It is the turn of the 13th century, 800 years ago in Latvia. The
Baltic gods have gathered to consult the Father of Destiny about
their own fate and that of the Latvian people. Both are under threat
from invading German knights, who have been sent by the Pope to
christianize the Baltic region, under the command of Bishop
Albert. Perkons, the God of Thunder, calls on all the gods to guard
and nurture the Latvians, and they promise to do so, each in his or
her own way.
As the council is breaking up the Goddess Staburadze reveals that
she has rescued a young man from the River Daugava, where he was
cast down by two witches. She has taken him to her Crystal Palace
beneath the river in the whirlpool of Staburags, from which no human
can emerge alive. Perkons reveals that this youth is Bearslayer, who
will become a noble warrior under the protection of Perkons, and
will strive mightily against the forces of evil.
At the beginning of Canto II the action goes back in time to the
Castle of Lielvarde, shortly before the Council of the Gods
described in the previous canto. The son of the Lord of Lielvarde
reveals mighty strength, killing a bear with his bare hands. This
first heroic deed wins him the name "Bearslayer." (This young man is
the hero that Perkons revealed to the other gods in Canto I.) The
youth is not the true son of the Lord of Lielvarde, but a foundling
suckled by a female bear in the forest. (Although it is not directly
explained until almost the end of the poem, it is important to know
that Bearslayer has bear's ears, and that if these are cut off he
will lose his bearlike strength.) Bearslayer was brought to
Lielvarde as a baby by Vaidelots, a Messenger of the Gods, to be
raised until he reached manhood. After killing the bear he is sent
to study for seven years in the Castle of Burtnieks, in order to
learn the ancient wisdom of the Latvian race. Accompanied by the
good advice of his foster father, he sets off.
On the way to Burtnieks's Castle, Bearslayer visits the castle of
the Latvian Lord Aizkrauklis, where he is stunned by the beauty of
Aizkrauklis's daughter, Spidala. However, he watches her and
discovers that she is a witch. He follows her by hiding in a hollow
log on which she flies to the Devil's Pit, and witnesses evil rites,
as well as seeing the false holy man, Kangars, promise to serve the
Devil by working against the ancient gods and supporting
Christianity, because Christians are easier prey for the Devil. On
the journey back to Aizkraukle Bearslayer is cast down into the
whirlpool of Staburags in the River Daugava by Spidala and another
witch. From here he is rescued by Staburadze, as we already know
from Canto I, and taken to her Crystal Palace beneath the whirlpool.
With the help of the beautiful and virtuous maiden, Laimdota,
Staburadze nurses Bearslayer back to health. She reveals to him that
he has been chosen by the gods to fight against evil, especially
Spidala and Kangars, who are plotting in secret. Staburadze gives
him a talisman, a magic mirror, and Laimdota gives him a ribbon
decorated with an oak-leaf pattern. He leaves the Crystal Palace and
is duly turned to stone, as are all mortals, but is restored to life
by Perkons. He performs a second heroic deed, saving a boat that is
sinking in the raging River Perse by rowing with his bare hands, and
is befriended by a powerful youth, Koknesis. Together they ride to
Burtnieks, accompanied by the curses of Spidala.
Canto III opens with Spidala hurrying to the hut of Kangars to warn
him that Bearslayer was present in the Devil's Pit and saw the
shameful deeds. To prevent Bearslayer revealing that he and Spidala
are in league with the Devil, Kangars decides to lure the young hero
into a trap by provoking a war against the Estonian Giant,
Kalapuisis, certain that Bearslayer will rush into battle against
the invincible foeman and be killed. As Kangars explains this plot
to Spidala a terrible storm arises, and Spidala is unable to return
The storm was sent by Perkons to destroy a ship just arriving at the
mouth of the River Daugava from Germany, in order to kill the German
missionaries it is carrying. Led by the priest, Dietrich, they have
come with the intention of forcing the Baltic people to accept
Christianity. However, the Livian fisher-folk of the Daugava estuary
rescue the passengers from the ship. Thus, they thwart the will of
Perkons, who had planned to drown the newcomers, and save the very
people who will eventually become their conquerors. The morning
after the storm, a fisherman brings Dietrich to Kangars, and an
alliance is forged, since both want to introduce Christianity,
although for differing reasons.
Years pass. Bearslayer and Koknesis study hard in the Castle of
Burtnieks. Bearslayer has a special reason to seek perfection:
Laimdota is the daughter of Burtnieks and has returned home to the
castle from Staburadze's Crystal Palace, where she and Bearslayer
met. They fall in love, but just as Bearslayer is about to ask for
her hand news arrives that Kalapuisis has entered Latvia and is
killing and laying waste. Burtnieks offers Laimdota's hand to any
warrior who can rid them of Kalapuisis, and Bearslayer rides out to
face him: The plot seems to be succeeding!
