Brancoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus, is a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Brașov County, in the Transylvania region of Romania. At the end of the 17th century Constantin Brâncoveanu, Prince of Wallachia, built a stone church (1688-1714) in place of an older wooden one.
If you wonder how a Wallachian Voievode built a monastery in a different principality, know that the hamlet and the land on which the monastery was built belonged to Preda Brâncoveanu, his grandfather. Who even built a small wooden church on it in 1654.
The custom was for a Voievod, a christian ruler of a historical Romanian principality, be it Wallachia or Moldavia, to buy land and build a monastery on it, thus the land being donated to the holy abbey. The Voievode was the founder, his portrait painted on the church wall, and his name mentioned, for eternity, during the church service.
But building a church was more than just a spiritual act, it was a political manifesto too, showing the ruler’s strength in the principality.
We were lucky to visit Brâncoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus in 2008 and, as you will see from the pictures below, its doors stand open.
Part of Brâncoveanu’s motivation behind rising this monastery was to strengthen the Orthodox presence in the region at a time when Catholicism rose together with the Habsburg domination over Transylvania (who had just escaped Calvinism). Brâncoveanu wanted to leave a legacy to the Christian religion of Romanians on both sides of the Carpathian mountains (Transylvania and Wallachia).
It was a time (right after 1683), when Romanians of Transylvania knew religious persecutions at the had of the Austro-Hungariam Empire. Losing their forefathers religious belief would have meant them losing their national identity. Many Transylvanian churches and monasteries supported the orthodox Romanians. Many, 150, were destroyed by Viennese General Bukow.
So the catholic administration of Vienna waited. And waited. They waited for the killing of Brâncoveanu in 1714. They waited for the death of his wife Marica (and heiress) in 1729. And they waited for the death of Brâncoveanu‘s grandchild. And in 1785 they sent General Preiss to destroy Brâncoveanu Monastery until no stone was left standing. Thus, the last bastion of Orthodoxy in Fagaras Contry (today Brasov and Sibiu) was no more.
It was in 1926 when the monastery was rebuilt the way we see it in these pictures. Someof the old paintings survived in the church the the architectural style, the Brâncoveanu style, was kept.
At about the same time the Romanian Greek-Catholic Church was founded, drawing numerous Transylvanian Orthodox under Papal authority.
But establishing a church was more then that, it was an act of spiritual responsibility.
Today, a monastery holds no great boundaries to the outside world and during the entire Medieval era of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, no matter how well fortified churches and monasteries could hardly protect themselves against mean acts or thoughts of non-believers. And I think now of Albu the Great, boyar during the times of Vlad Ţepeş, who burned down Govora Monastery (built by Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad Ţepeş), as well as stealing land from it. Land gifted by the voievode – all in an attempt to prove himself stronger than the previous ruler of Walachia, thus able to rule the country on its turn. Of course this would have been one of the reasons Vlad Ţepeş held against Albu, when he ordered that Albu (any other boyars involved in the killing of Vlad Ţepeş’ father and older brother ) be executed on Easter Sunday, 1459.
It was wrong of Albu to burn down the monastery, but it was also wrong of him to steal its land – for the land of a monastery, gifted by a voievode through an official paper, are considered holy land. I wonder if Albu thought of the spiritual consequences, not only material, of his actions.
And this was the privilege we had, as tourists, when visiting Brâncoveanu Monastery in 2008.
On the site of the Brâncoveanu Monastery also functioned a school for secretaries, a workshop for fresco paintings and a small printing press.
Place of worship and inner introspection, a monastery is, today, open to public, yet its arches and murals invite the visitor to quiet meditation. To measuring one’s step to that of the silent flora around, to the lowered gaze of the monks. To the hushed voice of the wind.
Throughout his life as a ruler, over 20 years, Constantin Brâncoveanu built or restored over 24 churches. Like many rulers before him, Vlad Tepes included, Brâncoveanu fought to protect Wallachia against the Ottoman Invasion. But the greedy Sultan Ahmed III kidnapped Brâncoveanu, his four sons (Constantin, Stefan, Radu and Matei) and son in law Ianache – and had them all decapitated on 15 August 1714 because they did not wish to convert to Islam. But, as with any page of history, there are hidden, political truth behind this killing.
Thursday Doors is a weekly feature connecting door lovers from around the world through photography. You can join by creating your own weekly Thursday Doors post and sharing the link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).
Incredible myths and stories of folklore hail from the Romanian woods, this green gold that once covered three quarters of Romania. Throughout centuries, forests fed and sheltered humans from invaders, ‘forest, best buddy bloke of Romanian folk’ goes the ancient saying (Codrul, frate cu romanul), but woods also offered their buds of wisdom and tales.
In Romanian culture, as in many others, the house represents the spiritual center of human life, the place where profane meets sacred and around which gravitates many of the intriguing creatures populating myths (stories and beliefs rooted in human’s origin, often involving gods) and folklore (fictional tales and superstitions, legends, involving fauna, flora and creatures with unusual powers).
A beautiful Romanian myth speaks of a distant time, long, long ago and right after God created the world, when humans needed no shelter for the sky was near and the sun, the moon and all the stars would walk among people. And keep them warm. But then people turned against each other and this made God so sad that he lifted the skies high above, beyond the flight of the birds and the arch of the rainbows, so humans started experiencing the cold and the rain and the sleet and the wind. And to look for a shelter. For the first time. So they found shelter in caves, and in forests until God, in His kindness and love for His creation, inspired humans to build a shelter of wood. And the house became a home.
Apart from building homes, almost always out of trees, especially fir, the wood was used for creating tools and weapons necessary for survival (with the added benefit of iron parts), but also household objects and works of art and spiritual connection with God (the wooden vesper bell), a physical representation of the Romanian spirit.
Listen to the song of the wooden vespers bell of Petru Voda Monastery:
You would have noticed tat the monk bends and touches the ground when he crosses himself. It is to take earth at a witness of his love for God, the earth that was made and blessed by God, but also to show his appreciation towards the earth he lives on.
Wood and Forest Myths from Romania
In Romanian mythology and folklore the cult of the mother (Mother of the Earth, The Mother of the Forest, the Mother of Flowers, the Mother of God, the Mother of the Rain) is widespread and is linked to the mystery existence itself, to the life and death circle of life.
Many were our ancestors’ forests, vast and dense were they, enriched by mysterious creatures, bathed by springs. And countless are the characters that climbed out of the Romanian forests into our folklore, and found refuge in the woods, only to come out in our myths.
Muma Pădurii, The Forest Crone Mother (synonym with Gaia, he ancestral mother of all life in Greek mythology)
Muma Pădurii is a mythological representation of a long ago civilization, mainly focused on woods as she personifies everything that comes out of a forest. She lives in the depths of her realm, in its hollows, safe from the woodcutter’s ax and human sightseeing. She is a sad mother though, for she moans, mourns, sighs, snorts, and wails. People are cutting off her offsprings, the trees.
Muma Pădurii is portrayed as an old and anthropophagous (feeding on human flesh) woman, a patron of evil spirits who populate the forest. She is hideous, her mane reaching the ground, and often the woods resonate of her shrieks. They say this sound is enough to scary any traveler. At night time she can be spotted sleeping near strange fires (for they never burn with wood) or sliding like a ghost, a chimera, through forests and bushes, across the plains and crossroads. And she brings whirlwinds and bad weather, entering homes at midnight. You know it is she, for she slams open doors and windows.
How does she look like?
They say she can take the shape of many animal (be it a mare, buffalo, or cow), or that of a woman looking like a knotty tree, with withered legs, hair like braided strands that fall to the ground, like snakes, a woman dressed in bark or moss. She can be as tall as a house or as small as a rabbit, as beautiful as a fairy or as hideous as a monster with a big head, eyes as big as a dinner plate, teeth as big and as sharp as a sickle. She comes on foot or riding a mare with nine hearts.
If she is hungry for flesh nothing can stand in her way for she knows 99 tricks with which she entices people to leave the safety of their homes and get lost in the forest – where she fries them and eats them.
