“Old blood – The Yotvingians' story”
Young Miłejko stood over a body of a dead knight. He looked at his white capote, now earthy and bloodstained, at the black cross - the symbol of a new faith. It was his first Teutonic knight. He felt as proud as when he shot a deer with beautiful antlers. Nothing more, neither hate or dilemma. He took his life. He had to, otherwise he would lose his own, his mother, his sister... He fought to protect them to protect the family. His father said that their gens have been living in these lands for hundreds of years. White capotes appeared recently. They did not try to communicate, trade, like other people. They destroyed. They immediately set up their God over people living here. They found their beliefs, their values, their life are better. They did not understand and did not want to understand. A blood flowed in Miłejko's veins was as old as this land. He and his gens lived in harmony with Mother Nature and her rules. She gave and took. Miłejko knew every tree, every stone and every stream here. He knew which berry would give life and which would take it. White capotes slammed into his land, his world. They did not understand that Mother Nature would protect her children, hide them in the thickets of her leaves from the evil eye.
But an Old Woman prophesied the end of their world. Last summer a holy oak was struck by lightning. The tree was killed instantly. Miłejko was hard to believe. He could not imagine another life. He could not imagine that white capotes would dominate his world.
Unfortunately, the prophetess was right. The Teutonic Knights, bitter in promoting their faith using fire and sword, in the course of time became better acquainted with the forest, which gave shelter and advantage to Yotvingians (Polish name - Jaćwingowie). Over time they have displaced indigenous people from these areas. Those who survived assimilated with the Lithuanian population. Names such as: Gedymin, Olgerd, Jagaił are Yotvingians’ names.
The above story comes from my imagination. However it could have happened. It is worth answering the question here:
Who were Yotvingians?
They did not write, so no first hand source survived. Our knowledge of them is derived from Polish, Teutonic and Lithuanian chronicles and from excavations. Many secrets concerning that people remain unresolved to this day.
Jan Długosz, describing in his Annals the military expedition of Bolesław the Chaste to fight against Yotvingians in 1264, characterised the people as follows:
"The people of Yotvingians lives in the northern part, borders on Mazovia, Ruthenia and Lithuania, and has a language similar to a large extent to that of Prussians and Lithuanians and comprehensible to them; and Yotvingians are savage, belligerent and so hungry for fame and remembrance that ten of them fought a hundred enemies driven only by this hope and awareness that after their death and destruction other Yotvingians would glorify them in songs of their brave deeds. This disposition brought about their destruction, because a small handful was easily defeated when outnumbered so that slowly almost all their people died out as no one among them refrained from unequal fight or tried to flee after engaging in combat."
The origin of Yotvingians can be traced back to Western Baltic people who arrived on the territory of today’s Suwałki (Sudovia) region before the Common Era.
Yotvingian territory; source Internet
They lived in family-based structures; with time they started to build regular settlements with fortified towns, breed cattle and cultivate land. Their main developed occurred at the time when the amber route prospered: they proved to be good traders and craftsmen. They were specialists in bronze and silver processing. Then they mastered the skill of iron smelting. They forged weapons and were excellent riders. Being valorous, they expanded their territory, mainly in rivalry with the inhabitants of Mazovia, Ruthenia and Lithuania. Eventually, the powerful kingdom of Bolesław the Brave – the united land of Polans developed right at their borders. Yotvingians were unable to unite, create a community under the leadership of a single chief. Instead, chiefs from individual families were in constant rivalry, debilitating one another. In the later history of the people there were attempts to unite individual tribes but the road to the establishing of a uniform state was still long.The 13th century came. A new enemy appeared – the Teutonic Order, which received land from Konrad of Masovia. The mission of the knights wearing white cloaks with black crosses was to eradicate paganism. They first focused on Prussians. Having defeated Prussians, the Teutonic knights began to “convert” the neighbouring Yotvingians, who put up resistance for about 30 years.
The nature was on the side of Yotvingians. Their castles were hidden in the forest. Its density was the greatest obstacle to the Teutonic knights. However, with time they began to get to know the area better and better, whereas Yotvingians did not learn any lessons, they ignored the risk and still did not unite. At the end of the day they lost. Most men were killed. Women and children were displaced. Survivors fled mainly to the territory of today’s Belarus. A certain stage in the history of the Suwałki region came to an end. With time the land formerly inhabited by Yotvingians was partitioned between Poland, Lithuania and the Teutonic Order.
