5 Popular Baltic Pagan Symbols and Their Meanings Explained

Egle Gal

Updated

Baltic pagan symbols (the tree of life, the sun and others) on traditional wooden tools and decorations. © Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

Some of the most interesting and popular Baltic pagan symbols include the Sun, the Grass Snake, the Little Horses, the Thunder Cross and the World Tree. Each of these ancient symbols represents various aspects of Baltic culture and beliefs, such as fertility, life circle, connection to nature and spirituality.

These symbols are omnipresent and can be seen and heard in fables, songs, visual arts and traditional items. Even to this day, local craftsmen, artists, designers and architects draw inspiration from and innovatively incorporate ancient Baltic pagan symbols in their contemporary creations. Such items are highly sought after because of their traditional aesthetics and representation of cultural identity.

List of ancient Baltic pagan symbols traditionally used in Lithuania and Latvia. Numerous variations.
Ancient Baltic pagan symbols traditionally used in Lithuania and Latvia. © Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

The Baltic people were one of the last Indo-European tribes to be converted to Christiniaty. While many Baltic traditions and celebrations were gradually replaced with Christian ones, the change in the Baltic worldview happened much slower. Some would even argue that Baltic traditions actually merged with Christian culture, resulting in symbolism that combines aspects of both religions.

Baltic pagan symbols regularly undergo a renaissance every few decades or so. For example, Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian romanticists were so devoted to resurrecting Baltic deities in their art in the 19th century, that it resulted in a few extra gods that were completely invented.

Easter eggs decorated with traditional Baltic symbols.
Easter eggs decorated with traditional Baltic symbols © Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

Later on, during the interwar, Baltic symbols were widely used to decorate Art Deco interiors and exteriors, to emphasize the national identity whenever and wherever possible. While, unfortunately, this revival was brutally crushed by the Soviet occupation in 1940, the most recent wave of “Baltic Renaissance” began when the Baltic countries reclaimed their independence thirty years ago. This renaissance lasts to this very day, as an increasing number of Lithuanians and Latvians rediscover their Baltic roots, taking up long-forgotten traditions and proudly using ancient Baltic symbols in their daily lives.

Let’s dive into this most recent resurgence and take a look at some of the most interesting and widely used Baltic pagan symbols!

Baltic Symbols – our team’s experience

We asked what our founder and travel manager Egle Gal thinks about Baltic symbols. Here is her personal experience:

Baltic Symbols offer a unique opportunity to discover essential truths about the existence of the world. They reveal the parallels between the stages of human life and year cycles as well as display that all humans, animals and plants are deeply interlinked.

Personally, I believe that Baltic pagan symbols provide a way to reconnect with one’s roots and discover laws of the universe – no matter what your nationality is. Having accompanied numerous tourists all over the Baltic countries as their guide, I’ve noticed that nearly everyone finds a way to connect with the worldview of ancient Balts and take something meaningful away from such an experience.

Egle Gal
Baltic Gently Founder and Travel Manager

The Baltic Sun

Traditional Lithuanian metal cross decorated with Baltic symbol of the sun. Early morning, fields.
Traditional Lithuanian cross with Baltic symbol of the Sun. © Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

The Sun is a Baltic pagan symbol originating in both Lithuanian and Latvian mythologies. It represents the Baltic goddess Sun, who brings light, warmth, fertility and health to people, with special attention devoted to those less fortunate.

The most common version of the myth, presents Sun as one of the most powerful Baltic deities. It is said that she was handcrafted and brought to life by Kalvis, the god of blacksmiths (Baltic equivalent of Greek god Hephaestus) to enlighten the world.

In the pre-Christian times, Balts believed that the Sun was the wife of the Moon and a mother to two feminine deities – each representing the morning star Venus and the earth respectively.

The Baltic symbol of the Sun originated during the period of matriarchy, towards the end of Paleolithic Age. According to a popular hypothesis by famous (think Harvard-famous) Lithuanian archeologist Marija Gimbutas, the Baltic symbol of Sun comes from gynocentric (or matristic) Baltic society, where the whole pantheon of deities was ruled by a single female goddess.

No matter the hypothesis, it is undeniable that the Baltic symbol of the Sun was the most popular out of all and remains so even today, reaching us through both visual representations and as a character in traditional songs and fairy tales. Of particular note is the Midsummer Day festival (Joninės), where the majority of traditional Baltic rituals and folk songs associated with the celebration were focussed on the Sun.

While in pagan times, the Balts used to worship handcrafted symbols of the Sun in their rituals and daily life, all of that changed after the Christianization of Baltics. Representation and worship of celestial bodies were strictly forbidden.

However, Balts were reluctant to surrender their original beliefs. Consequently, the newly Christened Balts took to incorporating the symbol of the Sun into design of the Christian cross.

Cleverly hidden in full sight, the Baltic symbol of the Sun survives to this day in the decorations and architecture of Catholic churches and cemeteries. The art of crafting these unique metal or wooden crosses was recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.