Some of her children are the spirits of the night, Murgila, Miazanopte, Zorila (Twilight, (Midnight, Daybreak)
They are her sons cursed to always follow each other, yet never to meet, a personification of the passing of the time. And they are ugly, so hideous, always crying, that she constantly tries to exchange them with human children. For this reason, mothers with babies take extra care to guard them till they are baptized (usually between 3 – 6 month in Christian Orthodox tradition). So they don’t let them out of sight, day or night. If they must leave them alone, then a metal object will be placed nearby, for protection. Remember, metal cuts wood. Anything they have, a sickle, scissors, pliers, a silver coin, that they whispered upon, a spell from the heart, a prayer for protection:
‘You, Forest Crone You, Woodsy bag of bones, Arriving by cow, By cow be gone. From [name] be banned!‘
‘Sickle,magic reaper, By day thou art be cut, By night be it to guard, For [name], On bed, Under bed, On bedding, Under bedding.‘
And if the baby was changed?
There are various magical practices by which one could bring it back. Thus, a witch or even the child’s mother would lit the fire in the hearth, takes the changeling in her arms (often a baby displaying macrocephaly, a large head, thin, but always hungry) and threatened to throw him into the flames. Of course, faced with such imminent danger Muma Pădurii returns the stolen child.
She will punish robbers yet assist those in need, be it honest fugitives or lost children. Like any mother, she knows each and every tree in her forest, for she nurtured them all since they were but shoots. She scolded them when they grew crooked, and when they upset her she cursed them, to meet the woodcutter’s ax or be struck by lightning.
But her wrath spills into villages too, if women who spin on Tuesdays or pick berries on Saint Mary’s Day (6th of August), or if men whistle or sing in the woods and wake her children.
To defend yourself against her wrath, simply make the sigh of the cross, and if your hands are occupied, make it with your tongue on the roof of your. If you are brave enough and you hear her whimper, ask her, ‘Great Lady, why are you crying?’ – and if she answers ‘ I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in a week,’ then give her something to eat and you are good to pass through her forests.
As the goddess that she is, a true mother of nature, Muma Pădurii can be also good.
Beneficial, she is the sacred plant Asperula odorata, Wild Baby’s Breath, and also Lathraea squamaria, the common toothwort, used in invoking spells that drive away children’s diseases. But there is a sacred ritual before picking it and only on the night of Sanziene, (23-24 June), in silence, so it won’t get scared nor hide in the ground. The plant is then dried and stored as something of the greatest value, only to be used when needed. As for treatment, it is smoked or used as incense or put in the bath water, always accompanied by a spell.
In case you wondered, there is a Daughter of the Forest too
The Daughter of the Forest lives in the depths of the woods where she emerges from, taking on the appearance of a familiar girl, as sweet as a fairy, brought forward by winds and storms. Like her mother and brothers, she can only travel by night and sometimes she shows herself as a half-girl – half-fish or animal, usually a mare. She only emerges to deceive lads, whom she kidnaps, plays with their minds only to abandon them in the forest, forever lost.
Unlike her harpy mother, the Daughter of the Forest is cheerful, happy, always ready to sing and dance. She is tall and willowy, and her only item of clothing, apart from shoes made of animal skin, is her hair that twirls around her. In winter, perhaps, she chooses to cover herself with moss. From the front, she looks like a woman, but from the back she appear to be the bark of a tree, like the hundreds surrounding her. Brothers, sisters.
To be rid of his maddening love for her, the lost lad can be aided by a witch who crafts a life-size puppet out of straws. The replica is dressed in the young man’s clothes and left by the crossroad, in the woods. Fulled by its appearance, the Daughter of the Forest falls for the puppet thus releasing the lad from the power of her spell. Of her love.
But if the lad wears a belt, she will keep away for she is afraid that he’ll use the belt to tie it around her, squeezing all her secrets out of her.
The Father of the Forest, or Old Man Wood, Moșul Codrului
He is a mythical representation of the wooding craft and of the golden, old age. Moșul Codrului together with Muma Pădurii grows trees and bring life in the forest wherever they go. He has the same physical features as his wife,except that he does not steal children. And he is friendlier.
The Forest Goddesses, Vâlve or Charmstresses
Are said to hold power over herbs, magic flowers, thermal springs, winds, mountains and forests, where they lived among themselves, speaking a language no one understood.
Folktales and folk belief hailing from the Romanian Forests
A very long time ago, Romans (like many other cultures, I am sure), respected trees so much that when they had to cut them down, they first prayed and asked for forgiveness, showing us that they believed the woods to poses a soul.
An important tree in Romanian culture is the beech. In many areas it is used on the celebration of Arminden, May 1st. Beech branches are placed above the windows and stable door, with the belief that they protect against the undead. In some villages of Oltenia, the coffins, called “thrones”, are made only of beech wood.
In some areas in Ardeal (western Transylvania) there is still the custom taking the holy communion at Easter time in the form of fir or beech buds, instead of bread and wine, after which they say “Christ Has Risen”.
Situated on the curve of Carpathian Mountains, east of Brasov, is Vrancea county. A place where shepherds confess in front of a fir tree. With the tip of their ax or with the aid of a pocket knife they would craft a cross on the bark of the tree and confess their sins, while making the sign of the cross with their right hand. Then they would remove a few wood chips from the fir tree, and throw them away. If the tree dried out in one year, their sins were forgiven. Holding fir tree in high regards is still a custom today, when a new born is presented to a fir tree, for blessing, in the absence of a priest.
Considering that the Romnaian word for fir, brad, is of Geo-dacic origin, proving the old spiritual connection with this tree, its strong presence in the Romanian spirituality should not surprise us. Also of Geo-dacic origin are the following Romanian words for forest and trees: codru, copac, stejar (oak), mugure (bud).
Biserici de Brazi, The Fir Church
The Fir Church is a cluster of fir trees growing in a circle pattern where young shepherds would choose as a natural church, to mary the girl they loved dearly, but whose parents opposed to the wedding. An old shepherd or even a priest would thus marry them in a Fir Church. The sky and the stars above their heads would be witnesses, in this sacred church of God. The marriage would be out of love, without a dowry.
Folk art involving wood
Worth mentioning is also the Folk-Art ~ Romanian Symbols: when carving in wood, the Romanian folk artists puts a lot of thought. Each carving tells a story, some symbols are for protection, others to remember them of the families left behind:
A cross is for protection. A cross in a circle symbolizes God. A circle is for eternity, a dot for perfection. A diamond represents the woman.
If yellow clouds lift when wind blows over fir trees, called mana, wealth, a good year will follow.
If you jump three times forward and three times backwards over a stump of wood you will never get lost in a forest. Or in an orchard.
If you cut trees to build a house, leave none stumps behind and say: for the rot, for the fungus, for the mildew…
If you are looking for fir trees free of mildew, better cut them in January or February, under heavy frost. And if you do it in March, do it under the New Moon.
It is for protection that fir branches are placed on the roof of a newly build home, to be strong, and the people living in it to be healthy and happy.
We see fir tree at weddings too, atop a pole, with colorful ribbons attached to it. And a bell.
In Bucovina, NE of Romania, before the sheep are taken into the mountains, the are walked through a Live Fire, smoked with burning branches of fir tree to be free of danger all summer long. Laurel leaves and rosemary are also added to the fir fire.
The sky opens in the night of Saint George (St. Gheorghe), when all trees can flower: walnuts, willow, and all forest trees.
If you hear the eagle owl singing in the forest, know that bad weather will follow.
The groom should never go in the forest or by the water well or bad things will happen to him.
For the first 40 days after the baby was born, he (she)is not removed from the house or Muma Pădurii will take him.
A Romanian spooky forest
Located west of Cluj-Napoca, in the north of Romania, Hoia Forest is considered one of the spookiest places in the world. Because trees grow different here. Of course, ghost sighting and UFOs have been observed here, earning this woodland the nickname of “Romania’s Bermuda Triangle”.
But spots of light have been shooting from the forest, without a reasonable explanation. The locals say that the trees are thus curved because they are nothing else but the souls of those lost in this place.
