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Europe’s Last Pagans

Pagan Baltic sun cross from a monument

During the late Roman and early medieval period, Christianity spread inexorably across Europe.  By the time of the Western Empire’s fall, most of its former citizens were Christians.  The pagan Anglo-Saxons converted in the seventh century and by the ninth century most of their continental German cousins had followed suit. 

For much of the ninth and tenth centuries pagan Vikings terrorised north European Christendom.  However, by the time of the Norman conquest, even the Vikings were converting.  Pagan Scandinavia was giving way to the Christian Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway.  By the early twelfth century, even the more traditionalist Swedish Vikings were converting.

As the twelfth century wore on, fewer and fewer European pagans remained. Some persisted in remote, scattered groups of nomadic shamanic peoples such as the Sami in northern Scandinavia.  Some were Asiatic intruders, such as the Kumans who threatened eastern Hungary. However, by 1200, just one region of Europe, on the southern and eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, was populated by large groups of indigenous pagans.  They included Estonians and Livonians, both shamanistic Finnic peoples.  And, to their south, occupying most of modern Latvia, Lithuania and northern Poland were the Balts.  This is the story of how their ancient way of life finally came to an end.

The Livonians and Estonians

The Livonians and Estonians spoke Uralic languages closer to Finnish than to that of the Balt tribes to their south, or Russians to their east.  They were polytheistic and shared some shamanistic beliefs with the Sami in the far north.  In some senses their paganism could be described as animistic, seeing supernatural spiritual power in the natural world.

By the dawn of the C13th Estonia was divided into several large counties.  Perhaps the most notorious of these were the Oeselians who inhabited islands along the coast.  The Oeselians had a reputation for terrorising the Baltic over the summer months with piracy and sea raids.  It was most likely the Oeselians who infamously plundered the Swedish town of Sigtuna in 1187, killing the Archbishop of Uppsala.

Important deities included Ukko, the god of Thunder, also known as the Sky Father.  They also believed in the existence of a giant world tree, which they called Ilmapuu, to which the stars are nailed.  It served as a spiritual centre for their worldview, rather like the Norse Yggdrasil tree.

The Balts

The Balts, as a collective people, shared many common cultural beliefs and practices and spoke closely related languages.  They formed a distinctly different cultural group from the Estonians and Livonians to their north.  However, as with the Celts, different Balt peoples’ folk myths, customs and languages may have been related but they were not identical.

In 1200, the Balt peoples occupied lands bordering the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Riga.  These were the same homelands their ancestors had occupied ever since the bronze age.

The Balts were divided into several tribes and clans.  Different leaders rose to prominence at different times, but none dominated.  The Prussian Balts were especially fragmented, whereas the Lithuanians were more unified. 

By the C13th, the political situation was further confused by the increasing interference of neighbouring powers with different agendas.  These included the Catholic Poles whose stated desire to fend off pagan raiders masked a not so hidden agenda of territorial expansion.  To the east there were the Orthodox Russians, whose animosity to paganism was exceeded only by their hatred of Catholics.  In the sea to the west were Gotlanders, more concerned to curb Baltic pirates than convert pagans.

The Balts themselves were an ancient people.  Various migrations and invasions gradually reduced their range.  However, around the Baltic coast, they continued to maintain much the same way of life as they had since pre-Roman times.  They never fell under Rome’s influence, the Huns passed them by, Slavic migration failed to dislodge them, and they had weathered the storm of Viking raids. 

A Tribal Society

The Baltic pagans had a tribal society that was not dissimilar from the old pagan societies of the Irish Celts or early Anglo-Saxons.  The prowess of the individual warrior was celebrated in a culture where warfare was more about raid and counter raid than conquest. 

Slavery was endemic and widespread.  Slaves were the product of raids, but often only women were kept as slaves.  This was because women were easier to control and less likely to run away.  Typically, they were set to work as concubines or agricultural workers.  Male slaves were considered too troublesome and child slaves were more a drain on tribal resources than a boon.  However, many slaves were sold to Orthodox Russian buyers in the east.  Some eventually found their way all the way into central Asia.

The noble male warrior was at the apex of Baltic pagan society.  Female children were less valued and sometimes deliberately killed at birth.  This created a shortage of women which meant that tribal chiefs could command large dowries for the few daughters they had.  There is also (somewhat ironically) evidence to suggest that the few noble women who made it to adulthood held disproportionate influence in their society.  This was because their role was very important, but their numbers were relatively few.

