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Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

The name of Vilnius derives from the name of stream Vilnia which flows right across the heart of the city. Archaeological excavations have revealed that people inhabited the valley at the Gediminas Hill on the confluence of the Vilnia and Neris rivers as early as the l-st century A. D. Traditionally, however, the foundation of a city is traced back to the first official mentioning of the city's name. Grand Duke Gediminas was the first to mention the name of Vilnius in his letters in 1323. Therefore it is considered to have been founded in 1323. Grand Duke Gediminas was also greatly concerned with the growth of the city. The aim of his letters to the Pope and the greatest cities of Europe was to develop trade and crafts in the city.

Legends grew up around the city, which developed together with the growth of the Lithuanian state and its rulers. Two of the legends are very popular. One is about the foundation of the city of Vilnius which was first recorded in the Chronicle of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and Zemaitija in the 16-th century. The other legend is about the marriage of Grand Duke Kestutis of Lithuania, one of the most outstanding rulers of Lithuania.

The foundation of Vilnius. At first the Lithuanian capital was Kernave. But having found a beautiful place on a group of lakes during one of his hunts, Grand Duke Gediminas founded Trakai and moved his capital there. Soon after that he went on a hunt again and four miles away from Trakai, on a beautiful hill on the shore of the Vilnia river, he shot a huge aurochs. Since that time the hill has been known as Aurochs Hill. It was too late to return to Trakai, and the Grand Duke camped for the night in the Sventaragis valley on the Vilnia river, the sacred place where Lithuanian dukes used to be cremated. In his sleep Gediminas had a dream: he dreamed an iron-clad wolf which was standing at the top of the Crooked Hill (now called the Bald Hill) and howling as if there were a hundred wolves inside it. The High Priest, Lizdeika, interpreted the dream for the Grand Duke in the following way: the iron-clad wolf meant that Grand Duke was going to build a city, his future capital, at the foot of the hill. The howling of the wolf meant that the fame of the city would spread far and wide in the world.

Grand Duke Gediminas collected a great number of people and built two castles - the Lower castle in Sventaragis valley and the Upper castle at the top of Crooked Hill. He gave the city around the castles the name of Vilnius and transferred his capital there.

The legend has great deal of truth in it. In 1985 archeologists uncovered the remnants of the ancient pagan temple which had stood right on the site of the present Cathedral.

The official emblem of Vilnius depicts St. Christophorus wading across a river.

Kestutis' marriage. Gediminas' brother Kestutis ruled over Trakai and Zemaitija. Once he heard people talking about a beautiful vestal, Birute by name, who tended the sacred fire, kept perpetually burning in honour of the pagan gods on the shore of the Baltic sea at Palanga. People said she was not only beautiful but very intelligent too. Duke Kestutis went to Palanga to see the girl for himself and he fell in love with her. But Birute refused to marry him because she had given a vow to the gods to stay chaste all her life.

Kestutis took the girl away to his castle in Trakai by force and with great honour he married her there, making her Grand Duchess of Lithuania. She was to become the mother of Vytautas, the most famous Grand Duke of Lithuania, who won the decisive battle of Tannenberg in 141 0 against the Teutonic Order, and expanded the Lithuanian state as far as the Black Sea.

Those two legends have served as a source of inspiration for many works of art created by Lithuanian artists.

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Next: Lithuanian surnames Previous: The language


Copyright , 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.