Tag Archives: lithuania

Užgavėnės

Main Text

GD: “Užgavėnės is a Lithuanian holiday, um, that’s translated to ‘The Before Lent.’ So, it takes place, um, right before the Lenten season, the weekend right before that, and what it is culturally is, um. It’s a festival in which we scare away the winter pretty much, and welcome the spring. Um, it’s been compared to, like, Mardi Gras and you’ll see as I talk more about it you’ll be able to connect that a little bit more, but um. The entire festival is just Lithuanian people getting together, making really scary masks and decorating them and going really big with these costumes and these like huge masks that they’ll wear, um, to scare away the winter. There is a structure that we construct that is usually a representation of winter, like taking place in like the form of a man or something or like a stick figure, uh, just this really large totem that we burn ultimately to just say ‘To the end with winter, here comes spring.’ And in the same light there is a little staged playing of a man and another man dueling pretty much, and one guy represents winter with the other guy represents the spring, and always the spring will overcome that and win against the winter.”

Background

GD is a 19 year old Lithuanian-American second year student at USC studying Theatre and Classics. Her mother was born in Lithuania and moved to a Lithuanian community in New Jersey, where GD attended Lithuanian school and church. GD describes Užgavėnės as her favorite holiday growing up, attending it not only in America but also in Lithuania. She remembers waking up before dawn in order to peel potatoes in order to make pancakes specifically for the festival. GD believes Užgavėnės to be so important not only to her but also to her culture because it was one of the few pagan holidays that survived Christianization in Lithuania.

Context

GD describes Užgavėnės as one of the more important holidays in the Lithuanian calendar with it originally being celebrated on the last day of winter before Christianization. It has been hastily Christianized and is now celebrated on the weekend immediately preceding Lent, but the traditions and meaning of the festival remain. GD describes Užgavėnės as being full of food like bagels and pancakes, and performers playing music as people dance.

Interviewer Analysis

Many traditional folk festivals and celebrations have been slightly changed in order to fit into the rising wave of Christianity, even Christmas retains many aspects of its original pagan traditions. It is unfortunate however that many of the traditions were lost in these re-skinnings, so it is nice to see that Užgavėnės, according to GD, was able to keep so many of its traditions. Festivals celebrating the end of winter and the coming of a sweeter season are a very common phenomenon especially in northern countries that experience harsher winters like Lithuania.

Eglė, Queen of Serpents

Main Text

GD: “Eglė, this girl, is bathing and a little snake comes up to her and she’s like ‘Oh no! The snake saw me naked, Ahh!’ And the snake speaks to her and goes ‘Hey girl, in order to make this right you have to come back and you have to get married to, like, me or one of my brothers. And she goes ‘Ahh, okay, oops. Stuff happens I guess.’ So the snake goes back to snake land and Eglė goes back to her family and she talks, and she’s like ‘This is the situation, this is what’s gonna happen, I’m gonna go be married off to the snake king.’ And a few days pass and hundreds and hundreds of snakes come to her house, come to her village and her family gives them first, like, a chicken and the snakes are like ‘Yeah, we got her!’ But it’s actually a chicken and then they do the same thing with a goat, and a sheep until they end up giving the actual daughter away. So Eglė goes with the snakes and goes to Snake Island and meets the snake king, but the thing is, is that he is actually just like a handsome, regular dude. They fall in love, and just have a good time and kinda chill on the island. They have four kids all whose names translate into names of trees.”

Interviewer: “Do you remember what their names are?”

GD: “Ahhh, I know their English translations. It’s, there’s Oak, Aspen, Birch and…could not tell you the fourth. But Eglė, I also should have said this in the beginning, Eglė translates to tree in English. So they are on snake island just having a good time, having the kids, and she doesn’t really talk about her life at home. She doesn’t talk about it because she grew up poor, she grew up in the village and now she’s just having a good time ruling all of the snakes. Until one of her sons asks, and her son and her decide to go back just to, you know, check in with the family, see how everyone is doing. But the king doesn’t let them in fear that she will not return. Eventually he does agree after some, you know, back and forth and gives her a special, like, call to do whenever if she needs to contact him or if there is an emergency that she needs to, like, contact him right away apparently this sound would transcend sound barrier. Um, but she goes and they’re there and the family does not want to give them back. Eglė wants to go, the son wants to go, but they, they will not go back. So, what happens is she does the call. She calls out for family, all of her family comes and with them, like her her kids come, and with them the hordes and hordes of snakes. This being said, snake king husband is still on the island. So there’s just a big battle between her family and snakes and in order to protect herself, and to protect her children, she turns them all into trees. The End.”

Background

GD is a 19 year old Lithuanian-American second year student at USC studying Theatre and Classics. Her mother was born in Lithuania and moved to a Lithuanian community in New Jersey, where GD attended Lithuanian school and church. She first heard this story from her immigrant mother. GD describes the moral of this story as one about blood family versus chosen family. Your family is whoever you choose to spend your time with and represent yourself with, and sometimes that’s snakes. GD describes this story as being somewhat controversial in it’s message among traditional Lithuanian storytellers. What stuck with GD was that Eglė as a woman had the power and responsibility to protect her children and her family and was justified in doing whatever she had to in order to reach that goal.

Context

GD says Eglė, Queen of Serpents was a bed time story that would be told to her as a child, but it was different in that it ended with a sort of triumph for the main character. Many Lithuanian bedtime stories, in GD’s words, ended with the cruel end of the main character in order to teach children about the dangers of the world.

Interviewer Analysis

This story is very reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast and other stories in which young women come face to face with horrible monsters only to learn that they are either secretly beautiful men or were beautiful men cursed to be monsters. These tales have a nice moral in that it teaches people not to be prejudiced and to instead get to know someone yourself before passing judgement on them. This story has the added moral of being able to choose your family and so I think is a great story to read to children.

This tale is classified, in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, as tale type ATU 425M, “The Snake as Bridegroom” and can be found in Jonas Balys analysis of Lithuanian folktales (published in 1936).

Šokių Šventė, Traditional Dance Clothing

Main Text

GD: “Šokių Šventė is the International Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival that happens once every four years, and what it is, it’s a folk celebration. So everyone dresses up in their tautiniais drabuziais which is their traditional clothing and does their hair, does their makeup. So everything is made out of wool and linen, the women traditionally wore like long skirts with aprons, obviously not floor-length as you have to go work, shirts with poofy sleeves which often had red embroidery around the wrist and a vest that matches the skirt. There are a lot of patterns in Lithuanian culture, in terms of vest and the skirt, and they would mainly distinguish where you are from.”

Background

D is a 19 year old Lithuanian-American second year student at USC studying Theatre and Classics. Her mother was born in Lithuania and moved to a Lithuanian community in New Jersey, where GD attended Lithuanian school and church. She is excited to attend Šokių Šventė for the very first time as it is being hosted in Philadelphia this year.

Context

This traditional clothing was once everyday wear for people living in Lithuania, but has now been relegated to special wear for high profile cultural events like Šokių Šventė. It is also worn at weddings and other folk celebrations.

Interviewer Analysis

JThe phenomenon of once widespread folk dances being raised up as a symbol of a culture and then relegated only to manufactured displays of “Folk Culture” is a very common occurrence. Dance trends change, especially in our modern and more global times. Taking a cultural snapshot of dance and placing it into a category of folk importance may ensure that the dance lives on, but not that it will continue being the preferred style by the people. This has happened not only with the dances performed at Šokių Šventė, but also the clothing worn to the festival.

The Legend of Vilnius

“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.