Reading about Romanian Monsters of Myth and Folklore is a fun way of learning about a civilization strengthened by historical battles, enriched by its insight into the forces of nature, enchanting through its narratives.
I believe that at the source of each myth, folktale or superstition is the seed of a true story. Told from one generation to the next with the aim to explain, elucidate, aid the daily harshness of life or simply subdue; these stories snowballed, like any captivating story does, becoming myths (explaining creation), legends (inspiring through heroic figures), and folklore (explaining everyday life).
Monsters from Romanian Myths
Fârtat, Nefârtat and Apa Sâmbetei (The Wasted Water, Long Gone and Wasted)
One of the creation stories in Romanian folklore explains the Genesis.
Once upon a time, at the very beginning of the world, there was nothing but water. A boundless ocean called Apa Sâmbetei. The water soon foamed, perhaps under a gust of wind, and from that foam grew a flower. Inside the flower a worm took birth, but also a butterfly. Side by side.
And the butterfly morphed further into a young man. Nobody knew if he was handsome or not, for he was the very first one. Yet he brightened everything around him and everything He touched, for he was God, or Fârtat.
While the worm became Nefârtat, the Devil, a creature in human form but without inner light, without spirit.
Now the water was everywhere, so both brothers were floating about. Fârtat called to his brother to dive together and gather handfuls of sand from the bottom of the ocean and throw it in the air, in his name, so Earth will form so they could both rest and catch their breath.
Nefârtat said nay.
From the little sand Fârtat gathered he created a stretch of of earth where both of them went to rest, glad it felt solid, although their fingers were still dipped into Apa Sâmbetei, for it was narrow. Now Nefârtat, evil ashe was, tried to take possession of earth, pushing his brother into the waves. Yet the earth kept on growing to reach and protect Fârtat, and thus Earth came to be.
Fârtat – NefârtatEtymology:
Worth mentioning is the root of the word “Fârtat” coming from ‘frate” = brother. But “fârtat” also means prieten = (precious) friend.
Strigoii and Moroii are believed to drink not only the blood of a human, but to feed on its energy too. Moreover, Strigoii can cause many illnesses and eve shape-shift into were-wolfs. Like the Strigoi, Pricolici are undead monsters (violent criminals returned fom the grave) looking like a giant wolf. Remmeber, Romania has the largest population of canis lupus (wolves) in Europe.
Muma Pădurii, The Forest Crone Mother (synonym with Gaia, he ancestral mother of all life in Greek mythology)
Muma Pădurii is a mythological representation of a long ago civilization, mainly focused on woods as she personifies everything that comes out of a forest and you can read more about her in my blog post here.
Monsters from Romanian Folklore
With mountains as sky-high as the Carpathians is easy to understand why Giants were the first people ever created on the Romanian land.
In the historical county of Maramures, famous for its Merry Cemetery Sapanta as well as its picturesque wooden churches, folk legend says that giant, huge people inhabited its hills, thousands of years ago. Signs of their existence are still noticeable, local people claim.
Once upon a time…
It is said that Rozalinda, the Giant’s daughter, discovered some people on the banks of Someș river and she took them home, thinking they are tiny dolls. Yet she fell in love with one of them, the head of the Dacian – Roman city of Turda (where my Mother was born 🙂 His name was Robonban.
Rozalind‘s fatherand the last head of the Giants, Old Cingalau (not the moth, perhaps a nickname, like Wide-Belt), feeling that his time has come, arranged for the two to get married. He only wanted his daughter to be happy.
But what to do with the difference in size? Rozalinda agreed to be turned into a human and so the two lived happily ever after…
And after old Cingalau died, his grave became the hill of Gogasa, and the place where Rozalinda found the group of people she took home is today the village of Rozavlea, its inhabitants being descendants from Rozalinda and Robonban.
Another legend says that old Urias’ burial mounds hides a massive horde of riches that can only be discovered on Christmas Eve, at Easter, or on St. George’s Day, when magical fires burn above his grave. Or it could have been Decebal, one of the first rulers of the Dacians, Romanian’s ancestors, who ordered these Giants to protect the Dacian treasures he’d hidden in a cave when Romans attacked, 1st century AD.
