Wednesday, November 3, 2010

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The 4th Awakening

9 The Flag of Johns, 1873
As important as choir singing is for upholding the identity of the Latvian community, the topic of the first Latvian flag is no less so. I am talking about what is commonly known as the “Līhgo” flag.

 “Lihgo” is like “halleluiah!” In fact, one can hear “lihgo” in the second part of “halleluiah!”: halle + luia. Halle stands for the German word Heilig, Holy. A rough English translation of the meaning of lihgo might be “We are on a swing! Praise be!” The spirit corresponds to the famous Shaker song, “Simple Gifts”, these days known also as “The Lord of the Dance”.

The Lihgo Flag is not a modern flag. Its design resembles that of a church icon made of cloth. It was common in former days for churches to present themselves with a flag. Such flags, while still fairly common in some areas of the world, may nevertheless be viewed as remnants from days that preceded the iconoclasts (the image or icon breakers) of our day. One such flag was the Latvian “Lihgo flag”. The flag pictures John cum Latvis after a drawing by Baumanu Karlis, an artist well known among Latvians.

What is unique about this first Latvian flag are the images it holds, and the images which it excludes that are a part of the original drawing.

In the original, we see a hand drawn John or Jahnis. By appearances, he is a priest presiding at an altar at the time of a sacrifice. A fire burns on the altar, but there is no obvious object of sacrifice on it. All we see is a small fire and billowing white smoke. Yet, while the sacrificial object is conspicuous by its absence, John nevertheless manages to confirm the solemnity of the moment by holding in his right hand an oak leaf branch. The image of John on the flag remains as it appears in the original.

As for the representations that are present in the original hand-drawn image, but are missing from the flag, well, we may quibble about it. In the artist’s own work the crown of an oak tree hovers over the altar in a way that one can visualize in the crown the head of a stag or a bison. This seeing or “reading into” the picture is absent from the flag. Behind the oak, in what appears to be a forest clearing, the original shows standing a large congregation of people. For the artist the congregation is most probably a visual meme of Herrnhuter meetings under the open sky when the days were sunny. This congregation is also absent from the flag.

Such details may have been omitted from the flag, because a needle and a thread do not lend themselves to as easy manipulation as an artist’s pen or pencil. Nevertheless, the details in the drawing are important, because they offer a look into the hundred and thirty year history of Herrnhuters in Latvia not yet severed from the history of Latvia that is soon to follow.

However, we do see signs or hints of a new mindset about to unleash itself. Note that the priest at the altar in no way resembles a Herrnhutian. Herrnhuters were activists, artisans who participated in the daily life of the surrounding population to better be evangelists for the Awakening. The priest or John that we see is presented with a hint that he is career priest already.

Also, the priest, or kriv, or John, or Latvos, or Latvis (whatever you may choose to call him) may seem stagy. Still, the oak tree continues to speak loudly for a forest people, rather than pa-Yans, or pagans. Note how some of the people at the edge of the forest wear oak leaf wreaths.

What we are witnessing when we look at the image drawn by Baumanu Kārlis and then at the copy that appears on the flag is called editing, making small changes to change the perception of the story, in this case  history, in the eyes of future generations. The more simplified an image becomes, the less questions arise in the mind of the beholders. It should not therefore come as a surprise that the flag is nearly forgotten today and is shaken free of its mothballs only on the occasion of the Song Festival once every four years.

The changes in the image of the first Latvian flag tell us of the mutilation of not only the history of Latvia, but also of Latvian mythology. The mutilation is deliberate. As one writer points out: “There is… a history of mythology”.* Of course, some of the changes made to a myth, even demythification, may sometimes be justified. For example, the Bible is an early attempt at demythification. On the other hand, the Greek philosopher Plato’s criticism of Homer and suggestion that poets be silenced so that the “ideal” is realized all the sooner led to Stalin’s terror campaign against Russian poets and all independently thinking people.

The problem for the Latvian national community is that it is not told of these changes to its mythology. The rewriting of myth occurs by authoritarian decree, usually through the collaboration of the state and the orthodox church subservient to it. Then the edited myth or story is propagated by an ill informed intelligentsia and public. Sometimes the authoritarian agency needs to be no further removed from the people than a parliamentary democracy.

Asterisks & Links of Interest
* Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p 74, The John Hopkins University Press, 1986.
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