In both Latvia and Estonia the creation of literary epics coincided with the growth of a new national consciousness in the 19th century. The epics not only reflected these national movements in the two Baltic nations—they actually helped spur them on. Latvia’s epic was Lacplesis, set in pagan Latvia of 800 years ago, around the time of the nation’s conquest by German Crusaders. Like Estonia’s Kalevipoeg epic, Latvia’s epic recounts the exploits of a giant-sized man—named Lacplesis—who endeavors to defend his homeland from assorted invaders. Lacplesis, or the Bear Slayer, is part man, part bear—which accounts for his unusually large, fuzzy ears. Otherwise a kindly figure, Lacplesis goes into action whenever his fellow Latvians are in trouble. His specialty is marauding bears, which he can slay by ripping their jaws apart with his bare hands.
The epic was written by Andrejs Pumpurs (1841-1902), who based his story line on existing Latvian folklore. The epic conjures up images of black magic, and also takes its fair share of shots at Germans. Christianizing knights from Germany invaded Latvia in the 13th century and, by the 1800s, their descendants continued to wield enormous power and influence in Latvia. At the time of the epic’s publication, 1888, there was considerable bitterness about the German dominance. The epic was partly meant to show that the downtrodden Latvians had a history and culture every bit as grand as their German overlords.
Lacplesis has had a huge impact on Latvia, influencing generations of writers, artists and politicians. The spectre of the traitor-figure Kangers is still raised when Latvians speak of Soviet-era turncoats. The government has revived the pre-war Order of Lacplesis, the nation’s highest award for service to Latvia. Streets are named after Latvia’s epic hero, and many shops take their names from characters in the epic.
The following rendition of the Latvian epic is by Rita Laima Krievina. It is based on her 1988, English-language translation of the epic, which, in its original form, is in poetic verse.
In the blue vault of the sky, in the castle of the God of Thunder, the Baltic gods gather to give audience to the Father of Fate. Here, in the place where eternal light resides, he tells them the story of Christ. He tells them that Christ’s teachings have been accepted by nations of the world. But, the Father of Fate explains, people perverted those teachings to their own evil ends. And now these very people have decreed that the Christian faith will be brought to the lands of the Baltic.
The God of Thunder speaks up, warning that those who have taken it upon themselves to carry the religion of Christ forth intend to occupy the Baltic region and make slaves of its people. He vows that he will do what he can to help the peoples of the Baltic defend themselves against these foreigners and their evil designs.
The gods and goddesses huddle amongst themselves and discuss how they can give assistance to the Baltic mortals. Staburadze, who lives in a crystal palace in the depths of the mighty Daugava River, comes forward to tell the other deities of her encounter with a youth whom she saved from death. She would like to keep him with her beneath the river lest he return to the surface and turn into stone. The God of Thunder, however, proclaims that the youth has been blessed and that he is destined for glory.
Some time later, the youth leaves the waters beneath the river. The chieftain Lielvarde adopts the youth as his own son. One day a vicious bear attacks the chieftain. The youth intervenes and wrestles the bear to the ground. Grabbing the beast by the jaws, he rips the bear apart with nothing but his hands. The old chieftain is amazed by the boy’s strength and courage, and so he decides to reveal what has been said by the gods about the destiny of the impressive young man: he is to become a hero of his people. Henceforth, the youth is known as Lacplesis, the Bear Slayer. The chieftain provides him with a fine horse, a sword, shield, silver spurs and a marten-fur hat. The Bear Slayer then rides off to gain wisdom in the ancient Burtnieku school of wisdom.
On his way to Burtnieku, the Bear Slayer asks for lodgings at the castle of Aizkraukle, which stands in a desolate spot, far from the shores of the Daugava River. It is a place of notorious gloom. Here the Bear Slayer encounters Spidala, the gorgeous but evil daughter of the chieftain of Aizkraukle. The Bear Slayer, in young manhood, is enraptured by the sultry, dark-eyed Spidala. But to his horror, he discovers that she has made a pact with the devil.
One night, the Bear Slayer secretly follows Spidala into the Devil’s Pit. He draws close to a large house. Inside, he witnesses evil that is ghastlier than he can imagine. He sees the decadent Spidala and other young witches undress and then cavort with wicked demons. They partake in a bloody feast of children’s hands and squirming eels. The feast is then disrupted by the old Devil, Crooked Cap himself. He explodes into the chamber on a golden carriage that is pulled by a fire-breathing dragon.
The demonic bunch then encircle a trembling mortal: it is Kangars, deemed by his people to be a holy man. But, as the Bear Slayer quickly discovers, Kangars is the most despicable and lowly of traitors. Kangars is spared from being chewed up by the Devil’s dragon by promising to disavow his god and to betray his people, condemning them to slavery at the hands of the foreigners now heading across the Baltic Sea.
The Bear Slayer has had enough of this hideous scene. He slips out of the house to make his way back to Aizkraukle castle. But an old witch sees the Bear Slayer and tells Spidala to dispose of him. She pursues him on a river, where the Bear Slayer’s log is sucked down into the whirlpool of Staburags—to what should be a certain death. But the gods spare him. The Bear Slayer wakes up unscathed in the crystal chambers of Staburadze, where he encounters the beautiful Laimdota, the daughter of the wise old chieftain, Burtnieks. She has brains to match her physical charms! It is love at first sight.
Eventually, the Bear Slayer must take leave of the beautiful Laimdota. Back on the river, the Bear Slayer meets Koknesis-another youth of legendary strength—and they become friends. Together, they journey back to the Aizkraukle castle, where the evil Spidala is shocked to find that the Bear Slayer is still alive.
After some time, the two friends, the Bear Slayer and Koknesis, depart for Burtnieku castle to learn the wisdom of the ancients.
