A. Ecological Umwelt


Two sides of Daugava River never part (Rainis)

The music languages of a culture have social, religious, political, historical, technological, cognitive, and geographic aspects. As J. von Uexkull (1909) and after him others pointed out, each social group has its own social Umwelt, life-world, or cognitive space map even if it shares the same ecological Umwelt.

The only truly observable environment is the one a group perceives and uses, and, in particular, the set of resources and constraints that it recognizes as such in speech and practice...(and identified by) technological analysis. (Sigaut, 444)

However, the cultural geographer includes the landscape worked on by humans, and like pre-industrial people, sees a human as part of his environment. He acknowledges that human beings have long-term geographical references, such as assembly and sacred places. Latvians have traditionally seen themselves as part of their ecosystem, and in the past in pre-industrial times they viewed themselves as reacting to the environment. The econational organization VAF was influential in the political activities of the Singing Revolution period and continues to have broad support. Issues surrounding current forest cutting and small-scale farming are central in collision of ecology and economy concerns. Econationalism, as a complex relation of plant and animal extending to human cultures, is not inherently a denial of change, but rather a rejection of change that seeks to jettison the cultural foundations for adaptation and change that enabled the society to survive through successively changing historical conditions. Cultures are an adaptation to their environment. While not determined by it, the environment does act as a network of shaping forces and constraints. Constraints are not even inherently conservative. Constraints often encourage creativity. The possibilities thrown up by the environment are not endless, but in the Baltic they have been sufficient for people to survive there for thousands of years, generations connected to each other through the web of environment and culture. Within a larger post Communist Eastern Europe frame, everything may be radically changing within two decades of a worst of the East and West onslaught.

Many reflexive dainas associate human life not only with nature (daba) but also with modes and means of subsistence and production with the attendant implications of distribution of resources and access to them and the division of labor with resulting social implications, summed up as darbs (work). Noting the sacred aspect, life can be described with the title of a classic work by Anna Brigadere, Dievs, daba, darbs (God, Nature, Work). Art, including music, expresses this association, and the daina world is a concretization of the view.

What is specific and what is generalized varies according to the view depending on grain and focus. The song traditionally sung at national and regional Song Festivals, sometimes as a spontaneous audience "alternative hymn," emphasizes the commonaltity which people from the different Latvian social Umwelts share:

Daugav’ abas malas mūžam nesadalas:

I Kurzeme, I Vidzeme, I Latgale mūsu.

Laime, par mums lemi! Dod mums mūsu


Viena mēle, viena dvēsle, Viena zeme mūsu.

Two sides of the Daugava, never divide:

Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Latgale ours.

Laime, decree over us! Give us our land!

One tongue, one soul, one land ours.

(lyrics - Jānis Rainis, music - Jānis Norvelis)

The point is not to define with attributes what this land, tongue, and soul is. The point is to affirm unity as a construction of belief and will. In the case of a small country such as Latvia the discourses of unity and coherence instead of being oppressive discourses of cultural hegemony and standardization to a common norm have been a means of opposing external hegemony that is more oppressive. Unity has enabled the construction of an alternative subjectivity from the fragmentation imposed on the culture by patronizing or hostile marginalizing stereotypes.

Geographically, as well as culturally the Daugava River – Mother Daugava, the largest in Latvia, naturally divides Latvia into east (Vidzeme and Latgale provinces) and west (Kurzeme, Zemgale). The east - west division reflects basic differences in culture and history. Latvia also divides into nine to thirteen ethnographic regions as to music, costume, language, and various traditions. (See discussion in Ancītis, 1997:6–8, who prefers the poetic pār deviņi novadiņi nine regions.) Broadly these divisions follow the territories of the five original peoples or tribes in the territory of modern Latvia. Four of the peoples were dominantly Indo-European kurši, zemgaļi, sēļi, and latgaļi and the fifth, the līvi, were Finno-Ugric. The dominant linguistic position is that the kurši were descendants of West Baltic peoples with a West Baltic language most closely related to the prūši (Old Prussians) exterminated or assimilated by Germans. All other surviving Baltic peoples, including the Latvians and Lithuanians are descendants of Eastern Balts. Other Baltic peoples lost their identity and were absorbed by neighboring peoples. There are dainas about going to war or to get a bride in wealthy prūši-land, also mythically associated with the setting of the sun, and historically with the land of amber.

Preceding romantic nationalism regional peoples developed extended social networks beyond those of kinship by creating marriage, work, commercial, and other resource-sharing alliances among neighbors. Similarity in language would have facilitated easy sharing of symbolic commonalities and a preference for alliances. Remarkably, as the daina phrase "to sing Estonian style" indicates, people found a way to communicate even under the extremes of two different language families when living as neighbors.

The Daugava formed part of an ancient trading route, the Amber Route, which was part of a system that connected the Baltic to the Black Sea through a series of river passages from pre-Roman times. Later the Vikings traversed this route carrying amber to markets in the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula and India. Latvians have an Indo-European pioneering farmer legacy with much lore about clearing the forests to create farms. Coastal people were Finno-Ugric (Liv) fishermen. The historical homeland of the Liv people is along the coast in the north. In pre-conquest history prior to 1200 CE Vidzeme had a mixed population of peoples related to the Estonians as well as Eastern Balts. Influence and contact with Estonians was highly competitive in this province. Western and southern Latvian peoples interacted with the Lithuanians to the south. After the defeat of the Zemgalian people, by the invading Knights of the Cross in the 13th century, sources speak of many Zemgalians fleeing to settle among the Zemaitians in Lithuania. There were Baltic-speaking peoples to the east of Latgale with settlements stretching almost to present day Moscow, which were assimilated into expanding Russia. Today the heaviest Russian-speaking population is in some regions of Latgale, especially in the border. The term "Latvian" derives from the Latgalian tribe, which was historically most numerous.

Latvia has been classified in terms of Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, and an in-between "shatter zone". Not wholly East and not wholly West from the viewpoint of Western civilization, it is seen as a hinterland or outlying region and simultaneously as a crossroads.

Paradoxically, though a land of crossroads, it has also been a land of preserves in terms of long-standing, stabilized ecology and conservative language and traditions. Tourists today seek out rare ecological flora and fauna, long gone in Western Europe and even Scandinavia. There is still discussion in terms of "people and the land" (zeme un tauta). The Baltic was the holdout of the last pagans of Europe and some of its traditions has more of the pre-Christian than the Christian. History classes include discussions on subject peoples, serfs, and national awakening. The social reality that has emerged from these pre-Christain roots is grounded in values and worldviews that are relatively egalitarian and nonhierarchical and potentially tolerant.

Latvian traditional culture is strongly associated with nature. Animism slides into nature worship. Trees were thought to have souls. The dead were buried in the forest and their spirits were believed to enter trees as well as other forms of life. Trees and groves known to have been sacred are recognized today. In Old Prussia Christian missionaries were tolerated until they attempted to destroy the sacred groves. One of the most powerful anthologies of poetry, Dzīvs Priedes Čiekurs (A Living Pine Cone) associates Latvian identity and ecology.

Catholic Latgale is thought of in terms of its lakes, the Catholic church at Aglona to which annual pilgrimages are made, amber color pottery with elaborate figurines, greater material poverty, and a larger Russian population. Zemgale, the area of last pagan military resistance, has rich soil for prosperous farms, skirts of complex ornamental weaving, and traditional blue-glazed pottery. Vidzeme is known for the winding Gauja River valley with sandstone caves, the influence of Moravian Brethren on its culture, and the colorful historical Tālava region, which in early times was an area of conflict between Estonian and Latvian tribespeople. Kurzeme has forests with elk and boar, Liv fishing villages, and was home to both seafaring Latvian “Vikings” and the Viking colony at Grobiņa. Regions have not been evenly collected for folklore. Thus the Lieljumprava region on the Kurzeme side of the Daugava was an area, according to Pumpurs’s childhood memories “wild with forest, swamp, the old (pagan) religion and a source of stories about witches and magicians,” while the adjoining region across the river was the source of more folk songs than any other and was also rich in tales and legends. (Rudzītis: 42) The Bearslayer tales that formed the core of Purmpur’s literary epic came from these two regions, though tales about the offspring of a bear and human can be found throughout Latvia, and of course, throughout northern Eurasia. (Ibid: 46, 62)

Latvia is located in northeastern Europe on the Baltic Sea, a part of the Great European lowland Plain. Its area is about 64,589 sq. km, its elevation 89 m above sea level, its climate maritime tending to continental, modified by the Gulf Stream, and moist. With a nature zone between the vegetation of Northern and Central Europe, there is considerable diversity of flora and fauna, especially birds with 300+ species, some rare such as the black stork. The result of uncultivated glacial moraines, southern and northern flora can be found close together. The forests and are rich with mushrooms and berries, an important element of the food supply. Of about 7850 plant species, 30 are protected. Almost half of the territory is naturally bog and forest, and it has many lakes, rivers, and the remains of manor lands. It is as yet a place for nature lovers to visit for what has vanished from most of Europe, though since independence and the entrance of neo-liberal free market economy, the forests are being cleared being a prime source of export income. Linguistically, it is also a rich source of information, along with Lithuanian. (cf Goba, 1997: 108-134)

Latvia’s neighbors are Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south, the three being called the Baltic States. In the east Belarus and Russia. Across the Baltic Sea are Sweden and Finland. The Republic of Latvia was founded on November 18, 1918, occupied by the Soviet Union (1940-1941, 1945-1991) and Nazi Germany (1941-1945). On August 21, 1991 Latvia declared the restoration of its independence, shortly thereafter recognized by Russia, the US and other countries. Western countries never recognized Latvia’s annexation by the Soviet Union.

