History, traditions

Image of Crusaders in Latvian culture

Crusades of the 13-14th centuries changed the course of history and development of Baltic nations.

The tragedy of conquest by German crusaders is widely represented in the Latvian national culture. "And I saw the Riga castle, and it was full of Germans… You, German, son of demon, why have you come to our land?” – these are the lines from Latvian folk songs. The peculiarities of Latvian perception of German rule was most vividly expressed in poem “Lacplesis” (“Bearslayer”) by Andrejs Pumpurs (1888) and drama "I Played and Danced" by Janis Rainis (1915), based on folk legends and stories.

In the poem by Andrejs Pumpurs about Latvian hero Lacplesis the crusaders are compared with the army of the apocalyptical "beast rising up from the sea" (Rev 13.1): “The sea will bring dread monsters to our shore, in iron clad, and full of boundless greed" (A.Pumpurs, Lacplesis, translation from Latvian by Arthur Cropley, 2004). Leaders of crusaders – Bishop Albert, monk Dietrich, warriors Daniel Bannerov and Black Knight – are presented as servants of Satan and demons. Always giving his hand to the defeated enemies, Lacplesis appeals to conscience of Estonian giant Kalapuisis and Latvian witch Spidala, who renounce their worship to Satan and join the battle with the Germans. But traitors – magician Kangars and prince Kaupo – help crusaders to defeat the folk hero. The fateful adversary of Lacplesis is the Black Knight – a witch’s son, “an instrument of diabolic guile”. In the Devil’s Pit witches dance with demons, who take the shape of German nobles: “Each lordling wore a velvet coat in black, three-cornered hat and boots that brightly shone, but from their ears small horns grew in the back" (A. Pumpurs, Lacplesis, translation from Latvian by Arthur Cropley, 2004).

In the Latvian tales demons are depicted as "gentlemen in black clothes”, who speak German and dance at balls untiringly from the midnight and till the first crowing of the cock (Vaira Vike-Freiberga, The Devil in Latvian folktales, Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 14, Bloomington, 1982). A similar description of wild revelry of evil spirits is found in the story of the Kievan Caves Monastery Paterik about demons, tormenting St. Isaac the Recluse with their dances: "And they played pipes, timbrels and harps and took Isaac and started to jump and dance for many hours and having exhausted him left him alone more than half dead" (The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery, Kiev, 2003).

The images of Lacplesis and the Black Knight are associated with symbolism of battle between Light and Darkness, East and West in the works of Andrejs Pumpurs and Janis Rainis. For Pumpurs the East is the Promised Land, where "Virgin gave birth to Light", the cradle of "good Christ's teaching" used for evil by the western crusaders: “the evil ones turned all the good into the evil in the new teaching". In the West "black demons in horned helmets whet their swords threatening the East” (A. Pumpurs, Lacplesis, translation from Latvian by V. Derzhavin, M. 1950). Indeed, the Eastern Christianity never approved teachings like jihad and crusades. Byzantine emperor Nikephoros Phokas (963-969) “decided to ordain a law that the soldiers who had died in war had to be canonized just for falling in war without taking anything else into consideration. He forced the Patriarch and bishops to accept it as a dogma. The Patriarch and bishops resisted bravely and withheld him from this intention laying the emphasis on the canon of St. Basil the Great, which reads, that the soldier who killed an enemy in war had to be banned for three years to partake of the Eucharist” (Leo the Deacon, History, Drawbacks of Nikephoros’ rule, M., 1988).

Though the participants of crusades regarded their white clothes with crosses as signs of purity of their deeds and thoughts, in Latvia the crusaders were called the black knights. “Evil is dressed in darkness”, Janis Rainis writes about the Black Knight in drama “Fire and Night. An old legend in a new narration” (1907), the characters of which are heroes of “Lacplesis”. In this drama the Black Knight is a blind man led by guides, similar to Gogol’s Vyi. Each night when light and darkness start their fight, again and again Lacplesis fights against the Black Knight over the steep of the Daugava river:

“And till today the boatmen
Sometimes at midnight
See two phantoms fighting
Over the dark steep”
(A. Pumpur, Lacplesis)

“As soon as midnight comes
Their shadows rise,
And the dismal sound is heard -
The sound of this eternal battle”
(J.Rajnis, Fire and night).

“Lacplesis" contains a legend about the castle of light flooded by demons, which evokes thoughts about the invisible town Kitezh and waters of swimming pools and reservoirs on the place of Russian Orthodox shrines. In one of “Lacplesis” musical versions – rock-opera by Zigmars Liepiņs and Mara Zalite – Dietrich’s soldiers and demons sing: “What has gone once under water, will never come from bottom up.” But Lacplesis returned the flooded town of ancestors to the people driving from it a crusader lying in a coffin and seven demons (Vaira Vike-Freiberga, A. Pumpurs's Bearslayer: Latvian national Epic or Romantic Literary Creation? National Movements in the Baltic Countries during the 19th Century, Studia Baltica Stockholmiensia 2, Stockholm, 1985). “And seven demon fiends rushed through the door. They bore a coffin with a dead man, like scythes his teeth, like knives the nails he bore. If you lie dead, then rest in peace, but this one moved himself and uttered ghastly groans” (A.Pumpurs, Lacplesis, translation from Latvian by L.Kopylova, Riga, 1983). In the Latvian tale about Lesten baron the dead knight appeared to the farm-labourer, “opened his mouth and showed a big long tooth like an enormous knife” (Latvian folk legends, compiler Alma Ancelane, Riga, 1962). In the “Miracles of St. Nikita of Pereslavl” (the 16th century) a prayer to St. Nikita saved deacon Eustathius from black demon “with teeth like sharp swords” (Gail Lenhoff, The Cult of Saint Nikita the Stylite in Pereslavl' and Among the Muscovite Elite, Fonctions sociales et politiques du culte des saints dans les societes de rite grec et latin au Moyen Age et a l'epoque moderne. Approche comparative, Wroclaw, 1999). The image of a dead with sharp fangs is associated with the verses of the psalm “I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword” (Ps 57. 4).

