Romanian folklore is a rich source of fairy-tales and traditions filled with wisdom and symbolism and bearing witness to a millennial culture, such as Dragobete, the Romanian version of Valentine’s Day, Ziua Indragostitilor and celebrated not on 14 February, but on 24 February.
Dragobete, origin and signification
A few theories explain the origin of this celebration and the etymology of its name. Some say it derives from “dragubete”=”dragu” (meaning dear, beloved in Romanian) + “-bete” (a Slavonic suffix meaning gathering). Some say it coincides with the Christian celebration of The First Finding of the Honorable Head of Prophet John the Baptist, named in Slavonic Glavo-Obretenia and adopted during the Middle Ages by Romanians under various names, such as Bragobete, later Dragobete. Some see in Dragobete an old Dacian tradition taking place during this specific time of the year, beginning of spring, by using the connection with two Dacian words: ‘trago” (tap, goat) and “pede” (picioare, feet). And the Dacians inherited their legends from the Thracians, Indo-European tribes mentioned as far back as the legends of Iliad and Odyssey, 600 -800 years before the times of Saint Valentine.
Perhaps the best connection with Valentine’s Day is by associating Dragobete with a character from Romanian mythology, patron of love and good cheer. He was the son of Baba Dochia, a figure that marks the return of spring, described as a demigod with special powers, young and good looking, and kind hearted. And with spring comes the renewal of nature and love. This explains why Dragobete is celebrated on this day, as 24 February was considered the beginning of the new agricultural season.
Based on the popular tradition surrounding this specific date in Romania, 24 February, birds and animals all find their mates and build nests, as it is a celebration of fertility and nature’s rebirth. I is said that if girls and boys enjoy a day of jokes and fun together then they will enjoy of a year full of love, for sure. For Dragobete protects love and those who share it on this day.
Dragobete is also a symbol for spring and new beginning, for changing of seasons from winter that we leave behind, to spring, ahead of us, a change from long night to shorter ones and longer days, filled with sunshine.
Romanian folklore presents Dragobete as a handsome young man with hair as black as ebony and eyes as green as the spring leaves, who would play his whistle and make the girls fall for him. He is the one responsible for teaching humankind how to love. As a reward, Virgin Mary turned him into a plant, Navalnic, Impetuous or hart’s-tongue fern. Other folk tales speak of Dragobete as teasing Virgin Mary and making her lose her path in the forest, thus she changed him into the same plant.
Up to today, this plant is said to bring young maidens good luck in love if they wear it tucked in their bosom in a silk bag. Although modern times swapped the plant for a banknote.
Popular tradition speaks of young girls and boys meeting outside the village church and heading for the woods to gather spring flowers. If raspberry flowers were in sight, it was a good sign. They were soon picked while the girls would sing:
“Flower of raspberry, Born in February, Make the whole world like me And take away all that’s beastly”
Romanian country song for Dragobete
Afterwards, the boys and girls light up fires and sit around and talk. At noon, the girls sprint for the village, each followed by a boy the boy who liked her the most. If the boy catches the girl and if she also likes him, they kiss in front of everybody, thus becoming engaged for one year, on Dragobete, by showing their attachment for each other in front of everybody.
I don’t know what happens if two boys chase a girl. But all young adults were urged to take part in this ceremony for, as tradition also says, participating in Dragobete will protect you from any illness during the coming year. I would say enough for any elderly villager…
Want to have luck in love? Here’s what you should do on Dragobete, on 24 February
Wash your hair with snow. Gather fresh, unspoiled snow, melt it and wash your hair and your face to stay beautiful all year round and for the boys to notice you first. The Dragobete snow is said to be perfect for love charms.
Kiss your loved one on Dragobete or at least make sure you get to see the one you fancy and you two will be together forever or at least you will increase your chances of ending up together.
Be merry and joyful on Dragobete day and you will stay like this the entire year.
In some parts of Romania the common belief says that stepping on your partner’s foot on Dragobete will establish your dominance in the relationship. At least during the year ahead.
You can pick or buy crocuses, violets or snowdrops to hang them above the icons in your home – it will keep you young as well as chase away any bad thoughts or envy held against you. These flowers, once dry, can be thrown on a moving water on 24 June, on Sanziene Day (or Dragaica, a night when all magic is possible), to attract all bad luck down the river with them.
Clean your house on Dragobete day for a fruitful year and to guarantee your husband’s love. But, if you are a boy don’t dig or work the ground or Dragobete might punish you because you don’t have fun.
Boys and all men should not tease the girls or be nasty towards them on Dragobete, or they will set themselves for an unlucky spring.
