The Pagan Lithuanian Empire

The last pagan nation in Europe was Lithuania, which held out against Catholic and Orthodox Christianity until 1386 when the Lithuanian ruler, Jogaila, accepted baptism as the price of marriage to the Polish princess Jadwiga. By this marriage Jogaila, called Jagiello by the Poles, became joint king of Lithuania and Poland, the ruler of a multicultural empire which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Jadwiga, in turn, who is thought to have sacrificed herself for the sake of the Polish people by submitting to this marriage to a man who according to some reports was something of a brute, became a Catholic Saint. The dynasty founded by Jogaila and Jadwiga ruled Poland for centuries.

Jagiello / Jogaila was reputed to be something of a brute

As always in such cases, the original politically-motivated conversion was only nominal, and pagan practices such as the sacrifice of horses at funerals continued in Lithuania for at least two centuries. Lithuanian paganism was an uncentralized complex of practices, the last survivor of the Indo-European way of life which spread throughout Eurasia starting in the second millenium B.C. As such it is not strikingly different from what we know about the religion of the Norsemen, the Teutons, the Slavs, the Celts, the Scythians, the early Persians, and the Aryan invaders of India. As with the others, Lithuanian paganism was an open-air religion, centering on sacred groves, springs, riverbanks, and so on. Funeral practices included both cremation and burial, the sacrifice of horses, hawks and dogs, and the burial of grave goods. The sacrifice of captive enemies, as demanded by soothsayers, was practiced for good luck in war. The religious importance of the pig as a representative of the the next life is a somewhat unexpected aspect of the religion.

Notwithstanding the proud Lithuanian pagan tradition,
the Lithuanian state seal is aggressively Christian.

Starting from the Lithuanian homeland on the Baltic, the Lithuanian empire expanded gradually to the South and East in the aftermath of the Mongol invasions in the 1200's. The Mongols destroyed, subjugated, or weakened all the East European states but never reached Lithuania. The heirs of the Mongols (the Tatars, a Muslim Turkish people) were preoccupied with their wars with the Mongols in Persia and were relatively uninterested in Eastern Europe, which allowed the Lithuanians to gain control of an enormous area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Not merely in warfare, but also in diplomacy and government, the pagan Lithuanians proved fully the equal of the Christian rulers of their day. Their accomplishment is especially impressive when it is considered that all during this period they were under assault from the west by the Teutonic Knights, a crusading Catholic religious order.

The Lithuanian empire was populated mostly by non-Lithuanians. Most were Slavic peoples -- what we would now call Russians, White Russians, Poles and Ukranians, most of them Catholic or Orthodox Christians -- but Muslims and Jews were also included. The pagan rulers were tolerant of other religions, although they harshly repressed all attacks on pagan practices. Perhaps the complex origins of the Polish state had something to do with the relative tolerance of Poland compared to other European states.

Pagan practices continued in Lithuania until the 1500's -- all through the Renaissance and the Reformation and almost to the beginning of the modern age. When they finally disappeared, it was the definitive end of a millenia-old way of life which had once ruled most of Northern and Eastern Europe, and which left a permanent mark on the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India.


Marriage of Jogaila and Jadwiga

Biography of Jogaila

Jadwiga: her trials and sainthood (in Spanish)

Jagiello regalado era caro, pues ostentaba malos modales, eructaba como chancho atiborrado mientras comía con las manos sucias, ventoseaba a cada rato y bebía como si el licor iba a acabarse. Si ella lo aceptaba por esposo, Jagiello se convertiría al cristianismo y con él, toda su nación se bautizaría aunque le tuvieran horror al agua. Se trataba de comprometer a la Bella con la Bestia.


Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion

Marija Gimbutas, The Balts.

S.C. Rowell, Lithuania Ascending


I am emersonj at gmail dot com.

Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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