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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Veļu Laiks: Latvian Time of Spirits

Veļu laiks is one of the most important festivals in the Latvian solar calendar.

Autumn, the harvest is over. Nature prepares itself for winter sleep. Leaves change color and eventually fall. Frost sparkles on grass and the edges of leaves reminding us that winter is on its way. Longer nights encourage peacefulness and rest. It is a time of healing and reflection.

Photo from a different year. This year nights have not yet been cold enough to bring on color change.

Veļu laiks is the Time of Spirits, a festival honoring the dead. It is believed that at this time of year the veil that separates the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest allowing dead souls to visit their living descendants. The dead souls are hungry. They need to be fed. Sound familiar? Many such festivals are observed all over the world. Allhallowtide, which has been shortened to Halloween is one such festival. The traditions have changed along with the name. Are the dead expected to bob for apples? The Celt’s celebration, Samhain is another such fest. There is Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico and South America. Zhongyuan Festival in China is known as Hungry Ghost Month. These are just a few such observations.

16th Century Rīga.

In 1570 the church fathers and other authorities in Kurzeme (Courland) were informed that they must no longer tolerate this pagan behavior on the part of the peasants. No more offering of food and drink to the dead. This was such an effective dictum that the feasting of the dead continued into the mid-19th Century. Even in the 21st century many people still follow these ancient traditions. So much for the authority of the dukedom of Kurzeme.

Researching this post showed me just how much variation there is in Latvian terminology and customs. Veļu laiks is known by at least a dozen different names depending on the region or town. Veļu laiks is the most widespread name but it is also called, Time of Ancestors. Time of Wraiths, Time of Ghosts, Time of Little Spirits (affectionate diminutive) Time of the Deities, Time of Grandfathers. Iļģi, Time of Longing, and similar designations. Those who insist on one particular name or spelling for any tradition, custom, or recipe must be unaware of the many variations. All you have to do is look at the number of iterations of folk dress to see that variety is the spice of life in Latvia.

These are only a few of the many variations in Latvian folk dress.

Sources don’t even agree about the dates of Veļu laiks. Some say it begins on the autumn equinox and goes through Martinmas, November 10. Others say it doesn’t begin until September 29th and ends on October 28. Still others say it continues until Christmas. Whichever, Veļu laiks is now.

No commerce or smithing was allowed. No major work was to be done, especially no threshing since grain threshed during this period is believed won’t grow. Household chores and handiwork are allowed. No noise making, including singing. That must have been particularly rough on Latvians who love to sing in t Quiet activities such as telling riddles and stories and sharing memories are okay.

Granary. Open-Air Ethnographic Museum.

The father is supposed to summon his family’s deceased ancestors and friends to feast. He carries a candle to light their way and loudly calls to them. Food and drink for the visiting spirits were to be left on the well-swept floor or in the outbuildings on the farm, including the granary and pirtiņa (yes, there’s even an affectionate diminutive for sauna). Water and clean towels were provided for the ghosts so they could wash up before eating. Dead or alive, Latvians have a thing about cleanliness. After the spirits have eaten, they’re sent back to where they came from. Whatever food is left is consumed by the living. No doubt mice, rats, and other critters loved Veļu laiks, no need to forage in cold weather.

In some areas, the head of household drove a wagon to the cemetery, opened the gate for the dead to get out. The spirits climbed into the wagon and were driven to the feast at their old home. After they’d had their meal they were driven back to the cemetery. Dishes from which veļi have eaten must not be washed with well water for it will make the water bitter.

People went to bed at nightfall and were not supposed to get up even if they heard noises coming from outside. Walking around after dark was not allowed because it was believed that veļi would lead people astray. Thieves often took advantage of this rule to do their dirty deeds.

Frost during veļu laiks means a late spring. I’ve found nothing about what snow during this period might mean but if veļu laiks goes on into November or December there is bound to be snow on the ground in Latvia.

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Published Book, Sad Writer

The story behind the story of a Latvian Exile

“A Home for an Exile’s Heart” is now available on Kindle Vella. I’m not sad that my novel has not been published by a traditional publishing company, although that would be great. I didn’t want to spend a year or more approaching agents only to have them reject me. That’s what happened to a talented writer friend who already has four traditionally published books under his belt. I have none.

