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Lithuanian masks

Curiosities of the Lithuanian Užgavėnės (Mardi Gras)


Prof. Libertas Klimka


Many nations have different customs of Shrove Tuesday, though the origin of the festival is the same. This is the last day before Lent – the fasting time and concentration before Easter in the Christian liturgy. Mardi Gras is celebrated in many places in the form of carnivals; it is often very elevated and noisy. But how different it is! For instance, in Venice: medieval fantasy masks – they are so noble, aristocratic, mysterious, and tacit. Meanwhile, Rio de Janeiro rages with the parade of temperamental semi-naked beauties – samba school dancers, pranked in tropical birds, flowers and butterflies. Bulgaria is known for the processions of mythical characters called kukeri, reminiscent of ancient soldiers.


Traditional Lithuanian Mardi Gras is totally different; it is safe to say that it has preserved the most archaic features, even from the stone age era. There you can clearly see the extant agrarian magic elements for awakening of the ground for the new life cycle. In general, this rural pastime is a very interesting phenomenon of ethnic culture formed by historical circumstances of different centuries. The joyful festival found its place in urban culture, they are happily organised by communities of fellow countrymen and centres of ethnic activity.


First, we should note the traditional conversations of disguised characters with the hosts of visited homesteads. From these conversations you can see the mythological nature of the characters. The disguised people will be let inside the house and maybe get a good treat if they cheer the hosts with wit and imagination. However, it requires also traditional expressions indicating the characters' origins. The disguised character tradition has a very essential feature of agricultural magic – the connection with the spirits of the ancestors, the so-called necrocult. Basically, they are the images of ancestors, from totemic animals and birds, to the alleged "aliens" – ‘Hungarians’, ‘Jews’, ‘Gypsies’. The oldest masks are those of wild animals and birds: the Bear, the Wolf, the Crane, and the Stork. They probably come from a tribal totemic worship. In later times, the concepts of land fertility became associated with domestic animals, and here we have the masks of Goat and a Ram. In many places, the characters would imitate the "begging", under the guise of wood carved and leather masks, picturing very miserable faces furrowed in deep wrinkles – no one else than those "from beyond." Being aware of the sufficient degree of respect to the social position of beggars in the folk traditions, you could even see the priests of the ancient Baltic religion in these images. Similar are the "Jewish ličyna" – with huge schnozes, shaggy. Meanwhile "Gypsies" both in their appearance and behaviour were closest to real Gypsies: they would offer fortune-telling with cards, meanwhile attempting to sneak something. You could not see any mythological traits in Gypsy characters suggesting their rather late origin.


The masks of Jews, Hungarians, or Gypsies are not intended to sneer at ethnic minorities. The point here is totally different: Both by behaviour and appearance, the Mardi Gras characters emphasise that they are strangers, they come from a distant country. Dressers present themselves as arriving from a country where everything is opposite and even the Sun travels the sky backwards. That mythical world allegedly is overseas, therefore the visitors get wet while wading through water. It is no time in the world of the dead so the past and the future are confused in their speech. For example, the "Jew" offers to buy the alleged hen – a dead crow, which "laid eggs well tomorrow." The habit of mummers of swapping clothes comes from this topsy-turvyness of the world: men would dress in women's clothes and vice versa.


Other characters in the villages were Devil, Witch on a broom, Horse with a rider, the Reaper, or a dwarf with a large head, known as Malpa or Tiliukas. Devil is a character of clearly mythological nature arising from one of the most important gods of the Indo-European proto-nation – the Velinas image. This was a livestock guardian, and hence its features: horns, hooves, and a tail. When the pasture vegetation was attributed to Velinas’ sphere of control, he became also the ruler of the underworld, a mediator between the living and the dead. Velinas rules the cold half of the year and Perkūnas – the vegetative. After the Christianization of Lithuania, Velinas’ image degraded to the folk devil (Lith. velniukas), dubbed as vokietukas, pinčiukas, kriaučiukas.


