A Brief History of Lithuanian Culture

The Lithuanian Nation first began to form in about 7th-8th Centuries AD, rising out of the various South-Eastern Baltic tribes. At this time, the Eastern Balts were not united, but were known under the common name, Lithuanians.

At this time, there was a common religion of sorts, centred around Shrines and Holy of Mystic areas to which significance was attached. These Pagan traditions were to continue until very late in the 19th Century, with the result of a rich modern folk culture.

Outer aggression forced Baltic Nations into more grounded states, with Lithuania rising out of the Southern, Western and Eastern Balts, and finally becoming a large eastern European state, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the middle of the 14th century. The G.D.L. was split into Lithuania Propria, the non-Christian Northwest, and the Eastern Christian Orthodox Ruthenian regions. Despite the Pagan dominance, there was a great deal of tolerance of Orthodox Christians.

From the beginning of the 15th Century, Lithuanians began studying in universities abroad, and brought back both the cultures and languages of the countries in which they studied. In the study of Latin, it became apparent that Ruthenian was very similar, giving more prestige to old Lithuania, which had previously been thought of as barbaric and pagan.

Although little was known of Lithuanian culture in Western Europe at the time, it is perhaps because of this isolation that Lithuania developed a unique architectural style, with light Byzantine tendencies.

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Protestant Reformation reached the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Although a predominantly Catholic country, there was surprisingly little violence during the reformation. The scuffles on the streets never grew into military conflicts or massacre. However, in the countryside many people responded to the reformation with a return to paganism. Even in the cities, many of the rites and superstitions began to return. The Eastern Orthodox, Jewish Tatar and Karait minorities remained as such. It is evident that the cultural roots of Lithuania are highly variegated and diverse.

Along with this were major influences of Italian Renaissance. Ironically, it was the conservatism of the Lithuanians, with their respect for a country of such ancient and high culture that led them to accept these enlightened ideas. With these outside and inside influences, the Protestant Reformation was more one of political regulation rather than a cultural movement.

As part of the Lithuanian Catholics' peaceful resistance to the Reformation, a Jesuit college was formed and nine years later was became the University of Vilnius. Many of the students and graduates soon became supporters of the Catholic Church, leading to the eventual downfall of the Reformation.

In this new Lithuania, the old vision of the world that had faded with the introduction of Christianity began to be reintroduced with the stabilization of some of the less Christian-offending cultural forms. Although many of these traditions did not survive for long, the traditional songs of Dainos and the colourful woven sash, the juosta, worn with traditional women's dress, along with various other traditions, survived through to today.

With the move into the 17th Century, came the introduction of ideas of Christianity into the Lithuanian environment, using Lithuanian cultural symbols and traditions. This movement, encouraged by the Jesuits, kept a lot of Lithuania’s cultural heritage intact.

The 18th Century saw heavy Polonization of Lithuania, along with Germanization along the eastern coast, continuing into the early 19th Century, until the first Russian occupancy. Throughout the 19th Century, a great leap of literacy levels is made, with figures increasing from minimal to 70%-80%. With the Russian authorities forbidding public use of the Lithuanian language, the Lithuanians print books abroad and smuggle them secretly to Lithuania. It is not until 1918 that Lithuania once again becomes an independent state.

Lithuania repeatedly changed its form both culturally and territorially throughout the years. Its repeated occupations and mixing of cultures have made it the veritable soup of variety that identifies Lithuanian culture.