The tentative cover for a paperback that may never come to be.

Of course, just because no agent wanted to represent my friend’s book doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be interested in mine. He and I write in different genres. His is a mystery set in a WW2 POW camp. Easily categorized. Mine? Not so much. Yes, it’s a historical romance but much more. Is it also women’s fiction. I guess, but that limits the audience. Is it up-market fiction? I’ve read the definition more than once but I’m still not sure what the term means. Maybe it’s mainstream fiction. Figuring out the genre is probably not what agents want to do. They want to be able to pigeonhole a book quickly so store owners know where to shelve them.

My novel may always stay on Vella unless some traditional publisher stumbles across it, serendipitously, and wants to buy the rights to publish it.

How can readers find what they want when there are no neat categories in which to organize the book? Forget about serendipitous browsing. Who has time for that?

The reason I’m sad is that I miss my characters.

Anyone who has read a book and felt sad because they miss characters they’ve grown fond of will understand. I’ve been there and felt that. But when you write a novel the characters live in your head in a way that they don’t when you only read about them. My characters are vivid in my mind; I know them intimately in more detail than is written in my book. I know them better than I ever knew my friends or family members. Latvians are a close-lipped bunch, especially those of my parents’ generation. It’s too painful for exiles to talk about their stolen homeland. Nevertheless, I’ve pieced together enough information from their experiences and those of friends and other relatives, as well as my own memories, to create as accurate a picture as possible of what they went through.

Līvija Galiņa is based in part on my mother’s cousin. Both women were widowed Latvian refugees who came to the United States with their mother and one child. Both found love here; unlike my relative, Līvija falls in love with an American. Both families lived communally in a big house on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Many Latvian families, including mine, did so as well.

Neither my family nor my relatives lived in this house but in similar ones.

Cameron Quinn is Līvija’s love interest. They meet on the snowy day after Thanksgiving, 1952, when a car skids on ice, jumps the curb and nearly hits Līvija as she’s walking home from work. Cameron pushes her out of the way, saving her life. He’s a daredevil, a dashing former fighter pilot, a passionate suitor, and a kind, tender would-be father to Līvija’s little girl. There was never anyone like Cameron in my life. I could have used someone like him in my life. Still could. Cameron’s a composite of male characteristics I know from experience. I read up on what it takes to be a fighter pilot and watched endless videos of flying and aerobatics. They can be addictive.

His war experiences, being shot down twice, did not dampen Cameron’s love of flying.

Of my three main characters, I am most like Līvija’s seven-year-old daughter, Dzintra. I, too, was born stateless in Germany. As with her one of my uncles and his family found refuge in Australia. We both went to Latvian school, in addition to a regular American school. Neither of us saw any reason to learn the Latvian language. Who needs to speak Latvian in America? But my father insisted, so I learned. Cameron gently encourages Dzintra to keep learning by telling her about his own boyish reluctance to learn French, his mother’s native language. As an adult, he was glad he’d learned to speak French and Dzintra would be glad to have learned to speak her native tongue. I’m glad I did.

Like Dzintra, I sang in the Latvian children’s choir.

Woven into the story of these three characters are the stories of Līvija’s housemates–obstacles on her road to happiness. Her mother-in-law and sister-in-law are two such considerations. Edgars Siliņš, a single father, who needs a mother for his six-year-old son, would like to win Līvija’s affection for himself. The housemates include an older, stiff-necked, childless, busybody Latvian couple who were inspired by people I once knew. Līvija’s entire Latvian community believes it would be a cultural betrayal if she marries anyone but a fellow Latvian.

In one way or another, everyone has been traumatized by the war, by the loss of family members killed in the war, or by Soviet murders and deportation. Every exile wants to preserve their Latvian culture and keep their small community from dying out. Will Līvija choose her heart or her community and culture?

About Vella: Books are serialized on the platform. It’s not a subscription service. Readers buy “tokens” in order to read chapters. The first two hundred tokens are free. You don’t need a Kindle in order to read my novel. Any mobile device your laptop or even your desktop will do. I just tried it myself with someone else’s book and it works just fine. Nothing to figure out. The link to Vella is at the top of Amazon’s home page on the right. Just click on the link and claim your free tokens. Hopefully, you’ll love the story and want to read all of it.