Worth mentioning is that a wind called Austrul, hot and dry, blows at 20-30 km/h in this western part of Transylvania.
Did you know?
Transylvania means ‘the land beyond the forest” (the forest of Apuseni Muntains).
Healing plants can have wondrous names proving their millennial use in medicine, household or purely recreational as well as a fertile popular imagination when it comes to the Romanian folktales.
Herbs have been used in medicine since before Ancient Egyptian. Sumerian clay tablets, for example, list numerous plants, some highly used today such as myrrh and opium.
When it comes to the common names given to the healing plants, there is a fragile boundary between the sacred and the profane as some plants are named due to their association with legends (chicory, mil-foil), mythology (Sita-Ielelor ‘silver thistle’, snowdrop), celebrations (daffodil, garlic, lily of the valley, Năvalnicul ‘hart’s-tongue’, Sânzienele ‘lady’s bedstraw’), Christian worship while others are simply given human traits thus desecrating or sanctifying them (anthropomorphism).
The fine line between the beneficial and the malefic use of plants is seen in their dual use, as medicine or as poison; in their various uses, for the soul of for the body.
It is worth mentioning that the beneficial and malefic use of plants is derived also from the way God and Satan are portrayed in the popular belief: associating flowers and green grass with the positive forces of nature and attributing thistles, thorns, prickly nettles to the underworld.
The Romanian Folklore of Plants and Celebrations
Celebrate originates in Latin celebratus “much-frequented; kept solemn; famous,” past participle of celebrare “assemble to honor,” from celeber “frequented, populous, crowded;” with transferred senses of “well-attended; famous; often-repeated.” – a collective experience meant to last.
Celebrations are perhaps meant to freeze into memory various events so that time, as a whole, will make sense.
Plants and Romanian folk celebrations
Dragobete, Head of Spring and Sister Flowers – 24 February
The celebration of Dragobete(first flowers of spring as Dragobete is celebrated on 24 February / 24 Făurar, Februarie in Romania). During the celebration of the Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, nicknamed in rural areas the celebration of Head of Spring, we can pick the very first flowers that lift their heads from underneath a blanket of snow: snowdrops, crocuses.
A celebration dedicated to pure love takes place now and we can throw these spring symbols down a moving water. The concept of sister flowers appears now, flowers that grow during the same time of the year but never near each other. Pick them and throw them on a moving water so that they can finally meet and your sins will be forgiven.
Dragobete, dragobeti have a few connotations: lads which experience the first thrills of love, the green tiger beetles used in love spells.
Clean or unclean, how do we pick a Dragobete plant – the fern? Once we spot it, before picking it one must make the sign of the cross upon it, to bless it. Then one must bring it an offering, such as is the custom, of bread, salt and sugar. Quietly, place the offering at the plant’s root. The Dragobete plant must be picked whole, with its root, then placed where it is needed the most, to perform its magic: a baby’s crib, a maiden’s bosom, the home’s eave… or behind the icon on the wall. Then, only, the Dragobete plant may be tucked in the maiden’s belt when she goes to the Sunday dance, in the hope that village lads will ask her to be their partner and they will dance and be joyful the way she, too, dance with the Dragobete fern tucked in her belt.
Because Dragobete, as a celebration, supports pure love, harmony, steadfastness and stability.
Navalnic, Impetuous, and the Fern
Navalnic, Impetuous, as a plant connected with this time of year, has also a legend. Navalnic was a fine young man who enjoyed flirting a little too much. He often hid along the forest paths awaiting lonely maidens to walk by, hoping for a kiss. But Navalnic pushed his luck a little too far when he caused Saint Mary with baby Jesus in her arms to catch a fright. Saint Mary turned him into a plant on the spot: “Impetuous you’ve been And so you shall remain! A weed of love, unclean, A love weed to blame.”
The legend of Flyboy and its Speedwell plant
Flyboy, Zburatorul, is associated with the evil eye and is antagonistic to Dragobete’s symbology. Its plant is the speedwell or longleaf speedwel supposed to counteract the effects of the evil eye.
The Flyboy’s legend takes off like this. Once upon a time there was a lovely maiden who fell in love with a Flyboy. A charmer. Now her mother thought it will be better not to intervene between the two so she cooked up a plan. ‘Our cow is sick,’ she complained to the girl. Do you think Flyboy will help? We only need a string of longleaf. The village charmstress will concoct us a cure, a good charm. It is our only cow. Will he help?’ And he did, and they got the longleaf and the charmstress boiled it and she extracted its essence. And she gave it to the mother, which sprinkled it over the maiden as she slept. And so the girl was saved.
Mucenici and Crocuses, Brândușele – celebrated on 9 March
For 9 March, 9 Martie, to celebrate the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste or the Holy Forty Romanians make Mucenici or Măcinici. This celebration also coincides with the start of the agricultural year.
Basically shapes of eight are made of sweet dough and there are two ways to prepare them, following recipes from Muntenia and Ardeal or from Dobrogea and Moldavia. I was lucky to enjoy both and, believe me, they are delicious.
What does the eight shape of Mucenici means?
The eight shape is named brânduși or brândușei – from brândușă, crocus.
From the eight shape the upper circle represents the crown (similar to a saint’s halo) and the bottom circle symbolizes the mace that as used to smash the martyrs’ ankles.
The Legend of How the Crocuses, Brândușele, came to be
It is said that long ago, before stories came to be written, earth had a step-mother… But she was kind-hearted and always kept busy. Each season something else to do, each month with its own routine.
Every March, after the long winter, when nature was still half frozen, she would pull the crocuses out of the ground so that humans could enjoy them and smile again after the long dreary months they just sailed through.
But also to remember that, the way they enjoyed the crocuses now, their dead relatives and friends enjoyed the same flowers during winter when they would show their flowers on the other side of the ground where living people could not see them.
All is relative in life.
These would be the Spring Crocuses, of curse.
The Legend of Young Basil and Lady Crocus (Busuioc si Brândușa)
Basil was a king’s son, a prince by birth and ways, by bravery, knowledge and nature. And when his time came he fell in love with a beautiful, gentle, clever girl named Crocus. But Crocus also caught the eye of a dragon, a fiery horse (a zmeu). Who did what any self-respectable, all-powerful creature would do: kidnap the maiden he wanted, taking her for himself. Yet Basil saved Crocus – and I think he killed the dragon as well. And today the world enjoys basil plants and crocus flowers, the offsprings of the first Basil prince and Crocus maiden.
The Sângiorz or Saint George (Sfantul Gheorghe) celebration, the Narcisus and the Lilly of the Valley – 23 April
Sângiorz or Saint George is a Transylvanian celebration of Spring held on the 23rd of April, honoring flowers such as Lilly of the Valley, Narcissus.
On this special day maidens pick flowers, narcissus and Lilly of the valley too, and make crowns they place on milking jugs. After three days the flowery crowns are fed to the cows, for abundant and sweet milk all year round.
The Feast of Drăgaica / Sânzienele celebrates Midsummer Day – 24 June
The day when the skies open and all the living creatures can speak.
Dragaica or Sânzienele are celebated in Romania on the 24 June (24 Cireșar, Iunie). During this feast we celebrate the Lady’s Bedstraw plant and other summer flowers: golden-rods, wild roses.
During this night we celebrate an agricultural deity, protector of wheat fields and of married women, a Romanian fairy similar in strength and symbology with Hera, Diana, Juno or Artemis.
Legend says that fairies who bath in spring on the night of Sânziene wear clothes made of white flowers. In the North of Romania, in the corner of Maramures county, there is a minuscule geographical and historical area called Forest Country, ȚaraCodrului. Here, between the fields of hemp, folk tradition calls to sprinkle the yellow flowers of Sânziene so that their yellow tint will rub onto the shade of hemp flowers.
On the night of Sânziene the maidens ready to get married can place under their pillows white and yellow flowers, to dream of their love to be. They also plate small crowns of flowers they later throw on the roof of their homes. Of course, the white of the Sânziene flowers is symbolic for purity of heart and body.
