I reached out and touched the hem of the sea god, and it was gentle and warm and welcoming. More precisely, I reached the Baltic Sea for the first time, crossing a powdered sugar-grained beach in the resort town of Palanga to touch my fingers in its waters. I saw a freighter on the horizon, while a few hardy folks swam in on a mid-autumn Sunday and others lazed on the low coastal dunes, all touching the hem of the sea god in their own ways.
This stretch of beach is at the western edge of the Palanga Botanic Park, designed in the late 1800s by French landscape architect Edouard Francois Andre for a wealthy client, Count Feliks Tiškevičius. The count’s not-so-modest mansion now houses the Amber Museum. Fall colors have just started to tinge the trees in the park (Tiškevičių rūmai) but flowers are still blooming, the ducks and swans are still swimming in the pond and the Baltic’s winter winds, snow, biting cold and fury are still at bay.
There are places of myth and mystery here. The best known is Birutė Hill, a sacred spot during pagan days when virgins tended an eternal fire at its top. It’s named for the 14th century wife of the grand duke of Lithuania and mother of Vytautas the Great. She reputedly was a pagan priestess, and a Birutė cult developed after her death,
A chapel now stands atop the hill where the sacred fires once burned, and near the base of the hill a group of pagans are trying to recreate an observatory or sanctuary marked by large stones.
The great 19th-century Lithuanian poet Maironis wrote “From Birutė Hill”
Rolling wind-driven breakers ashore from the west
Splash my breast with the chill of your waves, or to me
Grant your power with which my own heart could express
All its strivings as grandly as you, Baltic Sea!
How I longed for you, infinite one! How I yearned
Just to hear your mysterious voices resound!
You alone understand me, because you have scorned
Through the ages to silence your breakers unbound!
Are you sad? So am I! And I do not know why;
I just pray all the storms to howl louder for me:
Though they offer no tranquil forgetfulness, I
Always strive to be closer to you, Baltic Sea!
And I wish for a friend who will help me to brave
All the storms of my heart which I try to defy,
Who shall not be a dark look my secret betray
And remain through the ages as restless as I.
Lithuania was the last European country to be Christianized, and even afterwards pagan traditions lingered. A popular girl’s name here is Milda, goddess of love and freedom.
Speaking of the gods, elsewhere in the park is a statue of a sea goddess who legend tells us married a snake. As you can expect, there were family objections and ultimately an unhappy resolution to the difficult family situation.
Also at the base of Birutė Hill is a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary where Catholics stop to pray, light candles or leave flowers. As my Klaipeda University host, Daiva Janaviciene observed, all the gods are here.
The borderlands between myth and faith, reality and imagination, legend and history remain murky, and who is to decide which is which? A few steps from my hotel at the Old Castle Harbor is what local residents claim is the world’s only statue of a ghost.
Known as the Black Ghost, it is portrayed climbing out of the water onto an embankment and holding a lantern. Legend says a Klaipeda Castle guard spotted the ghost in 1595 emerging from the water with a warning of impending hard times., Sure enough, hard times soon followed. Or so the legend goes.