Bearslayer faces Kalapuisis in single combat, and defeats
him. However, just as Bearslayer is about to kill him, Kalapuisis
reveals a prophecy told him by his mother that a bear cub from the
Daugava, who is of noble rank and equal to Kalapuisis as a warrior,
will come and save the Latvians from their conquerors. The two
warriors realize that Bearslayer is this bear cub, and that they
have a common enemy-the Germans-and make peace, so that they can
work together against the invaders.
Successful in the Estonian war, Bearslayer returns to Burtnieks's
Castle with the other Latvian warriors, and they are greeted in song
by the local maidens. Laimdota places an oak-leaf wreath on
Bearslayer's head and sings of his might, promising to make him a
true and virtuous wife. Bearslayer replies in song that he will
live and die for Laimdota. Amid great joy and feelings of
brotherhood the warriors toast Bearslayer, and conclude that the
gods personally intervened on his behalf. This divine intervention
gives Bearslayer legendary status so that, instead of destroying
him, the plot added to his fame.
Once again, time passes while Bearslayer studies at the Castle of
Burtnieks. One night he notices in the fortress's undercroft a
trapdoor, left half-open to reveal a stone staircase leading
below. He goes down and follows a tunnel until he enters a large
chamber that he judges to be beneath the centre of the lake. He is
in the Sunken Castle that Laimdota had told him about. He discovers
Laimdota reading an ancient book. She explains to him that if a
mortal remains in the Sunken Castle overnight and survives until
morning, the castle will rise once more into the light of
day. Bearslayer resolves to carry out this heroic task and Laimdota
Midnight passes and the Sunken Castle grows cold. Bearslayer lights
a fire from broken wood lying around. Suddenly seven evil spirits
enter the room carrying an open coffin, in which an old man with
huge sharp teeth and long nails is lying. He begins to groan
horribly and complain that he is cold. Bearslayer cannot bear the
sound and hauls the man from the coffin to the fire, but the old man
tries to bite off Bearslayer's ears, knowing that without them
Bearslayer is weak. Bearslayer fights back and holds the old man in
the fire, saying that he will only let him go if the Sunken Castle
is raised to the surface.
At this, a whirlwind springs up and the seven evil spirits return,
led by Spidala. They attack Bearslayer and he is about to be
defeated when he remembers the mirror that Staburadze gave him. He
pulls it out and holds it in Spidala's face. A howling fills the air
and all the evil spirits turn to dust and are whirled round the room
in the whirlwind. The spirit of Viduveds, a wise man of ancient
times, appears in human form and greets Bearslayer, saying that the
young hero will save the Latvian people. Viduveds's handmaidens make
a bed for Bearslayer, and he falls into a deep sleep.
Next morning the people are amazed to see a castle standing on an
island in the middle of the lake. Laimdota tells Burtnieks that
Bearslayer has spent the night in the castle, and the old man
realizes at once that Bearslayer has broken the magic spell and
saved the Sunken Castle. Laimdota and Burtnieks enter the castle and
wake Bearslayer. He claims Laimdota as his bride, and Burtnieks
gives his blessing, saying that the union of the two clans
(Burtnieks and Lielvarde) will save the Latvians.
One evening, later, Laimdota reads to Bearslayer from the ancient
books found in the Sunken Castle. She reads how the ancient Latvians
were led to the Baltic Sea from a land far to the east by
Perkons. With the favour of the gods, they settled in a valley,
built a castle, and established a golden age on Earth.
However, this made the Devil jealous, and he commanded a whirlwind
to suck up a lake and deposit it in the valley. This was done and
the valley, including the castle, was drowned. The people would have
died too, but Liga, the Goddess of Song, saved them by using the
music of her kokle to open up under the lake a tunnel that led them
to safety. The castle is the one Bearslayer raised, and the tunnel
the one he used to enter the castle.
On another occasion, Laimdota reads to Bearslayer the story of the
creation. In eternal space there was once nothing except a celestial
light. In it lived God and a second mighty spirit-the Devil. At that
time the Devil still obeyed God, although he was already growing
rebellious. God decided to create the Earth and sent the Devil to
fetch a handful of slime. The Devil was curious and kept a second
handful for himself, hiding it in his mouth. When he brought the
slime to God, God commanded the slime to form the Earth, throwing it
down. The slime began to grow, and formed the level plains of the
Earth. However, the slime in the Devil's mouth also obeyed God and
grew until the Devil could no longer hold it in his mouth. He spat
it out and it fell to the newly created Earth, forming the
From His own substance God created the Sun and Moon. He was so
pleased with the Earth and Sun He had just created that He also
created the first living creatures: the Sons of the Gods and the
Daughters of the Sun. The Moon took a gigantic Daughter of the Sun
as his wife, and the stars are their thousands of children. The Sons
of the Gods divided up the Earth among themselves.
