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Myth In Romanian Folklore. Themes, Motifs, and Archetypes.

Ana-Maria Dragomir, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University

Romanian folkloric creations are impressively rich in symbolic content and poetical descriptions of the universe. As active repositories of ancient knowledge, these powerful traditional stories reflect the artistic ways through which Romanian people have expressed their shared beliefs, values, and heritage. Whether depicted in legends, in superstitions or in fairy tales, the Romanian world is imbued with mythical creatures and magical beasts. Certain recurring elements have clear IndoEuropean resonances. These entwine and combine in Romanian folklore in unexpected ways, and provide a space to further reflect and analyze whether these elements were either inherited or otherwise assimilated.

The First People

The Giants (Uriai / Jidovi)
The first people made by God were the giants11. They had heads big as mountains, and with a few steps could reach any country they wished to go to11. The giants were kindhearted and very strong11. For a long time humans and giants lived side by side, and almost became friends11. But one day, a war ensued between them11. Each tried to get the better of the other by committing the most vile and atrocious crimes11. God decided to punish them, and sent the Great Flood in which all perished. Only Noah and his family survived11.


Special thanks to Prof. Dr. John Colarusso for his support and guidance in this project, Faculty of Social Science Experiential Education for funding the research (Student Project Grant), and Mrs. Ana Radu Chelariu for inspiration and encouragement. Many thanks to my sister, Amalia Lungu, for the beautiful images from, now rare, Romanian fairy tale books, and for igniting my passion for myth ever since our childhood.

The World of Fairy Tales

The Hero
in most myths, epics, and folk tales, the Romanian fairy tale hero is either of noble origins, or a commoner born in an unusual way, and bestowed with magical powers. The heros unfailing companion is his wise, flying horse, who serves as an adviser, and supplies magical items during times of need. The hero often performs good deeds, helping creatures in distress. In return, the creatures offer their help when the Finul lui Dumnezeu (Gods Godson) . hero needs it most. Such examples are found in the tales Gods Godson6, and Prslea the Brave and the Golden Apples14. The hero kills a giant snake, who threatens to eat the babies of a zgripuroiac (a giant monstrous bird). The same motif is found in the West Circassian tale How Warzameg Won Damsel Psatina3, where the Nart hero saves baby eagles from being eaten by a snake, and receives help from their mother in his quest.


Research aims:
In my research I provide a survey of Romanian mythic material, with parallels between possible Indo-European correspondents, and attempt to identify in which ways and to what extent Romanian lore could reflect interaction with other ancient societies.

G i a n t . C re a t u r i M i t o l o g i c e (Mythological Creatures), Gama Publishing House, Bucharest 20011

It is believed that the giants hoarded many

The Last Giants Death11.

treasures, because in their travels they gathered precious stones, metals and any delightful objects they found. Those treasures were buried with them when they died11. The places where giants were buried with their treasures are enchanted. It is thought that the night before big holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and especially St. Georges Day (April 23rd), magical fires burn above the places where treasures lie13.


Ielele, also known as Fairies, are among the most feared, but also revered figures in Romanian folkloric traditions. They are beautiful and playful immortal young women with an ambivalent character 5. If angered the Fairies can be cruel, and it is safer not to pronounce their names 5. One can refer to them as The Holy Ones, The Munificent Ones, The Rosalia, or simply They (iele).

Whenever they meet, the fairies join in

The Kind Ones (Blajini / Rohmani / Rugmani)11

Physical Geography of Romania

Soborul Zeielor (The assembly of Godesses). Clay Idols from Cucuteni Culture, cca. 4200 BCE. Elena-Roxana Munteanu,

The Dacians were the first named ancient people inhabiting the Carpatho-Danubian land, most of which is now known as Romania. The Dacian kingdom reached its greatest heights during the reign of Burebista (82 - 44 BCE), who for the first time united all Dacian tribes7. Some of the ancient ethnic groups that Dacians came into close contact with were Iranians, Sarmatians, Schytes, Celts, Germans, Greeks and Romans7. Dacia was partially conquered in 106 CE by the Roman emperor Trajan (r. 98 - 117), who defeated the second greatest Dacian king, Decebalus (r. 87 - 106 CE)7. The new province was annexed to the Roman Empire, and named Dacia Felix. In 275 CE, pressed by barbarian invaders, and numerous battles with the Free Dacians, the Romans withdrew from Dacia7.

The Kind Ones are human-like, very tiny people living in the Otherworld. They are kindhearted, just, and very pious. The greatest joy of The Kind Ones is celebrating Christmas and Easter, but they never know when to rejoice because in the Otherworld there are no calendars.

wild, frenzied dances. People who see them could loose their mind, or be maimed forever11. Wherever they dance the grass looks as if burnt by a fire 5. Midsummers Eve is the time when the power of Iele is the greatest. One can understand how animals talk among each other. Miraculous plants can be gathered, such as fern flowers thought to bring lifelong luck, or Iarba Fiarelor, a mysterious flower which can be used to open-up any locks 11.

