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THE GREEN HILLS OF SAMOGITIA

By Marcelijus Martinaitis

Nowadays all the inhabitants of our country are called Lithuanians. In the 19th century, however, a clear distinction was made between Žemaičiai (Samogitians) and Lithuanians. The former had not only their own dukes, history and a specific geographic location, but also distinct ethnic features and their own language.
Present-day Žemaitija (Samogitia) does not constitute a separate administrative unit. It is the name of a particular ethnic territory covering an area of approximately 21,000 square kilometres.
The population of modern Lithuania is divided into two groups: Samogitians, or lowlanders, and Aukštaičiai, or highlanders. Aukštaičiai live high (Lith. aukštai) in the upper reaches of the Nemunas, the main river of the country; Samogitians live low (Lith. žemai), in the lower reaches of the Nemunas. This geographic pattern, which corresponds with ethnic distinctions, is characteristic of other countries as well.
This perception was also encouraged by myths. The specialist on folklore and mythology, Norbertas Vėlius, suggested that, in the world view of the Balts, the Nemunas was perceived as the artery of life. Those living at the “top” of the river believed in higher deities, while the old pagan culture of Samogitians was connected with the underworld and the dead. It seems that this is exactly what lends them certain distinct features or even oddities to this day.
Therefore, the Lithuanian nation comprises these two parallel historic and ethnic groups which account for differences among the indigenous population. Differences are also reflected in the arts and traditions, although the two ethnic groups are not separate nations seeking autonomy.
Distinctions can be found in behaviour, character and appearance. Travellers who visited Lithuania in the Middle Ages and later often noticed this. At the beginning of the 16th century an envoy sent by the Emperor Maximilian travelled through Lithuania to Moscow. He wrote that Samogitians were courageous and bellicose men who wore armour and fought with pikes, and who charged into battles on small sturdy horses never seen before.
In the middle of the last century, in a military report to the Russian Tsar, Samogitians were described as follows: “The Samogitians are quiet, obedient, thrifty and hospitable, but mistrustful.”
Lithuanians themselves say that Samogitians are reserved and taciturn people who accept change with reluctance, but once they accept something they do not let it go easily.
In Lithuania people like telling jokes about three ethnic types: two highlanders – a Dzūkas and a Suvalkietis – and one Samogitian. The first are described as being always cheerful and optimistic, the second very practical, and the third stubborn.
One story goes that the devil put them all in a sack which he carried until he was tired and put it down on the ground. The Dzūkas was the first to jump out. He ran for his life and hid behind a small hill where he began to sing. The Suvalkietis got out of the sack unhurriedly, and remained standing by the sack looking at it intently. The devil asked him: “Why don’t you run away?” “Why should I run?” said the Suvalkietis. “ I am waiting for the Samogitian to get out so that I can take away the sack.” He waited and waited, but the Samogitian did not move. The devil lost patience and asked him: “Why don’t you get out of the sack?!” And the Samogitian said in reply: “Why should I get out? He who put me in here has to take me out.”
Nevertheless, the Samogitians who have been betrayed, sold and exchanged in the past have had to get out of the sack by themselves more than once.
In the first millennium they were attacked from the sea, but they themselves were no better for raiding others. There were many attacks carried out on them. Documents from the ninth century mentioned the settlement of Apuolė (now a village in Skuodas district with a fortified hill) which was raided by Vikings.
Not much is known about their early history. Their name appears in 13th-century documents. In Incipiunt descriptiones terrarum (Description of the World) an anonymous author mentioned a land of pagans “called Žemaitija (Samoita). Here nobody preached the Gospel without a sword.”
Samogitians, like the other Baltic tribes, were not widely known until the 13th century when their baptism with sword and fire began. Their stubbornness is regarded as their main characteristic feature. They defended their land and religion for almost two hundred years and they were the very last people in Europe to adopt Christianity. This happened in 1413 when the eternal flame of the pagans was extinguished and the destruction of the holy groves began. A few years later the diocese of Samogitia was established.
Long after the adoption of Christianity they continued to practise some of their old traditions, to worship fire, grass-snakes and woods. Nowadays, however, Samogitians take Catholicism as seriously as they used to hold to their old beliefs, although traces of the old faith in nature can still be found in their customs and religious rites. These are also evident in the way that Samogitians tend to deify nature by erecting numerous constructions – crosses, small chapels and miniature shrines – on roadsides or in trees in the woods (in the last century they were erected every hundred metres along the roads).
