by Mark Dalton
It was a sunny early evening on Midsummer’s Eve, years ago when I was a footloose young college student. My friend Dace came bursting through the door of our communal hippie household with a couple quarts of beer clanking in a paper bag and announced, “We’re going to a Latvian party tonight — it’s St. John’s Eve!”
I should explain about Latvians. Latvia is one of the Baltic countries, three small nations along the Baltic Sea, on the cusp between the Germanic lands of western Europe and the Slavic peoples to the east, and between the northern lands of Scandinavia and the plains of central Europe. Latvians saw a lot of traffic and heartache during the twentieth century, as they moved from Russian domination, to a brief flowering of independence following World War I, to German occupation during World War II, to becoming a Cold War republic of the Soviet Union, to an eventual, ecstatic return to independence after the collapse of the USSR. Many Latvians fled to the west as refugees when their country was overrun by the Soviets at the end of World War II. Sometimes after years in western European resettlement camps, they came to the United States — particularly the Midwest, where large, settled communities of German-Americans welcomed them like long-lost cousins.
My city in Nebraska was no exception, and I grew up with so many Latvian friends I sometimes felt as if I had been adopted into the tribe. Latvians as a rule are friendly, outgoing, smart and often creative people. My friend Dace (say it “Dot-suh”) was a sunny art major with blond hair streaming down her back and an air of sophistication and mystery. She seem wise beyond our years, which was then about 20. She was a great dancer and loved James Brown and the Motown Sound, having spent her teens in Detroit. Dace showed me Diana Ross’s senior picture in her high school yearbook. A home economics major, Diane, as she was then known, was voted by her classmates as “most likely to succeed.”
I’d been to a number of Latvian college parties by that time, either with Dace or other friends, and they were invariably a great time, always with plenty of beer, music, dancing and good-natured fun. “Where’s the party?” was my question. “This one is out in the country” was the response. “I’ve got the directions.” We polished off one of the quarts, and then piled into my old station wagon as dusk started to set in, driving quite a ways out of town down those Nebraska gravel roads. Fragrant breezes wafted around and through the open car windows, with the sounds of crickets and cicadas making Midsummer Night’s music as we drove along.
“So what’s the deal with St. John’s Eve?” I asked. “Well, it’s the night of the Summer Solstice — you know, like in Midsummer Night’s Dream? The fairies and goblins come out, and everybody parties? In Latvia, St. John’s Day is a big deal. Everybody named Janis [Latvian version of the name] gets to lead the celebration.” Anyone familiar with the Latvian community knows that Janis is an extremely popular name, so it didn’t surprise me that they had their own holiday — but more about that later.
At this point, Dace was counting mailboxes as we drove along, and she suddenly yelled “Here! This one! Turn in here!” so we did — pulling perhaps 500 feet down a winding dirt drive, coming into a clearing where there was already a large crowd of kids milling around, rolling beer kegs out the back of a pickup truck — and also working on a large pile of brush, tree branches and logs in the middle of the clearing. “You always gotta have a bonfire on St. John’s Eve,” said my hostess. “The bigger, the better!”
And an incredible bonfire it was that night — the sun went down as it crackled into life, sending flames and showers of sparks high into the sky as the keg foamed, the music rocked, and we danced in a great circle under Dylan’s diamond sky. Later in the night, as the fire simmered down and the crowd mellowed, I was sitting with some of the guys when they jumped up and said “Come on, man! Tonight you’re going to leap over the fire with us and become a real Latvian!” Sure enough, there was an unruly line forming to one side of the somewhat tamer, but still vigorous blaze. “You jump the fire on St. John’s Eve, you’re gonna have good luck with the women all year long!” said my mentors. And so I did. And that delightful night was my introduction to the survival of real pagan ritual in the Western world.
The thing about Latvia and the other Baltic countries is that Christianity never really triumphed there, certainly not to the extent it did in western Europe and the English-speaking world. The Baltic countries were never a part of the ancient Roman Empire, and they were not incorporated in the later Holy Roman Empire until well into the fifteenth century (and then only after great reluctance and resistance). For hundreds of years, Latvia’s neighbor Lithuania, which had converted its local folk-pagan beliefs into a powerful and coherent pagan state religion, served as a buffer between the Baltics and the advance of Christian Europe.
