Disk–amulet. Amber. 3rd millennium BC. Daktariškė 5 burial site. LNM EM 2110:136
Disk–amulet. Amber. 3rd millennium BC. Daktariškė 5 burial site. LNM EM 2110:136

Concept of Creation in Lithuanian Mythology

Radvilė Racėnaitė
Disk–amulet. Amber. 3rd millennium BC. Daktariškė 5 burial site. LNM EM 2110:136
Disk–amulet. Amber. 3rd millennium BC. Daktariškė 5 burial site. LNM EM 2110:136

When I was asked by Julijonas Urbonas to contribute an essay about the concept of cosmos in Lithuanian mythology, I started by reading the Lithuanian Space Agency’s annual report about the project Planet of People, dedicated to exploring the boundaries of ‘cosmic imagination’ by means of artistic research. As one of the contributors of the volume Régine Debatty puts it, though Planet of People might be regarded as a speculative interpretation of the scientific initiative ‘to send human corpses to outer space to aggregate and form a new planet’, it also ‘invites us to question our traditional definitions of the human species and of life in general’.¹ Urbonas refers to his project as a scientific and artistic study of gravitational aesthetics, based on extraterrestrial imagination, poetic logistics and ‘alternative ways of being and imagining together both on and beyond Earth’.²

What surprised me most was the conceptual mythological grounding I recognised in the framework of Planet of People. We, high tech urban dwellers of the twenty-first century, tend to think about the ancient mythologies as romantic and old-fashioned ideas from the past that are completely uncharacteristic of scientifically oriented modern societies. We almost forget that mythology is not only about merely fanciful stories. Mythology can be considered as the archaic precursor of modern science. Like science, the main objective of mythology is to elucidate the secrets of the universe and to explain the fundamental existential questions: those about the origin of all things, the meaning of life and death and the purpose of human destiny. In this way, archaic mythologies might provide answers to these substantive questions in the form of naive folk legends and non-scientific approaches. Mythological beliefs about the creation of the cosmos have traces in every culture and are submerged like a universal symbol in the collective subconscious.³ These particular ways of thinking about the world are ingrained in the human mind and explain the links that ‘can always be discerned between this or that creation myth and modern scientific descriptions of the origin of the universe’. There is therefore nothing mysterious or surprising about these general correspondences between the ancient cosmogonies, astronomy, and the artistic interpretations of the first two. Mythology, science, and art are parallel ways to describe the world and may all contribute to a wider cultural perspective. 

Planet of People, initially titled Cosmic Lithuania, was intended to instigate public discourse about a national space culture in Lithuania and raise the national self-esteem with a provocative proposal to form a new planet from the bodies of Lithuanian citizens in outer space. The references to Lithuanian identity, cosmic creation, corporality, and death seem the most interesting to me.

Hence, in my essay I will present a short overview of some of Lithuania’s cosmogonic ideas – the prehistoric milieu, the mythological notion of creation, the anthropomorphic centeredness of the origin legends, and the relationship of the realm of death and that of the sky – as contextual allusions to Planet of People.

Pre-Historic Context and the First Cosmogonic Concepts

The first inhabitants of Paleolithic cultures came to the present territory of Lithuania approximately 11,000 years ago when the land was freed from the glaciers that had covered it. In the Mesolithic Period (eight – fifth millennium BC) the warming of the climate created the conditions for new cultures to influx these lands. The archaeological excavations of the Mesolithic burial grounds in present-day Lithuania show that these ancient people were buried with their clothes, decorations made from wild animal teeth, everyday utensils and arms in grave pits sprinkled over with dark red ochre, witnessing their belief in the afterlife. A few Mesolithic artefacts, most probably amulets made of bone, were decorated with the ornaments of a circle or a cross that are now interpreted as the symbols of the Sun or fire.  Starting from the Paleolithic Period, an image of the sky as a mythological space over the Earth might have also been known to these people. Both the Paleolithic and Mesolithic people were wandering hunter gatherers. Therefore, the orientation by the stars and the observation of the Lunar phases had to be of crucial importance to them. The Neolithic period was also a transition to new forms of counting time. The marking of the summer and winter solstices and the synchronisation of the Solar and Lunar calendars became an important task for these people.

Researchers argue that the constellations in the sky were most probably named after different wild animals, while the Moon was symbolically imagined as the reindeer¹⁰ – the main hunting object and the sacralised totemic animal.

