I was reading a book recently titled “Baltic Lenin,” which explored in a loose narrative-type travel-log format the changes in the Baltic since the fall of the Soviet Union. It was an interesting book and reading it made me remember my own trip to Lithuania when I was in high school. My Russian class went on an exchange for a month to Vilnius, Lithuania, which was then part of the CCCP. I was particularly delighted by this since I’m half Lithuanian. I stayed with an absolutely lovely family and got to meet some of my relatives too. (I wish I hadn’t fallen out of touch with the family that hosted me, but once I graduated high school and made an attempt at a professional ballet career, the stress of that profession and of fighting the injuries that would eventually cause me to retire in my early twenties caused me to neglect a lot of things. I wonder sometimes if any of them embraced Romuva when the religion was acknowledged after independence). When I was there, the country was already agitating for its freedom and a couple of years later, emerged as a free and independent nation which it remains today.
I wasn’t smart enough at the time to keep a travel journal. What the hell did I know? I was a teenager and more concerned about the month of ballet practice I was missing than connecting with my ancestors. What follows are really bare bones impressions thirty plus years after the fact.
Firstly, I learned about Gediminas, fourteenth-century grand duke of Lithuania, champion of Paganism who protected his people from the scourge of Christianity and who lived and died a polytheist. This is a token, currently hanging at my ancestor shrine, that I bought on that visit.
I think, best I can translate, that the phrase translates as “Brothers, restore the castle of Gediminas.” Gediminas had a vision of an iron wolf that predicted the powerful city (Vilnius) that he would go on to found. It has remained a potent symbol.
I remember visiting Trakai Castle, once a major strategic fortress.
And we went to the Curonian Spit, a 100 km stretch of sand dunes abutting the Baltic Sea. It’s not too far from Vilnius and is now a UNESCO heritage site. I was sixteen or seventeen in the photo below.
Finally there was amber and traditional embroidery and connecting with my dead.
I want to visit Vilnius again. There was so much I didn’t know when I was there as a teen. I’d like to visit the shrine to Mary of the Gates of Dawn. (I actually honor Her as a syncretic version of Ausrine). I don’t know why we didn’t visit when I was there as a teen, save that the city was still under Soviet occupation and perhaps it wasn’t permitted.
Because I find it oddly moving, I’d also like to visit the Hill of Crosses. I don’t know what the holy sites of Romuva are—to me the whole country is sacred ground because it is the soil that holds the bones of my ancestors – but I would very much like to make offerings one day properly.
That is all. I’ll end with this prayer-poem to my Lithuanian ancestors.
It’s a hard people that birthed me
hard and unyielding
like weathered stone
the bones of the dead,
hard like the yoke
and the necessary brutality
It’s hard soil
that holds them,
of an ancient nation,
only the stones themselves
and they are silent.
It’s a hard God that took me up
and He made me hard in His loving.
There’s a hard war to be fought.
and I’ll take point.
My ancestors nod grimly
when I say this.
all the different permutations
Just try to break them.
They never yield–
never forgot their ceremonies either.
They know from whence
their power comes.
children of fire
born under a blazing northern sun
know the secret of endurance.
We keep our power hidden
we keep our borders close
we guard what must be guarded.
these things come down in the blood
like hard edged steel.
Then like steel we rise.
(from “Honoring the Ancestors” available below).
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It’s that time of year again when most of us start thinking about our dead. Of course I’m of the mind that every day is the proper time to think about our ancestors, but many of our religions give special focus to them in autumn (Dia de los Muertos, Samhain, Winterfylledh, etc.).
One of the things that my ancestors like, and almost demand this time of year, is that I cook for them; specifically, that I cook traditional family/ethnic recipes. My German, Swiss, and British Isles ancestors don’t seem to care (They’ll eat anything LOL) but my Lithuanians really, really, really want me cooking recipes that I got from my father who got them from his mom, and so on. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have as many points of connection as I would like with that part of my line, or perhaps there are reasons known only to them, but they are most insistent that I cook for them in a traditional way.
Usually, they’re happy if once in awhile I make my grandmother’s bread, though they’d prefer if I made all the bread consumed in my house (not a possibility due to my health issues. It takes hard work and endurance to cook like that!) but around this time of year and generally through Yule they want everything: vertinas, apple cake, bow tie cookies, breads, soups, stews, everything. I started by making bread last night.