Auseklis: The Morning Star in Latvian Mythology

An eight-pointed star in the colors of the Latvian flag. A symbol representing Auseklis.

The many affectionate diminutives of the name Auseklis reflect the popularity of this mythological deity: ausekliņš, auseklītis, ausekliņis. 

Auseklis is one of the celestial deities in the pantheon of Latvian mythology, a male deity. He is the third most important deity after Saule (the sun) and Mēness (the moon) Both Mēness and Auseklis are the sons of Dievs, the main deity in the Latvian mythological trinity. There’s considerable sibling rivalry between them. Sometimes Auseklis is associated with Venus, the third brightest body in the sky after the sun and the moon. In other myths, Auseklis is associated with Sirius or Mercury.

The name Auseklis derives from the verb aust which means “to dawn” the blossoming of the first light of morning. Appropriately, Auseklis is depicted as a young and playful deity.

Auseklis horse is a gift from Saule.

Ausma is a popular name for Latvian girls. Auseklis used as a boy’s name is not as common.

Auseklis is the god of dawn.

He represents the victory of light over darkness and protects against evil; as such his symbol appears on the door of a house to keep evil from entering. The horse of a soldier going to war wore a star-studded saddle blanket. The eight-point star was woven into blankets to keep the sleeper from being tormented by an incubus during the night.

To invoke the protective power of Auseklis, you must draw the star in one continuous, unbroken line. Yes, I did it. I hope that Auseklis doesn’t mind that his sign is a bit lopsided. No doubt Auseklis has seen many earnests, lopsided drawings.

Before Latvia was unified into one country, it was a series of tribes, each with its own myths contained in many different texts, which accounts for the inconsistencies in our myths. Auseklis is one of the most frequently mentioned figures in the Latvian folksongs known as dainas, of which there are thousands.

In some variations of his myths, Auseklis courts Saules meitas, the daughters, of the sun. Sometimes he is depicted as courting the sun herself. In other variations, he serves as an attendant in the celestial wedding of Saule and Mēness.

As mentioned in my previous post about Mēness, he counts the stars, finds that Auseklis is missing, and takes advantage of the situation to fool around with Auseklis’ bride. When she learns of her husband’s betrayal, Saule takes revenge on her adulterous spouse.

Auseklis star woven into the skirt of a folk costume belonging to my mother.

Auseklis become the symbol of Latvia’s National Awakening during the 1930s. Stars show the way, offer hope, and allow for change. It was then that the eight-point star became a popular design in jewelry, fabrics, and graphic arts.

A dazzling variant of the morning star symbol.

The star motif does not appear in archaeological materials until the 16th and 17th centuries. It is widespread in  Finno-Ugrian cultures, which include Finland and Estonia, and might well have been borrowed from them.

In London, I found a pair of wool gloves with Auskelis on the back. It was March so I had a pair of gloves with me on the trip and more gloves at home but I bought them anyway because of the Latvian design. For all I know, the gloves might have been knit in Scotland. The wool was itchy but I wore the gloves anyway. Eventually, either the wool got soft or I just got used to the scratchiness. I wore the gloves until they got holey.

Not one of my friend’s mittens, but similar. The colors in hers are reversed.

A friend who is currently traveling in Iceland forgot her gloves at home. Via social media, I assured her that she would find lovely gloves or mittens in some local shop. She did. Beautiful black and white mittens with–you guessed it, Auseklis on the back. Naturally, she bought them the moment she saw them and they’re keeping her hands nice and warm.

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An Exile’s Suitcase

What if a hostile foreign power was invading your country and you had to flee? What would you bring along, what would you leave behind? That’s a dilemma that the people of the Baltic States faced in October of 1944. It’s the dilemma faced by Ukrainians today. People have had to deal with that quandrum for hundreds of years. It has also happened to people in their own country, such as the Japanes who were interned in the United States during the Second World War. Those are questions my parents faced less than two months after they married as the Soviet Red Army advanced into Latvia.

Of course, nobody’s suitcase really looked like this. As far as I know.

In 2021 an art gallery in Cleveland, Ohio, with contributions from nine refugees, created an exhibit called, “The Suitcase Project” at a local art gallery. This exhibit, which I was able to view online only, was especially meaningful for me because of the participation of people from the Baltic States.