Plant basil so it will grow until Saint George, the day after Easter, when it’s the perfect time to replant it in the garden. The basil planted on Dragobete is perfect for spells, charms, and cures, for it is said it hold special powers. Besides, the Dragobete basil is the one girls can use in various rituals throughput the year to help them foresee their chosen one.
Try to spot a hoopoe on Dragobete and you will have good luck all year. But if you spot a pair of birds, you will have good luck in love.
If you drink cherry tea on Dragobete you will know love all year round.
A Dragobete spell from Ardeal region of Romania:
Old women would go in the forest to pick hart’s-tongue fern. Before they pull it from the ground they whisper the name of the girl they collect for and drop honey, flour and some sugar at the plant’s root. Picked only this way can the fern be used for magic spells that are supposed to make a certain boy love the girl it was picked for.
What you should NOT do on Dragobete, on 24February, to avoid any bad luck
Because it is a celebration of love and rebirth, don’t buy or sacrifice any animals on this day.
Don’t sew, wash or iron, but you can clean your home.
What makes Dragobete or Valentine’s day so special ,lasting the test of time?
Is it the nostalgic feeling all tradition carries, the romance that puts a spring in our step, no matter how much we deny its importance during the rest of the year?
Or is it simpler then that. It is the need for hope and the feeling of belonging, to know that our existence carries some sort of meaning for someone else? Someone we care for too.
What turns a house into a home? Is it the light that peeks inside through its windows? The scents rising from the kitchen? Or is it the people, the mingle of generations, of shared laughter and tears? While we visited the house where Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, was born, I asked myself: what was the light like inside? What street noises reached every morning to little Vlad’s room and woke him up? What childhood memories he kept locked in his heart that reminded him of his mother and home – while imprisoned by the Turks? Or when he was fighting them, surrounded by the sights and the stench of war?
Imagining the medieval Sighisoara fortress at the time Vlad Tepes was born
Imagine 164 houses and thirteen public buildings up on a hill, within the protective walls of a fortress. Tall or short, stone or wood, depending on the wealth of their owners, the houses have one floor, some two. But not more.
Well worth looking up, their roofs have sharp slopes to reduce the weight of the snow in winter, as well as a small window acting as a watchtower, for protection. One can see far away from the tiny, dark attic as well as keep an eye on whoever approaches the house. Friend or foe?
The doors are narrow and so are the windows – functionality and safety are paramount. If the house has an extra floor, then the inner stairway is narrow and most probably dark. The homes are built close together, often sharing a wall, making for narrow, dark streets and passageways. Comfort, as we know it and understand it today, meant a shelter overhead and safe, strong walls during the Middle Ages. Yet shiny stones pave the streets and there are gutters too, aiding to the drainage of rain-water, melted snow, and – how else – the household’s gray water.
The city has only eight wells for drinking water, not enough for the increasing number of inhabitants or siege or fire hazard situations. But it is fresh, clean water, and it is almost enough for their families’ usage during peaceful days, when they can also up the supply from the river.
Let’s meet little Vlad, his family and the house where Vlad the Impaler was born.
The house where Vlad Tepes was born
As you leave the Clock Tower behind, just ahead and on your left, on the corner of Cositorilor Street (Tin-makers Street) stands a tall terracotta house with clean lines. Today it rises with two levels above the ground floor plus a dark attic. You will want to have a good look at it as, although not supported by plenty of historical documents but letters signed by Vlad II and written from Sighisoara , so not impossible, it is the house where Vlad Tepes was born, also known as House Paulinus after its 18th-century owner.
But when it was just built in the vicinity of the Clock Tower, out of river stones and with only one level, this house belonged to the guards protecting the main entrance into the fortress.
Vlad’s family was well-off, his father, Vlad II, a first-class member of the Order of the Dragon and lawful prince of Wallachia but without a kingdom at this stage. They settled in Sighisoara and rented guestrooms in a house of stone, awaiting the right moment to raise an army of trusted boyars and reclaim his land.
This is the house, the oldest one in the fortress and still standing because it was built of stones thus withstanding the big fire of 1676. The round vault on the ground floor is the original one, constructed with the stones picked from the nearby rivers, Tarnava Mare especially. Its second floor rose much later, during the 18th century.
It appears that in the basement of this house there was a coin mint at that time – when the coinage was only the monopoly of the Hungarian Kings ruling the Kingdom of Hungary. This is another proof of Sigismund’s trust and respect towards Vlad Dracul II as Vlad II minted his own silver ducats, the “new ducat”. He did this in preparation for his expected ruling. These coins were first used in Transylvania, then in Wallachia too (yay!). They had the eagle on the head side and a winged dragon on the coin’s tail.
