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Materiāls konferencei 2000.gada jūnijā (Norvēģijā, saules izpētes projekta ietvaros)


PREILI, 2000

 To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…
(William Blake)

Lec, Saulīte, rītā agri,
Noej laiku vakarā:
No rītiņa sildīdama,
Vakarā žēlodama.
(Latvian Folk Song)

The Sun - the brightest star in the sky and the closest one to us. The Sun is the source of warmth, light and life. That is the reason why the ancient Latvian people turned attention to various aspects of the Sun, and we find them represented in our national ornament. So we see how one small sign can depict the order of the Universe.


The most common sign of the Sun is a circle. However, very often it also has a multangular shape. There are two main groups:

1) octagonal rosettes,
2) quadrangle signs.

The Sun Tree is also very closely linked to the more ancient signs of the Sun. In Latvian decorative art it appears in many ways, which we can divide into three groups:

1) a simple symbol of Tree without the Sun sign,
2) a combination of the Tree with the sign of the Sun,
3) a very complicated composition, when different signs of the Moon and the Sun are combined.

Each of them has their own story to tell.


The central element among the solar symbols is the Sun. Its graphical presentations can be very different. It is often shown as a circle or a rhomb. There can also be a dot in the middle of the circle or the rhomb. (Pict.1-7)

The symbols of the sun, the solar symbols, spread in Latvia in the late Neolithic era, when they were seen carved on the objects made of horn and bone. As we know, it is the time, when the main branches of the economy were cattle breeding and cultivating of land, so the cycle of the Sun and the Moon took a special place in the life of people. In the early iron epoch these symbols became the main ornamental elements on bronze bracelets, brooches, pins.

In the mid- and late Iron Age. The sign of the Sun is used as an ornamental element on all sorts of decorative articles, which belong to the traditional costume.

The symbol of the Sun is also in the brooches of middle ages - in the traditional form of a circle and in more complicated motives with triangles. (Pict.8) Sometimes the Sun is combined with the signs of the Moon.

In the 18th - 20thcenturies the sign of the Sun is a favourite component part of the geometrical ornament, which appears in all regions of Latvia. Its abundance among other signs in the ornament is surprisingly corresponding to the great variety of folk songs, describing the Sun and its course over the Vault of Heaven.

In Latvian folk songs as a designation of the Sun the following symbols are very often used:

1) the gold apple,
2) the gold pea,
3) the ball,
4) the egg,
5) the gold acorn.

People have given many names to the ornamental Sun. In the 19th century its was called:

1) the flower,
2) the star,
3) the wheel,
4) the spoke.

The course of the Sun over the sky, which is often described in the folk songs, has got its main reflection in the Wheel of Sun. (Picture 9) Its spokes are the symbolic images of rays starting out from the centre of the circle. The small angular Sun sign in the middle of the circle reminds of the nave of a wheel.

The Wheel of Sun is modified into a rosette, which is associated with a flower and is named "the ornament of roses". In the woven cloths the flower-type Sun is very common. (Pict.10) In the ornaments of socks, mittens and gloves different signs are used. The Sun sign takes the most significant place. (Pict.11-12)

Very often it has other complementary signs:

the cross,
the angular Sun,
the Moon
the Sun Tree
the Swastika,
the “zalktis” (the Snake).
The folk song says:

"Visapkārt sīki raksti,
Vidū saule ritināja."
"Tiny signs all around,
In the middle rolling Sun."

Ornaments of the Sun are the most important ornaments in the articles of women’s festivity costume - the blouse, the “villaine” (a woollen shawl of a special type), the crown and the belt. It is also important in the ornaments of gloves mittens and socks, (Pict.13-16) which are presented as gifts to the bridegroom at the wedding. There the symbolic meaning of the Sun presenting the positive energy of life very strongly manifests itself.


A rhomb as an ornamental element spread in the territory of Latvia in the middle of the Stone Age. In many variations it is used in the Neolithic epoch on the articles of pottery. In the epoch of bronze "the pointed rhombs" are used, i.e. the quadrangles, which are divided into four parts with a dot in each of them. This sign is used in later epochs, and it forms the basic type of the angular Sun. In the early Iron Age this sign is used very rarely. Sometimes it appears in the brooches ”sakta”, the decorations of bracelets and also multicolour brooches. In the middle of the iron epoch it is used on the so-called decorative pins, brooches and quite seldom in pottery.

