In mid-January, the snow made the little coastal town of Šventoji in north-west Lithuania feel like a film set. Restaurants, shops and wooden holiday cabins all sat silently with their lights off, waiting for the arrival of spring.
I found what I was looking for on the edge of the town, not far from the banks of the iced-over Šventoji river and within earshot of the Baltic Sea: Žemaitiu alka, a shrine constructed by the Lithuanian neo-pagan organisation Romuva. Atop a small hillock stood 12 tall, thin, slightly tapering wooden figures. The decorations are austere but illustrative: two finish in little curving horns; affixed to the top of another is an orb emitting metal rays. One is adorned with nothing but a simple octagon. I looked down to the words carved vertically into the base and read ‘Austėja’. Below it was the English word: ‘bees’.
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This was not the first time I’d encountered references to bees in Lithuania. During previous visits, my Lithuanian friends had told me about the significance of bees to their culture.
Lithuanians don’t speak about bees grouping together in a colony like English-speakers do. Instead, the word for a human family (šeimas) is used. In the Lithuanian language, there are separate words for death depending on whether you’re talking about people or animals, but for bees – and only for bees – the former is used. And if you want to show a new-found Lithuanian pal what a good friend they are, you might please them by calling them bičiulis, a word roughly equivalent to ‘mate’, which has its root in bitė – bee. In Lithuania, it seems, a bee is like a good friend and a good friend is like a bee.
A bee is like a good friend and a good friend is like a bee
Seeing the shrine in Šventoji made me wonder: could all these references be explained by ancient Lithuanians worshipping bees as part of their pagan practices?
Lithuania has an extensive history of paganism. In fact, Lithuania was the last pagan state in Europe. Almost 1,000 years after the official conversion of the Roman Empire facilitated the gradual spread of Christianity, the Lithuanians continued to perform their ancient animist rituals and worship their gods in sacred groves. By the 13th Century, modern-day Estonia and Latvia were overrun and forcibly converted by crusaders, but the Lithuanians successfully resisted their attacks. Eventually, the state gave up paganism of its own accord: Grand Duke Jogaila converted to Catholicism in 1386 in order to marry the Queen of Poland.
This rich pagan history is understandably a source of fascination for modern Lithuanians – and many others besides. The problem is that few primary sources exist to tell us what Lithuanians believed before the arrival of Christianity. We can be sure that the god of thunder Perkūnas was of great importance as he is extensively documented in folklore and song, but most of the pantheon is based on guesswork. However, the Lithuanian language may provide – not proof, exactly, but clues, tantalising hints, about those gaps in the country’s past.
In Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, I spoke to Dalia Senvaitytė, a professor of cultural anthropology at Vytautas Magnus University. She was sceptical about my bee-worshipping theory, telling me that there may have been a bee goddess by the name of Austėja, but she’s attested in just one source: a 16th-Century book on traditional Lithuanian beliefs written by a Polish historian.
It’s more likely, she said, that these bee-related terms reflect the significance of bees in medieval Lithuania. Beekeeping, she explained “was regulated by community rules, as well as in special formal regulations”. Honey and beeswax were abundant and among the main exports, I learned, which is why its production was strictly controlled.
But the fact that these references to bees have been preserved over hundreds of years demonstrates something rather interesting about the Lithuanian language: according to the Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, it’s the most conservative of all living Indo-European languages. While its grammar, vocabulary and characteristic sounds have changed over time, they’ve done so only very slowly. For this reason, the Lithuanian language is of enormous use to researchers trying to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European, the single language, spoken around four to five millennia ago, that was the progenitor of tongues as diverse as English, Armenian, Italian and Bengali.
All these languages are related, but profound sound shifts that have gradually taken place have made them distinct from one another. You’d need to be a language expert to see the connection between English ‘five’ and French cinq – let alone the word that Proto-Indo-Europeans are thought to have used, pénkʷe. However, that connection is slightly easier to make out from the Latvian word pieci, and no trouble at all with Lithuanian penki. This is why famous French linguist Antoine Meillet once declared that “anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant”.
Lines can be drawn to other ancient languages too, even those that are quite geographically distant. For example, the Lithuanian word for castle or fortress – pilis – is completely different from those used by its non-Baltic neighbours, but is recognisably similar to the Ancient Greek word for town, polis. Surprisingly, Lithuanian is also thought to be the closest surviving European relative to Sanskrit, the oldest written Indo-European language, which is still used in Hindu ceremonies.
This last detail has led to claims of similarities between Indian and ancient Baltic cultures. A Lithuanian friend, Dovilas Bukauskas, told me about an event organised by local pagans that he attended. It began with the blessing of a figure of a grass snake – a sacred animal in Baltic tradition – and ended with a Hindu chant.
I asked Senvaitytė about the word gyvatė. This means ‘snake’, but it shares the same root with gyvybė, which means ‘life’. The grass snake has long been a sacred animal in Lithuania, reverenced as a symbol of fertility and luck, partially for its ability to shed its skin. A coincidence? Perhaps, but Senvaitytė thinks in this case probably not.