It was now, during the time Vlad Dracul II spent in exile in Sighisoara preparing for his rule over Wallachia, that the Romanian name of the fortress appears in writing for the first time. Double yay!
Vlad Tepes was born in 1431 (or some sources state 1429), the middle son of Vlad Dracul II, Prince of Wallachia and son of Mircea cel Batran (Mircea the Eldest) from the Basarab Dynasty. King Sigismund of Luxembourg held Vlad Dracul II in high regard, awarding him, as mentioned before, the Order of the Dragon on the 8th of February 1431 in Nuremberg, for ultimate services in the gruesome fight against the Ottoman Empire.
The Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistarum, Society of the Dragonists) was a monarchical chivalry order awarded only to selected members of the nobility. Founded in 1408 by the Hungarian King Sigismund von Luxembourg (later Holy Roman Emperor), it was similar to the military orders of the Crusades. Its members were expected to defend Christianity against all enemies, especially the Ottoman Empire.
I liked the dragon featured on the sign above the door, I thought it is a great reference to the Order of the Dragon.
The symbol of the Order was a dragon with the tip of its tail coiled around his neck and a red cross on his back, the Red Cross of Saint George.
Calling him Vlad Dracul, correct or not?
Before 1475 Vlad III signed his name simply Vlad. But from 1475, before his third ruling as Prince of Wallachia, he signs as Ladislaus Dragwlya (or Dragkwlya, Drakulya) which appears on his seal too.
Hence Vlad the Impaler’s nickname Dracul (and identical with the Romanian word for devil) or Draculea, his ancestors named Draculesti, from dragon, or Drachen in German.
Vlad’s mother was also of Romanian royal blood, Chiajna Musatin, a Moldavian Princess and the eldest daughter of Alexandru cel Bun as well as aunt of Stefan cel Mare (Stefan the Great), of the Musatin Dynasty.
So, Vlad Tepes and his parents hopefully lived in Sighisoara until 1436. Just imagine, young Vlad might have used one of these cups to drink fresh milk.
Vlad would have been five or seven years old when his parents moved to Targoviste when his father took over Wallachia (the principality located south of Transylvania) and was – finally – crowned the rightful Prince of Wallachia.
In the middle of the 20th century, a hidden mural was discovered in the house where Vlad the Impaler was born, that of a man resembling his father, Vlad II.
A Sad Reality
Without saying too much, here are some pictures from the upper level of Vlad’s house as it looked when we visited. No skulls here, just misunderstood advertisement.
A Secret Entrance into Vlad the Impaler’s House
Most tourists are familiar with the front entrance of the house where Vlad the Impaler was born.
Yet if you play “what if” and follow the narrow street on the left, walking underneath the arch connecting the two buildings and feeling tiny compared to their height…
You will soon discover the back entrance, through a small, walled yard:
We took this way in.
Sighisoara City: Coat of Arms and blazon symbology
Sighisoara’s coat of arms is so fitting for its rich medieval ancestry. It depicts a rampant golden lion and a silver fortress with three towers on a red shield topped with a silver crown with five crenelated towers. The lion, facing right, dexter (with respect to the person carrying the shield), wears a gold crown, his tongue sticks out and holds a gold sword.
The fortress on the shield symbolizes the medieval Sighisoara and its crucial economical and military strengths as well as the cultural and religious roles it played. The lion, through the way it is depicted on the shield, symbolizes the judicial autonomy Sighisoara held, having the right to decree the death penalty, the right of the sword, jus gladii. The lion also symbolizes strength, generosity, and beauty. The crown shows that today, Sighisoara is a municipality. It is worth noticing that the lion’s hind legs are apart, symbolizing stability.
Medieval Sighisoara has much more to reveal besides the house where Vlad the Impaler was born, with its history and secrets.
Moving on from it, our eyes fell upon a beautiful building with clean lines and… a pair of horns.
We’ll open the door to this story next time.
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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a book cover surely tells an entire story, giving out clues to the unexpected secrets hidden inside the pages it guards.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of writing a guest post or lovely Jen Lucas, Book Reviewer & Blogger extraordinaire 🙂 about the secrets hidden in the book cover of Silent Heroes. Without giving much away, know that I wrote about a soldier and his dog, a sunset and a pair of mysterious Afghan eyes.
But there is more to an image, as the colors used hold symbols and learning about them opens the mind to more secrets hidden in that book cover, in plain sight.