Here’s a list of people’s comments that accompanied the exhibit. I have not edited their comments but added my own remarks in parentheses.

Linens: sheets, towels (my mother brought linen sheets, pillow cases towels she’d embroidered for her hope chest)

Silver spoons

woven coverlet (My mother brought along a woven coverlet that I still have. When I visited my grandparents’ home in Latvia there was an identical one on my aunt and uncle’s bed)

documents, photo albums, clothing, a few silver items such as dinnerware, candlesticks, and sugar bowl (which I now have) and some money and family heirloom jewelry sewn into the hems of their coats. Some of these items were packed into a sturdy German ammunition’s case that my grandfather used to use to carry items to barter with during the war. This wooden case would later became my toy chest; I painted it blue with white and yellow daisies. Most everything else of theirs was simply left behind, or taken from them by the Russians.

(My parents had a huge wooden chest that was painted light green. It was big enough for me to hide in even when I was as old as ten. Our apartment here in the US caught fire in the middle of the night when I was five. My screams woke my parents. My father kicked out a window pane and threw our stuff out the window. I don’t know how the chest with our other stuff escaped. Firefighters put my mother and me on a parked bus. We watched the fire from there)

Some had nothing but the clothes on their back.

One grandmother’s advice, Don’t take your winter coat. You’ll be back by winter. (Some didn’t return for decades. Most of those who did return were there only to visit. A few moved home to Latvian permanently. It’s “home” even if they were born elsewehre. Neither of my parents ever returned, not even for a short visit)

Silverware that was brought from Latvia – as silver could be traded for food in the most dire of situations….

Wedding china, porcelain cups, jewelry, a white velvet wedding dress. Matchboxes from a factory where a man worked. A wood jewelry box  decorated with amber inlay. Diaries, autograph books.

Silver 5 Lat coins (some coins were turned into brooches or ornamental spoons. I have one such one Lat spoon)

A wooden  coffee grinder, a frying  pan and a roasting pan. A   folding baking pan that’s sill in use.

A two-year-old brought her teddy bear.

Haunting.

In addition to the woven coverlet, my mother brought along a Latvian, Zemgales folk costume. I don’t know if it ever fit her. Maybe before she got pregnant with me it fit but it seems made more for a teenage girl than a young woman. My mother brought it along from Germany then to the United States from the east coast to the West Coast from house to house. I never thought to ask her about the folk dress. I assumed it was hers, even though she never wore it. It’s too late now. I can’t help but wonder if some refugee bartered it for food or some other necessity. I’ll never know.

Detail from the sash from my mother’s folk dress. These sashes are about nine feet long and are worn wrapped around the waist three times, then knotted and the ends hang loose to the knees.
The vest from the folk dress is sewn with great care and skill. It’s fully lined. There are hooks all around the bottom edge of the vest so it can be attached to the skirt. The buttons are handmade sterling silver. Did my father make them? He was taught goldsmithing in the Displaced Persons camp in Germany.


The refugee organization obviously thought it would be easier for a goldsmith than for a postmaster with limited language skills to find a job in a prosperous America. My father spent the rest of his working life as a machinist but for a few years, he made jewelry for fellow Latvians.
A Zemgales (one of the provinces of Latvia) brooch that my father made to go with the folk costume.

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Latvia Under the Soviets

Life in Limbaži During the Occupation

Those who stayed behind. I didn’t do any adjusting on this photo.

I recognize only two people in this photo even though I’m probably related to most of them. My grandmother is in the middle of the middle row between the two little boys. The tall, blond guy is my youngest uncle, Andrejs.
The invasion of Rīga. 1940. (Wiki)

When my parents, two uncles, and other Francis relatives fled Latvia ahead of the Soviet invasion in 1944 my mom’s mother refused to go. I can only guess the reasons for her decision. She didn’t want to live her country, her culture, and the life she knew. She probably thought she was too old to start a new life in a foreign country. Many people thought that the Allies would drive out the Soviets and that their family members would come home soon. Maybe Oma didn’t want to leave the place where her husband was buried. Andrejs was only eleven or twelve at the time so it’s only natural that he stayed with his mother.

