Latvian Signs: When Mythology Encounters Ornament

Digne Ūdre, Latvian Academy of Culture

The presentation explores the relationship between Latvian mythology and ornament. Within the framework of nationalism, there was a need for national culture and art, especially starting from the second decade of the 20th century. The ornament was considered as one of the ways how to express Latvian ethnical identity. Due to that specific elements of ornament where joint together with certain mythological deities, combining the sources of mythology, folklore, archaeology, and ethnography. Thus an artificial system of ornament interpretation where every deity had a particular ornament assigned to it was created. The initiator of this interpretation of ornament was Ernests Brastiņš, engaged in many fields, but mainly known as an artist, researcher of hillforts and the founder of the Latvian neo-pagan religious movement dievturi.

Scholars have named this kind of interpretation of ornament the mythological school of Latvian ornament and it has been criticized for being more artificial than authentic, but nevertheless, it is still popular today. Nowadays the ornaments connected with certain mythological deities are called Latvian signs and are used in fields such as handicrafts, art, commerce, design, dance, even in sports and in an extensive range of esoteric activities, like healing for example. The wide use of ornament is supplemented by the layer of beliefs relating to magical features of Latvian signs. It is believed that Latvian signs can protect against different unfavorable influences, as well as attract favorable ones.

The presentation will give an insight into the establishment of the mythological school of Latvian ornament and how this kind of approach is still alive nowadays and developed and used in the form of Latvian signs.