MJR XXII THEME: TREE
FOREST – TREE OF LIFE – FOREST BROTHERS
Trees will whisper and rustle in the theme of this year’s Mėnuo Juodaragis. The crown of the festival will be dedicated to one of the most fundamental symbols of the Baltic culture, the Tree of Life and the Forest. Trees are the essence of the Baltic worldview that remains alive to this day and has been gaining even more relevance lately. The Tree of Life is present in the tradition and mythology of many nations of the world, especially North and East Europe, and has been also known as the Cosmic Tree, the Tree of the Sky, and the Tree of Knowledge.
Each year, the topic of lush forests and the preservation thereof is becoming more and more critical in Lithuania and across the globe. It is the underlying component of Nature and our life not only in terms of mythology but also in terms of history and nationality. The festival will focus on ecology, preservation of forests, and protection – these things are vital at the moment and everyone can contribute. It is known that the protection of trees is a necessary, beneficial effort that serves the public interest, but Mėnuo Juodaragis will focus on the question of why the forests are so important and so deeply rooted in our culture, our character, spirit and everyday life.
From the trees
The entire Baltic civilisation stems from the Tree. Almost everything that ancient people produced and used in these parts was made of wood. The relation between the Lithuanian words medžiaga (material) and medis (wood) speaks for itself. Wooden items, wooden houses, and wood as fuel for the fire that was key to survival.
Forests used to be a mysterious place, a wild world beyond that of human beings. Key events and major magic in our fairy tales happen in dark and ghastly forests.
The cult of trees is known from the most ancient times. They were the habitats of souls and gods, and a range of rituals and offerings were made near them. Ancient Lithuanians used to adorn trees with carved wooden statues of ancestors and gods. This worldview was so ingrained that even Christianity could not eradicate it and found it easier to simply adapt and place its own saints in trees. This gave birth to the unique local tradition of roofed poles and pole shrines that has survived to this day. An old Lithuanian proverb says: Do not drive God into a tree, that is to say back into a tree, which in turn designates the place from which God has descended to the man.
Perhaps the most striking legacy of the prehistorical totemism known across the globe is the Christmas tree decorated with trinkets and baubles that symbolise offerings placed on trees in ancient times. The same belief is also reflected by various wish trees decorated with neckties or ribbons with desires, aspirations or wishes written on them.
Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is the axis of the world, the image of the centre of the Universe connecting three worlds. Its roots are in the Underworld, the trunk towers in our reality, while the branches reach the Heavens. In a well-known Lithuanian ritual song, strings (souls) chime in the roots of a sycamore, bees (people) hum in its trunk, and birds (messengers of God) sing in its crown. A snake slinks under the roots, a black-horned stag grazes by the trunk, and an eagle sits at the top.
It is the clock of life showing the past, the present and the future. It is the system of axes for the cardinal points. It is the calendar of the seasons. The entire life turns around the Tree of Life, which connects time and space into a singularity. Three layers in the vertical plane and four in the horizontal plane add up to the magic number of seven.
A Tree of Life, usually a huge oak, was present at the centre of each sacred area of the ancient Baltic religion. One of them is mentioned in the legendary temple of Romowe in Nadruva, Prussia. Allegedly it was an evergreen tree with tree trunks and wide branches so lush that rain could not reach under its crown.
Oaks were held in high regard across entire Europe. Greeks and Romans called them “the first mothers”, and even Socrates used to swear by oaks. Meanwhile Yggdrasil, the famous mythical Nordic tree of the world, supposedly was ash. Both Baltic and Druidic faiths revered trees that had mistletoes growing on their branches and used them to brew special medicine. European magic is permeated with various images of trees such as the Tree of Fertility, the Tree of Immortality, or the Tree of Knowledge growing upside down with its roots in the heavens and its branches in the earth.
