Suicides in the Pagan Lithuania

The romantic attitude towards the pagan Lithuania, shaped in the 19th century, remains tenacious up to these days. Romantic authors, such as Teodor Narbutt and Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, wrote in Polish and saw the old Lithuania as a fairy tale country with an ideal state order and virtuous inhabitants. They were confident that the Lithuanian history of the 13th and 14th century was the “golden era.” This kind of standpoint made an essential impact on the leading figures of the Lithuanian national resurgence in the second half of the 19th century. They employed the visions of the pagan glory to wake the nation up considering the majority of people immature for high nationalist aspirations. Given the conditions at the turn of the 20th century, movements like that were understandable. At first, they had positive influence but later these habits of utopian thinking turned into serious obstacles towards an adequate understanding of the Lithuanian history. That is first and foremost true speaking of the Middle Ages, the old times which belong to a distant and almost otherworldly epoch. Romanticising the times long gone translated into a tradition to consider any detail of the pagan Lithuanian life virtuous and valuable as such. The lack of the critical view was particularly evident in speaking about the phenomenon of suicides in Lithuania.

The story about the Pilėnai stronghold and its commandant Margiris has been turned into the apotheosis of suicide lifted to the level of a national myth.

Given the context, it is understandable why the Lithuanian ethnologist Gintaras Beresnevičius remained largely unheard back in 1993 when he said: “Unfortunately, we have never paid enough attention to the fact that the story tells us about the suicide which is not, in any respect, the best means of resistance.”

What was it that Lithuanians considered worse than death?

Peter of Dusburg, the chronicler of the German Order who understood the world-view of the old Prussians quite well, noted that a suicide was a common way to solve problems for Prussians: “People who all of the sudden find themselves in a very troublesome situation, tend to commit a suicide.”

The similar phenomenon is attributable to the pagan Lithuanians. The fact that one of the first known Lithuanian dukes ends his life with a suicide should be considered a sour trick of the historical sources. When the duke Daugirdutis, in captivity by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1213, learned of dire developments in Lithuania from his friends, he shortly “stabbed himself with a sword.” The Chronicle of the Prussian Land by Peter of Dusburg mentions on several occasions that Lithuanian warriors would commit suicide after suffering a defeat. For instance, the warriors of the German Order descended on two small groups of Lithuanians who were heading home together with their captives in 1302. The brothers crushed one of the groups while the second one scuttled away leaving the prisoners. “Afterwards, the brothers learned from reliable sources that only a few Lithuanians from that group returned home safe and sound. Some of them drowned on the way, some starved to death, while the others hanged themselves in grief.”

After Lithuanians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Wopławki “few of them drowned, some died of starvation in the wilderness, or hanged themselves in grief.”

The honourable death: pagan and Christian views

The descriptions like these sound truthful enough because they are supported by the evidence of reliable eyewitnesses.

In addition to that, one has to bear in mind that non-Christian societies usually tolerated suicides.

For the ancient Romans, it was quite common to commit suicide in desperate situations. The Indian culture also demonstrates a clearly tolerant attitude towards a suicide. It was the Christian worldview that helped to establish a negative stance on suicides, the one that had a substantial impact on the medieval Europe. Suicides were rare among knights. They valued courage preferring to die in a battle with an enemy which was considered both honourable and soul-saving if you fight non-Christians rather than killing yourself, the act deemed sinful. Hence the knights would rather attack blindly than commit suicide. Descriptions of many battles reveal that the old Lithuanians were courageous fighters as well, not afraid to die in the battle. They came, however, from the suicide-tolerant society, and that’s why their behaviour in the aftermath of an unsuccessful battle could turn suicidal. It was a conventional wisdom that cultivated a fertile ground for suicides.

In the case of military failure, the disdain could be so strong and the feeling of attaint so scorching that many warriors would choose to kill themselves rather than try their military fortune once again.

This type of attitude, fully realised through a violent act, thinned out the lines of the war-able men. The general impact of the phenomenon itself, however, should not be overestimated. In the 13th and 14th century Lithuania, living conditions would allow many people to live over the age of 40. In other words, a man in his thirties would only have a slim chance of reaching the age of grey hair notwithstanding whether he dies naturally or commits suicide.

Child mortality was high, the average life expectancy was low while wars were an almost everyday occurrence, all of which would make human lives, both your own and others’, a low-value commodity among the pagans.

In the pagan Lithuania, the phenomenon of suicide was not only men’s affair. Johann, a Livonian priest captured by Lithuanians, eye-witnessed a massive suicide by women in 1205 after they learned that their men, in the raid together with the duke Žvelgaitis, had been killed: „Because of the men’s death, fifty women hanged themselves because Lithuanians believe that they will soon live in the other life.” It is possible that the double graves found in the lands of Balts and other Indo-Europeans, are the evidences of such beliefs which would prompt a widow to commit a ritual suicide.

The tolerant attitude toward suicides in the pagan religion would permit a person to end his or her life in extreme conditions. It was only later that the folklore started depicting the restlessly wandering souls of self-murderers in a clearer way, while the phenomenon itself was attributed to the powers of evil.

Literature: G. Beresnevičius, Lietuvių religija ir mitologija. Sisteminė studija, Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2008, p. 106–112.

Darius Baronas