The Devil grew more rebellious and began to defy God. A great
rivalry grew up between them, and the Devil tried in vain to outdo
God, who, however, always had the upper hand. Eventually, God
created humans and made them capable only of good, but the Devil
interfered and gave them the power to be evil as well as good. God
grew furiously angry at seeing His creation ruined, and banished the
Devil to Hell. There the Devil created evil demons and with them
rose up from Hell and fought against God and all good
spirits. Eventually, the Devil was defeated and driven back to Hell,
after Perkons intervened in the fight
Later Laimdota reads from the teachings of the guardian of the
Latvian race, in which he listed the tasks of worthy human beings:
to seek perfection of the human race, to fight against evil by
obeying the ancient teachings, to make just laws and drive out bad
rulers, and to love nature.
All Souls' Eve comes. The people of Burtnieks's Castle celebrate
this in the traditional Latvian way. Next morning, however, Laimdota
and Koknesis have vanished, and Bearslayer sets off to find them,
vowing never to return unless he is successful. Meanwhile, a German
ship has arrived at the mouth of the Daugava, and Dietrich and
Kangars persuade the the local Latvian Lord, Kaupa, to return in it
to Rome with Dietrich. Kangars stays behind, but knows that the
Germans' friendship is only a trick to gain control of Latvia.
The ship sails. Just then Bearslayer rides up. He knows full well
that Kangars and Spidala have kidnapped Laimdota, and demands that
they give her back. Spidala tells him that she is on the ship just
vanishing over the horizon. Kangars says that she and Koknesis are
lovers. Bearslayer does not believe this lie, although he
experiences some doubts, and rides off in deep despair. Spidala
gloats over his sorrow. She has her revenge, and Bearslayer's life
is worse than death.
Bearslayer returns to Lielvarde, his home. He is greeted warmly, but
his father sees that something is wrong. Bearslayer tells him all,
and his father consoles him with wise words of hope: Perhaps
Laimdota loves him still and will yet be saved. Bearslayer spends
his days roaming the cliffs above the Daugava brooding, and longing
to go with the waters down to the sea to fight against the North
Wind and meet the North Wind's Daughter. One day he vanishes, and
no-one knows where he has gone.
Canto IV opens with Kaupa in Rome. He is seduced by the wealth and
power he sees, doubts the old gods, and decides to embrace
Christianity and convert the Latvians. Back in Latvia, the people
labour long building a walled city for the Germans, who are now
present in large numbers-Riga. Once they have their fortress the
Germans begin to plunder everything they can get their hands on, to
pillage and to destroy. Full of bitterness, the Latvians realize
that they have been tricked.
Meanwhile, in Germany Laimdota is being held captive in a convent.
Spidala had tricked her into leaving her father's castle back in
Latvia by pretending to be her mother. Laimdota was then seized by
Spidala's minions, brought to Riga, and placed on the ship to
Germany as a prisoner. During the journey Dietrich tries to calm her
and tells her that she will soon be the Bride of Christ. Laimdota
replies that she loves Bearslayer, will not be forced to become
anyone else's bride and is, in any case, a mortal and not fit to
become the bride of Christ. Although hardened and without pangs of
conscience, Dietrich blushes at her virtuous answer, and leaves
her. Kaupa refuses to help her on the grounds that it is the will of
Destiny that she go to Germany. Soon both Dietrich and Kaupa forget
The convent prioress tries to persuade Laimdota to accept
Christianity and threatens to allow her to be seized by a local
count and used as a concubine. To escape this fate Laimdota pretends
to accept Christianity but, despite this, one night armed men break
into the convent and seize her. As they are about to carry her off
an unknown warrior appears and fights all the kidnappers on his
own. He kills all except one, and rescues Laimdota. She recognizes
him as Koknesis and they flee into the mountains. Along the way
Koknesis explains how he too was tricked into going on the ship to
Germany. Once in Germany, he heard that a Baltic woman was being
held in the convent and decided to rescue her, without knowing that
it was Laimdota.
The action turns to the Northern Sea, where Bearslayer is wandering
in a ship, lost on the way to Germany to seek Laimdota. The North
Wind's Daughter hears the sailors calling upon her in song, and she
comes to them in her own ship. She says that it would be best if
they came to her island to rest, before continuing their journey,
and Bearslayer agrees. They avoid the Castle of the North Wind,
where he is sleeping, perhaps for another month. Once he is awake,
the winter will set in and they will not be able to escape because
of the ice and storms.
