A. On Magic Roots of Invective, Insult, Satire, Curse, and Ritual Laughter

The purpose of satire in old times was to destroy whatever was overblown, faded and dull, and clear the soil for a new sowing. (Kurlents: 53)

The main distinguishing feature of the magical analogy is its highly emotional basis. The motions involved, greed for something desirable and fear of something undesirable, are very basic, and powerful ones. The reactions they induce would, therefore, tend to be relatively diffuse and undiscriminating. This is in accordance with Hebb’s theoy, according to which the capacity of sensory stimulation to guide behavior (its cue function) is poor when arousal is either very low or very high [Hebb 1966:236]. (Freibergs, 1971:26)

The nonGerman peasants have grown up without religion or the service of God, and they have only what the devil have given their forefathers with idolatry in groves and forests and other magic.

[Bulov, 1565 church visitation proclamation (Straubergs:47)]


Proactive Magic

Of the many types of agonistic activities and verbal aggression, for which the key terms "invective" and "insult" are generally used, some speech acts are involved in more strongly marked and framed performance events and recognized as important genres within the community. They are set off as opposed to the mundane and standard and belong to the realm of poetry, art, and the out-of-the-ordinary. Genres variously known as ritual clowning, flyting/ scolding contests, song wars, burlesque, and the like are found throughout the world, including Europe. Without any claim to a unilinear model of cultural evolution, the Latvian case suggests quite directly, openly, unambiguously, and even archetypically that the institutionalizing of humor as play war genre types developed as effective and flexible strategy to ritually ally groups that alternatively could be hostile while simultaneously controlling, defusing, or channeling tensions along major structural fault-lines of a society internally. In the Baltic there is a marked absence of mothers and sisters as butts of humor as in African tradition. Rather there is direct confrontation of male and female, clan and clan, relative and in-law, which indicates some differences in the functions of rituals from different societies. The ritual invective is an entry into study of social values, and stability through close textual examination of themes. It also allows some of the more creative members of the society to exercise their gifts. By playing with the conventions, even slight shifts in tone or the way a word is used can act as a catalyst for shifting and realigning in a process of self-organization of the social system. It provides a mechanism of self-renewal by usually imperceptibly and unobtrusively shedding old elements that are no longer useful and incorporating new ones in a selective process, a continuously renewing process of social norms. What straightforwardly appears to be praise may in fact be criticism with the function of social control, couched in the accepted safety of comedy. Even as the form appears to be somewhat of an invariant, in different social structures it is going to have a different effect and function.

That is not to say that the Latvian events in question do not have other dimensions, but the more conservative, ritual aspects, as opposed to the more theatrical, are more the focus of this research that is oriented to a study of historical roots. The material I have examined also can be interpreted to lend support to Vladimir Propp’s view stated in the Historic Roots of the Magic Tale (1946) that historic evolution may to some degree be inferred as it relates to the historic roots of other European material. The aggression is justified as giving dues to old customs (veca tiesa) and not to be taken seriously, but in the past functioned in terms of magic and psychology, social cohesion, and putting down threat. The roots of verbal aggression can be seen in magic, related to the incantations and curses, which are used as supernatural tools or weapons with the practical aim of achieving real-life results. While aggression is an aspect of humor, especially noticeable in archaic humor, invective and curse are not mirthful. An extended discussion is intended to situate apdziedāšanās within the general spectrum of Latvian humor and the various types of joking relationships.

One way to look at apdziedāšanās is as a type of ritual dialogue, involving proactive magical thinking. Olupe explains healing incantations involving anthropomorphization of the malady, which is addressed and encouraged to leave, as one such type of magical ritual dialogue (p. 31). Similarly, going through the apdziedāšanās ritual is a way to ensure the desired outcome of conflict identification, confrontation, and resolution between two groups wanting to cooperate, both grounded in psychological common sense and seen in magic terms. Instead of burying and suppressing, the tensions are acknowledged and an attempt is made to at the least defuse, if not actually resolve. It is, of course, another matter if the ritual is successful in accomplishing its goal. Benedikta Mežāle’s ideal account of apdziedāšanās as a form of public cleansing and absolution for violations of norms, probably gossiped about beforehand and judged as meriting public chastisement and ritual forgiving by song leaders entrusted with that role, would have to be tested "in the field." Which of the participants would fully share the same values, who would feel that they were fairly singled out, and how many would take the ceremony equally seriously would be factors for consideration.

Latvian joking examples include both internal and external examples. There are joking relations between structural unequals as well as peers in the household or in work parties, and highly marked play contests between two groups known as apdziedāšanās. Usually insult of the other is opposed to boast and praise of ones own group, but there is some self-irony. Curses, incantations, and serious insult in their active attack and intent to harm go beyond what is framed as desirable in a song war whose intent is framed as positive, to smooth over differences through a ritual performance. Consistent with the level of social organization, which is not highly hierarchical, evidence is lacking of a highly specialized class of bards, nidpoets, skolds, or scops as singers of praise and blame. Specialists, such as burtnieki (sign-makers) are know, especially in Lithuanian tradition, but if they actually had additional knowledge to that of reading bee-tree identification signs, or if they functioned as musicians, is not known, even though that is the image developed by the romantics in the Awakening. There is also no information as to what insult songs might have been used by archaic warriors challenging each other to public combat, assuming the Baltic tribes shared in this tradition. Latvian ritual insulting is heavily weighed as female, although the female song leaders use language that appears adapted from a combat model. It is explicit in wedding abduction drama, with a high probability that some actual combat songs were recontextualized, especially since there are parallels among neighboring peoples of such war songs. There are even songs that acknowledge that male repertoire was indeed one source for women’s songs. In most a traveling brother is cited, but also:

The girls sing their song; my song they don’t sing.

I shot my song among them, straight into the girls' songs.

Singing their songs the girls sang mine along. (595)

(case ending identifies singer as male)

Help me, boy, to sing, help me to make a song,

I will go help you work in the barley field. (LTD, 1011)

(The male here is the helpmate in song making.)

Roger Abrahams notes that agonistic genres are most highly developed in "speaking systems that value formality and eloquence...(they) serve as powerful expressive acts." (Abrahams: 145) A whole range of attitudes is framed as humor, play, abuse, and license ranging from light banter and playful tones to invective that approaches serious satire. It is also sexually charged, leading to the use of a special category of erotic, ribald, or licentious songs – the nerātnās dainas (lit. naughty songs), especially as emotions run high. A study of apdziedāšanās is, of course, concerned with ritual insults rather than on genuine personal insults. There is an audience expectation to evaluate the skillful use of formulae and devices known to all. While the degree of improvisation is maximum in terms of speech events, it is less than in personal insult. Exaggeration is one of the recognized conventions of the ritual abuse event, which Labov (1972) has identified as a key characteristic in playing the insult frame. Exaggeration is the primary device to ensure it stays a contest and does not degenerate to personal insult. Both exaggeration and understatement with an ironic effect are also means of insulting in the dainas. Objective descriptions, calling someone who actually is a cripple such is usually considered inappropriate in apdziedāšanās (B. Mežāle:10) and as in Labov’s observations would be personal invective rather than ritual insult. Some element of testing the butt of the insult is involved. B. Mežāle notes that there was close observation as to how the person being sung about reacted to the song. If taken with humor and without offense, as is the ideal, everyone felt happy. If the person takes offense, it can be considered an admission of guilt, or would cause the singer to re-examine her judgement. (B. Mežāle: 10; Vija Skrule, personal communication) There are instances where an attack would be considered too aggressive and inappropriate: “Earlier it would be a pretty powerful insult. To say it straight, in our days as well...” (Ansis Bērziņš, personal communication)

The event performance is expected to be a lengthy contest or “song war” (dziesmu kaŗš), a play of wits, with the nonstop exchange of insults. Ideally a retort builds on the previous by noting a key word or phrase and reversing or playing with it. The goal is to come up with more clever retorts and not to run out of them, all the while retaining good musical form. A part of the appeal is that when it is done artfully, the audience in addition to being a witness to the airing of tensions derives aesthetic satisfaction. Often, after the contest goes on perhaps for hours, no one concedes defeat and a truce is declared. Actually utterly defeating and making the other side truly loose face would be breaking the ritual frame and going into the equivalent of a heroic flyting. It would be counterproductive to the deepest purpose of the contest, which is to make peace after hostilities are vented, clear the air of tension, and to absolve those deemed socially guilty once they have paid with their public humiliation. This function appears to be international. Thus a description of Japanese tsumi confirms with Mary Douglas’s 1966 classic identification of pollution of purity as a violation of normative categories, which differentiate humans from animals, living from dead, or incest from appropriate marriage:

(Tsumi is) in the Shinto religion of Japan, a state of defilement or impurity resulting from the commission of unnatural or criminal acts. Incest, contact with the pollution of blood or death, and agricultural vandalism are prominent examples of tsumi. The term also covered sickness, disaster, and error, all beyond the control of man. Tsumi were thought to hinder the proper growth of the life force and result in a state of ritual impurity. Both ancient and modern Shinto are in agreement that defilement can be erased by some form of purification, through which man returns to his normal state of purity. <http://www.britannica.com/seo/t/tsumi>

The classic work on joking relationships by functionalist Radcliffe-Brown (1952) defines obligatory ludic abuse, often licentious and more playful than contesting, as between relatives structured in dependent but conflict-causing positions. The butt of the joke is supposed to take no offense. If it is unidirectional and the butt may not retaliate, it is a passive acceptance of abuse from a person of superior status. It is a way of underscoring hierarchical power relationships within a household or clan. Such relationships are inherently asymmetric and deal with unequals or people who structurally are placed in emotionally vulnerable relation. Most of the joking relationships within the daina world, however, have responsorial capability. The obvious exception is one where a party of singers comes to bring blessings to a farm, as during mumming or the rounds the Midsummer children make of the farms before assembling to light the common fires. In that case, their evaluation of the state of a visited farm as in good order, or out of order, is largely one-sided.

In contrast if it is among people placed structurally in nonhierarchical but sensitive relations, it is a way to defuse tension. Ritual abuse is a way of defusing conflict among people who both have to cooperate, but who would structurally be expected to have occasions of conflict with each other, a form of licensed abuse. The underlying assumption is that the ritual abuse is between groups that are considered equal in contrast to unidirectional insults from superior to inferior.

The classic work done on ritual insults among peers is richest on urban black adolescents (Abrahams 1962, Kochman 1972, Mitchell-Kernan 1971, Labov 1972). Ritual insult, as differentiated from personal insult, is a public game or contest where the wits of the combatants are tried and sharpened as training for success in an aggressive and hostile environment. Labov has outlined some of the rules, techniques, means of evaluation, and artistic devices such as rhyming. A successful response is one that builds or plays on the previous statement rather than repetition but stock formulas are recognizable in addition to stronger improvisation.

As the game progresses, there may be escalation in vulgarity in urban black culture. Mother insults are particularly common, but other relatives of the butt are also insulted. Incest, passive homosexuality, masculinity, skin color, and poverty are also common topics indicating areas of stress in the society of urban black adolescents. But the overt function of dozens or soundings is to test the "coolness" of the male combatants as judged by a female audience. The person who looses his cool and becomes offended at the exaggerated and explicit attacks on his female relatives has lost the contest. It is an ultimate test of emotional control within a street culture where if the insults become realistic or are taken as such, actual physical combat is inevitable.

The dozens as a more intense, graphic, and aggressive ludic contest performed by street culture males who could in fact end up fighting for real, informs historical Latvian apdziedāšanās. Nonnormative vulgarity and obscenity may also come up as the performance heats up in apdziedāšanās in contrast to these being denied or condemned outside the performance context. They are justified as veca tiesa (the old dues), but the sexual improprieties concentrate on uncontrolled excess, while homosexuality and incest are conspicuously absent as topics. One difference is that the Latvian material is more strongly clan-to-clan or group-to-group than the more markedly individual performances of the urban black American performers. In that sense it seems closer to what has been described in the South Sea Islands, and it has rather different topics of insult, indicating different tensions and stress. Also, rhyme is not a stylistic device employed in the dainas in contrast to the rhymed retorts in black North American subcultures. Perhaps one function in common with black subcultures is that the ritual insult arena is a chance to exhibit what one learns in the more everyday personal insult situation. Insult exchange sharpens one’s wits and repartee skills, conditions the participants against verbal aggression, and prepares them for a life where being a step ahead of the dominant, often harsh authority is a survival skill. The insult tradition, personal or ritual, flourished when the peasant was under a German manorial rule sometimes somewhat comparable in harshness to that of the American black slave at the same period of history. But under manorial conditions, the Baltic German ruling class would not have tolerated public aggressive male display.

The performance through the means of ridicule and scorn identifies the butt with what is improper, unclean or polluted, as pointed out by Daly’s work, and does not fit into the system of rules by which the community lives. A primary function of humor is ongoing exploring and testing of the limits of cultural norms. Their exaggeration or misapplication is a source of mirth. The key concept in Latvian is saderēt (to fit together in harmonious relation, also to make a contract), appearing throughout the daina corpus in various contexts. The content of insults identifies what a culture considers anomalous and impure. Thus, Catholic countries that take their religion seriously are also obsessed with religion and religious blasphemy is involved in their invective. This is one of the differences of Latvian from Lithuanian material as Christian blasphemy is conspicuously absent in Latvian insults. As a nod to their recent pagan past, there are invectives and curses involving pagan deities and forces (wolf, dark god). However, there are many insults that equate the butt with an animal, suggesting that the accused has a lower uncultured nature. Unlike the insults centered on the relatives and specifically the mother of American urban blacks, the insults are totally directed outside the family and upon the other clan all of whose members are accused of being intemperate in food and sex, lacking in proper social display and bearing, inept in their work, and otherwise uncivilized. An examination of the classic apdziedāšanās as well as the nerātnās dainas may suggest that failings in work ability and wit were perhaps greater sources of stress and censure than sexual impropriety. The latter seem to be sources of derision, but failing in work ability is something emotionally equivalent to blasphemy.

Humor as well as song accompany all aspects of life in the daina world and is consistent with an essentially stoical attitude toward the inescapable basic fortunes of life (laime). In good times, the laughter is light, in bad times dark humor is necessary to keep up courage, and irony is a way to maintain inconsistencies and injustice in bearable distanced perspective. Finally scorn, taunts, mocks, and ridicule are primary devices of social control in a world with a strongly developed sense of kauns (shame) and gods (honor). Izsmiekls (ridicule) is a powerful technology of combating the socially unacceptable." (Drīzule: 11) It is also consistent with the practical pro-active, largely positive approach to life’s problems characteristic of the daina world. A sense of taking control (varība) resounds throughout folk jokes, double meanings, and humor. Dainas seem to dwell less on disaster and plague as focus on survivors and surviving. Some get through crises as they dzen velnus (lit. "drive devils", shoot the breeze). The ability to distance, to ridicule almost takes on what we might call existential tones. Black humor, but not extremely black, is sprinkled throughout even funeral songs, such as the one about all the insects awaiting one’s death (49412).

Humor as a primary form of communication, ambiguous in ranging from extremely hostile to its rough opposite of camaraderie, from incidental playfulness to serious diatribe in formal settings, is a complex physiosociocultural phenomenon (cf Apte, 1985, 1994:69). Very often it acts to bond insiders while directing hostilities at outsiders. Associated with a physiological state that produces the mechanical action of laughing or smiling, it also appears when something absurd or incongruent is presented quickly which, the mind does not translate as threatening. However, threat and the laughter reflex are so close that laughter does occur at socially inappropriate, highly stressful situations, such as the nervous laugh. As an aspect of camaraderie there is also the shared laughter of guilt when injury or something generally viewed as wrong has been done. Cognitively, humor, like art, is sensitive to new situations, relationships, ambiguities, or strangeness. It is therefore involved in dual oppositions and their shifting relationships already on a physiological and cognitive level. Much of the older anthropological material deals with aggressive, sadistic humor, and disturbing laughing at misfortunes and deformities as well as shortcomings and foibles.

Kurlents suggests that Plato was disdainful of humor because laughter in the ancient world, as seen in heroic epics of different cultures, was predominantly crude, brutal, scornful, and cruel, the suddenly released outburst laughter of the triumphant victor over the fallen enemy, not at all mirthful or good-natured. In those instances it is not freehearted play or the pleasure of a child exploring the curious, or the wit of the adolescent flexing his mental boundaries that we see as positive in humor. (p. 22) Kurlents goes on to show that much of medieval humor was a "glorification of rascality" (p. 25)

Directing hostilities at outsiders is also grounded in the infantile, primitive, and unenlightened view that evil comes from outside, rather from inside or through pure chance. "This belief that evil comes from foreign, hostile tribes, while everyone in one’s own tribe is in harmony is also involved in believing magicians and persons who are jealous and evil-wishing to be outsiders." (Olupe, PSPAF: 62) Related to this thinking is the personification of illnesses as visiting outsiders, and, of course, viewing the dead with fear and dread as now distanced, malevolent beings. (Ibid)

However, Latvian apdziedāšanās as collected in the archives and as created today overall lacks the really sharp edge of cruelty and brutality readily observable in Scandinavian flytings and Russian bylinas. One possible explanation is transformation consistent with more modern sensibilities. However, I maintain the difference to have old standing in that apdziedāšanās as pseudo-contest or pseudo-war was dominated by women, the traditional peace-makers. The overall absence of true virulence is consistent and deliberate, alternative to the heroic mode, which deliberately excludes women or relegates them to observers or ululating cheerleaders.

Apdziedāšanās can also be seen as a type of ritual dialogue, involving proactive positive magical thinking that has other aspects than aggression, though aggression is certainly a basic aspect. Similarly, Olupe explains healing incantations involving anthropomorphization of the malady, which is respectfully addressed and encouraged to leave, as one such type of magical ritual dialogue where something feared is confronted and neutralized through the very power of civilized behavior. (p. 31)

Humor specialist Mahadev L. Apte states that notions of decorum constrain women from participating or at least initiating teasing, obscene joking, and horseplay especially in mixed-group situations, though they gossip, joke, banter, and tease among themselves:

In many societies women seem to be under greater constraints than men in their use or enjoyment of humor as part of social communication. In such societies notions of modesty and passivity associated with what is considered appropriate behavior for women may lead to their exclusion from public social events at which only men may engage in humor. As women get beyond the reproductive age, however, these restrictions are often relaxed. (Apte, 1994: 73)

However, Latvian apdziedāšanās doesn’t seem to support the universality of Apte’s observation. It is true, for instance, that in the past unmarried girls did not publicly lead bawdy songs. However, the bawdy songs were not restricted to women no longer sexually dangerous as past the reproductive stage (cf Mežāle, 14). In fact, the ideal song leader would be a mature woman with a powerful voice and good judgement, likely in the child-bearing period. Past the classical period when traditions based on the old pre-industrial way of life was becoming memory; songs were often collected from very old people. But earlier the primary distinction appears to be between unmarried and married, potential and actualized fertility. From a female perspective, in a magic ritual a woman of proven fertility, having given successful birth, is a more obvious vehicle of fertility and fertility songs than an inexperienced girl or postmenopausal woman. That Christian concepts of sexual shame may have transformed earlier concepts of fertility is suggested by the transformation of the wreath symbol, an old pagan sign of fertility and readiness for marriage, to one of Christian innocence and virginity. The difference in perspective seems to be sex related. The male perspective, which becomes dominant as archaic regional cultural diversity normalizes to fewer, more intercultural patterns, involves primarily sexual interest, tension, and anxiety. The female perspective relates sex to concerns of fertility, finding a protective mate, and establishing a family. The male perspective is more interested in controlling what is sexually dangerous, while the female perspective is more concerned with displaying fertility vigor and desirability. As cultures are normalized to be consistent with Great Religion values, they would tend to find displays of female fertility vigor to be sexually threatening, a source of potential inter-male conflict, and reason to exert pressure to discourage their public display. In strongly undifferentiated archaic agricultural societies the male perspective has not solidified as dominant ideology, enforced by more developed social male-dominant structures.

