Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
On my second visit to Latvia recently, I was introduced to the Latvian national epic, Lāčplēsis. Written by Andrejs Pumpurs in the late-19th century, the epic poem puts together traditional legends about its eponymous hero, whose name in Latvian means “the bear-slayer.”
I claim no particular knowledge about Latvian history and culture. But what strikes me about Lāčplēsis and to some extent Latvia itself is the sense of contradiction. One contradiction that has fascinated me is linguistic: the Latvian language and its sibling Lithuanian are the two living languages most closely related to Proto-Indo-European. Listen to a Lithuanian or a Latvian speak, and you are hearing the best modern approximation of what the distant pre-historic ancestors of Europeans (and Indians and Iranians and others) might have sounded like thousands of years ago. Yet despite its antiquity, the Latvian language was not attested in written sources until the 16th century.
So the tale of Lāčplēsis strikes me with its contradictions. “The Bear-Slayer” is so-called because as a young man, he killed a bear by tearing apart its jaw with his bare hands. But it turns out that in reality Lāčplēsis is half-man and half-bear, his mother having been a bear. And although Lāčplēsis has mostly human features, his ears are those of a bear. In fact, Lāčplēsis derives his great strength from those ears, so that if an enemy cuts them off, then he loses his strength.
The resemblance to the Biblical Samson is striking. Samson gets his strength from his hair, and his wife Delilah betrays him and cuts off his hair, so that Samson, captured by the Philistines, eventually kills himself and them by bringing down the building. When Lāčplēsis fights his enemies, the German Crusader knights, the Latvian holy man Kangars betrays the secret of his strength to the Germans, so that his adversary “the Black Knight” cuts off his ears. With his last remaining strength, Lāčplēsis throws himself and the Black Knight into the Daugava River.
And the struggle between Lāčplēsis and the Black Knight seems once again emblematic of this contradiction between the old and the new.
Lāčplēsis is Latvia’s national hero, but he is a hero of the past, of the old and primitive Latvia now lost in the mist of time. His semi-beastly nature demonstrates that primitiveness, as though he were a missing link in the evolution of man from our animal cousins. And the symbol of the bear has always represented for Indo-Europeans a kind of elemental and terrifying strength. The English word “berserk” refers to an ancient Viking practice of wearing bearskin in order to assume the strength of the bear.
(Digression: In many Indo-European languages, the modern words for “bear” are euphemisms, because earlier peoples were afraid to speak the animal’s name. The Latvian word “lācis” means “trampler,” which replaced an earlier name that ancient Latvians dared not speak. The Russian word is “medved,” which means “the honey-seeker,” replacing another old name of terror. And the English word “bear” really means “brown,” another euphemism replacing the lost Old English name, cf., e.g., “Bjørn” in Norwegian and similar words in other Germanic languages. The true Indo-European name for “bear” should be something like “hrtkos,” like “árktos” in ancient Greek, whence the name “Arthur.”)
And in this, Latvia’s national epic written seven centuries after Christianization, the hero is an animalistic pagan fighting on behalf of the old gods, and the villains are the Christian Germans on their “Northern Crusade” wishing to replace them with Christ. Those villains include Bishop Albert, founder of Latvia’s capital city Riga and the man who laid the foundation stone of the cathedral that stands at that city’s center.
It’s supposed to be the story of a nation. It reads to me also like the story about a soul at war with itself.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."