In Latvian lore, not much is remembered of Austra—the goddess whose sister-selves include the other Dawn goddesses of the Indo-European diaspora: Ushas, Eos, Aurora, Ostara, Easter, among others—except for her name and her symbol.

Each of the Old Gods of the Baltic pantheon is associated with a particular sigil that has been faithfully transmitted through folk-art—in particular weaving and embroidery—down to our own day. Saule (Sun) has a sun-wheel, Mēness (Moon) a crescent, Pērkons (Thunder) the thunder-cross (fylfot), and the like (Dzērvītis112ff.).

Since Austra, by her very nature, does not readily lend herself to depiction—how does one draw a picture of light, of color?—her symbol is Austras koks, “Austra's tree.” This makes eminent sense, since trees capture both the first and last light of the day, even when the Sun is not yet (or is no longer) above the horizon. In Latvian lore Austra's tree is said to have copper roots, silver leaves, and golden branches (Dzērvītis 115).

Read figuratively, this describes the colors of the great Tree of the East as it shines with the new light of dawn. Read literally, the image may sound to the modern ear both artificial and unnatural. But to the ancestors, for whom the natural was commonplace and artifice precious, the image would have expressed the transformation of the everyday into the extraordinary.

 

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Latvian folk-poetry is filled with images of the natural-become-artificial, which eloquently articulate those moments when suddenly the natural world, transfigured by interaction with the human mind, shines forth with the light of the holy. The image of Austra's Tree is, of course, used to decorate Easter eggs (Newall 280), frequently in association, as one might expect, with Sun-symbols; it is mentioned in folk poetry, and a folk tune of the name, recently recorded by the remarkable Latvian drum-and-bagpipe band Auli, has survived as well. (It may be heard, with variations, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj3DsuQBH48.)

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So far as I have been able to determine, no words to the tune have been preserved; what follows is wholly my own offering, in which I have attempted to remain as faithful to tradition as possible. If each stanza is repeated, these words may be sung to the original tune.

The scenario is that of two lovers meeting in a spring dawn at their accustomed trysting-tree. As the young man approaches, he sees first the tree silhouetted against the dawn sky, gilded by its colors and then, as he draws nearer, the woman he loves standing beneath it. Dawn, tree, and woman become one as he rushes to embrace them.

Tree of Dawn

In the east there stands a birch-tree:

silver are her leaves, copper are her roots,

and her branches, gold.

 

Dawn, shining maiden, Dawn, my beloved,

Dawn, run to greet her, Dawn, radiant Dawn.

 

Bibliography

Dzērvītis, Aleksandra. 1973. Latvju Raksti/Latvian Design. Toronto. Amber Publishers, Ltd.

Newall, Venetia. 1971. An Egg at Easter: A Folklore Study. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Trinkūnas, Jonas (ed.). 1999. Of Gods & Holidays: The Baltic Heritage. Vilnius: Tvermė.

Watkins, Calvert. 1979. “Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Discography

Auli. 2010. “Austras Koks.” Etnotrans. Riga: Westpark Access 2253202. Compact disc.