Ragana (witch) is a Mardi Gras character, which formed in the processes of historical metamorphosis. In ancient Baltic mythology and religion of Ragana was a goddess of the forest. Etymology of the name refers to its distinctiveness in society, perhaps clairvoyance, prophecy, and treatment capacity. Thus, it is likely that witches were known as rural fortune tellers, herbalists. However, folklore tells that on the night of St. George witches poison the sap, and on the night of St. John fly to sabbaths on Šatrija Hill, astride on a hive. With their "evil eye" they can put a hex on young animals or even a baby. Malicious power of witches is in particular strong on the Midsummer morning, when they can take away the neighbour’s cow's milk. It is possible that the negative features of the witch image were acquired after the Christianization of Lithuania, and especially with the spread of witch trials in Europe. In the event of illness or another trouble, the village would seek help from a woman having "witchcraft" experience. A witch as a Mardi Gras character usually has very repelling features, terrifying and scary – this is a mythical female mask of an "alien".


A Horse with a rider is a boy, as if riding on a horse, made of two sieves, a bed sheet, a wooden carved head with hard mane, with his boot tied on the side. This Mardi Gras character is a distinctive historic reminder of the past, when the military force consisted of cavalry. It is shown both by historiographical sources, and archaeological data: numerous are horse burials and shrouds in horse graves. In the group of merrymakers, the beggars and Morė are a compromise by the Reaper, prompting them with a scythe. The function of this character frequent in Samogitian Mardi grass is to remind that the dressed up people play the spirits, comers from the world of the dead. The Reaper is usually wrapped in a white robe, maybe with a skeleton drawn on it. It's mask is a skull carved from wood. The image is not old, probably borrowed from the death imaging in the church art.


the crowd of walkers is complemented by a large headed or a dwarf, called Malpa or Tiliukas. The mask is made as follows: a small stature guy puts a sieve and then a pillowcase on his ahead, with the open end of it tied into a collar. Tiliukas is dressed in a large cloak, with sleeves stuffed into pockets so he looks like proudly stuffing, and then proudly resting his hands on the waist. This mask is silent; he only moves his head around with great dignity. The semantics of the latter mask is probably closest to the mythical creature guiding the whole. In Samogitia, it is kaukas, elsewhere it could be called pagirnis, or naminukas. If the hostess sews a shirt to kaukas and lays it on the doorstep, he settles in the welcoming home bringing it in abundance.


Ancestor spirits visit people during the celebration, recalling about the spring quickly to come, with its joys and troubles of work. And they come not to frighten, but to help people find harmony with the natural elements, to overcome the accumulation of evils in the community. For example, they mock bachelors who cannot find themselves a wife: a pityful Sidaras with a straw belt is being pushed closer to the girls. Meanwhile the Crane – a bird of love –pinches, tickles ripe girls so that the next year they wouldn't stay "on last year's straw." The "Jews", too would bargain to sell elder girls for whom it is time to marry. They would attempt to invite these girls to dance, to kiss and coat their cheeks with soot or beet red. During Mardi Gras as they would play out a wedding. A small man would be usually dressed as a groom, and a large man as a bride. This playfully showed the concern of the village about the natural continuity of life in the community.


But the most important task was to drive out the evil spirit of winter, regardless of you name it – Morė, Kotrė, Barbora, Sene Kūniškė (in Samogitia) or Gavėnas, Diedelis, Senis, Čiučela (in Aukštaitija). The end of these ghosts is sad – in midnight, they would be ostracized from the village, pushed down from the mountain, drowned in an ice-hole or even burned at the stake. The fight of Lašininis and Kanapinis is an echo of the contest between the Bear and the Elk, summer and winter rulers, that took place in very old times.


Farewell to winter, one has to eat a lot: three times on Saturday, six times on Sunday and nine times on Tuesday. So eating was according to the algorithm of the old Moon calendar! Samogitians were cooking hotchpotch with barley and peas with a pig's dock. Other traditional Mardi Grass dishes: jelly meat, donuts, goose necks stuffed with grits, eggs, and various pancakes. People would eat what they wanted to have next year.


Ethnic culture is not merely a reiteration of ancient customs like in a folk theatre, it is a living the creative process of national culture. Therefore, creativity and imagination here is not limited. Contemporary life colours are tolerated in the traditional festivals, just like the adaptation of old tradition to the present realities of life. This is the path to the expression of national identity. Mardi Gras is a good time for contemporary masks, for example, depicting popular figures of society to whose business you would like to look at with some humour. Meanwhile, traditional Mardi Gras masks may be used in our other major cultural events of life, for example, they would look really playfully during popular sports competitions, bringing in the national sentiment. Of course, one has to do everything with creativity and talent ...


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