Neo-Pagans

[H. Joseph Ware]

Romuva Fire AltarNeo-Paganism in the Baltics refers to a set of religious practices ascendant after the fall of communism that attempts to follow presumed mythic beliefs and practices of an ethnic or national character. Often situated on the right wing of the political spectrum, neo-pagans have been influential in the nation-building project in the Baltic states, although comprising only a small minority of the population. They are also significant centers of environmental activism.

For most of the twentieth century, the story of Baltic Neo-Paganism is one of persecution. It traces its beginnings to the ethno-national interest created by the folklorists and ethnographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Strmiska, 41). In 1920s Latvia, Ernest Bratyn’sh began a movement he called ‘Dievturiba’, or worship, shortened sometimes to Dievturi—a movement that attracted persecution after Latvia was annexed by the USSR in 1940(Shnirelman, 200). In Lithuania in 1929, Domas Sidlauskas started a pagan congregation called Romuva, which was heavily persecuted in the Soviet era. This was revived as a folkloric association under the moniker Ramuva in the late 1960s, which was similarly persecuted, a situation enforced until the 1980s when restrictions began to relax (ibid., 201). With the fall of communism in the early 90s, Neo-Paganism, with its national message and anti-colonial character, was well situated to capitalize on the freer religious climate, and both of these groups began to reemerge, with Romuva finding its original name (ibid., 202).

Although often inspired by ethnographies based on an oral tradition, Neo-Paganism is not yet an oral tradition. Instead, it is practiced mostly by “highly urbanized and secularized individuals” (Shnirelman, 198). In the Baltic States, it is not concerned so much with a cosmopolitan revival of pagan practices, but with a careful reconstruction of the practices of a specific ethnic heritage (Stasulane, 119). Those who conceive of themselves as reconstructionists often prefer to be thought of as pagans, rather than Neo-Pagans (ibid.). The specific ethnic content of this reconstruction lends itself to projects of national identity, and Neo-Paganism is linked to ethno-national and anti-colonial (anti-Russian) political movements in the Baltic States (Shnirelman, 207). Thus, while only a small minority of the population identifies as Neo-Pagan, this coalescence with a popular political program, as well as the positioning of Neo-Paganism as the rediscovery of an ethnologically knowable past identity, ensures a favorable position for Neo-Paganism. In Latvia, Dievturi is already on the national curriculum, while in Lithuania, the Romuva are still lobbying for traditional religious status, although they have been permitted to build an altar in Vilnius (ibid., 201). Neo-Pagan groups are often active in environmental activism (Ignatow, 847).

Neo-Pagans often idealize folk peasant culture and share a desire for a return to a pure earth, unsullied by industrial modernity, yet this rhetoric, at times, collapses into racist rhetoric of a “pure” people in a pure land. Many have simultaneous xenophobic and anti-colonial attitudes. In many cases, the nationalistic and xenophobic aspects of Neo-Paganism have been employed by radical political groups. This has encouraged a constructed systemization of Neo-Paganism, as it tries to position itself as both a national ideology and a national religion (ibid., 207-8).

Despite many affinities with the New Age movement, Neo-Paganism is a distinct movement. It shares with it a concern for nature and the environment, yet the Neo-Pagan idea of nature is much more ethnic than the global environment of the New Age (Ivakhiv, 196). While the New Age sometimes employs traditional myths and practices, it does so in its quest for the transcendence of modernity—for the dawning of a “New Age.” Neo-Paganism, on the other hand, uses these traditional practices in order to attempt a return to bucolic past, when the earth was pure, and an independent and proud ethnos lived in harmony with the land (Shnirelman, 207).

In practice, this distinction may not be preserved. Neo-Pagan communities are highly individualistic and are diverse in ideology and practice. Commensurable tenets of both New Age and Neo-Paganism have bled into each other (Stasulane, 120). Even within the Neo-Pagan community, individualistic tendencies have ensured that any unity is loose. The Latvian Dievturi exists in several groups, some of which have joined the Latvian Deivturi League (LDL), and others which are independent. Beliefs are often contradictory among groups (ibid., 119).

Nationalism and division have not prevented Baltic Neo-Paganism from reaching outside of its borders. Not only does it have a diaspora that played a role in its rapid establishment after the fall of communism, but it also has attempted to draw together paganism in the broader European context. Jonas Trinkunas, a leader of Romuva, convened the first World Pagan Congress in Vilnius in 1998. Now renamed the World Congress of Ethnic Religions, it serves to encourage interactions of ethnic or pagan traditions from around the world (Strmiska, 48, 49).

The ritual of Baltic Neo-Pagans is a combination of weekly “praise meetings”, which often involve the singing of folk songs (Daina in the Dievturi tradition) and the delivering of a speech or sermon, and seasonal celebrations like that of summer solstice. These latter are celebrated with a “merry, even carnival atmosphere” and include “folk dances, games, traditional or humorous costumes, special food and drink, and… music” (Ibid., 43,44).

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Works Cited

 

 

  • Adrian Ivakhiv, “Nature and Ethnicity in East European Paganism: An Environmental Ethic of the Religious Right?” The Pomegranate. 7. no. 2 (2005): 194-225.
  • Anita Stasulane, “New religious movements in Latvia,” Soter. 32. (2009): 107-125.
  • Gabriel Ignatow,”Transnational Environmentalism at Europe’s Boundaries: Identity Movements in Lithuania and Turkey,” Current Sociology. 56. no. 6 (2008): 845-864.
  • Michael Strmiska, “The Music of the Past in Modern Baltic Paganism,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions . 8. no. 3 (2005): 39-58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.2005.8.3.39 (accessed February 20, 2012).
  • Victor Shnirelman, “’Christians! Go home’: A Revival of Neo-Paganism between the Baltic Sea and Transcaucasia (An Overview),” Journal of Contemporary Religion. 17. no. 2 (2002): 197-211.

 

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