When speaking about the ancient Lithuanians, their mode of life, character and customs, the historians of the past described them as strong-built men of medium height, peaceable and good-natured, but notable for courage in case they had to defend themselves. The historians usually stressed the hospitality, faithfulness to the given word and the love of truth and freedom inherent in Lithuanians.
Simonas Daukantas (1793-1864) was the first Lithuanian historian who wrote the Lithuanian in the native tongue. In his work Budas senoves lietuviu, kalnenu ir zemaiciu (The Character of Ancient Lithuanians, Highlanders and Samogitians) Daukantas writes that they lived in impenetrable forests which they alone knew well. The soil and the forests gave them food, clothing and arms. The Lithuanians engaged in hunting, husbandry, animal breeding and bee-keeping. They had their traditional food and drinks which their readily shared with visitors of good will. They themselves made their clothing, household utensils and arms. With foreign merchants they bartered pelts, wax, honey and other agricultural and sylvan goods for iron, salt and other wares which they could not produce at home.
Before the introduction of Christianity the Lithuanians worshipped the forces of Nature and had many gods and goddesses, quite like ancient Greeks or Romans. The chief god was Perkunas, the Thunder god. The ancient Lithuanians worshipped their gods not in special buildings, but in sacred groves and forests where a holy fire was kept, guarded by vaidilutes (the Lithuanian equivalent of vestal virgins). The will of the gods was expounded by priests called kriviai, which were headed by the principal priest called kriviu krivaitis usually belonging to the court of the Grand Duke.
The Lithuanians were the last pagan people in Europe. Many of them still worshipped their old gods and observed their old customs as late as the 16th and even 17th centuries. Upon its advent in Lithuania Christianity eventually did away with many of the old customs and traditions while dressing some others in Christian robes. Although formally declared religious holidays, Christmas, Easter and others retained many features characteristic of the old world outlook and of the old customs, which varied from one ethnographic region to another.
From their forefathers who had a wage a hard struggle with the forces of Nature the Lithuanians inherited their industry. Hospitality and friendliness are regarded as natural to them since time immemorial. At the same time Lithuanians, like other northern peoples, have always been and still are reserved in manner and speech. Their mentality and world perception are tinged with gentle lyricism which finds reflection particularly in folk art. There are also regional differences in the mode of life, manner and customs. West Lithuanians. e. Zemaiciai (Samogitians), are particularly sedate, reserved and persistent. Rational thinking, thrift and orderliness are characteristic of the majority of Aukstaiciai, particularly their south-western group called Suvalkieciai. Dzukai, living in South-east Lithuania, are cheerful, open-hearted, friendly and hospitable people who have always lived in poverty on their unproductive sandy land.
The echoes of the customs and traditions of past ages have reached our days. For the first time in Lithuanian history has created conditions propitious to the all-round development of the national culture. Therefore, many fine traditions and customs, which were gradually sinking into oblivion, are experiencing a rebirth with a new content reflecting the new life of today.
The Lithuanian national possesses a very rich folk-lore comprising a wealth of dainos (Lithuanian folk-songs), tales, legends, myths etc. The song is a constant companion of the Lithuanian in all his joys and sorrows. Not without reason Lithuania has been from olden times referred to as the land of songs. The wealth and beauty of our diagnose, notable for their lyricism and delicacy, have always amazed other peoples. Many of the dainos sing of work, e. g. tilling, harvesting, corn grinding, pastoral life, etc. There are many love and wedding songs as well as songs about the lot of the woman. Merry comic dainos are well represented too.
Historical songs reflect the hard struggle of the national for liberation, the hard lot of serfs, the memory of popular uprisings, etc. The Lithuanians have a highly original type of song, peculiar to them alone, the so-called sutartines, unique polyphonic songs in which two or three melodies are sung in parallel. Many of the ancient dainos are now rejuvenating. They are sung at meetings, various festivals, over the radio and television. Folk-songs are a must in the repertoire of the best professional singers.
Folk-tales, myths and legends constitute not only objects of scholarly studies, but also favourite childrens literature.
The dance is closely linked with the song. The Lithuanian national dance is usually a collective one, i. e. it is danced by many dancers. Very popular are round dances (the dancers from ring and dance singing at the same time). Most of the dances also reflect various work processes inseparable from the life of the people, viz.,
Rugeliai (Rye), Linelis (Flax), Kalvelis (Smith), Audeja (Weaver), Malunelis (Mill), Kepurine (Hat Dance), etc.
Nowadays folk-dances have almost completely lost their ball-room and recreate aspect. But they still retain their popularity as a concert element in the activity of various amateur groups in town and country; their are inseparable from popular festivals.
Lithuanian folk art is highly original too. Wood-carving present a particularly great interest. Rural Lithuania has always been rich in clever peasant craftsmen who had an innate feeling of art and used to produce truly artistic wooden household utensils or sculptured wooden figurines. Zemaitija (Samogitia) was particularly famous in this respect. The statuettes of the Saints made by rustic artists were used to decorate churches, wayside chapels and crosses. Such folk artists were called dievdirbiai (god makers). It is highly significant that the rustic artists made their saints look like common peasants whose visages and figures reflected the hard life of common folk, their hardships and sorrows.
Lithuania is known far and wide for her artists in amber who produce from this sun stone various fancy articles and souvenirs enjoying great popularity. We have also not a few artists working in ceramics, leathers and metal. Since olden times Lithuanian women have been famous as expert weavers. Their fabrics for national male and female garments, table-clothes, bedspreads, towels, sashes and ribbons are notable for originality. The basic material is linen and wool. The fabrics are decorated with national ornaments, mostly geometrical, such as checks, crosses, stars, stripes, conventionalised leaves, etc. The colour pattern is based on contrast though it is not so vivid like that of southern peoples: Lithuanian weavers contrast red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet, black and white.
The traditional female germinate consists of a white blouse with long sleeves, a long wide bright-coloured skirt and an apron. The skirts of Zemaiciai women are mostly striped lengthways; Aukstaiciai skirts are checked. Dzukai fabrics and clothes are notable for diversity of colour and pattern; sashes and ribbons were an inseparable part of their toilet, and they accompanied the Dzukai people from birth (used as swaddling-bands) to the grave (broad bands were used to lower the coffin into the tomb).
Girls used to cover their heads with wreaths or gay crowns with ribbons; married women wore white linen kerchiefs called nuometas. All women, young and old, liked to wear amber necklace as well as glass and metal trinkets.
Mans clothes were of a more simple fashion grey overcoats of coarse heavy cloth, while linen shirts, striped or checked trousers. They girdled with broad colourful bands. The traditional footwear called nagines was made of leather at home. The chief footwear in Zemaitija (Samogitia), wooden sabots called klumpes, were often ornamented with floral or herring-bone patterns.
Today traditional national costumes have gone out of everyday use though separate details and fabric patterns find a wide application in contemporary clothes.
Traditional costumes are worn on the stage for folk-dances or on festive occasions. Fabrics with traditional national patterns are produced by industry on a wide scale for their demand is very great, particularly before popular mass festivities. All amateur art companies have rich national costumes; children get acquainted with them while still in kindergartens, and they accompany them on various school occasions.
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Cultural Association Editorial Board, 1998.
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Page updated 2003.05.15.