The pharmacy in the town of Mālpils where my mother worked.

My parents had been married only about two months when the Red Army invaded. They were living in Mālpils where they met and where they both worked. My father was the postmaster. Mālpils is about 50 miles (80 km) from Limbaži. His family lived in Alūksne, which is twice as far away, close to the border with Russia. My father was also a telegrapher. I don’t know if he tried to contact either family by phone or telegraph. The Soviet army was between Alūksne and Mālpils so making contact was no doubt impossible. My folks felt they had no choice but to flee. During the first invasion of Latvia in 1940, my father barely escaped being deported to Siberia. His name was on a list of those to be deported but a friend saw the list and warned him. My father hid out in the forest for two weeks until it was safe to return. My parents, too, probably thought they’d be able to return when the war was over and that Latvia would be liberated from the Russians. They never dreamed that they’d never see their country or families again.

The cemetery in Limbaži where my maternal grandfather lies buried. The arrow points to his grave.

The Soviets desecrated many graves. When I was in Latvia during the waning days of the Soviet era, I visited Brāļu kapus Bretherns’ Cemetary where Latvian war veterans were laid to rest. The names and dates on the Latvian patriots’ gravestones had been chiseled away.

My Oma and her chickens. I couldn’t do much to improve the resolution of this photo.

My maternal grandparents’ house has a big backyard. Their property was even bigger before the new government decided that it was too big for just one family and took part of their land away. No doubt the backyard chickens helped the family survive the many food shortages during the years of occupation.

We sent packages with clothes, food, hygiene products, cigarettes, gum, and other items they could use themselves, barter, or sell on the black market. We also sent a teddy bear and a big ball.

My cousin, Reinis helping his dad construct a greenhouse.

Andrejs was quite the entrepreneur. Private businesses were not allowed in the Soviet Union. Andrejs didn’t let that bother him. He had a family to support, a wife and daughter as well as his mother and son. Andrejs raised tulips to sell to anyone who’d buy them. Latvians love flowers and give them on many occasions so he did very well. Other Latvians who lived in more rural areas did the same. On the way to Forest Park Cemetery, I saw little old ladies selling flowers in the street. That was not good enough for my uncle. Andrejs traveled all over the western and southern USSR peddling his flowers. His biggest day was March 8, International Women’s Day when every woman could expect to receive bouquets.

An envious neighbor, seeing my uncle’s nice greenhouse, reported him to the authorities. Andrejs was arrested and spent two years in jail for “speculation.” He didn’t let that deter him. Once he was released from prison he went back to growing tulips, except that he moved his greenhouse into the building at the back of the photo above. Out of sight, out of mind.

My uncle was handy with his hands as you had to be because so many items they needed weren’t available in stores. When I visited he expressed his frustration at being unable to find a trailer hitch so he could attach a trailer to his car so he could haul more tulips to market. He’d have to make one himself, he told me.

My Oma and her two youngest grandchildren, Ilze and Reinis. This should have been my lap, too.

My Oma had seven grandchildren but she got to see only two of them grow up. Four of them wound up in Australia. The seventh, me, in the United States. Like my father’s parents, my Oma passed away years before I was able to visit Latvia.

I love this photo of Ilzīte (affectionate diminutive of Ilze) and her teddy bear from America.

I included this photo because it tugs at my heart. I should have been able to play with this precious little doll and her brother. By the time I visited Latvia, they were all grown up.

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Latvia Between Wars

Life in my mother’s hometown, Limbaži: a photo essay

Whether or not they are familiar with this Welsh word, Latvians and most refugees know the feeling very well. Even their children and grandchildren know. Its a feeling that seems to be in our DNA and is passed down from generation to generation.

Our refugee parents and grandparents spoke of Latvia as if it were a cross between Camelot and Brigadoon.

A stamp with the coat-of-arms of Limbaži

Between the first and second World Wars Latvia was a free, prosperous, and independent republic.

Town Hall with a kiosk in front

I don’t know what holiday the flag display is celebrating. My guess would be that it’s not Latvia’s Independence Day, which falls on November 18th. I would expect there to be snow on the ground in November since Latvia is almost on the 57th latitude. Even Moscow is farther south. Aberdeen, Scotland, and Kalmar, Sweden are on the same latitude. However, the Gulf Stream keeps Lativa warmer than one might expect so perhaps the holiday being commemorated is Independence Day. It’s a pity that there’s no writing on the back of this postcard.

