THE FEAST OF ST.AGNES ( Ðv. Agota III,5)
Among other month of February church holidays, the feast day of St.
Agnes, a 3rd century martyr, is especially popular among Lithuanians. A
year after her death, the Etno volcano erupted, most people held that to
be a punishment for Agnes’ killing. For this reason, Agnes was made guardian
and protectress of fires which escaped from Etno volcano and all other
fires. St. Agnes took the place of Gabija, pagan goddess of fire. During
the first days of February, Lithuanians offered bread to goddess
Gabija, kept a piece of it at home as a safeguard against conflagrations.
At the beginning of this century, elder Lithuanians found it difficult
to distinguish St. Agnes from goddess Gabija, referred to both when praying.
Women when praying to goddess Gabija also prayed to St. Agnes, saying "holy
Gabija, holy Agnes, protect us from fires". Even today older women remember
how their mothers, every evening covered the hot fire coals with ashes,
said prayers to goddess Gabija, ending the prayer with "sleep fire, Gabija
come close to the fire". Younger people state that now, when using the
same prayer, in place of Gabija they say "St. Agnes".
St. Agnes is always represented holding a bread roll in her hand. On
February 5th , bread together with water and salt is consecrated in all
Lithuanian churches. Pieces of this bread were divided among family members,
any left over pieces were placed in honorable spots, most often behind
pictures of Saints and on beams in the house.
In Southeastern Lithuania, fire is laid on the stove or under the stove,
to keep the fire from leaving the house but to protect the house from conflagration.
In Northern Lithuania, to honor St. Agnes on her feast day, fires were
sprinkled with consecrated salt.
The use of consecrated bread on St. Agnes’ feast day had a wide and
varied use : mothers gave pieces of this bread to sons going off to war,
so that they would be protected from bullets. This bread was placed in
luggage when preparing to go on a long trip. Near the region of Dieveniðkës,
the plowman, going out for the first annual plowing, tied a piece of this
bread to the plow shaft to prevent the sun from burning the crops. In Eastern
and Southeastern Lithuania when sowing flax seed, it was tradition to tie
St. Agnes’ bread to the seeder, so that the new flax fibers would grow
to be very white. Pieces of consecrated bread were placed in beehives,
to keep bees from dying and stimulate honey production.
Going berry picking in the woods, to chase away snakes, women tied
a piece of this bread
into the corner of their kerchief. This bread was also a protector
of cows from illness and
bewitchings. Pieces of this bread and salt were rolled up in a small
cloth and tied to cows’ horns when they were herded out for the first time
in the spring. The same was done on the feast day of St. John to prevent
removal of milk from cows by witches. When taking a cow to market, a piece
of this bread was also tied to the cow’s horn, with the words "be healthy
and be good to your new owner". Consecrated bread was also used in folk
medicine, to heal all kinds of sores and eye diseases. Water in which this
bread was soaked, was used to moisten linen cloths, which were used as
compresses on sores and eyes. In Dzûkija, a small piece of
St.Agnes’ bread was placed in the mouth of the dead person. It was said
that this was done to keep his face from changing form, color and the body
becoming smelly. The Highlanders ( Aukðtaièiai ) placed St.
Agnes’ bread on the chest of the dead person , to keep him from blowing
up. In some other regions, during storms, pieces of this bread were placed
on window sills, tables and even under roof tops. It was said that keeping
a piece of this holy, St. Agnes’ bread close by, thunder would not strike.
Pieces of this bread were placed in the foundations of newly built houses,
to protect them from fires. To keep fires from spreading, one ran three
times around the fire holding the holy bread and then throwing it into
the middle of the flames. In the regions of Klaipëda, along the seacoast,
in 1908, while her house was on fire, the wife stood near the door, holding
high a piece of St. Agnes’ bread, repeating three times the following prayer:
" Holy Gabija, smoulder in your place, come holy Agnes, visit holy Gabija".
Honoring holy Agnes and goddess Gabija, same fires were used. Almost
until the Second World War, fire was crossed when burning every evening,
children were not allowed to play with fire. Fires were put out using clean
water. It was thought that fire started by a thunder bolt , could be put
out only with sour or goat’s milk.
And now, many save a piece of St. Agnes’ holy bread, place it in cars,
sew pieces of it in clothing when leaving on lengthy trips.