Visiting Lecturer Dr. Michael Strmiska: Latvian Paganism Is Currently in a Very Interesting, Creative Phase
Michael Strmiska is currently working at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) on a Fulbright Scholarship from the United States. He has a PhD in Religious Studies and is in Latvia to teach religion-oriented courses at the departments of anthropology and media studies. He became interested in European pagan movements after visiting Iceland in 1996 on another Fulbright Scholarship. Witnessing an autumn equinox ritual there and feeling its spiritual power, Dr. Strmiska's interest in paganism grew, and took over his academic life.
How did you come to be at RSU?
I've been interested in the Baltic region for a long time. I actually have partial Lithuanian ancestry. My first visit to Riga was in the early 2000s and I met members of Dievturi then, so I was already aware of them.
I have observed how the movement has changed over the years. Each new generation of people brings new ideas, so it's not the same as it was 20 years ago. Right now they are in a very interesting, creative phase.
I received a US-funded Fulbright Fellowship back in 2004 to teach at Šiauliai University in Lithuania, and now I wanted to come back to the region, so I thought "why not to Latvia". Each year, Fulbright offers specific opportunities at particular universities. A couple of years ago there was an opening within anthropology at RSU. I pursued this and came to know Klāvs Sedlenieks and Ieva Puzo.
Why did you decide to stay in Latvia during the coronavirus lockdown?
Part of my calculation was that if I were to return to the US, I would be going to the New York City area, which is clearly one of the worst places to be in the world right now in terms of the coronavirus. But honestly, I just wanted to stay here and continue my activities, even under lockdown.
What do you teach at RSU?
I teach two courses here. We had our final meeting for one of them the night before the lockdown took effect at the university. This was a course on religion and media as part of Communication and Media Studies at the Faculty of Communication. The other was a course on the anthropology of religion.
The last class on 10 March before restrictions were imposed. Photo: Linda Klusa
Could you explain why people are drawn to paganism?
If you were to spend a lot of time getting to know people in Dievturi or similar movements, you would find that maybe sometimes they're more concerned with national identity, while at other times they may be feeling an intense connection with nature. At other times they may be reflecting on the dainas, or on myths and feeling 'oh, there's a much deeper meaning here', as people do with the Latvian ornamental symbols, for example. The symbolic vocabulary of Latvia is very rich, so people go very deeply into that and come up with their own interpretations. Paganism offers many possibilities that people can pursue according to their interests and needs.
Does this cause arguments and divisions?
There certainly can be divisions, but they're just as often over personality clashes as anything else. Internal divisions do not occur so much in Baltic paganism. In Scandinavian paganism, or Scandinavian-based paganism (also called Ásatrú or heathenry, or Norse- or Nordic paganism) however, some people add a kind of racial dimension to it. This is where we sometimes get into right-wing, neo-Nazi territory. People may not go quite that far, but they are opening the door to it, and can be somewhat sympathetic to this ideology.
Have you studied the political aspects of paganism?
I actually did want to explore the politics of the American Norse pagans about ten years ago, but I found that it was disastrous for my research, because people just didn't want to talk to me anymore. They saw me as an extremist who was overly concerned with racism and such like. I really haven't been able to do anything with the American Norse pagans since then. That door has kind of shut. It is a very sensitive issue, for sure. I've increasingly come to focus on the political side, however. You can see the rise of ethnic right-wing nationalism that we observe in so many countries nowadays (from USA to Europe and beyond) also reflected in paganism. I organised a conference on politics and paganism at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic four years ago, because I had taught there for one semester in 2015 as a visiting professor. The papers from that conference were published in a journal called The Pomegranate. My keynote lecture for the conference, later published in the journal, was titled “Pagan Politics in the 21st century: Peace and Love, or Blood and Soil?” in which I lay out a lot of these issues.
How do pagan religions organise?
Regarding structure, Pagan groups like the Ásatrú Society in Iceland or Dievturība in Latvia or Romuva in Lithuania typically have a regular form of organisation with an elected leadership. They have rules that they follow as regards their meetings and their finances. Generally, you have to demonstrate certain formalities in order to be registered with the government.
