The Oldest Christmas Story and the Christmas Star 2020

oldest Christmas story

The Oldest Christmas Story. Enjoy! Merry Christmas! “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

It had snowed on the Gray-Haired Mountain that December and the winter’s icy breath had rolled down along the valleys of the Judaean Mountains, covering them with a white blanket that dissipated as soon as one set foot on it.

Some might not even call these mountains such, but rather nests of sleeping turtles for their soft curvatures, yet they all agree that it is these mountains here, as old as the first thought, that God uses to describe His omniscient and constant presence to His people.

It had snowed that December and the air smelled clean, like a white linen that’s been washed and set in the sun to dry. And this, some say, it wasn’t by chance.

Winter white scene. It had snowed that December and the air smelled clean, like a white linen that's been washed and set in the sun to dry

It was a time when ambitious, assertive republics became empires and a time of skilled, yet overlooked nations. It was a time when the Roman Empire reached its peak, stretching westwards across Hispania, eastwards across Pannonia and Dacia, and even over the big sea, Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) how Romans called the Mediterranean, and all the way to the African continent, and to Judea.

Desiring to know how many subjects he ruled over, ravenous Roman emperor Caesar Augustus gave a decree that everyone be counted. But not in the places where they lived, where they had business and had built homes, but in the place where the head of each family had been born. Be it where it may be.

And so the people packed up their families, provisions to last them the entire journey, and traveled. The wealthy ones in carriages, the poorest ones by foot, others with the aid of donkeys. None thought to fight the Emperor’s authority, for in those times, much like now, people recognized and obeyed the tradition of authority.

So did Joseph and his wife Mary who traveled for ninety long miles (about 144 kilometers) in a cold winter, along dangerous roads littered with pirates of the desert and robbers too. For a whole week.

They started their journey from their home in Nazareth, perhaps after a rushed breakfast of dried bread, and followed the flat bed of Jordan river heading south along the water. Its gushing waters would have made them feel, at first, as if they too advanced at great speed. Yet soon after the first excitements of a trip wore off the path, too, somehow went uphill, then downhill again, uphill and downhill. And the journey soon became a tiresome one.

Especially for Mary, who was with child.

And where a traveler would have covered 20 miles in a day (as much as 32 kilometers), Mary and Joseph could only do half. Yet Joseph did not push Mary, and Mary did not complain. They drew strength from each other and they put one foot after the next. Through rain and sleet, for winter days are rainy in Judea, and winter nights turn frigid. One foot after the next, thinking of the end of their journey. Of the birth of their child. Hoping for a healthy babe, and a safe return back to Nazareth. To their life as they knew it.

Maybe Joseph’s feet turned wet and cold. Maybe Mary’s hands became stiff on the reins, her back aching. Joseph would have walked by her side, one hand supporting his heavy wife. Mary would have caressed his beard. And they would have found the strength to smle at one another.

And when they stopped for lunch, they probably shared some oil with bread that Mary had packed for their trip. And in the evening, they probably devoured more bread, this time with herbs and oil. A traveler’s frugal meal.

The oldest Christmas story, cozonac, Romanian sweet bread fresh from the oven for Christmas and Easter
And when they stopped for lunch, they probably shared some oil with bread that Mary had packed for their trip.” This is cozonac, a Romanian sweet bread traditional for Christmas and Easter celebrations. Click on the image to find the recipe.

Thus Mary and Joseph traveled that December, overcome by the long journey ahead and by the heavy woolen cloaks on their backs, but shielding an ember of hope in their hearts. It was this hope that saw them through the next part of their journey, through the forests lining the Jordan River, forests where bears, wild boars and even lions made den.

Finally, they made it to Bethlehem, but with so many people returning here to be counted, and with Mary and Joseph arriving late, the two could find no space at Joseph’s distant family, nor in an inn, where Joseph asked, although their money was tight.

Some space, a dry roof, was finally found in a manger, by a busy tavern. And since it was time, and Mary had been traveling for a whole week, the babe was born that night.

Donkeys and a sheep or two were also nearby, sharing the dry barn, their breath warm, smelling of hay, their bodies radiating heat. And perhaps that other travelers were also taking shelter in that small space, and the women would have helped Mary, for it is human nature to help those in need. Maybe Joseph even went to find a midwife, as it was custom at the birth of a baby.

The baby was born, healthy, surrounded by love.

And all was good in that stable, all was good in the world.

The ember of hope that Mary and Joseph had carried in their hearts was finally there, and it is said that a star just as bright, maybe even brighter, shone that night above the manger.

Why was that?

God had a grand plan with His special Son. And He wanted all to know of His birth, yet He did not tell the Emperor of Rome, nor the King of Judea. God was a God of all people, so this is whom He let know first.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord,” said He, through an angel to three shepherds – and their woolly dog – who were watching their flock on a field not far from the manger. The shepherds were not wealthy in money, nor had they many sheep, but they had faith. And so they were not scared by the sight of the angel, their woolly dog did not bark, yet they rejoiced, feeling God’s presence, and immediately left for Bethlehem, to see this special babe. And, soon after, to tell others of the great happening. And to show them the star.

lighting candles, symbol of Easter and Christmas
The lighting of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Yet humankind was not quite ready to accept the authority of such a tradition without proof. God knew it, Jesus knew it too.

Had Mary, the mother, known it as well, in her heart?

Had she know that her smile for her newborn son would have been her last smile? That securing her baby in her arms, in that rugged barn, would have been the last time she’ll ever be able to keep him safe?

The tapestry of the oldest Christmas story took centuries to weave and it needed many hands to be finished, so that we can enjoy its story and its meaning today, an ember to treasure in our own hearts.

Scholars may argue here and there. 🙂 But I do hope that by reading this, the Oldest Christmas Story, some peace will come upon you this December.

Merry Christmas!Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (The Gospel According to St. Luke)

Oldest Christmas Carol. Wise Men and Infant Jesus in Manger
Listen to the Oldest Christmas Carol. Image: Wise Men and Infant Jesus in a manger in Mary’s arms, with Joseph.

21st of December update 🙂

As we saw it from our yard tonight, the Christmas Star or the Star of Bethlehem:

As we saw it from our yard tonight, the Christmas Star or the Star of Bethlehem:
The Christmas Star or the Star of Bethlehem: Jupiter, bright. Saturn, shy (the Great Conjunction)

The Christmas Star, or the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Astronomers call it Saturn’s planetary dance. The two planets appear to be separated by as much as the thickness of coin, when actually they are 400 million miles apart!

Jupiter and Saturn line up every 20 years or so, but this year they line up in December .

And we also spotted a Christmas tree made of clouds:

And we also spotted a Christmas tree made of clouds:
A Christmas tree made of clouds.

