Men from the Land of Amber: The Shocking History of the Fierce Curonians
The modern Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania owe a lot to their fierce and rich history. The fearsome tribes of Balts – close cousins to the neighboring Slavs – carved for themselves a small nook on the shores of the Baltic Sea and created a name for themselves and their creed. Amongst these tribes one stood out in particular: The Curonians. Known to all and feared by many, the Curonians were famed for their prowess in battle, strong warrior culture, and an infamous reputation of raiding and plundering the neighboring shores. So fierce were they, that even the Vikings feared them! And if a Viking fears someone, you can bet there is a good reason for it. So, who were these enigmatic Baltic tribesmen and what was their fate. Join us as we uncover the tale of Europe’s last pagans and the great bane of the Vikings.
Fearsome Curonians and Their Neighbors
“There lies at the shore of the sea
a land called Curonia
that is a full fifty miles long
The poor Christians who by mistake
come to this very land
will be deprived of life and goods.”
There is no better way to begin our story of the Curonians than with this ominous little 13 th century poem from the Livonian Rhyme Chronicle. As can be deduced from the warning tone of the poem, the Curonians were a people to be feared. But let us start with their origins. Inhabiting the fierce coasts of the Baltic Sea, whipped by storms and restless waves, these men were much like their surrounding environment.
Nicholas Roerich "Guests from Overseas", 1901 ( Public Domain )
In relation to the other Baltic tribes around them, the Curonians didn’t live inland, but instead they thrived on the coasts of the northern Baltic region, east of the Vistula River at the Gulf of Riga. While debate still remains about whether the Curonians were the part of the East or West Baltic group, most scholars tend to agree that they belonged to the West group alongside the Old Prussians. In their own language they called themselves Korsi, while to the Norse peoples they were known as the Kúrir.
The Baltic region was an important source of amber, the gemstone that was traded around the ancient world. Known at that time as the “the gold of the north”, amber was a highly sought after luxury. ( Arina Verstova / Adobe Stock)
Amber Road: The Gold of the North
Before continuing to explore this enigmatic Baltic tribe, we need to mention the all-important Amber Road. The Baltic region was the most important source of amber, the gemstone that was traded around the ancient world. Known at that time as the “the gold of the north”, amber was a highly sought after luxury. This fossilized tree resin was found in abundance in the Baltic region, highly prized and desired due to its elegant appearance. As a matter of fact, amber was traded all over Europe from its source in the Baltic, going back as far as at least the 16 th century BC.
From the cold and inhospitable shores of the Baltic, this precious commodity found its way to the most remote locations. Did you know that the breast-piece of Pharaoh Tutankhamen was made from amber that came from the Baltic? Baltic amber was discovered in Mycenea, in Syria, Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Iberia. At the far end of this trade were the Curonians and their neighboring tribes. This booming trade allowed the Baltic tribes to grow wealthy and influential.
The Curonian Tribe: Fierce and Hostile Baltic Vikings
From even their earliest mentions, the Curonian tribe was known as the fiercest, most hostile, and pagan of all the Baltic tribes. Centered around a strong warrior culture, they were highly territorial and had a penchant for raiding and seafaring. So much so that they mastered the art of shipbuilding and sailing, in a manner much alike to the Vikings, whom they perhaps even influenced. Due to their fierceness, they became known as the “Baltic Vikings” and were feared by many.
From very early on, the Curonians were involved in alliances, wars, and raids with the Scandinavians to their north and northwest, namely with the Icelandic, Danish, and Swedish Vikings. Curonians had a reputation for “piracy”, with their raiding parties that were much akin to those of the Vikings. They frequently visited the shores of Sweden which they plundered with success every time. These raids were often undertaken alongside the neighboring Oeselians, the so-called “Vikings of Estonia”, who lived on the nearby Saaremaa Island of Estonia. These Oeselians were unmatched seafarers, better than even the Vikings.
