Mother Earth and Underworld in Lithuanian Folklore

Niina Pekantytär

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Žemyna the earth mother

​Žemyna was very much beloved goddess by the ancient Balts. Žemyna was the personification of the earth. She was the goddess who nourished all life; humans, plants and animals. Everything rose from her and returned to her. Every major celebration began with an invocation to Žemyna. The Head of the household filled a ladle with beer and poured some into the ground while saying a prayer. They drank some beer, thanked the gods and the other members of the household. Then he passed the ladle on and everyone got a chance to express their gratitude. In rituals, black pigs and multiple slices of bread were left as sacrifices. She was one of the daughters of the sun goddess Saulė. Žemyna had a brother called Žemepatis who protected farmsteads and households.

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Pregnant Mother

​In the springtime, Žemyna was honoured as the pregnant mother in a festival called Užgavėnės (Spring Equinox) which was celebrated in early March to drive winter away. Žemyna was present in numerous rituals that were connected to first planting because Žemyna was the goddess of sustaining life. Žemyna also received the dead. She did not bring death herself but transformed death into new life. Lithuanians made special offerings to Žemyna at funerals. Since the earth was the holiest of all things ancient Lithuanians did not joke with her, spit on her, throw trash on her or disrespected her in anyways. On the contrary, they often and regularly kissed the earth especially in the morning before starting to work and in the evenings before going to bed. They also kissed her during important transitional moments in life such as weddings and funerals. Worship of Žemyna was part of everyday life and she was the basis of the agrarian cycle of the year. People invoked her when seeking justice and swearing oaths.

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Image of ​Žemyna

​A clear image of Žemyna was never evolved. There are amber statues of birth-giving mothers and fertility figures found from different parts of Europe and the Middle East dating back to 30 000 years which might give us hints of how people saw her. In Lithuania, Žemyna was worshipped at large flat stones that were dug into the earth. These stones represented Žemyna and her powers. It is also possible that many other Lithuanian nature goddesses such as Lazdona (Hazel Nut goddess), Medeinė (forest goddess) and Zvėrunė (animal goddess) are all different aspects of Žemyna the earth goddess.

When the culture became more patriarchal Žemyna became the wife of either Dievas the sky god or Perkūnas the thunder god. Father Sky — Mother Earth duality is a common subject in several mythologies around the world. As the wife of Perkūnas, she required her husband´s seed which came down in the form of rain. No ploughing was allowed before the first thunderstorm of the spring. Žemyna and Saulė are connected to all Baltic deities being the mother and the grandmother of all things in this universe.

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God of the Underworld

Velnias was the god f the underworld and the protector of the dead. In historical sources, he is also associated with agriculture, hunting, trade and crafts. Depending on the story he participates with Dievas (god of the skies) as an antagonist or as an assistant in the creation of the earth. Velnias protected the fertility and bounty of the earth and animals. 

The partial transformation of Velnias t the antipodes of God, that is to the Devil or Satan, took place after the introduction of Christianity. Velnias in folklore is often associated with the Christian devil and is a popular character within folktales. He appears in the shape of various animals, birds and reptiles. His relationship with people is often complicated. Sometimes he seeks the friendship of people, love or help. Sometimes he helps them in various ways: protects them from wrong-doers, builds houses, bridges and help them to till their land. 

He can also harm people, mocks them, misleads them, tempts them to commit sin, and tries to seduce them.

In pre-Christian mythology, Velnias was the guardian of the dead. He was a patron of animals and protected the herdsmen and shepherds. In Lithuanian mythology, the deities are celestial beings and according to the myth, Velnias was created to be the Gods (Dievas) double on earth, which is why his kingdom was in the underworld and everything there was the opposite to what happened on earth.

Veliona the Queen

Veliona (Latvian Velu Mate) was the goddess of the dead. In the town Veliuona a church was built on top of a famous temple that was dedicated to the goddess Veliona. Veliona is a chthonic goddess, she is seen as a goddess who guards over the underwater world, streams, caves, waters and soil (but she should not be confused with the earth goddess Zemyna). 

Veliona had a similar role to Valkyries in Germanic mythology. It was believed that she received the souls of those who died in a battle.

According to folklore, there was a widespread sacrifice of pings to Veliona. Other animals were hens and roosters, female calves and ewes.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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