Capcaun, The Ogre
I do remember being scared of this mosnter, for he was supposed to eat naughty children (which I was not!). Sometimes he has two heads, other times a head of a dog on the body of a man, it appears that he is also a shape-shifter, being able to transform itself in other animals too.
In legends Capcaunul has his own land, usually dark, arid and populated with strange creatures.
Ielele are charmstresses, women of forests and waters with magic powers living in Romania and populating its folklore. Better keep away for they are irresitable, especially to men, and they will make youlooseyour way through the forest. And be gone!
Blessed, alluring IELELE, Mistresses of breeze, Ladies of the earth and mist, Through the air you rise, On the grass you slide, And on waves you glide.
(translated by Patricia Furstenberg)
A sly and repulsive antagonist, the Omul Spân, Bold Man, Glabrous Man, is a character of treacherous intelligence, yet he has the role of initiating Harap-Alb, the hero of the Romanian fairytale with the same title, thus representing, together with the Red Emperor, a necessary evil for the growth of the protagonist.
Go on quest for ‘Youth without Age and Life without Death’. Engage with Half-man-riding-on-the-worse-half-of-a-lame-rabbit. Witness sorcery in the story of the ‘Enchanted Pig’. Discover that love is ‘Like Salt in a Meal’ and that you better be kind or the ‘Old Man’s Clever Daughter’ will teach you a lesson to remember.
Incredible myths and stories of folklore hail from the Romanian woods, this green gold that once covered three quarters of Romania. Throughout centuries, forests fed and sheltered humans from invaders, ‘forest, best buddy bloke of Romanian folk’ goes the ancient saying (Codrul, frate cu romanul), but woods also offered their buds of wisdom and tales.
In Romanian culture, as in many others, the house represents the spiritual center of human life, the place where profane meets sacred and around which gravitates many of the intriguing creatures populating myths (stories and beliefs rooted in human’s origin, often involving gods) and folklore (fictional tales and superstitions, legends, involving fauna, flora and creatures with unusual powers).
A beautiful Romanian myth speaks of a distant time, long, long ago and right after God created the world, when 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 people 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, so humans started experiencing the cold and the rain and the sleet and the wind. And to look 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.
Apart from building homes, almost always out of trees, especially fir, the wood was used for creating tools and weapons necessary for survival (with the added benefit of iron parts), but also household objects and works of art and spiritual connection with God (the wooden vesper bell), a physical representation of the Romanian spirit.
Listen to the song of the wooden vespers bell of Petru Voda Monastery:
You would have noticed tat the monk bends and touches the ground when he crosses himself. It is to take earth at a witness of his love for God, the earth that was made and blessed by God, but also to show his appreciation towards the earth he lives on.
Wood and Forest Myths from Romania
In Romanian mythology and folklore the cult of the mother (Mother of the Earth, The Mother of the Forest, the Mother of Flowers, the Mother of God, the Mother of the Rain) is widespread and is linked to the mystery existence itself, to the life and death circle of life.
Many were our ancestors’ forests, vast and dense were they, enriched by mysterious creatures, bathed by springs. And countless are the characters that climbed out of the Romanian forests into our folklore, and found refuge in the woods, only to come out in our myths.
Muma Pădurii, The Forest Crone Mother (synonym with Gaia, he ancestral mother of all life in Greek mythology)
Muma Pădurii is a mythological representation of a long ago civilization, mainly focused on woods as she personifies everything that comes out of a forest. She lives in the depths of her realm, in its hollows, safe from the woodcutter’s ax and human sightseeing. She is a sad mother though, for she moans, mourns, sighs, snorts, and wails. People are cutting off her offsprings, the trees.
