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Protective signs

Posted here is the text written by Janīna Kursīte and Sanda Laime Kulturzīme Alsungā from the LU Academic book Suitu identitāte, published in 2005 in Riga.

In 2002, during the Alsunga expedition, five buildings with protective signs were identified and recorded. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, in some cases even later, signs were carved or painted on the doors and walls of farmhouses and residential buildings, but most often on door frames, whose task was to protect against diseases, plagues, evil spirits (the devil, witches), fire or other disasters.

The most common protective sign, known in all regions of Latvia, is the slanting cross. This mark belongs to the oldest protective marks in the world. It has been found in archaeological excavations on various objects since the Paleolithic. According to the hypothesis of the archaeologist Marija Gimbutiene, the slanting cross was the protective sign of the Great Mother in ancient times. In most cases (the oblique cross on the walls of caves in various parts of Europe, the oblique cross as a runic sign, etc.) it is impossible to establish a direct connection of this sign with one or another deity or spirit, but the protective nature of the sign is unquestionable. This is confirmed by both ancient and brand new folklore evidence. The oblique crosses found on buildings in Latvia are most often drawn on the entrance doors.

During the Alsunga expedition, a 40 x 30 cm slanting cross was found on the door of the Anuži granary, which was slightly incised with a single stroke of a knife or other tool. Most of the protective marks found so far are very weakly incised, most often with a single stroke of a knife or other tool, because the sign itself and the fact of its incising were important, not the visual effect that the sign leaves.

Judging by the carved year 1834, the granary was built at the beginning of the 19th century. According to the owner of Anuži, Andrejs Knipens, it was a two-part granary – on the left side there was a grain granary, while on the right side, protected by an oblique cross, there was a cloth granary, where clothes, as well as meat and other valuable things were stored. The ancient key is still preserved in the cloth granary – a wooden part attached to the partition wall of the granary, which could be lifted from the vertical position to the horizontal position and back with the help of a rope from the grain granary side, thereby blocking the cloth granary door from the inside. Also on this piece of wood are three oblique crosses. Each one is carved with a single technique.

The grain granary was not equipped with such a key. No security mark was found on its door either. From this, it can be concluded that the carver of signs most wanted to protect the things stored in the cloth part. It seems that the cross-shaped window in the end wall of the granary also had a protective function. A similar cross-shaped window was identified in the Lienoti granary next to the entrance door. Unlike the Anuži window, the Lienoti window is shaped like a cross with extended ends (similar to the Maltese cross). In the barn of Lienoti, no protective marks incised on the wooden parts were found, however, a protective function seems to have been given to the six oblique crosses carved into the door key’s handle, surrounded by a rectangular line.

The oblique cross, supplemented by two more oblique lines, was found in the granary of Pūpoli. It is also thought to have been incised as a protective mark. The granary is three-part, built approximately in the 1930s. A cross is carved inside a granary on a wall near the door. The grain granary was located between the clothes granary and the warehouse.

In the Dižarāji granary, also built in the 1930s, the protective marks are cut in an unusual place – in the second floor door posts. A six-rayed sun is cut into each post at a small height above the floor. The dimensions of these carvings are approximately 10 x 10 cm. Until now, such suns were only known on granary doors, they were found in several places in Courland and Vidzeme. In the door frame, a six-pointed lietuvēnu cross is very faintly painted and difficult to see in the dark, which has almost faded over time. According to the story of the owner of Dižarāji, in the demolished old Žibji house, there were suns and other signs cut into the logs.

The five-pointed lietuvēnu cross was once drawn with chalk in Anuži stable. Also, incised crosses with catkins blessed in the church have been discovered in the corners of another old Anuži building, which has been demolished. Blessed catkins are also hanging in a bag in Anuži barn near the ceiling. Andrejs Knipens, the owner of Anuži, said about them: Blessed herbs – catkins and some juniper – as they say, another flower for witches that was, something like that. It has stood since the plague and may it stand still. It often happens, that children thrown out such things. But if you don’t believe, then don’t touch them. If they hang for a hundred years, two hundred years, let them hang for another hundred years. And if I throw them out, then God knows what will happen to me.