Towards my books on Amazon. 🙂

Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology

Transylvania origin etymology

When it comes to Transylvania, this spellbound geographical and historical province of Romania, its origin and etymology have always stirred debates. From the identity of the first settlers to the rights over the land and even the etymology of its name, the two schools of thought still engage in heated discussions. For me, as a Romanian, the explanation is crystal clear, and a long and interesting story it is. Do read it and let me know what your conclusions are.

Transylvania, what is its origin and the origin of its Romanian people?

Transylvania is a historical province located at the heart of Romania, bordered by the lush forests of the Carpathian Mountains at the west and south and the Apuseni Mountains on the west.

Transylvania has known civilization hiking through its forests and swimming in its rivers since the Paleolithic era, as the cave paintings of horses from Cuciulat, near Someș river, prove. The Neolithic Precriş culture left us the boulder head of the locals’ burial rituals.

Near Turdaș the remains of a giant Neolithic fortress were recently discovered, perhaps the first ever kingdom in the history of the world. And archeological findings dating from the Bronze Age tell stories of a settled population busy with farming, animal breeding (later, the fast Dacian horses being renowned), as well as apiculture, viticulture, hunting, fishing, crafting, tool making.

Over 600 archeological sites of which 26 fortifications from the First Iron Age, Hallstatt, were discovered across the territory of Transylvania, and, of course, incredible pottery. For millenniums, Transylvania was known as a land rich in gold, silver, iron and salt- read all about it here.

Words of Dacian origin related to viticulture are still in use today in Romanian language: butuc (stump), strugure (grape), curpen (tendril).

Stories and History of Transylvania, the Roman Dacia - map of Dacia during Burebista and Decebal, I BC - II AD
Map of Dacia during the times of kings Burebista (in green) and Decebal (in yellow) – centuries I BC – II AD
In black font: Geto-Dacs. Source

During the middle of the first century BC the Dacians living on current day Romanian territory, especially Transylvania, were led by Burebista.

Burebista, “the first and greatest of the kings of Thrace.”

The Dionysopolitan decree made in honor of Acornion.

Why only Romanians speak a Latin Language in southeast Europe?

The origin of Romanian people

In 117 AD, when the Roman Empire had reached its most august magnitude under the ruling of Emperor Trajan, the Romanian territories at that time were known as Dacia and had just been conquered by Romans (after two bloody wars: 101-102, and 105-106).

Roman Empire 117 AD and Dacia (today Romania). Source Andrei Nacu-Wikipedia
Roman Empire 117 AD and Dacia (today Romania). Source Andrei Nacu-Wikipedia

Like with many other nations conquered by the Roman Empire, the local Geto-Dacian population (which was Thracian by origin) had to adopt and adapt to the Roman culture, including the Latin language. They had 150 years to do so, till the Roman Empire’s withdrawal from Dacia. Different times were those, with an average life expectancy of 30 to 35 years and maybe slightly longer for women. So what looks like two generations today, meant four or five generations during Classical Rome.

Today there are at least eighty words of Dacian origin still in use in the Romanian language, mostly names of plants, animals, forms of relief. For example, Romanian word for Danube: Dunăre, derving from Donawi, Dunawi.

How Latin language was assimilated by Dacians during Roman occupation

I was reading an article about how Latin was assimilated by Dacians and how the new, Latin words were used alongside the native vocabulary, still in use.
Think of synonyms. For example white, alb in Romanian is still in use today. The Latin form, albus, denoted the color, generally speaking. But the synonym for white kept from Dacian language, bardzu (and still in use today in a few areas of Transylvania) is more specific, bălțată being used to describe animals whose fur is only speckled with white.

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology, Romanian words of Dacian origin: this is a shepherd (baci), wearing a mustache above his upper lip (buză), a hat (căciulă), a wide belt (brâu). here are trees (copaci) between him and his hamlet (cătun), a brook (pârâu) too. His sheep will give milk for good cheese (brânză), whey-cheese (urdă) too. His clever dog probably doesn't ned a collar (zgardă) and it brings the man great joy (bucurie).
Romanian words of Dacian origin: this is a shepherd (baci), wearing a mustache above his upper lip (buză), a hat (căciulă), a wide belt (brâu). here are trees (copaci) between him and his hamlet (cătun), a brook (pârâu) too. His sheep will give milk for good cheese (brânză), whey-cheese (urdă) too. His clever dog probably doesn’t ned a collar (zgardă) and it brings the man great joy (bucurie).

“The high number of Latin terms in agriculture, animal husbandry and the shepherds’ life prove that, besides the shepherds who drove their flocks throughout Romania’s territories, contributing by their movement to standardizing the language, there were also sedentary Romanians employed in farming and stock breeding”

Sextil Pușcariu, Limba română
Roman Dacia (years 106-271) - Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology
Roman Dacia (years 106-271). Note today’s Transylvania included (Porolissensis and Apulensis on the map), surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. Maris river is today’s Mures. Towns mentioned in in brackets are the names used today.

After the Roman withdrawal from Dacia and until the 4th century AD many neighboring tribes came to Transylvania, stayed for a while, took what they could and then went their separate ways – as you can read in my previous blog post here. Then the Slavs also visited, stayed longer as they were peaceful tribes, mingled with the local Daco–Roman population. Till the 9th century when the Bulgarian Empire stretched over Transylvania, coming from the south of Danube river although the degree to which most of the territory in Transylvania was under Bulgarian control is disputed.

The period of late antiquity and early Middle Ages, especially in Eastern Europe, does not provide much information. Nor for local Daco-Romanian population, nor for invaders, be it Bulgarians or Hungarians. But what does remain is the language used by the local population, the Dacians, reflected in contemporary vocabulary as well as in the names of cities and the geographical forms of relief, especially rivers, and in the folklore and the local traditions.

As the Romans withdrew from Dacia (Transylvania included), I believe it is exactly the apparition of the new, various invaders who came in waves for almost 1 000 years that helped the native Daco-Romanian population outline and strengthen its national identity. A pattern of establishing new relationships between the inhabitants of Dacia, Latin speakers, and the invaders would have also developed, while the product would have emerged as Vlachs. And instead of one place we can pinpoint on a map, there would have been a multitude of such places of origin from where the newly formed nation and its spirit would have spread out to the larger areas, the ones we know of for certitude today.

During the last fifty years archeological discoveries have unearthed more than 2000 settlements and necropolises discovered over the entire territory of Romania and dating between the 9th and 11th centuries. They show a demographical concentration in the plains, hills, highlands, but also in the subcarpathian areas, revealing various degrees of political organization. For example at Biharea, where Menumorut’s fortress was located, and around it, were discovered by I. Crişan, the remains of 133 archeological sites of Romanian and Romanian-Slav villages, fairs, and citadels dating from the 8th – 11th century, proving the existence of a Romanian, indigenous civilization and culture.

