Representations of death in Latvian culture and folklore differs vastly from modern representations of death we encounter in everyday life, especially for those of us living outside of Latvia. This is an attempt to examine and explain Latvian folklore about death with theories from the Harvard Extension School course “Dying Well.”
No matter the differences in community, upbringing, or cultural heritage among individuals, death is a reality faced by all people, however unknown. Franz Wright observed that “The world is filled with people/ Who have never died” (Wright, 2003) but that has not stopped people, transcending generations and geography, from philosophizing about what happens when our lives end and death’s implications. People of ancient Latgallian, Selonian, Semigallian, and Couronian tribes, or more generally known as ancient Latvian tribes, are no different. Latvians have their own ideas about the badness of death, living in the face of death, grief, and eternal life, exhibited in folk songs, poetry, and passed down to appear in modern Latvian performance.
Important beliefs, values, and aspects of life define attitudes towards death, no matter the culture. For Latvians, it is primarily war, serfdom, and respect and worship of nature and deities that most significantly influence folklore dealing with death. Complex circumstances affected views and ideas about death.
Why is death bad? Shelly Kagan suggests that being dead is bad for us because we miss out on the good things brought by life. Barring fears about dying or what happens after death, the deprivation account attempts to explain why death is seen as a bad thing (Kagan, 2012). The deprivation account is relevant in old Latvian songs and poetry, especially in those dealing with young Latvians who have something to look forward to, such as marriage and raising a family. However, considering the circumstances of frequent battle and uncertainty in ancient Latvian life, young men did not always live long enough to take a wife. Such is the case in the song Balādīte or “Ballad”:
Our brother, with his horse,
Rode into the lord’s woods.
The lord’s men found him and agreed on a harsh punishment,
They took our brother’s horse.
They took our brother’s clothes,
They took our brother’s hat.
They released him, naked,
They sent him bound for home.
Our brother spilled white tears,
And the lord’s men returned his hat.
Our brother spilled salty tears,
And the lord’s men returned his clothes.
Our brother spilled hot tears,
And the lord’s men returned his horse.
Our brother spilled tears of blood,
Begging they return his flower.
Begging they return his flower,
That was pinned to his hat.
Fierce anger arose in the lord’s men,
They cut off our brother’s head.
Our brother’s head falls,
Crushing the flower that was pinned to his hat.
The flower which he had received this very morning,
From his betrothed.
This song exemplifies the deprivation account as it follows a young man at the end of his life. With each verse, the audience becomes more familiar with the good things in this person’s life, such as his horse and his dignity (lost when he is sent home without clothes or his hat). As each good thing in life is taken away, the song evokes a feeling of the man already dying. The most significant deprivation is felt when it becomes clear that he will never see his betrothed again. The flower represents the last thing given to him by the woman he loves, as well as the gifts bestowed upon him in the past and the good things he may have shared with this woman in the future. His head crushing the flower as it falls shows how death, under these tragic circumstances, truly is bad when it comes at a time when life holds the promise of so much good. This scenario, although not based on documented events, is realistic for young Latvian men during feudal centuries in Europe (Embassy, 2014). Not only were these men at risk of losing what is good in their life to death, death could easily come sooner than expected at the hands of foreign lords, under whom they lived and worked.
Despite the possibility of untimely death, other Latvian folk songs challenge the deprivation account with the belief that the afterlife is comfortable and, in some cases, preferable. Pagan beliefs in deities, such as Mother Earth and personification of the sun, provide a foundation for the idea that death is not something to fear. Instead, death is integral in being a part of nature, which is something to be worshiped according to ancient Latvian beliefs. The following ancient poem, or daina, is one such example:
Do receive, dear Mother Earth,
In thy bosom sister sweetest;
Tuck her in so warm and comfy
In thy sandy shawls all snug.
In addition to comforts for one’s carnal body provided by Mother Earth, the astral body and the soul are greeted by the Sun:
You once greeted me, Mother dearest,
With a sheet of white linen;
Now the Sun warmly awaits
Upon the hill of white sand.
These poems allude to the comfort of shawls and linen sheets, and to the motherly personification of the Sun and Earth, to describe the good things that are to be had in death. In these two dainas, good things in life are not a reason to be sad about death, as in the deprivation account and in “Ballad,” and instead are used to describe the serenity of the land of the dead, known as Aizsaule, or “the land beyond the sun.” Due to pagan influences, Latvian folklore respects and welcomes death as a part of life interwoven with nature. In this case, those who sing about dying or preparing to die want to ask their loved ones to remember them as a part of nature, because an afterlife among sacred lands and forests is far superior to the simple pleasures of life. This perspective places aspects of the afterlife superior to what people may be deprived of in death. Thus, serfdom and pagan beliefs, both significant in ancient Latvian culture, yield contrasting theories on the badness of death in Latvian folklore.
