Latvian Livs (Livonian: līvlizt) are the only other indigenous people of Latvia, who little by little, have mixed with Latvians.The Finno-Ugric ethnic group is related to Estonians and Finns instead of the Balt Latvians. Livs settled on the seaside and at the mouth of Daugava, what made them great at fishing and seafaring. Livs were the first people anyone would come into contact when arriving to Latvia by sea. Therefore, Latvia was known as Livonia in the Medieval period.
Many Livs eventually assimilated in the Latvian society. A thousand Livs lived in 12 fishing villages along the coast of Kurzeme in the 1930’s. Many lost their traditional lifestyle and cultural roots when the Soviet occupation made the seaside the Western border of USSR. The seaside traditionally inhabited by Livs became a closed military zone and most residents had to quit fishing – their traditional trade – and settle elsewhere.
Today only 170 people identify themselves as Livs, although the language is spoken by far less. The last native speaker died in 2013, yet a small number of enthusiasts have mastered Liv as a second language. Although it is related to the other Finnic languages, neither the Estonians nor the Finns can understand more than a few words of Liv. Many Latvian Livs are prominent members of the civic society and culture, for example, members of the Stalts and Ernštreits families.
Livs value their symbols. Two of the most noticeable of them are the flag and the anthem. Many northern people will listen to it and maybe recognise it as the anthem of Estonia or Finland, but the ones close to the Liv culture will know – it is Liv anthem as well. Lyrics mean a lot - they praise the homeland, they praise their language and they praise their mothers.
Liv culture and society is notable by the fact that they have always been very matriarchal. They value their Mothers above all. They praise the strength and wisdom of mothers. Thank them for everything they have done. Liv mythology says that they didn’t believe in one certain God or Goddess. They believed that even the highest powers vary in character and they are not either good or bad. Their actions vary upon their mood at a certain moment. The mythology says that the Mother of the Earth and the Mother of the Sea are sisters and the spirits of the forest are brothers.
While mostly assimilated into the Latvian society, Livs have left an everlasting influence. Latvian language has incorporated the stress on the first syllable exactly from the Liv language. The popular Latvian folk song „Pūt vējiņi” stems from a medieval Liv wedding song. As both Livs and Latvians have lived next to each other and in the same territory for a long time, it hasn’t been hard to pick up on one another’s cultural elements. As for the language, there are quite a few Livonian language words that Latvians have included in their language.
Several books have been published in Liv; the Livs are described in internet resources and their language may be heard on compact discs. Nowadays, Liv is the rarest language in the European Union, and it is a matter of honour and a duty for Latvia to maintain and promote the language. The culture of Latvian Livs is one of 99 treasures of Latvian Cultural Canon. Designated programmes of state support are in action.
While small in number, Livs still are active members of their Cultural Society and participants of several musical ensembles. The Mazirbe town marks the centre of Latvian Livs and hosts the House of Liv Culture and the annual Liv Festival.
Each year on the first Saturday of August, Livs and people who feel close to the Livonian culture and their traditions, gather in Mazirbe. They celebrate the still existing Livonian culture and feel closer to this small group of indigenous people of Latvia. People come from all different parts of Latvia and neighbouring countries to join the celebration that is so unique and interesting. An alluring thing of the celebration is the annual market. Crafts men use the opportunity to sell and promote their unique products and enlighten visitors on the Livonian culture, lifestyle and different crafts.
For those who are interested in Livonian culture, lifestyle and music, mark the 1st Sunday of each month and participate in the Livonian day in Riga Centre for Culture and Folk Art “Ritums”. It is a festive day for all the enthusiasts and friends of Livonian traditions. Interesting lectures about various topics relevant to Livonian culture and the Livonian music creators can be heard, as well as traditional Livonian jewellery making workshops and other kinds of activities are proposed.
For Latvians and Livs music has always been the one thing that brings people together. Mixed choir “Lōja” is the only Livonian mixed choir in the world. It was established in the October of 2007 and ever since has participated in many projects in Latvia and outside of its borders. The choir has travelled across Georgia enchanting the local people with different style choir music in Livonian, Latvian and other languages; as well as they have participated in choir competition in Italy. The choir is preserving Liv cultural heritage. They have recorded a Liv song album which consists of both mixed-choir and male-choir songs. One of the most interesting things about this choir is their visual appearance: the choir itself has made their own workshops to recreate the visual looks of the Livonian ancestors – they have made their own leather boots and jewellery to match the hand-woven wool costume fabric.
Other known musicians and folk groups which are related to Liv music is “Nurmorkestōr”, “Līvlist”, “Skandinieki”, Raimonds Tiguls. Folk group “Skandinieki” was formed in 1976 by Stalts family who popularized the idea of the free Latvia already during the Soviet years and introduced with the Liv traditional culture – songs, rituals and music. Today the leader of “Skandinieki” Julgī Stalte continues the work of her parents.
Under the name “Tai Tai” some experienced folk-musicians with a special interest in the Finno-Ugric musical heritage have also come together to expresses the love for Livonian, Vote, Estonian, Latvian traditions in a modern way.
Organisation that works to preserve and cultivate the Liv language, to take care of the education of Livonian people as well as to improve the social and economic situation of Livonians and their society – the Livonian Union.
© The Latvian Institute, 2016. Photo: mixed choir "Lōja"