The Sun, Rope, Horse and Tree of Life in Romanian Wood Folk Art #Im4Ro

The Sun, the Rope, the Horse, and the Tree of Life are important motifs encountered in traditional Romanian wood folk art.

When you look at an old house, do you see the hand that built it? The hopes and dreams that made it rise above the ground? The blessings that were whispered on its threshold? When you look at a dwelling, do you see – and wonder – why it was built the way it was, and what wonderful secrets its decorations hold?

Unbeknownst to many, the ancient wood peasant houses of Romania carry astronomical symbols thousands of years old.

Stemming from pre-Christian times diverse motifs have reached us through pottery, clothing (renowned Romanian blouse, ia), and woodwork.

The Solar Motif, the Sun in Romanian Folk Woodwork

The most popular in Romanian folk art is the solar motif. The circle as a sun symbolizes life, fertility and it is believed to attract positive energy and confer protection.

column sun zig-zag door carving
Columns (left and right), sun (top right), and zig-zag carved on a wooden door, Village Museum Bucharest

The solar motif is so powerful that it is seen carved or painted on household objects too, along with other motifs. After Christianity developed, a cross was included in the solar circle / halo, a symbol for God.

rope circle cross motif Romania art

Had the wood artists strolled through the woods until a ray of sun filtered by foliage danced on his face, catching his eye? Had he approached the tree with reverence? Had he run his calloused hands along its ancient trunk, feeling the life inside, asking for permission? Had the design came to him in that moment? Had he drew it on the trunk, in a whisper of apology? Asking for the forest’s blessing? I like to believe that he did.

solar motif Romanian wooden door frame
Solar and rope motifs on a Romanian wooden door frame

And before any exterior decorations were carved, every so often a branch from a pine tree was placed above the main entrance door, to protect the household.

The Rope Motif in Romanian Folk Wood Art

The rope is often carved on the supporting poles of the front porch, pridvor, a symbol of infinity meant to protected the household and connected the earth to the infinite and blessed Heavens above.

rope motif

To mark this connection between earth and Heaven in the Christian Orthodox tradition one would bend and touch the ground when one makes the sign of the crosses on prayer.
Like the monk did (three times) in the video below.
He does so to take the earth at a witness for his love for God, the same earth that was made and blessed by God, but also to show his appreciation towards the earth he lives on.

Listen to the song of the wooden vespers bell of Petru Voda Monastery:

ABOVE: Also made of wood are objects and works of art and of spiritual connection with God (such as the wooden vesper bell), a physical representation of the Romanian spirit.

The household had always been sacred, the place where traditions took place and were passed along. Thus, an essential part of the household in a Vlach (old Romanian from the south) home was the front of the house that was not facing the street, but was protected by an inner yard.

For the Romanian country folk his household and his piece of land were more than his property. They were an offering from God thus he had to care for them as they allowed him to live a purposeful life. The land was a gift, his connection with his ancestors which he could pass on to his descendants, thus ensuring not only the survival of his family, but the permanence of life in general.

The Horse Motif in Romanian Art

The horse, as a motif, represents majestic beauty and strengths and its directly connected to the sun and the rope. In popular beliefs the life-giving sun was traveling across the sky in a chariot drawn by white horses. In Romanian folk belief the horse is perceived as a fantastic creature. Horse, cal, symbolizes heat, warmth, summer.

horse head woodcraft positive symbol
horse head woodcraft positive symbol

Above: a horse motif on a barn, to offer protection against all evil for the most precious livestock.

In Romanian folklore it is said that if one sees a white horse on Epiphany Day, the 6th of January, one will have good luck all year.

The traditional Romanian folk dance performed by Căluşarii, the Stallions,  is performed imitating the motions of a horse in flight and is intend to fight off evil spirits and heal the sick.

The Tree of Life motif in Romanian Folk Art

The ancestral tree of life motif, pomul vietii, “as in Heaven, so on earth“, painted on the door is a sacred symbol found across the ancient world and still present in Romanian folk art – read so much MORE here.

dark teal painted door, Village Museum Bucharest
dark teal painted door, Village Museum Bucharest

Trees and Woods in Romanian Culture

A beautiful Romanian myth speaks of a distant time, long, long ago when God had just finished created the world. Humans needed no shelter for the sky was near and the sun, the moon and all the stars would walk among people and keep them warm. But then humans turned against each other and this made God so sad that he lifted the skies high above, beyond the flight of the birds and the arch of the rainbows. Humans started feeling the cold and the rain, the sleet and the wind, and the need for a shelter. For the first time. So they found shelter in caves, and in forests until God, in His kindness and love for His creation, inspired humans to build a shelter of wood. And the house became a home.

From Dacian times the woodland and the Romanians have been two inseparable entities, this green gold that once covered three quarters of Romania and its soul, its people. The forest was, in turn, temple during peaceful times and a safe haven at war.

Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology, fir tree symbology in Romanian folklore
Codrul Frate cu Romanu’ – The Woodland, Romanian’s Brother

Many were our ancestors’ forests, vast and dense were they, enriched by mysterious creatures, bathed by many springs. And countless are the characters that climbed out of these forests into folklore and mythology. While in Romanian folklore the trees (sanctuaries for both gods and demons), especially the sycamore, fir tree, willow, and apple trees, are seen as guides, accompanying a human’s soul along his last road.