Certain folklore themes have parallels in the medieval sources dating back to the time of crusades in the Baltic lands. E.g. the widely spread Latvian myth about the ability of died crusaders to rise from the grave is mentioned in “Chronicle of Prussian land” by Teutonic Order priest Peter of Dusburg (the 14th century): “When the bishop sprinkled the graves of the deceased with holy water, the body of a dead crusader from Meissen stood up and clung to the wall of the church. The bishop ordered that dead man to return to the grave and the latter did so... One dead knight rose from the dead and foretold much for the future to many and lived a long time without food and drink” (Peter of Dusburg. Chronicle of Prussian land. M., Ladomir, 1997). The Letts told that their forefathers tied up the corps of Budberg baron that it would not run about in the night. They say, in Budberg crypt there is a skeleton of a German strongly tied with a thick rope. After his death baron of Puze jumped out of his coffin and ran to the woods. When in Saliene an iron fist appeared from the ground above the coffin of a knight, local residents had to put up a sort of chimney above the grave. In Zante estate where Letts said, the gates of hell were to be found, the dying mistress dressed up as a bride and went away with demons, and the coffin was buried empty, without the landlady (Latvian folk legends, compiler Alma Ancelane, Riga, 1962).

A dead German knight drinks blood of living Letts in drama “I Played and Danced” by Janis Rainis, which combined Latvian folklore with legends about great musicians – Orpheus and King David. The main character of the play strolling musician Tots plays at a peasant wedding, where guests are whispering about the deceased Landlord, who “flies in the night, sucks blood and bedevils cattle”. An old witch predicts death to the bride. Her prediction comes true at once: the lamps go out; a dead man appears in the darkness and sucks blood of beautiful Lelda.

Tots is prepared for anything to get Lelda’s life back. Coming to the cemetery the musician touches the ancestors’ graves violated by crusaders. From under the ground voices are heard, sparkles flash over the graves, sand starts shining. In the unsteady weak light appear visions of bodies torn to pieces and scattered around. An endless column of dead men appears and goes by, some in armour, some in civil clothes. “All the road is scattered with torn pieces of bodies, mowed down by the scythe of war. Under the foot former hearts are creaking and twinkling and reminding of themselves” (J. Rainis, I Played and Danced. Translation from Latvian by Lora Vilnits, Riga, 1958). Victims of crusades give Tots the candle of the dead, and its light helps him to save Lelde.

At midnight the Landlord who ruined Lelde – “big, fat, and dressed in a long elegant coat of black velvet” – stands up without bending arms and legs out of a rich sepulchre decorated with silver and chivalrous heraldry. A demon serves the bloodsucker. The Landlord and the demon are interested in Tots' faculty for music and invite the guest for a feast to a three-headed monster, where demons have fun threshing skeletons and bones of Letts with chain flails. Taking advantage of demons' obsession with music and dances Tots sacrifices himself to recall Lelde from the grave and set free the living and dead Letts from the rule of “tormentor monsters, keepers of people's bonds".

Tots’ trip to the nether world and his death are accompanied by singing of the cemetery mole cricket, and return to life – by cock-crow. As Lacplesis is bound to the power of nature with his bear’s ears, Tots hears the voice of Mother Earth through the mole cricket and the cock. The mole cricket chirrs about the death of the musician: “He is alive! He is alive! He is saint! He is saint! He is a he-r-r-r-o!”

The rites of remembering the souls of ancestors take an important place among spiritual traditions of Balts. Though ancient peoples having suffered from crusades left no written evidence, Rainis believed he heard voices of the dead rendering the memory about the struggle against the conquerors from generation to generation. Classical author of Latvian literature pointed to the mysticalimportance of the images of Lacplesis and Tots, the Black Knight and the vampire landlord: “Historical Latvian characters are soldiers, leaders, saltimbancos. We should look for them in the depth of times, penetrate through seven hundred year old accretions of dust, impregnated with blood of Letts that flooded Latvia in that time. And who were the victors? Those who committed such grave crimes that their sins could only be atoned for by sure death - the crusade” (J. Rainis, Diaries and sketches. Collected works. V. 2. M., 1990).

Among numerous illustrations to the books by Pumpurs and Rainis the works of painters Girts Vilks and Voldemars Valdmanis are well known. The stained glass window by Girts Vilksand depicting a tilting between Lacplesis with the Black knight is very impressive.  

Musical interpretation of epos “Lacplesis” and drama “I Played and Danced” is presented with a number of works, among which opera “Fire and Night” (1919) by Janis Medins, rock-opera “Lacplesis” (1988) by Zigmars Liepiņs and Mara Zalite, balley "Sakta of Freedom" (1951) by Adolfs Skulte, opera “I Played and Danced” (1977) by Imants Kalnins, joint production of Rainis’ phantasmagoria by Latvian folk-group “Ilgi” and Lithuanian folk theater «Miraklis» (Ilgi-Rainis, Speleju Dancoju, 2002).

The characters of Pumpurs and Rainis have become Latvian national symbols. Plots of folk legends and stories and romantic literature come alive in painting, music, theatre, and cinema.

Yuri Klitsenko

Special thanks to Dr. Arthur Cropley for providing unpublished English translation of Andrejs Pumpurs' “Lacplesis”.

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