To honor them, I’m going to share some of those recipes here. I encourage y’all to share your own ancestor recipes too. The kitchen is the heart of the home. So much family lore, history, and bonding has taken place over the centuries in the kitchens, in the work that nourishes the family. It’s no wonder that our ancestors like us to remember that, as they nourish us too.
Weird Ancestor Porridge : )
The first dish that I want to mention is a traditional dish served for the ancestors in Lithuania. I don’t have an actual recipe. It’s just a porridge made from various heritage grains. I usually combine nine different grains, some oat flour, corn meal, etc. I boil them on the stove top adding a ton of honey, dried fruit, sometimes almonds, salt until it tastes ok to me. Then I put cinnamon, sometimes nutmeg on it, sometimes sugar, put it into a special dish I have and offer it to the dead. The combination of grains I use varies and sometimes I’ve substituted lentils or peas for one of the grains. Use what you have.
Mamoom’s Basic Sweet Dough
Bread is such a powerful thing, almost a sacrament in Lithuanian tradition. It represents everything good and holy, everything that nourishes life, and it can even be used in esoteric cleansings. (I can’t do a damn thing with traditional egg cleansings, but give me bread and I’m good to go). This is my grandmother’s favorite recipe.
8-9 cups of flour
1 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 packages of dry, active yeast
1 ½ cups milk
1 cup (two sticks) butter
½ cup water
- In a large bowl combine two cups of flour, the sugar, salt, and yeast.
- In a medium saucepan heat the milk, water, and butter until very warm. The butter doesn’t have to melt all the way.
- With a mixer at low speed gradually pour liquid into dry ingredients. Increase speed to medium and beat for two minutes. Stir in the additional flour and the eggs to make a soft dough. (At this point you may add a cup or two of raisins. I prefer to use golden raisins. This is optional).
- Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic – about ten minutes. Shape into a ball and put in a greased bowl, turning all over so top of dough can get greased (I use butter to grease the bowl). Cover with a dry towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled – about an hour.
- Punch down dough. Cut into thirds or halves, cover and let rise fifteen minutes. Put in greased pans and let rise 1 ½ hours.
- Bake at 350 F for 35 minutes.
Dad’s Bow Tie Recipe
(eat them warm ^__^)
Every culture seems to have some version of this: dough covered in powdered sugar. It’s a little bite of bliss. They take awhile to make though so be prepared.
12 egg yolks
4 Tablespoons of sugar
a pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon rum
1 pint sour cream
flour as needed.
- mix all this up well adding five or six cups of flour gradually. Roll the dough very, very thin and cut into rectangles. Cut a slit in the center of each rectangle and pull one end through to make a little bowtie.
- Fry until golden in oil 375 F.
- Roll those suckers in powdered sugar right away
(mine never look this good! They taste good, but never LOOK this fine)
I hate making these. I love eating them but I hate making them. They take forever but they are so very worth it.
Meat: four pounds of pork loin deboned (I don’t like pork so I use ground beef)
Dough: beat three eggs. 1-2 teaspoons salt, 2 cups milk. While beating add 5-6 cups flour until dough is soft enough to handle.
Prep the meat: 1 onion chopped fine, 2 slices of bread crumbled, 2 eggs with a little milk to soften, 2 teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon pepper.
Roll the dough out thin, cut it into circles, fill the circles with a teaspoon of meat, and fold over, crimping the edges with your fork, or folding and pinching the dough.
Drop them in boiling water for 20 minutes. When they rise, they’re done.
Later this week, I’ll share some recipes from my adopted mom and bio mom. Enjoy, folks.
Here is the next prayer card (I’ll be sending it to the printer tomorrow): the Lithuanian Goddess Saule, Goddess of the Sun. The image is by Basil Blake.
Today I asked Sannion for a topic on which to write (he always comes up with interesting inspirations). Earlier, while redoing my ancestor shrine (a two hour plus process and I’m still not done!), I’d told him the story of Gediminas and the founding of Vilnius. He told me to write about a Lithuanian legend, and maybe that one so I did.
Children of the Iron Wolf
by Galina Krasskova
My people rose from the howling of a wolf;
iron and steel runs in our blood.
Vicious and victorious
praising the moon and the sun,
old gods who keep us strong.
it is why we are here.
The valor of the dead
sings in our blood.
That savagery is hidden deep
but there are reasons we survived
so long, unbroken.
there are reasons our enemies
had best tread lightly
and far from our borders.
When I am afraid,
i listen for the howling
that birthed my ancestors’ nation;
and scour my dreams
The dead speak there.
They are teaching me their language-
incantations of fire
and what it means
to have risen from iron.