Saturday, November 21, 2009

© Eso Antons Benjamins

I call the picture on the right "The Last of Johns". It is taken from the photo album "Jāņu Foto Albums", Norden AB,  2007, p 37. The photo is from the LNVM collection. Taken on "Johns Day" in 1927 at Daugavpils, Rudzetu estate. The LNVM Collection captions the photo "A Poor Man on Johns Day". Other photos are snapshots of work in progress at "Black John, a Temple for the Missing Forests" near the writer's home.

57 The People of Johns (I)

Circumstances have kept the people of Latvia almost invisible. This is not only the case during the founding of Latvia as a nation and the writing of the Latvian Constitution, when self-awareness ought to be at its hight. The reason for the “invisibility” of the Latvian people is rooted in the distant past. However, if the roots before the 12th century are hid for lack of records, from about the 12th and 13th centuries on the roots may be inferred from peoples sharing similar circumstances.

Caterina Bruschi, a lecturer at Birmingham University, has just published an innovative account of the Catholic Inquisition in Languedoc, now part of France. Her account takes into consideration the point of view of not only the inquisitors, but also the “heretics”. “The Wandering Heretics of Languaedoc”, published by the Cambridge University Press this year, is a study of the testimony of what Bruschi calls “non-conformist itinerants”, and how their depositions were effected not only by fear, but their dissent from the Catholic orthodoxy as well.  As the readers of my blogs know, I never call the name of so-called “Christianity” other than “neo-Christianity”. That is to say, what neo-Christians generally refer to as orthodox Christianity, I call it neo-Christianity. Therefore, in my parlance, the Christians of old who dissented from orthodoxy are what I call “arch-Christians”.

My interest in the Cathars of Languaedoc was first aroused, when it became increasingly likely to me that the fate of the Latvian “Children of Johns” (Jāņu bērni) was in some way related to the fate of the Cathars, the Waldesians, the Bogomils, in fact to all the confessions, which in one way or another could be imagined to have a connection with the name “John”—of which the Latvian “Jahnis” is a cognate.

As the reader probably knows, the Latvian “Children of John” (their festival is celebrated on Midsummer’s Eve) are a complete mystery today—especially to the Latvians themselves. This is in spite of the fact that almost all Latvians celebrate “Johns Eve” on an annual basis and have done so since time immemorial. The closest explanation for “Johns” that one comes across in public is that Johns Day is either “St. John the Baptist’s Day” or a common name’s day for John, the latter because it is the Latvian tradition to celebrate one’s name almost as if it were one’s birthday. In any event, if the mystery of whence “John’s Eve” was as much of a mystery in the 1930s as it is today, at least in the 1930s many country people still knew how to sing “the Songs of John”. Today after the holocaust of the Soviet occupation only the refrain “lihgo” (līgo) and perhaps a few phrases of once hundreds of songs remain part of popular memory. One noteworthy phrase exclaims “Ai, Johnny, son of God”; another tells us that “Johnny comes (?returns) every year”. The first phrase connects John to neo-Christianity, the other to antiquity, the latter because the words “every year” suggest that the origin of the festival is to be sought in antiquity. These remembrances are in our day continued only by community choirs (such as may remain) however, and it is only through such reminders that the community remains cognizant of Johns.

Bruschi does not mention in her book the “Children of Johns”. Nevertheless, she quotes an inquisitor who refers to the efforts of the Inquisition in Prussia, a region that in his days belonged to a tribe of Baltic people. Humbert of Romans, Dominical Master General from 1254-1264, writes from Paris:

“O, how much your charity would rejoice with me over the holy fervours of our brothers, if you knew how many of them, from assorted provinces [!], offered themselves with most fervent desire to the hardships of this task [of conversion]….” Though Bruschi does not quote Humbert in full, she ads the name of Prussia in her analysis of the phrase: “…the foreign missions here referred to [are]… the Cumans, Maronites, Tartars, Georgians, Saracens and Prussians.” For my part, I imagine many other tribes of the Balts were exposed to similar “fervours”, and know that all such “charity” exacted blood drawn by the sword.

Wherefrom the neo-Christian violence?

We should recall that when Humbert wrote his letter, it from the time that was before the Avignon papacy (1309-1378) . We should also recall that the pope moved to Rome only in 1378. There was no pope in Rome before that time whatever the neo-Christian themselves may claim. Moreover, the Crusade against the Cathars of Lanquedoc ended with a Cathar holocaust in 1230, long before Rome existed as the seat of either neo-Christianity or the Pope. At thaT time, neo-Christianity was but an organization advancing the secular interests of certain kings and princes. Indeed, if one takes seriously the need for a revision of historical chronology, place names and locations (as per Anatoly Fomenko with whose views I generally agree), we cannot exclude the possibility that Humbert of Romans is a “Roman” from Byzantium, the capital of which, Constantinople, was sacked by proto-neo-Christians during the 4th Crusade in 1204.

The Balts—the Prussians, Courlanders, Semigalians, Latgalians, various tribes of the Lithuanians, etc.—were all subdued by the Germans (the French and the Brits joining in the early years of the Inquisition). As a consequence, some Balts assimilated themselves to the ways of the Germans or, if you will, of the West, the invaders, sooner than later. A major tool that forced the assimilation was neo-Christianity’s ability to bringing “the good news” through the above mentioned fervourous mouths of Dominican brothers and their ability to advertise their views through writing, which enabled them not only tokeep records, but to write and rewrite laws as they found it necessary.

The arch-Christian nature of the “Children of Johns” of Latvians has survived only to the extent that what was once the most holy day among the Balts, Midsummer’s Eve, has survived as a celebration, a festival. Way back then, I expect that the teachers of the Balts, “the wandering heretics”, were were killed or otherwise silenced. The martyrdom of the Johns broke the links between the various Baltic communities, leaving them isolated.

In their early days, the communities of the Balts lived mostly along the shores of rivers, lakes, the seashore, and whatever natural clearings there were to be found. Centuries later, after the various Indo-European tribes that settled Europe  began to form what we now know as “the nations of Europe”, nation-forming engulfed the Balts in the wars of many princes. The Balts often took refuge by fleeing deeper into the surrounding forests and swamps, and became  “the People of the Forest” (mežvides ļaudis). Of course, these seekers of safer harbors took the songs and their memories of the Johns Eve festival with them.

Eventually, the Balts of Livonia (one of the regions that was believed to have been native to the Balts) rediscovered their existence—that is to say, they become conscious of themselves as a larger-than-life community again. This was about the 16th century. Not surprisingly, such self-consciousness reawakened only when it was safe again to gather at markets and hold song festivals. This is when the Johns’ or “lihgo” songs reemerged and came to play an important role in the discovery of the Latvians as a people again. Somehow, the songs of Johns Eve had survived.


Asterisk & Notes of Interest:

On the theme of “more-equal-than-others”

An eyeball view of Latvia (and its forests)  While some sources claim that Latvia is covered by a 47% forest cover, none of it is old growth forests. The Latvian news media provides little coverage of the rapid pace of deforestation. Anecdotal evidence of deforestation in progress from a neighbor of mine: “This fall there were far less mushrooms than last year, because the forests we used to go to are gone.”

These blogs tend to be a continuum of an idea or thought, which is why—if you are interested in what you have read—you are encouraged to consider reading the previous blog and the blog hereafter.

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