Yotvingians' wear; source Internet
Although Yotvingians lived on the territory of today’s Suwałki region for over a millennium, little has survived to this day:
- Fortified castles in Szurpiły, Jegliniec, Sudawskie, Osinki and smaller settlements in Klejwy between the Szejpiszki and Klejwy lakes. The town of Wiżajny (the church now stands on the site of the old castle) and the Wigry monastery were built on the site of the old Yotvingian fortified settlements;
- Yotvingian cemeteries in Szwajcaria, Bilwinowo, Prudziszki, Żywa Wodza, Osowa, Osinki and on Góra Cmentarna (the Cemetery Mountain) on the Szurpiły lake;
- Names of the lakes, rivers, nature reserves as well as of some towns, e.g. Hańcza, Wigry, Wiżajny, Szurpiły, Szelment.
I will describe in detail three sites which reflect the nature of Yotvingians:
An impregnable fortress.
One of the best known places related to the Yotvingian culture is the compound of three hills in the town of Szurpiły, where the tribal centre was once located. It was situated on three moraine hills, which are known nowadays by the names: the Castle Mountain of (Polish name - Góra Zamkowa), the Church Mountain (Polish name - Góra Kościelna) and the Cemetery Mountain (Polish name - Góra Cmentarna). A fortified castle, whose nature was mainly defensive, was situated on the Castle Mountain. The location was excellent: on a hill surrounded by lakes and the double line of bulwarks with watch towers. Causeways built there allowed the water around the hill to bank up and the bridge leading to the castle could, in the event of siege, be immediately destroyed making access to the hill more difficult.
the designment settlement in Szurpiły; source Internet
At the feet of the castle there were settlements, where people lived their regular lives. The largest settlements included the so called Market Place (Polish name - Targowisko) – a settlement with regular buildings. Crafts flourished there. Also, in the vicinity there was no shortage of “farms” providing food. The whole area was surrounded with bulwarks which did not survive to our time. In the event of an invasion inhabitants of the settlements took refuge in the castle and the surrounding lakes, apart from having defensive value, additionally provided the people with water and food.
the reconstruction of settlement in Szurpiły surce Internet
Within the compound there were two other hills of more mystical nature. Traces of a necropolis were found on the Cemetery Mountain and the Church Mountain was probably a site of cult.
the Church Mountain view; photo P. Jarkiewicz
To sum up, it was a huge fortress, practically impregnable. It flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries and in the 13th century it was suddenly abandoned.
Some sources say that the fortress was never penetrated by enemies, but after the conquest of the land where Yotvingians lived people abandoned the place. Other sources present a much darker story. After a few months of a siege laid to the fortress by the Teutonic knights, people of weak character betrayed opening the castle gates to the enemy at night. As a result, Szurpiły experienced the same fate as the ancient Troy. It can be hardly found out today what really happened because chronicles do not contain any mention of this fortress being taken.
Apart from the bulwarks nothing has survived to this day. However, it is worth climbing the stairs to the top of the Castle Mountain to stand on the site where the castle was once located and imagine what people’s life back then was like. An additional attraction is the beautiful view of the vicinity and the lakes surrounding the hill. The history of the place and the customs of the people who used to live there are presented on information boards along the route.
The view from the Castle Mountain; photo P. Jarkiewicz
Those interested in esoteric matters may find the other two hills of interest. A very strong energy can be felt on the Church Mountain and on the Cemetery Mountain and dowsing devices virtually “go mad” there. Sensitive individuals may feel pressure inside their heads or faster heartbeat. Force emanates from this place.
It is worth mentioning briefly the Yotvingian beliefs.
They were closely linked to nature, which was reflected in their beliefs. They worshipped many deities which took care of various aspects of nature: from a god of the earth, through a god of sky to deities responsible for individual animals.
