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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.