I was babysitting the morning I came across it—my two little charges were asleep, and I was looking up a few things on the Internet. My mother had wanted me to get the hours for a restaurant she was interested in, and when I called her, she asked what I was doing.
“Researching Lithuanian mythology,” I said.
I think she started laughing at me. But it was a pretty productive morning, since Lithuanian mythology took me to Latvian mythology—of which, I learned, very little remains, except in a few literary sources. One is Lacplesis, an epic poem written by Andrejs Pumpurs. Pumpurs lived in the nineteenth century, at the height of European nationalism, and, as a member of the Young Latvia movement, he wanted to unite the Latvians and secure their independence.
The problem was that Latvia had never been independent. The country had gone from tribalism straight into domination by whichever neighboring country happened to be most powerful. Yet the Latvians still had a common culture. Its mythology might have been in shambles, but traces of it remained. Pumpurs took these traces and built them into an epic.
Lacplesis translates as Bearslayer, the name of the hero at the center of the poem. Set at the turn of the 13th century, Lacplesis finds Bearslayer living at a time of tumult. Christianity is being pushed upon the Latvians against their will, and Bearslayer is determined to resist.
Lacplesis is less an assault on Christianity than it is a statement of Latvian patriotism, however. The gods briefly profess respect for Christ, but less for those professing to follow Him:
“Now, many peoples living on the Earth
Accept His word but see not what portends;
For humankind in shame denies His worth,
His message twists to serve unworthy ends.”
The Germans are trying to conquer Latvia, using Christianity as a pretext. The gods do not question the facts of Christ’s life, but their concern is Latvia’s crisis. In the words of Perkons, the thunder god:
“Though good, Christ’s message clearly yet is old,
For from the East these teachings reach our land.
But those who bear His message to our shores
Have come to us to serve a different view.
To conquer Baltic regions is their cause,
To make our people slaves their purpose new.”
There have, to my knowledge, been only two translations of Lacplesis into English. One is very difficult to obtain; the other, which I read, is available here as an ebook. This second translation is rhymed, which is the source of my main complaint—some of the rhymes are awkward. The original was written in unrhymed verse, and I do not think the translator’s attempt at heroic verse was entirely successful. Still, despite the weaker rhymes, the emphasis of the original story comes through.
Bearslayer faces a number of enemies as he attempts to defend Latvia. The Germans, of course, are behind all the trouble, but some Latvians side with them. One is the beautiful Spidala, secretly a witch; Kaupa, a chieftain seduced by the power and splendor of Rome; and the false holy man Kangars, who makes a vow to serve the Devil.
The Devil is actually a character in the poem, which seems like an attempt by Pumpurs to have the best of both worlds—to preserve the traditional Latvian religious without rejecting the Christian tradition in which most Latvians had been raised. Thus Christ is briefly honored, the Devil seen as the source of Latvia’s problems, and the gods treated as benefactors.
Aside from the weaknesses of the translation, the biggest weakness in the poem seems to be its tendency to treat whitewash (and blackwash) certain subjects. The gods are all, and always, favorable to Latvian patriots. Those who worship the Latvian gods are all sincere, while those who follow Christianity are all hypocrites. Bearslayer is the perfect hero. His beloved, Laimdota, is the perfect heroine. Spidala, the witch, is the most complex character—she eventually burns her pact with the Devil and marries Bearslayer’s best friend.
Of course, Pumpurs did not want to rival Homer. He meant to rally the Latvians around their culture, a task at which he succeeded. Modern Latvians celebrate a holiday in honor of his writing Lacplesis, which has become engrained within their national culture.
I was reading through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series at roughly the same time as Lacplesis. It was an interesting contrast. Religious hypocrisy is a major theme in both stories, but they differ in one important respect. Pumpurs criticizes the Germanic “missionaries” because they fail to live up to the standard of good to which both sides hold. Pullman criticizes Christianity for failing to live up to a standard of good—but what is good? Clearly some things in the series are bad, like killing innocent children, or betraying someone. But good is unclear. The end of the series encourages the people of Pullman’s fantasy world to “tell true stories.” True from their individual viewpoints—but truth as such is not a concern. In fact, reading the series made me want to demand, with Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?”
In Lacplesis, truth as such is never in question. Perhaps a little more ambiguity would help the story. Maybe a German missionary could have been a sort of well-intentioned tragic character, like Hector in The Iliad. But I do not doubt that the poem’s confidence in goodness and truth have helped the people of Latvia.