Even with a belief system that destined the dead to the comforts of the Earth and Sun, grief is prevalent in Latvian folklore and in performance adaptations of it. Grieving for young men going to war is especially significant in Latvian folk songs dealing with death. Serfdom destined their lives to the service of lords and barons, including in times of war, when serfs would fight their lords’ wars, sometimes for over a decade (Szentivanyi, 2018). Knowing that they are unlikely to ever return, young men and their families sang songs and dainas laden with anticipatory grief:
When I left for war,
I left behind my sister in her cradle.
Returning from war,
I find a masterful tailor and decorator.
I ask my mother,
“Who is this masterful tailor?”
“She, my son, is your sister,
Who you left behind in her cradle.”
“My sister, masterful tailor,
Make for me an ornate war banner.
“Decorate it with green or red symbols,
This is the last time we may ever meet.”
Although the son has yet to lose his life to the war, he has already missed out on important parts of his family’s life, and the family described in this song has already lost their son to the war. Grieving has begun for the family: grief for the experiences he has missed and will never have, and anticipatory grief for the likely event of dying in a foreign baron’s war. Arthur Kleinman addresses the strange reality of grieving for a person before they die in “Catastrophe and caregiving: the failure of medicine as an art.” Grief can begin when there is a loss of identity or presence, or when death is expected (Kleinman, 2008). Such is the case in Latvian culture when coping with a son, brother, or spouse going to war.
Similar displays of grief in Latvian culture are in performances inspired by Latvian folklore. Dance performances such as No Zobena Saule Lēca, or “From the Sword the Sun Rose” (Daņiļevičs & Brikmanis, 2018) and the first act of Māras zeme, or “Māra’s Land” (Ērglis, Purviņš, & Seņkovs, 2018) are artistic interpretations of life in Baltic tribes and deal heavily with death of young men and grieving for them. Some moments from both performances exploring grief in Latvian culture are as seen below:
Image 1. Performers portray the emotion that comes with the prospect of war. Published by LMT Straume November 2018. No Zobena Saule Lēca, 0:52:50. Video: http://straume.lmt.lv/lv/kultura/kultura/no-zobena-saule-leca/1034243
Image 2. Simultaneously a funeral procession and pyre, this is a representation of the magnitude of loss and grief experienced by tribes whose sons must someday go to war. Published by Mareks Gaļinovskis July 2018. Māras zeme. Photo: https://www.facebook.com/DzSvFotoManLV/photos/a.411799655983294/411816369314956/?type=3&theater
Image 1 is representative of anticipatory grief common in Latvian folk songs and folklore. Although it is believed that existence after death would be a welcoming, comforting change, death in a war waged by lords still renders sadness for everyone involved. These wars are something they are compelled to partake in, adding to the feeling that their death is unjustified and untimely. Image 2 is the result, as well as what the younger boys have to look forward to; the loss of life is significant and will continue. Such is a source of a magnitude of grief common in folk songs. In addition, Māras zeme and No Zobena Saule Lēca further exemplify contrasting views on the badness of death in Latvian culture. The tragedy of serfdom and wars overwhelms the comforts and the welcoming Earth and Saule mother figures awaiting them in the afterlife. Despite death being a broadly-accepted part of life, grief that comes with one’s life not quite being their own, as with serfdom, is all-consuming and relentless.
With views on death as a tragedy at odds with views on death as comforting and peaceful, how do individuals living according to Latvian culture live in the face of death? As Stephen Cave explores in his essay, “If Death Comes for Everything, Does It Matter What We Kill?”, the conceptualization of death and dying is nuanced, and so shall people’s feelings about death be (Cave, 2014). Latvian folk music and folklore exhibit an interesting combination of living in harmony with death, but from a safe distance in order to avoid it, if necessary. The existence of veļu vakars, or the night of the astral body, and October being the month of the astral body according to Latvian folklore, is an example of honoring death in life. Veļu vakars and the month of October is a time during which people live in harmony with death more so than usual, which involves the living honoring their dead ancestors with feasting and song. The dance performance Māras zeme includes visualization and interpretation of the event that is the night of the astral body. This night is described as follows: “the spirits of the fallen feel no peace and with every autumn return to Māra’s land,” (Ērglis, Purviņš, & Seņkovs, 2018).
Image 3. Performers conveying the eerie yet meaningful night of the astral body. Published by LTV.LV July 2018. Māras zeme. Photo: https://ltv.lsm.lv/lv/kultura/xxvi-visparejie-latviesu-dziesmu-un-xvi-deju-svetki/galerijas/?id=365
However, honoring the dead does not have to include succumbing to it, as in this folk song:
The spiteful grave
Stands as my enemy.