Outdoor stage in Limbaži. Rīga is not the only town in Latvia where song festivals are held.

The first nationwide song festival in Latvia was held in Rīga in 1873 during the National Awakening. Latvia was still part of the Russian Empire then. It didn’t succeed in throwing off the Russian yoke until 1918, although an unsuccessful attempt was made during the Russian Revolution of 1905. Many Latvians who had participated in the failed uprising fled the country to save themselves and their families from Russian retribution.

Limbažu (possessive case) Evangelical Lutheran church.

These are Girl Guides, the Latvian version of girl scouts in the church my mom’s family attended. My mother is the flag-bearer. I don’t know what the occasion or even what the date was. Too many photos with nothing written on the back.

A home economics class.

There are so many things about this photo that I love. Most of all that it includes my mother as a young woman. She’s the one ducking her head and smiling. In photos, she’s frequently the only one who’s smiling. I also love the meat grinder. My mother had one just like it here in the United States. I also love the bowl, the fat little pitcher, and the scale.

A piano teacher, in the middle of the second row, and her students.

My mother’s oldest brother, Leonīds Francis is in the first row on the far left. The smiley face, fourth from the left in the front row, is my mother. She was the third of four children, the only girl. Maybe she’s around eight or nine in this photo.

This beautiful pavilion is in the Unity Garden located in the center of Limbaži between Rīga and Parka streets. My mother’s family home was on Parka iela (street). The park was established in 1892. The pavilion replaced a building that was damaged by fire in the 1930s. The pavilion has been used as a theater. It still stands to this day. My mother told of riding through the park on her bicycle but never mentioned the theater. Perhaps the pavilion was too new then and hadn’t yet hosted the Ausekļa Limbažu Tautas teātris (National Theater) I love the graceful lines of this building.
At my maternal grandparents’ house. My mother’s tribe, the Franču (Francis) family. These are the people I should have grown up with. My mother and her cousin are sitting on the far right in the first row. My grandfather is first on the right in the middle row. My grandmother is third on the left in the middle row. My mother’s older brothers are on each end of the third row. The man in the uniform is one of my grandfather’s brothers, Gen. Francis. One of my mother’s many cousins is the young man who is first on the left in the middle row. His sister is sitting next to my mother in the first row. His sister made it to the USA. He did not. Many of these people I don’t recognize.

The occasion for this gathering might have been the christening of my mother’s baby brother. The local pastor is sixth from the left in the last row. He was one of the fortunate ones who escaped the Soviet invasion and wound up in the same American town as my family and I. Only five of the people in this group were able to escape the Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1944.

I was able to visit this house when I visited Latvia. Many of the people in this photo, including both my grandparents and my great-uncles and great-aunts, were gone by then. One of my uncles came to the United States but stayed on the East Coast when we moved out west. I was four or five when we moved. I never saw my favorite uncle, the one who stayed in Pennsylvania again. For three and a half years he shared quarters with my parents, my father’s brother, and me in the Displaced Person’s camp in Germany. My mother’s oldest brother found refuge for himself and his family in Australia.

These are the people and the town the Russians robbed me of as they robbed many others in all three Baltic States and Eastern Europe. And now, Ukrainians.

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Mēness: The Moon in Latvian Mythology

Latvian symbols have been known since Neolithic times. Roman historian, Tacitus (CE 56-120) knew of Baltic deities as far back as 98 CE (common era) The Balts, the last pagans of Europe weren’t Christianized until the early 13th Century. Couronians (Kurzemnieki) and Semigallians (Zemgaļnieki) were especially resistant to enforced Christianization. Therefore it’s a mistake to try to associate Dieva dēls (God’s son) Jānis with John the Baptist or the goddess Māra with the Virgin Mary. Latvians had their own nature gods and goddesses. Even today they have not been completely banished from Latvian culture.

Illustration by Ansis Cīrulis, 1883-1942

The Pantheon of Latvian nature deities with Mēness in the center. On his right is Saule (the Sun) and one of her daughters. Pērkons (Thunder) is on the black horse. The first figure on the left is Auseklis (the Moning Star) The next three figures are the trinity of major gods, Dievs (God) Laima (Fate), and Māra, the Mother Goddess.

