The Lielvārde Belt
One of the Latvian folk costume elements that brings with it an air of mystery and mysticism is the Lielvārde belt. An important part of the Lielvārde folk costume, it has legendary status because of the symbolism woven into it – reputedly the origin of the universe and human DNA is encoded in its red and white patterns and geometric ornaments, also providing the wearer with protective powers from evil.
According to folklore researcher Janīna Kursīte, these particular colours – red and white are included in ancient Latvian symbolic protective clothing and even pagan incantations. It is said that if the weaving is done correctly and the order of patterns containing the mystical symbols follows tradition, then energies are said to flow through the patterns freely. Another interesting claim regarding this belt is that each one of us can find our own personal symbol among the patterns. To determine which of the patterns is yours – close your eyes, move your hand over the belt and as it passes over the different ornaments, one of them should produce warmth you should be able to feel.
Estonian graphic artist Tõnis Vint has claimed that the symbols in the Lielvārde belt are one of the most ornate and complex systems of symbols in existence, comparing them to ancient pictographs from Asia, preserving the information code of an ancient civilisation. Similar symbols have been unearthed in archaeological evidence from the Neolithic Era and Bronze Age from around the world. Vint inspired Latvian film director Ansis Epners to jointly produce a documentary “The Lielvārde Belt” (Lielvārdes josta) in 1980, which folklorised and spread Vint’s theories, bringing the belt widespread recognition.
The sash is long and difficult to weave. Even for a professional weaver it would take around 2.5 weeks to weave one sash, weaving 8 hours a day. Made of linen and wool and is traditionally 10cm wide and 3 m long. Because of the complexity of the belt it is possible that it was only woven by artisans who specialised in belt weaving, either on a loom or in the form of backstrap weaving.
The sash originates from the central region of Latvia – Lielvārde – and its neighbouring parishes, all of which are located along the Daugava River. Because these regions each have similar folk costumes, 74 different variations of the belt have been found so far; these are on display in the Latvian National History Museum.
In the second half of the 20th century, research into ethnographic national costumes was undertaken. Artist and semiotics researcher Valdis Celms analysed signs as symbols and focused his research on the content of every sign, which at the same time is part of a whole. He postulated that signs are dynamic and their arrangement in an ornament create motion. In this way the entire system of signs can be seen as an aggregate of cyclic motion, activated by its form and flow of energy.
Of course all of these theories and explanations must not be taken for granted and healthy discernment is important when learning about the Lielvārde belt. The fact remains that the belt’s symbolism is worthy of further research and evidence of its ancient origins and similarity with symbols from ancient civilisations elsewhere in the world lends credence to the theory that there is more to this belt than mere skill in design and artisanship.
Nowadays the belt has become a Latvian symbol and is the pattern visible on many Latvian souvenirs – scarves, mittens, hats, printed on ceramics, ribbons, T-shirts, even tattoos. It may also be an element added to stylised linen dresses, modern versions of Latvian folk costumes. A fragment of the belt was visible on the 100 lats bank notes, and also features as part of the background design of the Latvian passport since 2015.
Lielvārdes jostas mīklas (The Lielvārde Belt Misteries). (1991). Rīga: Māksla. From series: Mākslas bibliotēka (Māksla’s Library). (in Latvian)
Janīna Kursīte on the Lielvārde belt in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Lielvārdes josta (Lielvārde Belt): [brouchure]. Lielvārde: Andreja Pumpura Lielvārdes muzejs, [s.a.]. About the Lielvārde Belt weaved by Arveds Paegle (1908–1989) in 1988. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints.
Janīna Kursīte on the Lielvārde belt in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Lielvārdes josta: par igauņu grafiķa un mākslas zinātnieka Tenisa Vinta hipotēzi. ([198-]). Režisors Ansis Epners. No: Latvija manas mājas = Латвия мой дом [videokasete]. [Latvija]. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fvk/616.