The island is warmed by fires from the centre of the Earth, and the
sailors enjoy a pleasant stay. Eventually the North Wind's Daughter
tells them that her father is about to wake up and that they must
leave. She warns them not to return by the route that they came by,
because Bearslayer's enemies now know that he is using that route
and may be too strong for him. She describes an alternative route,
but warns of its great dangers, including the land of the dog-snout
ogres, the Kingdom of Dreams, the Hill of Diamonds, and the
Enchanted Isle. The sailors set off in the nick of time: The North
Wind has woken up and they are involved in a fearsome storm, from
which they barely escape.
They reach the island of the Dog-Snout Ogres, where they tie up.
Bearslayer goes ashore with a party of men to cut up and share the
meat of some deer he has already killed. They are at work when
suddenly the Dog-Snouts pour out of a cave and attack them. They
tear the men apart with their teeth and even Bearslayer is scarcely
able to save himself. He is wounded and seems doomed, until he
notices that no more Dog-Snouts are coming out of their cave. He
slips in to the cave and is able to defend himself with his spear in
its narrow opening. The Dog-Snouts then bring up large boulders and
block the entrance, trapping Bearslayer inside.
Back at the ship the sailors wait in vain for their comrades. Their
orders forbid them to go ashore and search for them. At the last
moment Bearslayer appears and tells them to disembark at once. They
do so, and escape the Land of the Dog-Snouts. At sea Bearslayer
explains what happened. He got out of the cave by digging a hole at
the rear with his spear. This took several days, but he found some
raw meat in the cave, and lived on that. The Dog-Snouts were busy
watching the front of the cave, and thus did not see Bearslayer as
he escaped at the rear.
They sail away, and reach the Kingdom of Dreams. This is where
Heaven and Earth come together, the gates of Paradise standing
alongside the entrance to Hell. This land is the location of the
Gardens of the Sun, where the Sun returns at dusk and rests at night
before setting off each morning. Under the protection of the Sons of
the Gods and the Daughters of the Sun they stay in the pleasant
Kingdom of Dreams for some time, but eventually set off again.
They travel in pitch darkness at first, but later see a tiny glint
of light, towards which they sail. They come closer and sight the
Hill of Diamonds, its peak glowing brilliantly. The ship docks and
the sailors rush on shore. Despite Bearslayer's warning, a sailor
climbs to the peak and vanishes. A second does the same. A third
ties himself to a rope and is pulled back by his comrades as he is
vanishing. He is saved, but never speaks again.
They sail away and encounter fair winds and weather. Fog obscures
the course and they suddenly emerge close to a beautiful
island. Bearslayer realizes that this is the Enchanted Isle the
North Wind's Daughter warned against, from which no ship can
escape. They try to sail away but are drawn to the island until the
ship runs up on its shore.
Canto V continues on the Enchanted Isle. There is no sign of life,
except for a track leading from the forest to a bridge and, at the
seaward end of the bridge, a beautiful palace. Inside is a sumptuous
meal, and in a second room soft beds for all. The sailors fall upon
the food and then all go to bed. Bearslayer arms himself and stands
guard at the end of the bridge.
At midnight a rider comes out of the forest. It is the Three-Headed
Demon. He speaks aloud, revealing that he hates Bearslayer, but
believes that his enemy is far away, trapped on the Northern Sea. At
this Bearslayer roars that he is there. The demon challenges
Bearslayer to fight and show his strength. They ride into the thick
forest where the demon blows down the trees, so that they will have
a clearing in which to fight: One breath clears an area three miles
across! They fight and the demon's blows drive Bearslayer into the
ground up to his knees. None the less, Bearslayer prevails. He then
returns to the palace at the bridge and lies down to sleep. Nothing
further disturbs their rest that night.
The next night Bearslayer again stands guard. Again, at midnight a
rider comes out of the forest. This time it is the Six-Headed Demon,
who also hates Bearslayer and believes that he is lost on the
Northern Sea. Again Bearslayer challenges the demon, who clears the
forest by blowing down trees, this time six miles around. They
fight and Bearslayer is driven into the ground to his hips, but
still wins with some difficulty.
The third night, before going on guard, Bearslayer tells the others
that he may need their help. He places Staburadze's mirror on a
table alongside a bowl of water, and tells them that if, during the
night, the water turns to blood, they must bring the mirror to his
aid. At midnight the Nine-Headed Demon appears at the
bridge. Bearslayer and the demon fight in a clearing nine miles
across, and Bearslayer is driven into the ground to his armpits. He
looks in vain for help from his shipmates, and is about to be
defeated. Desperate, he throws his club three miles through the
window of the palace where the others are sleeping. This wakes them,
they see that the water has turned to blood, and they hasten to
bring Bearslayer the mirror. In the nick of time he shows the demon
the mirror, and it falls down frozen. Bearslayer climbs out of the
ground and kills it.