Muma Pădurii is portrayed as an old and anthropophagous (feeding on human flesh) woman, a patron of evil spirits who populate the forest. She is hideous, her mane reaching the ground, and often the woods resonate of her shrieks. They say this sound is enough to scary any traveler. At night time she can be spotted sleeping near strange fires (for they never burn with wood) or sliding like a ghost, a chimera, through forests and bushes, across the plains and crossroads. And she brings whirlwinds and bad weather, entering homes at midnight. You know it is she, for she slams open doors and windows.
How does she look like?
They say she can take the shape of many animal (be it a mare, buffalo, or cow), or that of a woman looking like a knotty tree, with withered legs, hair like braided strands that fall to the ground, like snakes, a woman dressed in bark or moss. She can be as tall as a house or as small as a rabbit, as beautiful as a fairy or as hideous as a monster with a big head, eyes as big as a dinner plate, teeth as big and as sharp as a sickle. She comes on foot or riding a mare with nine hearts.
If she is hungry for flesh nothing can stand in her way for she knows 99 tricks with which she entices people to leave the safety of their homes and get lost in the forest – where she fries them and eats them.
Some of her children are the spirits of the night, Murgila, Miazanopte, Zorila (Twilight, (Midnight, Daybreak)
They are her sons cursed to always follow each other, yet never to meet, a personification of the passing of the time. And they are ugly, so hideous, always crying, that she constantly tries to exchange them with human children. For this reason, mothers with babies take extra care to guard them till they are baptized (usually between 3 – 6 month in Christian Orthodox tradition). So they don’t let them out of sight, day or night. If they must leave them alone, then a metal object will be placed nearby, for protection. Remember, metal cuts wood. Anything they have, a sickle, scissors, pliers, a silver coin, that they whispered upon, a spell from the heart, a prayer for protection:
‘You, Forest Crone You, Woodsy bag of bones, Arriving by cow, By cow be gone. From [name] be banned!‘
‘Sickle,magic reaper, By day thou art be cut, By night be it to guard, For [name], On bed, Under bed, On bedding, Under bedding.‘
And if the baby was changed?
There are various magical practices by which one could bring it back. Thus, a witch or even the child’s mother would lit the fire in the hearth, takes the changeling in her arms (often a baby displaying macrocephaly, a large head, thin, but always hungry) and threatened to throw him into the flames. Of course, faced with such imminent danger Muma Pădurii returns the stolen child.
She will punish robbers yet assist those in need, be it honest fugitives or lost children. Like any mother, she knows each and every tree in her forest, for she nurtured them all since they were but shoots. She scolded them when they grew crooked, and when they upset her she cursed them, to meet the woodcutter’s ax or be struck by lightning.
But her wrath spills into villages too, if women who spin on Tuesdays or pick berries on Saint Mary’s Day (6th of August), or if men whistle or sing in the woods and wake her children.
To defend yourself against her wrath, simply make the sigh of the cross, and if your hands are occupied, make it with your tongue on the roof of your. If you are brave enough and you hear her whimper, ask her, ‘Great Lady, why are you crying?’ – and if she answers ‘ I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in a week,’ then give her something to eat and you are good to pass through her forests.
As the goddess that she is, a true mother of nature, Muma Pădurii can be also good.
Beneficial, she is the sacred plant Asperula odorata, Wild Baby’s Breath, and also Lathraea squamaria, the common toothwort, used in invoking spells that drive away children’s diseases. But there is a sacred ritual before picking it and only on the night of Sanziene, (23-24 June), in silence, so it won’t get scared nor hide in the ground. The plant is then dried and stored as something of the greatest value, only to be used when needed. As for treatment, it is smoked or used as incense or put in the bath water, always accompanied by a spell.
In case you wondered, there is a Daughter of the Forest too
The Daughter of the Forest lives in the depths of the woods where she emerges from, taking on the appearance of a familiar girl, as sweet as a fairy, brought forward by winds and storms. Like her mother and brothers, she can only travel by night and sometimes she shows herself as a half-girl – half-fish or animal, usually a mare. She only emerges to deceive lads, whom she kidnaps, plays with their minds only to abandon them in the forest, forever lost.