Blajini Rejoicing at Easter

The hero and his horse. In Youth Everlasting and Life Without End.

Prslea the zgripuroiac9.




Zmeu defeated by the hero


remind them of these holidays by throwing in rivers or streams walnut shells at Christmas and red egg shells at Easter.

Of Thunder and Lightning

Saint Ilie (Sfntul Ilie)
In Romanian lore, St. Ilie is directly linked to thunderstorms. St. Ilie is the most fierce enemy of the devil, whom he pursues and tries to destroy with his weapons, lightning and thunderbolt.

Cluarii are an initiatic and cathartic group of men who perform dances meant to heal the physical and emotional injuries of those thought to have been maimed by Iele5. The ritualic dance performed by Cluari creates the impression of flying, imitating that of the fairies. Their relation to Iele is ambivalent. While emphasizing solidarity with the horse (cal in Romanian), the totemic element thought to drive the Iele away, Cluarii are directly subordinated to the Queen of Fairies. The wild dance of Iele resembles that of Maenads, mad women from Dionysus retinue8. The Greek god Dionysus embodies the human unconscious and instinctual life that animates nature8. The Maenads gathered at night in the mountains, and through ritual singing and dancing achieved religious ecstasy8.

Zmeu is the fiercest enemy of the hero. A

fantastic creature with anthropomorphic attributes, and magical powers, zmeu steals treasures (such as the golden apples, the sun and the moon), and abducts princesses or fairies. In his fights with the zmei, the hero receives help from a raven who happens to fly by, during the battle. The motif of the bird assisting the hero at crucial times is widespread in Indo-European mythology4.

Roman Dacia

Princesses abducted by zmei, from the tale Clin Nebunul (Mad Clin)6

11 Cosmogony
In the beginning there was nothing but stillness, a vast water and darkness. A stir gave rise to waves which pushed foam towards the The Making of the World . middle of the water. A foam island was formed taking the shape of a lily flower. On its top rested a butterfly and a worm, who wandered off from the Otherworld. The butterfly dropped its wings and turned into a handsome, luminous youth. This was God. The worm also turned into a youth, only that he was dark and shadowy. He was the Devil.

St. Ilie is celebrated on July 20,

the same day as Perun, the Slavic storm god15. The Romanian saint is often situated next to the gods Indra (Vedic), Taranis (Celtic), Zeus (Greek), and Jupiter (Roman)2.

Dancing Maenads from Dionysus retinue.

Glass painted icon, by Savu Moga, 19th century. Muzeul National al ranului Romn (National Museum of Romanian Peasant.

The Fates (Ursitoarele)11

The Fates from Romanian lore are three fairy sisters who decide the destiny of children from the day they are born.
Ileana Cosnzeana and the hero. From Frumoasa Frumoaselor (The Most Beautiful)6

The Dragon (Balaur)

At times, storm and thunder are attributed to dragons living in the sky. In Romanian superstitions dragons are good and holy, and their blood cures any kind of illness11, 9. When the sky darkens and rumbles, dragons behind the clouds, are looking to strike the devil16. is a snake who stole a magical stone forged by thousands of other snakes. After swallowing it, the snake rushes underground, for fear of being caught and The dragon with a wolfs head, killed by the others. After hiding for seven Dacian war flag on Trajans Column (113 CE) in Rome. years, the snake grows legs and wings, turns into a dragon and flies to the sky16. Dragons have fish-like scales, wide as human palm, and dark-blue in color. Their head looks like a dogs, and their years are yellow. Dragons eat woodland strawberries16.

The First People

Ileana Cosnzeana

Ileana Cosnzeana6

The central heroine in Romanian tales is most often known as Ileana


most folktales, God and Devil are referred to as Frtat and Nefrtat1. These names could be loosely translated as Brother and non-Brother. Frtat governs the realms of sky and earth, while Nefrtat reigns over the waters and the Underworld. Frtat and Nefrtat represent metaphors for the antagonistic forces of the universe, such as good/evil, light/darkness, being/nonbeing. They are partners in creation, since neither can bring the world into being without the help of the other1. As a divine pair, Frtat and Nefrtat have correspondents in the Indo-European pantheon, such as the Vedic gods Mitra and Varuna, or the Iranian Amirdada (Lord of the Trees) and Avirdada (Lord of the Waters)1.


