Edited by Doris Stochmann & Jens Hendrik Koudal
Danish Folklore archives & Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997.
Harvest Traditions and Ritual Folk Songs in Lithuania
Traditionally, the primary occupation of the Lithuanian people had been agriculture, and all the customs, traditions and daily habits have been related to and influenced by agriculture. In ancient times, as we know, heathen Lithuanians worshiped nature and its forces. Their gods and goddesses -- Saule (the Sun), Perkunas (the Thunder), Menulis ( the Moon) , Ausrine (the Morning Star) and Zeme (the Earth) were the influences that affected the crops and livestock on which their lives depended.1 If the rye harvest was plentiful, the whole family would have enough bread and no one would go hungry. So the harvest traditions are among the most archaic in Lithuania.
The rye harvest was as a rule women's work in Lithuania, and this is reflected in all the main traditions and rituals. The men's task was to bring the harvest home later, and here we know nothing of any related rituals. The whole female part of the family used to come to the fields to reap the rye harvest. There were young unmarried girls, wives, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, other relatives, neighbours etc. The pregnant women normally had to work as a group. Only after the scythe appeared do we hear of men talking part in the reaping of the rye in the fields.
The first handful of rye. As the first step in the work, the mistress of the farmstead would cut the first handful of the rye. There was a custom of placing a magic stone as an altar on the top of the neighbouring hill. The first handful of rye was put into fire as an offering to the god Perkunas, thanking him for saving the harvest from the storms and hail of the year. 2 Since ancient times the first handful of rye ceremonies had been performed in the first part of the week, on Monday or at the latest on Tuesday. All the women used to dress in white linen clothes and headdresses. The mistress would have a special meal -- while homemade curd cheese -- and the master would have a jug of home-made beer in his hands. Everyone would enjoy a short party after the festive first-handful-of-rye ceremony in the fields. Songs would be sung too, but they were not directly related to the ritual; they would be popular, joyful drinking songs.
Interesting ancient rituals were performed in the Dzukija region (South East Lithuania, not far from the Belorussian border), where even as late as the beginning of the 20th century the mistress would place the first handful of rye on the hill, turn towards the sun and bow silently a few times, while the other women remained silent, their faces also turned to the Sun as the tutelary goddess of the whole harvest.3 Only after these very serious rituals would people start the long, weary reaping work.
There were special morning, midday and evening ritual songs for rye cutting in the Dzukija region. The songs were considered as important as the traditional linen clothes (which had to be white and clean), special tools (sickles sharpened for this purpose alone), special meals (special curd cheese and beer not consumed every day) and the traditional customs of neibhbourly assistance. No one would sing ritual rye cutting songs at other times or in other places.