Baltic and Latvian paganism was an earth-centered set of beliefs. Around the year 1400, Father Peter of Dunsberg wrote “[Latvians] worship all of creation… moon, stars, thunder, birds… they have their sacred forests, fields and waters in which they dare not cut wood, nor work, nor fish.” Important deities in the Baltic pantheon include Dievs, the sky god; Mara, goddess of earth and water; Laima, the goddess representing destiny or fate — and Janis (John), son of Dievs, the fertility god of the summer solstice!
In spite of the official “Christianizing” of Latvia and the other Baltic states, pagan beliefs were neither eliminated, nor outside the major cities even driven very far underground. The language of Christianity was Latin, and later with the rise of Luther German, and they were also, as in many nations, the language of the oppressor. Latvians, in response, perpetuated their folk customs and pagan beliefs through songs and celebrations in their native language. Early in the twentieth century, the pagan oral tradition of Latvia was collected and published in six volumes (the “Laviju Dainas”), followed by the collection of sacred Latvian folk songs in the 1920s (the “Dievturi”). These works offer invaluable documentation of the survival of pagan beliefs and folkways down to the present time. Lithuanian paganism was again officially recognized in 1967, and since 1988 a shrine-site at Romuva has again become a place of pilgrimage and celebration for modern Baltic pagans. Similarly, after a long period of repression under the Soviet Union (including a total ban on Midsummer festivities), modern Latvian paganism is experiencing a rebirth under the name “Dievturi,” after the sky god, and has become a national movement, “Dievturiba.” Again, in Latvia, the Midsummer’s Eve festivities, or “Jani,” are back on a large scale!
Indeed, the reality of Latvian paganism and its survival into the twentieth century very closely matches Gerald Gardner’s description of Wica (as he spelled it) in the British Isles:
“Although its adherents might be of any class of society, they were mostly drawn from the peasant population of outlying districts. These people lived close to the earth, and their livelihood depended on the fertility of animals and crops. Hence they continued to do what they had been doing from time immemorial — namely, to follow a religion of nature and the fertility thereof, and to hold regular festivals at which the concept of cosmic fertility was worshipped, and the attempt was made to induce it by ritual to manifest upon the earth.”
Now, we understand that, in Latvia, as across the nominally Christian nations of Europe, St. John’s Eve is commonly and officially associated with John the Baptist. But the association of the Baptist with the “John” (or Janis) of midsummer is one area where the clever syncretism of the Christian church is thinly veiled. St. John himself has often been clearly associated with the pagan Oak King, all across Europe, and in fact, many existent statues show him with little horns! (Pan the Baptist!) This persistent association of the Baptist with nature and the rustic shrines offered up to him through the ages offer substantial clues to the more ancient reasons for his attachment to a powerful pagan holy day.
In the Latvian midsummer festival, for example, the arrival of Janis is heralded by much music-making, and he is pictured as tall and handsome, with a wreath of oak leaves on his head. The use of oak, birch and other leaves, branches and flowers is very important to this celebration, as Latvian men, women and children bedeck themselves and their homes with wreaths and garlands to celebrate the arrival of this beloved deity of fertility and plenty. The villagers gather to sing songs to and about Janis — and there are many of them, all ending with the same word, “ligo,” meaning good cheer or to make merry. As the bonfires are lit, the more amorous couples in the village tend to slip off into the night at times in search of a magickal (and possibly mythical) pure white flower that blooms on this night — and even if the flower isn’t found, the search is reportedly sure to be enjoyable! As the song goes,
“Here comes Janis on Janis’ eve, with his steed all adorned;
“Run little sister and open the gates, so Janis can ride into our yard!”
With bonfires on hilltops throughout the land, the celebration of St. John’s Eve, or Jani (John’s Days), on Midsummer’s Eve goes on throughout the night across Latvia, and wherever the sons and daughters of Latvia congregate. And wherever you are on this holy night of celebration, love and thanksgiving, please give a good thought to the Latvians and their Baltic neighbors, for their bravery and tenacity in keeping the spirit, joy and sense of oneness with the natural world of pagan religion alive and intact, and join them in communion with the glory of our beautiful universe!
- Gerald Gardner: Witch, by J.L. Bracelin
- A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
- “The Country of Latvia”: http://www.angelfire.com/al2/LatvianStuff/Latvia.html
- “Ancient Latvian Paganism”: http://www.pagan.drak.net/wwcrew/
- “St. John’s Eve in Old Ireland”: http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/article1035.html
- “The Bonfire Tradition in the Orkney Islands”: http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/bonfire.htm
- “A Midsummer’s Celebration,” by Mike Nichols: