Wednesday, March 17, 2010

From the lost books of the ancient Balts

Vilnius, Lithuania

Winter still has the Baltic in its grip, and my head is lowered against wind and snow flurries as I navigate the icy sidewalks of the Old Town in search of the small street where Arvydas Každailis has his studio. Two unlit courtyards and five flights of mostly darkened stairs bring me to the cheerful room at the top, crowded with the artist's work, the tools of his etching craft, and ancient statues and artifacts. He welcomes me with tea and local brandy, his eyes glinting merrily behind half-moon glasses. Nearing 70, the artist looks like a master craftsman of another era in his suspenders, cardigan and tie. "I know Russian well," he tells me as he accepts a copy of the new Russian edition of Conscious Dreaming. "Thanks to the Soviets who forced me to make guns." Prior to 1990, when Lithuania was the first of the captive republics of the USSR to claim independence, Lithuanian boys were drafted into the Red Army.
Leafing through Conscious Dreaming, Každailis recalls dreams that made him grab the pencil and paper he kept by his bed and start drawing immediately on waking. He shows me reproductions of a couple of works from 1967 that were directly dream-inspired. "Old House" shows a multi-layered interior dreamscape of improbable angles and strange corridors; you sense that a deliciously creepy encounter might take place along any one of them. "Beast" is an inchoate, nightmare animal.

I have come to talk to Každailis to talk of collective dreams of the Baltic peoples, those that were crushed or interrupted by a brutal history that he has been helping, through the power of his artistic vision, to requicken. Walk in some of Lithuania's depleted forests and you will come upon whole groves of horrible carved figures with evil, twisted features that purport to be gods and nature spirits and raganas (witches). These may be products of the deformation of the imagination by those in the Church or the Communist Party who tried to demonize or dismiss the spiritual world of Old Europe. Certainly, they are unlikely to represent the imaginal truths of the old ways.
By contrast, Každailis gives us images of the old Baltic tribes and their gods and rituals that look like pages from the lost books of these peoples. He gives us Žemyna , the great Earth goddess of Lithuania, as an immense mothering figure who holds a whole communal banquet within her embrace. He gives us a stag whose great antlers, feathered by birds, form a nine-branched candelabra rising to draw down the light of Heaven. He gives us the goddess Medeina as a warrior armed with a bow and a giant bear at her back. He gives us ducks that fly as messengers between humans and the Upper World.

In his illustrations for Peter of Dusburg's Chronicles of Prussia, Kazdailis offers a vision of the vanquished as a vital corrective to this medieval apologia for the destruction of the Prussians and neighboring tribes by the Teutonic Knights. The Prussians were a proud Baltic tribe before their name, as well as their land, was stolen by the Germans. Každailis shows simple village festivals, harvests and weddings, and ancient priest-kings and warrior chiefs in days of thunder. Here is Diwans, nicknamed "Lokys" (Big Bear), the fighting chief of the Barta (a Baltic people whose very name has all but disappeared) with helmet and mace; and here he is as a desperate standing bear with an arrow through his neck. Here is Kriveis Krivaitis, a priest whose power was as great among Balts (said John of Duisberg) as that of a pope, gripping dual symbols of temporal and spiritual power as he passes judgment on a criminal who has violated the laws of gods and men. No cute stuff here; the convicted prisoner, trussed in ropes along the whole length of his body, will be buried alive in a deep hole. Down inside the Earth, we see the image of a beast of evil confined in a cage of ropes whose patterns suggest interweaving Mobius rings.
The artist and I talk of callings - how dreams and synchronicity can call a creative mind to a path of connections with traditions that were previously lost or unknown. Kazdailis recalls that when he was three and four, he spoke a coherent language that no one could recognize or interpret, though he was completely at home within it. Songs in the old Prussian language, revived by a friend of Každailis who has taken the name of the ancient priest, Kriveis Krivaitis, gust through the studio, evoking the blossoming gifts of Earth and the hammer of thunder around the oak of Perkunas, who speaks in storm and lightning.


Justin Patrick Moore said...

Robert, I've been enjoying your magical travel journals immensely. They are a good reminder that traveling is about adventure, and opening up the soul to new experiences. What make these pilgrimages of yours so interesting to read is in hearing tales like this one -where you talk about the great work people are doing in collective soul recovery, through dreaming unified with other arts.

It's a lesson that can be brought home to any locality. Here in downtown Cincinnati on the banks of the Ohio I think of all the buildings and roads that are paved over the top of places where ancient earthworks once stood.
Journeys, in the end, always seem to be about homecoming. The soul can be enticed home through the images of art, the beauty of words and melody in a wondrous song. It has to be wooed back home.

Alla said...

You are again in the country I lived 10 years and really loved. Say 'Hello' to it from me, please! :-) As for Lithuanian myths and fairy tales, there were very many sad and dark ones. The language itself is one of the oldest in Europe, and it preserved its ancient shape pretty well (unlike Latvian, which significantly changed within ages). My friends told me that it still has many Sanscrit roots. Also, their meats and beer have always been VERY good. :-))))
Sėkmės! Good luck!

cobweb said...

Your words transport me out of the familiar world in which I live into another place full of magic and imagination, no need for dreaming its real and immediate. I like Justin Patrick Moore's concept of walking on cities under the pavement and the thought that threads of the past might be just under our feet ready to be absorbed up through our bodies into our conscious. It feels almost like it gives real substance to the meaning of the expression 'walking in another's footsteps'.
All rich and powerful day dream imagery.
I celebrate the day I came upon your Blog and your world opened up to me, it has proved to be a truly wondrous gift even a turning point in my life.

Robert Moss said...

Justin - Thank you. People everywhere are indeed in need of collective soul recovery, which requires us to open authentic channels to the ways and the wisdom of the ancestors that it is timely and helpful for us to access today.

Robert Moss said...

Alla - Aciu!

Cobweb - thanks for the gift of your enthusiasm!

I like the feeling that as I blog my travels, I invite a global family of dreaming friends to join in the odysseys.