A map of the Baltic Tribes, about 1200 AD. ( MapMaster / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Plundering Viking Shores: The Raiders Get Raided
One of the earliest raids of the Curonians into Viking lands on record is dated to ~750 AD. The Saga of Nornagest mentions that the lands of Svíþjóð (Sweden) were attacked by the Kúrir (Curonians). Soon afterwards, they are mentioned again, in the context of the legendary Battle of Bråvalla , a crucial conflict between the King of Sweden, Sigurd Hring, with his allies the Goths of Västergötland, against the King of Denmark, Harald Wartooth, and his allies the Goths of Östergötland. This battle saw the use of mercenaries and allies from all over the north of Europe: from Slavs, Irish, Frisians, and Norwegians, and of course, the Curonians.
The next significant mention of the Curonians is around the year 840. We learn that it is in this year that the legendary Viking leader, Ragnar Lodbrok , leads a raid into the lands of the Curonians. This little excursion seemingly doesn’t end well for the Vikings. Nonetheless, they return again in 853, only to be utterly defeated by the united Curonians.
In the following year, 854, the Curonians are said to be openly refusing to submit to Sweden and pay her tribute. The Danes then try to get the upper hand and force these fierce Balts to pay tribute to them instead. A large Danish army enters the lands of the Curonians, going after their chief and most important hill fort, Apuolė. They were stirring the hornet’s nest. The Curonians once more proved their fierceness and the Danes were utterly beaten. All their loot and riches were stolen, which caused them much embarrassment.
When the Danes failed miserably, the Swedish King Olof decided to take matters into his own hands, invading Curonia once again, this time with a large Swedish force. He sacked and burned an important Curonian city of Grobiņa, and proceeded to besiege Apuolė. A force of around 15,000 Curonian warriors could not be subdued, and they held out day after day for eight days, until finally they decided to surrender. This was the first major defeat of the Curonians, one that was forced upon them in the face of a numerically superior enemy.
The Battle of Bråvalla by August Malmström. This battle saw the use of mercenaries and allies from all over the North of Europe: from Slavs, Irish, Frisians, and Norwegians, and of course, the Curonians. ( Public domain )
The Last Pagans of Europa
Curonian lands were described as being rich in resources, and thanks to this they were very wealthy. Horses of this region were known far and wide for their quality, as was the abundance of amber with which the Curonians traded. The Curonians were also known as staunch pagans, which they continued to be even after the neighboring nations became fully Christian. Their pagan oracles, which were a huge part of their culture and religion, were known far and wide.
It is said that the Curonian prophets were the most sought after in Europe at the time. The chronicler Adam of Bremen tells us that Curonian towns are full of pagan soothsayers and diviners. Peoples of other nations traveled long distances to receive the divinations from these pagan prophets. But even in the emerging Medieval period, the Curonians stood by their pagan beliefs. Sacrifices were still a regular occurrence, both human and animal.
Their society was carefully organized into regions, with numerous hill forts which boasted huge earthen ramparts and were heavily fortified. Theirs was an egalitarian society. A council of elders would preside over important matters and regular communal meetings. Another big part of their culture – besides the emphasis on the warrior mentality – was a deep connection with the nature around them. Of this, an important ritual survived the passing of time: the so-called daino were complex song cycles through which the Curonians believed had to have unique rhythms. If the song was sung correctly and evoked the perfect vibrations, nature would reveal itself to the people. This was yet another part of their strong belief in oracles and prophecies.
The conflicts and tensions with the Vikings of Denmark and Sweden continued to grow over time. Most of their attacks on Curonian lands were in retribution. The Norsemen sought vengeance for the repeated raids of the Curonians and the Oeselians on their shores. In 1170, these two forces joined to attack and plunder the Oland Island in Sweden, much to the anger of their enemies. Almost a century before that, in 1075, Adam of Bremen describes Curonians as the “most cruel tribe”. Still, there was more to it than simple retribution: The Norsemen vied for power and control over the important river paths that played a large role in the rich amber trade network.
Even when in peace and alliance, Curonian longships attacked the trading ships of the Danes, earning a reputation for their brutality. The absolutely ruthless way of warfare conducted by the Curonians, combined with their prowess in battle and ferocity, made them a feared force. It was because of this that a particular prayer survived in Viking culture, one that invoked the divine protection from “fire, storms, and Curonians”.