Rhythms of Nature, Humans and the Cosmos

That is the section heading, "Cilvēka, dabas un Visuma ritmi” in Ansis Ataols Bērziņš web site (funded by Soros, LIIS, and Latnet) on Latvian folklore with emphasis on music and music ensembles. Pīgozne in a paper delivered at a 3 x 3 intensive summer culture workshop held in Garezers, Michigan (August 2000) notes that Latvians still invoke Nature in their everyday thinking: “In our language we use such concepts as Nature has given, Nature has endowed, talent given by Nature, the gift of Nature.” (Daba devusi, Daba apveltījusi, Dabas dots talants, Dabas veltes.) In the west everything usually is given by God." Bērziņš (ansis@folklora.lv), a musician, mathematician, and programmer notes the emotional as well as rational meaning to humans of the movements of the heavenly bodies, the yearly cycle, and the change of day and night:

Humans are strongly associated to these natural rhythms. Humans are a part of nature, have developed as a part of it, and can only feel satisfied when they follow it. Everything you do – sleeping and being awake, walking, blinking – it is all in accord with nature. If a person tries to be independent of them, he becomes worn down and unhappy. For instance, if a person sleeps during the day and not at night, he feels worse. Or if he takes one step longer with one foot than the other, he will become tired more quickly than if he went normally.

Bērziņš goes on to acknowledge that what is considered rhythmical, however, is highly individualized or learned in culture, “Nevertheless, we ourselves are the primary determiners of rhythm, and what we feel or do not feel as rhythmical, is simultaneously emotional and rational.”

As one reviews the many Latvian writings on the connection between ecology and traditional culture, one is struck how similar are general aspects of worldview among other integrated cultures. Thus a description of Australian aboriginal culture song cycle related to its ecology could be rewritten for the Latvian daina corpus that also reflects the different regions and also is permeated with a sense of magic connection:

The song cycle, or singing up the country, reflects the stars, winds, smells, temperatures, and visual land forms by which travelers navigate. The country will reveal itself only if the song cycle is performed correctly and the dance rhythms emit and evoke the right vibrations. Song and dance are not separate art forms. They are the means by which humans interact with and attune to the resonances of Earth, the heavens, and all plants, animals, and land forms. It is only through the constant maintenance of these unseen networks of Earth magnetism, cosmic winds, energies, and the communication waves of universal existence that the health and well-being of the tribes in their lands can be guaranteed. (Bell: 30)

In the daina world disharmony and disruptive change are on the balance viewed negatively as threatening to social survival, while the normative and ordered is stressed as positive. The Latvian word for "evil" ļauns (Karulis I: 552) specifically refers to social disruption by excessive selfish individualism, rather than abstract ethical or moral transgression. Co-operative personal bonds are the glue of the society, and discord is a potentially deadly threat.

Rituals, stylistic repetition, parallelism and geometric generation are all processes that emphasize rule-governed, regular, orderly progression and transformation in a life threatened by disorder, particularly when catastrophe threatens or strikes. The myths explain that the struggle is for constructive order against destructive chaos. The tendency to find regularity pleasing is biological and necessary for the learning of a young human child. Repetition, replication, and redundancy are principles that operate in nonlinear dynamic self-organizing systems, including biological and cultural systems. Regularity, order, and homeostasis are involved in the health of biological organisms. Regular cradling movements or heartbeats comforts newborn mammals.

Tradition can be seen in one view as a human construction against the greater reality of entropic change. Tradition gives a sense of security in deep and in superficial levels. As Heraclitus said, all IS change, so the struggle is more to organize and create than to change. Tradition enables or makes creation possible by providing both ground and construction elements to manipulate. This is consistent with learning theory that considers repetition as a way of learning and constraints as necessary for creativity.

Mazulāns in his book on geometric patterns derived from the plaiting and weaving process, starting with black and white strips weaving baskets and bast-shoes, shows how the medium conserves and constrains the basic patterns found in Latvian art. The geometrics of textiles are the dominant medium and are projected on other mediums, which are not constrained by the weaving process itself. This creates a mathematical order of endlessly derivable patterns and forms. Mazulāns demonstrates the mathematical relationship of patterns in one media to another by showing how complex lozenges, spirals, and meanders etched on a metal bracelet can be constructed by putting together basic weaving squares (Mazulāns: 104-111). This mathematically related mental world of geometrics is related to a sense of dynamic harmony. Mazulāns uses the daina term saskan (to be in harmony) and considers certain forms to be inherent in nature and discovered by human technology. In his study he shows how the techniques of plaiting, tying, and weaving form a historically timeless basis for the basic geometric ornaments that are found from the earliest times of human technology and are an eternally recurrent discovery of the laws of nature on which the order of the universe is based and reflected in the "the simplest, oldest lines and forms created by human hands…found on the walls of caves, cliffs, and on objects used in the distant past." (Mazulāņs: 193).

From rhythmical order a plait is created...We can see from the earliest times the mental ability and development to plait together living fibers, discovering the principle that plaiting together dark and light fibers one creates diagonal lines, which further lead to other ornaments with a sense and power of life and magic." (Mazulāns: 196)

He likens chaos and death to a lack of rhythm and order, and considers the aesthetic enjoyment of pattern to be not only universal, but also specifically constrainable to basic everyday technology. As have a number of other Latvians, he feels he can rediscover much of the "spirit of Latvian tradition" (to appropriate the title of Glassie’s study The Spirit of Folk Art) by isolating a few basic widespread and deeply embedded elements. Contemplating the laws that interrelate them, he arrives at a sense of Latvian ecology and related pre-industrial work, and social processes. Contemplative logic is seen as an entry into the spirit of the daina world, especially when a number of people come to similar conclusions.

That the basic patterns of culture are recurrently and redundantly expressed seems to also be the conclusion of traditional dance specialist H. Sūna:

What is characteristic of all expressive layers in Latvian social cheoreography is the geometric solution...in the dance floor choreographic logic is consistent with social thought: a dialogue of partners. In terms of compositional solution social choreography also continues to preserve and utilize the most elementary type of behavior – the monologue (with everyone having equal rights to dance freely over the entire dance space), thus endlessly creating choreographically plastic individual expression multiformed multivariants. A mass dance psychology of long standing rules. To that everyone submits, from beginner to professionally sophisticated dancer. (Sūna, 1988: 133-4)

Ecological grounding

A fundamental touchstone of socio-cultural stability and continuity, as observed in the dainas, is the ecological environment. Ecology under pre-industrial conditions is seen as a relative constant greater than the human islands where the members come, grow, and go in observable time of birth and death. Baltic populations have had thousands of years to adapt to their ecology.

In each forest and homestead

Its own mirror -

One river, a hundred-eyed seeer of all,

In which all is written.

(Nora Kalna, Dzīvs Priedes Ciekurs, p. 111)

In this part of the world with high forest regeneration and low carrying capacity, and land marginal for primitive farming, emerged a labor-intensive mixed economy (fishing, gathering berries and mushrooms and wild plants, hunting small game in the adjacent woods, beekeeping, in addition to herding and land cultivation) with low population density and a homestead settlement pattern (with only a few towns) was the way of life until the 19th century for almost all of the eponymous people. Scattered homesteads or hamlets most strongly contrast the Balts from the Slavs, the latter living together in larger households (zadrugas) and villages. (cf Dini: 216) Only the ten percent or so of the ruling Baltic German landowner class, who lived off native labor, were not directly dependent on ecology. For the 90% of the population, the native one, low levels of hierarchy and other social organization, and relative egalitarianism, even among the sexes, were consistent with pretty much the same ecological constraints as in the 13th century. People continued to live scattered in small agricultural groups.

Therefore, even though the historical data is incomplete, various aspects of pre-industrial life can be reconstructed as variables and constants are identified and interrelated within a system. This life was and to some degree continued to be an example of the "materially simple, spiritually complex" (Glassie, 1989: 252) type of society with a social order that is basic and therefore primal, a description that also fits the constructed daina world.

When the Teutonic Knights came into the region in the 13th century, the Baltic tribes were in differing stages of feudalism. Only the Lithuanian king Mindaugas created a true kingdom, and in accepting Christianity won its protection. Although historical and political conditions changed dramatically from the 13th century on and the formerly free farmer was gradually turned into a near-slave serf, the basic ecology of the region, notwithstanding some unusual climate fluctuations, remained relatively stable for successive generations. Dorothea and Norman Whitten's From Myth to Creation (1988) document "the structure and dynamics of rain-forest life through myth, legend, song, and graphic arts" (p. 6) finding "imagery derived from a thorough ecological knowledge " (p. 26) which results in an organization of powers into spheres of water, forest, and domestic garden. These broadly agree with the work of Ivar Paulson's The Old Estonian Folk Religion (1971) both in specifics of the division of spheres of culture and nature and in the general sense that experiences in different forms of expression are in some kind of resonance in a culture that is well integrated with its ecology. As stated before, one of the deep structure aspects of dainas is likening the human world to the world of nature in the forest and/or sea. This is another parallelism to Kaluli perspectives with "essential unity of natural history and symbolism" whereby "human relationships are reflected in the ecology and natural order of the forest" (Feld, p. 45).