Warfare

Teutonic chroniclers criticise the Baltic pagans for fighting as individual warriors rather than as a group.  However, this was at least partly based on an observation that they fought in a style very different from that of western knights.

The favoured weapons for a warrior were a spear and shield.  Shields used were not unlike those favoured by Vikings in past centuries.  Daggers were commonly carried to use as a back-up weapon.  Axes and swords were occasionally used but never to the same extent as the spear. 

Baltic warriors tended to be lightly armoured compared to western knights.  A warrior might possess a metal helmet, with which he might wear a chain shirt or perhaps a chain hauberk. Rarely would he possess anything heavier.  Bows and sometimes crossbows were occasionally used but javelins were the missile weapon of choice.

They used horses for war but mainly only to convey them from place to place.  In contact with the enemy, they would usually dismount and fight on foot. 

Their style of fighting and choice of equipment suited the terrain of their homeland, which was rugged, forested, marshy, and difficult.  Formations of heavily armoured mounted knights could struggle to manoeuvre in such conditions.  It was a landscape well suited to laying ambushes and executing hit-and-run raids. 

Raiding

The Baltic pagans maintained an undeniably militaristic culture, where the prowess of the warrior and success in mounting raids was a central part of their identity.  This raiding culture brought them into increasing conflict with their Christian neighbours.  That said, they were as apt to raid rival Baltic tribes as they were to raid Christian neighbours such as the Poles to their south or Russians to their east.  It was a way of life.  The same cultural values are evident in tales from Irish mythology and the heroic Brittonic poems of Taliesin.  In early medieval Europe such a way of life was closer to the norm.  But as the C13th dawned it was increasingly the exception.

Balt Paganism

The Balts were polytheistic pagans, much like other pagan cultures that prevailed across Europe prior to Christianisation.  The Teutonic cleric, Peter von Dusberg, describes Baltic paganism in terms that suggest an animistic religion.  He describes a superstitious people who venerated everything from the sun, moon and stars to birds and animals.  He also recorded the pagans had sacred places; groves and sacred springs where activities such as felling trees, farming and fishing were taboo.

Dusberg claimed that a man named ‘Criwe’ served as a kind of pagan pope.  People consulted this man for auguries, much like a Celtic druid or Roman Augur.  Dusberg and others observed that Baltic funerary rites involved cremation of the dead, often along with their favoured possessions, horses, hunting dogs and even their wife and servants.  This was so they might enter the afterlife with the things they needed. 

Belief in magic, divination and prophecy appears very strong.  Adam of Bremen, writing in 1075 concerning the Curonian Balts, claimed:

“All their houses are full of pagan soothsayers, diviners, and necromancers, who are even arrayed in a monastic habit. Ocular responses are sought there from all parts of the world, especially by Spaniards and Greeks.”

Adam of Bremen

Deities and Spirits

The pantheon of Balt gods worshipped included a number of important sky gods; deities of the sun, moon, stars, a heavenly smith and a thunder god.     There was also a goddess of fate and destiny and several deities (mostly female) who presided over the natural world and fertility.

Idol of the Baltic pagan sun goddess Saulė, wife of the moon god.  She was one of the most important Baltic pagan deities and one for whom we find some of the earliest references in the written record. Revered as the mother of the heavens, she was celebrated at the time of the winter and summer solstices.

The names of the Prussian deities may have differed to those of the Lithuanians and Latvians, but many performed the same roles.

In addition to deities, the Balts venerated spirits associated with various natural sacred places and animals.

Since the Balts were illiterate, surviving contemporary records of their religion all come from outside observers (all of whom were Christian and therefore potentially biased).  These accounts can be supplemented by ethnographic observations of residual pagan belief from the C19th, but this too cannot be entirely relied on.  Such pagan practice as survived to later centuries had almost certainly evolved and changed from that practiced in medieval times.  We have no foolproof way to know how much of what survived was also present in the Middle Ages. 

Early Missionaries

Of course, attempts were made by missionaries to convert the pagans.  Early missionaries to Prussia, Adalbert of Prague (997) and Bruno of Querfurt (1009), met with martyrdoms. 