To summarize, we can see that most of Romania was part of Roman Empire and remained so for five generations, as were all of today’s Latin speaking European countries. Geto-Dacians learned Latin, as the words of Latin origin still in use in Romanian language today prove. After Romans withdrew from Dacia, a solid Latin speaking population stayed behind, away from the main roads, inhabiting deserted Roman temples and the sacred mountains, where they found refuge and peace. The tribes that washed over Romanian territories in the following years influenced the language and the culture of the Romanian people, in turn borrowing from them into their own culture, co-habituating with the local Romanian population. Latin names of rivers, agricultural terms, animal husbandry and terms used in a shepherds’ life still in use today all prove the existance of a strong Latin civilasation living throughout the centuries in today’s Romania.

Nestor’s chronicle (Povest vremennykh let) on the history of Slavs in Romania and the presence of Romanians, Vlachs, in Transylvania

Chronicle of Nestor or Kiev Chronicle or The Russian Primary Chronicle is a medieval historical work offering detailed accounts of the early history of eastern Slavs to the beginning of the 12th century. The chronicle was compiled in Kiev around 1113, based on materials from Byzantine chronicles, Slavonic literary sources, official documents, and oral sagas. The earliest manuscript still existing is dated to 1377. While the authorship was traditionally attributed to monk Nestor, modern scholars considers the chronicle to be a composite work.

Nestor’s chronicle provides us with some of the oldest testimony of the Romanians by referring to relationships between the Wallachians, the white Ugrii, and the Slavs. The same chronicle refers to the Hungarian’s initial advance though the Verecke mountain pass
towards the Tisa Plain, or Tizsa, and how the Hungarians fought the Wallachians and the Slavs living here (Tisa plains are located west of today’s north-west border of Romania).

For it was through the Verecke mountain pass that in 895 the Hungarian tribes entered the Carpathian Basin and during the next two centuries established the Kingdom of Hungary.

11th century Historian Gardizi and his Book, The Ornament of Histories, on the Romanians living in Transylvania

Gardizi was an author and historian living in the mid-eleventh century. In his work The Ornament of Histories he mentions the people in the Roman Empire, placed between Russians, Bulgarians and Hungarians, on a territory north of Danube and a mountain that can be easily identified with the Carpathians. He describes them as people more numerous than the Hungarians, but politically weaker. Dare I say it out loud, Daco-Romans?

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology - Romanian political countries during IX - XIII centuries
Romanian political counties during IX – XIII centuries. Notice: Țara Bihorului, Țara Oașului, Țara Maramuresului, Țara Romanilor, Țara Iaşilor, Țara Severinului, Țara Hategului, Țara Zarandului, Țara Alba, Țara Fagarasului, Țara Oltului.

Țara, country, its etymology and what its use on Romania’s political map of the IX – XIII centuries means

Țara in Romanian means land or country. It has an archaic form țeară. It derives from the Latin terra, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ters- (“dry”). (Wikipedia)

What is the significance of Țara Bihorului, Țara Oașului, Țara Maramuresului, Țara Romanilor, Țara Iaşilor, Țara Severinului, Țara Hategului, Țara Zarandului, Țara Alba, Țara Fagarasului, Țara Oltului on the map of Romanian political counties during IX – XIII centuries above? It shows that those political entities had a judicial community and a leader, that small communities of Romanians were organised in counties, Țara. Thus were territories already inhabited – at the time of the Hungarian invasion of Transylvania’s west territories.

According to Romanian historian Gheorghe Bratianu:

“The equivalent of terra [Țara] from the medieval documents has the
implication of a judicial community, of a region in which a certain local custom influences and determines the administration of justice… and which – as consensus – the leader of the country has to consider.”

Romanian historian Gheorghe Bratianu

The Latin etymological origin of the Transylvania noun

Transylvania, etymologically speaking, means beyond the forest.

Transylvania, etymologically speaking, means “beyond the forest.”
In Latin, trans means “beyond” or “on the other side of”, deriving in turn from from Proto-Indo-European “trhnts,” from “terh-” meaning “through, throughout, over.” It is found in Celtic too, as “trānss”, keeping its meaning.
And in Latin, silva means “wood, forest”.

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology - map Romanian forests
Map of Romanian forests today. From dark to light green: coniferous (forever green), mixed, leafy trees, oaks. Transylvania in the middle, surrounded by the dark green. Source

It is easy to see why outlanders would refer to Transylvania as the land beyond the forest, surrounded as it was – and still is – by the Carpathian Mountains, rich in coniferous and secular, lofty oak trees.

Did you know? On the plains once found between the gentle slopes of the Apuseni Mountains (west on the map above) and the low plain of Tisa (the river along north-west and west on the map), once stood an impressive deciduous forest. It was during the 18th century, that it started to be cut down and to make space for agricultural fields.

Alsoat the confluence of Tisa with quite a few rivers, among them Someş, Criş, Mureş, and Timiş on the map above, during antiquity and the Middle Age there was a rage of deltas and swamps.

In his book From Zalmoxix to Genghi Han, Romanian religious historian, philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade writes that when a nation’s ethnicity is the image of an animal, there is always a religious explanation behind it. We don’t know yet why, but we do know from Strabon that Dacians were the first to call themselves dáoi (wolves).

How interesting to discover this about Dacians, while the land where they lived, surrounded by forested mountains, was (later, in 10th century) known as “terra ultra silvam” -land beyond the forest. Then “Ultra Silvam” in a 1075 document, becoming Ultrasilvania in Medieval Latin, and eventually Transylvania.

A Mercurius Princeps Ultrasilvanus, a Transylvanian Voievode or ruler, was even mentioned in a document dated 1103.

The first Medieval Latin name for Transylvania, Ultrasylvania or terra Ultrasilvana dates from 10th – 11th century, at a time when Hungarian border still stretched to the west of the Apuseni Mountains (western Romanian Carpathians).

Transylvania Romania Origin Etymology, Codrul Frate cu Romanu' - The Woodland, Romanian's Brother - The forest in Romanian folklore and its symbology

Codrul Frate cu Romanu’ The Woodland, Romanian’s Brother – The forest in Romanian folklore and its symbology

From Dacian times, the woodland and the Romanians have been two inseparable entities. The forest has been, in turn, temple and refuge for the warrior, the citizen and, later, for the hajduk, haiduc (a Robin Hood-like figure from southeastern Europe during the 17th – 19th century). Even the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, during its two and a half centuries old warfare against the Romanians, had the thick forests of these lands on their three most difficult factors in fighting a war. The other two were the majestic Carpathian mountains and the cold winters.

Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology, forest symbology in Romanian folklore. An aphorism about trees and forest
Romanian folk aphorism about trees and forest
  • the name of the Teleorman County (in south of Wallachia, Tara Romaneasca, by the Danube, comes from Turkish (Cumanic) Deli orman, crazy forest.
  • in Romanian folklore and mythology the trees (sanctuaries for Gods and Demons), especially the sycamore, fir tree, willow, and apple tree are seen as guides, accompanying a human’s soul along his last road.
  • in Romanian symbology the tree of life represents rebirth and forever life.

“Codru’ este mare
Si lumina n-are;
Codru este des
Intri, nu mai iesi…”

“The woodland is wide
And has no light;
The woodland is thick
You enter, never to leave…”

AND

“Sufletul statea
Si mi se ruga:
Brade, brade!
Sa-mi fii frate:
Intinde-ti, intinde,
Eu sa le pot prinde
Varfurile tale,
Sa trec peste ele”

“My soul stopped
And it implored:
Fir tree, fir tree!
My brother thou be:
Spread thou, spread
Your tree tops shed,
May I over ’em fled.”

Romanian ritualistic funeral song, translated from Romanian by Patricia Furstenberg
Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology, fir tree symbology in Romanian folklore
Codrul Frate cu Romanu’ – The Woodland, Romanian’s Brother

The Hungarian etymological origin of the Transylvania noun

The earliest Hungarian records of Gesta Hungarorum, Chronicle of Anonymous

One of the earliest Hungarian records is Gesta Hungarorum, The Deeds of the Hungarians, is a 12th century manuscript with a previous 11th century version. It tells the history of Hungarian tribes from the time they arrived on the Panonian Plains (west of today’s Romania) around 896 and until the times of King Andrei I (1046 – 1060).

The Pannonian Basin (marked III.), enclosed by the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Plateau (IV.) to the east and north. Also shown: the Romanian Lowlands (II.) and the Outer Subcarpathian depressions (I.) beyond the Carpathians (also known as Transcarpathia)
Marked III is the Pannonian Basin
Marked IV are the Carpathian Mountais and Transylvania, to the east and north.
Marked II, Romanian Lowlands
Marked I, Outer Subcarpathian depressions beyond the Carpathians, also known as Transcarpathia
RO = today’s territory of Romania
H = Hungary today

In Gesta Hungarorum we find some of the earliest Hungarian records of the three Romanian duchies existing in Transylvania and to its west at the time of the first Hungarian invasion. Vlachs, Slavs and Bulgarians lived here, “Sclavi, Bulgarii et Blachii ac pastores Romanorum“(Blachii meaning Vlachs, the shepherds of Romans).

Transylvania lived up to its nickname being a pastoral land. Its wide valleys are fertile
and its mountain slopes offer lush grazing for countless flocks of sheep.

Proof that Vlachs, Romnaians, lived here is the use of word duca, ducatus in Gesta Hungarorum. Duca derives from Latin dux, ducis, meaning leader. Only Romanians living here would have called their leader duca, although eventually it was replaced by the Slavonic Voievod.

The Hungarian etymological explanation for the noun Transylvania

During the X – XI centuries, pushed by tribes of Bulgars and Pechenegs, the Hungarian tribes left he north steppe and settled on the plains of Crișana, between Tisa river on the west, Apusei Mountains to the east, Someș river in the north and Mureș river in the south, where they would have found tribes of Slavs and Avars, with Romaniansalready setteled higher up on the slopes.

Slavs have lived on the plains of Crișana for a few centuries now, while the highland region to the east, over the forests and into Transylvania, has a predominant Romanian, Latin-speaking population.

So the plain-loving Magyars of Hungarians found themselves surrounded by waters from three sides, and only forests on the rim of mountainous Transylvania shutting them off on the east. For Magyars, the space they took over was on this side of the forest, while what lay over the forest, on the other side of the forest, (ultra, trans) was unknown – the Duchy of Gelou.

In Hungarian erdő and ardo means forest. The first Hungarian name for Transylvania was Erde-elw, then Erdély, meaning the country over the forest.

It was only after year 1000 when King Stephen I of Hungary mass-converted the Hungarians to Christianity that Latin became the official language of Hungarian chancellery, thus Erdély translated to Ultransilvana, then Transilvana and eventually Transilvania, Transylvania. Various combinations have also been encountered, such as princeps Ultrasilvanus (for a leader), Provincia Transilvana, Ultrasilvam Regnum (Kingdom).

The first written evidence is from 1075: “Ultra silvam ad castrum quod vocatur Turda,” translating to “Beyond the forest to the castle which is Turda.”

The socio-cultural and historical setting at the time when Hungarian tribes settled west of Transylvania

To summarize the ethnogenesis of the Romanian people, the largest nation in southeast Europe (except for the Turkish one), we must list the three main constitutive ethnic elements: the native population (Geto-Dacians), the conquerors (Romans), and the migrating people (the Slavs).

The Slavs, who preferred the plains, called the mountainous region inhabited by the Geto-Dacian speakers of Latin either Zagoria (Slavic Zagore means beyond the mountains) or Vlahia.

When Hungarians first settled on the plains west of Apuseni Mountains the Slavs lived there. Hungarians call a Vlach Olah, which suggests that they borrowed from the Slavs the first information about neighboring places and peoples.

What the modern DNA analysis says about the origin of Romanians

Throughout millennia, Romania found itself on the chessboards of many empires, and a major crossroad between Europe and Asia.

What can the study of Romanian DNA tell us that we don’t already know, or can it shine a light on a new concept regarding the continuity of Romanian people on these lands?

A recent study analyzed mtDNA (Mitochondrial DNA) sequences from Romanian Neolithic samples.

Mitochondrial DNA, unlike nuclear DNA, is inherited from the mother, while nuclear DNA is inherited from both parents. Thus mtDNA is important because testing mtDNA allows for investigation into one’s maternal line and can help identify living relatives whose mtDNA is similar to yours, as well as ancient migration routes your maternal ancestors may have taken.

For this study, mtDNA from ten sites from the current territory of Romania, spanning a time-period from the Early Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age, were analyzed.