A dragon

Earths Pillars11
The Earth rests on water. Its weight is supported by four pillars, which in turn used to be held up by four fish. God put Saint John in charge to look after those fish. During the Great Flood, the saint forgot all about them. He was curious to see what happens on Earth. Meanwhile, flood waters swept The Pillars of the Earth away one fish and its pillar. The whole world was about to sink and vanish. God punished St. John, and ordered him to hold up the world, alongside the rest of the fish. From then on, his name was St. John the Pillar.

live in a palace filled with candles. Each candle represents a certain persons life, and burns brighter or dimmer, depending on how much longer the person has left to live. They eat only stolen food, and must never be seen by the parents of the child they visit. Romanian Fate Tellers are similar to the Moirae from Greek mythology, and Norns, from the Norse tradition.

Romanian Fates11

Cosnzeana. As the Queen of Fairies, her beauty cannot be surpassed, and she is even more radiant than the suns10. Ileana Cosnzeana is sometimes associated with the moon, and in some legends she is the suns sister. The sun fell in love with her, but God separated them for fear that Earth would catch fire from their heat, and crumble from their sin11. In most fairy tales she becomes the heros wife, after being rescued from the hands of her abductor (either a zmeu, or an evil king)11. Wherever she steps, flowers bloom.

The Norns, Norse Godesses of Fate.

The Moirae, Greek Godesses of Fate.

In the fairy tale Ileana Cosinzeana: A flowers singing in her hair, nine realms listen to strains fair10 the Queen of Fairies emerges from the foam gathered on the waters of a lake, just like Aphrodite, the Greek goddess.

Norse Goddess Freya.

The dragons are controlled by wise men, called solomonari12. Solomonarii have the power to conjure winds, storm and hail. They punish people who do not show hospitality and generosity, by devastating their crop fields.

Romanian lore, like any other tradition, is a wonderful realm to explore. Even though at times it might seem ambiguous, inconsistent, and even contradictory, the mythic material in Romanian folklore offers invaluable insights into the values of the people who created it. Certain characteristics confer specificity to Romanian traditions. Myth and fairy tale coexisted in a common cultural context. It could be argued that, the metamorphosis of folkloric narratives was contingent to the social, historical, and religious realities of the people who created them.

St. John the Pillar resembles Atlas, the Greek titan, who was condemned by Zeus to forever support on his shoulders the weight of the heavenly vault8.

Solomonarii are the archetypal image of wizards. Along the dragons, Solomonarii illustrate a reminiscence of the Dacian priests, and military cult in Romanian lore12.

Romanian lore displays elements often seen in traditions such as Greek, Norse, Slavic, Iranian, suggesting interaction with neighboring communities but also it could indicate an ideology already set in place.

Further Discussions
One of the question to reflect on is: at what time, and if possible, in what particular way, certain elements entered Romanian lore? Reflecting on the language that suggests certain technologies, actions or even beliefs could help one understand the context in which social changes might have occurred.

Solomonar Riding a Dragon11.

Anca (2003), Metafora metaforei: studiu de mitologie comparat, (Metaphor of the Metaphor: a Study in Comparative Mythology), Bucharest: Cartea Romneasca: 2Ciauanu, G. F, (1916). Superstiiile poporului romn in asemnare cu alte popoare vechi i noi (Superstitions of Romanian People in Comparison to Other Ancient and ModernPeople), Bucharest: Saeculum Publishing House, 2009 ed. 3Colarusso, John (2002), Nart Sagas from the Caucasus, Princeton University Press: US. 4Colarusso, John (1989), Prometheus among the Circassians, The World & I, March 5Eliade, Mircea (1976), Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions. Essays in Comparative Mythology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 6Eminescu, Mihai (), Frumoasa Lumii (Worlds Beauty), Cartea Moldovei, Chiinu, 1997 7Grumeza, Ion (2009), Dacia. Land of Transylvania, Cornerstone of Ancient Eastern Europe. Hamilton Books: Maryland, US. 8Harris, P & Platzner, G (2007), Classical Mythology: Images and Insights. 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill: US. 9Iaru, George, 1996, Cele mai frumoase basme (The Most Beautiful Tales), Cartea Pentru Toti Publishing House: Bucharest. 10Ispirescu, P (1953), Romanian Folk Tales, translated by Ana Cartianu, Minerva: Bucharest, 1979 ed. 11Olinescu, Marcel (2008). Mitologie romneasc (Romanian Mythology). Romania: Saeculum Publishing House. 12Oltean, Dan 2008. Religia Dacilor (Religion of Dacians). Bucharest: Saeculum Publishing House. 13Pamfile, Tudor, (2007). Mitologia poporului romn, Vol. I (Mythology of Romanian People, Vol. I), Bucharest: Saeculum Publishing House. 14Segall, Jacob Bernard (1925) Roumanian Folk Tales Retold From The Original. 15Struk, Danylo Husar (1993), Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3. University of Toronto Press. 16Voronca, Elena Niculita (1903) Datinile si credinele poporului romn, adunate i aezate in ordine mitologic, Vol. II (Traditions and Beliefs of Romanian People, Collected and Arranged in Mythological Order, Vol II), Bucharest: Saeculum Publishing House, 2007 ed.