It is this syntactic (and sometimes semantic) relationship of nature and culture that is found in societies with low levels of social stratification that has meaning for the person immersed in daina culture. This, rather than superficial semantic similarities or romanticism, is more likely what attracts many Latvians to such cultures attuned to their ecology such as the native American.


Dzīvs Priedes Ciekurs is one of the most powerful poetry collections from the Soviet occupation period is an anthology with almost all the contemporary poets of Latvia. Its subject is trees and trees that are poisoned from industrial chemicals or cut for lumber to be sold. But the anthology is really about Latvia and Latvians. The socioecological base of Latvian traditional culture was subject to Soviet "bulldozing" policies as people were deported and the country forcibly collectivized and the economy industrialized. A culture that survives for thousands of years does so because it has made sound ecological adaptation and has come up with solid solutions for its survival. The Soviet methods were inappropriate to the ecology and exploited the people. Under occupation addressing the ecological issues was metaphorical for addressing issues of Latvian survival. Nothing was felt to be a greater source of beauty and meaning than what can be enjoyed of the forest, lake, or seashore. These are the centers of concrete and real meaning, of rest and refreshment, and the source of the dainas.

All the gods deceive us and leave us

In the dust of earth, in the smoke of earth,

Booming rolls away the thunderwagon,

Dear Mara turns her cheek away from us.

Only Forest Mother as before

Takes us into her green home.

With resin smell she treats us

Strawberry flowers she spreads a sheet.

(Ārija Elksne, Dzīvs Priedes Čiekurs, p. 65)

Unfortunately following the few years of independence, the forests in Latvia are now being cut to generate short-term profits for the few who do not share in the ecological view. The largely unspoiled seashore with flora and fauna no longer found elsewhere in Europe, ironically preserved because it was militarily restricted during the Soviet period, is also in danger now from aggressive and largely unrestricted market forces.



In contrast to older sociobiology wherein environment shaped the organism, co-evolution relates the living organism and supra-organisms like society to their environment in a cybernetic feedback relationship, each affecting the other. (cf Durham) In changing their ecological environments, in the long term humans alter their own selection pressures for survival and therefore their genetic information. In the intermediate term, over the course of decades and centuries, changes to the ecology affect economic, social and political processes and relationships. There are examples such as Central America where slash and burn agriculture transformed formerly rich, sheltering forest lands to barren hills unable to sustain the complex ecological systems necessary for relatively dense human habitation. In the Baltic region co-evolution evolved gradually permitting eco-cultural niches of considerable stability to form. The dainas evoke a spirit of co-evolution. A daina observes the field is beautiful untouched by man, but claims it more beautiful when ploughed. Humans are said to ornament or enhance nature without harming it. Their ordering of nature is seen as positive. Equally, dainas speak of nature as the source and shaper of a human and the sky god rides down from the mountain gently, without disturbing a blade of grass.


Singing link of culture and nature

Singing is seen as a part of the ecology and is explicitly equated to the process of living. The deepest roots of song are sourced in nature; dainas inform that the cradle of a great singer was hung next to the forest so she could learn from the nightingale, and ultimately from the goddess Laima. Singing is a fundamental way to bridge nature and culture. Nature is the ground of culture, though most dainas are not about nature in itself, but about humans and human society. Everything in life is accompanied by song. It is also opposed to weeping and sorrow. This attitude is not na?ve or romantic, but comes from a life of hardship and limitations, and is a concrete and effective way of dealing with adversity.


Bēda, mana liela bēda, Es par bēdu nebēdāju.

Liku bēdu zem akmeņa, Pāri gāju dziedādama.

Sorrow, my great sorrow, I didn’t sorrow overlong.

I placed sorrow under a rock, went over it singing.


When the daina tradition was still entirely living among the people, each Latvian grew in it naturally and learned it together with everyday speech. But that ethnographic environment, in which the daina tradition develops, has long since disappeared. The daina world that has been rewritten down on paper is a created virtual reality that reflects an earlier physical and social reality, not that of today. (Vīķe - Freibergs, 1997:13)

The females of the society are seen as the special guardians of the knowledge that relates nature and culture in terms of color symbolism to fire, sun, blood, and life:


Šorīt agri Saule lēca Sarkanēja kociņēje.

Jaunas meitas gudras bija, To kociņu paglabāja;

Jauni puiši veci tapa, To kociņu meklēdami. (Tdz 54 989)

This morning Sun rose in the red tree.

The young girls are wise; they are safe-keeping the tree;

The young boys became old looking for that tree.


In other songs the tree is identified as the cosmic tree with silver leaves, gold branches, and copper roots.


B. Social organization

In terms of evolutionary typology, the kind that is used to characterize societies on social evolution related to technology, social structure, and integration (summaries in Childe 1951, Sahlins 1972, Glassman 1986), the daina world, even as collected in the 18th and 19th centuries, is little concerned with the level of state organization and power. What is most relevant in the daina world is a level of organization that would have been to some degree understandable to their ancestors, living in a somewhat ranked society characteristic of early feudalism on homesteads or in hamlets. This is not that different structurally from a still earlier loose clan family system, which is still rather strongly egalitarian on the everyday level where the salient decisions about what is relevant on the farm are made by family members. Some of the characteristics of a pioneering society characteristic of simple cultivators were perpetuated for a long time in Latvia because of the low carrying capacity of the land, relatively sparse population, and high degree of forest regeneration. The characteristic settlement pattern of the Latgalians was that of farmsteads or hamlets of 3 - 7 farmsteads, with settlements more thickly concentrated in villages and around hill-forts or castles along the borders with other peoples from whom one might expect war raids. (Arheoloģija un etnografija, V, p. 6.) According to the 1959 dissertation of A. Krastiņa, Zemnieku dzīvojamās ēkas, cited by H. Strods ("Vidzemes etnogrāfijas avotu un pētījumu apskats,” Arheoloģija un Etnogrāfija, V, p. 21): " The oldest type of farmer dwelling is the nams, whose earliest appearance is associated with the entry of Balts (into the Baltic), but the persistence of the threshing barn as dwelling (in Vidzeme) with Finno-Ugric traditions, German aggression, and the difficult material conditions of the Latvian peasant."

The primary social organization continued to consist of interdependent kin and neighbors. Thus, Merkel: "Latvians lived in the forest, separately, in huts, but Estonians in fortified villages; this difference persists even today." (Merkel: 31) Until the last century relevant Latvian folk society approximated the das Volk – small, illiterate, regional, relatively homogenous, relatively isolated, traditional, and group-oriented within regions each having its distinct dialect, traditional dress, songs, and other long-term shared traditions and group identity. Learning is essentially informal rather than institutional, face-to-face, and associated with a concrete context and applications to work in fields, forests, or fishing.. Most of the population was agrarian, with a smaller number of fishermen with Rīga and a few other cities as areas of urban contrast. Gypsies and Jewish peddlers dominated among people regularly making their travels through the homesteads. Consistent with performance studies, my focus is on relationships in praxis, in the differential as well as the shared, in conflict and negotiation and diversity that may be hidden to the outsider as seeming homogeneity, screening dysfunctionality as well as functionality.

The concept of reciprocity, as classically worked out by Mauss (1925) in his study of gift exchange, influenced by Malinowski, and subsequently generalized by Polanyi (1944), Levi-Strauss (1949), Sahlins (1972) and others was of considerable relevance to the everyday life of Latvians even in the l9th century. While redistribution by a central figure of authority on the state level certainly existed, it was controlled by powers seen as outsiders, namely the society of German manor barons on the local level and whatever state power applied to the region on the highest level. Traditions relating to exchange do not seem to refer to the latter. Even today many Latvians on the everyday level think in terms of sharing reciprocity and trust among familiars versus distrust of strangers, rather than in terms of limited exchange of market economy and mercantile economy, though there are rapid changes as Western market-oriented values flood in. Exchange is socially constituted with implied social relations. Social relations are not, however, reducible to ecological or economic factors.

The clan (dzimta) men were known as bāliņi, the clan women as māsiņas. Outsiders who could potentially become in-laws in an exogamous arrangement were known as tautieši. The two biggest divisions between potentially friendly neighbors, was that of radi (kin) and tautas (potential in-laws). The focus of concern is on the family level, dually organized as to labor by gender: managed, headed, and personified by the persons of saimnieks, pats (male head of household) and saimniece, pate/i (female head of household). The people who live in the homestead are known as a saime, which includes fieldworkers (meitas (lit. girls), puiši (lit. boys) of both sexes who are not necessarily related. Where this arrangement is called "patriarchal", it is taken as a given, rather than substantiated, nor have I seen compelling evidence in dainas that the saimniece is hierarchically subordinated on the household level. Such duality, however, is not necessarily recognized outside the homestead structure or by the manor system dominated by the German landlord, which would be expected to impose the etic patriarchal construct of a state society, rather than acknowledging differences that might be in emic terms as consistent with the level of social structure and organization most relevant to the farmstead. Further, the representative of the household to the outside world would more likely be a male, conforming to cross-cultural expectations.