The different theoretical approaches to archaic style of humor do seem to agree that in the archaic cosmos joking is taken seriously. Accomplished jokesters are respected and feared. In the ludic ceremonies and festivities involving archaic joking and insulting, basic emotions are involved with contained aggression and obscenity of different shades of harshness or gentleness. In the daina world the tilt is more to the gentle. Frequently jokesters, specialists of humor, insult, and praise are also seen as among those who confront the strange, unknown, otherworldly, or sacred. In many cultures such singers are feared as tricksters in a class of those who move within the in-between or liminal, so that the literature on clowning and ritual studies has relevance to apdziedāšanās. Liminal phases, while set up to affirm social structure, may also sow rebellion. All of these appear to be of relevance to apdziedāšanās. Olupe points out that magic is especially resorted to where uncertainty and random effects dominate. (PSPAF: 66) She also mentions the compensatory function of magic and ritual, where "there is attempt to substitute or compensate for inadequate or incomplete action of a person, his actual helplessness, with illusory concepts." (Ibid: 70) However, it would seem an etic evaluation of magic as being purely illusory is to fail to take into effect the placebo or psychological effect it has on the persons who believe.

Tragedy and comedy differ in attitude even when the comic is used seriously and aggressively as a weapon. Tragedy is direct, solemn, sometimes naively or pedantically, and darkly emotionally involved. The comic even as it confronts death and that which can’t be understood requires a step back or distancing. Tragedy expresses either a direct sense expression or makes a metaphorical or parallel connection. The second, having accepted such a connection or reality sees something amiss or stresses the difference rather than the similarity. The first has dignity as well as its negative - stuffiness; the second plays, clowns, disrupts, and makes fun of things. Dainas are a good illustration of humor being largely situational. The same text, or perhaps a text barely altered, can be interpreted straightforwardly or ironically or even both simultaneously. Many dainas may be read alternatively as realistic, ribbing, or swaggering depending on the attitude, although some have acquired a more fixed setting: "Bumpy, scraggy, the room of this folk (tauta). My feet will smooth it well enough." (Melngailis, p. 13)

Some texts as a group have been documented as having changed overall meaning. Some that are now likely to be read ludically, ironically or even self-ironically, such as boasts or outrageously exaggerated insults, in a more archaic frame of reference were likely related to straightforward incantations, curses, and blessings (cf Vīķe-Freibergs, 1997: 125-142, 149-50). They appear to be verbal examples of the kind of boasts, obscene gestures, and other ritual displays of defiance that have the force of magic when two groups prepare to engage in serious aggressive confrontation. While apdziedāšanās does not generally include actual curses flung at the enemy and outright boasts are interpreted ironically, praise for one’s own group largely remains with less self-irony. One would suppose in the past at least boasting, if not blaming, might be stronger and taken more at face value rather than ironically. The daina world is a good place to explore how irony shades into magical thinking and historically derives from it, and how the flyting type of aggressive model is exploited as an alternative with less deadly outcome.

A quick survey of Latvian etymology suggests the close relationship of aggression and play (Karulis, II, 31-34, 47):

"Kaimiņu meitas…pīkās un pukojās par tādu nekaunīgu izturēšanos.” (“The neighbor girls…were angry and grumbling about such outrageous behavior.” (Janševskis, Dzimtene, I: 274).

pekoties, knakstīties - (dialect) – to play fight, shove around

peķuoties. pešīties, pesies – (dialect) to struggle, to verbally attack, related to *pek- words about pulling wool

peslis – querelsome person; pestis – bird of prey, such as in hawk family

pekstiņi, paiki – silliness, jokes

pikts – angry, pikt (to be angry) from the Indo-European *peik-/ *peig- to be angry or negatively predisposed actively or negatively with the possible sense of showing stupidity.

Pikuls, Pīkals, Piķis - Baltic dark and angry deity functionally related to jods, jupis (dark sky, storm demon) and velns (devil) as in curses.

The above cluster of words is apparently related to the Indo-European term for pulling wool *pek- (Karulis, 31), and significantly the term viloties (to pull wool) was used on the Sveiks listserve as a synonym for ludic verbal dueling or apdziedāšanās. When someone is joking with benign intent it is described as pulling wool or plucking feathers. What the etymology suggests is that the idea of serious and ludic have been associated from archaic times and are cognitively derived from an action that would have been commonly observed in early agriculture as both aggressive and useful.

Cartoon illustrations are a good source to understand modern Latvian humor. Synchronic changes can be noted going back to early sources, starting with the satirical newspaper supplements of the Awakening period in which Barons visibly participated, and going through, for instance, Alberts Kronenbergs (1887-1958) and Reinis Birzgalis (1907-1990). The last two have made many humorous illustrations of dainas, which give insights into that aspect of dialogue of past and present humor.

In his comparison of verbal aggression and humor in Estonian Kalevipoeg and Russian bylina, Alfred Kurlents draws on the work of A.M. Astakhova to show how a bylina functions to arouse hate, disgust, and contempt towards the enemy and neutralizes his power verbally. The enemy is described as a giant or monster. He is shown to be gluttonous and greedy. The hero who exposes his idle boastings, and either puts him to flight or defeats him, also mocks him. (Kurlents: 12-13) Many of the same themes are repeated in the apdziedāšanās, notably put-downs of gluttony and greed, animal savagery, and lack of control. It was a common phenomenon in the archaic Scandinavian, Irish, Greek, Arabian, and other societies that heroes engaged in verbal battle before physical battle, and words are seen as weapons in the concrete sense of malevolent magic. (cf Elliot) The intent to injure or kill an enemy of this type of verbal aggression is also relatable to the subject of invective and curse (lāsti), which occur in a broader context than heroic combat. Apdziedāšanās refrains from overly strong invective or curse. But as in heroic invective and curse, in apdziedāšanās it is important to call out the name of the "enemy," and a specific person on the other side, particularly the leader, is specially targeted. (Straubergs, 1939, 18) Verbal combat as a part of heroic combat, though archaic, seems to be a specialized instance of a still broader model.

Public ridicule is also a very common form of social control, regulation, and punishment of what is considered individually excessive or inappropriate among face-to-face traditional societies, and many have clowns who are sanctioned to mock and shame people to restrict social behavior within normative standards. While there are no public clowns as such in Latvian traditional society, mummers exhibit some clown characteristics, and the song leaders are entrusted with the responsibility as to whom to target with insults, to what degree, and how. Shaming is very effective in controlling anti-social behavior in a society where each person is dependent on others. Such sanctions as shunning might be used to add isolation as punishment, and there are many dainas about the unfairness of gossip (aprunāšana), especially from the viewpoint of an unfairly accused girl. Laumas as the spirits of drowned girls, some of who committed suicide because of gossip, attest to the power of shame and gossip as social control.

The most serious form of deadly supernatural force - sorcery, invectives, curses - thought to have real physical consequences, were not to be used in apdziedāšanās. In the past poets and satirists were often seen as akin to sorcerers, capable of causing great harm to those targeted. (cf Worcester). While Finno-Ugric folklore has no heroic flytings sung between champions before combat, there are accounts of song battles between magicians. The magic nature and power of the word is also emphasized in the daina world, and in the Baltic material powerful magic is associated with females as witches, magicians, werewolves, and other magic users. Combat on the level of weapons is less realistically sustained with female combatants than combat on the level of magic, especially as warfare becomes technologically advanced and professionalized. Troops led by a tribal chieftain, such as the British queen Boadicea, are no match for Roman professional armies. But the Finnish witch Louhi continues as a worthy opponent to the Kalevala heroes into modern times.

Some researchers have prioritized the heroic flyting as the prototype of the ritual verbal duel. Thus, Parks, referring to the "reality of sex roles in the literature of ages past" (12) argues for "association of heroic contesting with intermale combat in the animal world...proving of one’s ‘manhood’ is central to the whole heroic project." (Parks: 11) He cites Walter Ong as to the heroic flyting’s "psychosocial basis: argument as focal in male sexual identity, interiorization of conflict and displacement of overtly polemical displays in recent Western tradition" (Ong, 1981: 5). But linking the verbal duel and the song war to the heroic as prototype has the effect of marginalizing female participation even when it is documented as dominantly present in the Latvian case:

Men have historically exerted an overwhelming dominance in this speech and dialogic activity...males, both human and animal, engage in high-display threat interactions with much greater frequency than females…in these macho exchanges, sexual identity is very much to the point...In heroic narrative generally, men seem to have tried to exclude women from the category of potential ‘heroic adversaries,’(with) all the connotations of projected physical assault, posited comparability in mode of combat and admissible measures of heroic self-worth...(Parks, 179)

The Latvian and Finnic cases do not seem to support the prioritization of the heroic flyting. The absence of heroic flyting among the Baltic peoples, but the presence of song contests, both serious and ludic, suggests that the heroic flyting is not necessarily the universal or archetypal prototype, but rather a specialized art form of male aggressive display. Male display may be universal, but that does not exclude other forms of contesting that are either less gender polarized, or are female displays of vigor and desirability, some of which are quite aggressive. In fact, one would expect a heroic genre as a highly specialized art form to have developed in association with military princedoms, such as were developing in Kiev and Novgorod rather than among people socially less organized in clans. The Latvian kaŗa draudze may have been a more incipient version of what the Russian druzhina (local military alliance) developed into.

Parks identifies dialogic warfare too strongly with verbal dueling even as he acknowledges that it "springs up in every kind of context, leaping across historical, geographical, sociological, and linguistic boundaries." (Parks, 4) He is not particularly interested in ludic contesting, and seems to dismiss this as a secondary phenomenon, which has the effect of prioritizing heroic flyting as the prototype.

I believe the Latvian material poses a challenge. Apdziedāšanās, I contend, cannot be dismissed as purely ludic or as a derived secondary phenomenon. It has roots in genuine tension and aggression when relating to the other, and the performers are women. While there is no dispute that flytings are grounded in animal aggression and males exhibit much higher levels of testosterone induced violence, women do engage in verbal and physical aggression. In Latvia women dominate the rhetorical genre of the singing duel in a mixed setting, and it does not appear to be a recent phenomenon. Magic users also included females, and in the Baltic not only are witches prominent adversaries in magic belief, but also there are female werewolves. Archaic female power is socially grounded in economics and ideology. For example, official records of Zemgale and Kurzeme from past centuries indicate a significant number of older landowning female marriages to younger males, either through the iegātnis system where a daughter inherited land because of lack of a brother, or because of widowhood. (Elizabete Rutens, personal communication)

I believe that the intent of ludic contests has been worked out recurrently and over time overwhelmingly as to not lead to actual fighting, I propose that female participation, or even control, makes sense and is in fact a solution in volatile situations where men may become too combative and loose control. Thus song leaders are generally trusted, mature women who have reputations of sound judgment within the overall purpose of either ritual magical abusing or social censuring thought the vehicle of ludic performance.

Labov observed that ludic street flyting among black American street gangs when marked by ambiguity frequently leads to actual fighting, Parks comes close to a solution for his uneasy classification in marginalizing ludic contests and female participation while setting the heroic flyting as prototypical. He tries to salvage the theory by classifying ludic performances as "mixed" (p. 168). However, I believe the solution actually lies in recognizing as central the intent of a rhetoric exchange. Labov notes that black culture street soundings may or may not lead to actual fights and suggests predictable variables as to outcome. Parks himself notes than one does not flyt with monsters like Grendel who observe no rules but, only with a human who can be engaged in conversation and can understand contest rules. (Parks:22)

Latvian singing duels are close to the original ambiguous confrontation of "them and us" where aggression and the ludic have not completely separated. Ludic intent is thus taken seriously. I propose the Baltic case deliberately uses as resource those who are the specialists in peace-making and singing: the women. Latvian tradition does not have the heroic flyting, just as it does not have the epic, but it is no exception in having magic and verbal contests. Among indicators that the contests were often more than a teasing and courting game between the sexes, there are strong indications that song leaders felt strongly their group honor was at stake in the contest and that they were entrusted with preserving its reputation. There are reports of these female leaders becoming so involved that fights of sorts broke out between the singers, a reminder of how close even ludic flyting by women can be to fighting when group honor is at stake:

In the course of waring (karojot) and abusing (gānoties) the bride’s side and the groom’s side singers take turns verse against verse until final victory. Neither side wanted to remain the debtor. The waring often ended with real scuffling (plūkšanos) until the wedding guests separated the overheated singers. (Dziesminiece Veronika Porziņģe: 100)

Pēteris Jaunzems in an interview <http://www.media.lv> with Zenta Bērtiņa, the leader of the ethnographic singing ensemble known as the otaņinieki, notes that this group is known as one that "doesn’t let anyone step on their nose" (kas nevienam neatļauj sev uz deguna kāpt). There appears to be an entire type of story about how the suitu women were defeated by the teller’s group, which only underscores how respected they are and how they have become emblematic of the ethnographic singing group:"When our group had a concert, our women had gotten into a singing war with the suitenieces. Everyone sang so long that no one got any supper. But the next day the suitu women didn’t even respond to the good-morning of the otaņinieces. They were so angry at their defeat, they were red as poppy flowers, and that’s how they were walking around all day." Līne Šlampe, a member of the Sakne singing group offered this āpdziedāšanās song about the otaņinieces:


Otaniņinieces kuili jāja,/ Goda svārkus meklēdamas;

Dodied ļaudis, neliedziet,/ Jele kuili žēlojiet.

Otaņinieces were riding a boar looking for ceremonial cloaks; Give the cloaks, people, don’t deny them. Take pity on the boar.

And about women of Liepāja:


Liepājnieces sasēdušas Tā kā bekas kalniņā.

Dod, Dieviņi, stipru vēju, Lai tās bekas kustināja.

The Liepāja women have sat down/ like mushrooms on the hill.

Give, God, a strong wind, to move those shrooms.


The word tantuki (simultaneously suggesting both "aunties" – tantes and "tank") is seen as rude enough a designation that a query about it to the folklore listserve went unanswered. Mixed in with disdain and dismissal of "old women" is a grudging admiration from some of the young male leaders of ethnographic singing groups. Older women are supposed to be treated with respect, but when they are seen as actual adversaries, more aggressive emotions may be triggered. A story about how his regional group "beat" the suiti women was related in an electronic interview by Ansis Ataols Bērziņš, the sysop of the “folkloristi” listserve and the ensemble leader of the Riga-based folklore ensemble Maskačas spēlmaņi who told about how the ensemble from his region had beaten them. (May 19, 1999)

In 1996 (?) the Gudenieki suitu "young people’s" ensemble had come to Rīga. A few of the old ones (večas) were with them. Rīga Latvian Association concert in the Gold Hall. All of a sudden these women (šamās) start singing their suitu apdziedāšanās song and a few verses about "Rīga boys” also. That, of course, didn’t leave us indifferent, and we with Armands Kociņš (leader of the now dispersed Dziedru ensemble) began to give back. That is not what they had expected. Apparently they thought they could just sing their concert program in peace. They went out of that hall with sour faces.:)

In 1997 during the second regional day of Baltica Festival there were two major concerts, one in Turaida, Vidzeme and the other in Tukums, Kurzeme. Half of all the Baltica participants participated in each concert. We were in Tukums. Afterwards we drove to the Šlokenbergs Manor to eat, drink beer, dance, and party. The Skandinieku sievas (the most famous of the suitu women’s groups) somehow had broken a bench and had decided to palm it off on someone. We were sitting at the same table with the Budēļi (ensemble) and at the next table were Vydsmuiža (ensemble). They go to Vydsmuiža, try to exchange the bench, and even sing insult songs about them (apdzied). The čangalietes (idiomatic somewhat rude term used for eastern Latvians in contrast to western Latvians slātavieši) became slightly confused, so along with Budēļi we got involved, gave aid to our neighbors. The čangaļi regained their wits and so it started. The Skandinieces can’t be taken easily with a bare hand (nav ar pliku roku ņemamas), so for 2o minutes there was such a performance as no other. The “neutral” ensembles later rhapsodized about it (jūsmoja). But in the end those women (šām) fell short a verse and had to retreat in shame (negodu) with the broken bench.

I maintain that a strong claim, such as apparently put out by Parks, that contest duels are the monopoly of men after the fighting model can not be applied out of hand in the face of evidence that there are women involved in singing contests that are entered seriously and fought with pride. Parks would also have to dismiss the existence of women athletes, and at the extreme, historical cases of women warriors or other powerful and aggressive females. What makes the Latvian case particularly interesting is that this is not an individual, extraordinary, or upper class privileged women phenomenon, but an observable part of the historical heritage of ordinary people.

Remembering that the most common occasions for apdziedāšanās are weddings or Midsummer it may be relevant to note that in both the heroic tradition and the magic combat tradition many of the oldest materials have to do with the hero obtaining a beautiful wife of high status as the result of his heroic exploits, defeating monsters or enemies, and after triumph in tribal feuds. The most coherent narrative elements of Baltic daina myth also point to a celestial wedding where the bride is the incredibly beautiful Sun maiden, probably structurally connectable to the Indo-European dawn maiden (cf the latest efforts in McGrath, 1997), but which of the sky gods is the successful suitor varies depending on version. The plot is elaborated with conflicts, including the breaking of marriage taboos, and her apparent death or capture and either rescue efforts or rebirth, but these are difficult to make out with the conflicting elements from relatively short lyro-narrative versions from different regions. What is certain is that there is a celestial betrothal or wedding of cosmic importance to humans and their weddings on earth. Similarly, the Kalevala is largely made up of wedding songs, and the oldest bylinas are also quests, rivalry, and tribal feuds that end with the success of the hero in obtaining a bride, often from a supernatural Otherworld. The bride in the Kalevala is the beautiful daughter of the Northworld witch Louhi who has cosmic powers. The oldest bylina heroes (Kurlents: 65), like heroes from many European marchen, descend to the netherworld to obtain a bride, in the Russian versions shining like the sun. (Zheleznova).

My point is not to rehash old 19th century preoccupations in attempts to reconstruct the grand Eurasian (or Indo-European) myths. But as one is looking at this old material, it is striking that themes and motifs of sex and violence often seem to be linked to attempts in obtaining a woman from another clan or people. This seems relevant, since apdziedāšanās always involves two groups, neighbors or parties who have come in contact with each other for some kind of exchange or cooperation with marriage alliance (wedding) or betrothal (Midsummer myth) as paramount examples, but with straightforward group to group contesting always a background possibility, as in the Chinese model, as at work parties.


Dieviņ, tavu likumiņu, Laimiņ, tavu lēmumiņu!

Svešs ar svešu satikās, Mīļi mūžu nodzīvoja. (LD 17772)

Dievs, your law, Laima your decree!

Stranger met with stranger, Loving lived together.

(wedding song)

They meet on the border, on no-man’s land, or one party has entered the territory of the other. In very old times the other may be enemy or friend. If enemy, there is fighting. If the second, there is play fighting. Unlike in some Mesolithic past where two parties might come upon each other by accident, or in early feudal times when two war parties or armies would meet in a ceremonial battle, most of the meetings are arranged for the purpose of cooperation in some effort. But looking at the occasions for such meetings 150 years ago in Latvia, one notes that ritual hostilities are muted compared to those described in Oceania or Northwest Native American ceremonies dealing with generalized trade relations and the exchange of ritual gifts. The song wars are either among neighbors who form work alliances (talkas) or among peoples who may form a marriage alliance. The song wars are not between men, who exchange serious hostilities, but between two mixed sex groups, or between women representing those mixed groups who are neighbors. These are occasions when young people of opposite sex come into contact and erotic verbal play increasingly becomes an integral part of the performance of reconciliation. Enjoyment of mock battle together with teasing is enhanced and fused.