I throw an axe or stone,
But it only wants my body.
Despite existing practices to honor the dead, this song is an example that the living would rather stay alive, if they could help it. The grave is personified and then vilified, wanting to take away life and everything that is good that comes with life. The grave is not passively waiting until something brings the living to it, the grave actively seeks out the living to take their life, despite obvious objections. The night of the astral body, however, celebrates the people who are beyond the grave. These two concepts form Latvians’ approach to living with death: recognize and honor it, but do not willingly go to it, if possible. It is as Cave wrote in his essay: “we cannot stop Death from going about his business, and we oughtn’t pretend that sparing the ants (or the flies or the butter) will keep him from our door; but we need not rush to be his foot soldiers either,” (Cave).
In Latvian folklore, eternal life has nothing to do with the carnal body, and more to do with astral and spiritual bodies, as shown by the dainas “Do receive, dear Mother Earth” and “You once greeted me, mother dearest.” The perspective of Latvian folklore on eternal life is evident in attitudes about whether death is bad and living in the face of death, both of which would be very different if Latvian folklore did not contain the concept of eternal life. “Do receive, dear Mother Earth” discusses comforts that come after death and mother figures who take care of the dead after they have passed, as well as becoming a part of sacred nature. “You once greeted me, Mother dearest” presents the afterlife as warm and familiar, as opposed to cold and hostile as typical Western ideas about the afterlife suggest. There are poems that suggest that even in the afterlife, the deceased may have what was best about life:
Do not weep, my mother dearest,
That I died whilst still so little;
I’ll be there to gladly greet thee,
I’ll sweep clean the burial yard.
This daina illustrates the belief that in death, people reunite with their loved ones who died before them. Not only is eternal life comfortable and warm, it offers some of the good things that a person had in life. Eternal life in Latvian folklore is not a burden or tiresome, as Kagan proposes in the section “Eternal Life” in his book Death (Kagan, 2012), and is instead sacred and something to welcome, because dying is natural and not anything that should be feared.
Latvian cultural attitudes toward death and dying, although nuanced when unwelcomed factors are involved, primarily stem from respect and worship for nature. Ancient Latvians view death as a natural part and progression of life, as it involves eventually becoming a part of what they worship. Thus, death is a part of their everyday life, and their traditions encompass the recognition of and respect for death. Grief experienced by those left behind is not denied or rejected, and the good things in life are not ignored either. Grief and sadness do not, however, overshadow the fundamental Latvian cultural view of death and dying as a part of existing among nature.
Original texts, in Latvian, for each song or poem can be found from the following sources.
In order of appearance:
- “Ballad”: https://www.akordi.lv/song/2204-Ilgi_-_Baladite
- “Do receive, dear Mother Earth”: Dainas: Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry by Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi
- “You once greeted me, Mother dearest”: Latvian Sun Songs by Vaira Viķis-Freibergs and Imants Freibergs
- “When I left for war”: https://www.dziesmas.lv/d/Es_karai_aiziedams_2_-_/1361
- “The spiteful grave”: Karavīru audzināj’ folk music album by Vilkači
- “Do not weep, my mother dearest”: Dainas: Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry by Ieva Auziņa Szentivanyi
Note: All folk song texts are, by definition, part of the public domain. Books and albums listed are simply collections of publicly available texts and the authors of those works do not own the songs and dainas found within the book or album.
Cave, S. (2014). If Death Comes for Everything, Does It Matter What We Kill? Aeon.
Daņiļevičs, A. (Choreographer) & Brikmanis, U. (Director). (2018, November 1). No Zobena Saule Lēca [Dance performance]. Rīga, LV: LMT Straume.
Embassy of the Republic of Latvia to the United States of America. (2014). History of Latvia: A brief synopsis. Retrieved from https://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/usa/culture/history-of-latvia-a-brief-synopsis
Ērglis, J. (Artistic Director), Purviņš, J. (Artistic Director) & Seņkovs, E. (Director). (2018, July 7). Māras zeme [Dance performance]. Rīga, LV: LTV.LV.
Kagan, S. (2012). Death. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kleinman, A. (2008). Catastrophe and Caregiving: The Failure of Medicine as Art. The Lancet, 371 (9606). Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(08)60057-4/fulltext
Szentivanyi, I. A. (2018). Dainas: Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Latvian Poetry. Rīga: SIA “Apgāds Mansards”
Wright, F. (2003). Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. New York: Random House.
Featured image from Latvijas Enogrāfiskais brīvdabas muzejs Facebook page.
Kristiana Grinbergs, Harvard University, 2018