Film Review: Baltic Tribes

Baltic Tribes (Latvian title Baltu Ciltis) is a 2018 Latvian drama-documentary that follows the exploits of a hapless Danish merchant named Lars in the opening decades of the 13th century, as he ends up visiting all of the pagan peoples of the medieval Baltic. The film is partly narrated by Lars himself and partly by a second narrator who presents significant historic sites (accompanied by CGI reconstructions) and facts about Baltic history and religion. Lars begins his journey in the declining Prussian port of Truso, where he witnesses a Christian priest beheaded for accidentally gathering firewood in a sacred forest. He then travels into the land of the Galindians, where he trespasses on Galindian hospitality and is wounded. After journeying to the Lithuanian capital at Kernavė he heads into Latvia and encounters the Livonian Swordbrethren, arriving eventually at the city of Riga, but he is captured by Oselians in a raid and taken into slavery. Sold eventually to Samogitians, he ends up participating in the Battle of Saulė (1236) where he is killed.

Imagined Baltic gods © HighOctane Pictures

Baltic Tribes is a very well-produced film with excellent and creative cinematography and strong production values. The film’s second narrator is perhaps its most jarring feature (at least in the English-language version of the film), intruding on the narrative to impart historical and cultural information. The quality of that information, however, is generally impressive, and accompanied by wonderfully creative Terry Gilliamesque moving medieval illuminations that, among other things, imagine how the Baltic gods might have been depicted in a medieval manuscript. The film has an impressive array of historical and archaeological consultants, including Prof. Juris Urtāns, Prof. Marek Jagodziński (the leading authority on the medieval emporium of Truso), and Prof. Vykintas Vaitkevičius (the leading authority on the sacred sites of Lithuania).

The film makes a good attempt to portray Baltic religious rites in a way faithful to the surviving texts, even making clear when the depiction of a rite was based on the descriptions of medieval and early modern authors or on folklore and tradition. All texts describing the Baltic tribes are problematic on account of their Christian and generally hostile provenance, and they have to be treated with a great deal of caution. For instance, several texts claim that some Baltic tribes practised human sacrifice and no mention of this – probably false – claim is made in the film. On the other hand, the film does portray the Galindians as polygamous (another contentious claim), while the portrayal of licentious Midsummer rites is based on recent Lithuanian and Latvian folk traditions rather than any evidence we actually have for how the pagan Balts celebrated the Summer Solstice.

The film does a good job of portraying the complexity of the relationship between the Livonian Swordbrethren and the Latgalians, but there are times when Baltic Tribes ventures into highly speculative territory – such as the suggestion that Baltic earth and sea goddesses are of Finnic origin. The character of Lars experiences doubts about the relationship between Christianity and paganism and about his own Christian identity, although he never goes so far as to abandon Christianity. ‘Everything was permeated with the divine, and I wondered if I was truly the greatest being on earth, or merely a part of something greater’, Lars reflects after his experience of Midsummer Rituals in the Daugava River, presumably in an effort to convey the mentality of Baltic animism. Similarly, the narrator assures us at one point that Balts did not literally worship sacred trees, stones and lakes but that ‘Natural objects served as a material mediator through which perception was connected to revelation’. The fact is that we simply cannot know why and how these people worshipped what they did, as not a single source survives that is written from the pagan perspective.

Reconstruction of Kernave © HighOctane Pictures

Perhaps my main concern about the film is with its title and main premise – the idea that the Balts are best understood as a collection of tribes, who are portrayed in the film as living in a ‘state of nature’ where the imperative is to ‘kill or be killed’. On the one hand, the film’s focus on the tribes helpfully emphasises the diversity of the Balts in the period before the Northern Crusades really took hold, in contrast to the modern survival of only two Baltic languages. On the other hand, however, the approach to the Balts as ‘tribes’ reinforces an outdated historical perception of the Baltic region (derived originally from the Crusaders themselves) as inhabited by barbarians – which is what the film’s Balts essentially are, regardless of how sympathetically they are at times portrayed. While the testimony of the historical sources is mixed, later sources informed by humanist historiography tend to portray Baltic peoples as highly moral, with well-structured societies.

It is the political structure of Baltic societies that is the missing element of Baltic Tribes, which concentrates on anthropological, ritual and experiential details but does not, ultimately, do justice to the sophistication of Baltic political organisation. In part this is down to the period the film chooses to portray; we really know very little about the region in the early 13th century. Yet it is clear that great centres like Kernavė could not have existed without the sophisticated political organisation that later created King Mindaugas and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Baltic Tribes leaves the viewer wondering how these tribes could possibly have not only held off wave after wave of Crusaders but also (in the case of the Lithuanians) managed to establish the largest polity in medieval Europe.

Overall Baltic Tribes, while most impressive, does not altogether reflect how I would choose to tell the medieval religious history of the Baltic peoples, but it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to enhancing well-informed public knowledge of Baltic religion inside and outside the Baltic states. The accuracy of the film’s portrayal of Baltic paganism contrast favourably, for example, with the paganism of the 2019 Latvian film The Pagan King, which mingles elements of Norse, Sámi and even megalithic religion but includes nothing that really resembles Baltic paganism – which is better historically attested than most other forms of Northern European pagan belief. I would thus recommend Baltic Tribes for those interested in Baltic paganism, as long as they are prepared to pay close attention to the film’s own caveats about the evidential value of some of our knowledge.

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