The yellow flowers of Sânziene are also known as the flowers of Saint John the Baptist. Popular beliefs says that Lady’s bedstraw can cure epilepsy, ‘le mal caduc‘.
More plants and a few spells
If you wish to convince a man to get marries, legend days, put a few petals of borage or Starflower, limba mielului, in a glass of wine and he will be willing soon. But remember, true love doesn’t need spells.
If you take a bath in lovage (privet), leustean, leaves and rose petals the boy you fancy is sure to fall in love with you. Privet is also good to warn off the evil action of the full moon.
Have a strong wish? Write it on a piece of paper and wrap in in leaves of mint, menta. Then tie it in a piece of red cloth. By the time the scent of mint will warn off your wish will come true.
The Legend of the Olive Tree
It is said that Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods, decided to gift the new city of Athens to the God that will gift its inhabitants the most useful gift.
Poseidon came with his almighty trident derived from Zeus’ lotus scepter and hit the rock at his feet. At once salty water sprouted, running down the mountain.
Next came Athena with her battle spear and she plunged it in the earth. An olive tree sprouted at once.
Then the inhabitants of Athens had to show their preference and they chose the olive fruits over the salty water. So Athena became the goddess patron of the new city. Legend says that all the olive trees around Greece originate from this first tree gifted by Athena.
These were known as moria, olive trees considered to be the property of the state because of their religious significance.
Olive oil against the evil eye
Romanians believe in the evil eye. It is enough for someone to pay you a compliment or glance in your direction, especially if they have green eyes, and if you complain of nausea or headache (among other symptoms such as dizziness, fever, stomach pain, bad luck, financial ruin, serious illness and so on) – then something has to be done to counteract the effect.
First, how do you know if you’ve encountered the bad eye? Pour water in a white bowl and drip some olive oil in it. If the oil gathered into globs, you’re safe from curse. But if the oil scatters around the bowl, that’s the evil eye. There are light spells against the evil eye performed with holy water and matches and rhymes that have to whispered.
That’s why babies are bathed in water with a branch of Lythrum salicaria, or purple loosestrife, rachitanul, to protect them from the evil eye.
I discovered these facts and legends about plants, as well as their various names and Romanian folktales during my latest research. I probably ran away with it, but I found everything so interesting that I wanted to keep it for further reference – so I wrote this blog post. It is sad that, with each generation, fewer Romanians remember our rich heritage and try to keep it alive, for I am sure that we wouldn’t have had such a wealth of myths and legends if it wouldn’t have been for our ancestors, who passed it on through stories and songs when no other means of safekeeping were available.
Hand carving wooden doors, porches and window frames with millennial symbols is an art practiced by few, and acknowledged by fewer, yet the homes of Dimitrie Gusti Village Museum in Bucharest are a testimony of its everlasting beauty. What stories do they tell us, spanning centuries? Do we pay attention?
Ashes to ashes, like human flesh, and just as warm to touch, wood and wood carvings have a short lifespan, although carved wooden spears dated to Middle Paleolithic, 300,000 to 30,000 years ago, have been discovered.
Perhaps the first wood carvers were the builders. Or a father who carved a small toy dog to fit the small hands of his son, or a lover who carved a flower out of wood, on which he lay a kiss in the midst of winter. A persistent hand worker with a dream, as wood, as a material, is softer than marble, cracks easier, and is much loved by (many) insects…
I think wood carving began an art when carpenters topped lifting the wood with their bodies, and lifted it with their imagination…
123 households with 60 000 objects from all over Romania, 380 establishments spread over 14 ha of land, not to count the 250 000 archive documents, this is the National Muzeum of Village Dimitrie Gusti in Bucharest, a perfect example of vernacular architecture.
Join me 🙂
Bellow is a Romanian shepherds house from Valea Doftanei Commune, on the curvature of the Carpathian Mountains, where the shepherding tradition goes back to the 14th century. Worth noticing are the frontal, long stoop and the central entrance parlor. The house stands on a foundation built from river stones, hand-picked. You can see the cellar and its door on the left, underneath the ‘day room’. The house is made of fir trees, abundant in the area.
On a closer look, what makes this house so special, except for once having been a home?
Have the engraved pillars been chosen by chance or the wood artists strolled through the woods until a ray of sun filtered by foliage danced on his face, catching his eye? Had he approached the tree with reverence? Had he run his calloused hands along its ancient trunk, feeling the life inside, asking for permission? Had the design came to him in that moment? Had he drew it on the trunk, in a whisper of apology? Asking for the forest’s blessing? I like to believe he did.
Next, a sleigh for storing and transporting wood during winter, with a door fashioned from twigs and a roof of straws. Child’s play:
Brownie points if you guess what the image below is. And, yes, it has a door:
It has been transported to the Village Museum all the way from the north of the country, from Breaza, from a hamlet situated at a height of 1 200m together with an entire household that belonged to a family of huțulii (huțanii, hutsuls), an ethnic group living in the very NW of Romania with Dacians origins…
Because the homes were far and few in between, to keep the wild animals off the households, as well as out of the water wells, both were fitted with a tall fence. A secondary reason was to keep the water clean, as cats do get everywhere… Notice the cross on top, a Christian symbol meant to bless the water… And the slant in the roof meant to aid the snow slide off during the heavy blanketed winters of the North of Romania.
But an artists at heart is such no matter where he was born and to tell a story all he needs are his two hands…
Like in this tell-tale blue of a house with blue doors, blue window frames, underneath the blue sky reflecting the blue waters… from Dobrogea, a fisherman land and home to Danube Delta:
A few more doors and households from the Village Museum:
Love and respect for tradition is what blows life in a carving made in wood.
Even the pen house (above) has a story to tell, a blessing to keep it safe – from beasts, the seen ones from forests, and unseen, from folktales.
And a blessing for the cellar:
It happened the way it was meant. He had learned the wood carving skill from his father, who had grasped it from his own father, and so on. But the stories he whispered into the wood, those came from songs, from childhood games and rhymes, from the mountains he’d climbed with the sheep, the streams he drank from, the clouds overhead and the stars, the sun and the birds. From prayers, said and unsaid. They were symbols for protection, and symbols to remind him, and his own, of their family. Their history. Their past. For nothing comes out of nothing and no meaningful future is there, without a past.
Between the symbols found in Romanian architecture of the village art are: the circle, the rope, the cross, the star, the sun (purifying the spirit) or the rosette, the moon (as a feminine symbol, assuring the fertility of the home), the tree of life (symbolizing Christ and immortality), the snake, the fir branch, the fir tree, flowers in a vase, wheat or rye, leaves, the horse, the lark, the dove (symbol for soul, taking off towards the Heavens), as well as the human silhouette (alone or in a group), the hand (a barrier against wicked forces), the eye (God’s all-seeing, protector eye), the cross (Christianity, remembering the death and resurrection of Christ).
The rooster, usually placed on top of houses but also carved on gates, is there for protection, remembering the rooster sacrificed when the establishment was built, and buried in the foundation – to ensure its durability.
The snake might derive from the popular belief that each home has its own protective spirit, called the home’s snake. It is said that one should not kill a snake near a home, as to not attract the spirits’ wrath… Now I know that a snake has so many negative connotations, but in the Book of Numbersthe copper serpent, Nehushtan, is an archetype of Jesus Christ, offering immortal life to those who believed in Him. The serpent also symbolizes wisdom and prudence.
If you happen to see a Romanian county home and wish to spot any of these symbols, do look at the pillars of gates and wells, search around the gates, doors and windows, as well as above, pay attention to the porches, and on the front side of the roofs.
For a wood carving is a novel.
How many symbols can you recognize?
Below, on gate pillars we can see the rope, the star, the rosette (the sun), geometrical motifs, the star, the circle, the tree of life:
Happy to join Norm’sThursday Doors with this post 🙂
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The importance of Târgoviște royal palace (curtea domnească) in history emerges, first of all, from the significant role it played in the life of Vlad Țepeș and during the medieval period. Among other royal residences of Wallachia, the royal court of Târgoviște was the third oldest and the second most used, without significant interruptions, over a period of 300 years.
