 57)
On a hill a sycamore bloomed,
Slender lea, rye,
Under the roots buzzing bees,
On the branches ringing kanklės,...
At the top falcon‘s children,...
The buzzing bees under the roots represent the spirits of the dead, the ringing kanklės (local folk instrument) in the middle represent the world of the living (although in other similar songs it is vice versa with the bees being in the middle), while birds at the top are also connected with the Heavens. According to Beresnevičius (2004), ancient Lithuanians believed that a soul travels to the world of the dead in a form of a fast-moving creature, such as a bird, a bee or even a mouse (p. 275).
It appears that in the Lithuanian case the whole world of the dead moved to the sky, whereas the Scandinavian one only partially moved. Of course, we also have the Christianized image, where the souls of the good people go to the Heavens and the bad ones go to the Hell in the Underworld. The latter could probably also connect with the image of Velnias carrying a soul to a place under the Heavens, but not to the Heavens.
The home of the gods in Scandinavian mythology is the well-known Asgard, which, as discussed previously, is difficult to locate. According to Wagner (1884) it is a kingdom situated above Midgard (p. 47), which leaves the impression of it “hanging” above the world of men, although it is still considered to be in the “dimension” of Midgard. The kingdom of the gods connects with Earth via the bridge Bifrost (or the Rainbow) and contains twelve splendid palaces/halls for twelve deities ruling with Odin and who gather every day in Gladsheim to a council (Munch, 1926, p. 5). This council is also described as happening at the ash Yggdrasil, the World tree (p. 6) and a symbolical centre of the world. This shows the importance of this council, because this is where all the events that will happen are discussed. Another significant object in Asgard is Hlidskjalf, an elevated place from which Odin sees what is happening in the world (Pigott, 1839, p. 63). Finally, in the Asgard there is the famous Valhalla, the place where the dead warriors, chosen and brought there by Valkyries, feast and fight. The hall itself is said to be decorated with weapons, armor and figures of wolves and eagles, and the warriors, feasting on boar and mead, are said to be Odin’s “adopted sons” (MacCulloch, 1930, p. 313). Valhalla also connects with hills (even to the extent that some hills in Scandinavia have this name), as it is “an extension of the Underworld or of an abode of warriors within a hill” (p. 315). The connection with hills suggests a similarity between the Norse Valhalla and the Lithuanian Heavens.
As previously mentioned, the Lithuanian World tree can be represented by a hill as well, with the top of it being the realm of the gods. We also have already discussed that the world of the dead moved to the heavens, therefore we can regard the top of the World tree and also the top of the hill as the realm of the dead as well. Differently from the situation with the world of the dead in the Underworld, where the person has to travel without knowing the direction or descend down into the Underworld, this time the person has to climb a mountain, knowing that at the top of it the deity will wait (Beresnevičius, 2004, p. 209). Sometimes the mountain is described as having been made of glass. The belief of one needing to climb a mountain can be supported by archeological findings of lynx’s or bear’s claws put into graves (especially into the ones of important people, like dukes): such “instruments” were supposed to help the deceased to climb the mountain (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 133). Also there are records that people in Lithuania used to burn their cut nails, while older people, especially those who were ill and felt that their death might be near, used to not cut their nails at all (p. 134).
Various tales and songs of Lithuanian culture describe the Heavens as a “father’s manor” surrounded by never ending gardens, where there is no winter and the traveler meets the ones that have already died young and happy (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 150). There are references to an apple tree with wonderful apples that make the ones eating those apples young (p. 51). Although this image seems to be influenced by biblical motifs, Scandinavian mythology has something similar as well: the Poetic Edda mentions goddess Idun’s apples, thanks to which the inhabitants of Asgard are always young and strong (Munch, 1926, p. 29). Another point of connection to the Norse Asgard is the place in the Heavens where the god can observe the whole world (Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 158). It is difficult to determine how Christianized this image is; however, Lithuanian mythology also has an image of Praamžis – the main god of all gods – who, at least in this situation, could be compared to Odin observing the world from Hlidskjalf.
Similarly to Scandinavian gods gathering at the ash Yggdrasil to discuss important matters, according to Dundulienė (2008) Lithuanian gods also used to like to gather under an ash tree (p. 25). Perhaps this belief is one of the reasons why Lithuanians regarded trees and groves as holy. Contrary to the wide-spread belief, the Balts did not used to worship them, but the groves and the woods were regarded as sanctuaries, as the places for people to come to communicate with gods (Beresnevičius, 2004, p. 221). We can again remember the idea suggested by Vėlius (1983) that the ritual happening under a tree was regarded as happening under the World tree, therefore, at the centre of the world (p. 182). Of course, there are notions of the gods dwelling in trees (p. 127); however, now knowing more about Lithuanian mythology, before making quick judgments, we should ask ourselves, what does the notion of the gods dwelling in trees actually mean.