Kinship was bilateral shifting according to needs. Dainas clearly identify three kinds of brothers (trejādi bāleliņi) who owe protection – father’s brothers, mother’s brothers, and īstie or one’s own "real" brothers. Unlike the Russian pattern of a zadruga, Latvians seem to have preferred independent farmsteads than large villages. Dainas speak of tensions within a large household and instability when several brothers attempt to live together with their wives (ietaļas):


Apgāzās vācelīte, Iztecēja kamoliņi;

Sabārās ietaļiņas, Izšķīrās bāleliņi. (LD 23679)

The yarn-ball container turned over, the yarn balls rolled out.

The sisters-in-law feuded, the brothers divided (took up separate residence).


The level of household integration, based largely on kinship and neighbor relations, such as cooperative work or bees (talka) was also sufficiently flexible to respond to circumstances and opportunities. Thus female inheritance was preferably in movable goods, consistent with preferred patrilocal marriage, but an optional iegātnis system existed to keep the land within the family if there were only daughters with female inheritance of land. The significant interactions and interrelations depicted are of intimate character within small social groups based on kinship relations and neighbors. A practical subsistence existence, the economic underpinning of egalitarian social structure, was ensured into modern times by surplus being collected by the foreign landlords. The concept of tribute (mesli) to a conqueror evolves into taxes and corvee; in the dainas, the mistreated serf sometimes refers to himself with the old word for "slave" or "war captive" – vargs/ vergs. It is as if a family-level society, which earlier had developed as an adaptation to fluctuating resources in terms of subsistence farming, were artificially conserved because it was not allowed to develop into structurally more complex forms. The growth of Riga into a cosmopolitan trading center as well as the hope of Latvians who escaped there to become "free" is a separate consideration, not taken up here. The significant daina-numbers about the semi-mythical city indicate that the peasants did see this as a practical alternative.

To what degree is a warrior society reflected in the daina world, one of an emerging or developed Dumezilian warrior class as opposed to farmer-raiders and farmer-defenders? The Finnish peoples do not have war or warrior songs as such, though their heroes battle mostly supernatural opponents, and the Proto-Balts who came into the Baltic area were not organized on that level either. One would not expect a heroic epic tradition as reflecting a developed military aristocracy to have been able to develop until a few centuries before the German conquest at a period when clans had evolved to chiefdoms and petty kingdoms. No epic tradition has been found in the Baltic.

The question to what degree daina society was egalitarian as opposed to hierarchical and to what degree male gender ideology would be contested or seen as complementary is a complex problem. Certainly status and role of women in society can strongly diverge from metaphorical use of the feminine in that culture as mythical or spiritual powers of engenderment, transformation, initiation, or activation. However, in traditional Latvian society dual construction of gender seems to have some correspondence to real-life society with strong egalitarian features. Feminist scholars, such as Rayna Rapp point out that as states emerge, and in particular when colonization is involved, the record of what was earlier gender complementarily and parallelism is often distorted to fit a hierarchical patriarchal model: "leadership and authority are assigned to activities which are male, while female tasks and roles are devalued, or obliterated." (Rapp: 313). Certainly indigenous Baltic laws of inheritance were less patriarchal than those imposed by manor culture. The labor of women and men was interdependent, and women participated in the different types of agricultural work. The relatively higher position of Baltic women has been emphasized by a number of Lithuanian scholars: "The enslavement of women, typical of Proto-Slavic tribes, constituted the essential difference between Balts and Slavs...The Proto-Slavic custom of having several wives contradicted the Baltic system." (Vycinas, 95 citing Jurate Statkute de Rozales, "I pasaulio scena izengia slavai," Dirva (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 September 1983) Curiously there are even some dainas that reverse what would be the expected wish of a young woman in a husband, if young then handsome, if old then rich:


Kumeļ, manu kumeliņu, Ved man skaistu līgaviņu.

Ja ved jaunu, tad ved skaistu, Ja ved vecu, tad bagātu. (43987)

Horse, my horse, bring me a pretty wife.

If you bring me a new one, then a pretty one. If an old one, then a rich one.


Marrying a woman for property is consistent with early medieval custom in other European countries. Grave markers showing marriages of landowning females to younger husbands by even 7-10 years attest that this was the case in at least Zemgale of the 18th and 19th c. (Elizabete Rūtens, personal communication, referring to study by Ina Lastoveca, Līvberga pagasta vēsture, 2000.) In a completely patriarchal society, women would not own land, so that only a girl could have the problem of choosing between a young handsome or rich older husband. Additionally the iegātnis system where a daughter inherited land if she had no brothers and took a husband, who was holding power only, but never had right to the land, was another optional marriage contract.

A daughter received inheritance in movable form and this inheritance was retained by her to give to her daughters rather than passing to the her husband’s ownership:


Nāc, Laimiņ, dalībās, Māt ar meitu dalījās:

Šķir aitiņas, šķir telītes, Šķir baltās vilnānītes.(LD 16 412, 1)

Come, Laima, to the dividing; mother and daughter were dividing:

They divided the sheep, divided the calves, divided the white wool shawls.


Consensual divorce does appear to be mentioned: "let us part, tautieti, fortune is not with us living together" (šķiramiesi mēs tautieti, mums nav laimes dzīvojot). Historical sources denounce spouses leaving each other, and it may have been a social problem. When it does occur it is seen as destiny in the dainas. The name tautietis, elsewhere tautu dēls (meita), instead of "husband" or "wife," emphasizes belonging to another clan or family and only gradual assimilation into the household.

The emphasis on mūžiņš (lifetime) in marriage appears superfluous, unless there were alternatives. Possibly clasping hands as a betrothal pledge may have old roots in the case of hand-festing surviving in Celtic customs as contractual marriage for a limited time. The many songs speaking of "marriage for life" (mūžiņam) might otherwise be superfluous and may suggest that other models could have been known: “Sasēda liepiņa Ar ozoliņu; Mūžam sasēda, Ne vienu dienu.” (Linden sat with oak, sat for life, not one day.”)

The labor of women was not only essential, but also recognized, which required some travel. A female going out to seek work and being hired as “girl” (meita) is common in Latvian folklore. Such female labor is noted by Warren Roberts in his analysis of AA-Th 480 and related tales (p.130). Females as well as males may travel to Otherworlds to become servants of one deity, such as Saule, and are accordingly rewarded with magical gifts. In the cycle of orphan songs, the orphan-girl becomes something of a "heroine" in that she solves puzzles, overcomes difficulties, and sometimes travels. However, she does not engage in actual combat, though she may confront dangerous beings and situations.

In a series of interviews with regional singing group leaders Pēteris Jaunzems elicits the humor, good-natured optimism, and strength of these singing women who seem to have undergone considerable trials while growing up. Thus Līne Šlampe earned extra money as a child by taking on bets with her boss. In one instance, she had to climb a high evergreen to the top and remain there without holding on. Another trial is of being able to “hold liquor”:

I remember one Midsummer. That was when I was still herding and I had a strange boss (saimnieks) – paid well but made me do all kinds of nonsense. Apparently, in a happy mood he wanted to see how a child behaves when drunk. He offered two lati if I could drink twelve glasses of beer. It was real country beer, but two lati seemed like a lot of money – the day’s pay for a male hired hand. After each of three glasses I was allowed to eat something. I drank nine fairly easily, then the tenth and eleventh. But the last one was very difficult. I hadn’t gotten to half and I could feel that the beer would not stay in. I didn’t dare throw up; then I wouldn’t get paid. The boss left someone to watch me, but could I, a child, keep the attention of a young man on Midsummer eve? He forgot his "duty," and I didn’t waste time getting rid of the "extra liquid". The boss waited a long time for me to get dizzy, but nothing happened.

Līna also learned to gather rare roots, and later to catch snakes for the apothecary. She therefore had money to get extra things at the market. She is characterized as a drošs un ellīgs skuķēns (a devil of a girl), like her younger sister, of three sisters. Still older she and another female friend pulled some more dangerous escapades, such as a trick on the border guards while herding cows. They walked into the sea through an inflowing creek and then made tracks on the sand as if having come out of the sea. They got caught and had to confess to the prank. In the Soviet period the seashore was guarded to keep people from escaping in boats across the Baltic Sea to Sweden.

In another interview Zenta Bērtiņa tells about how concerned at first was the assigned bus driver who was to drive elderly women and children singers around for a week-long grueling concert tour. His apprehension was changed and he discovered these elderly and young female musicians were able to come up with a song for every interesting feature they came across. Zenta answered the bus driver’s question as to the source of the songs: “From our ancestors. That is the Otaņi heritage. In one practice we were learning a new song and Alvīne said she recognized the melody. That is how her grandmother had sung it...the song chest is full and impossible to plumb.”