The choice of red, brown and gold colors for the Silent Heroes image cover was not coincidental.
Brown and its hidden meanings in my book cover
Brown is a color I began to associate with the Afghan desert, its mountains, and the desert camouflage uniform of the US Marines.
Brown is the earth, solid, reliable, our home. It this context brown symbolizes stability, warmth, reliability. Mother Earth means fertility for all nations, it nurtures us all, no matter of the language we speak. Zuhause, acasa, tuis, a casa, sa bhaile, дома, בבית, doma… home is where we belong and brown is its soil, although in many tints: auburn, copper, russet, terracotta.
Yet brown is also a war color. Brown are the soldier’s uniforms, their faces, covered in dust, their vehicles and their sandy tracks, brown are their tents and the wrappers of their prepacked meals ready to eat, MREs.
And also brown are the deserted villages where the last of the Afghanistan’s wars still take place today. Brown are the ruins that ones stood tall, the walls that ones heard the laughter of a woman and the squeal of a child, the singing voice of a father and the whisper of the night.
Gold, guarding the treasured secrets of a book cover
Where is all the wealth, you will ask, for gold is for riches.
Gold is the sun, I answer, in it’s daily promise for new hope, new beginnings, of warmth and cheer. The sun’ golden light shares courage and wisdom; don’t we see the world as a better place on a sunny day? Don’t we find life’s problem’s more manageable on a bright day?
And gold also symbolizes compassion and wisdom. Compassion, like the one shared by many soldiers in the lines of duty. Wisdom, reflected in the life choices of many civilians caught in battles. To show commendation, we award soldiers a gold star, yet so many citizens are deserving of it. I know at least two in Silent Heroes.
Red, guarding life-threatening secrets
Red is assertive, it speaks of passion, of rage and strong emotions. I thought it represents best the tumultuous history of Afghanistan, with its countless wars and struggles for power. The many foreign leaders that fought to own this piece of land, the wrath and malice they brought along, but also the determination of the Afghan people, they desire to set themselves free from aliens, their passion for freedom. In this context, red speaks of the loss of human life, of sacrifice, of action.
Red is also packed with emotions like passion, love (of life, of one’s country), but also fury and a quick temper, like that of many Afghan warriors.
Red is one of the colors of the Afghanistan’s flag, where it symbolizes the blood shed by those who fought for the country’s independence, but also progress.
The Romanian Myths draw from a popular culture that is tightly blended with the history and the sacred and it spills into a rich national culture.
Myths have a powerful significance to the cultures who tell them, for they explain sacred origins, bring forward human archetypes, and are a model for future aspirations. A myth unifies cosmic and social events, explaining them in a way that is in touch with the most fundamental values of a community.
Carried forward through a nation’s folklore, myths enrich its culture in many ways, acting as a catalyst in literature, music, and the arts . Enchanting to children and still shrouded in mystery, myth reveal their meanings, like stepping stones, only as one advances through life. I remember learning about these myths in school. They felt abstract and their charm escaped my younger self. I am happy I revised them recently. I found them fascinating, dripping with insight and wisdom that over-passed the millennia.
The Cosmogonic Myth of Miorita
At the very origin of this myth is the ballad of Miorita that originates in Soveja, a small town in the Romanian Vrancea Mountains (right at the curve of the Carpathians). The eerie, mournful ballad was often sung by local troubadours. Worth mentioning here is that the Romanian populace, developed around strong Christian values and governed by a social structure, was fundamentally rural until the middle of the 18th century, so the myth of Miorita influenced a local and vibrant culture.
The word miorita has its root in mioara, a nick-name for a small, young sheep, an ewe.
Shepherding has been a millennial occupation of Romanians. Humans domesticated sheep since the early Stone Age, about the same time they met the trusted dog. Tradition and rituals are deeply embedded in the mindset of these people.
The sheep in Miorita may symbolize purity and simplicity, but also the complexity of unpretentious things. In Christianity, sheep symbolize purity and goodness. In Miorita, the (young) sheep represent the oracle.
The ballad tells of three shepherds, one from each historical province of Romania (Wallachia, Moldavia, Transylvania), who meet in the Vrancea mountainous area during the transhumance. One of them is approached by a sheep who predicts that the other two will plot against him to steal his sheep. The shepherd accepts his destiny. His only desire is that the sheep tell his mom that he fell in love with a princess and ran with her to a far away kingdom.
The Legend of Traian and Dochia is the myth of the Romanian people’s ethnogenesis
The Legend of Traian and Dochis is part of the Romanian myths that try to explain the origin of the local culture and the history of the Romanian people.