In the late iron epoch the motives of the rhomb are used on the objects made of metal, in the textiles and, especially in Kurzeme, - on the bracelets and brooches. A rhomb is often made from two other signs, for example, the sign of Dievs (God) of two separate zigzag elements. (Pict.35) There are one or four circles in the middle of rombs.

A rhomb as an ornamental element is also used in 17th and 18th centuries for decorating circular silver brooches “sakta”.

In the 19th century the angular sun is called:

1) the garden,
2) the table,
3) the floor,
4) the oak,
5) the pig’s-eye.

In the ethnographic ornament all the types of the angular Sun are used and are formed in very many new ways from the simple rhomb to the many-faceted quadrangle motives. In Latvian art the angle of the sign is usually 900 (straight). Very often there is a dot or a small circle in the middle of the angular Sun. It is an ancient symbol of a field just sown. One of the similarities with the circular Sun is that, they both are united with many other signs. But other signs (as the Sun Tree, the Moon and the Swastika) are made more complicated by introducing the circular Sun in the ornamental compositions. (Pict.17-18)

One of the ways of angular Sun is also the double Cross or the cross star.

The motive of the angular Sun, which has been formed from five quadrangles, arranged in the form of a cross is very often used. The central quadrangle is usually bigger. The other four are placed at the corners of the bigger one.

In the beliefs of ancient Latvians the symbolic meaning of this sign could be close to that of the magic cross “lietuvēna krusts”. The angular Sun is used as an important element in the ornament of blankets, linen cloths, gloves, even architecture. (Pict.19-20)

In the ethnographic material the rhombic Sun is widespread in all regions of Latvia.


The Sun Tree is used in the ornament of many nations in the world. This ornamental sign reminds of a plant, the branches of which begin in the centre and stretch out to the top and to the sides. In literary sources the name of the Sun Tree (most often as the Tree of Life) is very popular. (Pict.21)

In the archaeological material the Sun Tree has almost not been found. Very simple motives, where we can see the first examples of the Sun Tree are found on the articles of ceramics of the late Neolithic era and in the art of the iron epoch. These examples show us the beginning of the Sun Tree in the zigzag motives of different type the “skujiņa” (a fir-tree twig), the Roof and the Moon. (Pict. 22-24)

The Sun Tree has reached the culmination of its development in the first half of 18th and 19th centuries in the decorations of the Latvian national costumes. It has especially complicated and decorative form in the ornament of national costumes in the eastern part of Latvia. (Pict.25-26.) There is the diamond-shaped Sun in the middle or on the top of the Sun Tree and that shows its relevance to other solar symbols.

As one of the versions of the Sun Tree we can distinguish also the so-called Laima’s Broom, (Pict.27) which reminds of the evergreen fir-tree and its needles.

In the Latvian geometrical ornament only the solar symbols - the Sun, the Moon and the Stars - make the Sun tree more complicated. A vase with flowers, plants, birds and animals in the decor on cupboards and chests appear later often as more recent variations of the Sun Tree.


Every festivity in the life of the ancient Latvian people was connected with the course of the Sun in the sky. When the Sun was in a certain position, they celebrated their special festivities. That is the reason why the greatest festivities are called "grieži" (“turning points”), and are connected with the solstice. The calendar was also composed according to the movement of the Sun.

Traditions of every festivity have been connected with obtaining energy from the Sun, of stimulating fertility, protecting people, household and home from all kind of evil spirits.

Latvian people know four main festivities, which are connected with the position of the sun in the sky or the solstice: the winter solstice with the shortest day and the longest night are, the spring solstice and the autumn solstice, when the day is as long as the night and the summer solstice, when we have the shortest night and the longest day.

You can see the annual circle of nature and farmers’ life in these graphs. (Pict.28-29) And it is quite obvious that the circular (dynamic) and quadrangular (static) shapes perfectly resemble the characteristic Sun signs.

Every quarter, divided in two parts, coincides with important changes in nature. So there are eight main events, which our ancestors celebrated and some people still do.

Soon there will be one of these festivities – Jāņi.



Visas puķes uzziedēja,
Papardīte neziedēja;
Tā ziedēja Jāņu nakti,
Zelta miglu miglodama.

All flowers blossomed out,
The fern did not blossom out;
It blossomed out at Jāņi night,
Golden fog radiating.

The summer solstice is the time, when we have the shortest night and the longest day. This is the time when the Sun manifests itself in all its glory.

