Lāčplēsis – The Bear-Tearer

[by Aaron Chivington]

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Latvians faced the task of creating an identity relieved of the burden of foreign control, part of the simultaneous construction of a new state. Lāčplēsis served as a symbol from which Latvians would then forge an identity that would inform their actions during the transition from Soviet Republic to independent state. Through various adaptations, Lāčplēsis became a non-violent folk-historical figure, who appeared in times of need and lurked in the minds of Latvians in times of peace.

Unlike the epic heroic traditions of Scotland, England, Germany and France, the Latvians, as well as other Baltic peoples, did not necessarily have an epic folk tradition. In the 19th century as national ideas emerged and social and political tensions rose, Latvians began searching for their own Ossian or King Arthur. Anatol Lieven writes that “the authors of the national folk epics, and in Lithuania, the recreators of Lithuanian history and folklore, did indeed ‘invent a tradition’ which stretched back into an imaginary past and influenced a real national future (Lieven,121).

This invented tradition was to serve three purposes according to Lieven. “They were, in the view of the intelligentsia, true ‘folk-epics’, emerging from genuine, ancient folk traditions and ‘mirroring the nation’s soul’; they were proof that the Baltic languages could produce great modern writers; and they gave a history, and a sense of history, to peoples who possessed neither” (ibid.). This underscores the importance of Lāčplēsis to the Latvians, who at the epic’s creation, felt that they lacked the national legitimacy of other European states (ibid., 118).

Andrejs Pumpurs, a Latvian poet, forged the first Latvian national identity, when in 1888 he created the first written national epic, in the form of an “epic song” (Šmidchens, 488). Lāčplēsis (The Bear Tearer) was originally named Lāčausis (Bear’s Ears). This liberty with name demonstrates the first time Latvians felt obliged to alter the story and physical characteristics of their national folk-hero. Pumpurs felt that he was helping change the image of a still young and immature Latvian people. He described this transformation of Latvian identity: “The heroes of legends become heroes of the nation, they struggle and die for the freedom and independence of the Latvian nation” (ibid.). Šmidchens argues that Lāčplēsis is unusual “due to its explicit defense of liberal democracy” (ibid., 496). Of course the idea of liberal democracy was not present in the thirteenth-century, the setting of Lāčplēsis, but Pumpurs purposefully fused Lāčplēsis with a modern political message (ibid.).

The evolution of Lāčplēsis witnessed three phases. The original epic-song by Pumpurs in 1888 was followed by Rainis’s 1905 stage play that added two central female figures. The final major phase began in 1988 when Mara Zalite introduced the Rock Opera Lāčplēsis, in which the hero chose to be a hero, rather than being born one (ibid., 499). Through these phases Lāčplēsis became more and more ‘human,’ as Šmidchens would argue. Rainis’s play introduced two female characters. Spidola, the witch, and Laimdota, Lāčplēsis’ fiancée, were present in the original epic by Pumpurs, but beginning with Rainis’s play, they adopted a more central and influential role. When deciding whether or not to fight the Black Knight, Spidola, the reformed witch, served as Lāčplēsis’ conscience, pleading with him not to act with violence. Lāčplēsis did fight, and he died in battle, but it is understood that this happened because he chose to fight instead of “changing upward”, that is avoiding violence (ibid., 498). The text of Rainis’s characters explained this defeat: “He had failed to rise above the world of political violence” (ibid., 499). Imants Ziedonis, a Latvian poet, wrote in 1983, “Bearslayer lost because he struck with his sword”, making non-violence the only appropriate path for the Latvians (ibid.).

Mara Zalite’s Rock Opera took the biggest liberties with the ‘original’ story. As Šmidchens writes:

In 1988, Bearslayer is not born a hero but chooses to become one. He learns of the futility of using violence against evil through his battles with a three-headed demon, a six-headed demon, and a nine-headed demon; as he lops off head after head, new heads keep appearing. “Chop away as much as you like, evil remains,” the nine-headed demon taunts him (ibid., 499-500).

Unlike prior tellings, Lāčplēsis decided not to kill the demon. He allowed the last head to live, on the condition that the demon restore to life all those he had turned to stone (ibid., 500). This abandonment of violence was intended to serve as an example for the Latvian people. This brought about “an awakening of the people, a return to humanity after inhumane imprisonment” (ibid.). The success of this new version was marked by forty-three sold-out performances viewed by upwards of 180,000 people. Šmidchens remarks that this “is remembered as a central event in the mass movement for Latvia’s independence” (ibid., 499).

The construction of this hero from myth to national hero demonstrates perhaps the nation’s desire for a unified history and cultural history. The ease with which the Latvians have accepted alterations to their epic hero though does not come without problems. Lāčplēsis means Bear Tearer, but he is now no longer tearing bears. Instead he would spare the life of the bear. His original name would be more true, but even this poses a problem to Latvians. A man with bear ears would be laughed at with respect to the other epic European heroes. Lāčplēsis serves as a contradiction on multiple levels, but the Latvians have adopted him, in all of his forms, as an embodiment of who they are and who they should be.


Works cited

  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Guntis Šmidchens, “National Heroic Narratives in the Baltics as a Source for Nonviolent Political Action,” Slavic Review 66, no. 3 (2007), 484-508.