Yet, the most interesting artefacts in terms of their possible connections with celestial mythology were excavated in the archaeological sites of the Neolithic Period (fourth – second millennium BC). In the territory of the present-day Lithuania there prevailed geometric, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic motifs of Neolithic art.¹¹ With the discovery of ceramics, new techniques of working up and decorating the items emerged. The decorations included both abstract geometric ornaments and primitive anthropomorphic figures imprinted into the clay with a cord.

On one of the pots, four lines were pressed around the neck of the pot representing the sky, while the six shorter lines next to the figure symbolise the rain and triangles below them represent the arable land. The human figure in the middle was a generalised cordimpressed silhouette with legs and hands stretched out. Archaeologists suggest that the pots were used for ritual purposes and the pose of the anthropomorphic figure stands for the praying person or a divine being.¹² It is possible that these images symbolised the archaic tripartite model of the universe: the sky with unlimited supplies of heavenly waters, the human realm, and the earth or the underworld. It is also plausible that a certain mythical plot was coded here marking the transition of the archaic society from the nomadic to the settled way of living and engaging in agriculture as their main occupation.

The Neolithic people also produced amber items. Amber appeared only in the Neolithic Period, when the prehistoric Littorina Sea washed away the soil from the shore.

In each of the forty excavated seaside Neolithic settlements, amber artefacts were numerous.

One of the widespread shapes was that of a round amber disc decorated with dotted lines forming various ornaments: triangles, crosses, and circles. The abundance of cross-decorated discs permits archaeologists to conclude these people ‘had quite a uniform view of timeand perhaps the creation of the world on two cross axes’.¹³ In burial sites, such amber adornments were found on the eye sockets of the deceased as ‘replacements’ for the eyes and symbols of light. They were also used as amulets. Thus, amber discs served for ritual purposes as ceremonial items and their ornamental symbolism was associated with a model of the world. Archaeologists, interpreting the shape, warm yellow colour and symbolic meaning of these rather complex geometric ornaments, suggest that these discs were primarily connected with the Sun, and ‘the turning symmetry of these discs, the number of broken lines and hollows, which increases in one direction, evokes ideas of the cyclical path of the Sun, sunrise and sunset’.¹⁴

The amber artefacts in the shape of an upright human, discovered at the Neolithic settlements, are more stylised and schematic. They show that during the Stone Age people began to carry small anthropomorphic figures as amulets. The fact that these amulets were given not only a human shape but also a stylised human face support the presumption that certain essential transformations of the worldview may be associated with Neolithic communities.¹⁵ The anthropomorphic centeredness of the religion and mythology was also manifested with the appearance of human shaped idols of gods and other mythical beings. Hence, people began to conceive of themselves as responsible for the maintenance of the world’s sacral order. Overall, it demonstrates that the Neolithic people had a rich mythology and elaborate cosmological views.

It is remarkable that the prehistoric ornaments associated with the celestial bodies have not changed much during the ages. For example, the sandstone spindle whorls found in quite a few different archaeological burial sites of the Iron Age were decorated with circles and rays, circles of dots, and crosses, and those patterns were similar to the Stone Age amber amulets. These repetitive simple ornamentations are also interpreted as the symbols of celestial bodies.

It is worth mentioning, that the tradition to decorate the tools used for spinning, such as distaffs, with schematised segmental ornaments or rounds called ‘little stars’ and ‘little suns’ and to use the similar patterns for home woven sashes and textiles was vivid up to the middle of the twentieth century. In the opinion of the mythology researchers, circles with segmental stars or rounds that form the ornamental pattern of distaffs, ‘might be explained not only as symbols of the Sun or some other heavenly bodies or of light but also as ones providing a more abstract meaning – that of cosmograms marking … the very spheres of the cosmos’.¹⁶ In mythological legends of the beginning of the twentieth century, the interconnectedness of the heavens and the act of weaving was elucidated by the folk name of the rainbow – Laumės juosta – literally ‘a woven sash of the feminine mythical being Laumė’, a wife of the Lithuanian thunder god Perkūnas who was believed to reside in the heavens.

