Next Stop: Ragutis, the God of Beer 🇱🇹
Pouring one out for the ancestors.
I'm a food and travel writer from the shores of Lake Erie, now based in Berlin. I attempt to send out weekly essays on my latest mishaps and travels around the globe and in the kitchen. If you would like to support my work, please consider sharing this newsletter with a friend or acquaintance (I’m not picky).
I was listening to a podcast about Lithuanian history and food culture just days before my relatively impromptu trip to Vilnius, the capital. The hosts devoted two episodes to the country. I remember thinking to myself in between sets at the gym (yeah, I go to the gym, no big deal), “I’m not really absorbing any of this.” There were lots of mentions about potatoes, potatoes, and some more potatoes. But the list of dishes in the Lithuanian language stumbled incoherently past my ears.
Of course as soon as I had that thought, one of the hosts mentioned something that did stick with me––a fellow by the name of Ragutis.
Okay, “fellow” is underselling it. Ragutis is the god of beer in Lithuania’s pagan tradition, Romuva. The hosts mentioned that there remains a relatively prominent pagan community in the country, a legacy of Lithuania’s comparatively late adoption of Christianity. This fact came up a few times during my visit, almost like a kind of humble brag. A waitress even mentioned it in reference to the extra fasting medieval Lithuanian dukes would participate in to prove to the Pope that they really weren’t “wild pagans” anymore.
Except, as I was about to find out, some Lithuanians are still pagans.
I sent a reminder to pick up on this after I got back from the gym. “Beer god,” I emailed myself.
A connection with Vilnius’ tourism bureau led me to the Romuva website. Romuva is the name of the religion based on ancient Lithuanian faith. I reached out and mentioned I was interested in learning about their community and beer god. Inija Trinkūnienė, a Priestess of Romuva, pointed me to Ignas and Ugnius––two members of the community who agreed to meet me at the altar to Ragutis in Vilnius’ old town.
“Altar” makes it sound larger than it is. Imagine a medium-sized boulder with an enclosed flame burning in front of it next to a small wreath, ironically next to a Russian Orthodox church (or just look at the photo at the top). Ugnius mentions that he’s not super involved with the community, but he runs events for them. You can see some pretty slick videos here and here showing the community, dressed in medieval-looking garb, participating in different ceremonies and drinking booze from animal horns. It’s all very Games of Thrones-y to the untrained eye.
You’re probably wondering, like I was, why pagan in 2022?
The answer was surprisingly relatable.
Ignas, the priest, boiled it down to respecting their ancestors and the traditions of their ancestors. Christianity, now overwhelmingly the predominant religion of Lithuania, is not native to the Baltics. The religion was forced upon the people, resulting in one of the most violent periods of Christianization in European history.
Besides, many of the traditions Lithuanians habitually follow stem from pagan traditions that the church adopted to ease the transition––in itself a familiar story. Case in point, people have been decorating their homes with evergreen trees long before a certain wine maker roamed the Judean desert. But one tradition I wasn’t aware of is the custom of pouring a drop of your beer out before taking a sip. This is meant to honor both the earth beneath your feet and your ancestors. (I’m pretty sure the only time I’ve done this was before my brother’s wedding.)
After chatting in the freezing Baltic snow for the better part of an hour, Ugnius joined me for lunch in the basement of a nearby Lithuanian restaurant, Etno Dvaras. Ugnius eagerly ordered a beer. After all, our meeting happened because of the beer god. We wouldn’t want to disrespect the horned god, who’s also known to have a connection with sex––maybe even drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
When our beers came, Ugnius held his up and clinked it against mine. He then proceeded to spill a drop on the floor of the restaurant. You know, for the ancestors.
The Gentile Origins of Gefilte Fish
You might remember my Serious Eats article on the Gentile origins of gefilte fish. Well, this is that again. Except this time, in video essay form to entice you to read the whole thing. What do you think? Did it work? I’ve got a few more in the works to see if this is worthwhile. Because like it or not, Reels and TikToks aren’t going away.
I'll try! Thanks Joe, i just want to make sure to understand properly. Thanks for your amazing articles. Always worth reading
How can I read this in German. As far as i understand your article, it's well written as always