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Soviet Display : Museum Has Playful Cast of 800 Devils

September 13, 1987|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

KAUNAS, Soviet Union — What may be the world's only museum devoted to the devil takes a rather lighthearted view of its subject.

The museum, here in the early capital of Lithuania, has 800 devils, shown in a variety of roles: leading a marching band of little devils, playing basketball, drinking vodka, trapped inside a glass bottle, decorating a set of dinnerware.

"Have a helluva nice day," says the inscription on a devil paperweight from the United States.

There are devil pipes, devil candles, devil bookplates and devil masks. They are carved out of wood, molded of clay, blown from glass and woven into tapestries.

Regarded as a God

In ancient Lithuania, the devil was taken far more seriously than now. The pagan inhabitants regarded him as a god with powers over the Earth, fertility and animals.

Since this was then a farming country, the devil played a principal role in the everyday thinking of Lithuanians. Even with the arrival of Christianity, in the 14th Century, the devil survived but gradually became known as the symbol of darkness and evil.

"People here still say 'the devil is coming' at twilight, when night begins to fall," a resident said.

Every year, on Shrove Tuesday, boys put on devil masks and go door-to-door singing songs. They are invariably offered pancakes, the traditional meal for that day.

3 Floors of Devils

The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture sponsors the museum, which covers three floors in what used to be the residence of a well-known artist, Antanas Zhmudzvicius.

His collection of 260 devils, given to the state when he died in 1966 at the age of 90, forms the core of the exhibition. Many countries have sent their versions of this evil spirit.

Rasa Kondroitaite, a museum guide, said that Zhmudzvicius was not a churchgoer and that a priest, who was one of his best friends, once told him, "Since you don't believe in God, collect devils and maybe they will help you."

The artist took the advice, and soon his friends began to send him dozens of objects with horns, a tail and a pitchfork. One of the devils he received held a paintbrush and palette, the equipment he himself used.

Subject of Gossip

Zhmudzvicius, with his devil-may-care attitude about superstition, was a subject of considerable gossip. Friends gave him a set of chinaware with devils dancing on the plates, cups and saucers, suggesting that he might have a personal link with Lucifer.

Yet in his artistic life, he specialized in landscapes and never painted a single devil.

After his death, it was not so much his paintings as his collection of devils that made him famous. More than 1 million people visit the museum every year, paying 40 kopecks (about 65 cents) for admission.

The officials who preside over the museum make fun of the Lithuanian legends about the power of the devil. Yet when the new building was opened in 1983, the ceremonies started at the 13th hour of the 13th day of the month because, they said with a smile, it is at that moment that the devil never appears.

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