Mēness is one of the major deities of the Latvian pantheon. One of Dieva sons.

Ruler of the night.

In many mythologies, the sun is depicted as male and the moon as female. In Latvian mythology, it’s the other way around. The sun, Saule, is female and the moon, Mēness, is male. As in all mythologies, the beliefs and depictions are inconsistent.

Mēness (the moon) is the god of war, clad in silk and silver, wearing a starry cloak, carrying a sword at his side, and mounted on a white horse. The moon is the guardian of men and boys. Soldiers are his special concern. Mēness lends his light and protection to those who have to work or travel by night. When the moon isn’t riding his white horse, his chariot is drawn by the morning and the evening stars.

Protected by Mēness.

At first, Saule and Mēness were happily married. They were inseparable rising and going to bed at the same time. Together they had many children, the stars. In other tellings, Mēness was a rake and a rambling boy who courted Saules daughters (Saules meitas)

In different versions of the myth, Mēness is the guardian of the stars. He counts them every night. Having noticed that Auseklis (the morning star) is missing Mēness decides to steal his bride. When Saule discovers her husband’s adultery she grabs her sword and chops him into bits and pieces. Again, depending on the variation of the myth, she just whacks off half his head. That’s how the formerly happy couple winds up in their separate realms, he at night, she during the day. Never p*** off the sun. She may be a warm and loving mother but has the fury of hell when she’s betrayed.

The sun’s flares of temper.

Mēness has a more benevolent side. He is fondly known as Mēnestiņš, “dear little moon.” The moon is the deity of the entire human life cycle, of agriculture, of fertility and growth, of perpetual motion.

The waxing moon attracts and increases energy.

Everything that grows above ground should be planted when the moon is waxing. Root vegetables should be planted when the moon is waning as its energy, is also waning at this time. The symbol of the waning moon is used for healing to make the illness grow weaker and wear away.

Perhaps because the moon is so changeable, it also has its feminine side, Mēnesnīca, moonlight. I was unable to find anything more specific about mēnesnīca except that she’s the light of the moon.

The moon over the park at the Latvian seaside resort, Ķemeri. Mēnesnīca.

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The First Day of School in Latvia

A Photo Essay

Photographs from the beginning of the new school year in Jelgava, Latvia provided by Andris Bērziņš, Honorary Consul for the Republic of Latvija to the State of Indiana and the newly appointed president of the Jelgava and Carmel, Indiana Sister Cities, Inc. And, not least, a friend. His mother’s family was from Jelgava.

Jelgava city flag.

Jelgava is a city of approximately sixty thousand residents located in Zemgale, the central region of Latvia

The first day of school is special and exciting everywhere especially if it’s a child’s very first first day of school. It’s known as “Knowledge Day.”

In Latvia, things are done a bit differently. The first day of school is a big deal for everyone. The president of Latvia, Egils Levits and Prime Minister Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš sent greetings and good wishes to pupils and teachers.

Education and Science Minister Ilga Šuplinska had this message for school children, “Let this exciting energy, the joy of meeting up and being together, inspire you throughout the school year! We all have one goal – we want to be ourselves: strong, smart, and sensitive – today, tomorrow, and into Latvia’s common future. So let’s cheer each other up on a daily basis when we meet in both the real world and the virtual world,” she said.

Welcoming kids on the first day of school in Jelgava.
Parents accompany their children to school on the first day. Looks like the days of everyone wearing uniforms to school are over.
Children wear their best clothes and bring flowers to their teachers.
Teachers waiting for pupils.
An armload of flowers for the teacher.

Bringing flowers to the teacher is not the only difference in how children behave in school in Latvia.

My first day of school was in the United States. When I came home from school my parents asked if children stood up, as a sign of respect when the teacher entered the classroom. When I said, “no,” my father said that I should stand up anyway. Even though I was shy and timid there was no way on earth I was going to stand up when no one else did. I was sure the teacher would either think I was being naughty or that I needed to go to the bathroom already. In either, case, I’d probably get a scolding. Of course, I never told my father and he never asked again.

