When Cheetah First Cried

When Cheetah First Cried is a retelling of an African folk story that explains why cheetahs have two vertical lines on their faces.

When Cheetah First Cried is a retelling of an African folk story that explains why cheetahs have two vertical lines on their faces.

When Cheetah First Cried

Each day at dusk or dawn, when even the sun looked away and the wind only whispered, a cheetah left her nest hidden in the tall, dry grass to go hunt food for her cubs. She would give each one a gentle nudge, press her soft nose against their fluffy heads, take in their sweet scent, like any mother would, purr a quiet warning, then tiptoe across the grassland.

And each day at dusk and dawn, when the sun looked away for the cheetah went hunting, a man stooped by a tree and watched. He was a hunter too, from his own tribe.

The man watched with narrow eyes how cheetah lazily pranced across the field, how she seemed to stretch, careless, then lick her mouth at the sight of the Impala herd. How she lowered her head, watching the beautiful gazelles, choosing well and picking only the juicier one. ‘Hmph!’ the man-hunter often exclaimed, spitting in the sand at his feet, near a hunting bag filled with air. ‘Ever since our tribe was forced in this dry corner of grassland we’ve been beggars. And beggars can’t be choosers, like this wa chini.’ Then he pressed his fists in the small of his back and stretch, mimicking the cheetah. And just as the cheetah was now craning her neck, the man extended his and held his breath for he knew what came next.

The chase.

Impala and cheetah sprang at once. The gazelle, racing for its life, dashing, jumping, floating above the earth as if its life depended on it. The cheetah accelerating at an angle, its feet four times as strong, as fast; its tail swishing and swiping from behind, closing in and sprinting for victory.

‘Argh!’ exclaimed the man-hunter. The hunt never lasted much. The cheetah always won. There was always food to take home to her cubs. Unlike him. ‘Pshaw,’ he spat again, then picked up his empty bag and dragged it after him, almost crawling towards his village. But after two steps he stopped. He lifted his head and straightened his spine. No one saw his face, for none was around, but a bird. There was a snigger on it that pulled the corners of his thin, cracked lips upwards, in a non-human mask.

He knew what he had to do.

To allow for a steady supply of food for his village, of course.

Cheetah, in Afrikaans is Jagluiperd,   Direct translation: Hunting lazy horse
Cheetah, in Afrikaans is Jagluiperd – direct translation: hunting lazy horse

The next day, when the cheetah went hunting, the man was waiting. Yet not by the tree, but hidden in the dry grass, not far from the cheetah’s nest. Yet far enough to be out of the wind’s way.

And after cheetah nudged her pups, sniffed their soft heads, and left in search of food, the man closed in, keeping as low as the grass. Without thinking twice he picked the three cheetah cubs and pushed them in his hunter’s bag, stuffing them inside, then closing the flap over, squeezing the bag to his chest to muffle their cries and running back to his village. Always bent over, always looking over his shoulder. Will the cheetah know? Will she hear her brood crying? Will she come after him? Is she at his heel already?

Goody, he’s made it!

That evening when cheetah returned with dinner for her cubs she found the nest empty. She sniffed around, the scent of her cubs still strong, yet no downy heads popped up to welcome her; no tiny, raspy tongues; no hungry yelps of joy, no tugs of war. And, like any mother, the cheetah cried. And she cried. And when the sun went up it found her crying, and when the moon came up it found her crying still.

Meanwhile, in the man’s village, the three cubs were tied to a pole for all to see the great plan of the man-hunter.

‘They will hunt for us,’ he would strut around, explaining his grand idea. ‘Three gazelles a day. There will be food aplenty,’ he would say, looking taller than anyone had ever seen him before.

The cheetah was still crying when a thin man approached her. He was so skinny and so old that he had no fear of being hunted, for he had no fear of death. Besides, he knew all too well that he looked like a wandering pile of sticks rather than a human being.

The skinny, old man approached the crying cheetah and asked what has happened. For nobody has ever seen a crying cheetah before, nor has anyone ever heard of one. On hearing what happened to her cubs the man made it for the village right away and the wind even stirred, they say, to give the old man a gentle push, to aid him reach the settlement sooner.

Three things happened next.

The man-hunter lost his right to hunt for having dishonored his people’s honest hunting tradition, that honored skill and respect for other hunters.

The man-hunter was sent to return the cubs to mother cheetah, while all the time crying and praying he won’t end up a prey himself. He didn’t, for the cheetah was too happy to be reunited with her cubs to even think of revenge.