In antiquity, the geographical area we know today as Romania was known as Dacia. The geto-dac people lived here. Dacia was at the height of its power during the ruling of Decebal, 87-106.
Dochia was Degebal’s daughter. When the Romans under the ruling of Emperor Trajan attacked Dacia for its valuable gold mines, Trajan fell in love with Dochia and wished to take her with him. He chased her over the hills, eager to catch her. Dochia did not wish to leave her people and asked the gods to remain in her homeland, no matter what. She was instantly turned to stone together with her maidens.
The myth is placed in the eastern Carpathian Mountains, in the Ceahlau Mountain, where there is a group of stones with a strange appearance. Ceahlau Mountain is unique in Romanian culture, being the only mountain with patron saint.
The myth of Dochia represents the pain that Decebal felt at the thought of the Romans conquering his people, as well as his helplessness in front of irreversible life and its events. Just keep in mind that Decebal did not go down without a fight. The Dacs fought the Romans in two wars before they were finally conquered.
As it is often with myths and legends, this specific story might draw from a different one, about a grumpy master mason and his daughter.
The Myth of Master Builder Manole
This myth speaks of the sacrifice that sits at the foundation of each accomplishment or construction. The bigger the sacrifice, the more sacred the result is considered.
The theme of this myth is the sacrifice as a source of new life.
Tradition asks for cats, puppets, coins, or crosses to be built in the foundation of a new home or on its doorstep to protect it from evil spirits. And diggings prove that this tradition is true and widespread.
Prince Neagoe Basarab, ruler of Wallachia at the beginning of the 16th century and his wide Millica Despina were the founders of the Curtea de Arges Monastery. Nine builders under the leadership of Manole worked all day long only to see their work falling to pieces during the night. Needless to say, the Prince was not happy. Manole prayed and prayed until one night he had a dream. Human sacrifice was needed, more exactly a laborer’s female relative, the first one to bring them food at dawn. And so it happens that the first woman to arrive with food was Maole’s wife Ana.
As soon as the sacrifice took place, Manole building his wife into the foundation while she was still alive, making it look like a game, the construction stood and it was soon finished. The most beautiful monastery ever to see the light of the sun. The Prince was ecstatic, but not desiring his master builder to raise another construction as beautiful as that one again, perhaps even more stunning, ordered for the scaffolding to be removed abandoning Manole, who were still standing on the roof. Manole fashioned himself wings out of its of wood he had nearby and tried to fly to safety, only to fall to his death.
The construction of Curtea de Arges Monastery was finished during the ruling of Prince Radu the Black. It is unclear if the myth of Manole speaks of him or his image was distorted. One version of the ballad mentions that Manole and the builders boasted together that they will be able to build an even better monastery, and so they were all left on the roof. The Monastery Curtea de Arges is real, a pearl of byzantine architecture with Moorish arabesques and its two twisting cupolas are famous worldwide.
The Erotic Myth of the Fly-boy
This Romanian myth blends culture with social and religious believes as well as the history and beginnings of psychiatry.
Fly-boy is said to be a magnificent young man that visits young maidens in their dreams, similar to the myth of Incubus. In Romanian mythology he is depicted as a handsome youngster with golden hair or as a dragon that shines, his skin covered in precious stones, with a tail made of flames.
The myth of Fly-boy signifies the impossible love, the unanswered love, the burning passion and even remembers of the vampire’s myth – giving the symptoms of the girls he “visits”: weight loss, pale skin.
The Fly-boy is presumed to have been a man whose love was rejected during his lifetime by a woman. He returned to hunt all women, but especially the one who rejected his feelings.
The Romanian folklore and literature are abundant with fabulous characters and archetypes: giants, ogres, sirens, three headed dragons, magic horses, talking wolves, spirits of the forest and of the lake, ghosts, eerie maidens, magic birds, witches and saints, fairy godmothers, handsome princes or clumsy page-boys, good or evil emperors, and many more. Their stories have animated the childhood of many generations and form an unseen golden thread that unites a strong national spirit that prevailed over millennia. The Romanian myths connect its people with an abundant culture, a stormy history and the ever-permanent sacred.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Romanian myths between culture, history and the sacred. You might also be interested in:
If you journey through Transylvania, ‘the land across the forest’, (searching for Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler or Dracula) and head towards Brasov along the banks of the Big Tarnava River, you will surely spot from quite afar the pointy towers of medieval Sighisoara City, with its centuries old fortress and churches. We traveled there by train one winter.
I give you the ‘Pearl‘ and the ‘Nürnberg‘ of Transylvania, Sighisoara!
