Picture credit: Boryslav Javir

Perkūnas in Kent

Eastern European “native faith” movements in the UK

Artillery Row

On 4 August a mysterious wooden pole-shaped sculpture, around 8 feet tall, appeared on a coastal footpath in Kent between Dover and Folkestone. Bearing the likeness of a bearded face on all four sides at the top, the pole is inscribed on one side with the name of a Lithuanian god, Perkūnas, and the date 2023. At the time of writing no-one knows who erected the pole carving and why, and no permission was sought to put it there. However, the pole carving is evocative of traditions of Lithuanian folk art and appears to be intended as a pagan religious image honouring the Baltic deity. Within days of the pole appearing, people had begun leaving “offerings” of flowers and petals at the foot of the image. 

While Kent’s “Perkūnas pole” is so far a unique object for the UK, it is a reminder that some members of Britain’s large community of Eastern Europeans are followers of contemporary pagan religions or “native faith” movements. In Lithuania the largest native faith movement is Romuva, which began reviving (or, some might say, reinventing) Lithuania’s pre-Christian faith in the 1960s, partly as an act of resistance to the Soviet Union’s attempted marginalisation of Lithuanian culture. Around 153,000 Lithuanians now live in the UK, the vast majority of whom would identify as cultural Roman Catholics. However, Lithuania was famously the last country in Europe to formally renounce paganism (at the end of the 14th century), and Lithuanians are often proud of their nation’s lingering pagan traditions.

In the 2021 Census around 74,000 people in the UK described themselves as “Pagan” in the section on religion. In all likelihood, this number included some practitioners of Eastern European native faith movements. Data on such groups in the UK is very hard to come by; but judging by the size of the Facebook group for practitioners of Rodzimowierstwo (the Polish version of the Slavic native faith movement), at over 1000 members, Rodzimowierstwo is the largest Eastern European native faith group in the UK – or at least the one that attracts the most curiosity. This is to be expected, given that Polish people make up the largest European immigrant community in the UK. British iterations of Lithuanian Romuva, Latvian Dievturība and other Eastern European native faith movements are also represented on social media, although these communities seem to be very small.

The appearance of a large public work of art drawing on Lithuanian mythology on the Kent coast may or may not be connected with the Romuva movement or have a religious intent; in Lithuania, it is just as common for pole carvings with mythological themes to be erected for tourists or in celebration of Lithuanian culture as it is for them to be set up by practising pagans. However, it is curious that the mystery surrounding the Kent “Perkūnas pole” has seemingly had the effect of instantaneously sacralising it. Rather like crop circles that mysteriously appear overnight, the unexplained appearance of Perkūnas has made him a celebrity and drawn much more attention to the sculpture than it would have received if the artist had sought the usual permissions to erect it.

Perkūnas is the Baltic god of thunder

Perkūnas is the Baltic god of thunder, known as Pērkons in Latvia, and with connections to the Slavic god Perun. Like Thor in Norse mythology, Perkūnas is not the supreme god of the Baltic pantheon but he is one of the highest; but unlike Thor, Perkūnas is not usually a divine smith who makes thunder by striking a hammer. It is, instead, the hooves of Perkūnas’ steed that thunder on the clouds as he charges through the heavens. Perkūnas is invoked, even today, by Lithuanians and Latvians outdoors in a storm. And although he is a terrifying god with the power to destroy through lightning, he is also a symbol of protection and bravery, linked particular with the oak tree. Since the worship of sacred oak trees was central to Lithuanian paganism, and survived as late as the 18th century, we can presume that Perkūnas was probably the god being worshipped when Lithuanians venerated oaks.

No images of Perkūnas (or any other god) survive from pre-Christian Lithuania or Latvia, and the 2023 pole carving seems to be based loosely on a surviving Slavic idol, a four-sided pole depicting the four faces of the god Svetovit found at Wolin, Poland in 1974. Since some scholars theorise that Svetovit was a title of the Slavic thunder god Perun, the use of an image of Svetovit for Perkūnas might seem appropriate (although there is no Baltic tradition of a four-faced Perkūnas). Although one or two ancient idols of Perkūnas survived Christianisation and were retained as trophies by churches, they did not survive the partition of Lithuania by the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century.

Interpretations of the intent behind the new sculpture on Kent’s coast vary – one of my Lithuanian friends wryly observed that it was only fitting for Perkūnas to make an appearance on the English coast from which so many English knights set off to convert the Lithuanians in the medieval Baltic crusades, most notably the future Henry IV. Whatever our interpretation, however, if the sculpture remains it will stand as a reminder of the cultural pride and confidence of Eastern European national minorities who have made their home in Britain.

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