The geographical location of Târgoviște was also favorable, hills on one side, planes on the other, Ialomita river passing through, as well as Dambovita river nearby.
Around 1400 Mihail I, son of Mircea the Elder (Mircea cel Bătrân) and co-ruler with his father was the first to settle his royal court here, where there was already a rural settlement as well as a more recent one, 14th century, belonging to Transylvania Saxon settlers. Later, as one of the important border villages of Wallachia, Târgoviște receives special privileges for commerce.
The royal palace of Târgovişte was designed as a group of buildings with various purposes: to host the administration of the country, as well as to offer protection and lodgings for the ruler, his family and their various courtiers and servants. Here were special rooms for the high government’s ministry and for the court to meet and for the prince (ruler) to sign his decrees and receive foreign guests and emissaries.
Târgoviște – etimology
Târgoviște = Târg + -iște. Târg means market, but Târgoviște means an older market, one well-established. As a name for a town, Târgoviște is also found in Croatian, trgovištse, Serbian, trgovište, Ukraine, torhovytśa, Slovakian, trhovište, and Polish, targowisko.
The Royal court was at Târgoviște because from there were easy connections with other parts of the Wallachian state, the city of Târgoviște being better positioned from an administrative and commercial point of view.
On 23rd August 1437 Vlad Dracul (Vlad II, the father of Vlad Tepes) signed a document in Târgoviște to declare that Vlădești will belong to the boyar Bodin, and exempts him and his sons Mircea and Vlad of services and tributes for as long as they live. The bequest starts with:
“In the name of the God Almighty, the all faithful and all honorable and Christ Loving, I Vlad and lord by the mercy of God and through the Benevolence of God ruler of all Hungarian-Wallachian Country, and duke of Amlaş and Făgăraş. My lordship has deign to offer this hereby true gift of property to my servant boyar Bodin and his sons, so that Vlădești village may be his land… ” and ends with “I Vlad Lord, with the mercy of God, ruler.”
Vlad Dracul and the people of Târgovişte
The influential boyards, the patricians of a town (such as Târgovişte was), were called good men, “om bun“. We encounter one of the first mentions of such good men in a letter of Vlad Dracul addressed to the people of Brasov perhaps during his first reign (1436–1442). The letter concerns Zanvel, a good man, but also a wealthy one, from Târgovişte, who had been killed and mugged while traveling for business in Transylvania. Vlad Dracul requests that all of Zanvel’s valuables be returned: 250 Florins, 500 Perperi (=250 Ducats), a money bag with 300 Aspri (silver coins) and a gold ring valued at 10 Florins. The man’s clothes are also mentioned, clothes of Ypress (one of the largest commercial communities of Medieval Belgium, when it served as the main market and warehouse for the Flemish city’s prosperous cloth industry), a hat and also a sword. Vlad Dracul allows for one week only, during which Zanvel’s killer had to be found and punished, and the wealth be returned to his family.
Smuggling weapons through Târgovişte
During the 14th century, the weapon craftsmanship of Braşov’s inhabitants (Transylvania) was greatly trusted by the rulers of Wallachia, such as Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare) and Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, Vlad III – son of VladDracul, Vlad II). Thus, weapons trade beyond the borders of Transylvania was common, especially with Wallachia.
For example, at the end of 1445 the Wallachian Voivod Vlad Dracul requested the delivery of “bows, arrows, firearms and saltpeter” for his conquests in southern Wallachia. The Voivod was dependent on this delivery to strengthen the defenses of the seized town.
Not much later, the new Wallachian Voivod Vladislav II (who fought over the ruling of Wallacia with Vlad Tepes), requested in a document from 1453 that a delivery of weapons to Kilia (Chilia) to take place via the towns of Târgovişte and Brăila, so that the delivery could proceed in secret and without danger. A year later a similar request was made by John Hunyadi himself.
Vlad Țepeș’ main political objective was reinforcing his central authority. He expressed this in a letter written in Târgoviște, on September 10th 1456 (during his 2nd reign) and addressed to the people of Braşov:
“Think about how when a man or a ruler is powerful and strong he can make peace in any way he wants to; but when he is powerless, another one will come and rule him as he pleases.” (“Considerandum est vobis: quando homo vel dominus est potens et fortis, tunc pacem potest facere sicut vult; cum autem impotens erit, forcior super eum veniet et faciet secum sicut vult”).
The massacre of 1457: Vlad Ţepeş and the Boyards
We cannot go further without mentioning the relations between the townspeople of Târgoviște and Vlad Ţepeş and the existence of some conflicts between them. The only incident recorded by chroniclers mentions that Vlad Ţepeş considered the townspeople guilty of the death of his older brother, Mircea, whom they buried alive in 1447, and of that of their father, Vlad Dracul.
Vlad Ţepeş and his ruling policy
Having lived through his father’s political struggles, at the Ottoman and Moldavia court, as well as through his own first reign of almost three months, in 1448, Vlad would have learned that only a strong ruler can keep a country united, and that only a strong, united country can withstand a foreign attack.
As it was obvious during the Medieval times, the boyards held much power and through their intrigues they could control a country, often opposing the rule and power of a ruler. Vlad knew too well that one of biggest issues that opposed a strong head of state were the boyards and made it clear during a meeting he had with them. When asked under how many rulers they served during their life time, most acknowledged at least seven, which came and went, yet they remained in position.
But the Lord, Vlad Ţepeş, punished the townspeople differently: the big boyards and the old ones were impaled, while the young ones were taken together with their families on Easter day (a day of rest and Christian joy) to work on the Poenari fortress. It was Vlad Ţepeş’ desire for revenge, along with his need to consolidate his power, that drove him to commit one of the most notorious acts of his career. After this, Vlad gave positions in his council to persons of obscure origins, who would be loyal to him alone, and even to some foreigners and free peasants.
The punishment of the townspeople was placed by historians in 1457, when Vlad Ţepeş was in Târgovişte. The conflict should be understood through the context of power struggles between the two branches of the royal family (Dănești and Drăculești), in which both the great boyar groups and the influential members of the townspeople took part, whose political involvement is now revealed. The fact that the punished were put to work at the fortress is a rare situation; the obligation to work appears formally mentioned in several acts, but the event described above is the only attestation of a forced implementation of this duty. Among the internal chronicles, the History of Wallachia relates only the sending of young people to work, while in the Histories of Gentlemen it is written about the sending of women and children. Exceptional is the sending of people to work on Easter day, proving that the punishment applied to the citizens was a serious form of the duşegubina (a medieval payment for killing someone, or for theft, incest, adultery or kidnapping of girls).
Only in 1458 does Vlad Ţepeş begins building his Bucharest fortress to supervise and defend the road leading from Giurgiu, a Romanian city found under the ruling of the Turks.
It is documented by Chalcocondil (a Byzantine chronicler contemporary with Vlad Ţepeş), that in 1462, when the Ottoman troops came searching for Vlad (to remove him from the throne of Wallachia) they found him at Târgovişte…
The Night Attack at Târgoviște
It was Vlad Ţepeş‘ outstanding victories against the Turk army under the command of grand vizier Mahmud Pasha that caught the eye of Sultan Mehmed II. Vlad was celebrated by Saxon cities of Transylvania, as well as by the Pope Pius II. So the Sultan decided to deal with Vlad himself, thus preparing an army equal to what he had behind him when he conquered Constantinople. 150 000 Turks including fierce Janissary troops, archers, cavalry, saiales (slaves, medieval Turkish Kamikaze), pikemen, beshlish who handled firearms, 120 cannons and an entire fleet… and Radu the Handsome, Vlad’s half brother who commanded 4 000 horsemen…as well as engineers who would build bridges and roads if necessary, priests, astrologers… And Vlad? With no support from Hungarians ruled by Matthias Corvinus he relied on his people: all men of military age, but also women and children over the age of twelve ; and included Gypsy slaves, about 30 000 people all together, armed with lances, swords, and daggers, and most probably prong forks too. Vlad was able to stop part of the Turkish attacks by scorching the earth, poisoning the water, creating marshes and pits, even adopting guerrilla tactics.
