by Vilija Witte

First publish in "Sacred Serpent", issues one and two, 1994.

As much as the Greeks described Balts as "pyrolatrians" (fire worshippers), no sacred grove with its 'eternal flame' was complete without its guardian serpent. Snakes were also kept in the home, near the hearth fire and scrupulously cared for by the inhabitants. And as Jesuit missionaries reported in 1604:

The people have reached such a stage of madness that they believe that deity exists in reptiles. Therefore they carefully safeguard them, lest someone injure the reptiles kept inside their homes. Superstitiously they believe that harm would come to them, should anyone show disrespect to these reptiles...

The reptiles that the missionaries refer to are not harmful to man. The Balts would not keep such a creature in the home where children played. The sacred serpents in question are the harmless grass snakes indigenous to the Baltic region, natrix tripodontus, known to Balts as zalciai (pl.) or the singular form zaltys (pronounced zhal-TEES).

The woodland variety is dark grey in colour, while those snakes dwelling close to human habitats are usually green. Some have two distinctive crescent shapes on the tops of their heads.

The Serpent King in the myth of "Egle" is a zaltys.

A zaltys can be symbolic of many things. On one level, these serpents are associated with sexual life and encountering a snake prophesied marriage or birth. I t was a fortunate thing to have a zaltys in one's home, where it had a privileged place under the bed of a married couple or a place of honour at the table. Zaltys brings happiness and prosperity and the element of fertility is essential to the concept of prosperity. Zaltys also ensures the fertility of the soil and the increase of the family.

To this day in Lithuanian, rooftop crossbeams are occasionally topped with carvings of reptilian shape, to ensure the well-being of the family.

If one comes upon such a serpent, (a good omen), one allows it to pass in peace. If a farmer came upon zaltys in a field, he would refrain from mowing that spot, so that the serpent would not be disturbed. As a symbol of life energy, the zaltys is not to be killed.

Saule, the Sun Goddess, loves zalciai (ZHAL-chay) (pl.). A proverb says: "Do not leave a dead zaltys on a field, bury it. The sight of a dead zaltys would cause the Sun to cry."

As the zalciai are often observed basking in Her rays, it is said that they derive their life-promoting, creative and healing energy from the Sun. The Sun and the snake share a regenerative life force.

Zaltys possesses the knowledge of healing and healing herbs. Lithuanian women, to this day, carry dried snakes or segments of a snake's spine on their necks for protection against diseases. Eating a cooked snake, restored one's sight.

The cult of the household God - Pagirnis, is closely related to the snake cult. It is believed that the family's ancestors reside in the household zaltys. Pagirnis guards over the family's zaltys and the farm's wealth.

This cult of Pagirnis stems from ancestor worship. He resides in a corner of the house, under the mill-stone, near the hearth. This is why this corner of the house was considered holy- a place where magical rites and family rituals were observed.

Zaltys or the snake is also related to the World Tree. In this case, zaltys becomes a symbol of the life-force in vegetation and Mother Earth. The theme of woman, serpent and tree are seen in the Lithuanian myth of "Egle, Queen of Serpents", the Bible and other pagan myths.

Sources: Prane Dunduliene, Senoves lietuviu mitologoja ir religija. Mokslo leidykla, Vilnius,1990.