  • mtDNA data from Early Neolithic farmers of the Starčevo Criş culture in Romania (the sites of Cârcea in south, Gura Baciului in north, and Negrileşti to the east on the map below) confirm their genetic relationship with those of the LBK culture (Linienbandkeramik Kultur, Linear Pottery Culture) in Central Europe Neolithic, 5500–4500 BC, and they show little genetic continuity with modern European populations.
  • mtDNA data from Middle-Late Neolithic cultures of Boian (south east of Decea Muresului), Zau (east of Decea), and Gumelniţa (south east) had a much stronger effect on the genetic heritage of the European populations.
mtDNA-study-Romanian-Neolithic
A recent study analyzed mtDNA sequences from Romanian Neolithic samples – image source

This study shows that Middle Neolithic populations, ‘M_NEO’, that lived in what is present-day Romania/Transylvania and modern populations from Romania are very close, in contrast with Middle Neolithic and modern populations from Central Europe.

Such genome analyses of living populations show that intra-European diversity is a continuum (with small exception). Romanians’ DNA is close to that of their Balkan and East European neighbors. Here, Romanian DNA is closest to that of Albanians, Greeks, and Bulgarians, then Macedonians, and further from the DNA of central and eastern Europeans like Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Ukrainians.

On the other hand, the Balkans, because of the various migrations, are the most genetically diverse region in Europe.

But the Romans themselves, were a genetic pool already when their Empire reached its peak, think of the massive immigration into Rome and its vast army alone, spanning three continents, and tens of millions of people across Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.

The connection between central European mtDNA and mtDNA from the Romanina provinces, Transylvania, Wallachia, Dobrudja, and Moldavia

This 2017 study showed:

  • genetic affinities, illustrated by the mtDNA haplogroup frequencies, among the four Romanian provinces;
  • gene flow between Moldavia-Wallachia and Moldavia-Transylvania, suggesting gene flow between these provinces (mainly due to the substantial workforce movement from Moldavia towards these two provinces throughout the communist period);
  • genetic similarity of the Wallachia, Moldavia, and Dobrudja groups with the Balkans, especially the Slavic population;
  • Transylvania population closely related to the Central European groups, as influenced by the topology of the Romanian territory.

The Genetic pool of Roman Empire at the time of Dacian occupation

As we can see from the genetic map of Imperial Rome at the time they conquered Dacia, presented below, Rome and the Roman Empire was already a cosmopolitan place, people with different ancestry mingled and cohabited.

the genetic map of Imperial Rome - Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology.
the genetic map of Imperial Rome – Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology.

This is the genetic pool (eastern-Mediterranean, near-eastern, European, Mediteranean) that would have mingled with the Geto-Dacian own genetic pool – to later form the Romanian DNA.

You can follow the short explanation below, where Stanford researchers and their European colleagues drew on ancient DNA to construct the first genetic history of Rome. Their data reveal major shifts in the ancestry of people living in Rome, as well as several smaller shifts corresponding to important events in the history and politics of Rome. The original research is here.

I am still to find a more recent study looking at how present-day southeastern European populations was created, perhaps by aligning Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, and Medieval groups mtDNA and comparing them to present-day mtDNA of various European populations – while considering that there is a higher population density in the eastern Mediterranean Europe than it is in the west.
Also, I would like to read a study looking into genetic links between past populations inhabiting the Romanian territories.

Sources used in Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology

Aurel-Pup, I., Radacinile Medievale ale regiunii (provinciei) istorice Transilvania (secolele IX – XIII)
Bogdan, Gh., Memory, Identity, Typology: An Interdisciplinary Reconstruction of Vlach Ethnohistory
Chronicle of Nestor, The Russian Primary Chronicle, Britannica
Cocoş, R., Schipor, S., Hervella, M. et al. Genetic affinities among the historical provinces of Romania and Central Europe as revealed by an mtDNA analysis. BMC Genet 18, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12863-017-0487-5
Collins., N. Stanford researchers lay out first genetic history of Rome
Djuvara, N., O Scurta Istorie a Romanilor Povestita celor Tineri
Hervella M, Rotea M, Izagirre N, Constantinescu M, Ancient DNA from South-East Europe Reveals Different Events during Early and Middle Neolithic Influencing the European Genetic Heritage
Sfrengeu, F., Dr. Aspects Regarding the Evolution of the Political Organization in North-Western Romania at the Beginning of the Middle Age
Ziarul Renasterea, Transilvania sau Ardeal, Prof. I. Lupas, Cluj, Editia 18 Februarie 1940

Travel Through Doors, Best of 2020

thursday doors, travel to Romania

Travel Through Doors and discover the best doors as seen in my 2020 Thursday Doors blog posts. Thursday Doors is a blog feature everyone can take part in, initiated by Norm who later presented the baton to Dan.

Dan has a Badge Idea contest for Thursday Doors running until 11:59 pm Thursday, December 31st (North American Eastern Time). Check his website for rules and maybe give it a try! The last image in this blog post is my entry.

Ans so it began, my journey around Europe (okay, mostly Romania) for Thursday Doors. We first traveled to Brasov, with The Church Door, a (very) short story:

Beth Israel Synagogue in Brasov and the story of a door...
Beth Israel Synagogue in Brasov

The Village Museum of Bucharest was next, with its carved wooden doors. We looked at a few and also at what their carved symbols mean:

Village Museum Bucharest, wood carvings, symbols and meaning
Village Museum Bucharest: a wood structure brought here all the way from the north of Romania, 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…

My all time favorite must be this 500 years old door from Corvin Castle who even made it through the great fire of 13 April 1854:

Corvin Castle, Romania, 500 years old door original
Corvin Castle, Romania, a 500 years old door

We looked at Corvin Castle’s Coat of Arms too and at two rather grand doors embellished with jambs, tympanum and pinnacles, and at a short history of door knockingfind it all here. And we returned in a second visit here.

And on we went to travel through doors with a guessing game! Bucharest or Paris?

guessing game, Bucharest or Paris?
guessing game, Bucharest or Paris?

Small shrines can often be found in Romania, build so that weary travelers can have a moment of peace, for thought, for prayer, for palliation. This is a shrine from Brasov, before reaching the Black Church as you would stroll down a winding road from Șcheii Brașovului:

The second image above reads: ‘This cross was raised in 1761 by Gh. (Gheorghe) Anania and restored in 1992.’

Our next travel stop was at a monastery built for peace, Snagov Monastery, where we looked at medieval plots and at revenge:

Paraclisul Manastirii Snagov and its full story
Paraclisul Manastirii Snagov and its full story

Snagov Monastery has seen a long an troubled past. Monks settled on Snagov Island, this snake shaped lake, during the times of Mircea the Elder, Mircea cel Batran, Vlad Dracula’s paternal grandfather and ruler of Wallachia during the 14th century.

Next we visited Brancoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus, a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Brașov County, in the Transylvania region of Romania, renowed for its white-washed walls. 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:

Brancoveanu Monastery in Transylvania, built by a Wallachian Prince
Brancoveanu Monastery in Transylvania, built by a Wallachian Prince

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.