The Baltic Grass Snake

Brass brooch in the shape of Baltic symbol of the grass snake.
Brass brooch in the shape of Baltic symbol of the Grass Snake. © Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

The Grass Snake (žaltys in Lithuanian, zalktis in Latvian) is a Baltic symbol of renewal, fertility and wealth. Harmless grass snake was regarded as a sacred animal of the sun goddess and highly respected. It was customarily kept as a house pet to ensure the prosperity of the household.

The grass snake symbol was most widely used in archaic jewelry, woodwork and traditional cross-crafting.

“Eglė the Queen of Serpents” (alternatively known as “Eglė the Queen of Grass Snakes”) is one of the best known Baltic folk tales, originating in Lithuania. The story involves a grass snake by the name of Žilvinas and his kingdom of serpents. Žilvinas – who can assume a human form – marries a young Lithuanian girl Eglė.

The two of them settle at the bottom of the Baltic Sea and proceed to raise their four kids until a tragic development, caused by treacherous human nature, puts an end to their happiness. This widely known story emphasizes the importance of the grass snake in the culture of ancient Balts.

You can stumble upon plenty of grass snakes in Lithuanian lakes, forests as well as public parks, provided that they’re wet enough. If you ever do encounter one – do not harm it! Not only are they completely harmless, it is also considered an extremely ill omen to hurt them. Instead try offering them some milk, like ancient Balts used to, and prosperity together with good health are bound to follow!

Grass snakes can be easily recognised from a yellow collar behind their heads, which ancient Balts believed to symbolize a crown.

The Baltic Little Horses

Thomas Mann cottage in Nida, Lithuania with an unique roof that shows Baltic pagan symbol of Little Horses.
Thomas Mann cottage in Nida, Lithuania. It’s gable rooftop is decorated with Baltic symbol of Little Horses © Wojsyl, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Little Horses (žirgeliai or Ašvieniai in Lithuanian and Dieva Dēli in Latvian) is a Baltic symbol representing two divine twin horses who carry the Sun’s chariot across the sky. When used in ornaments, particularly as decorations on rooftops, the Little Horses can symbolize the sky.

Traditionally, the Little Horses motif has been most commonly used as a decoration on gable rooftops, where curved extensions resemble the heads of horses.

Interestingly enough, the Baltic symbol of Little Horses appears to bear a striking resemblance to Indo-Aryan Vedic imagery of Ashvins – youthful twin horsemen. According to renowned Lithuanian scientists Vytautas Straižys and Libertas Klimka, this similarity could indicate that the Baltic Little Horses is at least a 3,000 year-old symbol.

Traditionally, horses occupied an important place in Baltic mythology and folklore, as evidenced by surviving folk songs. A frequent motif in the majority of these songs features the horse returning from battlefields alone, to inform everyone at home about its master’s untimely demise.

Even the Lithuanian coat of arms, “Vytis”, displays a knight on the horse, riding into battle.

As in myth, so in life, horses were deeply respected. Owners would form an intense connection with their horses, frequently confiding in them, as if they were friends. It was even believed that the quality of the horse reflected that of its master.

However, it must be noted that all of this bonding didn’t do much to prevent Balts from sacrificing their hoofed friends to Baltic deities in hopes of receiving support in difficult times.

The Baltic Thunder Cross

Traditional Christian cross inscribed with Baltic pagan symbol of Thunder Cross.
Traditional Christian cross, inscribed with Baltic symbol of Thunder Cross. © Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

The Thunder Cross (Pērkonkrusts in Latvian or Perkūnas cross in Lithuanian) is a Baltic symbol that represents fire, sun, light and thunder. Shaped similarly to a swastika and approximately 3,000 years old, The Thunder Cross symbolizes happiness, light and protection.

The slight rotation of the cross together with curved arms are meant to symbolize the endless cycle of birth and death. The Thunder Cross expresses the continuous movement of the universe. While everything is temporary, it is part of a larger design, where each rotation brings light and meaning anew.

This Baltic swastika is not only the most widely used graphic symbol in the world but is also arguably one of the oldest ones. Based on archeological discoveries, it is widely agreed that this Indo-European symbol came to Europe in the 4th millennium BC. It was widely known and used by various cultures, ranging from India to Germanic, Roman, Celtic and native Indian tribes.

The Baltic Thunder Cross symbolizes fire – one of the four primal elements (earth, air, water and fire). It is an essential part of the majority of Baltic rituals and continues to make an appearance even to this day, particularly during the most important Baltic celebrations, such as Midsummer Day festival, All Saints Eve and Autumn Solstice.

The Baltic Tree of Life

Traditional depiction of Baltic symbol Tree of Life.
The Baltic Tree of Life, traditional depiction in graphic art. © Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

The Tree of Life (Austras koks in Latvian and Pasaulio medis in Lithuanian) is a Baltic symbol that represents the concept of the universe. Divided into three tiers, each layer represents the world of the living (present), the world of the dead (past) and the world to come (future) respectively.

Usually stylized as an oak tree, with copper roots, golden branches and silver leaves, the Baltic Tree of Life is almost always portrayed with a bird at the very top. Most often it is a falcon but some depictions include a cuckoo or a nightingale. Below the foliage, we can often find bees surrounding its trunk and a marten, harrier or a beaver hovering around its roots.

