A few days ago I was asked if I believed in shamanism. You could say that it's a bit of a bizarre question, but what's even more surprising is the fact that I didn't respond. It was simply impossible, and I was left perplexed. You can't question a Western person on their shamanic beliefs. It's not something that Western society practices, wants to practice or even understands. But in Latvia, a nation suspended between Europe and Russia, shamanism has found its raison d’être. The Baltic world doesn’t want to give up on the shaman, a key figure in the archaic agricultural part of the society. In a country where nature plays a lead role, questioning, being scared of or even knowing a shaman is common. Almost everybody owns a family house in the countryside, giving them the opportunity to be in harmony with the water, the earth and animals. Contrary to secular society, the forest is still synonymous with encounters, fears, doubts and experiences.
“After the fall of the Berlin wall, shamans came back,” Krišjānis, a student in Riga, explains. He continues: “In the West, people live in a post-religious world, but in ancient Soviet countries we live in a post-atheist one. Shamanism represents the search for a freedom that seemed to have been lost forever. From this perspective, shamanism has religious value but also cultural, anthropological and identity value.”
Shamanism is an Asian phenomenon that originated in Turkey, Mongolia and Siberia. The way in which it is integrated locally is very urban, and manifested in the image of Inin Nini, a local shaman who defines herself as a mystic healer, soul-guider and the storyteller of Riga. For her, shamanism is a way to truly express oneself without restrictions. It’s a manifestation of her uniqueness and her difference, which is otherwise repressed by the Soviet world. All it takes is to walk around the city and observe the homogeneity of the buildings and streets. The shaman puts an end to this monotony through the colour of their clothes and the smoke of their incense.
In Latvia, however, there is plenty of religious choice. 80% of the population may be Christian, but the “religion of the forest” is not uncommon.
Nature is the boss
Imagine a large pine forest with a lake in the middle, and a few small streams that stem from the main body of water. Now, fill this mental picture with mosquitos, flowers and ferns. A dog is barking in the distance and an elderly woman walks alone. Two children are climbing a tree on this summer day while their parents are swimming in the lake. They pile up some firewood and put some birch sap in a potato and carrot soup. Latvians are proud to be part of the ‘industrialised West’, but are all attached to the privileges that nature provides. Nature is the first communication channel to the world and everyone has access to it.
The shaman has reappeared in Latvian traditions. They are a symbol of resistance, a shield that reacts to those who oppose nature. It’s written in Latvia’s Baltic mythology, and it is known as the country of lauki (countryside). “Compared to other young Europeans, we have a different relationship to nature,” says Dace, a theology student in Rēzekne. “I would always play in nature when I was young. It’s where I had my first kiss and also what pushed me to choose to study theology, to reconcile my intimate relationship with nature and religion,” she continues, while walking through a sunny field. According to Dace, nature and religion are connected. “We can’t understand one without understanding the other. The East always fascinated me but I never gave up on local traditions. I’m neither Christian nor Pagan and I’m fascinated by pantheistic religions, as well as Asian spirituality. My opinion is similar to Spinoza’s. God is everywhere. In the lake, in the streams, in the boat…”
Mixed up religions
Religions other than Christianity are not a secret here. An exhibition on shamanism that took place in Tartu, Estonia, reminded people that there was a need for spirituality after the fall of the Berlin wall.
“Sometimes people ask me what young Latvians believe in,” Elina, a young woman who works in tourism in Rēzekne, explains. “Paganism and Christianity are continuously mixed together, it’s hard to know where one begins and the other ends. At the end of communism this mix started to develop. I don’t think that the rebirth of Dievturiba (pre-Christian Pagan polytheism) is a bad thing. I also don’t think that the recovery of Christianity after atheism is necessarily a bad thing. Our generation is looking to believe in something other than traditional Christianity,” she recounts.
Speaking with Latvians, it is clear to see that there is an abundance of different religions in the country. There are Catholics, Orthodoxes, Lutherans and Pagans. But to really grasp the experience of the young people, it’s best to look at look at Līgo and Jāni who are the main spiritual manifestations in Latvia. Līgo and Jāni day celebrates the end of a long winter: “Catholics celebrate St. John [in June], but we have removed the ‘saint’ to simply keep John as a person. Jānis is one of the most common names in Latvia. We aren’t giving up on our pre-Christian roots. We are soothed by a world of creatures, infinite fires, flower crowns and gods.”
Latvian spirituality is made up of many antique symbols that represent the sun, the rain, or the earth. For some Latvian pagans, the swastika has a completely different meaning than it does in the Western world, for example. Here it symbolises masculinity, fire and power. Even if it is illegal to show the swastika at public events in Latvia, it’s an object that is offered to boys as a sign of respect or friendship, and many have it tattooed on their arms or legs. The snake is a feminine symbol that represents wisdom. Many girls wear necklaces or bracelets with this symbol, and in the past it was used to embellish skirts. It’s also common practice to hang symbols on your door, such as the Laima, which represents destiny. Fertility also has a symbol and is depicted by the countryside.
“Part of the Baltic mythology is linked to symbols and the other part is linked to plants,” Elina explains. She smiles: “I remember having found a wild rowan tree when I was walking in the forest in Latgale with my grandmother. It’s very important to protect one’s house from bad spirits, burglars or lightning. My grandmother planted the tree in our garden and explained that it was necessary. It’s still there today.”
There’s something magical behind every symbol, like in a story: “The birch is a fundamental tree, we extract the sap but its wood is also largely used to build baby cribs. But the most important tree in Latvian mythology is the oak tree, a symbol of power, strength and resistance. It represents the connection between the earth and the sky, between humans and god. Young people use it to make their crowns for Līgo and Jāni. And for those who are looking for love in the Latvian woods, it’s important to find red clovers; flowers with pink colours and an oval shape. Making a simple crown with these flowers can work, but it’s even better to bring them home and put them underneath your pillow. At night, your partner will appear in a dream.”
National identity or religious identity?
In my search for Latvian spirituality I met Ilze, a young woman who got close to shamanism over the past years. She told me that the religious credo cannot be dissociated from one’s personal and national identity. “Latvia wasn't originally a Christian country. Here, shamans and natural gods came way before Christ and they never really left. We are the last European country to be christianised in the 12th century. However, people never really stopped believing in shamanistic rituals and the power of nature. This country is a large forest, and real shamanistic practices can be found here.”
Almost satisfied for having accomplished a spiritual identity, Ilze explains how she spends her days: “In my friends group some people do yoga, others are Buddhists, some go and see shamans. One of my friends once explained to me how a shamanistic ritual works. You go to the shaman and explain your problem, and then he or she gets in touch with the supernatural world by sending their soul to find answers. They then find a solution and a treatment. Normally we ask shamans for good health, but also for success and money. In the past, shamanistic rituals were long and took place after sunset. But today, for practical reasons, it’s usually shortened and done in during the daytime.”
“The most fascinating part of shamanism is Yasa. It’s originally a Turkish-Mongolian concept that is important in shamanism, and is the central link for man and nature. There’s a moral code that respects the seasons, as well as the demands and necessities of nature. It’s an ante litteram environment that us Latvians cannot give up. God is everywhere. Respecting him means respecting our woods, our country, our identities and ourselves,” explains Ilze.
I ask her to explain shamanism in more detail. Her speech is eloquent. In Siberia and the entire Baltic world, shamans are back. Or maybe they never left; they just took a break during the Soviet regime.