Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Hill of Witches

   Since it's that time of year, I have been thinking of May eve.  I've always heard a lot about Bealtaine and the things that went on in Ireland at that time of year.  If you read old Irish stories, it doesn't take long to notice a pattern -- it seems like practically every strange or remarkable happening takes place either on Bealtaine (May eve) or Samhain (Halloween).  So that is all very familiar -- familiar in a marvellous and unfamiliar way, of course -- but what I don't know much about at all is Walpurgis night.  Both of these are very interesting to me, since my father is German, and my mother's side of the family is from Ireland, and I love to think of my family of long ago dancing around outside on spring nights.
   Irish things are very accessible to an English speaker these days, and I was even lucky enough to get a scholarship while I was in university to go off and live in the Ghaeltacht  (Irish-language speaking area of Ireland) for a summer, to make things even more accessible... but German things are vaguer for me.  I tried to learn German at school, so I could understand what was going on at my Oma and Opa's house, but all my standard school German was nothing on their Schwäbish dialect, and as a child I just got discouraged and gave up.  So, sadly any books written about things like Walpurgis night have not been read by me... and while I know that there was a saint Walpurga and that witches were said to dance on hills, I don't know much else.
   But with all my day dreaming, my thoughts turned to a place that I had been before... the Curonian Spit, a long, bridge-like stretch of sand that is half in Lithuania and half in Russia these days.  It is a magical place where sand dunes grow taller than pine trees...

  (if you click, you can see the dunes above the trees in the far away part of the photo)

and where you can bike all day through forests, along beaches, and past the brightly painted wooden houses of fishermen.  And, it should be mentioned, that the Curonian spit had an impressive beginning as well, as legend says that it was created by Neringa, a giantess.  Of course, I should mention that tourism has definitely taken its toll on the spit... lots of resorts and expensive hotels have cropped up filled with people who don't mind the signs which tell them to keep to the paths, and off of the very ecologically sensitive dunes.

   But the reason that I've led you down this winding, circling path of a post, is to bring you along the spit to the Hill of Witches (Raganų Kalnas in Lithuanian), in the village of Juodkranté.

This deeply forested hill used to be the site of midsummer gatherings, but now is home to 71 wooden statues depicting characters from Lithuanian folklore.  The statues were created in the 1970s by artists drawing on a long local history of wood carving.

Paths wend their way up and around the hill with statues emerging unexpectedly at a turn in the path, or just a little way down a lane, making it feel as if each meeting with a sculpture is an encounter rather than just a passing view.

   True to it's name, there are a number of witches to be found here...

 but also dragons,

and even thunder,

and the gateway to hell.

   While I was looking around for more info about the Hill of Witches, I found an interesting story about one of the statues.  According to the story, the devil sometimes attends dances, and when he does he takes on the appearance of a regular man.  I suppose he still had hooves hiding inside of his shoes though, because the way to find him out was to step on his foot... an empty shoe would give him away.

   Maybe you can just make out that in the statue on the left, there is a man and woman dancing, and the woman is stepping on the man's foot?
   The story goes on to say that the woman, realizing who she was with, decided to trick the devil.  At the end of the evening when he asked her to join him in his carriage, she replied that she would love to, except her skirt wasn't proper.  When he supplied her a fine skirt, she said her jacket wasn't nice enough, and so on... until dawn came and the cock crowed and made the devil, but not his presents,vanish.
   While I was there I remember really wishing that I knew what stories were behind the statues, since I suppose that some of them are meant to be instantly recognizable, and others have labels carved into them.  But even without the official stories, they are very evocative, and the forest is gorgeous, so it's easy to dream them up.
   In addition to the statues pictured here, there are many others, and a couple of people have posted photos here and here.  There were some statues that had moving parts as well, and a few that were meant for children to play on... like the one below.  If only all slides were as enchanted as that one!