In Latvian mythology, the Baltic Tree of Life is seen as a protective symbol, a ward of sorts to safeguard one’s beauty and valuables. Believed to represent luck and success, it is closely tied to the sun’s daily journey across the sky in both Latvian and Lithuanian folklore.

In Lithuania it is used as the symbol of Romuva – a modern Neo-pagan movement dedicated to reconstructing original Baltic rituals and traditions as they were before the Christianization in 1387.

Both in Lithuania and Latvia, the Baltic symbol of Tree of Life permeates folk songs, fables and traditional art. It is a frequent element in Lithuanian cross-crafting and Himmeli arts. One of the most impressive and authentic works of art featuring the Tree of Life is a mural in Vilnius University, Lithuania that was created by Petras Repšys.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where do Baltic Symbols Come From

Baltic symbols are of Indo-European origins. Indo-European hunter-gatherer tribes began a massive migration sometime between 8000 and 3000 BCE, gradually settling down in Lithuania and Latvia, and becoming known as Balts. Out of at least 9 tribes only two have survived: Latvians and Lithuanians.

Can Baltic Symbols be Used for Tattoos 

Baltic symbols are undergoing their renaissance. They are universal, touching on such ideas as human existence, the structure of the world and laws of the universe. Visually, they can be presented as very minimalistic or highly complex. All these features make Baltic symbols perfect for tattoos.

Are Lithuanian Baltic Symbols Different from Other Baltic Countries

There are only two descendants of original Baltic tribes that survived to this day: Latvians and Lithuanians. In the majority of cases, the traditional Baltic symbols of these two cultures are almost exactly the same, with only slight differences here and there.

Are Baltic Symbols and their Meanings Still Relevant?

Baltic symbols represent ideas that are eternal and universal. For them to cease being relevant, the world and universe as a whole would need to change drastically.

Where can I learn more about Baltic Paganism?

To learn more about Baltic Paganism, Baltic symbols and Baltic culture, we would recommend visiting the Lithuanian Museum of Ethnocosmology, Blacksmith’s Museum in Klaipėda, Baltic Mythology Park as well as Parnidis Dune.

To experience the Baltic culture with all the authentic traditions first hand, you can attend any of the traditional celebrations, such as Mardi Gras, Midsummer Day festival or Autumn Solstice.

For a more contemporary experience of Baltic Culture, Mėnuo Juodaragis – an alternative music festival is recommended.

If you want to see how Baltic symbols are used by the traditional craftsmen, we would advise you to visit one of the numerous traditional crafts fairs. The largest of them all is Saint Casimir’s Fair in Vilnius. We would also suggest registering for our Free Vilnius Walking Tour, where our tour guides will highlight the Baltic Symbols embodied in the capital’s architecture.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a more profound experience, there is nothing better than visiting the National Museum of M. K. Čiurlionis in Kaunas. The works of the most famous Baltic Symbolist painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis are bound to leave a lasting impression.

And if Kaunas is a bit too much out of the way for you or if you’re looking for Baltic symbols presented in modern art, Danas Andriulionis studio in Klaipėda is definitely worth paying a visit too!

Modern art paintings incorporating Baltic Symbols in painter's Danas Andrulionis studio.
Modern art paintings incorporating Baltic symbols. Studio of Danas Andrulionis. © Danas Andrulionis/Egle Gal/Baltic Gently

What is the Baltic Symbol for Time?

Ancient Balts didn’t have a single sign that symbolised time. The passage of time is symbolised by the Baltic Tree of Life, where its roots mean the past, trunk – the present and top branches – the future.

What is the Baltic Symbol for Swan?

Interestingly enough, ancient Balts didn’t have a symbol dedicated to swans. Some nobles in medieval ages used Swan as their coat of arms and, in present day Lithuania, Jonava town’s coat of arms features a single white Swan.

What is the most Ancient Baltic Symbol?

Two of the most ancient Baltic symbols are The Thunder Cross and The Little Horses – both dated approximately 1000 BC.

Were Baltic Symbols Used in Christian Art?

Yes! In fact, it is rare to find any form of Christian art that doesn’t feature – openly or subtly – Baltic pagan symbols. For example, the backs of Christian crosses were frequently inscribed with Baltic Thunder Cross – an ancient pagan symbol similar to a swastika.

What are Medieval Baltic Symbols?

Baltic states were late to adopt Christianity with Lithuania in particular being the last country in Europe to 1387. Until that time, Baltic pagan religion was widely and openly practiced. While the ancient symbols became slightly more fluffed and were often featured in coats of arms, the Baltic symbols remained pretty much unchanged in Middle Ages.

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Article by

Egle Gal

Founder and Tour Director at Baltic Gently. Egle Gal is the founder of Baltic Gently and Tour Director. With over ten years of experience guiding tourists and handcrafting personalized travel tours in Baltic States, she is dedicated to helping travellers from all over the world to experience the Baltic States and particularly Lithuania. Gently. Before founding Baltic Gently, Egle worked as a guide throughout the Baltic States and New Zealand, as well as spoken at some cultural presentations in France.

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