The language may also have played a role in preserving traditions in a different way. After Grand Duke Jogaila took the Polish throne in 1386, Lithuania’s gentry increasingly adopted not only Catholicism, but also the Polish language. Meanwhile, rural Lithuanians were much slower to adopt Christianity, not least because it was almost always preached in Polish or Latin. Even once Christianity had taken hold, Lithuanians were reluctant to give up their animist traditions. Hundreds of years after the country had officially adopted Christianity, travellers through the Lithuanian countryside reported seeing people leave bowls of milk out for grass snakes, in the hope that the animals would befriend the community and bring good luck.
Anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant
Similarly, bees and bee products seem to have retained importance, especially in folk medicine, for their perceived healing powers. Venom from a bee was used to treat viper bites, and one treatment for epilepsy apparently recommended drinking water with boiled dead bees. But only, of course, if the bees had died from natural causes.
But Lithuanian is no longer exclusively a rural language. The last century was a tumultuous one, bringing war, industrialisation and political change, and all of the country’s major cities now have majorities of Lithuanian-speakers. Following its accession to the EU in 2004, the country is now also increasingly integrated with Europe and the global market, which has led to the increasing presence of English-derived words, such as alternatyvus (alternative) and prioritetas (priority).
Given Lithuania’s troubled history, it’s in many ways amazing the language has survived to the present day. At its peak in the 14th Century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania stretched as far as the Black Sea, but in the centuries since, the country has several times disappeared from the map entirely.
It’s too simplistic to say that Lithuanian allows us to piece together the more mysterious stretches in its history, such as the early, pagan years in which I’m so interested. But the language acts a little like the amber that people on the eastern shores of the Baltic have traded since ancient times, preserving, almost intact, meanings and structures that time has long since worn away everywhere else.
And whether or not Austėja was really worshipped, she has certainly remained a prominent presence. Austėja remains consistently in the top 10 most popular girls names in Lithuania. It seems that, despite Lithuania’s inevitable cultural and linguistic evolution, the bee will always be held in high esteem.
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#WhaleWednesday this week will be dedicated to Kasatka
Six weeks after being rumored to be near death, orca matriarch Kasatka has died.
SeaWorld San Diego announced today that Kasatka was euthanized on the evening of Tuesday August 15, after a long bout with bacterial respiratory infection, or lung disease.
Kasatka’s passing comes just three weeks after the death of 3 month old orca calf Kyara at SeaWorld Antonio (Kasatka’s granddaughter and San Diego born Takara’s daughter).
Kasatka was captured off the coast of Iceland on October 26, 1978, at the age of less than 2 years (she was estimated to be born around 1976). She was captured alongside her pod mate Katina, also approximately 2 years old, and then sold to SeaWorld that same month. For 4 years, Kasatka and Katina lived together, but the two were separated in 1984 when Katina was shipped to SeaWorld Orlando, where she remains…
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When we start to look for it, we quickly find there is a literal sea of distressing environmental news flooding our phones and computers every day. Seeing this deluge of negativity, it’s easy to start to lose faith. But the winners of the Bow Seat’s 2016 Ocean Awareness Contest reminds us that we have the power and the creativity to change the course of our oceans’ fate. Bow Seat is an organization dedicated to, “inspire[ing] the next generation of ocean caretakers through education and engagement with the arts, science, and advocacy.” As a part of this mission, Bow Seat hosts The Ocean Awareness Contest. Every year, they ask middle schoolers and high schoolers across the world to submit a piece of artwork addressing ocean pollution and the challenges we face going forward. They say a picture is worth 1000 words, and these images speak volumes. Here are a few of some of the compelling pieces centered around ocean plastics from the 2016 winners.
This piece is titled, “Message in a Bottle” by Jessica Yang. It shows how the 40 billion plastic bottles we put in landfills every year make their way into our oceans and affect marine life.
We have a responsibility to future generations to maintain our most precious resource. These children clearly see the danger plastic poses to our oceans and marine life – we owe it to both these young ones and animals to stop our reckless behavior and prevent plastic pollution. Join One Green planets #CrushPlastic movement to learn about easy ways that you can help to save our planet’s oceans and the animals that live in them.
Let’s #CrushPlastic! Click the graphic below for more information.
For Fox Grom, taking the dogs out for a walk in Kirovsk, Russia is just an everyday thing. For us, it’s a glimpse into a winter wonderland where beautiful dogs walk and play on water amidst a stunning backdrop of frozen wonder.
These ethereal photos depict not only a moment of quiet enjoyment for two dogs with their guardian, but also how life looks from the unspoiled midst of a frozen lake. Getting out into nature, no matter the season, always has something to offer in terms of wonderment. We just have to get out there and take advantage of it! These dogs clearly feel at home in what would appear to be an alien and inhospitable environment to many, showing just how adaptable they are.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to take just any dog with you on an outing like this. Siberian Huskies, like these, are suited to frigid climates and are able to tolerate longer durations of time in the elements than other, shorter haired breeds. It’s always important to exercise caution when playing out in the cold with our furry friends! For these two buddies, though, the only concern is having fun in a location where it’s tough to discern where the water ends and the sky begins.