Understandably, it is hard to say whether the mythological concepts of the Stone Age people who inhabited the territory of Lithuania for thousands of years were directly inherited by the Baltic tribes of the historic times and, namely, the Lithuanians. However, both the reconstructed celestial imaginary of the prehistoric communities and that of the late Lithuanian mythology show a certain repetition of similar concepts and ideas that have also been characteristic of the mythology of many other neighbouring countries of the Northern Europe region.

‘At the beginning of the world, there was no earth neither the sky’

Lithuanian religion belongs to the Baltic religions and is linked to the ancient Prussian and Latvian ones. It comes back to the general mythological concepts of Indo-European religions. In pre-Christian Lithuania, from the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century, mythology was an equal part of religion. With the strengthening of the Christianisation process, the archaic religious system slowly faded away and only syncretic and at times vague mythological beliefs have survived mostly in folklore, customs, and festive rituals.¹⁷

The late Lithuanian mythology as the inheritor of pre-Christian ideas is also distinguished by the anthropocentric orientation. The human is the measure of all things. In the Lithuanian aetiological, or originlegends, everything that exists now is understood to have sometime been created according to the analogy with familiar surroundings – quite like the usual things, except that human measures are replaced with divine ones, which are often hyperbolised. But, although being perceived from the human perspective, the world is also considered sacred at the same time, since along with all its objects it has been created by mythical or even divine beings.¹⁸ The Lithuanian conception of the cosmogony embraces not only the origin of the sky and other celestial bodies but also the creation of the Earth. Heaven is observed as if from underneath: while standing on the solid foundation of the Earth and looking up into the sky. Hereby, the Lithuanian origin legends illustrate the words of Mircea Eliade about the  world centre’, a concept typical of traditional cultures which both explains several cosmological images and religious beliefs and helps to understand the ‘traditional approach to living space’.¹⁹

Many Lithuanian origin legends start with the statement that upon the creation of the universe, the world had not yet acquired its usual form: ‘darkness reigns everywhere’, ‘there is no earth neither the sky’, ‘no earth and no sun’.²⁰ The primordial state before the creation of Earth is not perceived as an abstract void. In folk legends it is just another form of substance: ‘nothing except waters’ or ‘a syrup, then the thickness is mixed with the fluid’.²¹  

It is assumed in Lithuanian mythology that the gods as creators of the universe existed before the world was formed: in the primordial waters a small boat floats with God (dievas) and the Devil (velnias) rowing. On God’s command the Devil dives down into the waters and brings handfuls of dirt or ‘seeds of the soil’, but he also puts some dirt into his mouth. God sprinkles the grains of dirt on the water and the Earth begins to swell and grow firm. So does the dirt in the mouth of the Devil. He cannot keep it in any longer, coughs it up and vomits here and there haphazardly. This is how, the legends say, the rough surface of the Earth was formed: the mountains, the hills, the bogs, and wetlands – thus God’s initial plan to create the Earth flat and smooth was spoiled.²²

In other origin legends, at the beginning God creates the Earth as a small island and puts it on the water. Afterwards he climbs onto it and falls asleep. The sneaky Devil grabs God by the feet and drags him towards the edge of the island in an attempt to drown him. Yet, the land expands proportionately further and further away. In the end ‘the island was no longer an island, but a huge plot of land with no end and no beginning’ and thus the Earth was created.²³ A conception about dualism and antagonism of the creators of the world – whereby the Devil moves from the companion to the antagonist of God, possessing the power to challenge the deity, as well as the motif of the Earth-diver – are characteristic of many cosmogonic myths across the world.

What is more, in many cosmogonic myths, the motif of the sacrifice and dismemberment of a primordial being is narrated. The world is then established from the body of this being. In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish, the god Marduk, after defeating Tiamat, the primeval mother, divides her body into two parts, one part forming the heavens, the other, the Earth. From various other parts of Tiamat’s body, Marduk creates clouds, winds, mists, mountains, and rivers, etc. In the Norse Prose Edda the cosmos is formed from the body of the dismembered giant Ymir: other gods fashion the Earth from his flesh, the sea from his blood, mountains from his bones, stones from his teeth, the sky from his skull, and clouds from his brain. And in the Rigveda, the oldest Indian text, the cosmos is a result of the sacrifice of a primordial man, the purusha. This depiction gives an idea of the functions and mutual relations of the four social classes: the priest (Brahman) emerging from his mouth, the warrior (Kshatria) from the arm, the peasant (Vaishya) from the thighs, and the servant (Shudra) from the feet.²⁴