Nevertheless, in spite of its predominance, and in spite of the fact that obscenity is common in abuse songs, the erotic model version is but a subset of a larger one that is felt throughout the society. This model seems similar to what is going on with aggressive female singing in the southern Europe in the Balkans. It is an aggressive, competitive display of female vigor and desirability as perhaps the parallel to the male display, which is more likely to lead to actual physical combat with the winner taking the spoils from the loser. However, I maintain the overarching structure, as in Chinese village contests, is that of a group performing a reconciliation ritual, and this can be seen even to this day when different folk music ensembles meet at a festival and engage in competitive apdziedāšanās where erotic teasing is not the primary function. In this version of the more encompassing model, musicians or musician groups contest in a friendly or neutral setting and gender is not the primary issue, though of course the musicians may be only of one sex.


Ritual Laughter

To modern sensibilities, it may appear unsettling that much of the humor seems to be a crude ridiculing of the other’s physical appearance with the implication that therefore the person is unable to properly function in his or her expected social role. To our sensibility archaic ritual laughter is simply not understandable without recourse to those, such as Propp, who interpret, for instance, the laughter that accompanies the ancient spring agricultural effigy. To our sensibility it appears as an equivalent to the mad laughter of the sinister cartoon villain about to do his dastardly deal.

On the physiological level, one reacts to the strange with stronger emotion than to the familiar, which is likely taken for granted. With the unfamiliar the body is in readiness to confront or deal with danger. If the foreign is not so strange as to cause immediate fight or flight, then it often provokes laughter. Laughter can also be used as a defensive and aggressive weapon, to bolster ones confidence or to convince oneself that mortal danger can be overcome. But in the archaic world ritual laughter is purposive or functional in addition to having spontaneous aspects.

Recurrent historical conventional of encountering unknown, potentially dangerous forces include: 1) making loud noises, 2) boisterous merrymaking, 3) laughing, and 4) obscene joking. This is related to oppositions of life and death where the means employed are ties to life. In the past Baltic festivals were either characterized by boisterous merrymaking, or as in the quiet observance of Veļu vakars (Night of Ancestor Shades) framed by noisy fall and winter mumming activities. Likewise, Midsummer songs are to be sung loudly. Even funerals originally had celebratory aspects. As ritual abuse heated up, bawdy songs and the exchange of obscenities were forefronted.

While it may seem obvious also in our time that limited use of obscenities may be a way of reducing aggressive tension, or of erotic joking as a way of reducing libidinal tension in a controlled and accepted performance, in archaic societies there is the additional connection of the erotic to magic and ritual joking as a way to combat death, illness, and negative forces. V. Propp’s work on the tale type “Nesmejana” links laughter to magical thinking, a special kind of ritual existing in game forms, as well as to sexual themes in historical archaic belief systems. Laughter is a magic antidote or weapon against death, despair, and destruction. Laughter is perhaps even a more powerful form of magic than incantation and directly relates to beliefs about cosmological structure. Ritual laughter is also linked to sexuality as the life force in opposition to death and a fundamental means of regeneration. Laughter and sexuality are important components of Midsummer, mumming, weddings, and even work parties where young people meet. (cf Kursīte’s applications to Latvian materials of Propp and the Tartu semioticians). Propp’s finding is compatible with psychological approaches to laughter and suggests reasons for ritual laughter in general at cosmically and personally significant periods of life. Apparently Russian scholars, such as L.M. Ivleva, a student of Propp, have carried on to work out the typology and game theory of what they call “pre-theatrical” or “ethno-dramatic” game language as a fundamental and archaic structure , see <http://www.virginia.edu/~slavic/seefa/INDEX.HTM>.


Dying and reborn gods and sacrifice

There even appears to be a cognitive connection between the concept of sacrifice and of ritual abuse. Vladimir Propp’s classical work on comic laughter shows that laughter is connected with sympathetic efforts to induce or aid life and rebirth when confronted with death.

Carnival, preceding Lent and following Yuletide, according to Propp and others, is a modern descendant of rites central to a widespread antique religion of the dying and reborn god. Boisterous, noisy, replete with inversions, and characterized by obscene songs and licentious merrymaking in the Russian version of the ritual:

The central ritual consisted of welcoming and saying farewell to the deity Maslenica, who was portrayed as an effigy made of straw or rags. It was led with laughter, jokes, and merry songs on a barrow or wagon, or in a sleigh to the village; toward the end of Carnival week the effigy was led out beyond the village; and, with merry jokes, torn apart, burned, and thrown into the field. Accompanying the slaying of the god with laughter had a particular significance: it was assumed that such a death led toward life. Very few Carnival songs have been preserved. Their subject matter concerns the humorous banishment of Carnival.

The simultaneous presence of highly contradictory binary oppositions in high levels of irresolvable tension and emotion, such as comic and tragic, creative and destructive, pleasurable and terrible, attractive and disgusting are, as Bakhtin characterized it, fantastic, grotesque, and unstable. Latvian Midsummer does have carnival aspects, seen as an intrusion of the Otherworld as potent magic simultaneously in a positive (gathering of healing herbs, washing away illness in Midsummer dew) and threatening way (witches harming livestock or fields). It is characteristic of the Latvian festival as historically recorded that the playful, joyful, and exuberant is clearly emphasized over the demonic or grotesque. It is a time of merrymaking, singing, dancing, and lovers searching for the magical blooming fern. However, in this cosmic wedding drama of Midsummer, what is lacking but often present in European Carnival is gender switching role playing, or other role switching. Role playing is known in Latvian tradition as part of mumming where apdziedāšanās also occurs. This is another indicator that women’s role in Latvian rituals is not just something that is allowed them on a few exceptional venting occasions, but an ongoing part of cultural tradition.

There have been some literary attempts to relate the Latvian material to the dying god schema, along the lines of the Cambridge group in anthropology, which located the origins of Western comedy in agricultural fertility rituals. Antons Benjamiņš cites James Frazer’s classic, The Golden Bough directly, rather than Propp, and appears to use it as a template in which to insert relevant Latvian songs about the Midsummer deity Jānis (Yanis) as a sacrificial reborn god. There are a few examples of the Midsummer god Jānis associated with the hanged god motif, with the deity who is returned to water or “drowned,” with the deity who for some reason is tied to a tree with magic means, and with one who is shot with an arrow or hit in the back with a stone in the context of carnival revelry and mirth. But Bejamiņš’s work doesn’t confront the fact that in the pertinent Latvian corpus it is dominantly not Jānis, but the sun goddess Saule who is involved in birth, death, and rebirth. Biezais equates Jānis’s wife with the Sun as Daughter/Maiden – Saules meita. She meets the sky god Jānis, sometimes identified with Pērkons or Dievs. There is a cosmic betrothal or wedding, and the wife of Jānis disappears and Jānis searches for her, and in some cases another god (Christianized Pēteris) won’t return the stolen or wayward bride, or she drowns. Sometimes Midsummer mother as played in the ritual by a human is identified with the cycle. The sex of a god can, of course, jump from region to region or even performance as the central concept of motif is what is stable. However, the comprehensive scholarly study of death and rebirth in Latvian mythology, particularly as it pertains to Midsummer, is still to be written. In any case, the fact of ritual laughter, as proposed by Propp and occurring in connection with apdziedāšanās at Midsummers seems particularly salient to an understanding of the Midsummer rituals and of apdziedāšanās in general as a generalized principle observable in a number of celebrations and festivals: the triumph of the life force (associated with sex) over death and the refusal to accept suffering and death as ultimate and final.


Magical thinking by analogy

The world of dainas is permeated by potential magical thinking, tied to the analogic structure of each two-part unit that sympathetically associates two things as a pair in magical, metaphoric, and joking thinking. It is not practical to differentiate this older form of utilitarian magic thinking from a later sense of the more arbitrary metaphoric, poetic, artistic, or creative. In the older way of thinking there is a natural association of the larger cosmos as represented by something in nature and something in the more personal human realm. They are seen to be associated magically – more closely and necessarily than in later metaphoric interpretation, similar to New Age synchronicity. The orphan girl in great emotional need of comfort or counsel performs a magic act to call up her mother from the land of the setting sun, which in modern interpretation is seen as purely metaphorical. The difference may be in the intensity of the experience if the mother’s appearance is felt to be symbolical or actualizes as a presence:


Situ koku pie kociņa, Lai tek saule vakarā:

Teicu vārdu pie vārdiņa, Celies, mana māmuliņa. (4256)

I strike stick on stick; may the sun step quickly in the evening:

I say word after word: rise, mother, from the dead!


Thus the folk songs speak of putting on set of clothes, white, for sunny days, and another, gray, for rainy days. The sun and moon in their course are invoked as models for things being in their place and happening in accordance with universal laws. Actions that imitate their alternation with day and night are magical. Vycinas alludes to symbolic horse-racing among the Balts as taking place in an egg-shaped racing arena, symbolizing the womb of the Goddess, with twin racing brothers, one dark and the other light. (Vycinas: 145-6, 215)

Kārlis Straubergs did the classic work on magic and incantations with his compendium of Latviešu buŗamie vārdi (Latvian Incantations) in two volumes, and Pēteris Šmits with his Latviešu tautas ticējumi (Latvian Folk Beliefs) in 4 vols. Jānis Jansons’s 1937 monograph related Latvian incantations to the universal idea of cosmology as the source of sympathetic magic consistent with Mircea Eliade and his concept of the eternal return of the cosmic beginning in subsequent activity, emulated by humans. For the dainas this reference is most often that of the sun or the sun and the moon. Vaira Vīķe-Freibergs has written several articles on magic and incantations (1993, 1997). Vīķe-Freibergs sees the primary characteristic of magical thinking to be a lack of prioritizing primary and secondary causality, or distinguishing causality from contingency. Thinking is therefore synchronic; everything is potentially tied into a network relating to everything else. Magic practitioners believe they can evoke changes elsewhere in the cosmos through purposeful activity, evoking a sense of control and empowerment.

Vīķe-Freibergs believes that Latvian incantations were chanted in a characteristically rhythmical language, either whispering or monotonously, and as with the southern Slavs very rapidly (Vīķe-Freibergs, 1997: 142) It is not known if there were restrictions as to who might chant incantations. Among the south Slavs certain old women practiced incantation. The powerful female magic users raganas (witches) also chant incantations in the Baltic.

Thus the dual analogy structure of the daina has a potentially sympathetic magic aspect to it in associating two concepts or worlds. Vīķe-Freiberg’s study of associative magic in Latvian traditions resonates with Schrempp’s statement that in Oceania “ritual performances and political strategies emerge as attempts to recapture a lost unity.”(Schrempp 1992:97) The basic pattern or model is found throughout the modalities of culture.

In the chapter “Birth in the sun as beginning magic” (1997: 168 – 172) Vīķe-Freibergs discusses semantic connections of several dual categories: summer/ winter, sun/ north wind, red-white/ blue-black, our people or blood relatives/ strangers or in-laws as they relate to each other. In the wedding ritual, each side tries to equate their side with the positive aspects of the sun and life (red-white) in contrast to and at the expense of images and colors of winter and death (blue-black). Thus, the bride’s side sings, “Red-white our sister, born in the summer in the sun; Blue-black the suitor’s son, born in winter in a north wind. (21347). The groom’s side sings just the opposite, “Black, blue the bride-to-be, born in the winter in a north wind; my kinsman red and white, born in the sun in summer in the sun.” (21347) What is positive and what is negative shifts with perception and occasion, rather than being associated and fixed permanently with one side. Such an attitude may also help prevent a permanent negative association with female, which is common throughout the world, as having been swept by a number of paradigmatic thought revolutions, such as that of the Great Religions.

That the semantic color fields are concentrated in certain rituals, don’t hold true consistently, but appear as contradictions throughout the daina world is indicated in that in other contexts blue is a positive color, such as in flax flowers, the sky, or the dominant eye color of the Baltic. Blue is also a dominant color in regional art, as in the dark blue mitten patterns, and is a color associated with Finnish peoples, including the Latvian Livs and as mēļš is a color of choice in regional female ceremonial shawls and skirts. The basic associations are flexible.

Extensive discussion of colors in Latvian myth shows that all colors are ambivalent, especially white and black (Rūķe-Draviņš; Kokāre, 1974; Vīķe-Freibergs, 1980, JBS, xi/3; Gimbutas, 1989: 209-211; Greble, 1992: 159-173, Kursīte, 1996: 49-95). Black in the larger context includes wide spectra, including blue. Black is “connected with feminine beginnings (earth, water, their spirits and deities), black as both positive (fertility, plenitude generating), and negative (chaos destroying forces). (Ibid: 55) The black female cosmic sea serpent grinding everything eventually into flour-like powder primarily evokes the destructive process, but one also may think of the sampo-mill especially prominent in Finnish folklore as the source of plenitude. Similarly, the Daugava as River of Souls when described as black is likened to the cosmic sea also black. Even though rebirth exists potentially, black foregrounds and focuses on the destructive aspect. The offering of black animals as sacrifice is supposed to have a positive purpose of returning life from the chthonic forces in exchange. But white is also the color of not being, of rebirth, and death. The Shade Mother appears wrapped in a white shawl with sand feet or sitting on a white clover hill, the souls of warriors appear as snowstorms, reminding one of white ghosts even in English tradition. Conversely the black snake that is found in the bee “garden” is identified as Bee Mother, similarly as the cow patroness Govju Māršaviņa, or even as the mistress of Midsummer celebration personified by the mistress of a farm. Black is especially associated with both Earth Mother and Māra, though white is also associated with them. While in modern sensibility a pig may be negative, in historical Baltic consciousness a black pig is associated with the fertility of the Great Goddess. But since white is a sky color, associated with divinity and celebration, there is a significant tilt to the rebirth aspect, while black tilts more to the destructive aspect of the cyclical process.

Typical of Baltic dynamic dualism, there is an interaction of white and black as alternating and in contest. Usually the contest is seen from the viewpoint of the opponent being of the dark force, though this is more to accentuate the danger than to emphasize evil. From the 17th – 19th century Christianity increasingly reduces ambiguity in colors, tilting black to increasingly evil and white to increasingly good.

Bula also shows that simple logical binary opposition in the sense of Levi Strauss, V. Ivanov, V. Toporov, and J. Meletinsk does not hold throughout as an exhaustive valence or category in the case of Laima (Fate, Fortune) who appears singly, dually (Laima/ Nelaime), as one of three Laimas, as one of multiple Laimas each being having their own, as a part of collective lower deities associated with such other collectives as laumas, velni, zemes dieves, or raganas. (Bula, PSPAF: 52) While the case of Laima is most obvious and dramatic, a similar case can be made for other mythological oppositions, associations, and dualities. Again, it appears that Western and Great Religion normalizes by sharpening the dualities and decreasing structural richness that appears in older, original vernacular expression.

The transformative aspect of ritual has some analogy to the idea of transforming nature into culture. It is taking one structural order and by rearranging the elements transforming it into another unit. Thus, analogy chanted in incantations where one image is identified with another has some deep structure similarity to the magic process taking place in archaic apdziedāšanās magic. In words of iron designed to protect a warrior from the blows of iron weapons, there is a chant equating unyielding iron with the resistance of different threads of flax: "I was born to iron, I grew to iron, I shod my feet with iron, my body, my bones twist into flax tow where no lead bullet, no steel sword. Axe given by Dievs I hewed into the gray stone. From the stone I took grease to smear over my body. I fired an iron sauna with steel chips, an iron broom softened to beat a lad with the steel coat. I don’t have a coat, I don’t have a coat, I don’t have a coat." (FS 302,3948)

That belief in magic was common even at the end of the 18th century is indicated by, for instance, Hupel in 1774. Speaking of the Livs around Salaca where their numbers had dwindled significantly, he notes that because of their different language and the retention of some old customs peculiar to them, they are considered to be magicians by others even though for the most part they no longer act differently from non-Liv Latvians. (Cimermanis, 1996: 82). This information is affirmed by O. Huhn in 1815 who mentions occasional offerings of bread and cloth even in his time (Ibid: 82-3) and in 1846 A.J. Sjogren says that the Livs tenaciously hold on to their language, traditional culture, and mythology.


One and the Many

Dual formulations in the daina world could also be viewed as part of a One and the Many cosmology that conceptualizes relationships between the discrete and the flux. Models of cosmology in the dainas include a dominant dynamic dual model with at least an incipient third area of dialogic negotiation, and another based on nine. Nine or its multiple three times nine is involved in the image of the breaking of a cosmological container by a god with a goddess gathering up and putting together the pieces to recreate the world jug anew. This seems to be mostly involved with the calendar and has to do with the way the Latvian solar-lunar calendar is divided. Since the shattered vessel also has the double entendre meaning of coitus in the nerātnās dainas, the nine gestation months also seem relevant.

That the now divided and scattered parts are related, as in the shattered cosmic container image, is also expressed by the still apparent semantic relationship of many word clusters. Thus, after the primary colors of white, black, and red, the next group of colors are all etymologically related to the same Indo-European root *ghel- (shine, sparkle): dzeltens (yellow), zelts (gold), zaļš (green), zils (blue). (Karulis, I: 247; II: 548, 553, 561)

Another Latvian solution includes the concept of dividing, differentiating, or associating into halves. Pairs seen as contrasting halves or twins, struggling opponents, and the two-generation association of mother/ daughter or father/ son are the most obvious models. Gregory Schrempp observes that many creative acts use an alternation of two opposing forces, as in the Vedic alternative churning creative act. These cosmologies “accept disparity and opposition as part of the cosmos rather than...do away with its generative source.” (p. 63) Sexual generation is often taken as “the main productive principle” (p. 64, 70) Unlike the Oceanic peoples, dainas do not concern themselves with geneology, though the marriage alliance at the human (wedding) and cosmic (Midsummer) level is emblematic of alliances of them and us. There is also the androgynous double grain sheaf Jumis/ Jumala of Latvian mythology. However, ritual and magic enact the primordial, and concepts reinforce the basic cosmology: “Coexisting forms of ‘the one and the two...are historically practiced in various patterns of salience, alternation, and combination. Logically distinct yet not existentially incompatible...organized at various levels and in different domains by a synthesis of ‘symmetrical’ and ‘complementary’ relationships.” (Sahlins in Schrempp, Foreward: x). Double or alternating formulation seems to also be a part of much of the daina world social thought.” (for Maori, Schrempp: 66)

Guntis Pakalns who has done the most recent study on traditional Latvian models of space, singles out the model of two worlds classified as in binary opposition with a concentric boundary around them, and divided as well as united by a road between them. (Pakalns, 1988: esp. 99, 91-114; also 1986)

Some basic dual formulations that appear to have universal equivalents include: kin/ affine (radi/ tautas) divided as "pursuers" – bride’s people/ "takers" – groom’s people panāksnieki/ vedēji in the wedding ritual, us/ them (mēs/ sveši ļaudis), brother/ suitor (brālis/ tautietis), sister/ brother (māsiņas/ bāliņi), male/ female (puiši/ meitas or vīri/ sievas), of culture/ of nature or field/ forest (ārisks/ mežonīgs, āre/ mežs), as well as temporal and spatial dualities, cyclically alternating periods, light and dark, and deities appearing as complementary or antagonistic pairs (mother/ daughter being of special note). Sun (saule) and moon (mēness) are a discordant marital pair who alternately course the day and night. The seasons are primarily divided into summer and winter with spring as a transitional third season, and the day-night (diennakts) seen as a dual association. (Arāja: 24-25) The werewolf and witch trials, notably that of Old Tīss, suggest two separate struggling organizations that alternatively prevailed in terms of wins/losses, thereby determining the success of crops.