Some of the kinship and marriage customs described in the dainas are clearly archaic. A significant number of dainas negatively mention endogamy ("brother"-"sister" marriage, but perhaps cousin) as a means of preserving kin and land (lai radiņi biezumā – so the kin may thicken) in the context of a girl choosing to become a duck (drowning) rather than to have her mother be her mother-in law, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for its practice. Other customs, which were practiced to recent times, suggest fluid or flexible social arrangements, including alternative marriage forms such as inheritance of land by women, the husband not inheriting the land (iegātnis system). If mythology is considered, the unusual practice of polyandry (dawn or sun maiden with sky brothers) comes up, but there is also no evidence of its practice. While often such occurrences in myth are dismissed out of hand as having no social basis, the Baltic materials have yet to be examined in terms of socio-diversity of marriage arrangements, adaptive as in the case of archaic Tibet. While there is no indication of the archaic rare but documented Siberian cases of girls raised as boys and taking on the role of men, the Baltic even has good examples of the song about the girl who went to war and who therefore as payment gains property rights to the land. The song may simply justify default male inheritance of land, though, of course, a priori assumptions can’t be made, and in any case, the need for an explanatory myth may suggest the practice is not totally taken for granted in a culture where males and females are both valued in terms of their work contribution.

A particularly interesting form of constructed Baltic kinship, was associated with bee-keeping. Since a swarm might go into someone else’s property that was originally in the forest commons, the old and new swarm keepers became "bee-brothers" bičoļi, friends who would share the honey. Algirdas Greimas notes that bičiulis and bitinkas (beekeeper) is a synonym even in modern language for "friend," which implies equality as opposed to the terms for "herder" (Lith. bandžius, bandžiulis, bandininkas, Latv. bandenieks) that implies a proto-feudal or vassal hierarchical relationship between herder and master. (p. 165-6) The friendship based on bees unites men living in different farmsteads with mutual obligations. Greimas notes that traditional rivalry between villages was expressed by calendric "battles" between the men’s societies representing them. (p. 166) He also distinguishes two types of relational obligations, egalitarina friendship known as bee-kinship (bičiulyste) and hierarchical ones based on land (bandžiulyste). Perhaps the alternative form of matrilocal marriage, the Baltic iegātnis (Latv.) system, which does not give land rights to the husband, but retains it with the daughter of the land, may be seen in terms of contract based on bees rather than land. The husband may be considered to bring bees, which he had inherited from his natal home, with him. (Greimas, p. 162)

The fluidity with which "daughter," "sister," "mother," and "wife" replace themselves in tales and myths (as the female relatives of Velns when overcome by the hero try to take revenge) suggest that there is a strong identification of them in a semantic field of "our women" from the viewpoint of a male. In the daina-songs, the roles of the different types of women are more clearly differentiated, as sister (māsa) and sister-in-law (mārša) or orphan (bārene) from a daughter protected by family (īstā meita) from the viewpoint of a female, as well as the mother-daughter (māte – meita) association.

Hierarchies described in the dainas include "elder", as in "velnu vecākais, vecais velns, velnu tēvs, velnu māte in addition to ķēniņš (king) and valdnieks (ruler). The terms "father" and "mother" when applied to the master and mistress of a farmstead, or to the officiants of a celebration are, of course, not geneological terms, but honorifics or terms of authority. The celebrants are called "children". Farmhands of both sexes were mostly young and single, but they could also form a family subsystem within the larger saime farm household, usually not all family.

Certain gender models came late to the Baltic, those mediated by societies in a more advanced feudal state, with a corresponding lowering of female status. Those included Zoroastrianism and Christian models. Within manorial society, all native people were leveled into the peasant layer. Consistent with findings in other societies (Ward, p. 63), as compensation for the loss of carefree girlhood and lesser responsibilities, positive roles opened up for married women as healers, midwives, ritual leaders, and possessors of supernatural or extraordinary powers. Female nonChristian names were often those of birds. (See Šnē: 33-36 for linguistic principles involved in female bird names.)

Consistent with subsistence economy and relative egalitarianism all sharing peasant or bottom stratification layer, traditional concepts of reciprocity (Mauss 1925) prevailed, including that of gifts, labor, and even of marriage partners (in contrast to the concept of a commodity purchased with no further obligations). Such proverbs as "Dots devējam atdodas” (What is given returns) and “Vēl man labu, es tev arī” (Wish me well, and I will the same) are still commonly cited.

Estate feudalism created a leveling effect on the Latvian people together with a natural breeding ground for sympathy for the underdog. Interrelated psychologically are very different genres: orphan songs, folktales about the herder child who outwits devils and giants, anecdotes about the uselessness, helplessness, greediness, and capriciousness of the manor lord or clergyman. All of these have precedents in another era, now serving other functions, which also coexist. The songs sung by women who were leaving their natal families to live as “orphans” among foreign people become generalized to all Latvians who are oppressed and brutalized by foreign masters. Tales about beating giants or outwitting devils increasingly came to be reinterpreted with the lowly herder-child as the hero instead of a demigod hero.

Perhaps the most positive, though still ambiguous, outsider is the Gypsy, a free trickster spirit, speaking up to the master when the peasant dares not, and embodying a sense of irony.(Arājs, 1971, p. 9). Mummers dresses up as Gypsies and in some regions are even called Gypsies (čigāni). The image has persisted to recent times. Gypsy children drawn by Kovaļevska were as familiar to Latvian children in the 20th century as Hummel or Peanuts figures to German or American children.


C. History Context:

For Latvians, their history is their story.

(Linette A. Kalsnes, Norwegian reporter after fieldwork in Garezers, Michigan, a Latvian language and culture intensive center)

The history of Latvia is not a laughing matter:

'Til recently we lived in trees and mushrooms we did gather.

Latvian humorist Valdis Artavs.


The Herder type association of folk song with identity for Latvians is even more, associating cultural and personal identity with all of history. When it comes to joking about history sensitive nerves may be affronted in a "cult of seriousness." (Cohn: 187) The Artavs humor about Latvians living in trees is part of self-deprecating ironical contemporary humor. An urban legend, (Vasiļevskis, personal communication) rumors of a German or Scandinavian historical source, usually an encyclopedia, that characterizes Latvians as a “small, thieving nation living by the Baltic Sea.”

A particularly heavy hand of history has rocked the Latvian cradle. The recurring metaphor is of trying to survive while being ground between two millstones, most broadly between German (West) hegemony and the Russian (East) hegemony, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. The Baltic countries have looked to the West since conquest of indigenous peoples of what is now Estonia and Latvia in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights after about a hundred year struggle, Lithuania had a somewhat different history in the Middle Ages, having become an empire in its union with Poland until the Russian empire took the whole region in the 18th century. Latvian mentality, if there should be an attempt to understand it, has to consider its intensive dialogue with history, still a popular pastime. Baltic German aristocrat scholar, Anatol Lieven, a descendant of Liv chieftains who threw in their lot with the conquering Teutonic knights, speaking of the Latvian position as in-between the romantic, dramatic Lithuanian and stoic, no-nonsense Estonian:

Latvians find it difficult to define themselves except by contrast with their neighbors...The Latvians are regarded by the other Balts, and were regarded by the Baltic Germans, as an unreliable people, with a rare capacity to believe two contradictory things at the same time. (Lieven: 35)

One can select at random examples of how the crisis of identity and "double bind dilemma" of Latvian history is expressed, perhaps poetry being obvious. Thus, Vizma Belševica in her epic "Henry the Latvian’s commentary on the margins of the Livonian Chronicles" recalling the actual Chronicles that were possibly written by a Latvian converted to Christianity from the viewpoint of the Teutonic Order ironizes:

O, traitor nation,

Is it worth dying, laying down ones head for you?

O nation of dogs,

In a bowl of blood the master dips a stone from the road in place of bread.

Devour your own blood and the stone with it.

And wag your tail – you have deserved it!

But weep – tears will turn to iron when the time comes

And evil will be smitten with an iron rain.

The obsession continues even as Latvian society continues in its insecurity with its powerful neighbor Russia and the pressures of having to assimilate the overwhelmingly large Russian population that appeared as a direct result of Soviet conquest and colonization, or with the less obvious consumer culture of the West. Thus, even today there is a felt necessity to assert identity, rather than accepting it as a given, even as rapid accommodations to new and international forces are being made, sometimes sounding as if it could have been written 150 years ago in the Awakening period, which resulted in the formation of Latvian identity. Almost at random from one 1999 calendar:

We must learn about Latvian prehistory so we can understand that our ancestors had their songs and stories, their signs, symbols and beliefs, their castle forts and sacred places, their leaders and intelligentsia – the burtnieki sages...how important the Daugava waterway was to Europe. (Ancītis: 1995)

When Foucault suggests that our age is suffering the effects of rejecting the traditions of classical rationalism, he is being somewhat ethnocentric in his overstatement. Much of the world has not shared the intellectual history of Western Europe, modern America, and their intellectual colonies even if they have come to be dominated on different and varying levels by that ethos. Not all of Europe has shared equally in the so-called Judeo-Christian/West European ethos that is centered in Germany, France, England, and Italy and on to North America. On the other hand, they are not really a part of the Other Europe in which Russia is dominant. They are equally marginal to even this paler second half of the European division, that of Eastern Europe. That is, of course saying more about the view from the outside, not to say that the Baltic does not have a significant intellectual internationally shared intelligentsia since its entry into literacy. One may, for instance, survey the Latvian literature of irony and existentialism of the 20’s and 30’s, such as that of Kārlis Zariņš. (Bondare: 1-7).