Still, on June 17 the Turks set camp outside Târgovişte… There was one last thing Vlad could do to protect his town.
That evening, Vlad disguised himself as a Turk and entered the Turkish camp (Vlad was fluent in Romanian, church Slavic, German, Latin, Turkish). Here, he wandered around to find the location of the Sultan’s tent and learn about his plans of attack. A contemporary historian, Chalkokondyles, mentions that Mehmed had interdicted his soldiers to wander about the camp during the night, as to not cause panic in case of an attack. So Vlad decided to attack the Turkish camp during that night. Vlad’s men infiltrated the camp, then made noise from their buglers and illuminated the battle with their torches launching a series of attacks from “three hours after sunset until four the next morning”. Vlad Țepeș himself aimed for the tent of the sultan, but mistakenly went for the tent of his two grand viziers, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha (the same one that Vlad had already defeated in a previous battle). The sultan Mehmed II abandoned camp and fled for his life.
The Chindia Tower, Turnul Chindiei
It was Vlad Tepes who started building the lovely Chindia Tower for military purposes and to store the treasury. The tower rose on the place of an old manor house, although its final stone was put in place during the 19th century. It is believed that Hungarian commander Stephen V Báthory saw Chindia Tower and later refereed to it as the castle, in his letter from November 11, 1476.
A big feast or festival where people dance is known in Romanian as chindia, and this could be one explanation for the tower’s name, here being the place for such happy gatherings. But chindie, of Turkish origin, ikindi, also means sunset, the time of day when the guard gave the curfew signal, before closing the city’s gates. And this time was rather important as afterwards it was prohibited to enter or leave the city, and the residents were required not to pass through its streets and not to maintain outdoor fires that would have made the town visible from a distance and thus render it unsafe.
Today the Chindia tower rises at a height of 27 meters and measures 9 meters in diameter. When Prince Bibescu restored it, his builders also rose the tower by 5 meters.
For this reason, out of pro-Christian or pro-Ottoman beliefs, the Wallachian rulers of 16thcentury will shift the location of their princely court from Târgovişte to Bucharest and back again. Also, Târgovişte was often used as a summer residence, while Bucharest as a winter one.
Dealu Monastery was built by Radu IV the Great at the very beginning of the 16th century, on a previous monastic settlement. This is rather important, as previously in Târgovişte we only had a Franciscan and a Dominican monastery, but not a Christian Orthodox one.
The grand Metropolitan Church was raised under the ruling of Neagoe Basarab, early 16th century. During the same time the seal of Târgovişte town depicting Virgin and Infant is created.
Târgovişte sees another rebirth at the end of the 16th century, under the ruling of Petru II of the Earring, who brings Italian and French cultural influences. Franco Sivori, Petru’s private secretary, mentions gardens designed after the Italian fashion as well as the Prince’s menagerie found at Târgovişte.
Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul) rules from here for a short time briefly bringing the three principalities under his personal union at 1600.
Although fortified, Târgovişte falls during the Turk-Tatar invasion of 1658 and is destroyed, its ruins being brought back to life 30 years later under the ruling of Constantin Brâncoveanu – till his tragic death.
18th century Târgovişte was on the world map
The most usual route on the way to Istanbul from western Europe, crossing Transylvania and Wallachia, passed through the towns of Cluj – Alba-Iulia – Sibiu, where it divided into two roads to Bucharest. One crossed the Carpathians through the gorge of Turnu Roşu, going down to the capital by Râmnicu Vâlcea and Piteşti, and the other passed through Braşov – Rucăr pass – Câineni – Câmpulung – Târgovişte, or along Valea Prahovei through Ploieşti, both routes passing through Bucharest.
Read the observations of an 18th century traveler returning from Istanbul and passing into Wallachia, a province still under the domination of the Porte (Ottoman Empire). Daniel Clarke traveled by carriage and this is his account on the different types of mentality he witnessed: “On April 16”, – writes Daniel Clarke – “we crossed the Danube [moving north, towards Wallachia]. On the other bank, the carriages of Wallachia’s ruler. […] Some of the Turks had never before sat in a wheeled vehicle and when the carriages set in motion they stuck their bearded heads out the windows throwing the most pitiful looks one can imagine. […] For us the change wasn’t less memorable either, as one year and a half had passed since we had left Russia and we had spent the entire time traveling without once having at our disposal a wheeled carriage”
As he crossed the Danube river, the British traveler on his way from Istanbul to England entered Wallachia. But for the travelers there was no militarized border with the Ottoman Empire as Wallachia had been for a few centuries under the domination of the Ottoman Porte (Sublime Porte), and in the 18th century the Ottoman Empire had increased its presence in the Romanian space.
There is an incredible 19th century story about the local villagers who fought for the conservation of the princely court with the Wallachian ruler of the time who had been named in position by the Ottoman court: Ioan Caradja (of Greek-Turkish origin). Caradja wanted the court demolished, but the villagers not only opposed, but they also preserved and rebuilt it.
The royal court of Târgovişte has next witnessed the Russo-Turk war, an earthquake and a fire, before a final rebirth during the late 19th century under the exemplary ruling of Alexandru Ioan Cuza and King Carol I.
Half a century after Dealu Monastery was built, a Military Highschool rose in Târgovişte in 1912, while King Carol I lead the Romanians. In 1930 Mihai I (the last King of Romania) and great-grandson of King Carol I (from his brother’s blood lineage) studied here. And Mihai was thus named after Romanian King Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul), the first to rule over an united Romania in 1600.
Sources: *Markus Peter Beham, Braşov (Kronstadt) in the Defence against the Turks *Laurentiu Radvan, Orasele din Tarile Romane in Evul Mediu *Sorin ŞIPOŞ – FOREIGN TRAVELLERS IN THE ROMANIAN SPACE AND BORDER SYMBOLISM (1797-1810) *Camelia TEODORESCU, Laurentiu Stefan SZEMKOVICS, Roxana RADU, FROM VLAD ŢEPEŞ – WALLACHIAN RULER – TO DRACULA. CONCLUSIVE DOCUMENTS REGARDING HIS NAME AND “FAME” *DOCUMENTE DE ARHITECTURĂ DIN ROMÂNIA
My next work of fiction is a contemporary story glancing over the shoulder at some incredible events dating from Medieval Romania. Subscribe to my newsletter ad be among the first to know when it will come out 🙂
Fairy tales and folklore are abundant in stories about beasts and are wide spread in cultures all over the world, depicting the past and sometimes the present by the use of monsters that, thus, have entered history through the secret door of folk tales….
Such narrative often shares a story that teaches a moral lesson or emphasize the importance of kindness and bravery no matter what. They mostly make use of a mean character, a monster that instills fear. It is through this fear that the message is remembered. Because fear shapes the mind and gives the memory a kick and, sometimes, a beast does not need a hero to be just that, freak.
This is, by no means, a comprehensive list, but one to inspire future reading, writing, and further work as I do intent to update it regularly.
Cerberus, the Hound of Hades in Greek mythology
Is being the son of monsters making one a beast? Cerberus, hound of Hades, certainly looked like one with his 3 heads (or 50, or 100), a serpent tail and extra snakes protruding from his body. Often a symbol for an impossible task (Heracles) and gluttony (Dante).
Medusa, the only mortal of the Gorgon sisters from Greek legends
Medusa is described as a winged human female. She has living venomous snakes in place of hair. Those who gazed into her eye’s will certainly turn to stone, an ability her head retained even after her death and decapitation. Interesting is that it appears there are no records of Medusa turning women to stone. Of course, related to this observation there is a fascinating Freudian interpretation.