To be sure that the island is safe they search it, and discover a
beautiful valley in which is a well of clear water, alongside it a
leafy apple tree with magnificent fruit. The men want to drink, but
first Bearslayer thrusts his sword into the water, marking a
triangle. There are screams and the water turns to blood, but soon
clears and they drink in safety. After this, the men want to eat
apples, but Bearslayer grows angry, saying that they are not there
to pick fruit. He threatens to cut down the tree with his sword,
but suddenly a voice from the tree begs for mercy. Bearslayer steps
back in surprise and the tree turns into a beautiful young woman. To
Bearslayer's horror, it is Spidala.
Spidala throws herself at his feet and begs for mercy. She swears to
make good all her wicked deeds, and never to do evil again.
Bearslayer grants her her life - he fights demons and giants, not
women! Spidala tells him that Laimdota and Koknesis are loyal and
pure, and reveals how she and Kangars tricked them into going to
Germany. She also reveals how the Old Witch cast a spell on the
island to draw in ships. Once trapped on the island's shore the
ships' crews sink into a deep sleep. This is the spell that drew
Bearslayer's ship to the island, where the witch intended to trap
him. The three demons were her sons. On hearing of their death the
Old Witch set a trap by changing herself into the well and Spidala
into the apple tree. However, when Bearslayer plunged his sword
into the well he killed the witch, and thus broke the spell on
Spidala reminds Bearslayer that it is his duty to return to Latvia
and drive out the marauding Germans. She yearns to help, but is
trapped in a pact with the Devil. Bearslayer realizes that she is
truly repentant and wants to help her. Suddenly he remembers the
little package that he brought with him as a souvenir of the Devil's
Pit, and orders some sailors to fetch it and give it to her. When
Spidala sees it she is overjoyed: It is her contract with the Devil,
and she is now free! They go to the beach, where Spidala releases
the ships and sailors trapped on the shore. Suddenly, among the
people released, Bearslayer sees Koknesis and Laimdota!
Koknesis and Laimdota tell the story of their escape from
Germany. They too were drawn on shore on the Enchanted Isle by the
Old Witch, and put into a long sleep. Spidala hangs back, but
Bearslayer tells the others that it was she who broke the spell on
them: They thank her, and the four swear eternal friendship.
Spidala shows them around the island, which she knows well, and some
of the awakened people decide to live there for good. Eventually,
however Bearslayer, Koknesis, Laimdota and Spidala decide to leave.
The evening before they depart, Koknesis wanders back to the well in
the valley. He sees Spidala burn her pact with the Devil. She asks
him to keep this a secret. He agrees, but in turn tells her his
secret: He loves her and wants her to marry him. She eventually
agrees. The four set off back to Latvia on Bearslayer's ship, and on
the way Koknesis and Spidala tell Bearslayer and Laimdota about
their love. These two are overjoyed. After a long journey they sight
Latvian shores, and eventually sail into the mouth of the Daugava.
Canto VI opens with Midsummer's Eve in Latvia. The people are called
together by the Midsummer Priests. They bring offerings for the gods
and gifts for each other, and gather around fires on the Azure
Mountain. They pray for blessings for the coming year, and pay
respect to the spirits of their ancestors. The oldest priest calls
on them to live together in harmony, and many grudges are settled
with a handshake. The young men and women begin to dance together.
While the young people celebrate, the Clan Chieftains meet in
council on the Azure Mountain. They are concerned because the
prophetic writings kept in the Sacred Grove on the mountainside
predict calamity. Lielvardis arrives and reveals that the German
knights have captured a number of Latvian stockades and built their
own stone castles, and are imposing Christianity at the point of the
sword. His own fortress, Lielvarde, has been seized. Bishop Albert
is bringing more knights from Germany to take over all Latvia. At
this moment Bearslayer appears, together with Koknesis, Laimdota and
Spidala. Bearslayer is elected leader of the Latvian warriors. All
pledge themselves to fight to free their land, and return to their
homes to prepare for war.
Bearslayer and Laimdota, as well as Koknesis and Spidala, are
married at the Castle of Burtnieks, Laimdota's home. There is a
great wedding celebration, but this is cut short by Burtnieks, who
tells them that they will soon be at war. The new couples have
little time for wedded bliss before the men have to set off to fight
the German invaders, and Laimdota and Spidala, refusing to be
separated so soon from their new hus- bands, set off with them. The
Latvian host gathers and marches on Turaida. On the way, they
eliminate German infestation whenever they encounter it.