As far as beliefs go, these is more loosely defined. In Dievturi, for example, there's a general understanding of being dedicated to old Latvian traditions, to the old Latvian gods and goddesses, to folklore, and of course, especially to the folk songs. The dainas are at the heart of it all.
A looser structure can actually be more appealing, because people in western countries are more individualistic these days. They don't like being told what to think or believe. If someone makes a very good case for certain ideas, while someone else has slightly different ideas, but there's an overlap between them, people actually seem quite comfortable with that.
What would you say are the main differences between Nordic, and Latvian and Lithuanian paganism?
That's interesting. The biggest differences are in the source materials they have to work with. In the Scandinavian countries, what they have from the old pagan days, from the original pagan times, is literature. They have a lot of texts that were primarily written down in Iceland (mainly by Christian monks, strangely enough). These texts give us a great deal of information about the gods and they tell stories about people who practiced the religion, but they don't have any music. Old styles of music were forbidden by the authorities, particularly by Christian authorities. In the Baltic case it's almost the opposite. Here you don't have as much rich mythological literature, or rather, you don't have it in a form that's very attractive and accessible. The written materials in Scandinavia are very attractive, enjoyable, accessible, and obviously have worldwide appeal. In the Baltic case, while you don't have that kind of rich literary foundation, what you do have here is the music, the folk songs. That tradition is obviously very, very strong and appealing here.
So when I look at the two, it's almost like each has the piece the other is missing.
Christianity came in and influenced both regions - how would you say that this influence differed between Scandinavia and the Baltic States?
Although of course Lithuania is more Catholic and Latvia ultimately more Lutheran, in both cases the old pagan traditions were able to live on. This was actually partly because of foreign domination. The pagan traditions would be better known among the Lithuanian and Latvian peasants, whereas the ruling classes - whether they were Polish, Russian, German, or Swedish - were not very interested in native traditions. That kind of gave space for them to live on and thrive.
To what extent is paganism just re-enacting a romanticised version of the past?
There is certainly some romanticisation, however, a lot of people keep up with scholarly research, so I think that many pagans actually have a pretty nuanced, accurate view of the past. There will be arguments about how to interpret this or that aspect, or whether something was really done this way, or that way. I know on some occasions, people have actually quit these movements because they were so upset at what they felt was an incorrect interpretation, or reconstruction of a kind of head covering, for example.
I think there is romanticism on an emotional level, but it's countered by an intellectual awareness that there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the past.
In the past, was it an actual doctrine, or religion, or was it just how you lived on a farm with the seasons?
So where's the line between simply recreating history, and living according to a moral, spiritual structure?
Here we get to the problem of how we define religion, because if we take the Christian church as the paradigm of religion, then anything that doesn't look like the Christian church will not seem like a religion.
I always think it's more useful to define religion more broadly as worship, or a relationship to things that are considered sacred, and the beliefs, myths and organisation attached to that.
What you're saying is a very important issue, though, because it would seem to be true that in pre-Christian times people weren't really conscious of following a “religion”, per se. It's only in later times that we look at what they were doing and say 'Oh, they see the river as sacred. They see the sun and the tree as sacred. They're singing songs about these things. They're dancing like the sun. Seems pretty damn religious'. That is a modern interpretation, however. I think that what people have seen is that making it into a religion today is a way to preserve the old traditions, including their spiritual content.
So, we tend to kind of put the structure of Christianity onto other religions?
Yes. What's really funny, is that some would say that Ernests Brastiņš, the man who created this organisation of Dievturi back in the 1920s and 1930s, did it in a somewhat Christian format. He created a kind of meeting structure that was not unlike a Lutheran church service, and I believe he even wanted an organ in the room. He also proposed that there be a kind of trinity of Latvian deities - Dievs, Māra, Laima. And if anyone knows anything about Christianity, you know that the trinity is central. I would not, however, take that as something negative. I think in adapting religions over time, it's natural to make use of elements you see around you that you see as working well. So you could say that the Dievturi organisation may be a bit like a church, but so what? If church organisation works well, if you want to use it for your traditions, and you want to adapt it, I see nothing wrong with that.