A new discovery was made in the former sauna house in Dūņas, which was converted into a stable in the middle of the 20th century and moved closer to the residential house. The building, according to the owner Ludvig Jansson, can be built in the 19th century. On the wall near the corner, three protective symbols are carved in one row – a lietuvēna cross, a vertical stripe and a fire cross. The vertical stripe cut in the wall is the only one known in Latvia so far, and it can be safely added to the protective marks. The marks are up to 6 cm high, deeply and carefully incised. From the placement of the marks in one row and the similar cut profiles, it can be concluded that they were cut at the same time. The lietuvēnu cross was usually carved to protect the building from evil spirits. Fire cross, especially because its branches are oriented to the left, was used – most likely – to prevent fire accidents. The fire cross on the right was traditionally associated with the rising sun, fire in its active manifestation, while the fire cross on the left symbolized the setting sun, fire in its passive state. The vertical stripe in the middle reinforces the influence of the other two signs. The fire cross cut in the wall has all ends, except the right side, broken at right angles twice.

Quite often in Alsunga, a protective sign characteristic of recent times was drawn with chalk on the doors of buildings – the combination of the initials of the three kings Kaspar, Melchior and Baltazar: K + M + B, which is associated with Christian ideas. Having replaced the oldest tradition of protective marks, they are still preserved today. On the other hand, in the Catholic district of Alsunga, the forms of the oldest protective signs are the same as in the other parts of Latvia, which historically formed as Lutheran districts (except for the Catholic Latgale). This once again confirms the assumption that the tradition of using protective signs began in pre-Christian times.

Almost every old house in Alsunga has preserved ethnographic objects, folk costumes or their details. During the expedition, many dowry chests from the 19th century were photographed, in rare cases even the ancient contents of the chest were preserved – shawls, scarves, belts of Alsunga region. Several objects were donated by their owners to the Letonic Center of the Faculty of Philology, University of Latvia.

A person marks his things both with property marks and with protective marks. The people of Alsunga are no exception. In the 20th century, when the heritability of tradition as a value was gradually replaced by an orientation towards fashion, towards change and the new as a value, ancient inherited cultural symbols became, if not unnecessary, then not particularly necessary. They were preserved only by those who grew up in traditional culture – Andrejs Kinpens, Teodors Brūklis, etc. Or they remained because it was not accepted on this side to throw away the heritage of previous generations. Therefore, a large number of old things, objects with protective marks were found in the attics of houses or in the lower compartments of the dowry boxes in the granaries, where they had been lying for fifty years or more. This was also the case in the homesteads of Bedrenieki, Dūņi, Lienoti, etc.

What do the ancient signs carved into the foundations of houses, walls, doors, household items or in any other way mean to the people of the 21st century? For those of us who traveled to Alsunga for research purposes, these signs were associated with an indescribable joy of discovery. In addition, they were, so to speak, a living confirmation of the testimonies of the 18th and 19th centuries previously recorded in Latvian writings and ethnographic studies. To see it once, to touch it means to get an incomparably stronger and more lasting impression than to read about it five times. However, for the time being, the question remains unanswered, whether protective marks, property marks are only evidence of historical times and whether under certain conditions they could return, even in a modified form. It seems that in critical moments (individual or collective) the deepest – magical function of these ancient protective signs is restored, at least partially. This is how it happened, for example, in the 19th century. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Latvia was transitioning from Soviet rule to the restoration of state independence, the so-called auseklītis (i.e. one of the traditionally more commonly used for protective badges) became popular in various types of clothing and exterior decoration of houses, but mainly in the form of special badges throughout the country.

As ancient cultural signs disappear from everyday life in the 21st century, they still retain at least their ornamental, decorative function. In Alsunga, when we saw the folk costumes of the Suiti saved in old chests in the attics of houses or granaries, suns carved into the doors of old houses or household objects, the geometric ornaments of auseklīši, various types of crosses, our task was to draw the public’s attention to them, to emphasize their historical and also modern value and the need for preservation. We still have to set such a task.