The primary metaphor for dissolution back into one, as well as the source, is water (sea, lake, spring, river – and secondarily a river in the sky). Included among broad cross-cultural analogies is also fire as a means of dissolving back into the one through smoke. Mežale lists stone, water, fire, and earth as alternate means of entry to the Otherworld. (Mežale, PASPAF: 28-9). Jaan Puhvel applies Dumezil’s theories to the Baltic, including tripartite Indo-European sacrifice (death by drowning or burial, hanging, and burning). Even though apdziedāšanās is a liminal activity happening in an in-between area, the songs are not intended on destruction, except for the temporary effect of the insulting. Certainly the ultimate means of destruction through stone, water, fire, and earth are not invoked. Apdziedāšanās does not acknowledge that any destruction is going on, even though in a liminal context the amount of change taking place is variable and ultimately unpredictable. Instead the sight or focus is on the constructive outcome, which is being accomplished by the back-and-forth alternating creative singing exchange among the participating groups in the song war. The back-and-forth weaving, sewing, or plaiting image is equated to responsorial singing and used to create a new magical unity. It is as if the boundary between the singers is now being rapidly criss-crossed over and over to create new connections by tiny accumulative acts. Some threads are unraveled and others are woven in.

A characteristic daina way of resolving tension between diversity and unity in the short run is through imagery of temporary containment. These images see tradition as knowledge capital that emanates from a timeless source and returns to it, but has dynamic aspects to it and is potentially endless in the forms it takes.

One image of tradition as knowledge capital is the storehouse (klēts), which beside the bathhouse pirts (the dwelling of the goddesses Laima or Māra) is the most sacred building on the farm. Not only is seed grain stored there, but also the wealth of the family - ornaments, ceremonial clothes, and weapons. It is also the summerhouse of unmarried girls, a place of creative possibility, and the most decorated building on the homestead. A nostalgic, romantic aura surrounds it for modern Latvians. In contrast, the Latvian artist Kalmīte immortalized the rija (threshing barn) as the abode of household devils. He painted hundreds of them in stark dark black and blood red because it was in the German master's threshing barn that the serf put in long hours "working without sun" shortening his natural life. Sometimes the serf was not given sufficient time to provide for his or her own family, sometimes crippled from overwork or beaten by the overseer. Inside the klēts are stored the pūri (dowry chests) of the girls and women. This includes not only the best textile work of a girl, but also heirlooms from her natal family, which she will pass on to her daughters or daughters-in-law. It is where she will get dressed for her wedding and where boys paid visits to the girls when they were courting.

The most intriguing container, however, is the song vācele. It was generally assumed that the song vāceles of the dainas were only metaphorical images. But some have tried to make a case (Grasis, 1992, personal communication) that knotted yarn balls existed as physical entities. If so, they functioned as mnemonic devices (similar to the Peruvian quipu) or even as an alphabet.


Song Creation Process

The image of "rolling yarn up into a ball" suggests a potentially unlimited source of generation. This is underscored in the dainas that locate the song box in an osier bush, willow or linden tree, orchard, or hop garden - all areas sacred to Laima (Fate). Storage in a container may be analogous to placing a body in a coffin and placing it in the cemetery, forest, or sea - made sacred by the souls there. Additionally, an infant is placed in a cradle hung at the edge of the forest so the child will "learn singing from the nightingale" and other birds. In short, placing a creation of culture back into the larger domain of wilder nature is to ensure its rebirth or recreation in the future, or to draw strength from her. Performance or use of a song is to take something discrete from the flux of living tradition or nature, and then return the performed song back to her. Songs ultimately derive from nature, concretized as birds or trees, the Forest Mother, or the goddess Laima (sometimes Mara - a syncretic Christian – pagan deity).

Other people asked me where I got such songs?

Laima (or Dear Mara) told me, the nightingale sang it. (236)

All of my ornamented songs ran together in the willow;

The willow began to sway; all the branches began to sing. (1050,7)

(The willow is one of the special trees of Laima, sometimes Māra.)

The song creation process is seen as a complex of both inherited and individual sources. The concrete individual sources are multiple. The brother or male kinsman who returns from far away lands introduces some songs. Usually the teacher of songs is the mother or grandmother. One daina speaks of a song chest made by grandmothers which five men and six horses could not move (35824). The emphasis is on an endless source of songs, seen in different dainas as either preexisting or as potential and transferable as if they were entities:

My mother gave for my dowry chest a small bast-basket of song;

Three days I sang; I didn't even move the lid. (30, var.)

When I sing, whenever I sing, I never lacked for song:

One has not been sung when a hundred new I created. (36,1)

I lacked not for song, even if I would sing all my life:

I had not finished singing one; already nine were in my head. (Ltdz, 28)

A boasting hyperbole:

I am mighty girl, singing I went about;

I sang Kurzeme all full; now I will sing in Vidzeme. (57)

One could visualize the Midsummer celebration as seizing or marking a moment in time that is in flux. As one immerses in the daina world, one can sense the tension between order and chaos, also suggested by complexity theory of nonlinear dynamics. Nature is conceptualized as dynamically divided into interrelated generative forces or deities. What these forces or deities are called and what the actual division of their provenance doesn't really matter. The various possibilities are expressions of the interrelationship of the One and the Many that has evolved and persisted through time.

While attending Gregory Schrempp’s classes in which he structurally contrasted some Oceanic and some Native American societies, I was repeatedly struck how much of what is in the daina world seemed to fit better with the latter. This is not that remarkable because I was considering that level of society in which the ruling German or other foreign hegemony was largely surface intrusion, rather than what was fully integrated on the state level. Cut off from the possibility Kai byus bojarkas of their own native leaders exercising a state hegemony, Latvian agriculturalists, increasingly becoming a peasant class by the 16th century at the level of family and cultural exchange with their immediate neighbors may have approximated conditions for the acephalous or loose and conditional leadership of earlier cultivators. In contrast, the Oceanic societies Schrempp considered were highly integrated, organized, hierarchical, and complex on a sociopolitical level. Valdis Zeps before his death (personal communication) once summarized that daina world had many characteristics of a pioneering society, the result of anomalous history and geography in the Baltic.



B. Passive-Aggressive Humor, Historical Background

There is no other way they can take revenge on the Germans, their masters, except through songs.

(J. G. Kohl, Die deutsch-russischen Ostseeprovinzen, II, 1841, on the topic of apdziedāšanās)

The character and temperament of an age, as well as its common sense, are always reflected in its laughter. Changes in the manner of expressing humour are frequently an index of the course of a civilization." (Kurlents:1)

In comic associations the differences must remain greater than the similarities. (Natsume Sōseki, quoted in Cohn: 9)

In 1934 Edward Sapir(408-415) in his call to the discipline of social psychology was concerned how to "bring every cultural pattern back to the living context from which it has been abstracted in the first place and, in parallel fashion, to bring every fact of personality formation back to its social matrix" (p.410). A study of Latvian historical materials either from documents written by those outside the culture and hostile to it, or from the artistic creations of the subjects can not really confront idiosyncratic personality, but it can isolate behavior patterns of a social grouping.

Many German sources from the 17th – 19th century emphasize the tendency of Latvian peasants to ironize and satirize through song, especially in the context of song rituals. All of language takes on an ever-present ironic possibility, a double meaning in a group that is oppressed, suppressed, or marginalized. It becomes a way of looking, a worldview. A Bakhtinian analysis of Latin American marginalization could just as well be applied to the history of the Baltic:

The repressive context generates an array of double-voiced, allegorical, and parodic strategies...a peculiar realm of irony where words and images are seldom taken at face value, whence the paradigmatic importance of parody and carnivalization as ‘ambivalent’ solutions within a situation of cultural asymmetry. (Stam: 123)

Bakhtin’s dialogics eschews unities and the canonization of ideology. It sees polyglossia, dialect, the simultaneous competition and contest of different dialects and speeches as the ground of socio-political and cultural reality. Apdziedāšanās can be seen as a simplified artistic expression of heteroglossia or the recognition of simultaneous alternatives in varying degrees of conflict, or at least opposition. Two representative conflicting spheres are brought together in liminal space and carnival atmosphere. The very fact of bringing together two different points of view in conflict creates the potential for irony and parody. But apdziedāšanās is also only the tip of an iceberg. While it is extra-ordinary, it is also part of historical Latvian comic vision that extends to the everyday while imbued with celebration and carnival. In some way it precedes what has now emerged as a dominant way of seeing, the ironical world view.

Much of the vitality of an underclass-marginalized group can be a rejection of the norms, values, and thinking categories imposed by their “superiors.” In Latvia and Estonia because of apartheid policies by the Baltic Germans, concepts of class and ethnicity were identified. Latvians were seen as uncultured peasant folk and Baltic Germans as those of higher culture. Such a state may open up assumptions held by the dominant class to alternative possibilities. A sense of irony, ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox developed out of historical marginalized and underclass conditions. Comedy is a strategy for survival when suffering, death, and tragedy are not or cannot be confronted directly. It can act as “holding power,” a way to step back and achieve respite or relief, distancing from what is sometimes unbearable. It is to some degree the dissociation of a victim from aggression that cannot be avoided, but not completely. The counter aggression is not direct and may stand in analogous relationship of a play war to a real war, but is real all the same in its attempt to sabotage and counter. As in Portrait of Whiteman (Basso, 1979) joking is exciting because it is not an immediate or real threat, but it can be potentially dangerous. It is invective that could be curse, or pseudo-invective or play-invective that might result in meaningful change.

There is a still deeper irony as to the history of passive aggression, counter-cultural resistance, and the sabotage of normative meaning of dominating culture. Almost geological layering suggests long-standing historical relationships of hierarchy and gender among members of the farmstead to be transferred to songs about the relationship of manor master and serfs (dzimtsļaudis) in the 17th – 19th centuries. It is during this period that the very large and nationally emblematic corpus of orphan songs take on the dominant modern meaning of someone who has lost the protection of their family, while in earlier strata, a woman moving to her husband’s homestead was temporarily placed in the status of an unprotected outsider, equivalent to an orphan. During the Awakening of the 19th century these archaic women’s protest songs became national resistance songs, defiant as well as mournful cries of "orphans"

Finally ironic representation of the Baltic German manor lord in different genres of folklore, but especially in humor, has similarities to what has been done with the portrait of a Whiteman by Native Americans. Making fun of the White man or of the German lordling puts down a powerful, potentially dangerous class of people with whom one cannot engage in outright confrontation.

It is also noteworthy that a primary political weapon of the New Latvian activists was satire, first in the supplements to the Pēterburgas avīze newspaper, called Dzirkstele (Spark) and Zobugals (lit. "Long-tooth"=Jester), taken up by the almanac Dunduri (Gadflies) 1875 – 1878. The great socialist writer Jānis Rainis specifically linked the apdziedāšanās tradition of folk songs to later literary activity, including his own.

In all cases throughout Latvian documented history, outright physical aggression was either impossible or a doomed strategy, but verbal aggression could either be disguised or had tolerated outlets:

Rhetorical devices allow invective to be more effective than direct name-calling or rude gestures. The indirect approach through parody, irony, mock-heroic, passion controlled by skill, a simulation of coolness and detachment rather than out of control rage. It makes the audience feel "that the author has risen above his subject." (Worcester, 20)

Perhaps because humor as a way of life is taken as self-explanatory may be one reason why there are few academic publications specifically addressing the issue of Latvian traditional humor except for J. Rozenbergs’s doctoral dissertation and two seminal articles on the subject in Valodas un literatūras institūta Raksti XI (1959). Additionally, during the Communist period a study of traditions was not encouraged, except as an instance of class conflict. Before that, during the Awakening period and the First Independence period the focus was on ethical and esthetic values because above all, Latvians wanted to be taken seriously as a "cultured people," proving wrong the assessment of the German landowning class that they were a peasant people unworthy of the higher sensibilities. This is currently reflected in the discussions of the Sveiks listserve, many of which involve negotiations of identity.However, the serious and ludic or the tragic and comic are bound together in creative tension with understanding of one depending on the other.

The neutral word smiet (to laugh), smīnēt (to grin, smile ironically, sneer – also vīpsnāt) becomes "to make fun of" (apsmiet, izsmiet, pārsmiet) and has a somewhat more sinister sound than in English, being even used as a synonym for izvarot (to rape). This is parallel to words for humor using metaphors of biting – iekost (to bite), zobot (to joke), izzobot (to cut into with ones teeth). The words for tooth (zobs) and sword (zobens) are related as sharp cutting things vilkt/ pavilkt/ paņemt uz zoba (to draw across a tooth) and izzobot, piezobot (to make fun of). But one also "cuts into" (iekost) something like a riddle as indicated by Ernest Dīnsberģis’ publication of Latvian riddles Še rieksti – kož! (Here are nuts – bite into them!). The most common word for teaser, joker (zobgalis – lterally with the double or pun meaning of "the one who is at the end of the tooth" or "ender/ killer of teeth") has both a light (scoffer, banterer) and sinister (sneerer, mocker – ņirga, irgoņa) meaning. A less common alternative for "jokester" is mēlgalis, garmēlis, zāģmēle (end of tongue, long tongue, saw tongue). The underlying concept that underlies the joking etymology is an image of drawing something across a sharp tooth or biting with the incisors. "So zobgalis may have meant zobdzelis – one who strikes/ incises/ inflicts injury with teeth." (Karulis, II, 567).

However, the term most generally used today for joke joks evolved from the *iek, iōk related to a special type of measured talking (Karulis, I: 357) This term, then, appears to stress the marked, special artistic aspect. Another term smieklis – laugh, originally meant "joke" as well as "smile", but is now used more generally as in smieklīgs – something funny or something to be made fun of (Karulis, II: 243), stressing the physical action of laughing.

Rozenbergs makes a compelling argument for apdziedāšanās as a source of historical information on the changing nature of class conflicts. Through an analysis of humorous and satirical dainas about indigenous nobles (bajāri, labieši), which is a relatively small corpus, he shows that as differentiation of class progressed, derision between groups seen more as structural equals was passed on to an asymmetrical joking situation. The jokes were increasingly applied unidirectionally to the class of wealthy saimnieki (prosperous landowner farmers). More significantly and forcefully, they were applied as a huge corpus of derisive songs about Baltic German estate barons. Rozenbergs studies are an excellent introduction into a study of the comic and its uses in Latvian traditions.

The relatively small corpus of songs that have survived about the native aristocracy, labieši or bajāri, significantly express a different set of values than the dominant ones found in the daina world. They are true survivors of a period that has become memory in the daina world, the time when there was no permanent outside hegemony and the native could aspire to "better" or "aristocratic" status. These "better folk" songs express values of pride, strength, and conspicuous display of status as befitting a noble understandable in terms of an archaic warrior code. The boasting is a straightforward beating of shield with sword challenge, rather than ironical. It is consistent with a time when Latvians would still have had their own nobles before their conquest, a period of early feudalism with an emerging petty aristocracy. It is similar to the boasts and aggressive displays of neighboring peoples who retained their native aristocracy. Synonyms used for labieši include silvered folk (sudrabaini ļaudis – reminescent of the English phrase about being born with a silver spoon), folk with noble bearing (diženi ļaudis), productive folk (raženi ļaudis), and rich folk (bagāti ļaudis). The usage of such terms as labs (of high standing =>good) in opposition to mazi ļaudis (small folk) or even vāji, vārgi ļaudis (weak people) which is related to the term for vārgi, vergi who are not ļaudis (free people) but slaves (originally war captives), clearly shows an older layer of meaning that is social and only later acquires an ethical meaning. A slave, very poor person, or outlaw is one who does not have the protection of his clan radi, and his only kinfolk are the elements of wild nature:


Ļaudis bija ļaudīm rada, Es nabags kokam rada:

Oši, kļavi, ozoliņi, Tie bij mani bāleliņi.(LD 4104)

Freemen were to freeman clan, I, poor man, have a tree as kin.

Ash, maple, oak tree; they are my kinsmen.

But already even this corpus about the native noble class has a negative tinge in that it is often unfavorably compared with the common people. Even more symbolically, there is a current of sympathy with people who lack household protection in a historical time when slaves were no longer taken in raids, but other socially unprotected people were termed orphans. Latvian folklorists have found especially significant the corpus about beautiful but lazy nobleman’s daughters. Satire and irony are born in the unfavorable comparison of a nobleman whose display and bearing are shown to be empty and lacking in terms of what is valued most by the peasant: diligence and genuine worth.


Diža slava, mazs tikums Bajāriņa meitiņām:

Dižas lādes kaldināja, Tukšas veda tautiņās. (LD 31189)


Bajāriņa brūti veda, Kuņa tek pakaļā.

Kā kuņiņa netecēs, Kucēns pūra dibenā. (LD 16730)


Mazs sunītis, kuplu asti, Dižu mežu skandināja;

Dažs bajāra tēva dēlis, Tukšu maku šķindināja. (Tdz 52483)


Bij mana pādīte bajāru rokās; Atdeva tik pliku kā pagalīti. (LD 1594)

Labs ar labu sasatika, Steidza mani aprunāt;

Būt maizītes gabaliņš, Būtu mani apēduši. (LD 8584)

Metat laipas bajāram, Man laipiņu nevajaga,

Es bij’ viegla bez sudraba, Pa niedrīti pārtecēju. (18778).

Great the fame, small the worth of the nobleman’s daughters:

A great chest was hammered, empty brought to the wedding.

A nobleman brought his bride home. A bitch was following them.

Why wouldn’t the bitch follow? Her puppy is in the dowry chest.

A small dog, thick tail, resounded through the great forest;

Not just one nobleman’s son was rattling an empty wallet.

The nobleman’s holding my godchild. But I’m getting it back split-log naked.

The better folk meet each other, hastened to gossip on me;

Had I been a piece of bread, they’d devoured it.

Throw a plank before the nobleman; I don’t need a plank.

I was light without silver; I could cross on a reed.

In contrast there are only a few prideful songs remaining from the viewpoint of the better folk who spurn the commoner:


Kā tu nāci, sīkaļiņa, Lielajosi dieveros?

Sīki tavi soļi bija, Liels dieveru pagalmiņš. (LD 21220)

How is it you are coming, small one (=bride), among the great groom’s brothers?

Your steps are small, the yard of the groom’s brothers large.

Rozenbergs notes that in Latgale the wedding guests were sometimes called by the term given to the nobility, so that the satirical songs about the native nobility intersect with the huge corpus of wedding songs (Rozenbergs, "Bajāri…”131-132)


Kai byus bojarkas Ismīdēt? Pakōrsim muškeņu Daguna golā. Muškeņa ļip ļip ļip, Bojarkas ķi ķi ķi. (LD 20819) How can we make fun of the nobleman? Let us hang a fly On the tip of his nose The fly goes lyp lyp lyp The nobleman ky ky ky.

In most songs, the attitude toward the "better" folk is irreverent. The speaker of the song snaps fingers under the nobleman’s nose, and the commoner girl flees from, rejects, or even physically repels a nobleman’s advances. The commoner reverses the disdainful attitude of the better off people by snubbing them, pointing out that these better folk do not belong in their despised world. Rozenbergs firmly establishes conspicuous display and boasting (dižošanās) as trope, which in a relatively small corpus of "relict" songs is still viewed as heroic and awesome, but in most dainas is seen ironically as false and empty. Heroic boasting of one’s worth is asymmetrically compared to actual contributions to the household through solid work and diligent character. While it is only an emerging trope in the songs that express an older attitude characteristic of a time when Latvians had their own "better" class, the tradition of mocking display in contrast to deed is fully developed as apdziedāšanās songs in the wedding rituals. Even the outward beauty of the nobleman’s daughters is not sufficient to make up for their lack in work skills, and therefore they are labeled as netikušas (lacking in worth, the term evolving to its modern more ethical meaning "lacking in inner worth =>profligate"). The stance is more than a sour grapes attitude that the fragile beauty of the princess is unavailable; it proceeds to an acceptance of enduring, or at least attainable, beauty as a meaningful goal.