In the case of Adalbert, he preached to the locals by reading from religious texts.  They had never seen a book or encountered writing before and were both astonished and afraid.  It is likely that Adalbert was killed because his ability to read was interpreted as some kind of evil magic.

Not all missionaries met with such grizzly ends, and many did succeed in making converts.  The Baltic pagans were usually hospitable to visitors unless they outstayed their welcome.  But overall, most pagans listened politely to the missionaries, while ultimately seeing no reasons to change.

In the north, in Livonia and Estonia, the only early attempts at conversion were driven mainly by the Orthodox Russians from Novgorod in the east.  The number of converts was limited as the Russians were mainly interested in simply pacifying the region to secure trade roots to the Baltic.  Pagan tribes paid a tribute but were otherwise mostly left to themselves. 

The Call for a Crusade

The pagan peoples of the Baltic region continued their way of life, largely unchanged until the end of the twelfth century.  Early attempts at Christian conversion had made only a quite limited impact.  But times were changing.

The twelfth century had seen the western Church sponsor several crusades in the Holy Land.  By the end of the period the crusading tradition was well established.  The century closed with the shock of Saladin’s victory at Hattin and the Third Crusade it provoked.  Western Europe, by this time, was in the grip of the height of crusading fervour.  Up until this time that fervour had been directed against the Muslim world but, just as the century ended, a new crusade was announced.

Pope Celestine III called for a crusade against the pagans of northeastern Europe in 1195.  The missionary work had now become a crusade.

The Livonian Crusade

The Livonian pagans controlled an important trade route that linked the Baltic Sea to the Russian interior.  During the C12th, German merchants settled on the coast to take advantage of this and with them came the clerics and missionaries.  The earliest conversions to Christianity were peaceful but slow.  The German Christians were even welcomed by local pagans as potential allies against Semigallian raiders to the south.

However, as time went by the Germanic settlers became more numerous and aggressive.  When Pope Celestine III issued his call for a crusade, it would be the Livonians who would be first in the firing line.

There were setbacks but, by 1202, the Bishopric of Riga had been founded and, shortly afterwards, the military Order of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. 

The brothers established several fortifications to control the region.  The fact that the Order possessed many heavily armoured German knights, placed them at a major advantage over the local pagans in a pitched battle.  Gradually, the Order extended its grip over Livonia.  Over the next few decades its control would expand, initially over the Livonians and ultimately over all Estonia.

Early Prussian Crusades

The call for a crusade against the Baltic pagans provided legitimacy and further impetus to ongoing Polish attempts to annex Prussian territory.  It was motivated as much by a desire to curb Prussian raiding and expand Polish territory as it was by any desire to convert pagans.  Gradually the Poles, through a combination of force and persuasion, had been making inroads in Prussia.

However, the efforts of the missionaries and the military campaigning of the Poles were sometimes at odds with each other.  The Polish kings were primarily interested in expanding their kingdom, an ulterior motive that was all too apparent to the Prussians.  The missionary attempts at peaceful conversion did enjoy some successes but were increasingly undermined by Polish aggression.

Since the Polish nobility were united in their support for the crusade, they were able to bring considerable military force to bear against the Prussians.  There was one problem, however.  When it came to the question of which Polish nobles should come into possession of which Prussian lands, they were far less united.

Duke Konrad

In the early C13th, the Polish Duke Konrad I of Masovia launched several campaigns to bring the Prussian tribes that bordered his lands to heel.  His first campaign was in 1209.  Others following in 1219 and 1222. 

Despite his efforts, Konrad achieved little except to provoke the Prussians.  Whilst Konrad was attempting to subjugate the disputed Chelmno Lands, the Prussians responded by raiding elsewhere.  One raid even penetrated worryingly close to Konrad’s residence at Płock castle.  

A combination of the Prussian hit-and-run style of warfare and quarrels amongst the Polish nobility, prevented Konrad from making any meaningful progress.  It became increasingly clear to Konrad that he had bitten off more than he could chew.  He needed help.  But to whom could he turn? 

In the end, he turned to a military crusading order known as the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem.  The Order would become better known as the Teutonic knights.

The Teutonic Crusades

The Teutonic knights would, over the following two centuries, gradually extend their influence over the entire Baltic region.  First, they forced the conversion of the Prussians, imposing their own German, Catholic, culture over the region.  Prussia would, over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, experience a dramatic influx of German settlers.  The region was completely transformed over this period. 