For a chilling stop we traveled next to Fagaras Castle to see its Iron Maiden, this symbol of medieval violence:

Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, symbol of medieval violence
Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, symbol of medieval violence

Bran Castle means many things to different people. To me, it is a door to heaven.
Legend says that the Doors to Heaven are here, in Bucegi Mountains, near Bran Pass and Ialomița Cave. That is you climb that peak on a clear winter night, you will be welcomed by a meadow underneath a dome of stars. And the doors to Heaven will be revealed to you. You will know it by their starry pillars, and by the energy that will seep into your bones:

carnations on a balcony, Bran Castle history, Thursday Doors
A romantic corner at Bran Castle- a secondary entrance from the Inner Bailey, a stone column and red carnations.

It was only fit to travel to a snowy place around the day of Saint Nicholas, December 6th, and we did so through a short story about Saint Nick and the meaning of the first snow in Sighisoara:

Sighisoara, the church on the hill and the meaning of the first snow and Saint Nicholas
Sighisoara, the church on the hill and the meaning of the first snow on Saint Nicholas

We said good bye and so long to 2020 with A Winter Story for Thursday Doors:

Sighisoara, face in door, Thursday doors
Sighisoara, a face in z door, for Thursday doors

Lastly, my suggestion for a Thursday Doors badge:

Thursday Doors - Around the World
Thursday Doors – Around the World

Behind the Cave Art of Transylvania, 100 words story

Behind the Cave Art of Transylvania 100 words story

Behind the Cave Art of Transylvania is a 100 words story inspired by the Paleolithic horse cave paintings of Transylvania.

Art is a way of expressing one self, of celebrating an event or slaying one’s demons. Of course, in the cave paintings they created the Neanderthals would have painted their world as they’ve seen it, depicted their dreams and their fears.

But what about the emotions trapped in these cave paintings? Read on.

Behind the Cave Art of Transylvania. Paleolithic horse, hand, warrior, weapon painting in a cave at Cuciulat, Transylvania
Paleolithic horse, hand, warrior, weapon painting in a cave at Cuciulat, Transylvania

Behind the Cave Art of Transylvania

From their overhanging rocky shelter she assessed the river’s dark ribbon, wider, a sign of snow thawing and game returning.

Inside, her pigments were ready, contained in horn vessels. She pointed and named the colors slowly, stalking any reaction on the face of the child who looked without seeing.

It took her a year to gather the shades: terracotta, earth, sunset… midnight. Bear fat and sap to seal the drawing.

Her squirrel hair brush danced on the cave’s wall. A horse came alive, rearing, hunted by a child.

And the boy’s hand-print floating above. In warning.

No more hunting accidents.

© Patricia Furstenberg

The seed of this story.

The Paleolithic civilization that developed in the geographical area known today as Transylvania has left numerous cultural vestiges behind, such as the cave paintings depicting horses and found in Cuciulat, near Someș river in Sălaj district.

You can read further on my blog what are the Paleolithic horse paintings of Transylvania telling us about the lifestyle of Neanderthals and you can discover how were the cave paintings done.

I hope you enjoyed my 100 words story about the Cave Art of Transylvania. There will be more to follow, as I plan to travel through history. So…

Subscribe to my e-Newsletter for fun and informative content on dogs, books, history, folklore and a castle or two:

Books by Patricia Furstenberg on Amazon

Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank

symbols and symbolism in Mank movie

Released at the end of a year overshadowed by a pandemic, Fincher’s movie Mank reveals itself like the glowing star atop the Christmas tree, and we look here at the significant symbols and symbolism Mank the movie carries.

Before we dive in, I must thank my new blogosphere friend Jo, the brains and heart behind FilmSerial, a top Romanian blog where she does stellar translations. It was Jo who first introduced me to Mank, and it was Jo who first published my raw thoughts on this movie.

Symbolism means an artistic or a lyrical expression obtained by using an image to reveal an idea or an emotion, to unmask a hidden concept or a state of mind.

In a movie, many things can be symbolic such as color, an object, the setting, the use of light in a scene, camera angle, the transition from one scene to the next, even a feeling.

Symbols and Symbolism hidden in Movie Mank

What is exciting about symbolism in a movie, a book, or a work of art is that it can carry different meanings to different viewers, based on their perception and life experiences, and even based on the state of mind while watching the film or reading the novel.

Let’s look at three symbols that appear in David Fincher’s movie Mank.
Attention, this blog post contains spoilers.

The Symbolism behind Marion and Mank atop the Scaffolding

Symbols and Symbolism in Mank, Marion and Mank atop the Scaffolding
Marion and Mank atop the Scaffolding. Source Imdb, Netflix.

Mank’s (Herman J. Mankiewicz) first meeting with actress Marion Davies takes place in 1929 (as we learn from one of his flash-backs), while Marion is filming a glamorous Old West movie on the grounds of Hearst’s massive estate, San Simeon.

Marion is about to be burned at the stake atop a pyramidal scaffolding and, during a shooting break, she asks Mank for a “ciggie”. Mank recognizes her as well as her wit and, although he wrestles a drunkard migraine, climbs the stairs to offer the diva a cigarette, like the gentleman he is.

“Watch those stairs. They’re treacherous,” Marion calls out.
“Every moment of my life is treacherous,” Mank replies in jest.

Mank by David Fincher, after a screenplay by Jack Fincher

The two enjoy a vivid conversation atop the scaffolding. We see them profiled against a brilliant sky, lined with fluffy Hollywood-style clouds (with their own symbol).

This scene takes place eleven years before the major events of the movie (Mank’s six weeks job of writing a script for Orson Welles), and both Mank and Marion are on top of the world (see the sky profiled in the background ad the height they are placed on); both are still filled with ideals, and both are still in the process of throwing themselves into their dreams – represented by the brilliant clouds overhead.

We see them standing above the Hollywood crowd, above L. B. Mayer and William Randolph Hearst, who will later reduce both Mank and Marin to pawns.

But we also see Mank and Marion on a scaffolding, like lambs about to be sacrificed if they don’t give up their dreams (Mank doesn’t, Marion does) – for this is Hollywood, and here everything is worth sacrificing for the sake of ‘the magic of the movies.’

The low angle camera shot used during this scene highlights Mank and Marion’s moral superiority during this time in the story.

I thought that this particular shot is a nod towards ‘Gone with the Wind’. It makes a reference to a scene between Scarlett and her father, Gerald O’Hara. His words were:

‘Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.’

Gone with the Wind by by Victor Fleming, produced by David O. Selznick, based on a book by Margaret Mitchell
Gone With the Wind, Sarlett and her father, Gerald O’Hara. 'The only thing that matters is Tara'.
Gone With the Wind, Image source imdb

In the movie Mank, the only thing that matters (for Mank and Marion) is the quality of the work they produce.

