Of the Livonians’ Cults, religion(S) and (Im)morality – Again

A Winged DragonDyonisius Fabricius, writing his Livonicae historiae in the first half of the seventeenth century, more than half a century after Balthasar Russow, makes the history of Livonian mores – and immoralities – so much more exciting to read, as well as adding curious observations about the local climate and fauna. Snow can be ordered at will by those skilful in sorcery even on the hottest day. And – did you know it? – Livonia had dragons lurking in its woods and marshes! Of course, not everybody had a pet dragon even in those remote days, so some women had to make go with snakes in between their thighs. A titillating site they must have made to the Jesuit’s amused eyes, though one may wonder in what circumstances he gathered the curious pieces of information not found in Russow’s more austere description of Livonian debaucheries. As I have mentioned previously, Fabricius frequently borrows from Russow the material for the earlier history of Livonia, but the chapter entitled ‘De cultu, religione et moribus incolarum Livoniae’ has no precedent in Russow or, to my knowledge, any other chronicler.

To believe Fabricius, Livonia – which currently has only 3 varieties of snakes (the non-venomous grass snake, the non-venomous smoot snake, and the venomous adder) – had, even in his own day, a sizeable contingent of dragons, adopted by locals as their pets. This, perhaps, is not entirely surprising, given that the current cartographers concurred in endowing the Baltic Sea with monstrous, serpent-like creatures – or perhaps whales, as reflected on the 1588 map in Abraham Ortelius’s atlas. This creature, unless it was meant to be a whale, could have been the marine version of the serpents which swarmed in Livonian forests.



Map of Livonia, 1588, by Abraham Ortelius

Now, however, let us give the word to the reverent Jesuit, who eloquently describes the local fauna and the locals’ relations with the latter.


It is known for sure that initially a barbarian people lived here, the inhabitants of which thereof having no sense of culture and urban life. They adored as deities the sun, the moon and the thunder. They revered and fed snakes (serpentes) in their houses, which were tamed to such docility that they did not bite humans or cattle, so that even children could play with them. Even now many still keep the custom of having snakes sleep together with them in the bed or among their thighs (vbi in lectis et stratis vna cum illis cubant). Many of these people still engage in sorcery, witchcraft and various superstitions (incantionibus, veneficiis, variisqve superstitionibus addicti). Some feed dragons in their houses (alii dracones in domibus suis alunt), so they would steal and bring to their masters wheat, and others – giant snakes (alii serpentes ingentis magnitudinis nutriunt), which would bring milk from the neighbour’s dairy cattle.

That much about pet dragons, which seem to quite useful creatures – for their masters. However, sorcerers and witches could do quite well even without their little reptiles, having other tricks in stock as well:

There are people among them who can bewitch salt to poison their enemy to death. Some were so experienced in their magic art that could bring about frost and snow in the middle of the summer, in greatest heat, so that shoots of sawn wheat would go underground through magic and the peasant would have no harvest.

And, of course, they are pagans, worshipping nature, especially trees and holy groves, much like the Celts and the early Germanic tribes:

They revered great oaks, giant-sized trees, from which they once received prophecies. Other prayed in groves which grew next to their homesteads or houses and were considered holy, so that even the bushes therein could not be cut, and if someone broke this rule, this action was considered sacrilegous.

This worship, of course, must have practical application and, in fact, these groves were – even in Fabricius’s day, it seems – used for sacrifices. The weather being important in agricultural activities, a draft was a daunting prospect for peasants – and a rare one in Latvian climate. To ensure a steady supply of rain, Thunder could be offered a black animal in ceremony within one of those holy groves:

Even to this day, they have a custom, when the weather is very dry and there has been no rain for a long time, to call forth thunder on densely forested hills. There, they sacrifice a black calf, a black goat or a black cockerel. When the sacrificial animals are culled, many come from the vicinity to feast and get drunk together, calling Thunder as their god, for whom they spill three goblets of ale onto the fire, as they ask Thunder to send them rain.

The worship of Thunder is characteristic of other Germanic tribes, but it is interesting to note that, on the subject of thunder at least, most modern ethnographers concurred with Fabricius, stating that the ancient tribes inhabiting the territory of Latvia worshipped thunder. Also the moon, the sun, and the oak trees. Strangely, Fabricius seems to be exaggerating the omnipresence of snakes – or, conversely, the nineteenth-century Latvian scholars of folklore underplayed the importance of reptiles in the peasants’ perception. However, James Fergusson wrote in the late nineteenth century that “in Livonia it is characteristically added that the inhabitants were accustomed to sacrifice their most beautiful captives to their serpent gods” – something Fabricius skips with unexpected modesty. Another nineteenth-century authors documents that “Muscovites and Lithuanians had serpent gods, while Livonia bowed to the dragon” – was it the same one Fabricius found among the thighs of local peasant women, the sort of dragon purloining wheat from the more industrious neighbours to the craftier ones? However, one of the most common reptiles in Latvia – the non-poisonous grass snake – was still respected well into the nineteenth century (see the Wikipedia article on the grass snake), though I have yet to see a household where it would be asked into the master bedroom. Remarkably, another belief associated with the European north by nineteenth-century scholars – feeding serpents on milk (“Olaus Magnus records serpents being kept in sacred buildings of the North, and fed on milk“) – seems to linger in the Latvian popular imagination, as there is a tradition to leave milk next to the dwelling place of a grass snake – even though grass snakes don’t eat milk!

About thegrailquest

Anastasija Ropa holds a doctoral degree from Bangor University (North Wales), for a study in medieval and modern Arthurian literature. She has published a number of articles on medieval and modern Arthurian literature, focusing on its historical and artistic aspects. She is currently employed as guest lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education. Anastasija’s most recent research explores medieval equestrianism in English and French literary art and literature, and she is also engaged as part-time volunteer horse-trainer. In a nutshell: Lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Sport Education Graduate of the School of English, University of Wales, Bangor. Graduate of the University of Latvia Passionate about history, particularly the Middle Ages A horse-lover and horse-owner
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