In his research on satire about the manor lord, who is not of native aristocracy, but a German, Rozenbergs shows how the earlier resentment and envy against those better off, turns from irony into satire and on to vicious satire, inseparable from invective and curse as it becomes politically directed at foreign beneficiaries of apartheid. Satirical songs emerged that fix the master with tin eyes and lead feet so he cannot see or catch the workers. Some dainas invoke ancient curses of destruction. The German overlords are ground into ashes and dust and dispersed by the winds, most often with millstones.


Ai, vācieti, velna bērns, Dzimt tev bija, neuzaugt!

Dadžam augt(i) tai vietā, Vējam pelnus putināt. (LD 31856)

Oh, German, devil child, may you be born, but never grow up!

May thorns grow where you were born, may the wind blow your ashes.

There are other songs, which imagine severe physical abuse, such as tying the manor lord on an anthill, or making him "dance" on hot bricks, or hanging him in an oak tree. However, within the daina world really vicious songs are conspicuously in the minority. By far the largest corpus of humorous, ironic, satiric, and invective songs about German estate lords has a playful, almost mischievous tone:


Jājam, jājam kunga zirgu Līdz pat Rīgas robežai:

Iejājam Rīdziņā, Kunga zirgu pārdevām. (LTdz II, 2025)

We rode, we rode the master’s horse up to the edge of Riga:

We rode into Riga, we sold the master’s horse.

Other, often children’s songs about the master riding his horse, relies on slapstick by having the prig fall off into a ditch. Or the singer gets a chuckle imagining serving him inappropriate food: "Meow, meow, I caught a mouse, for the masters tasty meat, tender steaks. From the mouse-skins coats for the ladies." (Tdz 52575)

Still others make the point that intrusions into their lives and homes by the masters is not welcome: "Where, German, will you sit? Rain in the fields, smoke in the room. Sit in the depths of Hell: no rain there, no smoke." (LD 20900) Others make fun of the tribute that is demanded: "The master asked for bee wax, where was I to get bee wax? Fly, master, through the air, there your wax carriers (bees) are flying." (LD 31317) Singing and laughing are the primary ways of dealing with the harshness of life with severe constraints. It is necessary to be able to laugh at the oppressor because open defiance is not a realistic option and cutting him down is only possible through trope. Even tragic themes are treated with understatement that has the effect of gallows humor when one realizes the subject. Thus when the German lord pursues peasant women on his estate, the songs laugh that the pigs ate the lord’s pants, or reversing the interpretation of the tragic power inequality situation:


Ai, vācieti plikadīda, Nu tu būsi neziņā:

Vieni paši brūni svārki, Tie meitiņa rociņā. (LD 20392)

Oh, German, you pauper, now you won’t know what to do:

Only one brown suit; that in a girl’s hands.

In such a historical context, apdziedāšanās is less ludic play and more humor as a disguised weapon in a real class and ethnic conflict. Similarly, dark and bitter humor has been used as a real weapon during the great political conflicts involving the Latvian people and their struggles for the right to define themselves rather than be defined by outsiders. It was a way to provide an alternative consciousness to the dominant and hegemonic social order over which they had no control. The latest significant instance of subversion through music was the Singing Revolution of the late 1980’s (see Smidchens).

One must also recognize that anger and fear are the two most fundamental emotions of the reptilian brain, which humans also possess as part of their primitive functioning. In the neural net different strong emotions can be activated and associated as the primary concepts have many connections. It is therefore not surprising that linking anger, fear, and sexual aggression to the important aspects of culture seems to be universal with deep archaic roots, Additionally the concept of humor as awareness of discordance or something being out of synch or the ordinary can easily coexist with Freudian aggression theory of humor. Thus humor has similarities to and is linked to the sacred, ritual, and the arts, which are also defined in contrast to the mundane or ordinary.

The scop or his equivalent (possibly burtnieks in Latvian) was one who could inscribe magic signs and whose specialties were satirical and slanderous songs, which were seen to have magic effect, as the literature on the roots of Eurasian and classic comedy suggest:

As its magical functions declined, satire drew more and more nourishment from its secondary tap-root leading back into the origins of comedy. The rustic festival, the village procession fairly crackling with caustic repartee, the traditional license – verbal and otherwise – of the orgy, were fixtures of Greek life. In Italy contests of abuse carried on in Fescennine verses, contributed to the festival spirit and were a feature of the recurrent phallic ceremonies. The tradition of verbal license lived long among the folk of Italy and France. It crystallized once in the Roman satura, later in the Italian medley, or burlesque satire, of Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto, Golengo, and Casti. No less than by these, Byron’s later satiric manner was influenced by the still-surviving art of the improvisatore. In France, Feasts of Asses, Feasts of Fools, and boy-popes burlesqued the Mass – sermon, Host, and all – and profaned cathedrals in the most extraordinary ways until they were finally suppressed in the sixteenth century." (Worcester: 150)

Studies on classical rhetoric show that classical litigation was a form of persuasion that used praise and blame, character assassination of the opponent and the establishment of the worth of one’s own, instead of focusing on the issue. Thus invective and abuse were used as legal weapons:

Character denigration was an essential weapon in the hand of any Athenian orator. Because of the limitations imposed on the Athenian litigant by the regulations of the court and by the general lack of scientific techniques…a part of modern jurisprudence, the individual who appeared before an Athenian court of law was ultimately left with two devices: his ability to argue forcefully and coherently and his ability to establish in the jury’s mind the propriety of his own character and the impropriety of his antagonist’s. (Burke, p. 7-8

Rhetoric as a means to resolve personal disputes seems to have been widely present in many societies before the advent of modern law. Thus, Eskimo nith songs are another genre of song contest with the primary function being litigational.

While there is no evidence to my knowledge that apdziedāšanās functioned as outright litigation, the literature where it dovetails into the Latvian data only serves to underscore that contesting was not simple ludic entertainment. As Mežāle has shown in the Latvian case, social censure on a somewhat lower key was an essential component of the performance, and while aggression was not intended to be outright blood-letting, it was also not simply random or merely playful fun:

To sing about the loss of a (particular girl’s) wreath or innocence was almost like absolving sins…the shame was made public, which usually was known to everyone anyway and at the wedding everyone (otherwise) would feel as hiding something unclean and in the presence of polluting falsehood. (Mežāle: 46)

There is censure, but not beyond absolution. If it is brought into public, it is to clear the air and to be thereafter laid aside as forgiven. Thus apdziedāšanās can act as a cleansing or renewing ritual and preparing the way for a fresh start.

Humor is also a way to fight aggression, a survival tactic, relieving tension and providing alternatives and flexibility in the face of adversarial change. If humor is born of suffering and adversity in a Nietzchean sense, Worcester suggests that people who are threatened with suffering, or forced to watch others suffer, are more likely to take satire upon themselves. But women, according to Worcester, have not been greater satirists because they are broken in spirit by extreme suffering. (p. 13) Be that as it may, the daina world does react to deep suffering, and women do so with humor not on the individual stand-up comedian level, but through a slower process of generation after generation grinding out an ethos. At the very least the endorphin and enkephalin level of the brain is kept up and the chemicals associated with depression are reduced.

Satire is tragedy plus time.
Lenny Bruce, 20th-century American comedian (Josephson Institute of Ethics)


Even though there are some examples of the genuinely vitriolic invective, overall daina world humor is a gentler version, consistent with Estonian and Lithuanian traditions. In contrast the cruel and violent humor found in Russian epics appears presumably more characteristic of a more macho masculine worldview. Overall, the humor, even when dealing with serious subjects, is lighthearted, even merry, with ironic detachment clearly not sentimental, romantic, or weak. Cleverness rather than brute force dominate the invective. What is particularly conspicuous is the absence of a strong form of sexism. Butts and targets are equally male and female. It may be too strong a position that these characteristics are typical of gender, but surely the daina world has a feminine cast, and it abounds in humor in contrast to the common English attitude that women lack a sense of humor. Sometimes it isn’t even particularly gentle:


Es to daudzi nebēdāju, Kad man agri malti cēla;

Es norāvu gaiļam kakklu, Salauzīju dzirnaviņas. (788)

I didn’t waste time feeling bad when woken early for grinding flour;

I just snapped off the rooster’s neck, and broke the mill-stones.

The other side of aggression is that it unites those who share in the joke and helps create camaraderie. This function of humor can also range from the playful to the sharing of guilt. There was a small aside on humor on the Sveiks listserve (1/6/00):


There is both the aggressive and purposeful aspect of humor and also the opposite more playful aspect. My participation in early computer BBSs involved what the participants called "jabbertalky", a creative, bantering, mock abusing, in-language relying on in-group metaphors, which to the outsider appeared to be nonsense. Karulis points out that the word joks has to do with laughter, which can be good-natured or malicious, polite, nervous, uncontrolled, and so on.

Humor is valued in its performative context as an art language, and is valued as to success in drawing out reactions from others, such as merriment and a sense of camaraderie but also shock and insult. It can be a tactic in saying things indirectly, strangely, or ambiguously. The non-normative or unclear can be expressed through joking, partially escaping consequences and responsibility because it is supposed to be a joke and if the butt becomes offended, he displays weakness and the ability to be wounded. That allows one to propose what they may ordinarily not be able to do. One can conclude quite a bit from the choice of jokes, especially if one considers the context.


Since I belong to one of those who enjoy using the goal-oriented aspect of humor, I would like to add there are a few other things, which make this expressive form useful. A joke is laconic. Because it usually has a deeper undertone, it allows one to say a lot in a few words as well as quickly evaluate if those involved in the joking have a similar perception and compatible thinking speed. In groups where these are compatible, sometimes fairly complex problems may be solved in a half-serious tone, saying laconically, but understanding in half-words while retaining a brisk state of mind. If there isn’t such a common perception, joking and teasing is bothersome and doesn’t happen a lot. I’m sorry to say that in our otherwise interesting Sveiks society there is a very different sense of humor, reaction to irony, and a scale of values with which to evaluate a joke. That is why jokes and teasing here are variously received and are rare. Too bad… There’s another characteristic: that a good joke, aphorism, or especially anecdote "doesn’t have an author" – is cited without reference. It usually is more important that it says the right thing rather than who said it first…why not carry a nice turn of thought further? Besides if a person really has a sense of humor, they would only be happy that their witticism lives on. If he doesn’t have a sense of humor and asks for recognition or payment, then the joke came to him accidentally and as a person with no sense of humor, he doesn’t even have the right to recognition.;-)


That is how I interpreted the daina: "Lūkosim dziedājušas Ar bāliņa līgaviņu: Ja dziesmiņa saderēja, Tad sader dzīvojot. Gana man saderēja Ar bāliņa līgaviņu: Sader ziemu maltu iet, I vasaru druviņā. (LD 306). (Let us try out singing with brother’s bride: If the song fit together, living together will fit. It fits together well enough with brother’s wife: in the winter grinding corn, in the summer working in the field.) In the daina world a sharp mind was valued as manifest in singing and speech. Witticisms emphasize understanding and misunderstanding and therefore mark those who will be able to work together and undersand each other. So joking is largely among those who have commonality of language and attitude. The butt of a joke is therefore usually an outsider, but the joking is within one’s own group.

In a culture where shame is a means of social control, being made fun of is not all-mirthful fun. The pleasure and exuberance of festival is also a way of sugarcoating the medicine of criticism among people who ultimately must work together. In the broadest sense, the comic vision, a worldview or ethos grounded in incongruity, as well as the comic spirit, a dynamic that chooses festival rather than catastrophic war for real, is being approached as an addressable subject or object. The subject on this level resists confinement and oscillates between play or fun associated with a high level of excitement and game, which involves some purpose even as it is in the realm of the ludicrous and absurd. It is also a ludic world that has roots sufficiently archaic that while it speaks to Western cultural tradition, it appears at times to have more commonality with the Eastern traditions. Certainly it involves a sense of contradiction: normative and non-normative, of proper and absurd, of beautiful and ugly, of mirth and suffering, discord and balance, of recognizing two concepts or events as non-synthesizable, noncompatible, or irresolvable. There is thus never-ceasing tension, a permanent "war," revolution, or states of conflict because neither side can win to permanently subjugate the other. It is life going on in spite of death in the spirit of the Japanese saying, Fall seven times, stand up eight," (Josephson Institute of Ethics) knowing that eventually one will not be able to get up, but others will continue the game because self-renewing nature (Viņsaule), not the finite human world (Šī saule) is the ultimate reference.

C. Contesting Halves

The ‘insult’ hurled must not represent an accurate statement of reality, or a battle...will result. (Viv Edwards, Thomas J. Sienkewicz, p.130)


The Other

A characteristic of Baltic cognition seems to be to asymmetrically tilted toward marking, strengthening, or even constructing the positive or light aspect of a dialogic relationship when in a positive - negative dyad. Thus, Karulis notes that the Indo-European term that today means "friend" (draugs) originally was an ambivalent or even threatening term meaning "other" or "stranger" (*dhroughos), also known as sveši ļaudis (other people, strangers) (Karulis I: 226-227). He notes that orphans and children not one’s own were known as drauga bērni and that unrelated companions-in-arms were known as draugi while related men were called bāliņi. The term was extended to mean "brother-in-law" because military alliance was one of the results of a wedding alliance. In modern genteel Latvian spouses are also known as "married friends" (laulātais draugs, draudzene). In Baltic the term moved generally from ambivalence to the positive sense of "friend," while in other languages the root gravitated to the opposite pole (Avestan demon, German terms for cheating or trickery – Ibid: 226). The etymological tendency informs the process of apdziedāšanās, which moves from a state of suspicion, aggression, and hostility to reconciliation, co-operation, and friendship.

Co-operation is, of course, a successful, adaptive strategy for increasing survival chances. Even in terms of sociobiology and games theoFry, there are such concepts as inclusive fitness, which explain individual sacrifice for the survival of the group with whom he most closely shares genetic information. Reciprocal altruism also increases survival or fitness of groups that are not formed on the basis of genetics.


The Contest

While apdziedāšanās can be broadly classified as a ludic musical responsorial performance, in the past it had more serious ritual and contest aspects, and there is no evidence to suggest the participation of women to be a recent phenomenon, but to the contrary, that their participation was essential rather than incidental or marginal. The essential nature has to do with recognition and identity with a fundamental cognitive unit, as stated in the song:


Pulciņā, pulciņā, Bāleliņi, pulciņā!

I bitītes medu nes, Pulciņā strādādamas.

In a band, in a band, brothers, in a band!

Even the bees carried honey, working in a band.


Two kinds of bands are contrasted in the song, the male military unit and the female work band. What is interesting is that the military band compares itself to the female working band without feeling the comparison to be derogatory. The equation of the two is so complete, that there is no reason to prefer one to the other as prototype. The categories are so fundamental that they cannot be reduced into the other. The song also relates to archaic Baltic kinship using the bee as a model for connecting brother to brother-in-law through the bee sister/wife, a subject discussed later in this study. Bee-sisters do, in fact, disperse for a honey hunt and return with the spoils to the hive similar to a male hunting or raiding band. Additionally, the dual concept of "sides" is highly stressed in terms of location, kuŗu pusi – lit. what side = where. The cognitive weight is on a focus of two rather than indefinite numbers. Performances are keyed as "giving old dues": sava tiesa, veca tiesa (right, old right).


As classical historians reported of singing and dance before battles, so also there are reports of singing before battle and lamenting afterwards among the Baltic pagans, although the songs were not recorded. Apdziedāšanās may have had some distinct connection to ritualized war songs in that the songs use military language (pulks, karogs -band, military unit, flag) and posture (bragging, praise and insult) and the performance is termed "song wars" (dziesmu kaŗi). Even though there are songs about battle and marching songs, there is no information about what songs were sung before battle or mourning the dead afterwards. However, male songs were appropriated in the women’s repertoire, including most obviously "visiting girls" (meitās iešana), raiding, and hunting. Apdziedāšanās as a contest involves a battle enactment, the weapons being words.


The line cannot always be drawn clearly between goal-oriented game/ contest and activities/ play (paidia) without such goal. Games and contests range in significance from diversion and what is mostly exploratory play with little stake in the outcome to determining life and future for the participants in deadly earnest. (See Huizinga’s 1955 classic study for the relationship of play to comedy, Callois for game classifications.) In archaic societies champions representing their group have fought to the death to settle serious conflicts, such as territory rights. In the world of magic, wizards may battle with the power of word or song. In the mythic worlds and in their re-enactments a loosing side may forfeit some important privilege, though the sides will meet periodically to again decide an outcome.


Ethologically oriented anthropologists, such as Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson (1997) argue on the basis of chimpanzee aggression that hominid group solidarity is based on male aggression against other groups, including murder and rape, and these male bands cooperate realpolitik style to be more efficient at aggression. In this view, humans also ritualize aggression and rechannel it to be less dangerous and socially disruptive. Additionally, Kurlents and others have shown that what is framed as humor or play can actually be sadistic, cruel, and mean-spirited, found abundantly in archaic examples of animal tales and bylinas.

We also consider the play of young children for whom the activity is preparation for the "real thing." Contests take place in a liminal space representing a temporary shift from normal to abnormal order of social relations. The significance of a game depends upon the social value assigned by the participants. While values tend to be exceedingly stable, the values assigned to a particular activity can and do change.

Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of the pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation...The recognition that tradition bestows is a partial form of identification. In restaging the past it introduces other, incommensurable cultural temporalities into the invention of tradition. This process estranges any immediate access to an originary identity or a ‘received’ tradition. The borderline engagements of cultural difference may as often be consensual as conflicted; they may confound our definitions of tradition and modernity; realign the customary boundaries between the private and the public, high and low, and challenge normative expectations of development and progress. (Bhabha)

It is situational if a ritual affirms order or sows seeds or rebellion. The contexts, especially in modern society are multiple just as the symbolism is multi-layered. Therefore a simple static dualistic categorization of symbol inversion is not taking place. However, in pre-industrial agricultural Latvian society, since the rituals are tied to recurring calendar and personal lifecycles, some dominant long-standing oppositions do emerge.

Significantly the place of engagement is also often an in-between or third space, a border where each side becomes aware of the other and senses the other’s presence as having become significant. The strange becomes familiar and the familiar unfamiliar. At Midsummer the neighbors gather at a common hill, or at a riverside if there is no hill. The ritual greeting of intruder-guest at both ends of the wedding starts at the gate. E. Olupe mentions objects that mark the in-between to include "stone (which can act as the equivalent of earth), threshold, fence, boundary marker, crossroads, a place between two stones." (1989: 29) They are marked and marked off places where incantations to destroy (zūdināšana) are said to be effective, the space where destruction occurs, and there is an isomorphism between this and the other supernatural world so that activity in one affects the other. But if an area is cleared, this opens up new possibilities, which are then created in the action of dialogue, continuously "sewing" or "swinging" back and forth. Under normal conditions the borders, roads, fence, gates, or other markers between territories, including mental maps or concepts, are clearly marked and demarcated. (See Pakalns on roads, 1998: 91-114) Under liminal conditions the contesters take their positions as if on a bridge and push back and forth as to who will give way, just as in the dainas Laime (Fortune) and her opposite Nelaime (Disfortune) struggle as to who will advance and who will fall into the water.

The participants may not see the outcome as skill or be conscious of their strategies because they believe that the outcome is determined by a higher power (Laime lemj – Laima decrees) or chance so that a game is a matter of good luck (personified as Laime) or bad luck (personified as Nelaime).

Even if a contest is on the end of diversion, significant aspects of the culture may be involved. In his classic work on Festivals and Songs of Ancient China, Marcel Granet argues that, "In both (spring and fall festivals), competitions and tourneys depict the system upon which the community is organized." In these festivals involving a ritual contest of songs in some ways similar to Latvian song contests, the performance of individuals matters because they represent their clans or villages, and in the bigger scheme But no total is made of the winning throws of any single player. (Firth). The sides are the enduring aspect. In a ritual contest in a traditional society individual players drop out and die, but the sides remain as institutional entities. An individual can’t choose sides as membership in the kin group determines the side; they are born into a gender or clan or village. The maintenance of equilibrium, rather than reversal of the usual order of existence, is the greater purpose and, in any case, as the Borg say, "resistance is futile."


