The Personification of Death and Its Heralds in Romanian Folklore

Both Vulcănescu and Olinescu mention the personified aspect of Death in their studies on Romanian folklore.

Legend has it that Death was not always invisible. She appeared as a hideous, emaciated, old woman, bearing wings and, of course, a scythe . However, since Death enjoyed taunting the ones she was supposed to take with her, and since sometimes the most cunning enjoyed taunting her, God decided it was best to grant her the gift of invisibility.

Even though Death is now invisible to mortals, and they cannot foresee their time of departure anymore, there are certain signs that speak of an imminent death.

Vulcănescu  writes about such signs. According to the ethnologist, the animals around the household are often heralds of death: dogs howling at the moon, or digging holes in the ground, horses neighing out of the blue, hens that sing a rooster’s song and so forth. Household items can also play the part of the messengers of death. For example, mirrors that break or sacred icons that fall from where they are hanged are considered to herald someone’s death.

Luckily, Marcel Olinescu is far more generous with the info. So, these are the signs one should pay attention to:

  1.  Wooden objects cracking out of the blue;
  2. Bottles and pots breaking or falling without being touched;
  3. Sacred icons falling from where they are hanged;
  4. A hen singing like a rooster, especially if the hen is black;
  5. Dogs howling at night;
  6. A twitching eyelid heralds the death of a close one;
  7. An ox kneeling at a wedding;
  8. An owl singing on the rooftop;
  9. A mole mound next to one of the walls;
  10. Cats fighting each other;
  11. Dogs digging holes into the ground;
  12. Cows kicking the floor;
  13. An ox mooing at the bride’s chariot when she is taken to the groom’s house;
  14. A cuckoo bird singing near a house where someone is ill;
  15. Cats meowing and hissing inside;
  16. A swallow nesting under the eaves;
  17. Chicken singing in only a few days after birth are a bad omen;
  18. Being called by your name when there’s nobody there;
  19. Losing a ring from one’s finger;
  20. Hearing the bells toll when they actually don’t;
  21. If the altar candle goes out on its own, it means that the priest is going to die;
  22. Only one coal left in the stove heralds the death of one of the spouses;
  23. Black spots on one’s nails;
  24. Black spots on one’s hands;
  25. Beams cracking;
  26. Rusty wedding ring on one’s finger;
  27. Mirror falling from where it is hung;
  28. Things breaking inside a church herald the death of one of the priests;
  29. 13 people round a table – one of them will die by the end of the year;
  30. Dreaming of a dead relative;
  31. Dreaming of falling into a chasm;
  32. Dreaming of a broken down house;
  33. If one dreams someone wearing new clothes, that someone will die;
  34. Dreaming of cows.

I do find it very interesting that animals associated with sorcery all over the world, such as the owl, the black hen, the cat or the dog are also seen as heralds of death in Romanian folklore. Moreover, there seems to be a tight connection between death and love, as some of the omens are related to weddings. While it is also clear that some of these superstitions are pre-christian, and others a lot more recent, man’s capacity for intuitive knowledge never ceases to amaze me.


From Heka to Hik – A Few Things on Ancient Egyptian Magic

Heka was the word ancient Egyptians used to describe actions qualified as “magical”. According to Geraldine Pinch, heka also represented one of the forces used in the creation of the world, to make order out of chaos. The personification of heka, or Heka as a deity, was represented as a human with his name written on his forehead. Seems that the Egyptians considered every act of magic as some sort of continuation of the creation process, thus Heka  was the energy that made creation possible.  It is interesting that deities and supernatural creatures possessed this heka quality, but not only. Egyptian kings, the dead and some of the deformed living were also linked  to it.

Ritner mentions the Coffin Texts, a collection of  funerary spells from ancient Egypt. Here is Heka addressing the gods in Spell 261:

“O noble ones who are before the Lord of the universe (“the All”), 69 behold, I have

come before you. Respect me in accordance with what you know. I am he whom

the Unique Lord made before two things (“duality”) had yet come into being in this

land by his sending forth his unique eye when he was alone, by the going forth from

his mouth … when he put Hu (“Logos”) upon his mouth.

1 am indeed the son of Him who gave birth to the universe (“the All”), who was

born before his mother yet existed. I am the protection of that which the Unique

Lord has ordained. I am he who caused the Ennead to live … I have seated myself,

O bulls of heaven, in this my great dignity as Lord of kas, heir of Re-Atum.

I have come that I might take my seat and that I might receive my dignity, for to me

belonged the universe before you gods had yet come into being. Descend, you who

have come in the end. I am Heka.”

However, it is also Ritner that clarifies that the written word  representing the Heka does not always include a divine determinative, so it is difficult to distinguish the god from the practice and from the magician. The Coffin Texts do mention a form of evil magic, but this is actually connected to the heka of the creatures of the underworld.