A brief history of Sighisoara
Nearly two millennia ago here rose a Roman castrum, a military fortified camp for guarding the roads. But more proof of local human settlements dates back to the Bronze Age.
Sighisoara as we know it took shape during the 12th century when Saxon merchants and craftsmen settled here for a few reasons…
First, to defend against Tatar invasions the eastern and southern borders of the Hungarian Kingdom, formed at the beginning of the Middle Ages on the Pannonian Plain. This border was none other but the line of River Târnava Mare.
Second, in search of a better life. These settlers, who chose the banks of the slower Saes river to build their homes, were soon known as the Transylvanian Saxons. By the 14th century, Sighișoara was a well known royal center with the status of an urban settlement, Civitas de Segusvar, and by the 15th century its guilds had received the sole right to its administration.
As it was the custom during the Middle Ages, captains ruled such territories, or royal citadels, and these captains obeyed the Prince of Transylvania which, in turn, was a vassal of the King of Hungary.
Yet there was a third, less known reason. As the people already living in this land were Christians and the Pope loved converting new territories to Catholicism, the plan of populating this area with Saxons emerged. So, over the centuries, in Transylvania arrived first the military contingents, then the Saxon merchant settlers.
Dominican monks also settled here at the end of the 13th century, followed by the Franciscans.
Today, a journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara is time-travel at its best, as this is one of the few preserved medieval cities still found in Europe and the only one fully inhabited found in Romania.
Sighisoara – the etymology of a town’s name
Castrum Sex, Castle Six, was the name of the fortress that existed here prior to the apparition of the first Hungarian military contingents. This fortress was first attested at the beginning of the 13th century, before being almost completely destroyed by Tatars. Later we hear the name Castrum Sches, from Hungarian seges, or citadel, although it makes more sense to connect the fortress’ name with that of one of the rivers that run through it, river Şaeş.
Other names used for Sighisoara during the Middle Ages were Segusvar and Segeswar, as well as the German Schägesburh.
Vlad Dracul, Prince of Wallachia, was the first one to use the Romanian transcription of the town’s name, Schegischone, in a document from July 1st, 1435.
Sighisoara City – a layout with a purpose
One of the things I enjoyed about our journey around the medieval city of Sighisoara was that everything is within walking distance. Although the train station’s location is in the Lower City, Sighisoara’s modern area, it is easy to spot the walled fortress, atop a hill in the Upper City. The medieval citadel rises, colossal and gray, yet within close range, accessible through a bridge spanning across Tarnava Mare River.
Encircling Sighisoara fortress, one can very well admire the original defensive wall with its towers and bastions.
To recognize the craftsmen’s importance, each guild – and there were ten such associations in Sighisoara – received a tower of the citadel’s fortification. Thus, each guild was responsible for its own administration and it is still easy to guess which guilds were the most productive ones, as their towers are the best-preserved ones, and the biggest: Tailors’ Tower, Tin-makers’ Tower, and Goldsmiths’ Tower. But, above all, stands the 14th century Clock Tower and through here we made our entrance into the Sighisoara fortress.
The guilds were important as they fought against those who practiced the profession illegally. Also, their members enjoyed privileges with the Wallachian rulers.
The story of the fortresses’ ramparts and towers
Apart from its 164 houses, what we admired the most during our journey through the medieval city Sighisoara were its 930 meters long defense wall and towers. Why so many – for such a small fortress?
During the Late Middle Ages, sadly, the danger of the Ottoman Empire escalated. Therefore, the first mention of a wall around Sighisoara fortress dates back to 1490. The very first wall elevation showcased crenelations and rose only 3-4 meters in height, principally intended for arbalesters (crossbowmen).
16th century came and the bastion rose by two extra meters. Meurtrieres were now built in the wall, either as floor-holes (for dropping hot substances onto the attackers) or as loopholes (arrow slits or cannoniers). After the big fire of 1676, the fortress’ wall was 8 – 10 meters in height.
Let’s make our way inside this incredible medieval fortress.
The Clock Tower
Placed on the eastern side of Sighisoara’s defense system of walls and towers, closer to sunrise, to mark its value, the Clock Tower was the first to welcome us on our journey. On a follow-up blog post we’ll have a detailed look at the other towers, each one with its own incredible history, but for now let’s start here.
The Clock Tower is the main entrance in the fortress and the first spot we visited during our journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara. The Tailors’ Tower, on the opposing wall of the fortress, is the second way into the citadel.
Yet it is the Clock Tower that hides a few symbols.