Unlike her harpy mother, the Daughter of the Forest is cheerful, happy, always ready to sing and dance. She is tall and willowy, and her only item of clothing, apart from shoes made of animal skin, is her hair that twirls around her. In winter, perhaps, she chooses to cover herself with moss. From the front, she looks like a woman, but from the back she appear to be the bark of a tree, like the hundreds surrounding her. Brothers, sisters.
To be rid of his maddening love for her, the lost lad can be aided by a witch who crafts a life-size puppet out of straws. The replica is dressed in the young man’s clothes and left by the crossroad, in the woods. Fulled by its appearance, the Daughter of the Forest falls for the puppet thus releasing the lad from the power of her spell. Of her love.
But if the lad wears a belt, she will keep away for she is afraid that he’ll use the belt to tie it around her, squeezing all her secrets out of her.
The Father of the Forest, or Old Man Wood, Moșul Codrului
He is a mythical representation of the wooding craft and of the golden, old age. Moșul Codrului together with Muma Pădurii grows trees and bring life in the forest wherever they go. He has the same physical features as his wife,except that he does not steal children. And he is friendlier.
The Forest Goddesses, Vâlve or Charmstresses
Are said to hold power over herbs, magic flowers, thermal springs, winds, mountains and forests, where they lived among themselves, speaking a language no one understood.
Folktales and folk belief hailing from the Romanian Forests
A very long time ago, Romans (like many other cultures, I am sure), respected trees so much that when they had to cut them down, they first prayed and asked for forgiveness, showing us that they believed the woods to poses a soul.
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.
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”.
Situated on the curve of Carpathian Mountains, east of Brasov, is Vrancea county. A place where shepherds confess in front of a fir tree. With the tip of their ax or with the aid of a pocket knife they would craft a cross on the bark of the tree and confess their sins, 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 is presented to a fir tree, for blessing, in the absence of a priest.
Considering that the Romnaian word for fir, brad, is of Geo-dacic origin, proving the old spiritual connection with this tree, its strong presence in the Romanian spirituality should not surprise us. Also of Geo-dacic origin are the following Romanian words for forest and trees: codru, copac, stejar (oak), mugure (bud).
Biserici de Brazi, The Fir Church
The Fir Church is a cluster of fir trees growing in a circle pattern where young shepherds would choose as a natural church, to mary the girl they loved dearly, but whose parents opposed to the wedding. An old shepherd or even a priest would thus marry them in a 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.
Folk art involving wood
Worth mentioning is also the Folk-Art ~ Romanian Symbols: when carving in wood, the Romanian folk artists puts a lot of thought. Each carving tells a story, some symbols are for protection, others to remember them of the families left behind:
A cross is for protection. A cross in a circle symbolizes God. A circle is for eternity, a dot for perfection. A diamond represents the woman.
If yellow clouds lift when wind blows over fir trees, called mana, wealth, a good year will follow.
If you jump three times forward and three times backwards over a stump of wood you will never get lost in a forest. Or in an orchard.
If you cut trees to build a house, leave none stumps behind and say: for the rot, for the fungus, for the mildew…
If you are looking for fir trees free of mildew, better cut them in January or February, under heavy frost. And if you do it in March, do it under the New Moon.
It is for protection that fir branches are placed on the roof of a newly build home, to be strong, and the people living in it to be healthy and happy.
We see fir tree at weddings too, atop a pole, with colorful ribbons attached to it. And a bell.
In Bucovina, NE of Romania, before the sheep are taken into the mountains, the are walked through a Live Fire, smoked with burning branches of fir tree to be free of danger all summer long. Laurel leaves and rosemary are also added to the fir fire.
The sky opens in the night of Saint George (St. Gheorghe), when all trees can flower: walnuts, willow, and all forest trees.
If you hear the eagle owl singing in the forest, know that bad weather will follow.
The groom should never go in the forest or by the water well or bad things will happen to him.
For the first 40 days after the baby was born, he (she)is not removed from the house or Muma Pădurii will take him.