Anyone who read ‘The Legends of Olympus’ in childhood, will probably remember that the Minotaur was a fantastic creature, half human, half bull. Because the Minotaur liked to devour people he is locked in a labyrinth built by Daedalus from which the creature could not escape. In order to prevent him from trying to find his way out, King Minos sacrificed seven men and seven women a year to quench the hunger of the monster. Eventually the Minotaur is killed by Theseus who manages to get out of the maze with the help of the invisible thread of the Ariadne (which was in love with him). Alas, Theseus shows no gratitude towards her. One would say his negligence was punished by Gods as Theseus fails to put up the white sail on his return home (something he promised his father to do if he was victorious). Seeing the black sail his father, in desperation, kills himself by drowning in the sea that now carries his name.
The Mermaid and the Siren
In Greek mythology Sirens were believed to combine women and birds in various ways. In early Greek art, Sirens were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet, ‘Winged maidens, daughters of the Earth.’ Later, sirens are depicted as female figures with legs of birds, with or without wings, often playing a musical instrument especially the harp. Perhaps where the arm movement of a harpist looks like the flapping of a bird’s wings.
According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Sirens were the companions of young Persephone and were given wings by Demeter to search for Persephone when she was abducted. Their song is continually calling for her. According to Latin author Hyginus, sirens were fated to live only until the mortals who heard their songs were able to pass them by. The term “siren song” refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad result. By the Middle Ages, the figure of the siren has shifted to the more enduring mermaid. Part female and part fish, literature shows us that not all mermaids are as gentle as Ariel. In Odyssey, Homer frighteningly illustrates how sirens drown those who listen to their song. Greek legends speak of mermaids who love consuming human flesh, being surrounded by decomposed corpses. Far from being a romantic character, a siren would lure you in the depths of her aquatic world, functioning as a character of horror for anyone who fails to follow their charming song.
North European Monsters
Fenris or Hróðvitnir from Norse Mythology
Fenris or Fenriror Hróðvitnir is a monster with a wolf’s appearance encountered in Norse mythology. He is one of the sosn of Loki and of giant Angrboda. Fenris is encaged because of a prophecy announcing that a wolf and his family will one day destroy the world. Eventually, Fenris will fulfill the prophecy by killing Odin, the emperor of the gods, during the Viking Armageddon, Ragnarok. Fenrir appears in the Poetic Edda, a 13th century compilation of Norse poems based on earlier traditional sources.
Kraken or Hafgufa (sea mist)
A mythical cephalopod-monster of Scandinavian sea-tales (“krake” means twisted in Swedish), Kraken it traditionally figured as malign, and better re-imagined embodying the mystery of the ocean.
Hafgufa (Icelandic, haf “sea” + gufa “steam”) is the massive sea monster depicted in the Örvar-Odds saga. It lived in the Greenland Sea and was said to disguise itself as an island or pair of rocks rising from the sea.
“Below the thunders of the upper deep; Far far beneath in the abysmal sea, His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep The Kraken sleepeth (…) There hath he lain for ages, and will lie Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep, Until the latter fire shall heat the deep; Then once by man and angels to be seen, In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.” (The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson, 1830)
Grendel from Boewulf
One of the monsters described in the epic poem Boewulf, Grendel is a descendant of Cain, perhaps humankind’s first killer. Like all of Cain’s descendants Grendel is cursed to have a hideous appearance due to his physical deformities. Never described in detail, Grendel is presented as ‘a creature of darkness, exiled from happiness and accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of our human kind.’
Dragons have an extensive history, being widespread throughout folktales and legends since ancient times. They are depicted as flying monsters, often so big that they could easily be compared with elephants. Tolkien’s Smaug Dragon (from The Hobbit) is ruthless and greedy, a trait expected to be found in such a beast. As a visual representation of his evil spirit Smaug spits fire to make sure that the mountain and the treasure belong exclusively to him. He can also stir hurricanes with his wings, earthquakes with his tail, while his teeth are like swords, and his breath spits death.
Beast of Bodmin Moor
If you live in Cornwall, watch out for the Beast of Bodmin Moor, a mysterious cat blamed for mutilating local livestock. This could very well be considered as one of the ABCs (Alien, or Anomalous, Big Cats), the British big cats, phantom cats and mystery cats often reported as “panthers”, “pumas”, or “black cats”.
Other European Monsters
The Ogre from Puss in Boots
Do you remember him? The fairy tale is of Italian origin, Il gatto con gli stivali.
While representing the Marquis of Carabas, the cat happens upon a castle inhabited by an ogre who is capable of transforming himself into a number of creatures. The ogre displays his ability by changing into a lion, frightening the cat, who then tricks the ogre into changing into a mouse. The cat then pounces upon the mouse and devours it.
Monster of Ravenna
Most probably an omen regarding the outcome of the 1512 Battle of Ravenna it was fir recorded by diarist Sebastiano di Branca Tedallini on March 8. A child was born to a nun and a friar, and thus he was marked by a horned head, the letters YXV on its chest, and with one leg hairy and cloven-hoofed while the other leg’s midsection grew a human eye.
“The horn [indicates] pride; the wings, mental frivolity and inconstancy; the lack of arms, a lack of good works; the raptor’s foot, rapaciousness, usury, and every sort of avarice; the eye on the knee, a mental orientation solely toward earthly things; the double sex, sodomy. And on account of these vices, Italy is shattered by the sufferings of war, which the King of France has not accomplished by his own power, but only as the scourge of God.” (Johannes Multivallis, 1512)
With time, the description of the Ravenna monster evolved, being tied with the image of Frau Welt and her seductive powers (a beautiful, beguiling woman when viewed the front, while her back is full of pus and hideous vermin). Thus way, the monster of Ravenna and Frau Welt become educational tools during the Middle Ages. Note: do not confuse Frau Welt with Mutter Courage.
A French monster from Provence, the Tarasque looked like a dragon with lion’s head, had an ox’s body with a turtle shell on top. He was tamed by Saint Martha in the Golden Legend.
Monsters from Middle East and Asia
Al, the Afghan monster
With fiery eyes, horns, iron teeth, talons for fingernails & floating appearance, living in damp corners and swamps, comes the Al, a monster from the Afghanistan folklore. Attacking women and children, Al prefers the liver, but eats any corpses.
A futakuchi-onna (二口女, lit. “two-mouthed woman”) is a Japanese mythological monster depicted as having two mouths, basically a woman with a toothy mouth hidden on the backside of her head.
The skeleton woman’ is a Yōkai, a Japanese demon, often depicted as an aged female that carries a lantern decorated with botan flowers and visit the house of a man she loved back when she was still alive. Of course he sees her as the young woman she used to be, but if anyone else catches a glimpse of her they will see her at the skeleton she actually is.
Also from Japanese Folklore comes the story of a a giant skeleton made up of the bones of people who have died from starvation. If Gashadokuro sees you, it will bite your head off and drink the blood that drains out of your decapitated body. Sweet dreams.
An Oni is a kind of, ogre, or troll in Japanese folklore. They are strong and large build, with one or more horns growing out of their heads, wearing loincloths of tiger skin, and carrying a typical iron spiked club. Their skin is usually red, blue or green.
Onis are popular characters in Japanese art, literature (the 14th century fairytale of Momotaro, Peach Boy), and theatre.
The jiangshi is a Chinese hopping vampire known as phi dip chin in Thai, hantu pocong in Malay, and vampir cina in Indonesia. It is depicted as a corpse dressed in clothes from the Qing Dynasty era that moves around by hopping. It kills living creatures to absorb their qi, “life force”, usually at night, while during daytime it rests in a coffin or hides in dark places.
Jiangshifrom originates in the folk practice of “transporting a corpse over a thousand li“. The relatives of a person who died far away from home could not afford vehicles to bring the deceased’s body home for burial, so they would hire a Taoist priest to reanimate the dead person and teach him to “hop” home. The transport happened only at night and would ring bells to notify others in the vicinity of their presence because it was considered bad luck for a living person to set eyes upon a jiangshi.
Have you ever felt watched while out in the forest? It is the hidebehind. This a nocturnal creature from American folklore that preys upon the humans who wander the woods. He is blamed for the disappearances of any loggers who failed to return to camp. It is believed he has the ability to conceal itself, mostly often behind trees, ‘hidebehind‘.
