Continental Lithuanian Character and Maritime Infantilism

The fact that there is a scarce percentage of maritime creation in Lithuanian literature indicates that the search for identity should lead along the land, and not water, ways. But after analyzing folklore, we absolutely have to abandon this way. Many fairy tales and songs refer to the sea, the lagoon or „the dear sea – lagoon“, next to which the most important initiation rituals take place or it is a trial area for the hero. The clear features of a myth are retained by the Lithuanian fairy-tale „Fir, the Queen of the Grass-snake“ which is ascribed to Lithuanian myths. It is about the rituals of the marriage and birth that take place in the mythic area of waters. A nation or a tribe that has never had any relations to the sea, would take such story lines as less important, despite the fact that in many myths of the world the archetype of the sea or ocean is maintained as that of the chaos or the primary emptiness, from which everything arises. To refuse the idea that Lithuanians did not have a certain relation to the sea would be very unwise. But how come that the sea is found either in our archaic folklore, or the works written after the World War II (during the so called interwar period there were some attempts to write about the sea, but very scarcely)? And why is the saying „Lithuania from sea to sea“ about the statehood climax so important for Lithuanians?

Without going deeper into chronicle descriptions and the specifications of historic dates, we must acknowledge that the tribes that already lived in the united Great Duchess of Lithuania, perceived themselves as Samogitians Lithuanians, Yotvings, etc., but did not identify themselves with Curonians, in which Latvians see their origins. Namely, the ability of Curonians to build ships and sail to open sea is not an extraordinary fact to Latvians who have the state along the sea coast for hundreds of kilometers. The Lithuanian nature, though, is closer to Prussians, but a clear understanding that Prussians are „others“ is the same as that of the relationship with Curonians. Thousands of inhabitants of the continental Lithuania lived their lives without even seeing the sea, but talking about it or singing the old songs, definitely imagined such a miracle land. There are plenty of people even in present Lithuania who have not seen the sea, and even the most mobile and well-off people, to whom the trip to Palanga and Nida is piece of cake, take it as an exceptional trip, and describe it with certain emotional accents. The saying „I was by the sea“ means almost the same as the saying „I was in Riga“, meaning – far away, in a nontrivial, specific area. The relation of Lithuanians with a river or a lake is totally different. It is a comprehension of a very and understandable relation with water, and with the sea – it is quite strange and awesome. But the strangest paradox probably could be the expression well known to all Lithuanians about Lithuania from sea to sea, referring to the enlarged territory of Lithuania till the Black sea during the reign of Vytautas the Great. There are doubts that the water of the Black sea is not fresh, but all of them confirm: „in those times when Vytautas watered his horses in the Black sea“. It looks like Lithuanians turned their eyes towards the direction of the Black Sea more naturally than to the Baltic sea. And the whole of the territory from our state to the Black sea is „closer to the heart“, than the one where Prussians, Curonians lived and Vikings paid visits.

But let us get back to art. As we mentioned, the theme of the sea was complicated for Lithuanians. But the countrymen who have already seen other places, were more educated, used this topic when creating music, painting or, of course later, in the cinema, photo art. The sea occupied a significant place in the creation of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911) - he composed the symphonic poem „Sea“, painted „The Sea Sonata“ (three pictures: alegro, antante, finale), wrote about it as an exceptional element, metaphorically compared it to life, freedom, the greatness of the world. This genius is of great importance for us, therefore we focus on his creations in the mystic theme, but for Čiurlionis the sea was more an area of a fairytale, the symbol. The art critic Kristina Jokūbavičienė says: „During the Soviet times, the theme of a fisherman, a seaman was encouraged and many artists painted the sea, ships and seamen, but there is no overall marine phenomenon, the conception of a maritime country in Lithuanian art in the 20th century. (...) It is hard to explain why marine motifs are so rare in our art. (...) The theme of the sea in modern Lithuanian art, using non-traditional forms of expressions, is perceived in a figurative, wider sense, but it is also not frequent, though highly perspective. We have to state that the landscape and continental problems are dearer to us “[1].  The chairman of the Lithuanian Photo art union, Klaipeda branch, the photo artist  Remigijus Treigys is of an opinion that „the sea in Lithuanian photography is an unlimited theme“. But he also acknowledges that it is more important for those whose life is closer to the sea: „Present photo artists further from the sea , for example, Trimakas from Vilnius, conceives the sea more conceptually. On the other hand, they idolize the sea more than people from Klaipėda“[2].