A Romanian spooky forest
Located west of Cluj-Napoca, in the north of Romania, Hoia Forest is considered one of the spookiest places in the world. Because trees grow different here. Of course, ghost sighting and UFOs have been observed here, earning this woodland the nickname of “Romania’s Bermuda Triangle”.
But spots of light have been shooting from the forest, without a reasonable explanation. The locals say that the trees are thus curved because they are nothing else but the souls of those lost in this place.
Worth mentioning is that a wind called Austrul, hot and dry, blows at 20-30 km/h in this western part of Transylvania.
Did you know?
Transylvania means ‘the land beyond the forest” (the forest of Apuseni Muntains).
Thinking of the heroes from Romanian folktales, and any tales, they achieve so much more than rescuing the princess or defeating the dragon who endangers an entire kingdom. Heroes give readers hope and hope is the seed of dreams, of adventures and achievements.
Only four centuries ago, during a time when books would slowly, very slowly become accessible due to printing, yet reading was still a skill of the lucky few, written stories were cherished, their readers esteemed, and the entire experience treasured in group gatherings, artisanal sittings or during feasts. Stories were further narrated, enjoyed and treasured, past on to descendants, and the storybooks, if owned, were even kept next to religious icons and even protected by curses against possible thieves.
Be it religious accounts, mystical or magical tales, secular adventures, enigmatic predictions, parables or humorous accounts, stories have left their mark on people’s mindset, on their imagination.
Ask any Romanian 🙂 and Făt-Frumos, Beautiful Son, is the one Romanian folktale hero that’s on everyone’s lips. Well, he is a character quite hard to forget, handsome (as if it needed be said), smart, possessing great physical and spiritual strength, performing good deeds left and right, always keeping his word while going through some really queer adventures.
Usually the youngest son of a king, Beautiful Son always succeeds where his older brothers failed. I guess he is a bit like Superman or Spiderman – the underdog who eventually goes through tests and obstacles that surpass ordinary men’s power, fighting monsters – dragons – and other malicious characters – hags, witches, or even prejudiced, unreasonable kings, always emerging victorious.
He does have an aid, and this is one of my favorite parts as it is a magic horse, a Marvelous Horse, a Magic Horse, who looks old and shabby, but is given a second chance.
I am not sure I am cut to be the type of hero Beautiful Son is, having to overcome Frost’s dilemma as to which road to travel: “If you turn right, you will be in sorrow; if you turn left, you will be in sorrow as well“, and ending up traveling through deserts and snowy places on this land, but on the other land too.
Isn’t this what we love about heroes, the second chance they are offered and they offer to others?
For a child, a hero is the ticket to an adventure he / she can take from the safety of their own bed. But if we look at folk heroes closely, as adults, we can see that they encompass the history of the nation who birthed them. Romania has known centuries of harsh attacks from north, south, east and west (mongols, Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Russians, Nazis) – and Romanians always fought back, always forced to decide between two equally unfortunate choices: ally with your enemies or fight them.
Ileana Cosânzeana (or Ileana Simziana, Chira Chiralina) is the main heroine of Romanian mythological fairy tales, the female correspondent of Beautiful-Son, usually his love ideal. She is depicted as beautiful and kind – perhaps the other way around, her kind spirit shining through, therefor everyone finds her lovely?
According to folktales she is kidnapped by a dragon and locked in a tower or taken to the Other Land, the Netherworld. The heroine is saved by Făt-Frumos and most of the times the two have to defeat the dragon/ or the witch together. Thus, the fairy tale ends, most of the time with a wedding. And they both live happily ever after.
Worth mentioning is that the dragon is always in love with Ileana. It is interesting to notice that Ileana and her abductors never have children. In Romanian fairy tales a child can only be the result of a relationship based on love and consensual marriage.
What makes a heroine out of a brave girl?
A spirit that soars against patriarchal norms. Boldness when obedience is expected. A voice that does not yell. A will like a sword. A kind heart.
Now, as Iana Sânziana (and many argue that the two are not the same character) she is the daughter of the Son from which she runs away for he loves her so, perhaps with too much ardor. She hides herself on a secluded island. In another version of the myth she is the Moon and thus God separates the Moon from the Sun.