The majority of the old chronicles from the Baltic lands mention revered and closely guarded groves that dot the entire map of Lithuania. Those were exclusive places of festivals and rituals where outsiders were not welcome. In an attempt to conquer, change and “reprogramme” Lithuanians, invaders insistently decimated those sacred forests. Missionary deforestations and incidents related to them abound in Christian writings.
The sacred trees were unique. They had imposing size and properties, an unusual number of trunks, peculiarly knit branches, ribbed trunks or big hollows. Natural hollows were believed to have healing powers and making your way through them was supposed to give health and happiness. Some hollows are said to have been so huge that they could house a rider on a horse.
It is important to note that trees were not objects of primitive worshipping to the Baltic nations. They were not considered gods but perceived as places of godly manifestation, or temples. Trees were spiritual conduits for people, a kind of living antennae, connecting us to the past and the future, the underworld and the heaven, the dead and the gods. The cosmic Tree of Life allowed human beings to reach heaven and shamans to enter habitats of souls and gods. Modern notions of media, medium and meditation are connected to the same ancient root, signifying an intermediary, a conduit, and a middle.
Forest as our spirit and fate
Ancient Lithuanians populated forests with a range of deities, including Ragaina, Žvorūna, Medžiojima, Forest Mother, Miškinis, Šilinis, Samanėlis, Kerpyčius, Kirnis and others. Various trees and their properties play important roles in Baltic mythology, folklore, and decorations. Oak is associated with the god of thunder Perkūnas and men, while linden is linked with the goddess of fate Laima and women. Many trees could be considered the Trees of Life, for example, firs, which play a significant part in the customs of weddings and funerals. Calendar festivals honour the evergreen juniper, which is called the Tree of the Sun. Rowan is important to the old religion as it protects from curses and drives away the devil, who in turn favours alder.
There is also the fundamental epic of the Baltic identity about Eglė, the Queen of Adders, who turned her children into an oak, an ash, a birch and an aspen.
The life of a tree has always been associated with human fate. Trees have been planted when a child is born and on other important occasions. The names of trees have become our family names and first names. To preserve memory, people write down the history of their extended families in the form of a genealogical tree.
Forests bear important significance in the history of Lithuania, especially in the resistance movement. The forest fed us, protected us and defended us since ancient times. The programme of the 22nd Mėnuo Juodaragis festival will also honour the forest brothers who fought against the Soviet occupying forces and preserved the fire of Freedom for our nation.
The touch of a tree is said to have healing powers, to give strength, comfort, consolation, and focus to the mind. Forests make Lithuanians cry and they won’t find peace without forests. When the wreath is raised during the feast of Mėnuo Juodaragis, the Tree will be honoured, acknowledged, protected and embraced.
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NAMES OF LITHUANIAN ENDEMIC TREES:
Alksnis – Alder
Ąžuolas – Oak
Beržas – Birch
Bukas – Beech
Drebulė (epušė) – Aspen
Eglė – Spruce
Gluosnis – Willow
Guoba – Wych Elm
Klevas – Maple
Kriaušė – Pear
Kukmedis – Yew
Liepa – Lime
Maumedis – Larch
Obelis – Apple
Pušis – Pine
Skirpstas – Field Elm
Skroblas – Hornbeam
Šermukšnis – Rowan
Tuopa – Poplar
Uosis – Ash
Vinkšna – White Elm
Jovaras* – local dialects and older writings use the term jovaras to designate several broad-leaved species, such as black poplar, sycamore, European hornbeam, hawthorn and planes.
NAMES OF LITHUANIAN ENDEMIC WOODY SHRUBS:
Blindė – Goat Willow
Gudobelė – Hawthorn
Ieva – Bird cherry
Kadagys (ėglius) – Juniper
Karklas (žilvitis) – Osier
Lazdynas – Hazel
Ožekšnis – Spindle
Slyva – Plum (sloe, blackthorn)
Šaltekšnis – Alder buckthorn
Šeivamedis (bezdas) – Elder
Šunobelė – Buckthorn
Vyšnia – Cherry