The way in which animals and nature are presented in folklore and mythology can tell us a lot about a nation’s cultural profile. Although in most cultures we encounter the belief that all animals were created / put on earth by a higher divinity to teach humans a lesson and challenge them, animal symbology and legends can vary.
Some cultures and religions believe that the man was created to rule over all the animals. Other cultures believe that animals are manifestations of a divine power. During medieval times Christian beliefs in a hierarchical structure of all matter and life emerged, The Great Chain of Being, an idea that humanity (with the king at the top) is a subdivision situated above animals (with the lion at the top).
Folklore and mythology are the domains where explaining and understanding real life events was done by the use of animals as symbols – thus creating a microcosmic representation for easier comprehension of something that seemed larger than life. The explanations become story lines and new situations and events are understood and can be dealt with only if explained though the prism of an archaic vision with its social norms, moral values, and traditions.
Animals in Romanian folklore and mythology are considered to have a positive interaction with humans (the farm animals, the ones humankind relied on), but they can also threaten and challenge us (the wild beasts), as well as be conferred fabulous, mythological powers (exotic animals).
The cow and the ox as white animals
In Romanian folklore the cow and the ox were seen as holy in the sens that even God loved them and bestowed upon them the gift of speech, one day a year, like people.
White symbolizes their purity and their economical value in working the field, as means of transport, as well as being a source of various foods.
Cow, as a symbol, stands for prosperity, fertility, and obedience. In folktales the cow defies evil and helps enrich the hero.
The ox is held on higher regards than the cow, seen as the farmer’s symbol of strength and wealth therefor an ox must never be sold.
The cow and the ox in folklore
In Romanian folklore, to protect a cow you can tie a red ribbon around one of her horn; you can feed her magical grains; you can hide in the shed various lucky items; and if you do milk the cow then you must fast during specific dates of the year so the cow won’t run out of milk.
At Christmas time, the best carols are the ones wishing the host to have lots of healthy cows.
In Romanian folk songs love’s value and meaning can only be compared to that of a cow.
On Pentecost, Rusalii, 31st May, custom asks to decorate an ox (symbol of fertility) with flower garlands and bells.The lads would then take the ox for a stroll around the village, from one house to the next, and the ox would be sprinkled with water (another symbol of fertility). The flower garland that decorated the ox was to be kept safe so that the field would be fertile that year.
Superstitions involving the cow
When a cow is about to have her calf, put some wheat, lemon, salt and pepper in a red cloth and tie it to the cow’s tail to keep the bad spirits away.
Don’t hit the cow with a pitchfork or she’ll have a bowlegged calf.
If you want to find out the year you will marry, go to the stables and kick the cow that’s lying down, saying ‘this year… I shall marry.’ If the cow stands, you have your answer. If she doesn’t, chose another year and kick her again… gently 🙂
The oxen can speak on the day of Saint Vasile, 14 January, and you can hear them do so if you go to bed in the manger – but you better watch out as you might not like what you hear.
The sheep was from God
The sheep, good, soft and gentle, could only have been God’s gift to all humankind. All you need to do when you are sick is touch the sheep to feel better.
Romanian folktales say that God Himself walks the sheep to pasture, and He plays the flute, feeling happy and content. Sheep are helpers, protectors and, in more than one instances, messengers of God – as is the lamb in the myth of Miorita.
The ram, with its golden fleece and painted horns at Christmas time is also a reason of joy and pride.
Folk rituals involving the sheep and the ram
On Sângeorz day, Saint George, on 23rd April and especially in the province of Moldova, shepherds sprinkle their sheep with water, to be abundant in milk.
On Rusalii, in Transylvania, the sheep are jumped over a life-giving fire (smoked), to protect them against evil spirits.
During the midsummer celebration of Sânziene or Dragaica (24 June), rituals involving sheep and flowers are performed.
The sacred sheepfold
Romanian folklore sees the sheepfold as sacred as a church altar. Millennial old rituals take place here and inherited tools play a sacred role, tools that are never removed from the spot, tools decorated with the symbols of the sun, the earth, the cosmos, or the heaven’s holy gates… The sheepfold’s hearth, where the fire had been burning for generations, is on high regards. For this reason, in its foundation one will find the bone of an ancestor, of a warrior who fought against the enemy of the country or against the wild beasts; a sacred bone, for the same reason one would bury the bones or relics of saints in the foundation of churches.
The sheep is sacred too. Touch it and any bad spirits that bothered you will leave.
The bells hanging around the sheep’s necks, of various sizes, based on a rigorous hierarchy, are in harmony with the shepherd’s flute, with the song of the forest streams and with the rustle of the wind through the leaves and across the grassy planes.
Any sheepfold has a knapsack containing, at any given time, bread, holy water from the church or sanctified by a log from its holy hearth, as well as flowers kept from the Sânziene celebrations – all necessary during various rituals.
No one leaves a sheepfold without the smallest of gifts; a piece of cheese, a pipkin of milk, or at least a piece of bread for the road. Gifts from the heart.
The goat is a whole different story
The goat came from the devil, it is said in the Romanian folklore.