  1. These are just wonderful! Thanks for showing us :)
    I'd have loved a slide like that as a child too :)

  2. Beautiful! Gosh... so many places to explore. After Rima's post about the mossy oak wood in England and now this... I better sell a boatload of paintings to get myself across the wide blue sea to explore all the mythic lands of my ancestors. Also love your painting in the earlier post - the photo came out well enough I think, to get a good sense of it. Lovely.

  3. Heisann!

    Thank you for telling about this strange forest with so many great wooden figures in Lithuania.
    This is new to me. It's always great to get my knowledge expanded.
    And I thought immediately of Marija Gimbuta's research work. This lady presented some interesting wisdom about female culture.
    Valborg's night is not marked in Norway, but in Sweden and Denmark, strange!
    Have a nice evening...

  4. This Hill of the Witches is a wonderful place. So many stories represented, and we know so ltlle of them. There is so much more to discover in the world. Thanks a lot for this post, enjoyed it very much.

  5. WOW! this is a place of magic! i love the moment when i first discover something like this, you have made me such a happy child today!
    i want that slide! please?
    and the gate to hell is really mesmerizing, actually. i feel better knowing that what i thought were just bad dance moves are actually tricks of self-protection. my subconscious was always smarter than i gave it credit for, haha.
    what a treasure...thank you!

  6. Heisann!
    Thank you for the Happy oneyearbirthday- greeting! I think I will spend a little less time by the Mac in tne coming months. The evenings become lighter and longer, and it´s time to spend more time outside.
    I will continue "Primstaven, ABC theme and monthly-posts", but beyond that I'm going to take a few days off now and then- but the blog will celebrate several anniversary the following years.
    And I will enjoy following you ;:OD)

  7. Oooooh Jodi, what a treat, I'm glad someone had the wonderful idea of getting those artists together and creating this enchanting hill. Thanks for leading us there*!*

  8. Hello,

    I'm so pleased to find that you all enjoyed the photos! It really is such a lovely place.

    Also, Valerianna: *do* sell lots of paintings and go over to see it for yourself! Best of luck with that!! And thank you for liking my painting too.

    And I'll be sure to look into Marija Gimbuta's writings then, Vilt og vakkert. Thanks!

    And Zoe, I was very happy to have a new excuse in my pocket in case I should ever step on anyone's foot. But, upon reflection, it's probably just adding insult to injury if you then tell someone you suspected them of being the devil. Or maybe it's a compliment... I guess it's all a matter of who's foot it is.
    Anyway, I love stories where people outsmart the devil, so it was a great find! In Breton folklore there's a great story where this man called Sans Souci (No Worries) outsmarts death. He also connives his way into heaven later on. Too good!

  9. Hi, thanks for putting up these pics, what a magical place!

    I've nominated you for the Life is Good award on my blog. Hope you feel like joining in!

    Really enjoy the blog,
    Nellie x

  10. Hi Nellie,

    I'm so glad you liked the photos. I'm supposed to be leaving and I'm just about to get kicked off the computer, but I'll definitely go and check out your blog when I get back to Paris! Thanks for the nomination.

  11. Lovely photos Jodi :)

    The Hill of the Witches is associated with pine trees, but so too Siluva where stands the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 'siluva' from the word 'silas' which seems to mean a pine forest. So we may deduce that the pine tree was to some extent a sacred tree in pagan Lithuania, and it is interesting to see that today it holds both positive Marian and negative 'witch' associations; and beyond both the tree represents the female gender (wheres the oak represents the male, for example). It makes me wonder what the Hill of Witches actually was before it became widely known thus in the comparatively modern period?

    A magical location :)




  12. Well, it's still pretty magical, I think! I wish I had taken more photos there, of the landscape as well, because it was really an uncommonly gorgeous forest.
    What you said about the trees is really interesting... thanks! I would like to think that pine trees were sacred in pagan Lithuania, because they are blessed with quite a quantity of them!

  13. You take good pictures, love the Hill of Witches. We were brought there by our tour guide in 2010 and loved every piece of wood carving. Thanks for posting.