Folklore of Romania


Folklore of Romania

A feature of Romanian culture is the special relationship between folklore and the learned culture, determined by two factors. First, the rural character of the Romanian communities resulted in an exceptionally vital and creative traditional culture. Folk creations (the best known is the ballad Mioriţa) were the main literary genre until the 18th century. They were both a source of inspiration for cultivated creators and a structural model. Second, for a long time learned culture was governed by official and social commands and developed around courts of princes and boyars, as well as in monasteries.

Oral Accounts

The Creation of the World

The creation of the world in Romanian folklore is most probably based on mazdeist doctrines, which entered the mythologies of many peoples including the Daci, the ancestors of the Romanian people, and which were left behind by these. As such, far from coinciding with the story in the Book of Genesis, cosmogony is largely dualist in nature, depicting the Earth as the common "opus" of God and the Devil, imagined as counterparts of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu rather than in the biblical way. However, different stories suggest God made the earth with the help of animals, while Satan was trying to thwart his plans. [Cosma, Aurel. "Cosmogonia poporului român" (The Cosmogony of the Romanian People) (1942). Bucharest: Tipografia Ziarului "Universul", p 11-12.]

In the majority of versions, before the earth existed, a boundless ocean called Apa Sâmbetei was the abode of God and the Devil, seen as master and servant rather than equals. Upon deciding to create the earth, God sent the Devil to bring a handful of clay from the ground of the World Ocean in his holy name. The Devil set forth and tried to bring it to the surface in his name instead, but could not succeed until he brought it up in the name of God. As this piece of clay grew into the earth, God laid himself down to sleep. The Devil tried to push him over the side, but the ever expanding earth would hinder that. After trying to throw God off the earth in every one of the four cardinal directions, he shied away from the cross he drew in the ground himself. [Ibid., p 12-13.]

The Origin of Evil

Other accounts, closer to the biblical one, suggest that the Devil and his demons were once angels of God. The Devil, however, tried to rebel, and, in response, God opened up the Heavens so that he might fall to the earth. Fearing that Heaven might be voided, the archangel Michael re-sealed it, thus freezing the demons that had not yet fallen to hell in place. This is related to the concept of "soul customs", where every soul is intercepted on its way to Heaven by these demons, who force it into hell. It has also given rise to the Romanian saying "până ajungi la Dumnezeu, te mănâncă sfinţii" (before you reach God, the saints will eat you). [Ibid., p 13-14.]

The Origin of God

Another question commonly addressed is that of the origin of God, which is explained in a Russian doll type fashion. Before every God there was another God that created him. Thus explaining the many names the Bible used for God, the Oltenians believed the first God was called Sabaoth, followed by Amon, Apollo, the Creator God of the Bible, and finally, Jesus Christ. [Ibid., p 12.]

The Origin of Race

Quite suprisingly for a Caucasian race, Romanian folklore asserts that, as God had made the humans out of clay, and clay was perceived to be black like soil, the first humans were black-skinned. It was later during the time of Cain and Abel that God did punish the murderous Cain by bleaching his skin. This is identified as the source of the expression "a se îngălbeni de frică" (to go yellow with fear), which can also be found in various forms in the folklore of other peoples. [Ibid., p 49.]

Although, some sources attest that the Daci were already familiar with dark-skinned people as evidence of the existence of an African race appears to have been found on the territory of Romania:

The Earth

As in other cultures, the Earth was regarded as a giver of life even before Christianity had spread to the Romanian lands, and as such, was personified as the feminine archetype of the Great Mother. This form can be traced back to the iranian mazdeist religion, where Spenta Armaiti is found as the personification of the Earth. This form endured even after Christian imagery and symbolism became part of Romanian culture, Mother Earth often being identified as the consort of God, the heavenly Father. [Ibid., p 55.]

The origin of mountains is explained in a number of ways by the cultures of the different regions of Romania. One account is that mountains formed as a response to God demanding the Earth to nurture all life, to which the earth shuddered and brought forth mountains. Another version suggests the Earth was too large to fit under the firmament, and so God attempted to shrink it, thus raising mountains. Often, these accounts are accompanied by the imagery of one or several World Pillars, which sustain the earth from below and are usually placed beneath mountains. Earthquakes are frequently attributed to the earth slipping due to the Devil's constant gnawing at these pillars, which are rebuilt by God and his angels in times of fasting. [Ibid., p 38-42.]

The myth of the "Blajini"

As Romanians generally perceived the earth as a disc, they were naturally creative enough to imagine what existed on the other side. This "other" earth is imagined as a mirror image of our own, and as a home to creatures called "Blajini" IPA| [bla'ʒinʲ] (rom. gentle/kind-hearted ones), sometimes given the name "Rohmani" IPA| ['roh.manʲ] (in Bucovina. They are described as anthropomorphic and short, sometimes having the head of a rat. They are either described as malicious or as having great respect for God and leading a sinless life. They are considered to fast the year through, and thus doing humans a great service. [Ibid., p 33.]

