Stop Work Travel | Honoring the Ancestors in Vilnius: Lanterns by the Graves, Ancient Chants, and Burning Man on the Hill Part 1

Honoring the Ancestors in Vilnius: Lanterns by the Graves, Ancient Chants, and Burning Man on the Hill Part 1

March 3, 2016

Walk with your gods and goddesses, and revere your ancestors in all that you do, and become one with them. From the forests of antiquity to the realms of your mind’s embellishments, be mindful of your fore-bearers, and hold them dear to your heart. (Romuva religious community)

Today is the 16th of February – why did I suddenly feel it was time to write this story?

I didn’t consciously know until I woke up that today marks the restoration of Lithuania’s independence – perfect!

I have come to greatly admire Lithuania, a country with a proud spirit and fascinating history that has declared its independence, not just once (from Czarist Russia in 1918), but twice (also from the Soviet Union in 1990, after another 50 years of occupation). It seems there is nothing like occupation to make a people aware of how precious and worthy of preservation their heritage is, as I was to confirm on my visit.

Vilnius, the capital city, dates back to 1323, according to a written record of the Grand Duke Gediminas. Under his rule, Lithuania stretched far – from the Baltic Sea in the north all the way southeast to the Black Sea. The beautiful old town of Vilnius, where you can walk up to the castle of Gediminas, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I happened to arrive in Vilnius on All Saint’s Day, which I soon learned was a very important occasion for Lithuanians to honor the ancestors. As the bus entered town, I saw flowers for sale on every street.

Little did I know that I was about to partake in the special ceremonies of All Saint’s Day!

It’s true, though, that I had been drawn to the ad for a homestay in a “charming pagan household”– with its mouthwatering picture of a traditional breakfast of crepes and berries. How could I resist!

My hostess, Inija (“e-NEE-yah”) welcomed me warmly upon arrival, and introduced her daughter Rimgaile (“rim-gai-la”) and family, who were visiting from their home in Kaunas.

I received my first offer. “Would you like to come with us to Trakai Castle? We can drop you there while we go visit the nearby spa.” I was soon enjoying a sunny morning at this gorgeous site, admiring the reflections of the castle in the calm lake, the museum with its extensive collection of painted porcelain pipes, and the amber jewelry for sale.  Afterward, I savored my first taste of kibinai dumplings in the little town of Trakai before riding back to town with the family.

After dark there was to be a ceremony on the panoramic hill overlooking Vilnius. (Would I like to come? Of course!) We walked down to the hill below. Inija explained that this was a reinterpreted ceremony, not completely traditional. I noticed two giant sculptures crafted of straw arranged inside a fenced area. The leaders blessed the ground in the four directions and began chanting.

After a while the sculpture’s creator entered inside the main sculpture with a torch, and set it alight. Suddenly I could clearly see the eyes and face of the figure, representing Gediminas, honored ancestor of the Lithuanian people. As the fire roared through the sculpture, the chants continued, and the splendid crown above the head rotated. This artist knew what he was doing when he planned this masterful sculpture. What a sight! Click on the image to watch a video of the ceremony:

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Follow along and read Honoring the Ancestors in Vilnius: Lanterns by the Graves, Ancient Chants, and Burning Man on the Hill Part 2!