This is a kangaroo-like / dragon-like creature with a goat or horse-like head, leathery bat-like wings, horns, small arms with clawed hands, legs with cloven hooves, and a forked tail. It has been reported to move quickly and is often described as emitting a high-pitched “blood-curdling scream”
According to folklore, the Jersey Devil originates Mother Leeds in 1735. The legend says that Mother Leeds had 12 children and when she fell pregnant with her 13th she cursed the baby. It was a stormy night when the baby was born, a normal child who soon changed his appearance developing hooves, a goat’s head, bat wings, and a forked tail. He flew up the chimney and head for the pine forest.
Yes, there is a NHL hockey team named after this creature – perhaps due to their speed?
Jabberwocky from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Lewis Carroll’s character is all the more formidable as he goes beyond everything I knew about monsters. It is a new appearance, presented by the author through a playful and absurd poem. The lack of information about the bizarre creature, along with the uncertain and fantastic description increases the fear of the unseen character. Our fear grows as we decipher the language. We learn that Jabberwocky is like a beast galloping towards its prey. He salivates at the thought of snatching someone’s flesh from the bones, devouring with his jaws anyone who gets in his way. The fact that his eyes are on fire makes him terribly frightening, even if only seen in the dark.
The Nothing from The Neverending Story
In order for a monster to be scary, it does not have to look like a beast. The more mysterious it is, the more it overcomes our fears.
The Nothing… By the mere fact that there is nothing in its presence, that is to say, of the unknown, its force is both evil and darkness and it seems unable to be defeated or controlled. The Nothing is all that humanity would never have imagined, namely the supreme evil and the most destructive power shed to mortals. Some even let themselves fall inside willingly because they get too close to the Nothing. The Nothing that exerts an irresistible power of attraction and thus it grows.
The Nothing, what is it? where it comes from? How it became to be just that, Nothing?
Pennywise, Stephen King’s character in IT, is one of the creepiest literary monsters by far. Speaking of coulrophobia. But just as a (giant) spider, Pennywise is the nightmare in itself.
Cryptozoology and its Monsters
Cryptozoology is a pseudoscience and subculture that aims to prove the existence of entities from the folklore record, such as Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, the Loch Ness monster, the Yeti or Mokele-mbembe. Cryptozoologists refer to these entities as cryptids, a term coined by the subculture.
Perhaps our interest and fascination with monsters does not lie in the love of the macabre, but in an evolutionary need to learn about them, their stories, habits, diet and all, in order to recognize them, fight them, and annihilate them as well as what they symbolize.
You were probably expecting some Romanian Folk Monsters too. Coming soon… Meanwhile you might enjoy reading about:
Garlic is deeply rooted in Romanian cuisine but also in Romanian folklore where it is include in numerous rituals mostly due to its heath benefits; it is almost considered magical.
Give me Garlic on Sântandrei, Saint Andrei – 30 November
Sântandrei is a major celebration that involves lots of garlic. Saint Andrei is also the Patron Saint of Romania, observed on the 30th of November.
In case you didn’t know already… garlic is believed to have healing and protective powers. For this reason alone Romanian folktales call it ai (usturoi is named so when used in culinary situations), or the wild garlic, samuraslă.
So on Saint Andrei it is advised to hang garlic, ai, at window, doors, on the eaves of the house, and don’t forget the stables to protect the horses and the cattle against any evil spirits, strigoi and moroi. But do hang the garlic strings so that they form a cross.
In Romanian folklore it is said that God Himself named the garlic ai, because it is a sacred plant.
MUILLA, ALLIUM and an anagram
The flowers from the Muilla genus, although lilies, have flowers quite similar to those of Allium, the onion genus. Just judge by yourselves:
But garlic, aiul, although considered sacred, due to its religious connotations, as well as having magical powers cannot be eaten all year round. For example it is advised not to eat garlic ahead of 29 August (29 Gustar) when Christianity observes the Beheading of John the Baptist, and before 14 September (14 Rapciune), The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
In Romanian folklore garlic has a head and a cross
In Romanian folklore the garlic, usturoi, is seen as a human been, with a head (capde usturoi, as we call the garlic bulb), a cross, it is dressed in clothes (the many layers of skin one must peel), and the garlic cloves are called catei (puppies).
If you clean the garlic and throw its skin in the fire, make sure they don’t fall on the ground. It would be a shame, the garlic is from God.
Interesting is that Hindu and Islamic traditions also mention garlic in a reverence way.
The Romanian Legend of How Garlic Got its Name
Legend says that Saint Peter wished to rise to the sky, to Heavens. But a magpie was watching him and whenever he tried, the magpie would announce rascal Satan.
Now, before this string of events humans had perfectly flat feet. Yet whenever the magpie would chirps to announce Satan that Saint Peter wishes to rise to Heavens, the horned scoundrel would jump right away and catch Saint Peter by his feet, digging into them with his bony, sharp fingers and pulling out bits of meat.
Saint Peter, in agony, would have called ‘ai‘ towards Heavens, instead of ‘ouch’. And God would answer: ‘quiet, Peter, for ai would also be good for something’.
And since then humans have a curvature in the soles of their feet.
In parts of rural Romania snowdrops are nicknamed little garlic and seen as sacred and mysterious, much like the garlic itself.
Călușarii and the Garlic on the Flag
Călușarii are the members of a Romanian secret society who practice a ritual acrobatic dances with mystical connotations known as the căluș (little horse, pony). Romanian historian and writer Mircea Eliade, described the Călușari for “their ability to create the impression of flying in the air” believed to represented the galloping of a horse and the dancing of the fairies – their patron saint being “Queen of the Fairies” Doamna Zînelor.
Fascinating is the Călușarii‘s flag: the pole is three meters tall and at one end there is tied a white cloth, preferably hand stitched, garlic and mug-wort (for their healing powers). The pole is held by only one of the dancers and can never touch the ground during the dance. The dancers also tie garlic and mug-wort at their waist.
Romanian Folktales often mention local fairies, good or bad. To increase their power they performed various practices at certain times of the year, such as dancing naked on the field on the night of Saint George, 23 April, to absorb earth’ energy and later pour it into their own fields.
Only that no mortal can see them.
Unless they perform this spell.
You must catch a snake, cut his head with a silver coin and stick a garlic in his mouth. The the snake’s head thus prepared you must bury it under your door’s frame.
If you eat that garlic or take it with you , then only will you be able to see the fairies dancing naked on the night of Saint George.
No wonder that vampires are afraid of garlic.
Garlic’s strange powers
It is said that if you wish to attract a snake… you should rub a clove of garlic on your shoes or legs. Snakes love its pungent scent.
Please, do wear a head of garlic tied to your belt or as a decoration on your hat 😉 on Pentecost Day, Rusalii or Cincizecime, celebrated by Christianity on 31st May, for protection against the mean Ielele (charmstresses, women of forests and waters with magic powers living in Romanian woods).
Westerners, mostly, do believe that garlic warns off vampires – that’s why you see them wearing fashionable garlic necklaces or discover that they asked house decorators for advice on modern garlic decor items to hang above the entrance door or around the chimney.
Something I wouldn’t advice anyone to follow – is the recipe requiring garlic and a strong liquor for the woman who wants to have a baby… Place nine cloves of garlic in half a liter of liquor. Let it sit for nine days in a warm place, preferably near a source of heat. And then, start drinking it…
Did you know that, when garlic is crushed, it releases allicin (an organosulfur compound), similar to penicillin? If only Outlander’s Claire Fraser would have known this…
If basil inspires love and frankincense scares the devil, then the garlic is the best shield against vampires and diseases. These three powerful weapons united under the power of God almighty form a defense shield that no enemy can penetrate. Armed with these three shields no soul must be ever scared, but know that at midnight he can walk alone anywhere, over the fields or through the forests, and no matter what enemy he will encounter, it will not have the power to harm him.
Patricia Furstenberg, High Country (Work in progress)
And if you do love garlic in your food, know that it will protect you against blood-sucking… mosquitoes.