‘Competing ethnographies of the pagan Baltic’ at Schefferus Conference 2023

Today I spoke at the 2023 Schefferus Conference, held at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, Norway, delivering a paper entitled ‘Competing ethnographies of the pagan Baltic: colonial and non-colonial constructions of indigenous religion’. The Schefferus Conference is largely focussed on the Lapponia of Johannes Schefferus (1673), the first ethnographic work on the Samí people and subsequent (and preceding) Samí ethnography (marking the book’s 350th anniversary), but my paper is a comparative one which examines ethnographic writing on another group of pagans in early modern Europe: the Baltic peoples.

The conference was organised by Dr Per Pippin Aspaas and Dr Andreas Klein, who has just brought out a definitive study of Schefferus’s Lapponia in English. The conference reception was held on Tuesday at Árdna, a specially-designed building that pays tribute to Sámi art and forms part of the University’s Centre for Sámi Studies. Unfortunately I missed the papers on the first and last days of the conference, but I attended the conference lunch and dinner and met many very interesting scholars working on Sámi religion both before and after attempted Christianisation. Scholars at the conference ranged from Classicists to medievalists, early modernists and specialists in contemporary Sámi ethnography.

The subject of my own paper was a Baltic perspective on early modern writings on indigenous religion. In the early modern period many of the Baltic peoples (speakers of both Baltic and Finno-Ugric languages in the eastern Baltic region) lived under the rule of mostly German and Swedish settler-colonialists, with the exception of the Lithuanians who shared sovereignty with Poland in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Baltic peoples were often characterised by their resistance to the adoption of Christianity. German and Scandinavian ethnographic writings on Old Prussians, Livonians, Semigallians, Estonians and other peoples under colonial rule differ markedly from Polish writings about Lithuanians and Samogitians (and indeed Lithuanians writing about themselves). The religious conversion of Baltic peoples was a concern in both colonial and non-colonial contexts, but while colonial writings often dehumanised the indigenous peoples of the Baltic, Polish writers from the late fifteenth century onwards attempted to understand the pagan Lithuanians whose leader Jogaila (d. 1434) had forged the joint polity of Poland-Lithuania. This paper explores how the ethnographic literature on Baltic peoples paralleled and anticipated but also differed from learned commentary on the non-Christian indigenous peoples of Europe’s far north, including the Sámi and Nenets peoples. The paper argues that ethnographic commentary on Baltic indigenous religion, which emerged in the mid-fifteenth century, prepared the conceptual ground for commentary on other indigenous peoples – including, ultimately, the indigenous peoples of the New World. At the same time, however, competing approaches to indigenous religion grounded in colonial and non-colonial contexts created alternative paradigms of interpretation that established a complex and at times unstable discourse.

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