The myth of how the goat came to be
God took a handful of earth and created the sheep. So the devil wanted to do the same. He scraped some ground from the marsh, barely a handful and, not knowing what to do further, he decorated it with branches and shoots of grass instead of fur. He found his creation to be just as perfect as God’s. Yet something was missing… so he added a tuft of grass shooting from the goat’s chin, much like his own. Yet he couldn’t bring it to life. That was something only God could do.
Romanian folklore says that it is the horned scoundrel that takes care of goats, chasing them over the fields that they never sit still and he’s also the one that cuts their fur; that’s why it is all erratic and in tufts and uneven. You just have to take care of one and see for yourself.
Superstitions involving the goat
If you are gifted a goat on Saint Vasile, the angels will stay away from your home for fifty days.
Goats symbolize poverty as they eat a lot, stomp over grass and chew on all the green buds.
Caroling with the goat at Christmas time
Perhaps resonating of a pagan custom and definitely not related to the hellish imp is the winter custom of caroling with a goat mask while performing a ritualistic dance on a cheerful music to match the event.
Long ago, one creature cheated and lied to the gods so it was destined to grunt for a speech and to trundle through mud all its life.
The pig’s curse also says that the pig hates all humans, for he know he will be butchered, yet he forgets all about it whenever he is fed and joyfully stuffs itself.
Romanian Christmas custom asks for a pig to be slaughtered on Ignat, 20th December. It is said that, shortly before Christmas, the pig dreams of a sharp knife and stops getting fat. It is better to cut it or the wild beasts will have its meat.
It is also said that a farmer must see or, even better, spill the blood of a pig each year around Ignat to have wealth in the farmyard and on the fields the following year.
Superstitions involving the pig
The woman who doesn’t eat pig on Christmas Day or at Easter will have an easy childbirth.
On Ignat day, if you don’t see or at least hear the pig being slaughtered you should prick your finger so that you at least see some blood.
After the pig is slaughtered and cut, on Ignat, when the pig’s head is brought inside to be cooked, its snout must enter the house firs, for good luck and a rich litter of piglets in the new year.
The blessed donkey
Romanian folklore blesses the donkey for the donkey was blessed by Virgin Mary herself, after it carried her on its back all the way to Jerusalem, and later it carried Jesus too.
There is a heartwarming symbology behind the donkey’s mild appearance, an impulse to choose to be modest, devoted and unpretentious because big things will still cross your path.
The myth of how the donkey got its super-sized ears
Well, once when the donkey was but a foal he was a little bit naughty, walking at the back of the herd. So God scolded the beast for its incessant agitation and fret. Yet the young animal, like any young, pretended not to hear. God repeated Himself, the donkey said he still can’t hear Him. Being at the back of the group and all… So God pulled the donkey by its ears… And that’s why the donkey has such long hearing aids.
The horse is seen as a virile animal, a warrior yet often less valuable to a farmstead than a cow or an ox.
One must never eat the meat of a horse because it might have been ridden by a woman.
The dog and the cat
It goes without saying that the dog is loved by God for its qualities and his good and reliable nature, much as it is treasured by humans.
Romanian folklore says that the cat came to be from God’s glove, when He threw it on Noah’s Arch to catch the mouse.
The myth of why the cat and the dog fight
It is said that, long ago, the cat and the dog used to be married, yet the cat was a lazy and greedy wife, while the dog was a hard working husband. The two were always arguing with each other because of their different views and expectation of the world.
Superstitions involving the dog
If the dog digs in the yard, right in front of the house, it is a bad omen, foretelling death.
When there is thunder and lightning someone better sit next to the cat or the dog. Otherwise the devil might hide in their fur and the lightening will strike those nearby.
The two-faced wolf
Why two-faced? Because it has both positive and negative connotation, the wolf being good or bad, a friend or a foe – depending on the circumstances. Much like humans.
In Romanian folklore, the malefic wolf can be a pricolic or a vârcolacul. Pricolici are the spirits of malefic people who, awoken from their graves, take the shape of a wolf and roam the streets to harm whoever they meet. Vârcolacii are a general representation of all evil that hunts humankind and they can take a wolf’s appearance.
The positive connotation of the wolf is that of an animal-guide, accompanying the spirits of the dead to the netherworld.
There is a fascination story about the wolf as a symbol on the brave Dacian’s flag, the ancient inhabitants of the cultural region of Dacia, today Romania. But this is a story for another time.
Superstitions involving the wolf
If you caught shivers after a big fright, smoke around yourself the hair of a bear or the dung of a very hairy wolf.
If you travel under the new moon you better watch out for wolfs.
The two-faced snake
House snakes are seen as sending a positive vibe, not so the snakes one meets during various travels. This one you should kill (and not only for its Christian connotation), for ‘if you don’t it will turn into a dragon (balaur) in no less than two years time.’
One should not ‘believe the word of a snake’ or ‘harbor a snake in one’s bosom’, or harm will come in return. Snakes have strong connotations with magic and spells too. For example, cut with a silver coin the head of the first snake you see before Saint George day, put a clove of garlic in its mouth and on Saint George’s day it will help you see how vampires steal the milk from the cows.
The beasts showcased in Romanian folklore and mythology are fabulous and deserve separate attention or, who knows, their mythological powers might prove real. 🙂 Stay tuned.
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