People across the country will go through the mild torture of circadian disruption as daylight saving time (DST) comes to an end on Sunday morning. In preparation, writers from all corners of the internet have started debating the merits of falling back and springing forward. They cite various studies proving that adjusting our clocks either increases or decreases energy use, saves lives or costs them, and makes crime rates go up or down.
But no matter the evidence, a whole lot of people just hate DST, complaining that springing ahead leads to more car crashes, sleepier students, and added stress. The haters have launched many, many online petitions to scrap it entirely. One petition asks Congress to “please stop the messing with our schedules.” A 2014 poll found that half of Americans simply don’t see the point.
So what would it take for this anti-DST contingent to kill daylight saving once and for all? Can something as seemingly intractable as time be changed by government decree?
You bet! Daylight saving time was created by government decree after all. The United States actually adopted DST during World War I to save fuel, following Germany’s lead. (That’s right. It had nothing to do with helping farmers get more hours of daylight back in the olden days, contrary to the beliefs of most elementary school students and a number of Grist staffers). Farmers, in particular, opposed the change, and Congress repealed DST after the war ended.
The latest iteration springs from the 1966 Uniform Time Act, which has been tweaked several times since. In 1974, DST was observed year-round in response to the OPEC oil embargo, and it’s been extended twice since then, in 1986 and again in 2005.
States can opt out through legislation or executive action. Legislators in Alaska, California, and several other states have tried (and failed) to end their state’s participation. Two holdouts — Hawaii and Arizona (minus the Navajo Nation) — leave their clocks alone all year long. Scrapping DST nationwide, however, would likely prove more difficult, because it requires an act of Congress.
But the main reason DST is here to stay, says Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, is that it’s good for business. Retailers, home-improvement shops, and other industries benefit from an extra hour of summer daylight, giving people more time to shop, play, and work in the yard. The golf industry, for example, estimates that DST brings in an additional $200 million each year.
Not only do these industries lobby to continue this practice, but they also fight to make it longer. The main push for extending DST into November, Downing says, came from the makers of Halloween candy. Lobbyists even put candy pumpkins on every senator’s chair during DST hearings in 1985.
The only way to end daylight saving time, it seems, is to get big business out of Congress. So until that happens, enjoy the extra hour of sleep. You’ll pay it back in March.
A Beacon in the Smog®
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Watch these three videos and then go hug your dog…🐕
Maybe we’ll get lucky and the baboon’s will kidnap her and make her their “Queen”
Then she goes into full-blown dementia and forgets she’s running for president! 🐒
Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service has issued a report saying that the father of a doctor treating Hillary Clinton for dementia was found killed this weekend after he leaked information about her deteriorating health to the public.
According to the report, Vincent Fleck, the father of Clinton’s physician Dr. Daniel Fleck, was found near his home just 24 hours after releasing Hillary’s most secret medical records to the public.
The SVR first became “alerted/alarmed” regarding the circumstances of this latest mysterious death associated with Hillary Clinton on 17 July, this report says, when a “known/suspected” Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “hit team” traveled about 70 kilometers (44 miles) from their New York City “base/headquarters” to a small village named Mount Kisco, both being located in New York State.
Upon arriving in Mount Kisco, this report continues, this CIA “hit team” broke into a specialized small computer security companies annex office named Right Click…
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The animal agriculture industry goes to great lengths to convince the public that farmed animals are raised on lush green pastures owned and operated by family farmers. From their deceptive product packaging to the hundreds of television advertisements they run every year, the animal agriculture industry desperately wants to perpetuate the myth of a benevolent Old MacDonald and his small farm of happy and healthy animals.
The reality is that a handful of extraordinarily powerful corporations own and control the entire industry, and often team up with influential trade and lobby organizations and even government agencies to shape the market to their benefit. Their tool of choice is the efficient but cruel factory farm, a far cry from familiar Old MacDonald’s farm.
Here’s a look at the major players that give “Big Ag” its well-deserved name.
Contrary to what Big Ag wants us to think, the…
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Conservation International has launched a powerful new campaign called Nature is Speaking and has recruited A-list talent, including Julia Roberts, to kick off the series.
“I don’t really need people, but people need me,” Roberts narrates as Mother Nature in the two-minute video that was released today. “When I thrive, you thrive. When I falter, you falter.”
Roberts’ video is the first of a series of ten videos that are being posted online. The videos aim to serve as a wake-up call for us to pay attention to the nature around us, which clearly has something to say.
Though Roberts is never seen in the video, her message packs a powerful punch: humans can’t afford to take her (meaning Mother Nature) for granted.
“I’ve fed species greater than you. And I’ve starved greater species than you. My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests: They all can take you—or leave you……
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