Massive and everlasting, the Saxons built their Clock Tower out of a myriad of humble river stones handpicked from the banks of the nearby rivers. Each stone is insignificant on its own, their strengths coming from their number, much as a king’s army. Erected with the intention of being the main entrance in the fortress the Clock Tower, fortified accordingly, had only two levels. Its walls are 2.3 meters thick and three gates defend it, while its belly protects the stairway connecting the Upper City with the Lower City.
Only a handful of visitors know that the Clock Tower is a symbol of Transylvanian Saxons’ pride and craftsmanship. They desired to build the biggest, tallest clock tower in the principality – as horology had a long tradition here, since the 14th century.
The only path into the fortress takes you underneath the tower itself. It is the Front Gate ensemble and part of the tower’s barbicane, a fortified outpost.
In 1844, inside the barbicane a courtyard appeared, the Old Ladies’ Corridor that you can see here. This is a wooden passage meant to ease the aged peasants’ access into the fortress, during heavy winters.
Into the fortress we go, underneath the Clock Tower, through the belly of the beast:
And emerging into the fortress. The visitors’ entrance in the Clock Tower is immediately on the right-hand side. The ground level of the tower dates back to the 14th century.
Similar to the second gate tower, the Tailor’s Tower, the Clock Tower has a rectangular floor plan and a ground floor with two vaulted gates over the passageway.
Hard to guess, but the Clock Tower, or the Big Tower of the Front Gate, reaches a height of 64 meters, of which 34 meters is the roof alone!
I admired the central, pointy roof with its baroque embellishments and its own main tower surrounded by four smaller ones, each rising at 12.5 meters. These four towers are a symbol of the city’s own judicial autonomy, right of the sword, meaning that back in the Middle Ages the Sighisoara City Council could give the death sentence and executions were also performed in the City Square.
Unlike the other wall towers, each belonging to a guild, the Clock Tower belonged to the public authorities serving as headquarter for the City Council. Master builders added the upper levels during the 15th and 16th centuries and when the great fire of 1676 destroyed the roof, Austrian craftsmen built a new one in 1677.
At the very top is a golden sphere, atop which a wind vane in the shape of a rooster still stands. The bulb-shaped roof stands as the oldest proof of Baroque influence in Transylvania. The golden sphere is a symbol of local power and has a diameter of 1 meter. Why? Because it is a time capsule hidden in plain sight. Inside you would find a copy of the Chronicles of the Clock Tower by Georgius Krauss as well as documents pertaining to the history of Sighisoara and that of the Transylvanian Saxons.
The Sphere, the Crescent and the Double-headed Eagle of Sighisoara
At the very top of the Clock Tower is a rooster weather-vane. But underneath, between the rooster and the golden sphere, now this is an entirely different story. We now see the double-headed eagle, a symbol of the Austrian Empire between 1867 and 1915. During the tower’s refurbishing from 1677 the three builder masters placed here a Turkish crescent, surely under political orders, meant to remind the people of Sighisoara of the Ottoman Empire’s ruling. The crescent got damaged in 1704 by local insurgents or curuti, from Hungarian kuruc. New work on the Clock Tower was only possible in 1776. Then the double-headed eagle, in a nod towards the Austrian Empire’s authority, replaced the crescent.
The roof, as we see it today, dates back to the 19th century. It uses hexagonal, glazed shingle tiles in shades of red, yellow, blue, green, and white. Mostly birds, able to fly this high, can enjoy such intricate details.
Yes, we climbed to the very top, to the balcony you see above – the sixth level of the Clock Tower.
Imagine living here in the late Middle Ages. The Tower, the tallest structure for miles, protecting you, and beside the sun, the keeper of time and your only measure for the time of day and the day of the week. Yet the tower was much more than that, for during important celebrations an orchestra would climb to the balcony placed at its very top and perform music that reached every corner of the fortress as well as those living outside its walls, in the Lower City.
And looking up at this medieval giant you will want to watch out, as the slits and murder holes are still visible:
The two faces of Sighisoara’s Clock Tower
Well worth noticing as you journey towards and through the medieval city of Sighisoara are the two faces of the Clock Tower, on its fifth level.
The best feature of the Clock Tower is on the fifth level, its 17th-century clock mechanism. In 1648 craftsman Johann Kirtschel even improved its system. He included a minute hand, added quarter-hour chimes and the one-meter tall wooden statues representing the days of the week.
Facing the Upper City or the inner fortress we can see a niche carved in the tower, holding statues and located to the left side of the 2,4-meter diameter clock dial. Here, Peace holds a trumpet and an olive branch, near a Drummer who marks quarter hours and full hours. Also, two statues in blue dresses symbolize Righteousness, with her eyes covered, holding a raised wooden sword and Justice, with laurels on her head, holding a scale. Yes, here Righteousness has her eyes covered and not Justice.
