In the process of writing Chasing Shadows, I’ve waded through reams of text on the personification of death. Today, I want to share with you one of the first figures that found its way into the manuscript; Giltine.
Unless you grew up in Lithuania, you’ve likely never heard of Giltine. She is a traditional representation of death, somewhat equivalent to the Grim Reaper in western tradition, and although she is no longer worshiped actively as a deity, she still finds her way into the late night stories of children in the Baltics.
With a name that derives from the words ‘yellow’ and ‘stinging’, she is depicted as a skinny, tall woman who dresses in white. She is the sister of Lamia, the goddess of life, destiny and luck and, the story goes, she was once a beautiful young woman. But after spending seven years trapped inside a coffin, Giltine emerged as a monstrous witch with a blue nose and a long, poisonous tongue which hangs from her mouth. The deranged goddess then took to collecting poison from graveyards which she uses to kill her victims. Some versions suggest that she would also strangle those who were resistant to the poison.
As a figure associated with the night, Giltine’s sacral bird is the owl and she also goes by several other names, including ‘Maras’, meaning ‘Black Death’ or ‘Plague’.
Unfortunately, there is little more that I can tell you with certainty about this figure. In recent decades, Lithuanians have adopted the western ‘cloak and scythe’ version of the Grim Reaper so there is very limited information available about her. But I was fortunate enough to find a colleague who grew up in the country and she gave me some fascinating insight into how Giltine is treated. As an inactive deity, only the older generation really know a great deal about her and there are only a few, superstitious people left who genuinely fear her. With the continued globalisation in the Baltics, young people’s interest are leaning more towards western traditions but she still finds her way into ghost stories and cautionary tales that urge children not to go out at night alone.
Fortunately, Giltine has not yet faded into obscurity as many Lithuanians, particularly those in rural areas, are aware of her story. But with western depictions of death becoming the norm, it’s quite likely that the next generation will see her a little more than a piece of cultural history.