The cheetah stopped crying, but having cried for so long two vertical dark lines remained along her face, from the inner corners of her eyes to the sides of her mouth.

This is the story of when the cheetah first cried and why the cheetah has two dark lines down her face.

© Patricia Furstenberg, inspired by an old African legend

cheetah and dog can become friends - when cheetah first cried, a story
A cheetah and a dog can become friends

Why cheetahs need to live in the wild?

If a cheetah was born and raised in captivity, when released in the wild will hunt smaller giraffes, her hunting instinct having been altered. A cheetah growing in the wild will learn from her mother to hunt a bigger prey.

Yet not too big either.

At times, a cheetah born and raised in captivity, when released in the wild was observed trying to attack a buffalo. This is wrong and it will never be a success, as cheetah’s jaws and teeth are not designed to deal with such a large prey.

Discover the story of how the cheetah and the dog became friends:

the cheetah and the dog, best children's books

Read inside also how were cheetahs built to live in the wild and why carnivore animals are seldom seen together?

the cheetah and the dog. Read inside also how were cheetahs built to live in the wild and why carnivore animals are seldom seen together?
Image preview from The Cheetah and the Dog

How the Snake Lost Its Legs

how the snake lost its legs

A recent discovery of snake fossils proved that snakes used to have limbs, so let’s imagine how the snake lost its legs in a short story from the series Babadiertjies van Afrika, baby animals from Africa.

The colors of the desert were red, its tall dunes were red, punctuated by green grass clumps. These were the colors the boy knew best. Oh, and the sky’s bright blue that the dune’s sharp crests profiled against.

These were the shades the boy knew best, darker under the first blinking of the sun, as if they still carried the night spirits on their backs. Paling when the sun yawned over the skyline, as if the boiling star sucked their vigor too, together with that of all moving life forms. And finally, turning into long stretching shadows that chased after the slaying sun, like snakes dancing along the dunes, snakes that never learn.

His favorite shade was that of the dunes before nightfall, the same as his mother’s skin. The grains of sand felt just as fine between his fingers, and the evening’s snake-like shadows reminded him of her braids framing her smile, tickling his face while she spun bedtime stories for him.

He missed hearing them, hearing the soft clicks of her speech, the dance of her hands as they became, in turn, elephant ears, horses, and beetles, and bucks… As soon as he measured taller than a hyena, his father, who was so tall that could look over a lion’s mane, took him hunting.

Days were long in the desert, among the shift changing dunes, the hot-hot sand, and him, alone with his thoughts. ‘A hunter with a loud voice will sleep hungry at night,’ was the first lesson his father taught him.

So the boy listened, kept quiet, and at night told himself his mother’s stories.

Tonight, after seeing the long snakes dancing in the sunset along the spines of the dunes, after spotting Mother Moon shedding a tear – one he had followed with his skinny finger all the way from there to there, knowing that ‘a hard day will come soon for one of the San’, and hoping it was not him – tonight, he will spin himself his favorite yarn.

Namib desert at night - How the Snake Lost Its Legs. Photo by Sergi Ferrete for Unsplash
Namib desert at night – How the Snake Lost Its Legs. Photo by Sergi Ferrete for Unsplash

How the Snake Lost Its Legs

‘Mother Moon, who was always watching over her brood, had shed a tear that night. But only those who looked, saw it. And from them, only those who believed, knew what it meant,’ his Mother once started this story.

‘During those times, Mother Moon, from her height in the sky, often looked into the future to see, learn and better protect her children. She does so today too, but – alas – her children know not how to listen to her anymore. Except for a few,’ his mother whispered further, with a nod towards his dad.

‘The Godly Mantis was one of them, arriving as soon as Mother Moon summoned. Putting her front legs together, bowing her head in respect, the Mantis listened then jumped, before the leaves even settled after Mother Moon’s speech, jumped to warn all. All the birds, all the animals, all the insects; warn them about the drought, urge them to pack food for the road, grab their young under their wing, and fly, crawl, run to safety. To water. To life. Before the desert will stretch its raspy hands and take over their land. Before it will be too late.

‘Had the creatures listened to Mantis? Yes. Had they listened because they thought of her as a leader? No. But because Mantis had warned them before, and with good cause.

‘All but one left. The one that led a solitary life. A long and rather bulky creature, whose snout was almost as long as a crocodile’s, but narrower; whose tail was as long as a kangaroo’s, but thinner, and whose four short legs had claws, although he never climbed a tree. Too much effort.