The movies by Algimantas Puipa „Amžinoji šviesa“ (‘Eternal Light‘), „Moteris ir keturi jos vyrai“(„A Woman and her Four Men“), „Elzė iš Gilijos“ („Elzė from Gilija“)  – are enchanting works that have enriched the cinema art of Lithuania by special aesthetics, epic character and other exposures of maritime culture that is barely known to us. But our famous director of the movies says: „Yes, the sea is always the sign of the untamed power, but Lithuanians are not the people of a maritime country. Look at Lithuanian literature. Can you name an author whose work has a story developing in the background of the sea, as, for instance, in Norwegian literature? I think that we could have doubts whether the sea means something to our nation“[3].

Thus, literature, which took the dominating positions in the context of Lithuanian art, barely gladdened the reader with the verbalization of the powerful element. During the romantic interwar period, the sea symbolized something – the feelings, turbulent emotions, breakthrough, the seek for freedom, finally – the unlimitless of the area. During the Soviet times, songs about it started to emerge. Actually, on the Lithuanian stage the theme of the sea was quite popular, but this tendency was more determined by the emerging circumstances. The first one – Palanga, that turned into practically the only one accessible „exotic resort“, where the leaders of the Communist party as well as ordinary workers strived to spend their holidays. To stay a week in Palanga meant almost the same as what our people have in mind today when speaking about the holiday in Turkey. Not a very expensive, but having the spirit of the former fanciness, resort became the public meeting place of Lithuanians, where one could “see others and show themselves“. Besides, this tendency and aspiration for Palanga are vital today as well. Romantic meetings by the sea, watching the sunset or gathering the amber, make the composers of popular culture pay attention to the unexplored theme. The second circumstance was the city of Klaipėda, where a large number of Lithuanians came to live, and a new branch of industry appeared - sea navigation, and along with it – maritime terms that earlier were seldom used in the every day language. Despite that, the words „lighthouse‘, „pier“, „anchor“, „Neptune“ and etc., though started to be used more often not only in the media, but also in literature, still sounded to Lithuanians more as exotic coinages than everyday attributes.

If we paid attention to the works of writers, we would see that the most of the maritime literature was written by people who have an inevitable relations with the sea (captains, doctors in ships, journalists). Essays, novels, poems about the sea accumulated in the seventies, but, even this measure only shortly helped for the source to appear, which in no means could be called as feeding Lithuanian literature. The same “result” was achieved when in the thirties the editorial office of the magazine „Jūra“ (‚Sea“) encouraged the writers to take up the maritime theme and offered national premiums. But... It was an unknown and unattractive field for professionals who could not write about something which they did not experience themselves. This is an example how the theme of the sea appeared in the texts of poetry and songs of one of the most genius writers of Lithuania – Vytautas Petras Bložė. For many years this poet visited one family in Latvia. Many works were born from the tales of the hostess of the house, with the prevailing motif of the sea or the reflections of the direct comprehension of maritime culture. Let alone the texts of songs where namely Bložė underlined the theme of the sea.

The presentation should be finished with conclusions. However, they are unfavourable, if we want to prove that Lithuanians are the people of the maritime country. Geographically, Lithuania is in the list of the Baltic countries, spiritually – definitely, not. So what should we do with archaic hints about ‚the dear sea – the lagoon“ and the Fir, the wife of the grass-snake? I think that we should abandon these archetypes as the rudiments of old times, witnessing that water is a special element, indispensable in the lifestyle, rituals and belief of our forefathers. Maybe one day we will find out that our sea is an exceptional hint to the era of the emergence of the mankind.



[1] Jurga Petronytė. „Mums mielesnis žemiškas peizažas“. Vakarų ekspresas, 2006 liepos 22d.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.