Symbolism behind Mank and Marion’s Moonlight Stroll about the Zoo Garden Owned by Hearst

Symbols and Symbology in  Mank and Marion’s Moonlight Stroll about the Zoo Garden Owned by Hearst. Source
 Mank and Marion’s Moonlight Stroll about the Zoo Garden Owned by Hearst. Source Imdb, Netflix

Leading to this scene:

It is 1933. During one of Mank’s flashbacks, we join a glamorous birthday party at San Simeon where the Julia Morgan–designed castle and Hearst’s inheritance are located. Champagne flows, all are gay, and a live piano punctuates a careless conversation.

When the discussion turns to Hitler’s speech followed by kissing babies, as witnessed by Marion Davies during the newsreel of a movie she watched recently, only Mank and Marion point out the potential danger of the growing Nazi regime, while L.B. Mayer (MGM’s co-founder and Birthday Boy at Heart’s party) and Irvin Thalberg (Mayer’s right hand and head of production) reveal their ignorance of the Nazi leader. Then the conversation turns to current affairs and the political climb of socialist Upton Sinclair, Marion makes a faux pas and leaves the party room.

Next, we witness a nod from Sara Mankiewicz towards her husband, showing us how well she knows him. Thus Mank, always the emotional caregiver, always the indulgent father, follows Marion into the garden to comfort her.

Mank and Marion enjoy a Moonlight Stroll through Hearst’s Zoo Garden:

We find Mank and Marion outdoors, away from the glitz and glam of the party, and we witness a true camaraderie blossoming between two fellow New Yorkers, both outcasts in their own way here, in Hollywood (Davies the child of a working-class family from Brooklyn, Mankiewicz the child of German-Jewish immigrants). Mank seems to be the only man (in a world dominated by boys) to notice and appreciate Davies’ intellect. While Marion Davies looks up at Mank, asking him for advice to further her career as an actress, and not only as a prized mistress of a newspaper magnate (Hearst.)

And now we discover the symbolism behind Mank and Marion’s garden walk.

It is past dusk, the sky is laden with plumb and here and there, between the trees, we spot Hearst’s castle-like mansion. The gardens Mank and Marion stroll through have pathways bordered with neatly trimmed hedges in heavy shades of iron and charcoal, while Marion’s dress gleams in the moonlight like a gray pearl.

Marion Davies party dress in movie Mank, glamorous gold or rosebud pink? Symbolism
Marion Davies party dress in movie Mank, glamorous gold or rosebud pink? Symbolism.

What is the symbol behind Marion’s gleaming party dress?

We don’t know what color her dress is. It could be gold, after all, she is a top-ranked Hollywood movie star, but it could just as well be satin pink, to match her rosy cheeks, as Mank states, or perhaps to match Hearst’s private nickname for her, Rosebud.

Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank. Moonlight stroll, Marion’s dress gleams in the moonlight like a gray pearl
Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank. Photo source Imdb, Netflix

Further they stroll, past monkeys in a cage, just as Marion laments that ‘people think because you’re on the cover of “Modern Screen,” they know you.’ The monkeys flare up and Marion turns towards them and shouts out her anger, ‘Nobody, but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!’ – then laughs.

The monkeys jump on the cage’s walls, yet they can’t reach Marion – much like a symbol for a flash of paparazzi.

‘Nobody, but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!’ Marion Davies, symbolism behind the moonlight stroll in Mank
Nobody, but nobody makes a monkey out of William Randolph Hearst!’ (Marion Davies in Mank). Image source Imdb, Netflix

And on Mank and Marion’s stroll, under the moonlight, until they reach the maze made of shrubs, punctuated by garden statues and topiary. We get a sense of opulence even here, away from Hearst’s mansion. The maze is a symbol for crafting one’s future, a task that is never a straight walk. The menagerie of wild animals is a symbol for whimsy, for the make-believe that movie-business is.

The scene is lit by ball-shaped garden lights on stands. They glow in the night like one hundred moons, all casting their light on Hearst’s collection of wild animals. Are Mank and Marion part of this collection? We now spot elephants in the far background.

Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank, Mank and Marion enjoy a Moonlight Stroll through Hearst’s Zoo Garden
Symbols and Symbolism in Movie Mank, Mank and Marion enjoy a Moonlight Stroll through Hearst’s Zoo Garden

There is a visual game of sharp shadows here, with Marion’s platinum blond curls glowing as if under their own spotlight, even in the darkness of the night, as though she has a designated spotlight forever shining brightly down on her. It is the spotlight Hearst keeps her under by the use of his newspapers, building her fame, for which he spends millions of dollars.

But Marion’s glowing curls seem to be lighting up the garden as much as the ball-shaped garden lights, presenting her like another one of Hearst’s prized possessions. This media-magnate who controls the news and owns a zoo, with caged monkeys, herds of silent elephants, and giraffes too, also has his very own movie Star, always kept under a spotlight, lit from above.

Among all this madness Mank and Marion share a heart-to-heart conversation by the water fountain. He is in the shadows, she is under the spotlight; a man of many dark shades (a big mouth and addictions) and a glowing Diva.

Mank and Marion’s night garden stroll is their last innocent game before all hell brakes loose; MGM gets involved in politics, Marion Davies leaves MGM for Warner Brothers, Mank writes his script based on Hearst (pulling Marion in it).

Mank and Marion’s night garden stroll is a playful exchange of wits. On one side, we have a gifted actress who is clever enough to understand and accept the compromises she has to make in exchange for ‘making an exit’. On the other side, we have an alcoholic writer who chooses the exact opposite course of action, that of being a participant observer who eventually learns that words throw long shadows even after their entertaining value has evaporated.

Their garden moonlight stroll reveals a game of light and shadow, of night and day, of right and wrong, co-existing, much like life at Hollywood must be, for actors and writers.

Mank and Marion by the fountain, moonlit stroll. Symbols and symbolism
Mank and Marion by the fountain, moonlit stroll. Imge source Netflix

Mank’s Shades of  Black and White

The idea of a black and white film might put off some movie-viewers, yet once watched, the monochrome Mank movie makes sense through its multiple gray-shaded pigments.

It was in keeping with Jack Fincher’s wish, his father and the writer of the original Mank script back in the ‘80s that David Fincher held the production until a production company (Netflix International Pictures) finally accepted to shoot Mank in black and white.

By shooting Mank in black and white, David Fincher forces the viewer to focus on the story and its characters, eliminating the distraction added by splashes of color. The black and white film draws the eye into following the actors, it emphasizes their performance. It is the perfect recipe for a movie that deals with actors portraying other actors.