Samogitians have made a major contribution to the integrity of the state of Lithuania. First of all, they fought with unyielding resistance against the Teutonic and Livonian Orders. The Orders put pressure on Samogitians from the north and the south in order to unite their forces and take hold of the entire Baltic coast. However, they never succeeded. Usually Samogitians had to defend themselves alone because the Lithuanian dukes were busy expanding their sphere of influence in the east and they used to leave Samogitians to themselves. The dukes even wanted to transfer Samogitia to the Orders.
Samogitians defended themselves to Lithuania’s benefit. Klaipėda was lost to the Germans for a long time, although the Orders never joined their lands. A small stretch of coastline near Palanga remained free. Samogitia became an integral part of Lithuania only after the Battle of Žalgiris (Grünwald) in 1410.
Because of their location, western Samogitians in particular maintained contacts with the Baltic countries and Scandinavia. Trade links are very old. Even Scots reached this land. Several words in the Lithuanian language testify to these contacts, especially with Scandinavia.
Samogitia, just like the rest of Lithuania, originated in Scandinavia. It was driven to this country by gigantic glaciers. In some places the landmass reaches down to 80 metres. The entire land and the waters are buried under this landmass. Amber washed up by the Baltic Sea reminds us of the fact that this used to be a warm country with coniferous forests which turned resin into amber over thousands of years.
In Samogitia, as in the rest of Lithuania, in the absence of mountains, almost all hills were used for defence. Some were raised even higher and served as a “telegraph”. Fires were lit on these hills to warn of an approaching enemy.
These hills also served as holy sites with an eternal flame. Šatrija Hill is one such place. Nowadays some people say that on St John’s Day (the summer solstice) witches gather there for a feast. This hints at the idea that this must have been a place of pagan rites.
In Lithuanian culture the role of Samogitia has been strong. The diocese of Samogitia was a major factor. It was a centre for education, writing and culture. It played an especially important role in the 19th century, because at that time Samogitians initiated the national revival. The Church, and particularly the gentry, became engaged in culture, literature and history; and writing based on their own dialect was developed. The dialect did not develop into a common written language, because at the end of the last century the dialect of Suvalkija served as the basis in standardising grammar and vocabulary. Sometimes the Samogitian dialect is used in literature, now and then publications in it appear.
In the 19th century a Samogitian, Simonas Daukantas, wrote the first history of Lithuania in the Lithuanian language, and the first longer pieces of prose were written by Motiejus Valančius.
Poets and other figures like Simonas Stanevičius and Dionizas Poška were engaged in cultural activities. Poška established the first museum of artefacts, called Baubliai (in Bijotai, the Šilalė district) in the hollow trunk of a giant oak tree.
In the second half of the 19th century, when the Russian authorities banned the written Lithuanian language, a very important mission fell to Samogitia. It was the strongest participant in this “war of print” (the Latin alphabet was banned) who set up covert Lithuanian schools. It also contributed a great deal to the dissemination of banned publications which were brought in illegally across the East Prussian border. The books were carried by book “smugglers”. Cruel punishment by imprisonment or deportation to Siberia awaited both the smugglers and those who were caught reading books in Lithuanian.
Samogitians never had an undisputed cultural capital. Sometimes it was Varniai, the centre of the diocese, or other towns like Kražiai, Telšiai or Raseiniai. In this respect estates were of greater importance. They were famous for collections of paintings, performances of music and gatherings of cultivated people. Writers found patrons in the Oginskis at Plungė, the Tiškevičius from Palanga, as well as in the owners of estates at Kretinga, Rietavas and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, during the war the manorial culture in Samogitia went into decline, and it suffered especially during the years of the Soviet occupation. Nowadays many estates are being rebuilt and centres for Samogitian culture opened there.
Many things of interest can be found in towns, villages and farms. Here people made and collected curios. Small “houses of saints” are especially treasured. These are shrines with wooden statues of saints by unknown artists.
Stories are still told about strange places where people see mythical creatures related to home, fields and property. People guard old trees and speak about stones which have names and are often linked with the doings of the devil because they “grow” in the springtime from the earth, pushed out by frozen water.
Samogitia is becoming a typical modern part of Lithuania. Things here may be adopted slowly, but always firmly.

(From LITHUANIA IN THE WORLD, No 2, 1998)


© Samogitian Cultural Association Editorial Board, 1998.
Page updated 2000.05.08.
Comments to: samogitia@mch.mii.lt

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