Alarmed by the Latvian uprising, many Germans have fled to Turaida
and taken refuge in the stone castle built there by the Germans. The
Latvians lay siege to the castle, and eventually are able to scale
the walls at night and fight on the ramparts. A fearful battle
ensues, with heavy losses on both sides. Bearslayer kills many
Germans and, realizing that he is too strong for them, the Germans
surrender. Among those captured is Dietrich, who is handed over to
the locals for punishment. However, he tricks them into setting him
free. They now march on Lielvarde, Bearslayer's home, where the
German knight, Daniel, has built a stone castle. Just before they
arrive, Daniel invites the chieftains of some Latvian clans that had
fled into the forest to a parley. However, once he has them in a
great pavilion he locks them in and sets fire to it. The elders cry
for help as Daniel and his men watch in glee from the castle walls.
In the nick of time Bearslayer arrives with his army. He rescues the
chieftains and attacks the German castle. The Germans fight hard but
are defeated, and all except Daniel are slaughtered. He is handed to
the local people for punishment, and they throw him into the Daugava
tied to a plank. Bearslayer re-establishes himself at Lielvarde
Meanwhile, Albert has returned to Germany to recruit more
knights. He leaves Kaupa in charge in Riga, to where most Germans
have now retreated. All seems well for the Latvians, and Bearslayer
and Laimdota settle down to married life together. The others too
return to their homes, thinking to live out their lives in peace.
Springtime comes, and the Latvians have little thought of war. Even
Kangars is working in his garden. His life is bitter: He receives no
honour from any one, any more. He knows that death will bring him
the torments of Hell, while his remaining days of life are wracked
with the knowledge of his own wickedness. One day Dietrich comes to
him and asks him to communicate with evil spirits to discover the
source of Bearslayer's strength. Kangars says that it is no concern
of his that Bearslayer is killing Germans, but that he has his own
reasons for wanting to destroy the young man. He wrestles with
demons for three days and nights without sleep, and they reveal to
him the secret of Bearslayer's strength-his bear's ears.
Among the new knights brought back from Germany by Albert is the
Black Knight. He is already experienced in doing wicked deeds in
Germany. He claims to be the son of a witch and immune to harm from
wounds. One day Kaupa takes a party of knights, including the Black
Knight, to Lielvarde, and asks for admission, saying that he wishes
to make peace between the Latvians and Albert. Bearslayer wants
peace and the Germans are admitted. They are treated well, and
Bearslayer organizes a tournament to entertain them.
In the tournament, both Bearslayer and the Black Knight defeat their
opponents, and the Black Knight suggests that they fight each other.
Bearslayer refuses, although he does not want to insult the Black
Knight. The Black Knight then says that it would hardly be a test of
his strength to fight Bearslayer, any way, despite all Bearslayer's
boasting. Stung by this, Bearslayer seizes his sword and the two
At first Bearslayer thinks that it is mere sport, but the Black
Knight fights with great vigour, and suddenly cuts off one of
Bearslayer's ears. Enraged, Bearslayer now attacks in earnest, and
with a terrible blow of his sword splits open the Black Knight's
armour and wounds him. However, his sword breaks. Seeing this, the
Black Knight attacks again, and cuts off Bearslayer's other ear.
Terribly angry, Bearslayer seizes the Black Knight and they wrestle
together. In their fight they stumble to the very edge of the high
cliffs above the River Daugava. Bearslayer's men look on, grown pale
with apprehension and rooted to the spot with fear. Three times
Bearslayer lifts up the Black Knight, but each time the German kicks
free. Finally, Bearslayer throws him over the cliff into the river's
depths, but the Black Knight drags Bearslayer with him. Weighed down
by the knight's heavy armour, they sink to the bottom. At this
moment the waves roar and an island rises up in the river. In the
castle, Laimdota, who had had a premonition of disaster, shrieks and
ends her own life.
Soon, the Latvian heroes are defeated one by one by the Germans, for
whom they are no match without Bearslayer. The Germans establish
themselves as harsh masters, and the Latvian people are plunged into
centuries of slavery. However, for them Bearslayer is not dead, but
sleeps beneath the island in a golden bed.
Even today, sometimes at midnight boatmen on the Daugava see two
shadowy figures locked in struggle on the cliffs above the river,
while in the ruins of the old castle of Lielvarde a little flame
burns. The figures struggling on the cliff top are Bearslayer and
the Black Knight, and the flame in the castle is Laimdota. Each
time they fight the two warriors plunge together into the
river. There is a terrible scream in the castle, and the flame goes
However, the day will come when Bearslayer will defeat the Black
Knight and cast him down alone into the river to drown. On that day,
the Latvians will be free!