Ethnomusicologist Hopkins describes competitive insult singing by individuals representing peoples of different Norwegian mountain valleys:

Two singers alternately improvise insults to one another much in the manner of the Spanish-American decima. Each singer uses a short, pre-existent melody as a vehicle for the improvised text in this song competition. Sometimes the participants vie with one another as male and female; but often, they represent two mountain valleys, each regarding the opponent as a personification of the foreign community. In the past, anger engendered by this musical rivalry has led to more physically violent forms of combat, particularly during the explosive atmosphere of an after-wedding party." (Hopkins: 218)

In the Latvian examples display on the individual level is also expected to be secondary to social cohesion, harmony, and maintenance, though a good performer is valued for her competence. There is, however, no question about the spirit of competition with attendant pride on the part of the winners and anger on part of the losers.

I am unaware of any men’s only groups in a Latvian or Lithuanian singing contest. The singing contests were generally women against women, mixed, or men against women. One obvious reason is that women dominated the vocal musical genres, while most instrumental music was the provenance of men. That special problems could arise in a contest that would not be strictly constrained, and where males and females are pitted against each other, was practically illustrated by a virtual gender contest that emerged on a Latvian electronic listserve. Under ordinary apdziedāšanās conditions, there would be instant response and a leader in charge of each side would be entrusted with responsibility for the tone maintained in the contest. In a virtual contest done on an electronic list, the response is not instantaneous and because this list is unmoderated and any member can post what and when they pleased, such focus and control is lacking. This, in fact, caused a premature abortion of the contest when the aggression level got too rough and therefore uncomfortable for the tastes of most contestants against the female group. It only underscores the fact that ritual and symbolic warfare requires constraining rules and an understanding of clear codes, in contrast to an all-out, no holds-barred type of melee. In contrast (Sept. 2000) another contest in the area of political disagreement did emerge on the same listserve, eliciting strong irony, insult, and somewhat rougher language. However, since the sides were not drawn according to gender, the dispute ran its course, as there was tolerance for a higher level of aggression between males, or mixed sides. During the course of the two years I have participated in Latvian listserves, the change seems to be from a more formal and polite tone toward greater tolerance for greater experimenation and utilization of different styles. The use of informal "you" (tu, Tu) is now fairly common.

That contest does not necessarily have to be structurally between equal sides, including "wars between the sexes" is suggested by comic dueling in Japanese literature:


Japanese writers typically prefers an imbalanced structure, making the weaker figure both a narrating voice and protagonist and shifting the locus of the comic agon from external conflicts to the workings of the weaker figure’s psyche. When the stronger figure embodies flaws that are to be objects of unmaking, the speaking protagonist reveals theme directly to the audience while the putative victim remains oblivious to the process. (Cohn: 194)

In the Latvian apdziedāšanās there is no attempt to avoid inequality by indirect presentation. The conflict, though ludic, retains the direct and parallel model even when it is between the sexes. Knowing the songs gives the women an advantage, and also artistic competence rather than pure aggression determines the winner. But should the aggression exceed a comfortable level, predictably the contest would be terminated as one side would have won and the model is based on two roughly equal opponents. As folk ensemble leader Ansis Bērziņš indicated, if the opponents are not worthy, there isn’t much of a contest.

Differences and similarities between Latgalian singers from eastern Latvia and Alsunga singers from western Latvia are interesting to explore. Two books each represent the two traditions, Benedikta Mežale’s book, Apdzīduoshona kuozuos vai patīsa grāku atlaisšona and the book about suitu singer Dziesminiece Veronika Porziņģe.

A war of songs is a war of wit. A sharp wit is one of the characteristics recurrently singled out by foreign observers of the Baltic, and wit is found throughout the daina world, but wit is only a part of what is happening in the song wars of the daina world. How does an entrant into the daina world read the wit and the humor? Is a particularly aggressive daina invective or part of ritual drama? The answer is situational, but the general purpose of apdziedāšanās is ludic, the resolution of conflict through peaceful means in contrast to flyting, where combat frequently follows. Māra Grīns summarizes apdziedāšanās in a neo-pagan publication Labietis article, "It is this contest’s unwritten law, that assumes the exaggerated insults to be accepted as a joke and merry performance, ending with the making of peace." (p. 2341) The agonistic rhetoric cannot be reduced down to the specific charges of lack and impropriety of which the other side is accused. As dramatic theorists, such as Kenneth Burke (1945), have pointed out, the great metaphor for living is dramatic and more phatic than on the level of conveying specific information. The overall purpose of ritual is subconscious, therapeutic, seeking and seeming to bridge logically unbridgeable differences. As in traditional liminality there is a constant current of joking, as a shared experience among equals or friends, the sense of comitas that increases cooperation and releases tensions, or as in the case of joking relationships if among unequals ensures that the inequality not be subverted. The festivities lead to a heightened and altered state culminating in euphoria. It is an enjoyable experience. Nevertheless, informative information is in fact also exchanged. Good lead singers do not target randomly, and butts do take to heart charges of misconduct, impropriety, and other failings. Specific use of verbal forms is renegotiated. As Burke saw, motivations and drama have grammar, which can be analyzed, even if the experience itself cannot be reduced to something else.


Carnival aspects

It has been maintained from Aristotle’s Poetics on in the classic sources of the West based on the study of archaic Greek drama that the comic stance and comic literature are not open forms of committed antagonistic aggression, but at best are passive-regressive at a distance potshots whose purpose is not revolution, but conciliation or resolution of discord, the opposite of tragedy. It is a "subversive pleasure" to use the title of one book about Bakhtin, (Robert Stam, Subversive Pleasures. Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film). Furthermore, it often consists of crude and cruel mockery of physical appearance or defect seen as indicative of low character and status as well.

Ethologists have pointed to ritual-like behavior or "carnival" of chimpanzees in the gathering of bands at plentiful common food sources. (Reynolds and Reynolds: 408), Some studies of ritual and drama have associated the festive sense historically with marked sites such as river crossings, hills, or caves and with sacrifice (cf Girard; Schechner 1994: 618, 632-638) where the focus is on the benefits to the assembled celebrants and on the rebirth of the victim, rather than upon the tragic death of the victim. Ritual is in this view a way to cathartically redirect violent and erotic tensions, often taking the form of violence where a victim is actually or theatrically killed, thereby removing tension and restoring "dissolution of distinctions" (Schechner: 634). Death is denied because it is not seen as final, or the victim can’t retaliate, and the suffering is not confronted because it is seen as a justifiable means to a desired end. Sacrifice is also seen as sacred, not framed as profane murder. The form of mirthful detachment is a form of dealing with misfortune, adversary, and death through psychological states that affirm the opposite. Festivals create altered, euphoric states, and the emotional highs may last long enough to get through everyday adversity afterwards until the next festival. Festivals are not, of course, simple reenactments of recurrent dying king sacrificial ritual in the Frazer sense, or any other archaic ritual, but the underlying psychology is recognizable: an altered state of euphoric revelry, distancing from the reality of suffering, and the suspension of everyday norms.

There is, in fact, no evidence of human sacrifice in the Latvian materials, and conspicuously, there is no recorded ritual slaying enactment at Midsummer or during mumming, or any other festival, even though there are aggressive and erotic tensions and focus on fertility. In any case, the classic position has been that ritual affirms, rather than questions, basic social structures and institutions, and is therefore sanctioned or allowed by the authorities as a pleasurable form of venting tensions along the basic divisions of society, such as class and gender. (cf Rappoport on the enduring, recurring, and stereotypical aspects of ritual.) Thus, temporary inversion is not only tolerated but also encouraged.

However, this position has been developed further as the ongoing regulative function of ritual has been emphasized and noting the interplay and "balance between improvisation and rule-governed behavior" (Schechner: 621). Turner develops the idea of social drama as a way of addressing a breach of social relations that has progressed to crisis by redressive action and the reintegration of the schism (1974: 23-59). The very nature of anti-structural liminality opens up alternatives for consideration. Joel Cohn in his study of Japanese comic narratives notes (narrative rather than drama being a vehicle of the Japanese comic spirit):

Even in cases where the social order is restored, as in the boy-gets-girl ending of the typical romantic comedy, it takes the form of a reconciliation of conflicting elements, with both of the hitherto contesting parties sharing in the new order; there is no return to the status quo ante of the sort that marks the termination of carnival…the narrative moves beyond inversion (and its relegitimizing of hierarchical structures) to a condition of leveling in which the former antagonists can be integrated and all hierarchy is abolished. (Cohn: 176)

In Greimas’s remodeling of Propp’s schema a wedding is seen in terms of its resolving a conflict and restoring a contract." (Soviet Structural Folkloristics: 34) Thus, in a song war one can observe in a direct, concrete, and physical form something analogous to what has been expressed about the intermediary role of the folktale "…it resolves the contradictions between structure and historical development, and society and the individual." (Soviet Structural Folkloristics: 36)

Comedy has also served the double function of making survival emotionally and spiritually possible when actual external conditions could not be changed, while simultaneously sowing and harboring subversive seeds whose germination, though long-term, led to more active forms of consciousness and even revolution. The development of the Singing Festivals of the First Awakening as transformations of pre-industrial agricultural festivals led to the first national independence. And the Singing Revolution (Third Awakening) was a culmination of the Folklore ensemble movement (Second Awakening) led to a reestablishment of national independence. The protest songs of orphans and mistreated daughters-in-law had been recontextualized as national protest songs with which broad segments of modern Latvian society identified.


Halves, sides, and their presencing

One common theme throughout Latvian folklore, suggesting deep structure, is that of contesting opposing natural forces, often perceived as sides – halves (puses), striving, struggling, contesting, or engaged in argument strīds. This agonistic dialogue, strīds is related to IE *ster- (stiff), suggesting an unyielding established position, rather than an openness to exchange. The use of the concept puses (halves) suggests a parallel alignment. The antagonistic positions remain constant, but who fills the slots varies from daina to daina and performance to performance:


Dievs ar Laimi manis dēļ Stāv lielā ienaidā:

Dievs man deva maizes zemi, Laime liedza arājiņu. (LD 9459)

God and Laima on my behalf are in a state of feud:

God gave me land for bread, Laima denied me a ploughman.


The sky god as he becomes God usurps the functions of casting fortune, which is the provenance of Laima who sometimes contests with her negation Nelaime or in matters of life with the death goddess Veļu māte. In this daina God occupies the slot by association of preferred inheritance of land by a male who can work it with a plough. But the girl, though she apparently has inherited the land because she doesn’t have a brother, is not being granted a husband to plough it.

There is also another, hierarchical alignment basic to Latvian concepts, which is center (vidus) and edges (malas), though the concept has a dual aspect in that the center usually focuses on "one" edge-mala at a time. The sea, a symbol for primal creative and dissolving unity, is said to have edges (malas) not sides. It washes a newborn to the edge and takes in someone in death. (cf Kursīte, 1996: 13, 1999: 499-507) A song contest is aligned in parallel sides. The song leader invokes in song for her side to “hold fast” (turaties), if need be "bracing oneself within the doorframe". A door, of course, is an in-between marker and the doorframe represents what keeps a space intact. Strength, steadfastness, unyieldingness, holding the line against onslaught and advancing to vanquish is the imagery, language, rhetoric, and public stance. Kursīte points out that the dark and threatening opponent a hero must overcome may simply be called a pretinieks (lit. one who stands against another, opponent) as well as identified as Velns, Mother Jods, dragon, or snake. (Kursīte, 1996: 13)

Of course, the unyielding stance and warlike drumming is largely bluff and ludic in most performances with real destruction an undesired alternative. However, alliances can be of short duration. Among the ancient Greeks, warring city-states could engage in athletic games during a temporary truce held to honor the gods they held in common, but the contests did not necessarily bring peace. The state could revert to war as soon as the truce was over. This kind of physical, athletic contest held during a truce appears to be closer in psychology to the heroic flyting and the games a less deadly substitute for war.

The area of performance is a "safe space" in Vygotsky’s sense where ritual drama of conflict and primal rivalry can be enacted with archetypal or prototypical imagery. However, the etymology is not really a commentary on the nature of the dialogue as the performance is only playing at war. Everyone knows the purpose is different and even opposite to war, that the "enemies" will make peace. In such a world a slain contestant will return or be replaced and the contest goes on repeatedly and indefinitely. Taking sides means acknowledging contrasting views, anticipating and responding to the other side. Classically there are no observers as all belong to one or the other side. Although dialogue in fact goes on, and conversation unavoidably modifies one’s position, it is viewed in agonistic terms with an acknowledged winner, the cleverer one who does not run out of appropriate retorts, and so has the final word. The performer reacts to the previous message by utilizing traditional formulas invested with meaning appropriate to the new circumstances. As the performance proceeds, the power of the ritual and music, the repetition and incremental tension, not only give back something of what appears to have been heard before many times and by extension is perceived as eternal, but also releases tensions, refreshes, and gives new strength, purpose, and meaning.

Run, children, to see: Summer (dim.) is slaying Winter;

Close the gates on Winter, open them on Summer.

Or alternatively:

Winter went weeping, Summer went singing.

The gates closed on Winter, opened on Summer.

In addition to the alternation depicted, life is a balance of competition and cooperation. Cooperation is also a fundamental strategy in competition. Symbols and rituals can reconcile differences and patch contradictions on a coarse grain. From earliest times, given considerable pressures for subsistence survival in an area where farming is marginal and intensive, the response was to develop ways to bridge over differences in the overwhelming need for alliances and mutual help as needed. Subsequent oppression by outsiders, wars, disease, and famine further increased dependency on "ones own people". The "halo effect" biases perception to ignore the undesirable in people who need to be judged favorably. Alliance against a common predatory foe is facilitated and cemented by ritual.

Levi-Strauss and other structuralists saw dualism as a fundamental organizing principle of societies, though they largely failed to work it out as an ongoing, dynamic adjusting principle. When applied to actual social structures, dualism is even more problematic as Levi-Strauss himself realizes in his "Do Dual Organizations Exist?" Dualism is inseparable from triadism if based on moiety systems that are asymmetrical and incipiently unequal as bride givers and takers. However, it is almost certainly impossible to reconstruct any past hypothetical moiety dual social organization from Baltic materials in any case, even though the concepts of center and periphery (the concentric perspective) as well as diametric parallel and triadic structures are well represented in the cognitive structures. What is being considered is the use of dualism as a fundamental conceptual organization, though not the only one, and without claim to dual social organization, though the term dual gender organization appears to be appropriate. Contrasting dualism does not have to be reduced to a popular form of Cartesian or even Zoroastrian philosophy, but is fundamental to the mind, for example going back to Gestalt research on figure and ground relationships where perception is mutually dependent and alternating. The classic face/vase or bunny/face relations show that perception of one at a single instant excludes the other, but not the possibility of other such alterations. Also, the mind tries to parse or cut out discrete categories with clear attributes from the flux that is presented in the world. There are endless examples in Latvian tradition of the complementariness of opposites, things being seen simultaneously with the opposite or non-aspect. The two sides can be understood only in terms of each other: laime (fortune) and nelaime (misfortune), light and dark. Even things that do not obviously alternate, but grade into each other, such as observable day and night or things that observationally are alternatives only in some sense, such as the sun and moon, are projected to do so to fit the model. In the proverb, "Laima soon shows her other side," is reminiscent to the English concept of "two sides of the coin." Irony often uses apposition such as, "honey in the mouth, ice in the heart" or "the forest with ears, the field with eyes." This is an aspect of universal cognition, seeing in such fundamental simultaneous pairs as X and not-X.

Some pairs are more obviously responsorial, and the prototype of sound echo is used: balss (voice, call)/ atbalss (echo, response, literally "return voice"), skaņa (sound)/ atskaņa (reverberation). Proverbs illustrate the principle: "As the call, so the response" ((kāda balss, tāda atbalss). "Tit for tat (dots pret dotu).

Latvian textile art often uses the principle of alternating positive and negative imagery, as on a particular Kurzeme woman’s regional sash. (Karlsone: 83)

The deepest conceptual structures, not surprisingly, are universal since they are based on the fundamental early rhythmic discoveries of human children about the physical universe: (up/down, right/left, sunwise/countersunwise [ap sauli/ pret sauli], away/toward, dark/light, black/white, stressed/ unstresseded). Traditional opposition has a cognitive base. Latvian is no exception in contrasting between I and not-I, savs, paša (ones own, the familiar) and svešs (other, strange, foreign): "Other people, other land, strange sound speech; I carried my land’s poppy flower folded in my hand." (Sveši ļaudis, sveša zeme, sveša skaņa valodiņa; Savas zemes magonīti saujā nesu salocītu.) One reacts to the strange with stronger emotion than to the familiar, which is likely taken for granted, in readiness to confront or deal with danger. But if the strange is not so great as to cause fight or flight, then it often provokes laughter. Any parent has observed their child’s nervous giggle when unsure, and mirthful giggling when the child recognizes something as "inappropriate" or "out of place." Among older children jostling and semi-aggressive kidding can also be used to bolster ones confidence or to convince oneself that the danger can be overcome, as a defensive and finally an aggressive weapon.

"Us and them" is most often expressed in the terms of halves: mūsu pusē (our side) and viņpuse (the other side), which follows the fundamental cosmological division of Šī saule (This sun) and Viņsaule (Othersun). The sun, then, is the central reference point as the sun shines in this world during the day, but is in the Otherworld at night. (Zicāns: 850) Otherworld is also Eastland (Vāczeme), Otherland, Jūrmala (Seashore), Underworld, the sacred forest, and with Christian influence differentiated as Heaven or Paradise Garden and Hell. (Zicāns: 850). Originally Otherworld was not dually differentiated as Heaven and Hell, though it had different possible locations. (Zicāns: 851) Cognitively these are asymmetrical parallels in the sense of the experientially concrete Us projected or abstracted to a supernatural Other that inversely is seen as the source of the first. Life, fertility, and well being emanate from the Other Sun realm which encompasses everything that is extraordinary to this sun, such as the dead, the supernatural, and the divine.

As two-part structure in the daina distich suggests, dualism seems to construct analogically in the daina world, taking a prototypical basic experience or observation as the concrete source and projecting it on a less known or even unknown and therefore more abstract target domain. It is at this level, rather than the tripartite one, that structural focus seems to be clearest. One could also say that the Latvian worldview is something of a fractal one. By observing some small detail, an insect or a blade of grass, an inference is made about the larger cosmos. Finally, although in one sense dualism is a contrast of equivalent opposites, there is dialogic as there is focus on one.

In addition to dual organization of the cosmos, there is also a tripartite one. “The life cycle repeats the tripartite nature of the cosmic tree. Krišjānis Barons saw a great division of the daina world into three. That can also be seen in Latvian spēles and rotaļas…the rotaļa is a way to the oak of ancestors." (Muktupāvels, 1989:8) Arturs Goba (1990) argues for spatially organized relationships between neighboring Baltic peoples. Even more broadly, Norbertas Velius argues for divisions of Baltic peoples into two (three including intermediate or mediating) dual or polar orientations (north and east representing young and sky and male, west and south representing old and earth and female). (1989) He observes that in historic times the western territories shrank to be the smallest, while the east was the largest. If the theory is taken at face value, the orientation could have been an early expression of the simplified expansion of the pre- or pro-Balts northward and eastward from their original homeland. The first group to reach the Baltic was the pre-Old Prussians. Those in the land pioneering forefront moving north and east could have been typed as having more expansionist, individualist, aggressive, “male” personalities, that of the third son who has to go a-Viking because he doesn’t stay home to inherit the land. Those who stayed behind in the south, or had lived in the same place the longest in the west, could have been characterized as the more cautionary, stable, conservative, and equilibrium-sustaining “female” societies.

