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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