The Livonian Order in the north would eventually overstretch themselves and experience a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Lithuanian pagans in 1236.  The defeat spelt the end of the Sword Brothers.  Those few who survived were all subsumed into the Teutonic Order.

Over the decades the campaign to convert pagans to Christianity would morph into a campaign to carve out a Teutonic fiefdom along the Baltic coast.  It would, in time, clash with Christian neighbours as well as pagan natives.  Polish nobles, at various times, would seek to curb the power of the Order, sometimes even entering temporary alliances of convenience with the Balts. 

The Orthodox Russians to the east, were even less a friend to Catholicism than they had been to paganism.  The emergence of a powerful Germanic Catholic state on their western borders would eventually lead to open war in the mid-thirteenth century.

The Christianisation of the Baltic

Placing a final date on the end of Baltic paganism is difficult.  By the late C14th, political power struggles between different factions of Christians and pagans often did more to hamper Christianisation than help it.  The more the pagans were converted to Christianity, the more power struggles across the region became mired in political considerations.

At the end of the C14th, Grand Duke Jogaila emerged as the ruler of Lithuania.  To cement his position, he had done deals with the Teutonic order, brokered a marriage alliance with Poland and agreed to convert to Christianity.  Such political manoeuvrings allowed him to create a stable alliance between Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  Jogaila, thanks to his marriage alliance, eventually became King of Poland.  His reign sowed the seeds of what eventually became the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania (later King of Poland) oversaw the official conversion of Lithuania to the Catholic faith.

In 1387, Grand Duke Jogaila pushed through the systematic baptism of the Lithuanians into the Christian faith.  The last vestiges of paganism would officially disappear in 1416 when the Samogitians finally agreed to convert.

From this time onwards the Baltic states were all officially Christian ones.  But just because the kings, dukes and grand masters declared their people to be Christians does not mean to say that all of them were.

Paganism, post-Christianisation

The truth is that pagan beliefs persisted amongst the common folk across the Baltic states well into the early modern period.  It was only after the counter-reformation of the late sixteenth / early seventeenth century that paganism was finally supplanted by Christianity amongst the Baltic peoples.  Indeed, we have numerous detailed, late-sixteenth century accounts of active pagan practice across the region.

The Lithuanians, in the end, were the last non-nomadic people in Europe, to actively practice an indigenous pagan religion.  These beliefs persisted as an active, living faith, deep into the early modern period.  It is hard to say when these beliefs finally died out (if indeed they ever entirely did).  Certain folkloric customs, perhaps stripped of much of their original religious significance, persisted even to modern times.

Old Baltic pagan beliefs would eventually see a neo-pagan revival during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Indeed, some Baltic peoples continue to practice a neo-pagan form of their ancestral beliefs to this day.  It would seem that Europe’s last pagans have not yet disappeared from history.

Related articles

If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in reading some of our other articles concerning medieval folk traditions, myths, mysteries and legends:

Assassins and the Old Man of the Mountain

Father of Norse Mythology

Halloween the Middle Ages

King Arthur

Medieval Summer Folk Traditions

Robin Hood articles:

1 King John’s Nemesis

2 Robin of Wakefield

3 A Rebel Turned Robber

4 The Real Robin Hood

Saint George in Medieval England

The Green Man – History and Origins

The Morrigan

Trial of the Templars

Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

Witch of Wookey Hole

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References and further reading

Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic, Francis Young, Arc Humanities Press, 2022

The Balts (Ancient Peoples and Places), Marija Gimbutas, Thames & Hudson, 1963

The Teutonic Knights, Willam Urban, Frontline Books, 2015

Images

Pagan Baltic Sun Cross from a monument in Angiriai Hugoarg, Hugo.arg, 2018 (via Wiki Commons)

Baltic Tribes c.1200, produced by MapMaster, 2007, (Via Wiki Commons)

Wooden ceremonial idol of the Sun, used in the 19th century. Photographed at the National Museum of Lithuania by Welnias (Via Wiki Commons)

King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland (Grand Duke of Lithuania), detail of the Triptych of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Wawel Cathedral.  Unknown artist, Late C15th (via Wiki Commons)

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