As it is seen from the graph, the solar radiation in 1999 reaches its yearly climax right in June. (Pict.30-32) One of the most distinguished experts of Latvian folklore E.Melngailis once said: ”Janis is the moment when the Sun has reached the highest point in the sky and it has been waited for the whole year.” The ornamental sign of “Janis” includes the symbol of the Sun. (Pict.33-35)

However, we can point out the ambiguity of the moment which is related to the name of Janis and its possible origins in Latvian culture: “Janis is not related to St. John from the New Testament, but is similar to the double-faced Janus from the Roman mythology. … One of his faces is still turned back to the withdrawing spring while the other is facing the approaching autumn.” This idea was expressed by our famous collector and publisher of folk songs – Krisjanis Barons.

The fern usually does not blossom out, but there is a belief that in the night of Jāņi (June 23-24) it does. The flower of the fern is a symbol of the light of the Sun. So the Sun as if does not stop shining in that night as it does in other nights. Only those who succeed in finding the fern blossom can experience real happiness. However, all have failed so far, but it is most important not to stop trying.

At Jāņi night people always make a bonfire, which is also the symbol of the warmth and light of the Sun. In this way the ancient Latvians thanked the Sun for its care and generosity. So Jani is the time when people as if establish direct contact with the energy coming from the Universe and become aware of the secret rhythm of nature.

The Sun Tree is only one of the graphic symbols denoting this interrelation, no matter if it represents the fern, the oak-tree or the Tall Bean.

This picture is a vivid example of how the signs of the ornament have been connected with the celestial bodies and constellations. (Pict.36-37)


It seems to be worthwhile to consider the ornament signs in connection with a linguistic aspect as regards the word “saule” the Sun in the Latvian language.

Vaira Vīķe – Freiberga (Pict.38-39) has discussed this problem in much detail in her book “The Cosmological Sun”.

In a surprisingly concise form only by adding prefixes to the word “saule” (the Sun) it has been possible to construct a model of the Universe. (Pict.40)

There are two ways how to show the model of the Universe: the vertical and the horizontal.

“Tiny ornaments all around,
In the middle passed the Sun.”

Judging from these words the Sun is in the centre of everything. The world (pasaule) – the place where we are living – under the Sun, but beyond the Sun (aizsaule or viņsaule) – the place where dead souls and the God are living – the other side of the Sun.

An interesting fact – beyond the Sun can be under the Sun and also above the Sun. So this world and that world are closely connected.

“Noiet saule vakarā, zeltābolu mētādama;
No rītiņa uzlēkdama, sijā tīru sudrabiņu.”
The Sun sets in the evening, tossing a gold apple;
In the morning rising, pours clean silver.

“Šī saulīte man zināma
Viņsaule nezināma.”
This world is known to me
That world is unknown.

It must be mentioned that Latvian fairy – tales give a perfect example of the specific interpretation of the cosmological structure. The traditional Latvian folktale motive refers to an orphan girl, who accidentally drops her spindle into the well and her cruel stepmother makes her jump into the well to find it. (Pict.41-42)

“The orphan girl all in tears hurried to the well and in she jumped. But what a miraculous sight! AS she had jumped in she found herself in a green meadow with sheep grazing and a shepherd looking after them”.

Sometimes the framework of a well is presented by the “sign of well” (Pict.43). What you actually see is a modification of the diamond-shaped sign of the Sun.

What is most surprising the relativity of where ‘that world” can be found is connected with the people’s moral standards. It depends on everyone’s own choice and conscience whether they get into the Hell or into the Heaven.

Most important is that this centuries old heritage is a live source of inspiration and creative interpretation for many modern artists. The Sun sign in most diverse images is used in connection with nation- wide events like Folk festivals and Song and Dance festivals. (Pict.44-45) Some of the artists may show the ancient signs and images in a new light and from a different point of view. (Pict.46)

A long time had passed before we developed our written language. Now we can write about everything we want. Everyone will understand … Not many of us can read ornamental language, but it also tells us about how the ancient people lived, what their perception of life, nature and the Universe was.

Ornamental signs were used not only as the décor, it was a way of communication. Now we look upon it only as a décor. But we should not forget the specific language of the ancient people, as it is a way to get more information about them.

If we learn to read these old signs we can discover similar thoughts, the same festivities, forgotten traditions and feelings. Only folk songs, fairy-tales and ornamental signs can lead us to the mysterious world of the past, or maybe the present and the future.

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