So in a way, pagan religions are damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they are different from Christianity, people don't think of them as religions, but if they borrow elements from Christianity, people will say they're not pagan.
Can you talk more about the Latvian symbols?
I have to confess that it's not something I have really delved into deeply. The symbol I've been most interested in is the thunder cross that has associations of the 1930s and the Pērkoņkrusts movement, the thunder cross movement, and possible right-wing fascist associations because it has similarities to the swastika. I have discussed this a lot with my students who ask me whether I don't think it's unfair that Latvia gets blamed for using the Nazi swastika, when actually the Latvian thunder cross is something quite separate. I tell them that it depends on context.
If you use the thunder cross within Latvia among Latvians where people understand these symbols, I think it's perfectly fine to use it, but the problem is when you're trying to relate to people from other countries who only know about the swastika. If you're going to use this in an international context, or international eyes are going to be on you, you have to explain yourself very carefully. Frankly I would advise against using the symbol except in very specific situations where you know that everyone has the same frame of reference, because this could so easily be demonised against Latvia. It's very unfortunate. I mean, the symbol is innocent, it's not the fault of the symbol, but you can't avoid, or ignore, the historical context.
How do you feel about missing all the spring and summer traditions, specifically Līgo?
I am a little vulnerable to the virus because of my age (I just turned 60 in isolation), and have some pre-existing health conditions. At first I thought I might have to avoid Līgo altogether, but I reached out to my colleagues and students for suggestions of where I could go to participate in a kind of ‘socially distanced’ Līgo. Thanks to their help, I think I have now found something I can participate in near Liepāja, at a kind of ethnographic farm museum in Vītolnieki.
I really wonder what will happen to Jāņi and Līgo this year, how people will celebrate them. My students have told me that it will probably mostly be a family affair, that people will gather in small family groups, so maybe I'll visit with a family. I don't know what bigger events will be possible around Riga.
What are your future plans?
I have a visa issue at the moment because Fulbright was shut down, but I've really enjoyed teaching at RSU and I've discussed the possibility of teaching the Anthropology of Religion course online with students in the future. Maybe the Media and Religion course too. I had great students for both and that is a major incentive for me. If I can do that, I would like to come back to Latvia from the USA for a week or two at the end of each semester to teach and meet with students and discuss their research projects as well as do a little research of my own. One way or another I do plan on coming back to Latvia.
One of the benefits of COVID-19, is that it's opened the door to more online teaching.
Something I've always tried to do when coming to Latvia, or the Baltics, is to form continuing partnerships. I really like connecting with the scholars here and, if I can, helping them get published and gain access to international opportunities, if I can, just as I have benefited from being an international scholar coming here and learning from people and receiving their help in so many ways. I really believe it should be a two-way street and that we should all help one another.
What's changed in Latvia over the years since you were first here?
I really worry about my students. Coming to Latvia this time, to Riga, before things were shut down, I noticed something very interesting; I thought I felt a different attitude among younger people here. They were much more open, much more relaxed than people were on my first visit 20 years ago, or even when I was last here in 2015. Young people today don't have to live with the memory of the Soviet times, where people in the past had a kind of fear hanging over them. What's sad now is that young people are looking at a future clouded by COVID-19 where no one knows how it's going to turn out. I'm really worried we'll go into an economic depression, and that it will badly affect travel and international contacts.
- Michael is studying Asian religions in the Baltic States, for instance Krishna and Buddhist temples. He plans to start interviewing members of the growing population of Asian students in Latvia on the interplay between their experience of their religion and Westerners' interpretation of Eastern religions, as well as how Asian students feel about living in Latvia, including any problems they may have with racism or discrimination.
- Michael is currently planning a chapter on Latvian and Lithuanian folk religion and seasonal traditions that will be part of the Oxford Handbook of Slavic and East European Folklore.
- He is also working on a book for Springer Publications called Unchristian Eastern Europe: Pagans, Jews, Gypsies and Muslims. The idea of the book is to argue against the common idea that Europe is an exclusively Christian civilisation by highlighting how these other groups have contributed so much to the life, culture and traditions of Eastern Europe.