When I was in high school and told my parents what classes I had to take their astonished response was, “Is that all?” “Study hall? Why do you need study hall? You can study at home.” I expected that reaction and wouldn’t have taken study hall but no other class fit into my schedule. That happened only once.

During my school years, I was pen pals with my cousin, who is one month younger. The diaspora took her family to Australia. At the beginning of the new school year, her letters included a list of classes she was taking. I was embarrassed to tell her how few my required classes were. So, if I had a class in social studies/history, I would make it sound like two different classes, social studies and history.

In Latvia, school requirements are so rigorous that graduating from high school is the equivalent of two years of college in the USA. I wonder if I would ever have made it through high school if I’d attended school in Latvia.

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Nameja Gredzens (Ring)

How to Recognize a Latvian

Nameja is a possessive case. Namejs is a proper noun with a masculine suffix.

I’ve been identified as a Latvian more than once because I was wearing my Nameja ring. Apparently, they were once worn only by men. In modern times both men and women wear them. The rings come in sterling silver or gold.

Latvian identity ring.

A day or so after the Toronto Latvian Song and Dance Festival in the Yorkville neighborhood a woman saw me sitting in an outdoor cafe reading a book. She immediately recognized me as a fellow Latvian because I was wearing my Nameja ring. I invited her to my table and we had a pleasant conversation.

Another time I was in a department store in my hometown sorting through blouses on an upper rack when a woman’s voice startled me, asking, “Are you Latvian?” She had seen the ring on my right hand. Yes, I admitted I am a Latvian. She wasn’t a Latvian herself but had Latvian friends.

A friend once told me that if he were ever found dead without his Nameja ring on his hand, it meant that he’d been murdered and the ring stolen.

There are different stories about the meaning of the ring’s design. Someone once told me that the thicker and thinner bands woven together showed how the great and the small can work harmoniously together.

According to Wiki, the three bands woven together represent the three ancient Latvian lands, Kurzeme (Courland) Vidzeme, and Latgale. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t the three bands be of equal width? Not to mention the fact that there were more than three ancient lands that comprise Latvia. Why wouldn’t they be represented?

Sēlija is also known as Selonia.

Also according to Wiki, the ring symbolizes independence, friendship, and trust.

Namejs was a legendary 13th Century leader of the Latgallian tribes who resisted the invasion by German crusaders attempting to Christianize the last pagans of Europe, the Baltic peoples. Namejs was forced to flee without his son. He is said to have given the boy a ring of twisted metal by which he would be able to recognize his son when Namejs returned. The German knights set out to find the boy. In order to protect their leader’s son, all men and boys started wearing similar rings. A novel, titled Nameja Gredzens, by the Latvian writer, Aleksandrs Grīns, served to popularize the ring as a symbol of Latvian unity. The novel inspired the film, The Pagan King. In Latvian, the film has the same title as the book.

The iconic ring even appears on the Latvian one-Lat coin.

Archaeologists have spoiled the legend by finding a ring of similar design in Latgale that dates to the 12th Century, long before Namejs was born. But who is to say that a ring like that nameless one could not, in the next century have been worn by the iconic Latvian hero and thus been named after him? Finding one ring does not mean other rings like it could not have existed.

I recently saw a question in an online article about which finger to wear the ring on. It never occurred to me to wonder. I wore it on the finger on which it fit, my right hand’s ring finger. The right, rather than the left hand so it wouldn’t be mistaken for a wedding band. In a way, it is a wedding band–it marries me to my people and my heritage.

Someone on a social media site asked if non-Latvians could wear the Nameja ring. My answer is, no. If the person is half-Latvian, then yes. Other Latvians may have a different point of view.

Not everyone can wear rings. Some people have acidic skin with which the metal interacts but they want to affirm their Latvian heritage. Friends wonder if there is any other option than wearing a ring. There are many–cufflinks, brooches, pendants, and earrings among them. If silver causes allergic reactions, gold may not.

They come with or without the amber cabochon.

You can get dark Nameja honey beer and wine and vodka.

A note about the oxidation on the silver jewelry that makes it look tarnished. Silversmiths deliberately apply oxidation to bring out the detail. It’s a characteristic of other Latvian silver jewelry. Please don’t clean it off.

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