Halfway down the Curonian Spit, on the Lithuanian side, sits a densely wood pine forest which holds many secrets deep inside its shaded borders. As needle and pine cone litter the wooded paths, so to do the intricately hand-carved statues of beasts and nymphs, gnomes and ogres, dragons and witches, kings and queens, that stand watch as fantastical sentinels in this gloomy thicket.
When you stand on the road, staring south down the asphalt stretch in the direction of the Russian border which is Kaliningrad, it is strange to think that such a mystical forests exists right next to you. To your east you look out across the shallow blue waters of the Curonian Lagoon, the gentle waves lapping against the shore, and the light feathery sea grass waving listlessly in the cooling breeze. While to your west, rising up from the road, an impressively monolithic stand of pines tower overhead, shading the road as if entering a tunnel. It just seems so out of place on this narrow strip of land surrounded by the sea, the forest, the statues, the darkness of it all. Taking those first few steps into the forest, we were quickly surprised, and overwhelmed by the skill and talent which the artists had lent their artwork, all the time fascinated by what we found.
Raganu Kalnas began in 1979 and had almost 25 Lithuanian artists contribute to this folklore sculpture park. The artists were inspired by their own nation’s folktales, and as a result, began to incorporate their legends into the sculptures that now call this hill home. Today over eighty sculptures inundate this park, keeping watch over the paths, the evil and the good of folklore showing through in the sculptures. The park is divided into two different themes, the light and the dark. On the light side a visitor will find wider paths, with sunlight accessible through clearings and trees with space between each other. The characters on this section of trails would be from fairy tales, and of good legend. The visitor eventually wends their way to the dark side, entering through the gates of hell, and finds a path that narrows, deeper into a darkening forest, impenetrable by the sun through the thickening limbs which umbrella the needled floor from the sky. The characters portrayed here are malevolent, evil spirits, their faces gnarled and sneering, their fangs bared at the observer. This is “hell” and Lucifer, witches, dragons, and ghosts, stalk the beleaguered traveler along the path of dense forest.
In a time of Soviet rule, the annexation of these Baltic nations by the USSR, this artistic installation would have been an impressive slap in the face to the leaders of that red superpower. Traditional customs were not encouraged by the occupying force of the Soviet Union, and like the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, eventually locations like these became potent symbols of dissent against the tyrannical rule. Even if the initial intent was not as a political protest, the power of this location can be seen as a symbol of Lithuanian culture and heritage seeping through the iron curtain and forming a story of light and dark, just as the Lithuanian’s had been living for so many years. This location amazingly remained untouched—possibly due to its extreme remote location—and as a result, the original statues still stand today from 1979.
These statues, carved of thick tree trunks, will someday erode away, rot from rain, cleave from ice formed in cracks and expanding as the cold penetrates its worn exterior. Some of the statues now have pieces of copper tacked onto their tops, to ward off rain where splits have already occurred. Someday, if these statues are not placed in a museum, they will be a gentle reminder of a past, and then pass into nonexistence as nothing more than a folktale, a legend, like the stories of which the statues were carved in the first place. Artists today still make new statues, and hopefully this tradition will carry on, a reminder of cultural freedom and expression, even during harsh times of oppression.