It is more than astonishing that similar analogies of the sacrifice of the human being could be traced in the late Lithuanian origin legends about the features of different nations and lands. The story goes that God expelled and threw from heaven to the Earth a man or a sinful angel. Where the head fell intelligent people emerged, where the belly fell the Prussians appeared, where the legs fell the Russians appeared.²⁵ Other legends tell of a man with a very good head, a big belly, and very strong legs. People became angry with him, grabbed him by the feet and started to drag him back and forth. His head was torn apart while in Lithuania, his belly fell down in Latvia and he lost his legs near Moscow. Therefore, the Lithuanians are smart, the Latvians have big bellies, and the Russians have strong legs.²⁶

In origin legends, the ‘corporeal’ approach to the territories of the world and the formation of character traits of the nations living there show that people ‘equal themselves with the whole world and measure it with their own parameters which they find within themselves, their bodies, and their activities’.²⁷

Looking up in the Sky

In Lithuanian origin legends celestial bodies are often considered to be household utensils or artificially made objects that were taken to the sky by the mythical beings. It is told, that

‘Long ago, there lived a blacksmith. In those times, it was dark – night and night all the time. So this blacksmith decided to hammer out the sun. Taking a shiny piece of metal, … he hammered out a sun in six years. Then he climbed onto the tallest hut and threw it into the sky’²⁸

In the story about the origin of the noticeable star cluster of Pleiades, called Sietynas (chandelier) in Lithuanian or Sietelis (sieve/sifter) , the main character is Mother Mary. The legend tells us that she was sifting flour. When she went outside, the Devil stole the sieve, damaged it, and left. Not being able to use the sieve anymore, Mary placed it in the sky, and to this day, the sieve still hangs there.²⁹ In another legend, the constellation of Pleiades is referred to as seven brothers who were taken to the skies.³⁰

The spots seen on the surface of the full Moon are also interpreted in an anthropomorphic way. They are referred to as a giant face of a man or an old man with a pipe; an old woman or a girl carrying water buckets as an eternal punishment; Cain piercing his brother Abel with a fork, or the wizard Twardowski whom the Devil carried into hell, but after Twardowski said a prayer, the Devil dropped him on the Moon. They are all stranded on the Moon and will remain there until ‘the Last Judgement day’, according to legends.³¹

The Lithuanian origin legends show that the sky is interpreted as a realm of death. The sky, the Moon, and the stars mark the mythical route to the Lithuanian land of the Afterworld, Dausos, which goes along the trajectory of the Milky Way. In Lithuanian, this galaxy is called Paukščių takas (the bird’s trail). Guided by this ‘ribbon of lights’ the souls of the deceased fly to the place of their eternal rest and the birds migrate there to spend the cold winters.³²


The sky is one of the greatest panoramas to stimulate storytelling. However, ancient cosmogonies are more like dystopias than utopias: the creation of the world is a disturbing activity that refers to protoenvironmental chaos and the involvement of death in the process of mythical ‘terraforming’. Together, the factors of anthropomorphisation and the sacralisation of creative activities form another level for perceiving the visible universe as it emerges in front of us as a living or enlivened world, since traces of primeval transformations left by the mythical beings in the beginning of time can be seen everywhere.

Radvilė Racėnaitė, PhD, is a senior researcher and the head of the Department of Folk Narrative at the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, Vilnius, Lithuania. In 2011 she published the monograph Notion of Human Fate and Death in Lithuanian Folklore (in Lithuanian with a summary in English) and has written more than 20 articles in Lithuanian and English. She has also participated in more than 30 national and international scientific conferences in Lithuania and abroad, and has delivered lectures to the public on Lithuanian traditional culture, soviet and modern urban folklore, and oriental subjects. For more than 10 years she worked as a curator at the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum in Kaunas. From 2017 to 2021 she was a member of the Lithuanian Council for Culture. Her main research interests are Lithuanian folk narrative, relicts of Pre-Christian Baltic worldview in late Lithuanian folklore and contemporary art, autobiographical narrative, soviet and modern urban folklore.