Emily Lyle (Archaic Cosmos, 1990) suggests a relationship between the two systems with two categories combining to form a third and a duality underlying tripartition. The two primary entities of time/space in the daina world seem to be the mythological Other - Viņsaule (or the possibly more metaleveled Aizsaule) and the world of the immediate concrete experience of today centered around ones homestead, Šī Saule (This Sun) or Pasaule (World, lit. Undersun). Today past and present may be verbalized as senču/ dainu pasaule (world of ancestors) in contrast to šie laiki (these times). Seasons (summer/ winter vs summer/ winter/ spring) are related to the seasonal holidays and to human life-time (birth: death or birth, marriage, death). Eternal life (saules mūžs – suntime also shared by water and stone) is contrasted to temporal human life span and to wood. These, of course, have broad cross-cultural correspondences in that they are universal experiences elaborated specifically and culturally. In some sense the daina world is seen as timeless and immortal in that it is a world in which all, including past generations, participate and from which the present draws inspiration as a wellspring of accumulated wisdom, which some have compared to the Australian aborigine's dreamingtime (cf Muktupāvels).

The image that best symbolizes the cosmos in tripartite is the world tree with the world hill as an alternative. Other concepts have a dual and tripartite aspect also.

The most obvious is the dienanakts (daynight) concept as one unit but divided in two and having in-between periods of dawn (austra) primarily and dusk, evening (vakars, krēsla) secondarily. Another consideration is the alternation of the two primary archaic seasons, summer and winter, with their alternation of hot and cold, light and dark, life and (temporary) death/ dormancy. In the tradition common to other Indo-European peoples, the rebirth period of spring is specially marked off as a third period, perhaps not so much a transition as a pregnant period in which night gives birth to its alternate opposite, day. The dawn goddess, Austra, or Sun daughter is also given a special place as the goddess of spring and rebirth. But autumn apparently was marked off as a season only recently, and dusk or evening is not given the same attention as dawn. The festivals of that period are seen as either the end of summer or the beginning of winter, thereby retaining the idea of a third, after the initial dual, as the in-between in contrast to creating a fully third discreet category (spring). Spring in the daina world perhaps is not so much a transition as a pregnant period in which night/winter gives birth to its alternate opposite, day/summer.

The dynamics of the in-between and how a well-defined concept can fuse or fit with another, however, is problematic, to say nothing of concepts of intersection or blending. Nondual forms of organization are additionally known, of course, such as continuums, Escheresque forms morphing one into the other, gradients, and Russian stacking or nesting matrushka dolls suggesting infinite regress. But their lesser representation, or the fusing of gradients with metaphors of the fluid (waters) identical with metaphors for the creating and destroying Ur-world, may suggest a less obvious universal working perception. Alternation of shared concepts has already built in it the sense of fluid or dynamic even as these concepts may also be essentialized or reified.

Worcester in his study of satire and irony notes that absolutes are destroyed by irony: "Irony is the flash given off when two contradictory absolutes collide." (Worcester: 165) It "acts as a counterpoise to either tragedy or comedy" (141) and is the "meeting-place of jest and earnest." (143) Humor in its flash pan moment of recognition and ritual, thus, both inhabit the in-between or margin, the third space, where dualities are ever renegotiated and not allowed to essentialize completely.

Places of engagement at in-between spaces, crossroads, gates, thresholds, sunset or sunrise, midnight or midday, or borders where opposite sides becomes aware of the other’s presence are of course exciting as well as dangerous. Boundaries are also the most interesting space in fractal and chaos theory. In a Mandelbrot diagram the edges appear complete in their contrasting characteristic variation, but never fade or obliterate.

Kokāre (1992: 43) calls attention to Laima appearing with her opposite and differentiation Nelaime only where either they are in an in-between area, such as a bridge or road, or they appear in contrasting positions with Laima on a hill and Nelaime in a valley or in the water: “Laime is walking with Nelaime on a plank-way. Turn around, Laime, throw Nelaime into the water.” (LD 9212) One can conceive of a third moment during the sparring of Laime and Nelaime on the bridge when who will win remains a suspended possibility. The third or undecided state, however, has no anthropomorphization. One or the other predominates, or else undifferentiated laime of both fortune and misfortune accompanies the person.

The opposing and contesting sides of Latvian song contests fall into the dual opposition of male/ female (Midsummer), kin/in-law (wedding), and our side (mūsu gals)/ yonder side (viņu gals). At work parties, talkas of neighbor groups, the division can be either by gender or by local group, depending on the situation. The term pulks (or even karogs – also a term for "flag") is used to identify a unit with a common purpose and identity with a range from singing groups to military units. The underlying principle is a contrast between the familiar and the strange, us and them, our people (mūsu ļaudis) and strangers (sveši ļaudis). At the instance of the meeting of the two "sides" a temporary, liminal, third time-space is created, though it may not be identified as such.

Two different lines of thought emerge from the gender and the clan divisions respectively. Gender division seems to be fundamental and exclusive in the daina world, and lacking in intergender categories, though a study in regard to magic users from this perspective might result in a third or at least ambiguous category. But in the case of kin it is more complicated [bāliņi, māsiņas (blood relatives) vs tautas (potential affines)] because potential affines form a third category to the opposites of kin and stranger. Thus there are really three groups associated with the dual opposition: ingroup (īstā, paša), strangers (sveši ļaudis), and potential affine group (tautas). In the courtship and early marriage period the couple call each other in terms of the friendly other (tautu dēls=suitor, new husband, tautu meita=courted girl, new wife). The bride, while forever a representative of her natal group, not only also becomes a member of her in-law group, but paradoxically, if and when she becomes the mistress of that household, is the stranger who may gradually become its central member, the mother of that household. Along those lines I find it significant that in some regions and times Lithuanian and Latvian brides took coals from their natal hearth with them to their new home. Also most interesting is the widespread custom of the bride trying to surreptitiously be the first to step on the groom’s foot so that she (or perhaps her clan) has the upper hand. To the casual modern observer of the custom it is an amusing, playful, game, a source of amusement as everyone is watching if the bride or groom will predominate. But in a larger context of other dainas, it may have deeper structural significance as an expression of friendly clan rivalry. Song wars, then, were an archaic solution to the problem of the in-between of the traditional opposition. Since of three contexts of apdziedāšanās two concern weddings (human and cosmic – Midsummer festival), the question of gender appears, though I believe in a secondary capacity. The question of gender is not what is being negotiated, that being a given, but rather clan membership. That is clearly the case in the third context that of talka or work party apdziedāšanās, which is most clearly mixed working party-to-working party, neighbor group to neighbor group, village to village.

Rosemary Joyce in an article on the construction of gender in classic Maya monuments (pp. 167-195) notes that complimentary or interdependent gender is common in cosmologies, and that duality in particular is critical in ritual (p. 180):

The Classic Maya…represent sequences of ritual action consistent with an emphasis on cosmological gender complementarity in spatial and symbolic elements of the compositions. As media for the construction of gender, these images are ideological propositions. They provide a beginning point for a consideration of practice, particularly as it relates to gender relations in ritual, and extending by implication to questions of diversity of practice by individuals in different social positions. (p. 185)

This appears to be true in the Latvian case, even if the patriarchal social world might be more asymmetrical than the cognitive. The classical daina world is, in fact, matricentric in that texts dominantly express women’s worldviews, and the songs are dominantly performed and composed by women. In Balkan countries women also dominate religion, ritual, and singing with strong female display, but Balkan societies are classified as strongly patriarchal. (Shehan: 46-7) The daina world is more egalitarian. It is a social world that has not allowed extreme asymmetrical specialization, and the contribution of women in productive labor is valued as complementary. Women inherit movable property, including livestock, and there is an alternative arrangement, where a daughter may inherit land and her husband is a stand-in (iegātnis). The master and mistress have parallel ceremonial and work responsibilities, and their names take on the name of the farm and differ only in gender ending (say, Ežmalis, Ežmaliene). In the daina world patronymics are not used; rather a daughter is a "mother’s daughter in parallel to a son being a "father’s son." Recent Russian influence may have introduced the patronymic where it is used. In many dainas the suitor must contend with the mother of a girl, not the father, to obtain marriage agreement. Most Baltic scholars of the past have considered the difference in gender asymmetry between Baltic and Slavic to be marked, with Baltic tending toward greater egalitarianism. (cf Gimbutas and Spekke). Additionally there have been gross generalizations linked to population density and time differences in the development of urban cultures between north and south Europe. This underscores that even similar cultural expressions inherited from a common Indo-European past, may take on significantly different values in different cultural geographies.

Koskoff offers four categories of musical performance that typify inter-gender relations: "(1) performance that confirms and maintains the established social/ sexual arrangement; (2) performance that appears to maintain established norms in order to protect other, more relevant values; (3) performance that protests, yet maintains, the order (often through symbolic behavior); and (4) performance that challenges and threatens established order." (p. 10) I believe there is enough resonance within the daina world of a high degree of parallel egalitarianism that apdziedāšanās, while open to all four possibilities, in the enduring default sense typified Koskoff’s first category. The gender balance is widely felt to be sufficiently such, that gender sabotage is not generally felt a pressing need. Rozenbergs has shown that Latvian satirical and insult singing was more likely in recent history used as class rather than gender protest. Perhaps one area where contesting is not necessary in contrast to possibly Western feminism is the area of strength and competence, as the feminine in the daina world includes such attributes as a given fact.

One area where differences in national or ethnic temperament can be easily and objectively observed is in the area of dance. Latvian dance is essentially egalitarian with males and females going through the same basic routines and a relatively low level of sexual dimorphism. There are no older motif recordings of females being lifted or supported. The expectation is that female bearing is a gentler version of the more powerful male one in the stamping of feet or clapping of hands. But there is little similar to Wasbaugh’s essays on such Spanish culture dances as the tango where gender is essentially a code of male power and women are defined only in terms of their bonding ability:

Sexuality for men is a negotiation of power and prestige among men. Men dance for other men, often through sexual imagery. (Washabaugh: 48 in Washabaugh commenting on the Tobin article)

Such male display dances have not been recorded in Latvia. Additionally, others, such as George Meredith, have pointed out a positive correlation between relative social freedom and the participation of women in comedy. (Meredith: 357)

Gregory Schrempp researched how several cultures confront and solve the universal philosophical problem of "the one and the two" and "one and the many." Many cosmologies start out with a unified entity, which splits and fragments. Thereafter, human ritual is needed for separated parts to come together. This is consistent with Propp, and accepted by such Latvian researchers as Kursīte. Likewise, concepts are created as discrete entities out of experiential flux and then have to be related to each other. Finally within society separated groups have to come up with stratagems to cooperate. Understanding the concept saderēt (to fit, align, join, come together, be in harmony, make contract) is critical here. Is the mental image that of discrete units being fit together rather than blends? Does unity come about by fitting together pieces that can be imagined as solid and cut apart in some beginning, like an apple, a primeval hermaphrodite, or a Yumis/Yumala double sheaf? What does a linguistic analysis of saderēt yield? A formulaic saderam ("make peace," "adjust," "fit together") concludes the apdziedāšanās ritual, even if there isn’t an equivalent formal beginning song. The offer has to be accepted or rejected; if really rejected, with the formulaic nederam, jūs ienaida cēlājiņi (we don’t make peace – you started the feud) instead of it being just another formulaic protest, the contest would have to go on, but all know the contest must terminate with some measure of peace:

For the sake of a song, good (stranger) people, let us not hold enmity!I sing the song as it is, It was not created by me; The old people created it, It was sung anew by me. (957)


The sense is that of discrete units in unavoidable tension, confrontation, or conflict trying to adjust their borders without loosing their identity so they will grate less harshly against each other, kin vs. in-law, male vs. female. There is no concept of fusing, synthesizing, or essentially resolving the irresolvable insofar as they are locked in the basic "eternal" categories of us and not-us, but there is adjustment, co-evolution, co-adaptation, and some will say co-dependency in continuous dialogic in that the sides may be alternatingly asymmetrical, the side winning this time not necessarily winning the next time. (see Durham, 1991 for co-evolution of culture and universals) However, things are not exactly as they were before. No matter how small, some change has taken place, that of adjustment:

Together sing one song, we who are in the room.

If the song fits together (saderēt),we'll live in harmony.

With God we came together, with God we part,

With God may it remain this song-filled room.

Let us try out singing with brother’s (cousin's) bride:

If the song fits together, living we will fit.

The fit is good enough with brother's (cousin's) bride:

In the winter grinding flour working in the summer field. (306)

One dialogic function of song wars seems to be the venting of social tensions in a socially controlled and acceptable way. Its sanctioned goal, however, is eventual reconciliation. Differences, incongruity, ambiguity, and loss of control are all too painfully evident. Linkages are alliances and attempts to make sense of disparity. Thus, singing together is either a test of compatibility or a ritual to unite what is known to be different:


Dual organization

Taking a sociological approach in his classic work on Festivals and Songs of Ancient China, Marcel Granet argues that Chinese contest songs are expressive of the organization of their societies. The Chinese, living in small, homogenuous, bounded family groups are isolated from their neighbors with whom they may make marriage alliances:

The reason why the seasonal festivals of the mountains and rivers are entirely devoted to contests and competitions seems to lie in the fact that they are festivals of Harmony…Strengthened daily, and without effort, as it were, the ties of kinship, seemed to exist in fact and of themselves. Between relatives there were no ties, which remained to be invented. On the other hand, between those who were fundamentally strangers, none could possibly be invented. But completely exclusive though these family groups might be, they did not remain always entirely isolated. Adjacent groups used to meet at intervals in the festivals." P. 192

According to Granet the spring mountain and river festival in its most archaic form was a group betrothal and sexual initiation festival where the young women of one group sang against the young men of another group, the contest resulting in pairing of couples:

At their first contact it was inevitable that they should come into collision and confront one another. Unlike the family feelings, which were nourished by a constant flow of tranquil and habitual emotions, the exceptional feeling of general harmony came into being suddenly as the result of a violent process. The customary opposition, the solemn drawing together, the rivalry, the unity of neighbouring villages, expressed themselves in competitions and contest, in polite and peaceful emulation…" (P. 193)

The similarities of the Chinese festivals to the Latvian Midsummer are almost strange. In the Latvian case the myth, recounted in the dainas, is that of betrothal of the sun maiden to a sky god. During the festival young people do make betrothal engagements in a night of general license, which is tolerated in a way unlike any other time, except that it is suggestive of a wedding celebration on the cosmic level. However in comparing the Chinese and the Latvian, there is also much that is more, less, or different. Midsummer is not just a betrothal festival transposed to summer – betrothals also take place elsewhere and at other times. The commentators on Latvian Midsummer, supported by dainas, stress its solstice significance while Granet downplays celestial mythology as a factor. However, the salient points Granet makes are common in archaic social structures as to gender and group identity: two peoples, two sides and a ritual or pseudo-singing contest as the overall model, but an emphasis of male vs female at Midsummers, unlike other times, such as weddings, where the groups may be mixed, women vs women, or semi-professional women vs mixed. Common Midsummer greeting formula emphasizes the gathering of the dispersed:

Lai sanāca Jāņu bērni no maliņu maliņām.

May the children of Yanis come from one end to the other.

The festival is the meeting place between two spatial ends (gali). Human activity occurs in concert with alternation of seasons, and Midsummer seems to combine elements of the spring (betrothal, awakening) and summer (height of vitality, wedding – though practically human weddings took place in the fall when food was most abundant).

Chinese singing contests appear in broad social situations, including festivals, weddings, inter-village situations, and intra-village situations, which suggests an underlying model. As in the Latvian case, there are contests between men’s and women’s groups, as well as between villages and other occasions. The movie Liu San Jie is about such singing contests. (Lihui Yang, personal communication) Sue Tuohy has written a number of papers on Hua'er, a genre of northwest Chinese folk song. In lunar June there is a Hua'er Festival in Gansu Province with singers contesting with each other. In both the Chinese and Latvian case there appears to be a similar singing contest model with a broad social base.

Granet also calls attention to the use of parallel structure in the Chinese contest songs. Daina poetic structure has also been well researched and much commented on as having dual structure on several levels, though the studies on principles of musical symmetry and lyric structure have not been integrated into a unified theory. Structurally the daina is a four-line strophe divided into distich, further divided by a caesura. It is a self-contained unit created with strict rules of composition, but can be strung/ chained/ fit together with other strophes if sung nonresponsorially, or as call and response with each side alternating distich units. The dainas about singing state that the distich is a half in need of the other in that the distichs have some independence of each other, even as their reason for being associated is a metaphorical restatement of the concrete to the projected. The short daina structure is well-suited to antiphonal singing, a call requiring a response. George Kurman’s article, "Parallelism and Deep Structure Meaning in Estonian Folksong" (Fall, 1989) shows how a common archaic, perhaps universal structure, is capable of generating continuous creative variation through the principles of substitution and analogy. There are examples of Kurman’s structure in the dainas, but differing from the Finnish, a special metaphorical parallelism direction rather than a more direct substitution is the default mechanism of creation.

No sociological analysis of Baltic archaic society has been attempted to my knowledge and the information to do so is scattered requiring the co-operation of a team of experts from different fields. However, values in the daina world are clearly based on reciprocity and co-operation, which falls into the type of thinking and structure described in Mauss’s classic work:

A system in which exchange of goods was not a mechanical but a moral transaction, brining about and maintaining human, personal, relationships between individuals and groups." (Mauss, ix)

The information, even using etymology and archaeology, may not exist to excavate to a description of what might have been the social structures of simple cultivators, when such a state existed in Europe. Certainly it is difficult to compare with a state where there were alliances of pairs of phratries in a "system of total prestations" as found in Australian, First American, or Oceanic tribal systems. But that does not seem necessary to see some broadly analogous patterns, which to a modern mind may appear strange, such as a "spirit of rivalry and antagonism which dominates all their activities" (Mauss, 4) when it comes to the need for co-operation among neighbors. Antagonism and cooperation, tension and release, safe or normative joking at different levels of aggression along social tension-lines makes sense in any pre-market thought where kin-orientation is primary, regardless of specific social structure, when all contact with the outside presupposes a contractual relationship that lasts beyond the simple momentary exchange.

How strong this sense that a bond created by things is a bond between persons is still present among some educated Latvians was dramatically illustrated during a private e-mail exchange when my mild joke that I would "repay" someone by sending some music information for insights I had gained from our conversation was actually met with anger, in fact a flame that amounted to invective. To be sure, this email was soon followed by an apology, but it led to another exchange about the "modern" concept of karma and "settling scores." One area that might be promising to specifically explore as to the sense of reciprocal obligation might be the system of fosterage in European societies, though again, I am unaware if there has been any attempt to do so for the Baltic. Another promising area would be to examine the motif or type in folklore where refusing to give, or failing to invite, is –"like refusing to accept-the equivalence of a declaration of war; it is a refusal of friendship and intercourse." (Mauss, 11) The popular European example of the snubbed fairy godmother, magic user, spirit, or deity at a wedding or christening comes to mind. In some regional traditional Latvian weddings, everyone could come, even if not specifically invited.

Another area of promising inquiry as reciprocity in the Baltic would be a study of gift exchange. Gift exchange starts with betrothal pledges, an exchange of rings by the betrothed and initial gifts as representatives of the two families make contact with each other. Betrothal pledges appear to be sufficiently binding that before the era of enforced Christian church weddings, they may have had something of the force of an exchange of wows at the church. Preparations for, display of, and distribution of the pūrs or bride’s dowry is one of the key elements of a wedding. The high point of gift exchange is the conspicuous pūra dalīšana, distribution of gifts by the bride, and the wedding feast itself. It is tempting to frame the Latvian wedding in terms of something distantly related to the potlach/ gift exchange obligations as described in the classic work by Marcel Mauss, as it certainly represents conspicuous public redistribution of wealth and has much impact on the economic prestige of both the bride and her family.