GLOSSARY OF PERSONAL AND PLACE NAMES
The entries in this section explain personal and place names for the
purposes of the poem. I am not trying to give you a history or
geography lesson! The material in square brackets after each Latvian
word explains how I would like you to pronounce that word. This
pronunciation is necessary for the metrical structure of the
English-language poem, and may differ from standard Latvian
pronunciation. I apologize for any offence that this causes. The
syllable represented in the square brackets as "-a" should be
pronounced as in "bad", the one represented as "-ah" as a long
"bad". The syllable represented as "-e" should be pronounced as in
"bed", "-o" as in "hot", "-oh" as in "throw,""oo" as in "zoo", "ow"
as in "bough", "-u" as in "hut" and "uh" as in "book". Syllables in
boldface should be stressed.
Aizkraukle [Eyes-krow-kle]: A Latvian stockade near the southern bank of
the River Daugava, about 100 Km SE of Riga.
Aizkrauklis [Eyes-krow-kliss]: The Lord of Aizkraukle; father of Spidala.
Albert: The third Bishop of Uexküll (Latvian:
Ikskile); sent by Pope Innocent III in 1199.
He was the most effective in subjugating
the Baltic people. He recruited the Sword
Brothers (warrior monks and priests), who
brought Christianity by force after diplo-
macy and gifts failed.
All Souls Night: A night in October when the souls of the dear
departed return to visit the living; comparable
Antrimps [Un-trimps}: The God of the Sea.
Austra [Ow-stru]: The Goddess of the Morning/the Dawn.
Azure Mountain: A sacred mountain where ancient writings
were kept; meeting place of the folk
Black Knight: A German knight brought to Latvia by
Bishop Albert to kill Bearslayer.
Burtnieks [Buhrt-nee-eks]: A wise Latvian Lord; teacher of Bearslayer
and father of Laimdota.
Crystal Palace: The home of Staburadze beneath the whirl-
pool of Staburags.
Dabrels [Dubb-rells]: A Latvian Lord whose stockade was on the
River Gauja near modern-day Sigulda. Across
the river was Kaupa's stockade (Turaida).
Daniel [Dunn-yell]: The German knight who occupied Lielvarde
Daugava [Dow-g'vu]: The revered, almost sacred, principal river
of Latvia. Its course lies mainly SE of Riga,
but it flows into the sea to the west of Riga.
Destiny's Father: A pseudomythological figure invented by
Pumpurs; the arbiter of human destiny-Fate.
Devil's Pit: A huge underground chamber dug under the
River Daugava by the Devil.
Dietrich [Dee-trich]: A German priest who came to Latvia to
prepare the way for Bishop Albert.
Dog-Snout Ogres: Mythological monsters in Latvian
and Estonian folk tales.
Enchanted Isle: An island that draws ships to its shores. It
is inhabited by the demon sons of the
Old Witch (see Canto II).
Evil One (the): The Devil.
Fiend (the) The Devil (when capitalized; otherwise
Gauja [Gow-yu]: The largest river entirely within Latvia.
Its course lies NE of Riga.
Henry: A Latvian who was educated in Germany and
became a Christian priest in Latvia. He
is remembered as "Henry of Livonia"
Holy Father: The Pope; Celestine III proclaimed the
third Northern Crusade (the Baltic Crusade) in
1193; Innocent III succeeded Celestine, and
appointed Bishop Albert in 1198.
Ikskile [Eeks-chill-e]: A Livian town on the northern bank of the
Daugava, SE of Riga; the Germans had already
built a fort there before the arrival of
Kalapuisis [Kull-u-poo-iss-iss]: A gigantic Estonian warrior; more or less
the Estonian equivalent of Bearslayer.
Kangars [Kun-gars]: A Latvian holy man who had secretly made a
pact with the Devil.
Kaupa [Cow-pu]: A great Latvian Lord whose stockade was
at Turaida on the Gauja.
Kingdom of Dreams: A land in the east where sky and earth meet
and the gates of Heaven and Hell are found. It
is the home of the Sons of the Gods and the
Daughters of the Sun.
Koknesis [Kwock-ness-is]: A mighty youth who lived near the River
Perse; Bearslayer's close friend.
kokle [kwock-le]: Traditional Latvian musical instrument -
something like a zither.
Kegums [Chag-ums]: A town on the Daugava about 50 Km. SE of
Laima [Lye-mu]: The Goddess of Destiny/of Happiness.
Laimdota [Lime-dwo-tu]: The beautiful, virtuous, learned and
wise daughter of Burtnieks.
Lake Peipus [Pay-puss]: A large lake along the border between Estonia
Latvian Lords: Latvian chieftains or clan (family) heads who
lived in stockades (castles) behind wooden
palisades on higher ground along the
tributaries of the major rivers.
