I love unusual museums like Houston’s National Museum of Funeral History & Riga’s Paul Stradin Museum of the History of Medicine and go out of my way to visit them, but I’ve never gone so far to see one. Last year when Ruth and I were in Vilnius, Lithuania, I learned that there was a tough-to-get-to Devil Museum in Kaunas that inyourpocket describes as bizarre. It singled out a sculpture showing Hitler and Stalin devils doing a dance of death over helpless Lithuanians as proof. I was hooked. When we began planning our trip to Russia, I included a few days in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest town, and, as it turns out, discovered a 5-compass city.
Bizarre puts it mildly. A visit to the Devil Museum is a genuine, if frisson inducing, learning experience. For example, visitors are informed that the excrement of young lizards mixed with white coral, rice flour, and other substances fights wrinkles and whitens skin giving it a nice and pleasant color. Magicians, witches, etc. who used such recipes were burned or exorcised during The Inquisition. Like us, a devil can be huge or small, ugly or beautiful, powerful or weak. He’s afraid of thunder, the number one, rosaries, flax, etc., and he runs away when someone curses, mentions God or a saint, or strikes backwards with his or her hand. When he’s cursed, a devil becomes fatter.
Devils are very popular in Slavic literature. In Lithuanian folklore, for example, Thunder, the ruler of the sky, often struggles with them. When thunder is heard, devils are being beaten. Then Thunder zaps them with lightning and devils’ fingers, actually fossilized shells, fall near rivers. In Lithuanian literature, a devil teaches his fiancé sorcery and, after death, she goes to hell and marries him.
Lithuanian painter Antanas Zmuidzinavicius (1876-1966 and don’t ask me to pronounce his name) started collecting devils when he was 30. Over time he amassed 260. Often they were gifts from friends & priests(!). AZ (I’m not typing that name again) also collected walking sticks, often with hellish animals carved on them. He bequeathed the house and studio where he lived from 1929 until 1966 to Lithuania, and the Museum is now attached to it. Propped on the easel in his studio is his last, unfinished work. He painted no devils. They were strictly fun collectibles for an eccentric artist.
Exhibited on the 1st floor is his personal collection showing Satan as a rebel, a creator, a punisher, a seducer, etc. These devils are often meant to help us laugh at human ills and prejudices. They made Ruth & me mostly gaze in giddy, fascinated horror.
The 2nd floor displays devils made by Lithuanian artists. The DM has amassed more than 2,000. The Velnias devil is a way popular Lithuanian mythological being in a country with 5,000 fairy tales about the devil.
The 3rd floor exhibits gifts from foreign visitors (the USA is represented), examples of world literature starring Satan, and the devil’s toys. Here I learned that the French town of Besaine has a fountain with a devil sculpture in its main square. The surrounding area is considered the land of devils due to frequent avalanches, accidents, etc. I don’t aspire to go there.