Beresnevičius (1990) mentions that at the gate of the Heavens are guards: Auštra, who lights the way for the ones entering Heavens, and Vėjas, who blows back those who are not worthy of coming in (p. 140). Auštra is mentioned as the brother of goddess Aušrinė (equivalent to Venus, literally meaning “Morning Star”, therefore, connected with light), while Vėjas even now can be directly translated as “wind”. Other creatures guarding the entrance to the Heavens are dogs (Dundulienė (2008) who that they are winged, which recalls the goddess Žvorūna, who is also the goddess of forests and beasts (p. 53)). Yet Beresnevičius (1990) notes that they have “chthonic origins” and probably used to guard the realm of the dead in the Underworld (p. 141), which is similar to the Scandinavian Garm guarding the realm of Hel (MacCulloch, 1930, p. 303). Valhalla’s doors are said to be guarded by Syn (translated as “Denial”), who shuts the door for those who are not worthy of entering (Du Chaillu, n. d. p. 48; MacCulloch, 1930, p. 186).
Beresnevičius (1990) notes that in various forms of Lithuanian folklore “benches of souls” are mentioned. He guesses that perhaps different benches were meant for different people, because in one lament there is a description of two different benches for maidens and for women (Giedrienė, as cited in Beresnevičius, 1990, p. 144). As was mentioned at the beginning of this paper, some sources on Scandinavian mythology also suggest the idea that people of different social statuses go to different worlds of the dead (MacCulloch, 1930, p. 305).
We can interpret these various myths and apply them to our world. For example, the giant snake Jormungandur may be understood as a symbol of the sea, which, as the people imagined, circles the lands where they live. Or the gods might be seen as certain forces of the Nature. Meanwhile, some suggest looking at myth as historical facts, which later were blended with surreal details.
Du Chaillu (n. d.) suggests that the names of the races mentioned in the Poetic Edda, such like the ones to describe the world of the giants, could have come from the names of real tribes that lived around Scandinavian lands (p. 28). Based on the Later Edda, he also suggests that Odin might originally have been a man, who created a new religion and eventually had followers. These followers, together with him, in order to protect themselves from enemies have built walls around their country (Midgard) with a castle to live in the centre of it – Asgard (p. 44). The castle, according to the Later Edda, is also called Troja (or Troy) (p. 45). According to MacCulloch (1930), Asgard is compared with Troy because the author of the Later Edda – Snorri – wanted to connect Scandinavian gods with the Greek ones (p. 329).
According to Vėlius (1983), the whole Baltic culture is structured according to the image of the World tree. He noticed that in the Western area the god of the Underworld seems to be more important, in the middle – the gods of the earth, while in the East – the gods of the Heavens. Also, that the folklore of different areas contains plants and animals that could be associated with the certain sphere of the three respectively (p. 198). The researcher also found a similar scheme in the Scandinavian mythology, just the Underworld there is represented not by the West, as in Baltic mythology, but by the North (p. 214). A consistent pattern, according to him, can be found in other world mythologies too.
Stelmokas (2004) states that contemporary science regards myth as a naïve attempt of our forefathers to understand the world around them and has recently taken the myth’s place (p. 1). However, according to him, although we are familiar with the fact that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, we still use such phrases as “the sun rises”, and naturally regard our own world as the center, despite the well-known fact that it is just a small dot among others on the star-chart (p. 6). A similar attitude, perhaps, could be applied to other mythological images as well. For example, why would we look suspiciously at the one who, after hearing thunder, says that it is the Thunder god riding in his chariot in the sky? Myth does not need to contradict science - it merely makes the fact look richer and more poetic. Layering myth onto the facts can be compared to adding flesh to bones.
Regarding the scientific facts, what do we really know? Perhaps the facts of today will be tomorrow’s superstitions. While the myth travels in time and through symbols talks about the world, we only need to understand what those symbols mean. According to Lithuanian philosopher Vydūnas, it is a mistake to regard the ancient nations as primitive and naïve – they have understood various phenomena of life better than we do. Perhaps they do not know better “how” the world developed, but their answers for “why” may well surpass ours today.
It is well known that mythologies of the world share similar details and universal symbols, and the two – Scandinavian and Lithuanian – compared and discussed in this paper are only little branches of the whole tree. As we can see from the comparison of the Norse and Lithuanian mythologies, both cultures are close not only geographically and genetically, but also culturally. Not only the World trees are similar, but other details, such as the gods, mythological creatures or symbols, have similar functions and can be interpreted in analogous ways. This suggests that although these two cultures are different, the universalities in their mythologies can help to understand each other’s viewpoints on that matter, which might bring a sense unity between the people of these cultures.
By comparing how two cultures regarded the same things (in this case, the World tree) we can try at least partially to understand not only the differences and similarities between the two outlooks, but also to get an approximate unified picture of the main idea of how these cultures perceived the world around them. Analogous studies could be done comparing any two or more cultures of the world (or pieces of mythology, such like comparison of pantheons, which were almost not mentioned here due to the considerable amount of information). Lithuanian and Scandinavian mythologies in this paper were picked due to convenience, but especially an intellectual and emotional investment in personal identity: my ethnic background is Lithuanian and, therefore, the historical Lithuanian identity, as related to its neighboring cultures, in this case the Scandinavian influence, hold particular interest for me.
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