The Baltic, variously divided into eastern or northern Europe by Cartesian-minded mapmakers shares rather little with the Byzantine or Russian Orthodox traditions. On the large historical scale it was connected to the West by its German conquerors and the Hanseatic League. It is northern through a generalized emic sense of geographical identity in itself only weakly or potentially political. It is not unproblematically northern; strong qualifications need to be made when speaking of it as a beneficiary of Western culture. The eponymous populations of the Baltic were mostly illiterate until the last half of the 19th century, and in Estonia and Latvia held to a rigid undeutsche social caste from which entry to the "cultured" - i.e. German level was virtually impossible. The ruling German class, of course, shared in Western culture and ideology. This ideology legitimized their privileges, but conversely also legitimized the oppression of the indigenous populations. That Western culture, which the eponymous peasant received, passed through at least two big filters: that of the German oppressors - often received with hostility - and that of their own indigenous traditions.


The forcible inclusion of the Baltic into Russian and Communist hegemony, and the difficulties with absorbing a large post-occupation Slavic population, has resulted in attempts to dissociate from the Slavic and a renewed look to the West. Ironically, attempts of Latvian philologists to disassociate from the Slavic have resulted in the discovery by Russian philologists that the whole group of Slavic languages may have differentiated from a pre-Baltic source. (cf Baltic etymology summary in Karulis, II: 583-665)

The obsession with history has had its rewards in terms of valuable information. The artificial isolation of Latvian people in islands concentrated around estates with minimal contact with the outside had a strong conserving effect, so that a wide variety of regional and subregional dialects and cultures were available to historically oriented folklorists. Grass roots and ground-up characterized the Awakening period when folklore foundational to subsequent national identity was collected. Since the world was and is generally unaware of the area, the Baltic has had to rely on perseverance, originality, and grass-roots demonstrations of popular support or opinion to attract international attention. This macro-level of activity and organization appears to be consistent with and grows out of similar micro-cell activity, such as the composition of the self-contained daina-units.

Hopkins in his study of Norwegian aural traditions argues for the co-existence of preservation and innovation because hardingfele players take pride in sharing and preserving a code outsiders don’t know and make effort to preserve:

The hardingfele spelemann is able to change code according to audience, social setting, or situation; he is able to persuade, preserve, and to innovate. Strong feelings of social identity, as well as great respect for the achievements of certain individuals, has resulted in great preservative powers – both as to styles and to particular pieces...This evidence of the individual musician’s control over his resources implies, for the sphere of musical performance, the same kind of ‘aural thinking’ that we have found to be an integral part of even the initial perception of a musical structure...It may further be seen in emic genre differentiation; for genres seem to be classified, not only in accordance with obvious similarities of sound patterns, but also with reference to a cluster of associative features known only to those within the tradition. (236)


Since there are a number of accessible books on Latvian history, it is sufficient for the purpose of this research to summarize with a few high points. Eurocentrism has not particularly benefited the Baltic lands in terms of scholarly attention, which has marginalized or placed them in-between. Though leaving feudalism and gaining widespread literacy only in the 19th century, they have not been seen as sufficiently "other," to be included as the focus of Western anthropology that has concentrated on more exotic, nonEuropean peoples. If not entirely a terra incognita in the English-speaking world, their relevance to the actual history of Europe has been underrated, except by obscure specialists. Some of the areas of interest in historical studies include: 1. Baltic location at the source of a commodity much desired in the ancient world, amber (the "Golden Age" of Balts in the first millenium, then known as "Aestians."). 2. The observations of early humanists, and particularly the young Herder, in the Baltic contributing to the zeitgeist of the Romantic period. 3. The importance of Baltic studies and languages in the understanding of the earliest phases of Indo-European cultures (as well as Finno-Ugric) and languages. 4. The role of Latvian insurgents and Red riflemen in the revolutions that came to topple the Czarist Russian Empire, 1890, 1905, and 1917 resulting in independence, but also a huge loss of population, repeated in WWII. 5. The Baltic role in the fall of the Soviet Empire. A few historic highlights offer some context:

The eponymous native ethnic population of Latvia is considered the direct descendant of the peoples who historically lived in the region. The first peoples entered the area after the glaciers made it habitable, first reindeer hunters, then around 7000B.C. the Kunda culture and following that the Narva. Around 2500 B.C. Baltic tribes from the south with cord ceramics met Finnish peoples coming from the east with comb and pit ceramics, and fused with and Indo-Europeanized Mesolithic populations that had lived there since the recession of the Ice age. In the area of present day Latvia the Baltic and Finnish populations to some degree maintained their identity historically forming four Balt and two coastal Liv regions. The numerically smaller Finno-Ugric Livs maintained fishing villages until World War II.


Herodotus, in 500-424 B.C. speaking of Aestians, considers the southern borders to be around the Danube and Dniester Rivers and includes the interesting detail that these people turned into werewolves annually. Thorough research has been done to show the upper Dniester area to be a center of Baltic hydronymic place. (Cf Dini: 33-48) The Volga is likely such a Baltic word, meaning "Long River" (modern Ilga).

The earliest roots of the Balts (see in particular Gimbutas) are associated with a fusion of matricentric Old European first farmers with nomadic Indo-Europeans. The latter had a patriarchal society and religious worldview, while the Old Europeans had a female-centered mythology supported by a sister-brother stewardship, a weak hierarchy, and no developed military aristocracy. It is from this mixed culture "second Indo-European" homeland, presumably north of the Caspian Sea, that the ancestors of the Balts moved to their eventual home by the Baltic. Baltic culture and belief systems, while cited for its archaic Indo-European roots in language and mythology, have also retained much of the female-centeredness in a syncretism where the sky god ascended as supreme deity relatively late, possibly largely under Christian influence. Laima (Fortune) retains much of her independence and sovereignty even in the songs collected in the l9th and 20th centuries, and the Sun goddess (possibly with her daughter the Dawn goddess in at least some traditions) was elevated to importance she seems to have had only among some Indo-European peoples. (See McGrath, The Sun Goddess. Myth, Legend and History for compilation of many sources). The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus about 100 BC wrote of Aestians farmers living on the coasts of the amber sea, rescuing shipwrecked sailors, worshipping a Great Mother Goddess, and carrying a boar image to battle.

Common Baltic, originally the northernmost Indo-European group, flanked by Germanic and Celtic peoples to the west and Slavic peoples to the south, spread over a large territory from what is now central Russia to the Vistula River in what is now Poland in probably three waves and in two directions, dividing into two language subgroups, the West Balts and the East Balts. (cf Loze, 1995: 66) They were immediately to the south of the Finno-Ugric peoples who stretched from the Urals to the Baltic. In the earliest period when the people who became Balts were still living north of the Caspian Sea, contact with Illyrian (pre-Albanian) peoples is indicated by commonalities in language. (cf Dini: 29-33) Baltic Bronze Age (1250 BC) western Balts were mentioned in Mediterranean sources (including Ptolemey, Cassiodorus, and Jordan) as glaesum (amber) gathering Aestians with whom trade relations were established. (Vytautas Maziulis and Letas Palmaitis are the specialists on early Balts.) The Knights of the Teutonic Order conquered the Old Prussians in the 13th century and their language became extinct in the 17th century. The Galindians and Jotvingians were mentioned in East Slavic chronicles until the 14th century.

In the territory of Latvia on the northeast and northwest coasts were fishing folk, Finno-Ugric Livians. Balt cultivators (Indo-Europeanized and Indo-European) peoples - northeast Kuronians, southeast Zemgalians and Selians, west Latgalians inhabited the rest of the country. The East Balts had come under pressure from Slavs and the Kuronians from the Scandinavians in the 10th century. The Brothers of the Sword, founded in 1202 by Bishop Albert of Buxhoevden to fight and Christianize Baltic pagans, conquered the inhabitants of Latvia progressively over the next century. The first to be subdued were the coastal Finno-Ugric Livs and the peoples of eastern Latvia.

The last significant military resistance by a Latvian people was in 1290 by the Zemgalians, many emigrating to Lithuania after the defeat. They had held off the Order at Durbe in 1260, the year Kuronians ceased resistance. The high point of resistance was the defeat in 1236 of the Brothers of the Sword by Lithuanians and Zemgalians at Saule (Siauliai), which destroyed the Order. There are attempts today to make it a national Baltic holiday. However, the defeated Order, bolstered by endless supplies of Crusader volunteers from the West against pagans, reorganized as a branch of the Order of Teutonic Knights, the Livonian Order. Another famous Zemgalian victory was at Durbe in 1260. Christianity had come to the Baltic, though it became fully effective only with the Protestant reformation in the 16th century.