With their Northern Crusades, Catholic military orders undertook the colonization and Christianization of pagans. The mission of the Livonian Brothers was to convert the pagans of modern-day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Christianity. ( Public domain )
The Vanishing People: The Livonian Crusade and the Brothers of the Sword
As the centuries passed, almost all of Europe was fully Christianized. The Curonians on the other hand, were not. They still fiercely clung to their pagan belief, and were amongst the last pagans of Europe, outliving the last pagan Slavs of Rügen. That is why, in 1202, a special military and religious order was created, known as the “Brothers of the Sword”, with the sole intent of Christianizing the Baltic lands. These consecutive campaigns with the aim of relieving the Balts of their pagan faith, became known as the Livonian Crusade .
The wars against the Curonians lasted from approximately 1242 to 1267. The crusaders, under the auspices of the Pope, moved against the Curonians, as well as their relatives and close allies the Semigallians. But once more the crusaders were surprised by the ever-restless Curonians. In 1210 the latter assembled and attacked the city of Riga, the main stronghold of the crusaders. Sadly, the Curonians could not conquer the fort and were repelled. They tried again in 1228, this time allied with the Semigallians. Riga once more stood unconquered, but the pagan Balts managed to inflict some losses, destroying the Daugavgriva monastery and massacring all the Christian monks they found there.
Curonians attacking Riga in 1210. ( Public domain )
Vanquishing the Curonians: The Eradication of Curonian Identity
After several decades of strained conflicts, numerical disadvantage, and several defeats against the Crusaders, the fierce Curonians were at last brought to their knees. By 1266 AD, all Curonian resistance and rebellions were quelled, and all of their territories were partitioned between the Archbishop of Riga and the Crusaders of the Livonian Order. From that moment on, an intense process of erasing their Curonian identity began. These people gradually lost everything that made them distinctive. Their pagan religion was the first to disappear, while their unique Curonian language was eradicated step-by-step and became completely extinct by the 16 th century. On the whole, the Curonians had been fully assimilated and disappeared as a separate ethnicity by the 16 th century. Still, their descendants were crucial in creating a modern Latvian ethnicity, and the Curonians are considered one of the several ancestors of this modern day nation.
- Vikings Didn’t Just Murder Monks and Pillage Monasteries – They Helped Spread Christianity Too
- Viking Chief Tore Hund and his successful resistance against Christian conversion
- The long goodbye to Scandinavian Paganism and the Christianization of three realms
The Curonians have survived to some extent in one of the Latvian cultural groups called the Curonian Kings. This group was mentioned as early as 1302, and their peoples are thought to be the descendants of the Curonian nobles of old. Even though they were called Kings, they were nothing of the sort. Reduced to a status of peasants, with some amount of independence, they occupied a unique position somewhere between serfs and landlords. Interestingly, the Curonian Kings were allowed to retain some small aspects of paganism even after the Crusaders Christianized their lands by force. These rituals and beliefs survived until the 16 th century and even later.
Left to the Mercy of Memory
In modern history, the fierce Curonians are often overlooked and seldom mentioned. But once their rich history is considered, we quickly realize that this is completely unwarranted. These fearsome warriors, the bane of the Vikings, certainly deserve our respect. To so fiercely defend your land and beliefs is a defining factor of all ancient Europeans. Through the sad fate of the Curonians, we can learn how the interests of global politics and religion can forcefully destroy a nation and the many centuries of its history, completely erasing it from memory. When dreams of prosperity fan the flames, the fate of a nation is at its mercy, and even ethnicities can disappear without a trace.
Top image: Known to all and feared by many, the Curonians were famed for their prowess in battle, strong warrior culture, and an infamous reputation of raiding and plundering their neighboring shores. Source: destillat / Adobe Stock
Blomkvist, N. East Baltic Vikings – With Particular Consideration to the Curonians. Unknown.
Bojtar, E. 1999. Foreword to the Past: A Cultural History of the Baltic People . Central European University Press.
Tamm, M. and Kaljundi L. and Jensen, C. 2016. Crusading and Chronicle Writing on the Medieval Baltic Frontier: A Companion to the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia. Routledge.
Waldman, C. and Mason, C. 2006. Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Infobase Publishing.
for this fascinating piece of history, the history of my distant father’s fathers. It is noble and glorious and much more. Sveikas!