  1. Régine Debatty, ‘Interview with Julijonas Urbonas’, Lithuanian Space Agency: Annual Report No. 1, Kaunas and Vilnius 2020, p. 97.  
  2. Julijonas Urbonas, ‘1st Report: Introduction’, Lithuanian Space Agency: Annual Report No. 1, Kaunas and Vilnius 2020, pp. 6-7.
  3. Jean-Pierre Luminet, ‘Creation, Chaos, Time: From Myth to Modern Cosmology’, Cosmology, vol.24, 2016, p.501.
  4. Ibid., p.502.
  5. Nicholas Campion, ‘The Importance of Cosmology in Culture: Contexts and Consequences’, Trends in Modern Cosmology, Rijeka 2017, p.5.
  6. Prehistoric Lithuania: Archaeology Exposition Guide, ed. by Eglė Griciuvienė, Vilnius 2019, pp.20–24.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Vytautas Straižys, Libertas Klimka ‘The Cosmology of the Ancient Balts’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, vol.28, 1997, pp.57–81, http://www.lithuanian.net/mitai/cosmos/baltai.htm, accessed 15 September 2021.
  9. Adomas Butrimas, Regina Ulozaitė, Marius Iršėnas, ‘Amber Discs With Cross Decoration’, Archaeologia Baltica, vol.25, 2018, p.157.
  10. Vytautas Straižys, Libertas Klimka ‘The Cosmology of the Ancient Balts’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, vol.28, 1997, pp.57–81, http://www.lithuanian.net/mitai/cosmos/baltai.htm, accessed 15 September 2021.
  11. Marius Iršėnas, ‘Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Stone Age art in Lithuania, and its Archaeological Cultural Context’, Archaeologia Baltica, vol.13, 2010, pp.175–190.  
  12. Prehistoric Lithuania: Archaeology Exposition Guide, ed. by Eglė Griciuvienė, Vilnius 2019, p.52.
  13. Baltų menas: parodos katalogas. Art of the Balts: Exhibition Catalogue, comp. by A. Butrimas, Vilnius 2009, p.46.
  14. Adomas Butrimas, Regina Ulozaitė, Marius Iršėnas, ‘Amber Discs With Cross Decoration’, Archaeologia Baltica, vol.25, 2018, p.157-158.
  15. Adomas Butrimas, Regina Ulozaitė, Marius Iršėnas, ‘Amber Discs With Cross Decoration’, Archaeologia Baltica, vol.25, 2018, p.159. 
  16. Jonas Vaiškūnas, ‘Verpstė ir visata’, Liaudies kultūra, no.1(100), 2015, pp.28–45.  
  17. Gintaras Beresnevičius, ‘Lithuanian Religion and Mythology’, Anthology of Lithuanian Ethnoculture, 1998-1999, https://lnkc.lt/eknygos/eka/mythology/relmyth.html, accessed 5 November 2021.
  18. Radvilė Racėnaitė, ‘Folklorinė atmintis: retrospektyvus santykis su vieta lietuvių liaudies sakmėse’, Tautosakos darbai, vol.XLVI, 2013, pp.107–131.
  19. Mircea Eliade, Šventybė ir pasaulietiškumas, Vilnius 1997, p.27.
  20. Lithuanian Etiological Tales and Legends, comp. by N. Vėlius, Vilnius 1998, p.9.
  21. Ibid, pp.15–22.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ira Spar, ‘Mesopotamian Creation Myths’, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2000, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/epic/hd_epic.htm (April 2009), accessed 20 August 2021.
  25. Laima Anglickienė, Kitataučių įvaizdis lietuvių folklore, Kaunas 2006, p.186.
  26. Radvilė Racėnaitė, ‘Folklorinė atmintis: retrospektyvus santykis su vieta lietuvių liaudies sakmėse’, Tautosakos darbai, vol. XLVI, 2013, p.122.
  27. Aronas Gurevičius, Viduramžių kultūros kategorijos, Vilnius 1989, p.57.
  28. Lithuanian Etiological Tales and Legends, comp. by N. Vėlius, Vilnius 1998, p.15.
  29. Ibid., p.18.
  30. Jonas Vaiškūnas, ‘Pleiades in Lithuanian ethnoastronomy’, Actes de la Veme Conférence Annuelle de la SEAC, Gdańsk 1997, Warszawa – Gdańsk 1999, pp.233–236.
  31. Lithuanian Etiological Tales and Legends, comp. by N. Vėlius, Vilnius 1998, pp.15–17.
  32. Ibid., p.18.
This article appears in full in COSMOS AS A JOURNAL, NO. 2.