‘It was Snake, who in those times, still had legs.

‘So Snake, basking in his sunny spot, on lush, soft grass, kept his cool and chose to remain. ‘Why worry about tomorrow,’ he thought, gulping one of the juicy frogs hopping by. As a snack, but also to prove a point, that life was sweet here, where he lived.

‘And life was, indeed, sweet for Snake, until all the fat frogs hopped away right past him. Life remained sweet until the rain stopped falling and the grass stopped growing. Until even the land under his belly dried out and his skin, once smooth and shiny, was now raw and flaky from scraping against dry rocks.

‘I better move away,’ thought Snake one day when his tongue, so dry now, could smell nothing but dust and nearly stuck to the outside of his snout. ‘This land does not suit me anymore,’ he added, for he would never admit to be wrong.

‘So he hopped away on his feet, left then right, he hopped along the hot sand that had taken over the plains, left then right, under the boiling sun, left – right. Yet the more he advanced along those dreary dunes, the more he sank into their scorching sand. And the more his feet sank into the fine, fiery gravel, the more difficult it was to pull them out again, and place them on top of the slippery, searing soil. Until it became impossible for Snake to move.

‘And this was how night found Snake. Not at the end of his journey, but rather, stuck at its beginning, alone in the ever changing, slippery sand. Far from being warm and cozy, for the dunes were now as cold as ice. And Snake was chilled to the bone, after having being cooked during the day.

‘This is it,’ thought Snake, closing his eyes. Yet he could shed no tears, for all was dry; outside as well as inside.

‘Only, Mother Moon had other plans for him as she watched from her palace in the sky, her face round with affection, her eyes underlined with worry. And as she sang over the dunes that night, the sand rolled away opening a path for snake to slid away in the morning. Although, with the grains of sand that slipped away something else rolled too, never to be found again. Snake’s legs, all dried out and shriveled by now.

‘Had he missed them in the morning when he opened his eyes and discover a smooth path for him to wriggle on? Had he missed them further on, when he slithered away at top speed? Or when he finally caught up with the other animals, joining them through one final skilled slide?

‘He never said. At least not out loud. But I do hope that he thanked Mother Moon, at least in his heart,’ the boy’s mother had smiled.

That night the little boy fell asleep, feeling his mother’s hand over his forehead, thankful in his heart for her stories.

© Patricia Furstenberg, after a San legend.

Read further on The Conversation: Extraordinary skull fossil reveals secrets of snake evolution.

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Books by Patricia Furstenberg on Amazon

Conduct in a Neolithic Kingdom in Transylvania, 100 words story

Following a timeline of prehistorical discoveries, Conduct in a Neolithic Kingdom is a 100 words story inspired by Transylvania's history

Following a timeline of prehistorical discoveries, Conduct in a Neolithic Kingdom is the next 100 words story inspired by the (pre)historical past of Transylvania, this beloved and thought-after province of Romania, my home country.

Conduct in a Neolithic Kingdom

The wool she threaded in a pattern was as white as the swans floating overhead. The new quilt, verincă, will please their Queen. That was enough for her. They’ve known years of peace under Her rule.

A butterfly kissed her cheek and she caught it in her arms, merry. ‘May I deliver the quilt to the Queen, Mama? I’m as tall as the sapling today!’

Her lips agreed, her heart differed.

Then, she knew. By the ice settling in her chest.

She knew it. Before her butterfly failed to return.

Boys go to war; tall girls are sacrificed for peace.

© Patricia Furstenberg

Datig from around 5000 BC - Turdas culture fortress (Transylvania) drawing. Maybe the first kingdom in the history of the world?
Dating from around 5000 BC – the Turdas culture fortress (Transylvania) maybe the first kingdom in the history of the world. (Drawing, Image source Malus Dacus).

The seed of this story.

During 2013 works on a national road unearthed a Neolithic fortress dating from the Turdaș culture, part of Vinča – Turdaș (5700–4500 BC).

The fortress discovered was built near Mureș river (being easy and fast to travel on) and covered no less that 100 hectares. The fortress from Turdaș was built nearly 1 600 years before the first pyramids of Egypt, raised around 2780 B.C. by King Djoser’s architect Imhotep.

You can read more on my blog about the gigantic Neolithic fortress of Turdaș, Hunedoara, Transylvania.

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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