Nevertheless, history is more complex than the "700 years of slavery" national legend. Prior to the Enlightenment the native population, according to German Kulturtrager views, was seen as conquered barbarians that needed to be Christianized and made useful as the lower, laboring class. Vernacular culture was described in terms of traveler’s tales or by religious reports to the authorities in terms of the scandalous and sinful. Conquest of Latvian peoples paradoxically united and created them as an ethnic and national unit where previously there were tribal band groups in the Baltic that alternatively raided and formed alliances. G. Merkel largely created the national legend of a united Latvian people (Zemītis, 1995: 27).

The 13th – 16th c. is often seen as the classic period of Latvian daina culture and many daina concepts are understandable in the socio-cultural context of this period. Aspects of chronology have been addressed by the different generations of scholars of the past century, pushing daina structure and language back much earlier. (cf. Ozols: 224-226) Baltic Germans have left two important sources on Latvian historical culture in Latin: The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia (1225-26) and The Livonian Chronicle of Russow (1584).

The 16th century is seen as the final century in which the pagan world-view was largely independent of the Christian. It is also the last century about which primary information is archaeological, as thereafter there is written information generated in large volume. Thereafter, indigenous beliefs are notably syncretized or undergrounded, resulting from aggressive hostility of the Protestant clergy and the availability of Christianity in the vernacular. The Catholic areas of Latvia were more favorable for syncretism. The 16th and 17th centuries decimated the region with wars, revolts, plague, and famine resulting in the establishment of Baltic German segneurial estate powers with power to sell indigenous serfs as slaves. Ivan the Terrible invaded in the Livonian Wars (1558-83) resulting in Polish and Swedish claims to Livonia, the Swedish-Polish War, the Great Famine, plague, and The Great Northern War. The 15th and 16th centuries have left numerous Jesuit annual reports as to their activities, notably J. Stribinius about the Rēzekne and Ludza (eastern Latvia) regions in 1606, and Paul Einhorn”s “Wiederlegung der Abgoterey… in 1627 and “Historia Lettica…” for western Latvia in 1649. Thus pastoral accounts of vernacular belief include Einhorn’s 1627 list of numerous nature “mothers.” With the exception of a few humanists, notably the geographer Sebastian Munster (Cosmographei oder Beschreibung aller Lander...Basel, 1550) most Baltic Germans felt the indigenous peoples, their culture, or their language to be beneath their area of interest. Munster’s description contrasting the miserable conditions of the Vidzeme peasant, living in threshing barns with their beasts in contrast to the luxurious life of the estate-owning Germans, makes him the first critic of serfdom. In 1638 the first Latvian dictionary was compiled by humanist Georgius Mancelius (1593-1654), known for sermons (published from 1654 on) with a wealth of historical information. Christophorus Fureccerus was another humanist who learned the vernacular. Ernst Gluck translated the Bible into the vernacular in 1685-89.

P. Einhorn’s Historia Lettica (1649) is a detailed description of the harsh conditions of the indigenous peasantry, written as an apologist warning to other peoples how severely God punishes a nation for paganism. Einhorn despises Latvian folklore and traditions, and despises the Latvian people, attributing to them the worst character defects and lack of morality. What is positive in Latvian social and cultural life is explained in terms of superior German cultural trickle-down effect. The Vidzeme estate lords used the term Leibeigene, hominiis proprii, or unsere Servi – personal slaves, rather than glebae adscripti – manor serfs at every opportunity to strenthen their legal claims. (Latvieši (Merkel): 183, footnote)

The Western view exaggerates the time period of Russian hegemony in the Baltic. The area that is now Latvia has had a very complex regional history with the provinces coming under the formal influence of Russia being: Vidzeme (1721), Latgale (1772), and Kurzeme (1795). The 18th century was characterized by peasant uprisings, brutally repressed by stationing large garrisons of the Russian Czar army to maintain the power of German landowners.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century led to the Awakening (Atmoda) or romantic nationalism going through the 19th century. The Pietism of the Moravian Brethren made considerable Christian impact in Vidzeme. It also brought literacy to the common people, and discouraged alcoholism, which had increasingly become a problem. The Enlightenment may be characterized by contrasting (Vecais) Stenders Sr. (1714 – 1796) with G. H. Merkel (1769-1850). A significant manuscript collection, including six volumes of memories, notes, and correspondence, including with J. G. Herder, is archived at the Rīga Collection of Rare Books and Manuscripts <http://www.acadlib.lv/e/fondi>. Pastor Stender is known to modern Latvian schoolchildren as the person who denounced dainas as "fool songs" (blēņu dziesmas) or bērnu dziesmas (songs of children) and folk culture as hopelessly backward. To remedy the situation he composed sentimental ziņģes for the uneducated local yokels, "our dear Latvian people;" they have found little favor with modern critics. He was somewhat successful because it coincided with the rising consciousness of the peasantry for increased social rights, which they accepted as being associated with becoming educated and "cultured" according to Western (German) ideals. In spite of his dismissal of Latvian traditional culture, Stenders could be said to be the first "Latvian" patriot in that he had it written on his gravestone "Latvis," identification perhaps equivalent to someone who could pass for white identifying himself as "Negro" in American history. (See Ancītis, 1997: 91-97)

Revolutionary Romanticist Garlieb H. Merkel (1769-1850) took the opposite, noble savage view with his inflammatory writings about Baltic pagans Christianized with fire and sword. In 1796 Garlieb Merkel wrote the famous book Die Letten, vorz?glich in Liefland, am Ende des philosophischen Jahrhundreds. Leipzig 1796. It was reprinted in 1953 and again recently. He expressed the ideas of Herder (1744-1803) and other less famous Germans who had lived in the Baltic. Herder was a teacher in the Rīga Domskola 1764-1769 who was moved by a Latvian Midsummer celebration on the banks of Jugla Lake (1765) in which he had participated. Merkel in his Die Letten recounts how the very word "German" had become an invective, recounting that a Vidzeme farm woman who had been knocked down by her cow, swore, "You, she-German!" and children were cowered by the words, "The Germans are coming!" (Merkel: 38). The publication, as had J. Hupel and J. Eizen before him, describe practices equivalent to slavery such as selling of recruits to the Russian army, control of reproductive rights, and measures that encouraged alcoholism among the people. Sensational abuse, such as by the family Klodt von Jurgensburg, who burned, beat, and tortured a ten-year old girl Trīne to death over the course of several days for her lack of spinning skill, were documented as that case went public. Merkel argues that peasants should have rights, and are not by nature lazy, sullen, and dishonest, citing a Latvian as having explained his attitude with the words, “Is it right to muzzle the ox who is threshing when he is dying of hunger?” (Merkel: 49)

Herder’s idea of das Volk as a historically and geographically united entity with a common language and cultural heritage is reflected in a Latvian unofficial hymn "Laima decree over us, protect out land, one land, one tongue, one spirit ours."


Herder’s Volkslieder was a model which demonstrated that folk poetry made these peoples equal to others in the world, and showed how songs could be used to advance national liberation." (Smidchens, x)

For Latvians there was not so much a need for meaning as an active construction of the present from what was available from the past as counterculture to the Baltic German economic and political hegemony. The second half of the 19th century, known as the Awakening, was the period of final national consolidation of regional cultures, a process that had begun by German apartheid-like policies that ideologically underwrote a type of manifest destiny of German and Christian mission in the Baltic, refined but not discarded by the Enlightenment. According to this view, cultural and spiritual enlightenment came from the West and justified German vested privilege. The first German learned organization to study Latvian folk traditions, known as the Friends of Latvians Society (1824) did not disseminate to Latvians, but was primarily an organization of German clergy who were interested in traditions in order to better counter and eliminate them. However, this opened the way to developments the Germans were unable to contain: an increasing demand for intellectual, social, economic, and eventually political rights. Ironically, in East Prussia, where apartheid was not instigated, the Baltic population lost its identity and was totally assimilated by the 18th century.

The New Latvians, in their attempt to prove Latvian equality with other peoples...came historically, naturally, and logically to folklore. They used folklore in their struggle against Baltic German kultūrtrēģerisma theories, a criticism of feudal ideology, a sense of national identity, a development of language for the purpose of the development of written literature. (Rudzītis, in Andrejs Pumpurs, Lācplēsis: 16)

Until the Awakening in the mid 19th century high culture was German and low culture was peasant Latvian. The ruling Baltic German estate gentry and clergy controlled and monopolized the key resources, including education and literature, and used the church as a source of ideology. In their introduction to their Latviešu mūzikas vēsture (History of Latvian Music), J. Vītoliņš and L. Krasinska state:

In the feudal period there was a coexistence of two cultures, of which one was the ruling feudal class - German conquerors, but the other that of the Latvian people, primarily peasant musical culture. At the disposal of the first were all the channels of development - the church, the city, the salons of the estate gentry and burghers and later of the nobility, concert halls, theaters, but they only served the interests of narrow ruling classes…Latvian musical culture - that of the people - evolved among the masses as oral tradition under harsh and exploitative conditions, without any professional possibilities. (p. 3)

It was possible for Latvian professional music to develop only in the second half of the 19th century after the development of Latvian singing, educational, and folklore societies. Its development may be characterized as an increasingly self-conscious use of its musical folklore. In that process, however, the old style drone and other polyphonic recitative song tradition gave way before the 19th century choir tradition, and was not unaffected by Western/German popular and sentimental broadsides. It is remarkable that the indigenous musical folklore survived at all, since it was under continuous attack by the German clergy as pagan and/or seditious and deliberate campaigns were undertaken to replace the offending dainas with church chorals. Syncretism of Christianity with the indigenous native religions was not as successful, especially in Protestant Latvia, as in Lithuania. "These (choral church) songs were forced upon and unremittingly cultivated in churches and schools for over three hundred years as the feudal church’s weapon to maintain influence over the Latvian people. Nevertheless, the boundaries of church songs and those of the people themselves remained differentiated in the consciousness of the Latvian people." (LMV, p. 97) "Only in the province of Latgale, which remained Catholic, did there eventually begin to be a parallel development of the so-called Catholic folksongs, the result of a merger of Catholic Church hymns with old pagan folksongs." (Bērzkalns, LCP: 536)

The regional singing festivals that characterize all of the Baltic, came about as a result of historical development starting with the first rural indigenous societies following the example of Baltic German Liedertafel singing societies and leading to the first song festival in Riga in 1836.