Lielvarde [Lee-ell-var-de]: A Latvian stronghold on the northern bank
of the Daugava, about 55 Km. SE of Riga;
home of Bearslayer and his foster father,
Lielvardis [Lee-ell-var-diss]: The Latvian Lord of Lielvarde; foster father
Liga [Lee-gu]: The Goddess of Song.
Ligo [Lee-gwu]: Sing! (midsummer songs).
Ligusoni Priests [Lee-gu-swon-yee]: People selected to lead the (pagan)
midsummer rites at the Azure Mountain.
Livian lands: The lands of the Livs: In Western Latvia, and
thus the first area occupied by the Germans.
Livs: A Finnic (i.e., non-Latvian) people who lived
along the shores of the Gulf of Riga and the
Lucifer: The Devil.
Midsummer's Eve: A traditional, extremely important,
still-celebrated Latvian folk festival-Jani.
Nine-Headed Demon: A son of the Old Witch. He lived on the En-
chanted Isle and was killed by Bearslayer.
North Wind's Daughter: The daughter of Ziemelis, the North Wind.
Northern Sea: The bitterly cold, stormy sea at the top of
the world. The domain of Ziemelis.
Pakols [Pu-kwolls]: The God of Death.
Patrimps [Pu-trimps}: The God of Fertility and Wealth.
Perkons [Pah-kwons]: The God of Thunder; a strong supporter of
the Latvian people.
Perse [Pair-se]: A river (and waterfall) that flows into
the Daugava near Aizkraukle, about 100 Km. SE
Puškaitis [Push-kye-tiss]: A pseudomythological figure invented by
writers in the nineteenth century; often
depicted as the God of Trees.
Riga's Bishop: Bishop Albert
Romove [Roo-oh-mwo-vu]: A town located near the site of modern-day
Vilnius in Lithuania; sacred to all three Baltic
peoples (Latvians, Lithuanians, Prussians).
Rusinš [Roo-sinsh]: A Latvian warrior treacherously killed by a
crossbow bolt at the start of the battle for
Sacred copse: A sacred grove of trees on the Azure Mountain.
Salaspils [Su-luss-pills]: A town on the Daugava where the Germans had
already built a castle prior to the arrival
Saulite [Sow-lee-tu]: The Sun-Goddess, wife of the Moon. At Midsummer
she wore a headdress of red blossoms and
danced on the hilltops in silver shoes. To
honour her, at Midsummer human women wore
similar braided wreaths in their hair, and
walked through the fields singing songs to her-
Sereniete [(Se-re-nee-e-te]: A witch, who assisted Spidala to throw Bear-
slayer down into the whirlpool of Staburags.
Six-Headed Demon: A son of the Old Witch. He lived on the
Enchanted Isle and was killed by Bearslayer.
Spidala [Spee-du-lu]: The beautiful daughter of Aizkrauklis. She
was a witch who had entered into a pact with
the Devil, but escaped with Bearslayer's help.
Staburadze [Stu-boo-rud-zu]: A goddess who lives in a Crystal Palace
beneath the whirlpool of Staburags.
Staburadze's glass: A mirror given to Bearslayer by the Goddess
Staburadze. Evildoers who look into it see
the face of Perkons, and are frozen with terror.
Staburadze's maidens: Beautiful and especially virtuous young women,
who live for a time with Staburadze to be
Staburags [Stu-boo-rugs]: A high cliff above the River Daugava with a
whirlpool at its foot.
Strangers The German knights sent to christianize
Latvia , especially those sent by Innocent III
under the leadership of Albert.
Talvaldis [Tarl-vull-diss]: A Latvian leader; second-in-command to
Bearslayer (although hardly mentioned
in the poem).
Three-Headed Demon: A son of the Old Witch. He lived on the
Enchanted Isle and was killed by Bearslayer.
Tikla [Tick-lu]: The Goddess of Virtue.
Turaida [Too-rye-du]: A Latvian stronghold on the River Gauja NE
of Riga, where Kaupa was the Latvian Lord;
across the river from Dabrels's stockade.
Uzinš [Oo-zinysh]: The God ("patron saint") of Bees (and Horses).
Vaidelots [Vye-de-lwots]: The Messenger of the Gods, who brings news
from them (from Romove) to mortals.
Viduveds [Vid-oo-vads]: A man of legendary wisdom, who lived in the
sixth century; also known in Prussian legends.
Witch (Old Witch): A crone who had authority over the younger
witches in the Devil's Pit. She was the mother
of the Three-, Six- and Nine-Headed Demons
on the Enchanted Isle.
Ziemelis [Zee-em-ell-is]: The North Wind; hostile to human beings.
Zunda [Zuhn-da]: Narrow straits between the Estonian island of
Saaremaa and the Kurzeme Peninsula (i.e., on
the Estonia-Latvia border).