Legends and symbols of Vilnius

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1. Gediminas’ Dream

People have lived in the territory of present-day Vilnius since the end of the Palaeolithic era. Hunters came to the area in search of woolly rhinos and mammoths, whose bones were found in the Antakalnis district in the 20th century after being buried in the ground for some 14,000 years. But the history of Vilnius as a capital city began during the rule of Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, as told by a legend recorded in the 16th century, two hundred years after Gediminas’ death. According to the legend, Gediminas spent the night in the Šventaragis Valley during one of his hunting trips and dreamt that a huge iron wolf was standing on the Curved Hill, howling as if there were a hundred wolves inside him. The sage Lizdeika interpreted the dream by saying that a capital city would one day stand in that exact place and that news of it will spread around the world. This story is similar to the legend of the Roman wolf. Professional mythologists Gintaras Beresnevičius and Algirdas Julius Greimas researched the legend of the founding of Vilnius. Greimas wrote, “I am convinced that the myth is ingrained in the people living in Vilnius. Oh how they proudly speak about Vilnius and how they believe in its mission!”

2. St. Christopher and the coat of arms of Vilnius

St. Christopher is considered the patron saint of travellers, but his symbol has a different meaning in the centuries-old coat of arms of Vilnius. The change of meaning occurred in the 14th century when Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, granted Vilnius the right of self-governance in 1387. He was baptised in Krakow a year later and the Lithuanian nobility was baptised in Vilnius in February and March of 1387, while the townspeople and residents were baptized soon after. St. Christopher bearing baby Jesus was then chosen as the seal of Vilnius and the coat of arms to signify the spread of Christianity, an extremely important event for the entire country. Today, St. Christopher reminds us that we were the last baptized country in Europe, and we were the only ones to make a civilizational leap. Through baptism, we have become an integral part of Europe.

3. Underground Legends: Basilisk

Various legends recount the horrors lurking in the city’s dungeons, which were documented at the beginning of the 18th century during the rule of Sigismund Augustus. It was said that the Basilisk, a lizard or a snake with a crowned rooster head known from ancient times, could kill with its glance. People managed to outwit and kill the Basilisk. The legend became part of the city’s folklore and it has been stirring people’s imaginations ever since – there’s an abundance of stories about the mythical creature.

4. The Drama of the Vilnius Crosses

The three crosses are an integral part of Vilnius and only acquired their current concrete form during the rampage of the First World War. Architect Antanas Vivulskis designed the crosses but the Soviet government decided to blow the symbols up in May of 1950. For almost 40 years, the crosses did not stand atop the hill overlooking Vilnius but laid on the ground rotting. However, they did not fade away from people’s memory. As soon as the Soviet regime weakened, the crosses were rebuilt on the initiative of active people. Now, the white crosses are lit in various colours to commemorate public holidays and to honour foreign states.

5. The legend of the Vilnius Dybbuk

Every decent medieval town was filled with ghosts that loved earthly riches, ordinary women who turned into witches, and every Jewish quarter in Eastern Europe had its own Dybbuk. In Vilnius, an evil spirit that scared people and made them suffer played in the basement of a house on Stiklių Street. Legend has it that the Vilnius Gaon performed the exorcism session that finally drove the Dybbuk out of Vilnius in the 18th century. Of course, the legends keep quiet about all the details, like where the Dybbuk went after it was driven out of the old cellar on Stiklių Street.

6. The Gates of Dawn

Ten gates were built into the defensive wall surrounding Vilnius at the beginning of the 16th century. Only the Gates of Dawn (or Ostra Brama in Polish) remain to this day. Their defensive function is lost to the past, but the gates have become a significant symbol for the two nationalities in Vilnius – Lithuanians and Poles. Famous for its miracles and graces, the 17th-century painting of the Mother of Mercy hangs in the Chapel of the Gate. The importance this piece has for worshipers is evident from the abundance of pilgrims and the thousands of votive offerings (ex-votos) found there. The Mother of Mercy painting was worshiped locally for a long time; however, after the divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the painting and the Gates of Dawn became a symbol of the fight for freedom. Although the coronation ceremony of the painting performed in 1927 was considered ambiguous, the cult of the Mother of Mercy only intensified.

7. Frank Zappa as a symbol of newly discovered freedom in Vilnius

If you think the winds of freedom in Vilnius are only blowing in Užupis, you will be surprised by a visit to a small square near the Vilnius Central Clinic. A monument to Frank Zappa has been standing there since 1995. It is unclear whether this American musician had ever even heard of Vilnius, but in the wild nineties his name became a part of the city’s history. The artists initiating the construction of the monument sent a more universal message: if the monument to Zappa – a man who didn’t fit in frames – can stand here, then the city also has room for newly discovered freedom. 25 years later, the creator of the Frank Zappa monument, photographer Saulius Paukštys, decided to test whether the idea of ​​Vilnius’ freedom had fallen asleep again. In 2015, he initiated the building of a monument dedicated to John Lennon and the Beatles in a square near Mindaugo Street. He was another artist who visited Vilnius only with his music, but inspired cosmopolitan ideas of freedom that are still reflected in works by local artists today.
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