Three soul-mates come together: the traitor Kangars, the hell-bent Spidala and Dietrich, a German priest whose ship is saved on the stormy sea by the Latvian Livi tribe. Little do the Livi people know, they have actually saved their future oppressors from death!
Some years pass. The Bear Slayer and his friend Koknesis continue their studies at Burtnieku castle. They do not know that the traitor Kangars has given word to the Estonian giant Kalapuisis [called Kalevipoeg in the Estonian epic/ed.] that this is a good time to pillage and plunder Latvian villages. Kangars and the evil Spidala are certain that the Bear Slayer will shrink from challenging the invincible Estonian giant, knowing he would meet his death.
As Kalapuisis goes on a rampage, the old chief of Burtnieki summons warriors to face the Estonian tyrant. He promises his daughter Laimdota’s hand in marriage to the man who defeats the mighty giant. The Bear Slayer, who is head over heels in love with Laimdota, leaps at the chance. He goes to face the Estonian giant and roundly defeats him. Later, the two make peace. Kalapuisis says that the whole Baltic area is under threat and that they must unite their forces to defend their lands against the outsiders.
The Bear Slayer’s marriage with Laimdota is sealed when he spends a night in the old Burtnieku castle. At the castle, he defeats yet another ghoulish monster. An old castle and its storehouses of wisdom subsequently rise to the surface after laying for centuries under the lake’s dusky waters. The young lovers immerse themselves in the ancient scriptures, which tell the secrets of creation.
Their bliss is cut short when Laimdota and the Bear Slayer’s friend Koknesis are kidnapped and then spirited away on a ship bound for Germany. The vessel is also carrying the Livi chieftain Kaupa to Germany and then on to Rome, where he is to learn more about the Christian faith. This is all a devilish scheme of the evil Spidala and the traitor Kangars, and it nearly crushes the spirit of the Bear Slayer. The villains lie to the Bear Slayer, telling him that Laimdota and his best friend have been lovers all along. Shattered, the Bear Slayer returns to his father’s home, partly believing that the story is true. He then resolves to sail north to find the sublime daughter of Ziemelis. Perhaps this northern beauty will cool his feverish head and help him forget the sorrow that is raging in his heart.
Grand Rome, ancient Rome,
Where the Holy Father lived,
There he ordered the crusades
To conquer the land of St. Mary.
The Holy Father had deemed the Baltic to be St. Mary’s land;
The sinning knights’ sins were absolved by him.
In Rome, Christian emissaries plot the subjugation of the Baltic pagans. The Holy Father receives the priest Dietrich and the Livi chieftain Kaupa, who is enchanted with the riches laid out before him. He is also overwhelmed by doubt about his own gods. Kaupa promises to return home and to be christened together with his people. Back in his own country, hundreds of people toil, building the fortress of Riga and its somber cathedral, from which so much misery spills into the surrounding lands. Priests and knights spread a wave of terror and oppression across the land.
The lovely Laimdota has been locked up in a cloister somewhere in Germany. She is rescued from the lusty advances of a German count by the Bear Slayer’s friend, Koknesis. The two make their escape, boarding a ship bound for the north.
Meanwhile, the Bear Slayer has sailed even further northwards. At the edge of the sky, he encounters the legendary daughter of Ziemelis. Her eyes are like the color of the sky on a clear day in the north. The astonishing beauty is surrounded by her weapons of war, but she is kind and offers the Bear Slayer and his ship’s crew a chance to rest. The exhausted wayfarers are led to a fabulous garden where they rest in the glow of a flame that shines up from the center of the earth. But the Bear Slayer becomes bored. He announces that it is time to pack up and return from whence they came. The lovely daughter of Ziemelis warns him: his trip will be full of dangers. He will have to take special care to avoid the Island of Dog Muzzles, which is full of blood-thirsty creatures.
But the Bear Slayer and his ship’s crew do come across the Island of Dog Muzzles—where the hero barely survives an attack by vile beings. The weary crew finally make it to the edge of the earth. One of the Bear Slayer’s last heroic deeds before his final battle back home is to hack off the heads of three many-headed demons on the Last Enchanted Island, where he is miraculously reunited with Laimdota and his friend Koknesis. It is here that he also manages to release a repentant Spidala from her pact with Satan, whereby she and Koknesis become lovers.
The Bear Slayer and Laimdota, and Koknesis and Spidala are wed. The festivities, which take place on Midsummer Day, are overshadowed by a distant, fateful storm which is brewing misery for the Baltic peoples that will last for 700 years. One by one, the Livi and other tribes succumb to the German crusaders. In a last-ditch effort to defend their freedom, the Bear Slayer unites his people against the alien forces and succeeds in driving them all the way back to the walls of Riga.
Victory, however, is short-lived, for the air is heavy with deceit.
A bitter and brooding Kangars, forsaken by his own kind, is sought out by the German priest Dietrich. The traitor Kangars then beseeches the Devil to learn the secret of the Bear Slayer’s great strength. What is its source? What he learns is that the strength of the giant, the greatest hero of the land, is in his bearish ears!
Shortly thereafter, a band of roving knights, come to the Bear Slayer’s castle. A mysterious knight dressed in black steps forward and challenges the Bear Slayer to a fight. The Dark Knight knows about the source of the hero’s strength, and in the course of the ensuing duel, he duly lops off the Bear Slayer’s ears, infuriating the great giant. These forces of good and evil, the Bear Slayer and the Dark Knight, engage themselves in a pitched battle. Finally, as they swipe at each other and then wrestle to the ground, they both tumble over a cliff above the mighty Daugava River, crashing into the waters below, and vanishing underneath the dark waves forever.
Rita Laima Krievina works at the Delegation of the European Commission in Latvia.