The Awakening brought a romantic view of nature, mythical construction and idealization of Ancient Latvia, the selection and the construction of national symbols. The national epic Lāčplēsis by Pumpurs (1888) created several mythical figures taken up by Rainis and now fully internalized into Latvian artistic culture: the hero Bearslayer, Laimdota – Latvia for whom he fights, the international spirit of science and art - Spīdala/ Spīdola, the faithful friend Koknesis, and the traitor Kangars.

Among the historical spiritual trends of the European Continent, the National Awakening adopted interest in ancient history, as displayed by the pseudo-classical school and the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as the freedom ideals of the revolutionary romanticism of the Sturm und Drang period. With it Latvians became aware that they belonged to Western culture and accordingly shaped their literary orientation… The Awakening poets) strove to reestablish the (broken) continuity of popular poetry, and therefore they imitated the rhythm of the folksongs (Rudzītis, LCP, p. 507)

Latvian spirit and culture was also developed in the realistic tradition by the brothers Kaudz?tis (Reinis 1839-1920 and Mat?ss 1848-1926) with the novel Mērnieku laiki (Surveyor Times, 1879). (For entry into Latvian literature, see: Zeiferts, Teodors, Latviešu rakstniecības vēsture, I-III. 3rd ed. 1957-1960 and Johansons, Andrejs, Latviešu literatūra, I - IV, 1953-1954 and Andrups, J and Kalve, V., Latvian Literature, 1954.)

The phenomenon has a broader regional Baltic content. The first academic center from which the New Latvians came was at Tartu, Estonia and 1856 is traditionally marked as the beginning of the New Latvian or Awakening Movement. The year Krišjānis Valdemārs places on the door of his dormitory his business card “Latvian” (a disputed concept), the first Latvian student group was formed in Tartu, and the first Latvian newspaper Mājas viesis came out in Rīga. However, it is in the second Latvian cultural center in St. Petersburg that the literary society Burtnieks published four satirical works with the name Dunduri (Gadfly) in the title. The center is relocated again to Moscow where the academic tradition of evening activities, known as vakarēšana, a concept derived from social and work evening gatherings on the farms is begun by Krišjānis Barons. Jānis Cimze (1814-1881) encouraged folk song melody collection, which he arranged for choral singing after the German style and models. Jurjānu Andrejs was the first ethnomusicologist, writing down almost 700 melodies from Vidzeme and Kurzeme. He was also given the materials of Vīgneru Ernests, notably apdziedāšanās songs from Kurzeme recorded in 1870 for the purpose of introducing this genre to the repertoire of the Third Song Festival in 1888, and again for the following two. (Jurjānu Andrejs: 33,35.) Jurjānu Andrejs provided material for staged enactments of weddings and other celebrations, including Midsummer and polyphonic vocal drone songs. (Ibid: 34-35) Singers made efforts to wear what was considered “authentic” regional costume, preferably handmade by the singer or her family, or at the very least enlisting a specialist in regional costume.

During this period there was a transformation of basic themes and structures from a pre-industrial agricultural to a national matrix done at a largely grass roots popular level under the leadership of the first significant generation of Latvian academically trained intellectuals.

There is considerable literature on Independence and of the Soviet occupation that resulted from the Hitler-Stalin pact, so it will not be covered here.

The “Second Awakening” refers to a period starting in the 1960’s of renewed national consciousness. “As a broadly based phenomenon which successfully evaded government control, the folklore movement provided a model for mass activism in the Baltic after 1985.” (Šmidchens: x) In the 80s young people formed folklore ensembles and sought out folk performers as a form of cultural protest, as described in the home page of one of the ensembles in Latvia, Iļģi:

The folklore movement in Latvia started at the very beginning of the 80-s. At that time it was more of a political action than a musical trend - singing and playing was inevitably accompanied by interest in Latvian history, the very beginnings of Latvian nation, archeology, ethnography, mythology and traditions. All these subjects were at least partly forbidden and not talked about during the communist regime. At that time folk bands were more like centers of national studies and cognition. <http://www.upe.parks.lv/ilgi.htm>

There was an attempt to go even beyond the choral compositions of the previous century to the daina tradition as it was practiced at the same time and before it. This led to the "Third Awakening" or the Singing Revolution that can be characterized and symbolized by the Baltic Way (Path, Road from Baltijas ceļš, an event organized on Aug. 23, 1989 by Popular Front movements on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop [Nazi-Soviet] Pact. On that day, filmed by news media from around the world, about two million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians joined hands in a 600 km human chain from Talinn to Riga and to Vilnius. Considering the total population of the Baltic states is just under 6 ½ million, this non-violent protest required remarkably active organization and cooperation. The Independence Movement, starting in 1989, followed by the declaration of independence by Lithuania in 1990, and the recognition of independence of the Baltic states in Sept., 1991 was also more generally characterized by non-violent demonstration - singing, and barricades - even when confronting tanks and casualties, and is therefore known as the Singing Revolution.


The Millennial Crisis

At the end of the Millennium pessimism has replaced enthusiasm as economic hardships take their toll, carpetbaggers and opportunists have looted the country, and corruption is seen as a major problem. While trying to clear up the consequences of fifty years of Soviet occupation, Latvians are also facing the consumer-driven, celebrity-centered culture of the West associated with shock introduction of the market economy. There are also international pressures to quickly integrate the large numbers of Russians, who entered the country after Soviet take-over, and who do not wish to learn Latvian or necessarily feel loyalty to the new state. There is concern of a Fifth Column making efforts to return Latvia to Russian control. Acceptance by the West has been an all-out effort at all costs, specifically efforts to be included in the EU and NATO. Within a few years of the nationalistic Third Awakening, the significant majority of the population is making pragmatic efforts to absorb the Russian and other non-ethnic Latvian population. New, sometimes radically forward looking attitudes are being tested out in a field of contention as of writing on questions of culture, language, folklore, and society. While folklore was considered the source of national identity and therefore important scholarship immediately after reestablishing independence, the scarcity of resources have resulted in great hardships and constraints for education generally, including higher education. A resulting brain drain has resulted, and a focus away from both the hard sciences, for which Latvia was known previously, and culture scholarship to concentrate what few resources are available on economic and political problems.

There are significant differences between the overall characteristic of the Awakening period, what is depicted in the daina world, and what is happening today. Pēteris Mežulis feels that there has been a significant change since the Awakening, which had been characterized by the emergence of a significantly large, "self-sacrificing" or group-oriented, middle level intelligentsia who were capable of mediating between international high academics and the common people. He feels the wars and deportations have had so marked a negative impact, that Latvian society has become much more dysfunctional with the equivalent middle intelligentsia being individually rather than group oriented. This cuts off the common people, who are the bread and the soil from positive aspects of the international scene.

In the last decades, national identity has been opened up to vigorous debate again, reacting to negative views of nationalism and with it national identity with a clash of identity defined in terms of ethnicity as opposed to state political identity. Even the core assumption, which arose in the 19th century of language as the primary identifier of the concept "Latvian" has been challenged by the view that language is only a form of communication that should be free of the identity function. Since many ethnic Latvians, in spite of using hip anglicisms and old-fashioned Sovietisms, continue to prioritize language, there are also discussions about conscious intervention and conservation, citing the prototypical example of Iceland. Such of the younger, as music ensemble leader Ansis Bērziņš, also exemplifies value of customs, knowledge of history, and other traditions. At time of this writing they were fighting the upstream battle:

Latvian culture baggage (ironic) continues to be lost and replaced by other – shapeless, Euroamerican mass culture...particularly among the youth. There is less interest in the areas of language, tradition, and history...but it is better to be a LatvoEuropean than a LatvoSoviet, so that all our attempts to shake loose of Russia’s embrace will not have been in vain. (Vents, Sveiks listserve, Jan. 9, 2001)

In my view, terms of rhetoric and assigning value to concepts, I don't see that "unity" or "group identity" is any less negative or more political than such terms as "alienation." All concepts can be deconstructed and all are politicized; ambiguity is within the dialogic field of oscillation. The right to struggle for existence and a commitment to those with whom one identifies is as biologically self-evident an imperative as anything else.