An important tree in Romanian culture is the beech. In many areas it is used on the celebration of Arminden, May 1st. Beech branches are placed above the windows and stable door, with the belief that they protect against the undead. In some villages of Oltenia, the coffins, called “thrones”, are made only of beech wood.

Another magical tree in Romanian culture is the oak. On the renowned ‘Column of Trajan’ Decebal (the fierce Dacian leader of 87-106) is depicted killing himself under an oak tree to escape being taken prisoner by Romans led by Trajan after the second Dacian-Roman war.

Decebal takes his life under an oak tree, wood symbology in Romanian culture. Trajan Column Rome
Dacian leder Decebal takes his life under an oak tree – wood symbology in Romanian culture.
Trajan Column Rome

In some areas in Ardeal (western Transylvania) there is still the custom taking the holy communion at Easter time in the form of fir or beech buds, instead of bread and wine, after which they say “Christ Has Risen”.

Located at the curve of Carpathian Mountains, east of Brasov, is Vrancea county. Here, for lack of a church during the transhumance (the moving of sheep from one pasture to another during seasonal cycles) shepherds confess in front of a fir tree. With the tip of their ax or a pocket knife they would craft a cross on the bark of the tree and proceed to confession, while making the sign of the cross with their right hand. Then they would remove a few wood chips from the fir tree and throw them away. If the tree dried out in one year, their sins were forgiven.
Holding fir tree in high regards is still a custom today: when a new born he is presented to a fir tree, for blessing, in the absence of a priest.

Biserica de Brad, The Fir Church

The Fir Church is a cluster of fir trees growing in a circle pattern that young shepherds would choose as a natural church. Here they would marry the girl they loved dearly, but whose parents opposed to the wedding. An old shepherd or even a priest would then perform the sacred connection, in this sacred Fir Church. The sky and the stars above their heads would be witnesses, in this sacred church of God. The marriage would be out of love, without a dowry ever asked for.

Romanian folk aphorism about trees and forest
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…

Forest and Wood, from Symbology to Etymology

A few towns in Romania were named after a forest. What better way to illustrate the importance of trees, forests and wood in a nation’s culture?

Bucovina means “strawberry forest” in Slavonic.

Transylvania means ‘the land beyond the forest” (the forest of Apuseni Muntains).

The name of the Teleorman County (in south of Wallachia, along Danube, comes) from Turkish (Cumanic) Deli orman: crazy forest.

Listen to ‘The Woodland’, a 100-word story

I wrote ‘The Woodland’ especially for Expat Life.You can listen below, between minutes 3:58 – 05:23. Enjoy and thank you for listening!

For more on Romanian history, culture and its incredible natural habitat you can have a look at my work of fiction, Transylvania’s History A to Z in 100-word Stories.

39 Replies to “The Sun, Rope, Horse and Tree of Life in Romanian Wood Folk Art #Im4Ro”

  1. Wow. What a fabulous, interesting and informative post! Awesome. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  2. Lovely post. I do tend to see “The hopes and dreams that made it rise above the ground” but you have made that clearer. Fascinating stuff.

  3. I certainly did enjoy this article! I live in a big old house built in the late eighteen hundreds that is filled with wood carved flower motifs. Carved wood is so magical, isn’t it.

  4. Reading your introduction, I couldn’t help noticing the lack of personality of Romanian buildings nowadays – those apartment buildings – so uniform, so bland, so impersonal. So sad! Anyway… I enjoyed your article. As always, I found out many new and interesting things. One thing I disliked… and it’s not your fault: the fir tree as a confessional and the hope that the poor tree would dry in a year for someone’s sins. That’s not a very Christian thing to hope for. 🙂

    1. I think those apartment buildings come alive during a soccer championship 🙂

      I was also startled to learn about the confession on a fir tree. Maybe it was symbolic. But life held a different value back then. And being allowed into Heaven was held in a much higher regard.

      1. So that’s why I’m not interested in soccer at all. 🙂 As for the second part of your comment: that’s for sure! I just hope that not many sins were forgiven that way.

          1. No wonder I often dream of living in a different century. Well, except for the fir tree thing… 🙂

            1. But you do dream! Remember the excerpt from the historical novel set in Medieval Transylvania that I’m so excited about? 🙂 Besides, almost your entire blog is set in other centuries. 🙂

            2. Oh, but I daydream, too. Sorry I wasn’t more clear. I don’t even remember my night dreams. Anyway, it was an excellent opportunity to hint at your novel. 🙂

  5. Many cultures and religions give importance to nature where different aspects and elements bear sacred as well as deep meaning. The sun is worshipped in the Hindu religion. And the Peepul tree is recognized as sacred. That video you shared is awesome. Fascinating! The rope designs are so beautiful with lovely representation. Thanks for sharing this, Patricia. 🙂

    1. Such a great pleasure, Terveen. You always appreciate my shares and have something mindful to tell me about as well. I will have to read about the Peepul tree for sure 🙂

  6. So often we look (at me) at older buildings and admire the woodwork, without understanding, or appreciating the meaning behind it. As you’ve said, did the wood carver select his wood by following a ray of sunshine? History comes alive when we consider the personal stories. Thanks for sharing, Pat. Great post. 🙂

  7. Great article Patricia! All these motifs certainly embellish the wood art works, plus they all have a special meaning or a reason for being there. It´s always interesting to look beyond an old folk ornament and discover what story it has to tell.

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