Later, two more statues appeared here, placed right at the top, two angels. At 6 AM the Angel of Day shows up, with flames above his head, holding a burning heart, replaced at 6 PM by the Angel of the Night, holding a torch in each hand.
On the clock’s side facing the Lower City, we can admire a horse and a drummer as well as seven 80 cm tall statues depicting seven Roman gods, symbols of weekdays: Diana / Artemis, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the Sun.
The Seven Statues of Sighisoara’s Clock Tower
Diana / Artemis, the goddess of hunting, depicted in a blue dress holding a bow and arrow; she has a half-moon over her head, the alchemist’s symbol for silver. Mars / Ares god of war, holds a spear and wears a helmet with a feather, and above is the chemical symbol for iron, also a symbol for the star sign Ares. Mercury / Hermes, the god of commerce, holds a caduceus in his right hand and a bag with money in his left and has a pair of wings at his helmet and another pair at his heels. Above his head is the symbol for mercury or quicksilver – just like his temper.
Jupiter / Zeus, the god of sky and the King of gods, depicted with his right foot resting on a globe, holds a lightning rod in his right hand and a thunder in his left. Above his head we find the alchemy symbol for tin, looking like a 24. Venus / Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, has the alchemy’s symbol for copper, passion, above her head and a winged cupid. Saturn, the god of agriculture and abundance, has the symbol for lead above his head. Sun / Sol / Helios, depicted as a female goddess with a crown of golden rays, the symbol for gold.
The Warning Statue, a Vestige of Sighisoara’s Medieval Past
But the traveler is also warned on his journey, long before he approaches the medieval city of Sighisoara. Can you read the signs? Two lone statues are easily spotted underneath the seven peaceful ones, depicting days of the week and crafty symbols. One of these two statues is a drummer, matching the one on the other side of the clock tower, and hammering away as the bells chime. Lo and behold for next to him stands an executioner, who once held in his hands a whip and a hatchet…
Going up into the medieval Clock Tower of Sighisoara
220 years old, the Clock Tower’s museum is a place worth visiting. One can admire coins, weapons, medieval pharmacy equipment and a detailed layout of the fortress.
Up until 1566, the rooms located on the tower’s first floor accommodated the Council’s City Hall.
But what you do want to visit is the roofed gallery at the very top, hugging the clock tower all around.
Up here a 360 degrees panoramic view of Sighisoara unfolds in front of your eyes.
If you dare count, you will see over 150 medieval houses clustered in the old town, their red roofs and the stone-paved streets where once kings, artisans, and even Vlad Tepes strolled.
There, on the left, below, is the house where Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, was born. We’ll go there soon. Meanwhile, have you noticed the slanted roofs powdered with snow?
From the top of the Clock Tower, we even had a glimpse back in time, through the history of Sighisoara. The Church on the Hill, dating back to the beginning of the 14th century, was one of the first constructions the Transylvanian Saxons built:
From the Clock Tower’s top balcony one can get a panoramic view of the world as well. How good is your eyesight? Can you see as far as Moscow?
Measuring from the Clock Tower, Vienna is 656 km away, Rome 1.096 km, Paris 1.680 km, London 1.872 km, New York 7.431 km, Tokyo 8.890 km, and Sydney 15.438 km away.
It looks like someone has left a secret message for us. Can you decipher it?
As a child, Vlad would have played hide-and-seek through this passageway when he was a lad of five. Lucky times as later, during the 18th century, this small space became a prison. For when the Clock Tower was first built there were two dark passageways running through it – what better place for children to play?
After the great fire of 1676, when the tower was rebuilt, one of these passageways became a torture chamber / jail. In this very space the convicts had their hands and feet tied in chains. As a way of torture the convicts were tied to the infamy pole, in the city square, with 6 kilograms river stone hanging around their necks, for all to see.
Go ahead, take a peek:
I am sure that, as a child, Vlad would have engaged in snowball fights and even built animals out of snow. On the patch of snow you see above, we built a dragon to honor Vlad’s name derived from the Order of the Dragon awarded to his father:
I hope you enjoyed our journey through the medieval city Sighisoara thus far.
If I were you, I would follow this blog as there are three more legs to this journey: a visit inside at the house where Vlad Tepes, (Vlad the Impaler or Dacula) was born, a walk around the medieval towers of Sighisoara fortress, as well as a pair of horns on a building, a mysterious stairway, and a graveyard.