By shooting Mank in black and white Fincher zoomed in, and brought the story-line and the ‘40s Hollywood drama into focus. His zooming creates an instant nostalgia, but not over a by-gone era, yet over a loss of moral values. It symbolizes Mank’s nostalgia over the debut of his career at Hollywood when all the doors were open, and were gilded, and he seamed to have reached the stars. It is Marion’s nostalgia too, over a time when her career was still on the rise and Hollywood was just that, a movie-making industry, not a business.

Symbols and symbology in Mank, day night, black white, Netflix. What color is Marion's dress?
Mank, black and white, day and night. Image source Netflix

Yet Mank is not monochrome per se. It has plenty of silver in it and this gives the film an aura of eerie wistfulness as if Fincher does more than re-creating the past, he communicates with it, just as Mank does with his flash-backs (communicating in a way with his past self). The use of black and white makes the story-line feel more intense, it has immediacy, we sense Mank approaching his six weeks deadline; we taste his impending need for alcohol; we witness his climbing of the Hollywood ladder and his rapid falling out with Hearst.

Because the movie is in black and white, the audience can relate to Mank’s point of view. Hollywood is not all that glamorous as Mank thought it to be when he first arrived, moving from the east coast and trading his career as a playwright and drama critic for that of a Hollywood screenwriter.

Life in Hollywood is filled with threat, layered corruption, even an underworld of crime that creates weaponized movies, and no-one can escape its suppression. Mank believes he can, by going after Hearst the magnate, by exposing him, escaping his toxic friendship. Mank hopes he can free the monkey in the parable of the “organ grinder’s monkey” (see below for the symbology behind the “organ grinder’s monkey”).

Yet Mank, after the release of the American (Citizen Kane) is never to write another script again. He never works again, he never writes an original screenplay again. And he will never fight for credit again.

Shooting in black and white also afforded Fincher his darkness and shadow signature. At times, Mank the movie looks like a glossy ‘40s magazine, especially when it affords Marion Davies to glow in the scene. And this, the old-world glamour, is something Fincher is familiar with since the times he filmed Madonna’s ‘’Vogue,’ and it is how he shakes off any old-fashioned connotations that might come with making a black-and-white movie in the 21st century.

By shooting in black-and-white, Fincher created a delicate, old-world look that is fit for a contemporary of Citizen Kane rather than a film merely about Kane’s creator (Mank). And Fincher, or rather Ren Klyce, the sound designer, gave it a sound fit for Hollywood’s golden age, warm, albeit crackly, popping, that evokes a sense of remembrance, of daydreaming rather than reality.

Black and white (with the many gray shades in between, with the glistening silver, the pearls, the glowing beige) symbolizes the glamour of classical cinematography. Even the music for the movie has been recorded with older microphones.

The symbolism behind Fincher’s use of black and white to shoot Mank resides in the kaleidoscope of shades of greys found between dark and light, evil and righteousness, corruption and idealism. The two timelines that spiral around one another in Mank, each with their own threads of plots, form a symbolic kaleidoscope-like image in shades of grey, as there is no right or wrong in Hollywood, there is no good choice or bad choice, anything goes as long as it’s for the sake of the movie.

Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt  (Mank’s director of photography) used a RED specially-made black-and-white camera, the RED Monstro Monochrome (Monstrochrome). 

‘The Monstrochrome captures black and white imagery with more precise resolution and enhanced light sensitivity. Capturing monochrome natively is better than shooting in color and then eliminating the saturation in post. What you will get is a real, pure, stunning, accurate black, and white artistic image.’

Y.M.Cinema Magazine

Fincher tells Mark Harris for Vulture that they shot the movie in super-high resolution, then they softened it ‘to an absurd extent to try to match the look of the era’, and added ‘little scratches and digs and cigarette burns.’

Symbolism Behind the Parable of the Organ Grinder Monkey

Mank the movie, Symbolism Behind the parable of the Organ Grinder Monkey
An Organ Grinder Monkey

The parable of the organ grinder monkey is mentioned only twice in Mank, yet it is what fuels Mank in going after Hearts, it is the motor that pushed the action forward.

Mank is the first to mention the parable of the organ grinder monkey to John Houseman.

John Houseman: Why Hearst? Outside his own blonde Betty Boop, you were always his favorite dinner partner.
Herman Mankiewicz: Are you familiar with the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey?

Mank the Movie

What is the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey?

Tagging someone as an “organ grinder’s monkey” means that they do anything a powerful person wants them to do, without having any real power. They make money for their boss without whose presence they are nothing – yet they don’t know it.

Mank first heard about the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey from ‘Willie’ Hearts, during what was to be their last encounter, albeit a drunken one for Mank.

At this moment in time Hearts sees Mank as his grinder monkey, whom he thought to be a “Shakespeare of talking pictures.” Yet Hearts knows that Mank would not have been afforded the audience and the connections he made has it not been for Hearst and his glamorous parties.

And Mank understands the parable of the grinder monkey and his associate with the ape, but it is now, after Sinclair lost the campaign due to Meyer and Thalberg’s smear campaigns; after his friend and co-worker Shelly Metcalf commits suicide, that he just discovers that his words are important. That he can be a monkey without an organ-grinder.

But can he?

It is the same parable, placing Mank as the grinder monkey, that Mank refers to at the beginning of the story, when he chats to Houseman.

Yet Mank sees himself as a monkey who can prove his organ grinder wrong. A monkey who will free himself and will still be able to sing, dance, and receives everyone’s attention.
On his own.
This is why Mank went after Hearst. This is why he fought his demons and finished the screenplay.

Yet no one can destroy the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, for without his organ-grinder, the monkey is just a primate. While without his monkey, the organ grinder, by definition, can always find himself another monkey.

Perhaps this is what David Fincher and his father Jack Fincher, who wrote the screenplay, tried to prove in the first place, by focusing on Mank’s character. That the monkey can live outside the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey. As Fincher told Mark Harris for Vulture, in an interview, ‘My dad, […] was a journalist, lived by the axiom that the greatest entertainment was written by people who understood the real world.’.

Have they succeeded in giving the monkey a new life in the spotlight? Had they aimed as high as Mank did when writing his screenplay? Or have they shows that the parable is true and that the monkey’s chance of survival without his organ grinder is just in the monkey’s perception?

Either way, I think that the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey will prove to be that gold thread that will render the movie Mank timeless.

Mank by David Fincher is a kaleidoscope in black and white, portraying the golden era of Hollywood in a modern way, with its good and bad, with its stars adorned atop a scaffolding and its moonlit secrets, and with its monkey and organ grinder too. Perhaps Fincher placed less symbols in his movie than I enjoyed picking, but this is the magic of ‘the magic of the movies,’ isn’t it?