Veļu Māte: Mother of Spirits

Veļi are the souls of deceased individuals.

In Latvian mythology, Veļu Māte is one of many mother goddesses. She is not a nice little old lady. She is the goddess of the underworld, the keeper of keys to the underworld. She is also known as kapu māte, graveyard mother, and goes around wearing a white woolen cloak and iron shoes or shoes made of sand.

Veļu Māte, image by Jānis Rozentāls, 1866 – 1916

Veļu Māte ranks in importance along with Zemes Māte, Earth Mother who is also a goddess of death. Sometimes the two goddesses are considered to be synonymous. However, Earth Mother is said to be a good-hearted deity. On the other hand, Veļu Māte takes pleasure in the death of her victims and dances on their graves. She doesn’t always wait for people to die but goes to collect their souls. Or she lures souls with a pot of honey. In some folk songs, she bakes wheat bread to welcome her guests.

Beyond the sun is where deceased souls dwell.

In addition to Earth Mother, Veļu Māte is associated with the goddesses Laima (fate) Jūras Māte (sea mother) and Saule (the sun). When she sets the sun can take the soul of a person who is sleeping with the sun shining on them and take it with her. Perhaps this is the origin of the ancient belief that the deceased go to the realm beyond the sun (aizsaulē, also known as viņsaulē) The living stay on this side of the sun (šaisaulē)

A more charming depiction of Veļu Māte, she sits waiting on a hill overgrown with white clover, holding white flowers in her lap.

When there is a rainbow, it supposedly means that Veļu Māte is dancing on someone’s grave or between graves.

The weary souls who go to live Viņsaulē don’t get any rest. Life continues there as it did on this side of the sun; the souls keep on working as always. One poor person in a folk song begs Veļu Māte to come take him because he is weary from working his whole life and wants to rest. He must not have heard that in the realm beyond the sun Veļi keep on working. What a disappointment it would be to get to the far side of the sun and discover that you still have to work. In some sources, I found there was mention of otherworldly weddings but nothing about otherwordly sex. All work and no play. Which is a bit odd. Latvians are champion partiers. Work hard, play harder.

Partying during the ancient Latvian equivalent of Halloween–Veļu Laiks, the Time of Sprits (Souls) source of image unknown.

From my younger days, I remember representatives from our local Latvian association looking for venues that would be available until two in the morning for holding balls. That was no longer an issue when Latvians built their own social centers. For some folks, two in the morning was not enough. After the official ball was over some people invited guests to their homes for after-parties where dancing and singing continued until four or five in the morning. Celebrations on Midsummer Ever are supposed to go on all night. Been to a few. If you go to a Song Festival and stay in the main festival hotel, don’t expect to get much sleep. People hold after-parties in their rooms. If security doesn’t come to shush them it’s not a real party. Party while you’re on this side of the sun. On the other side, you’ll be working.

Note: There is some confusion among speakers of Latvian about the word Veļu (possessive) me included. The word is similar to veļa, laundry. In the objective case, “veļu” they are identical, “Mazgā veļu!” “Wash the laundry!” I don’t know if this similarity is coincidental or because it looks like Veļu Māte is wearing a sheet.

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