The sites of cult were copses, ponds, streams, individual trees and stones. Such a site was excluded from “public life”, that is there was no fishing, no water was taken and no land was cultivated there. Only priests who took care of the sacred fire had access to the site of cult. People contacted the deities through the priests and soothsayers. Soothsaying was an important element in decision making. When it was not auspicious, plans were given up. In return for securing a successful result, e.g. in hunting or in a war campaign, Yotvingians shared their trophies with the deities by making sacrifices or giving feasts (e.g. the origin of the today’s custom of the harvest festival dates back to the customs of Yotvingians, who thanked their deities for a plentiful crop).
In the case of the settlement in Szurpiły the site of cult could have been the pond situated in the middle between the Castle, Church and Cemetery Mountains.
the road at the bottom of the Castle Mountain leading to the Church Mountain and the Cemetery Mountain; photo P. Jarkiewicz
A necropolis full of life.
It is a Yotvingian cemetery in the town of Szwajcaria (near Suwałki). It contains a series of tumuli dated for the period between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE. It is situated on a larger area, currently covered with a forest. It is here, among the trees and signing birds, that stone-and-earth mounds as well as “flat graves” in burial and burning funerary rituals are hidden. In total about 300 burials were discovered on the area (!). A reserve has been established and exists now on the area.
Yotvingians would like this idea. Their burial sites are now an integral element of nature in harmony with which they lived.
sanctuary Yotvingians Cemetery; photo P. Jarkiewicz
Yotvingian attitude to death.
Yotvingians believed in “life after life”. It was to be a reflection of the earthly life. They equipped their dead with objects of daily use. Warriors were buried with weapons, even with their horses, women – with jewellery. In the 2nd century CE the dead were buried – burial funerary rituals. From the 3rd century the practice of burning the corpses on funeral pyres began. The ashes were then deposited under mounds called tumuli. The tumulus was 5 – 10 m in diameter. Very well-ff individuals and chiefs were buried under mounds whose height reached up to 20 m.
Yotvingians believed in transmigration of souls. After death the soul chose another body, not necessarily human. One could be reborn e.g. as an animal. The belief in rebirth of the souls was combined with the philosophy of self-improvement.
The Yotvingians’ settlement (Szurpiły) and the Yotvingians’ necropolis (Szwajcaria); the film made by: P. Jarkiewicz and K. Drywa
Memory eternally alive.
Particular attention should be paid to the reconstruction of a Yotvingians’ settlement in the village Oszkinie near the town Puńsk. In this place we can admire not only buildings from those days but also take positive energy. The buildings are located on a large area inside a forest. Except the settlement and a hill fort, we have also reconstructed places of force: sacred groves, sacred pools and stone altars.
the sacred grove; photo P. Jarkiewicz
the sacred grove; film P. Jarkiewicz
the stone altar; picture P. Jarkiewicz
the stone altar in Yotvingian settlement (Oszkinie)
We all come across the symbolism associated with Prussians and Yotvingians.
photo P. Jarkiewicz
There is also a beautiful alley with boulders, on which are painted effigies of Prussians and Yotvingians lords.
photo P. Jarkiewicz
This is a private initiative. The owner - Mr. Piotr Łukaszewicz is passionate the history and customs of the region in which he lives. He can embroider visit colourful stories, rich in many unknown details.
the hill fort; photo P. Jarkiewicz
the settlement; photo P. Jarkiewicz
The good energy of this place improves our well-being and thoughts. Heals the physical body and soul. I visited this place during convalescence after surgery and I liked to stay in the place where the sacred grove is located. In such places, once the Yotvingians’ priests were celebrating their rituals, burning sacred flames and sacrificing their goods sacrifices from grain, flowers or salt. It is worthwhile to sit down for a moment without regard to the mosquitos enticed by a nearby pond and experience the respite from the rush of everyday life.
convalescence after surgery in the sacred grove
the holly pond; photo P. Jarkiewicz
This document was prepared including with the following sources:
 Jan Długosz, Roczniki, czyli kroniki sławnego Królestwa Polskiego ks. VII-VIII (Annals or Chronicles of the Famous Kingdom of Poland, Books 7-8), translation into English from the Polish version as translated from Latin by Julia Mruwkówna, ed. Danuta Turkowska and Maria Kowalczyk, PWN, Warsaw 1974, pp. 177-180