“This is a legend about the creation of Vilnius, and everybody who lives in Vilnius knows it. I think we even studied it at school. So the story goes that the grand duke, Duke Gediminas, who lived in the beginning of the fourteenth century, was hunting. At that time, the capital of Lithuania was in a city called Trakai, which is not far from Vilnius, it’s still there. So, the capital was there, and in the place where Vilnius stands was wilderness, and he was hunting there. And the hunt ran late, so he fell asleep. And when he slept, he had a dream. In this dream, he saw a wolf; he hunted wolves, so it’s natural that he would dream about wolves. The wolf was out of iron, and the wolf was howling. An iron wolf howled in his dream. When he woke up, he asked the main priest, ‘What does it mean?’ And the priest said, ‘If you will build a city on this hill, the city will be very strong and unconquerable.’ And that’s how he decided to build a new capital called Vilnius in these hills. And his castle was built on this hill, and when I was growing up in Vilnius in the 1960s and 70s, there were ruins, and there was only one guard tower left untouched. The rest of it was ruins, and there was a museum there. And that’s what you see usually in pictures of Vilnius, this tower.
“Gediminas builds his city, and in 1325, he sent a letter to the main cities in Western Europe, like Germany. This letter said, ‘I built a new city and I invite city-folk, artisans in particular, to come and live there.’ That’s because Lithuania is a small nation, and most of them were either peasants or they were in the army. So he didn’t have much of city population. So, he invited people from Western Europe, or Eastern Europe, to come and live in his new city, and that letter is preserved, and that’s how we know, and 1325 is considered to be the birthday of Vilnius.”
Q. Did he write down his dream?
A. I don’t think so. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know how we know about his dream. I presume that, perhaps, somebody wrote it, but I don’t know. But everybody who is educated and grows up there knows this legend. And I have no idea, maybe he didn’t have a dream, maybe the legend appeared later to give Vilnius more significance, I simply do not know, it’s a legend.
Q. Is Gediminas considered to be one of the most important people in Lithuanian history?
A. Gediminas is definitely considered the most important Grand Duke of Lithuania, and he was killed in battle, by Germans, because German crusaders tried to conquer Lithuania. They didn’t succeed, but lots of Lithuanian grand dukes died in battles with Germans, and he was one of them.
Q. Is this legend meaningful or powerful for you personally?
A. Yes. It makes me feel proud that I am from Vilnius and there is a story associated, it makes me feel extremely good. It’s like part of my identity; I came from a place which is important, which has history. And we all know that it’s like in Rome—remember Rome, also, is associated with a wolf. And I think it’s important because Lithuanians are a small nation and they always were trapped between large nations. You have Russians from the east, you have Poles and you have Germans in the west, and so, I think they always tried to keep their identity.
Q. Do you remember when you first heard this?
A. No, I just grew up with it.
Q. When would this story be told?
A. I don’t know. I just know it. I don’t remember—maybe it was told to me at school.
Q. What do you think it says about Lithuanian culture or values?
A. Lithuanians are a very proud people, and it’s very important for them to keep their heritage, so that’s why we know these stories, because it’s very important to them. It’s very important to them that Lithuania was once between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea—it’s a very tiny nation but had territory from one sea to another sea, a huge territory. They’re very, very proud of that.
Q. Did Lithuanians really resent Soviet rule?
A. They did resent Soviet rule. Before that, they were free for about twenty years—between 1920 and 1939—but before that, they were part of Tsarist Russia, as well. They had two rebellions against Tsarist Russia, which were very cruelly put down. They always were strong nationalists, very proud of their heritage, and wanting to have a separate state.
Analysis: This romantically-nationalistic legend has become a central aspect of Lithuanian identity; it unifies all Lithuanians by forming part of their common, national heritage. Interestingly, while throughout Europe, many stories that serve this same romantically-nationalistic function are the lore of peasantry, this particular legend is rooted in the story of a historical duke, who has been become a folklorized figure through the retelling of this tale.