Who were the Old Prussians? – Part 1

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We may have heard of Prussians, and may know that the third language in the unique Baltic branch of Indoeuropean languages is called Old Prussian. But who were they, and how are they related to Lithuanians?

History tells us they died out during conflicts between two medieval European cultures – Christian and pagan – and were physically destroyed or assimilated. According to author Agris Dzenis (on the website Deep Baltic, 2016), the Latvian and Lithuanian people have the Old Prussians to thank more than anyone else for their existence. Under the cover of their heroic resistance against the crusaders, which lasted for almost the whole of the 13th century, the foundations of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were laid, which, in turn, became an obstacle to the mass inflow of crusaders and German colonists into the territory of Latvia.

The Old Prussians belonged to the Western Baltic group of tribes, which also included the Curonians, Samogitians, Skalvians, Galindians and Yotvingians. Around 3000 years before the birth of Christ, the Old Prussians broke away from the first Indo-European peoples and entered the land where they would live right up until their eventual disappearance.

Three gods of the ancient Balts

Today the area where the Old Prussians lived is divided between Russia (the province of Kaliningrad) and Poland (the provinces of Elbląg and Olsztyn).

The 1st-century Roman historian Tacitus’s work Germania was the first text to mention the Western Balts. Tacitus called  them as “Aesti”, which means “easterners”, and this is also how their western neighbours, the Germans, referred to the Balts. The Aesti (aisčiai in Lithuanian) were described as industrious farmers and peace-loving people, who collected amber from the seashore. To them it seemed worthless, and they were astonished to receive payment for it – but in ancient Rome it was valued more highly than gold, and brought the regions inhabited by Balts to the attention of the civilized people of Europe.

The richest region was the area inhabited by the Old Prussians – Sembia (now the Zemlandsky Peninsula in Kaliningrad). From the lands of the Balts, amber arrived in Rome, mostly through German intermediaries. In exchange for these “stones of the sun”, the Balts received iron, weapons, Roman coins and jewellery. At the start of the common era, one Roman of noble birth travelled with his retinue to the regions from where the amber came, and brought back so much that the gladiatorial arena and the fighters’ weapons were decorated with jewellery.

The Prussian word “Precun” appears for the first time in a 9th-century text, along with other Old Prussian words: “Pruzzi”, “Brus”, “Borussi” and “Brutheni”. The 11th-century chronicler Adam of Bremen characterized them as very humane people (“homines humanissimi“), who often saved seafarers from shipwrecks and pirate attacks. The Prussians would not accept any among them being a master over others, and regarded as worthless furs, gold and expensive cloth.

Some of the words and names used in describing the Old Prussian tribes will be familiar to Lithuanians. Those tribes inhabited eleven regions (in the Old Prussian language, “tautos“), whose names are mentioned in writings from the 13th century: Semba, Nātanga, Nadrava, Pamede, Vārme, Bārta, Skalva, Sudāva, Galinda and Kulma. Modern historians do not include the Skalvians, Sudavians or Yotvingians, or Galindians as Old Prussians, but consider them separate Western Baltic tribes. Each region was governed by a ruler and an assembly of respected nobles. The Old Prussian lands together formed a federation of tribes, and in cases of war would usually work together, although instances of internal conflict within regions were not infrequent.

According to an Old Prussian legend, the first leaders were two brothers, Prūtens and Vudevuts, who arrived, together with many others, from overseas in the old times. Vudevuts was elected as the the krīvu kirvaits: the Prussians’ highest earthly leader, an intermediary between gods and humans. The krīvu kirvaits (in Lithuanian it is written krivų krivaitis), also known as the krīvu krivs, is mentioned in many old texts, and the Teutonic Order chronicler Peter of Duisberg wrote that the krīvs was obeyed not only by the Prussians, but also by other Baltic tribes, in the same way that the Christian peoples obeyed the Pope. The krīvu kirvaits’ seal was a crooked stick – a krivule. This seal was carried also by the krivs‘ messengers, who were sent all over the Old Prussian lands to notify the people of the high priest’s orders.

High priest – krivų krivaitis Prūtens (Prutenis) ordered the Prussians to pray to and pay homage with sacrifices to the three high gods – Patrimps (Patrimpas in Lithuanian, god of land, harvest, water, and the sea), Parkuns (Perkūnas, god of thunder) and Patolis (Pikulas or Pikuolis, god of the underworld). Images of these gods were placed into the hollow of a huge, evergreen oak tree, which grew in the main holy place of the Old Prussians, Rāmava (Romuva in Lith.) or Rīkoita in the region of Nadrava. In Rāmava lived the krīvu kirvaits himself, and here also met the Prussian nobles who decided all of the most important questions facing the people. It should be noted that place names with the linguistic root “ram” are found in all of the Baltic countries (in Latvia, there are Rāmava, Rāmuļi and Rāmnieki), which makes us think that the word “Rāmava” (“place of peace”; Romuva in Lithuanian) was generally used to indicate a place holy to the Old Balts. Details of the sacred groves of the Old Prussians can be found in a number of chronicles. These were places where people neither cut down trees, nor mowed the grass, nor hunted animals; people were not even allowed to go there without making a sacrifice to the gods. National meetings, in which decisions were taken about questions of war and peace and criminals were judged, also took place in the sacred groves.

(To be continued)