The Romanian holiday "Paştele Blajinilor" (the Easter of the Blajini) is a way to repay them for the benefits they bring. Since thay live in isolation, they have no way of knowing when Easter comes. It is for this reason that Romanians eat dyed eggs and let the shells flow downstream, from there they believe they will get to the "Apa Sâmbetei", and from there to the Blajini. [Ibid., p 37.]

Some explain them as the descendants of Adam's son Seth. Others state that they used to live alongside humans on the earth, but that Moses, seeing his people oppressed by them, parted the waters and, after he and his people had retreated to safety, poured the waters back onto them, sending them to their current abode. [Ibid., p 34.]

Eschatology

The most prominent symbol associated with the End Times is that of the earthquake. Waters overflowing and mountains collapsing are both linked to there earthquakes, which are mainly caused by lack of faith, which accelerates the crumbling of the World Pillars. Others attribute the earthquakes to the earth (which is alive, and can therefore feel) realising the wicked ways of humans, and trembling in fright. Other rare natural phenomena such as Eclipses or Comets were seen as a sign of impending doom. [Ibid., p 61.]

If these warnings should fail, God will intiate the End of the World. Such imagery as a darkened sun, a bleeding moon and falling stars are associated with the beginning of the End Times. Three saints (usually in the persons of Enoch, John and Elijah) are said to come to earth to unveil the Devil's atempts to destroy the world, whereupon they shall be killed by decapitation. The sky and the earth will be set alight and the earth will be purged, so that its Creator may descend upon it. The 12 winds are said to sweep up the ashes of people and gather them in the valley of Safed, where the Last Judgement shall be done. [Ibid., p 67-68.]

Sources form Moldova and Bucovina also speak of a great army led by the emperor Constantine, which will conquer all the world's states, and kill everyone save for a few pure ones, which will then repopulate the earth. In another istance, should this army not come, God shall burn the earth as described and bring the "Blajini" to live there. In another version, true to the succession of Gods mentioned earlier (s. here), Jesus Christ is said to come and create a new world like his father before him. A not-so-widespread belief is that of a definitive destruction of the earth, whereupon God and the Devil shall divide the souls of the dead among themselves and retire to the moon, who is considered to have been made in the image of the earth to serve a a place of retreat after the destructuon of the earth. [Ibid., p 69-71.]

Characteristics

Strong folk traditions have survived to this day due to the rural character of the Romanian communities, which has resulted in an exceptionally vital and creative traditional culture. Romania's rich folk traditions have been nourished by many sources, some of which predate the Roman occupation. Traditional folk arts include wood carving, ceramics, weaving and embroidery of costumes, household decorations, dance, and richly varied folk music. Ethnographers have tried to collect in the last two centuries as many elements as possible: the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and the Romanian Academy are currently the main institutions which systematically organise the data and continue the research.

Wood used to be the main construction material, and heavily ornamented wooden objects were common in old houses. In Maramureş wood was used to create impressive structures such as churches or gates, in Dobruja windmills were made of wood, and in mountainous regions hardwood was used even for covering the roof. To preserve traditional houses many village museums have been created in the last century throughout Romania, such as the Village Museum in Bucharest, the Traditional Popular Civilisation ASTRA Museum in Sibiu or the Oltenian Village Museum in Râmnicu Vâlcea.

Linen was the most common material for clothing, combined with wool during the winter or colder periods. These are embroidered with traditional motifs that vary from region to region. Black is the most common colour used, but red and blue are predominant in certain areas. Traditionally, men wore a white shirt and pants (if made of wool they are called "iţari") with wide a leather belt, usually over the shirt, and a vest sometimes made of leather and embroidered. They wore either boots or a simple shoe made of leather and tied around the foot called "opincă" and they wore a hat which differs in design from region to region. Women also wore a white skirt and a shirt with a vest. They wore an apron called "şorţ" or "cătrinţă" which is also embroidered and a headscarf called "basma";on special occasions they wore more elaborate outfits.

Music and dance represent a lively part of the Romanian folklore and there are a great variety of musical genres and dances. Party music is very lively and shows both Balkan and Hungarian influences. Sentimental music, however, is the most valued, and Romanians consider their "doina" (a sad song either about one's home or about love, composed like an epic ballad) unique in the world. Maria Tănase is considered to be one of the greatest Romanian folk singers and today Grigore Leşe and Taraful Haiducilor are two of the most famous musicians. The dances are lively and are practiced throughout Romania by a large number of professional and amateur groups, thus keeping the tradition alive; Hora is one of the most famous group dances but men's folk dances such as căluşari are extremely complex and have been declared by UNESCO to be "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity".

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