The Romanian myth of the Sun and the Moon goes like this
The sun is presented as a young man who, wanting to get married, travels for nine years, on nine paths to find his chosen one. Finally, the sun finds the youngest of nine sisters and her name was Ileana Sinzeana, later nicknamed ‘The lady of flowers Of carnations, The sister of the Sun, The foam of milk. ‘ He wishes to marry her and travels through Heaven and Hell, accompanied by “old man Adam” and “mother Jehovah” (Eve), who try to persuade him to give up his intention. Back to earth, the young man again asks the girl to accept him as her husband, and she, as in the fairy tale, asks him to build her “A brass bridge, To not pay attention to it” (perhaps invisible) over the Black Sea (bordering Romania), at the end of which she knew there was a monastery where they can celebrate their marriage. But when the two reach the bridge, Ileana Sânziana throws herself into the sea, turning into the white foam that “the saints from heaven” in their palms took.
This hero we encounter in only one Romanian myth. The Sun and the Moon are stolen by three vicious dragons, balauri, and their wives. Greuceanu defeats them all and returns daylight to humankind. This is a precious motif of initiation symbolizing a new beginning for humans, the chance of a rebirth.
Prâslea cel Voinic, Young-One the Robust
The youngest of the brothers, again, proves to be the bravest and the smartest one. He is also the one who has to save the honor of the family by making up for his older brother’s faults – necessary for his success. But it isn’t only bravery that Prâslea has and his brothers don’t, but social skills too. In Romanian folklore Prâslea finds the thief of the King’s golden apples.
When I was young I found this story mesmerizing as Prâslea had to stay awake an entire night to catch the thief. He even fashions some spikes for himself that were supposed to impale him awake from his slumber.
Harap Alb, White Warrior
Harap Alb may be only a 19th century story told by Ion Creanga and based on Romanian folktales, but the theme of this fairy tale is still the struggle of good against evil, ending with the victory of good. The main character follows the same heroic adventure, a path of moral and ethical maturation sprinkled with various trials and obstacles. The world in which the action takes place is still a miraculous one, dominated by stereotypes and exaggerations.
It is the same reflection of reality, but in an embellished, fabulous way, which does distract the reader and thus the characters can and will react in ways that will not make sense nor be possible in the real world.
Harap might translate to moor, or Arab, but the character is the youngest son of a King and is depicted as having blond hair.
My favorite part as a child were some of Harap Alb’s helpers, his buddies: Frost-one, Thirsty-one, Hungry-one, Good-sight-one, Birdy-Widy-Lenghtly-One, one more colorful than the next.
The Old Man’s Clever Daughter
I do like the Old Man’s Daughter and she was one of my favorite heroines as I grew up. Not your average wild character, and definitely not a warrior with a sword. Still, a champion.
A gentle voice To match her heart; A will that saw her Through heartbreak. The Old-Man’s-Daughter sings of trust, Endurance, and everlasting love – Old-fashioned qualities, Yet so hard to come by anymore.
She is quiet, shows perseverance, and always sees the best in others – qualities often overlooked in many people. Her story shows us that good deeds, honesty, humanity and diligence do not go unrewarded. Something we need to read more about these days. I wrote more about her story for the lovely people at Folklore Thursday.
Why do we love a good hero?
Because they create order out of chaos? Because they show us that it can be done, any obstacle surmounted if we set our mind to it?
Folk tales remind us of a time when everyday life was passing at a slower pace, when people listening and let their imaginations unfold, when simple fables held the answer the world’s ultimate questions and dark forests still withheld secrets.
Today we rush through each day and fly over forests to spy on its last secrets. But perhaps at night, when we hear the last wolves howl, or a branch knocks in the window stopping us from our fast pace, sending shivers down our necks, our souls remember what was passed on from generation to generation until it was embodied in our DNA. Story-time.
I hope you enjoyed My Top Heroes from Romanian Folktales. Which are your favorite fairytale heroes and heroines?