D. Were Werewolves and Witches Contesting Magic User Societies?

An arrested werewolf admitted he had seen a witch flying in the shape of a butterfly pursued by werewolves who may have the power to control them, but she hid behind a horse in the pasture, and he split the horse in half with the sickle he had grabbed instead by mistake.

K. Peuker, 1550 (publ. 1560) on battles of werewolves and witches (Straubergs, 1939: 44)

In 1075 Adam of Bremen writing about the people of what is now Latvia, states that the Kurs people were worshippers of idols, their houses full of necromancers and magicians, and their reputation for knowledge in magic throughout the ancient world such that people came even from Spain and Greece. Before him the people known as the Neuri, believed to be Eastern Balts, were said by Herodotus to turn to wolves for several days a year. While it is typical that travelers single out distant, exotic, other places as locations of magic, there is also some probable truth to the statement. Ieva Pīgozne, after living in Ireland and Norway, notes that Christianity for real came to the Baltic 500 years later than to other areas of Europe, and that indeed there are pre-Christian practices, such as Midsummer celebrations that have retained their archaic character to an astonishing degree even today. (personal communication)

The reputed enmity of werewolves and witches, or the relationship of sorcerers to them, has not been particularly examined even though they could be examined in terms of possible magic user societies, where the membership of werewolves seems to tilt to male membership, but not exclusively, while witches seem dominantly but not exclusively female (see Latkovskis on ragaiņi). The basic reference on historical sources of incantations, my primary source unless otherwise noted, is the original archive publication of Kārlis Straubergs Latviešu buramie vārdi (Latvian Incantations) I ,II and on beliefs Latviešu tautas ticējumi (Latvian Folk Belief), I – IV. While generally the tone in dainas is negative toward magic users, a not surprising situation considering the historical witch trials, there are enough dainas that suggest that magic users were also and earlier viewed as ambiguous. In a few dainas the deities Laima (LD 27842) and Sun daughter are called witches.

The 16th century sources on werewolves and witches (pp. 41-63) are most illuminating, but the most detailed case is that of the trial of 87-year-old Tīss in 1691-2. He describes how werewolves travel to Hell, which is at Purva ezers (Swamp Lake) by Mālpils, looking like ordinary wolves. There are storage barns for grain there and guards at the door. He had gotten his wolf skin from someone in Alūksne who in turn had gotten it in Rīga. Tīss tries to mitigate his case by claiming he didn’t tear up horses and cattle, but only sheep, goats, and pigs because Velns only gives some werewolves enough strength to tear up the bigger animals. A werewolf from Sigulda had torn up the cattle they had cooked in pots taken along from home. Werewolves aren’t allowed to partake of the food in Hell, but must wait outside while the magicians finish eating there. But just before Christmas the werewolves had succeeded in running into Hell and re-stealing the grain stolen by the magicians, which means there would be good crops the coming season. There is an alternation of magicians taking the crops to Hell and the werewolves trying to steal it back. This affects not only field crops, but also fruit tree production. The visit to Hell takes place three times a year: spring festival, Midsummer, and before Christmas. Tīss’s says that women also go a-werewolfing, but girls are sent instead as pūķi to steal milk and butter while flying through the air as fiery snake dragonettes. The devils beat the werewolves as if they were dogs, and they indeed are God’s dogs. Tīss concludes his defense by saying that this year his group had beaten out the Russian werewolves who had made a raid to take away the fertility of the land, so a good year for flax and crops would be ensured. He would like to pass on his craft by blowing into a beer mug with the words “Lai tev notiek kā man” (May it happen to you as to me) and if the person accepts it, he would become a werewolf. Not only does he not serve the devil, but fights against him. In spite of his inspired defense, Tīss was executed. Other less detailed accounts confirm the state of feud between werewolves and either magicians or witches, as in a 1683 trial where Hell is identified as being at the local swamp, Zeķu purvs. (Straubergs II: 524-6) The early 1550 account by Peuker notes that the feud is between witches and werewolves, and in a 1683 trial a werewolf named Igunds also notes that witches steal crop fertility, but werewolves steal it back and return it to the owners. A ritual feud between male and female magic users in the death and rebirth enactment of crop and calendar cycle is a possible conjecture that could be explored with a thorough study. Straubergs associates the rye wolf with the werewolf and notes that witches sometimes took away crop fertility in the form of insects, such as flies, while fertility came back to the home in the form of small house spirits rudzu luņģi. (Straubergs II: 526). There are both fantastic beliefs about magic users, and sociological grounding. Thus, almost certainly some werewolves were probably associated with outlaws, and witches were associated with healing and birthing. However, negative aspects of knowledge in herbal medicine could also link these wise women with knowledge of poisoning, abortion, and contraception. In the ability to use knowledge either to help or to harm a magic user in addition to partaking of marginal status by virtue of special knowledge also becomes an ambiguous being, dangerous and yet necessary.

Some pertinent historical highlights to suggest relevant areas that could be researched:

Seb. Munster in his Kosmografija (1550), among other sources on werewolves, states that Livland has many witches and sorcerers. Having been submitted to inquisition, they admit being able to turn into wolves and back again. Olav Magnusson, 1555 considers werewolf activity to be characteristic of Prussia, Livonia, and Lithuania and writes the most detailed descriptions of their activity. Werewolves, breaking into a manor, and emptying out the beer barrels stored in the basement raises the possibility of a men’s group, especially since it appears to be operating in a hinterland where paganism and/or rebellious counterculture seem plausible. According to Magnusson on the border of Žemaitija, Kurland, and Lithuania there is a grand meeting place for thousands of werewolves, including those from high families, who gather and compete in jumping contests over the wall of an abandoned castle. The person who fails to clear the wall is whipped, whipping being punishment but also an empowering magic act. Magnusson argues for the reality of werewolves. A person becomes a werewolf after accepting a beaker of beer together with certain words, and thereafter can turn into a wolf at will. He includes a "witness account" of a farmer who turned into a wolf to bring back a sheep for a group who were forced to spend a winter night in the woods. Vilken-Lerchmeier tells about a werewolf who flew out of the prison window to visit his village before returning. Peuker mentions a Christmas gathering of werewolves that is called together by a lame boy who beats stragglers with an iron whip. The werewolf band goes on a twelve-day raid (sirojums) where they tear up livestock. J.J. Godelmann, after interviews with Livonians in 1587, notes that werewolves were thought to cause much damage and pose danger, but proposes the theory that the werewolves only believed they were traveling. Johann Fishart says that herbal creams were used to turn someone into a werewolf, and adds that werewolves had sex with female wolves. Georg Sabin in his commentary on Herodotus mentions that the Prussians of his time were examples of active werewolf activity. He tells about one werewolf who admitted to turning into a wolf usually at Christmas and at Midsummer. The guards decided to do an experiment, observing to see if he would turn into a wolf, but under those conditions, the man did not do so. This is similar to others of his experiments, this time on a condemned witch. He concludes that since she sank in cold water as had happened in other cases, there might be something amiss to the theory.


There is sufficient specialized literature on the relationship of Indo-European concept of wolf, the outlaw, and the werewolf (Ridley 1976, Beldavs, 1984) that suggests there were groups outside of normal society, taking refuge or living in the forest. The wild is, of course, associated on different deep levels with the Otherworld supernatural as well as any humans outside normal society, such as magic users or outlaws. Both werewolves and witches could be of either sex, and many of the descriptions and activities are identical, such as the motif of discarding clothes, hide, or skin and being unable to return to original form if these are taken. But as a witch is overwhelmingly more likely to be female, werewolves are more often identified as male, possibly suggesting a stronger association of werewolf with the outlaw aspect in contrast to associations of witches as magic users rather than outlaws:

...(the) wolf-man enters into collective unconscious as a "monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city-the werewolf-is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city…the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither." (Agambden, 105)


There is more evidence on Latvian witches than werewolves, thus strongly associating magic use with females. In 1578 Gauaninni writes that almost all Latvian women are witches or sorcerers and prone to magic activity. The list goes on with Joh. D. Vunderer in 1589 that Latvians have a tendency to magic (mehestheils zum Zeubeen abgerichtet) turning into wolves or cats, or driving through the night with billy goats, holding meetings in the forest, and, causing hail, and dancing and having sex with devils. Solomon Henning, 1589, speaks of great idolatry among the undeutsche (Latvian peasants) who worship the sun, stars, moon, fire, water, streams and almost all of creation, considered snakes and toads as their gods..." The distinction between raganas (witches), laumas (fairies), and spīganas (fiery beings) is not consistently made; Straubergs considers the last to be equivalent to the vilces who are also flying witches who may appear as fiery streaks in the sky. (Straubergs II: 562) All of them seem predominantly female.

The 16th century documents on witches in many ways seems to parallel that about werewolves. A person seals a contract to become a witch or werewolf by drinking beer with the person who introduces her to it, with words, such as kas man, tas tev (what is to me, is to you). Usually they are the same sex, but not always and there are instances of women initiating males into the craft. Alternatively, the magic user may crawl through a saka – something with crossed lines like gnarled roots or a yoke, or through a shirt turned inside out. In one case change to a werewolf is accomplished by rolling over knives, and a female band of werewolves made the change by rolling over sticks. (Straubergs II: 518) Stepping over a special log is also mentioned. (Ibid: 519) The devil may or may not be involved; if he is, often he is invoked through whistling.

Witches often fly through the air as wind disturbances (viesulis); the devil also may appear as a viesulis. If a knife is thrown into the air disturbance, it may kill the witch or devil and blood will appear. In the spring magic users and devils are about hunting for booty as viesuļi. (Straubergs II: 541) Witches are thought to have control over the weather, but oddly enough a devil also may appear with lightning, even though in most stories the devil-god is opposed to the thunder-god. The witch however is more usually airborn, flies through the air in body or in spirit, in her human form or as an insect or fiery snake pūķis. The primary activity seems to be to steal milk or grain from others, or attacking and killing animals, particularly cattle. Witches usually specialize more in the first, and werewolves in the second, but that is not mutually exclusive. In the great witch trial of 1584 in Rīga, one woman said she had been able to kill only a calf, so the witches had to eat frogs at the feast. (Ibid, 60) Sometimes instead of bringing the animals to the gathering to eat, the magic users take them to the Netherworld (elle), and when witches steal grain they may also take it to the devil in Hell. One may conjecture a sacrifice of grain, milk, or animals to the earth deities is involved, with the returned offering being returned with interest later in the year.

The witch Miezītene (1584 trial) says the senior witches have the ability to influence time, and that the male in their group Piģītis is their drummer and piper at witch gatherings, but knows only a few magic words, and must ask for advice from the older witches. (pg. 60-61). There are other males who collaborate. Miezītene tells the inquisitor that their “devil” has no name because it isn’t christened and their “devil” wasn’t strong enough to retaliate the stealing of one cow by another witch, so they had to seek the help of other velni. Miezītene apparently initiates a male Kļaviņš in that they drink together and fly to the same hilltop feast where there is dancing and another drummer. She had given the craft through the drinking ritual also to Long Ann and Katrīna. This witch trial results in the often quoted first incantation words, “Dzelzeniek, trumulniek, atslēdz dzezu vārtus, nosikliedzi vandziņi, Dzelzu vārti dārdēdami," (Iron man, drummer, unlock the iron gates; hawk screaming, iron gates sounding.) which is similar to what was collected in the 19th century. These words are said over salt (appūst sāli), which ensures protection against weapons. Christmas as the time of meeting of sorcerers and witches is also mentioned. Spirits that are involved are called by such names as "No Thought" (Nedoms) or Oterdoms (sic, Second Thought?). One spirit is said to live in a lake.

Without the benefit of a thorough investigation, it appears that there may be two groups of magic-users, which could be divided into werewolves and witches. Sorcerers are also mentioned, apparently more often associated with witches in the 16th century sources, but identified with werewolves in others. When a witch or werewolf group is of mixed gender, the relationship seems completely egalitarian with no distinction of gender or in the case of witches, an emphasis on female. There are several instances where an accused werewolf tries to mitigate his case by claiming that he has succeeded in fighting against witches. One can only speculate if they might not be two different organizations of magic users with the werewolves also associated with a secret or outlaw men’s society, since they seem to be implicated in harassing the Baltic gentry. Witches seem to be a primarily women’s organization and perhaps the older institution, considering that more fear is expressed as to their activities during Midsummer and other potentially dangerous occasions.

One interesting testimony is from Zirgu Miķelis (Horse Michael) who is said to be a sorcerer who flew to Christmas meetings with other sorcerers and is accused of working spells on the servant’s wife of the prosecutor. In defense he recounts that he met a woman Melniene who twice had flown toward him across the Daugava, but once he succeeded in binding her with the words “Nine fence sections, nine pairs of switches, the whore will be bound one by one.” But he released her with the words, “throw the hands open, clap them together, the whore will be released.” (LTT, 62) Others in the same accused group claim to the prosecutor to have saved the woman Zirgu Miķelis had “taken captive,” as evinced by her fainting. They had managed to release her from his spell with the words “Nine thunders and nine arrows tear the devil in nine pieces from that person” (Ibid, 62)

At the very least in the 16th century there seem to be rival groups who believe in magic and try to use it one against the other. The rivalries probably mirror squabbles, and jealousies of neighbors who sometimes became angry enough to denounce each other to the authorities. Specifically there is an accusation in 1587 about two groups of farmers involved in cursing each other. In those days cursing was more serious than bad manners and crude language. One of the groups is reported to say, "You will yet be burned, as your mother was burned." The retort from the other group was, "You and your lord (kungs) yourself will be burned." (Ibid, 62). In the 16th century witch hunting had already reached Livonia and an accusation of being a witch, sorcerer, or werewolf could have civil consequences. The first witches to be burned in Latvia were a mother and daughter in 1559 in Grobiņa. They attracted suspicion because their livestock was unusually healthy, not attacked by wolves, and the women were reported as ugly. (Ibid, 58) The first curse recorded is from a woman Katrīna in 1574. “May it become as naked as your finger and as dry as a staff,” which caused the man on whom she was casting a spell to become very ill. (Ibid, 58)

Werewolves understand the language of wolves and of dogs. (Straubergs II: 518). An initiated person may become a werewolf if cold water is thrown on them. The forest father (meža tēvs) is sometimes a werewolf band leader instead of the devil, but there are also human leaders. The primary function of the leader is to direct werewolves where they should look for their prey. Sometimes the craft is passed on in the family from mother or father to daughter or son, sometimes crossing gender. (Straubergs II: 542-3) A 1614 trial is about a mother teaching her daughter to fly. (Ibid: 543) Witches are often characterized variously as 1) old, evil-spirited women, 2) women with defects, lame, crippled, ugly, or 3) women who had unbound hair, blood-shot eyes, and swollen eyelids (which leads to conjecture about use of drugs). Magicians in general wouldn’t laugh, sing or attend church, sat with their back to the light, had something tied to their hair, and didn’t like to have visitors. (Straubergs II: 544) Magic users are also identified with another supernatural being, vadātājs (misleader), who is also otherwise identified with "devil" or with the dead who have died by misfortune. In a 1687 trial the being identified as responsible for a person getting lost in the forest is a "white" (ghostly) woman. In 1637 it is an ordinary woman Kušķu Madaļa who curses a male family member to be mislead in the forest by a devil. (Straubergs II: 533) Another trial identifies as vadātājas, those responsible for people getting lost in the forest, "witches" (raganas) who have a gathering place in a particular valley by the Ziemerieši farm. (Ibid: 534) At another gathering place witches are said to swing in the branches of three evergreens. (Ibid) Witches even appear as lietuvēni or nightrider spirits. (Ibid: 537) Generally, in these early historical trial sources up through the 17th century human magic users are often confused with supernatural beings. Thus in a 1697 trial it turns out that "devils" who initiated someone in magic were "neighboring farmers with two "devil dogs" who tore up livestock." (Ibid: 545) Finally, in contrast to the Christian view that a voluntary contract has to be signed with the devil, a magic user may be powerful enough to compel someone. Thus in 1647 the devil took a manor lady to Hell because a magician had given her to him. (Straubergs: 545) This is in line with the thinking that knowing certain words or magic allows one to exercise nonconsensual power. Knowing and calling out a supernatural being’s name forces it to come forth: "I was not afraid of velns I knew velns’s name. Father velns is Indriķītis, mother velns Margrietiņa. LD 31119).” (Straubergs II: 546) Similarly, flying lakes are compelled to descend whentheir real name is called out.

Mirdza Muižniece hypothesizes that there is no evidence that any daina singer saw herself as a hostile magic user (burvis, skauģis), or her group as evil. Evil is not from one’s own group, but comes in by chance from the outside. Perhaps they don’t know how to sing dainas (dainot) properly (Muižniece, p. 25). With Christianity what was rivalry among magic users could become dangerous codifiable, heresy.


Visi ļautiņ’ I sacīja, Ka es augu raganiņa:

Ūdens neši, zāļu nasta, Tā bij mana raganiņa. (28964)

All the people are saying I am growing up to be a witch.

Water carrier, herb load - that’s the extent of my witching.


Of course, there is also the possibility of psychopathology and dysfunctionality. The topic needs to be evaluated, as there are reports of witchcraft even in the last century. Arturs Goba in publishing folklore collections by Ojārs Ozoliņš, Ceļš uz Bitarīnu, 1990 in the region of the ancient historical kingdom of Tālava makes detailed claims for the practice of numerous vernacular religious beliefs. Thus, he writes about a local witch Melnā Ella against whom in 1926 a woman who had sought her help started legal proceedings. Black Ella came from a family of witches and when practicing called herself Kraukļu Marta (Crow Marta) in that crows were her helpers and she expected to learn their language with time. (p. 279-80).

While it is beyond the scope of this paper elaborate on religious power struggles with the attendant demonizing of older religion rivals, there is considerable literature on the subject, including feminist interpretations of patriarchal myth versions. The theme of witch against hero is illustrated by the powerful demoness Louhi who opposes Finnish heroes. Russian Marina defies Dobrynia and is put down by another female, Anna, friendly to and associated with the epic hero. Latvian materials have retained enough of an older ambiguity associated with magic users to be of interest, but is not generally known. Vernacular belief different from dominant schemas and paradigms persists. As Stikāne has pointed out, Velns/ velni (Devil/ devils) appears even in modern Latvian literature to accentuate ambivalence rather than portray evil.

In the work of M. Zālīte, J. Peters, Ā. Elksne, O. Vācietis, M. Losberga, M. Čaklais and other poets the portrayal of velns includes different aspects, but significantly the positive, life-affirming force. Velns is a particular craziness, madness, a depression and moroseness overcoming joy, playfulness, naughtiness, vitality. In modern Latvian poetry the colorfulness and completeness of life is accentuated with the image of the velns. (Stikāne: 184)

Velns as a patron of cattle and herders, and of a pasture-like Otherworld where he becomes a lord of the dead, velns as a giant or stupid troll, or Velns as a Loki-like companion to an Odin-like Dievs or as a neighboring farmer to him, among many different types heavily outweighs the relatively thin Christian layer of Satan. When Hell is depicted more in the Christian view of a place of punishment, Satan appears in the form of a German manor lord and he punishes not Latvian serfs, but German lords.

Similarly snakes continue to have positive associations from historical times when house snakes were fed milk in modern poetic imagery of development, renewal, and everlasting life. (Stikāne: 185). Spring and young girlhood in the form of the Sun Maiden is linked to the Otherworld. The Sun maiden possesses the key to the grave, a form of Otherworld. An exclusively dualistic mind might expect the holder to be Earth Mother, Shade Mother, or Grave Mother. But the Sun Daughter has more variants of the motif of holding the keys to the grave than all the others combined. (Bula, 1988: 54)