What’s most important for Ritner is that this omission of the divine determinative and the confusion between the three meanings mentioned above contradicts the arm-chair anthropologists’ theories that magic and religion are something separate and contrastive.

Meyer&Smith link heka to ritual power and mention the word being attested as early as Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts and taking the form hik in Coptic. Moreover, the two argue that the Coptic texts related to ritual power seem to preserve the role as the ritualist as an embodiment, a channel of divine power, rather than someone who threatens or begs the gods for favors.

Spell – Vrajă

Do not try this. Please find more creative ways of attracting the opposite sex. Thank you!

Marcel Olinescu was kind enough to reveal some spells cast by Romanian witches. This one, in particular, is a detailed love spell. Enjoy!

The witch has to bury a bat and keep it there for a few weeks, until it rots. Then, on a New Moon, the witch unearths the bones and choses two  of them: one shaped as a rake, the other as a shovel. She or he (despite that the witch is, in Romania, traditionally female, I can’t see why a man couldn’t use this sort of spell) has to rake the ashes from the hearth with the first bone, while chanting the desired lover’s name. After that, the witch will used the shovel-shaped bat bone to drag the ashes towards her, as if she were attracting the lover. Then, the witch spins a pipkin using a rod chopped off a hazel nut tree, and keeps doing so until the jug starts moving on its own. She is, of course, chanting the desired lover’s name. When the pipkin is spinning the fastest, the witch will turn it upside down. She should hear the target’s name.

Documentation: Marcel Olinescu

On the connection between water and sinister spirits in Romanian folklore

Water has always played an important part in myths and legends, from Enûma Eliš  to the Bible, from Scandinavian mythology to Eastern European folklore. It has been linked to the moon, the unconscious mind, birth and chaos, and looked upon as more of a feminine element.

Thus, it is of no surprise that the creatures associated with bodies of water in Romanian folklore are mostly of the sinister type.

One of the names of the Devil himself is Cel din Baltă (the one of the pond). According to Marcel Olinescu,  the Devil fell into a body of water when he was cast out of Heaven along with his minions. It is said that at the bottom of each pond a devil has his home. It seems that water cannot extinguish  demonic fire, as the devilish  lake dwellers love to cook. They have lots of minions which the human eye cannot see because humans are not familiar with their shape – very interesting, a naive way of saying that it is the human eye defining the unknown forces the magician works with, great intuition. Their favorite activity seems to be sinking ships and drowning human beings.

stimaȘtima Apei is somewhat similar to a nymph. Marcel Olinescu  describes the spirit as a proud, beautiful woman. She has flowing blonde hair and very big breasts – water connected to fertility and abundance. When in water, she is half fish, half woman. Each body of a water has its own Știmă, and she demands a human head a day. When angry, the  spirit floods the surroundings of the body of water she resides in. The one meant to be killed by the Știma Apei will abandon his chores and go swim in the water in which she abides. If stopped, he or she  will fight until released. Would be interesting to know what happens to the ones destroyed by the Știma Apei.

Vidra (lit. otter) lives at the bottom of the Black Sea. He is the king of sea  creatures and all of the fish obey him. It seems he is a trickster spirit.

Oamenii de Apă (water people) seem to be just like us, only that instead of talking they make crow-like noises – this somehow reminds me of China Mieville’s “The Scar”. They are very weak and fearful.




Documentation and image: Marcel Olinescu

The Dead – part 2

As the strigoi are considered to be extremely dangerous and vicious spirits,  people have found numerous ways to bind or repel them.

Tudor Pamfile collected several such spells. This is one of them.

Tu moroiule, 
Tu strigoiule,
Tu să-ţi mănânci inima ta,
Maţele tale,
Ficaţii tăi,
Carnea ta,
Oasele tale,
Pielea ta,
Că cu cuţitul te-oi tăia,
Cu vin te-oi uda,
Cu busuioc te-oi afuma,
Cu tămâie te-oi tămâia,
Că inima ţi-oi lua,
Şi cu cuţitul oi tăia-o,
Şi-oi face-o nouă bucăţele,
Şi-oi arunca-o peste nouă vâlcele,
La nouă căţele.

You, moroi - it is argued that moroi is not the same as strigoi,
 this spell may very well prove otherwise, 
 or it is unknown whether the malevolent spirit is moroi or strigoi, so both names are used
You, strigoi
You shall eat your own heart,
Your own innards, 
Your own liver, - the plural is used in the original version
Your own flesh,
Your own bones,
Your own skin.
For I shall slash you with a knife,
Sprinkle you with wine, 
Smoke you with basil,
Smoke you with incense,
For I shall grab your heart,
And chop it with a knife,
And throw it over nine ravines
To nine bitches. - the cult of Hekate was widespread on Romanian territory

The Dead – part I

The  (un)dead play quite an important part in Romanian folklore. Such creatures are feared even  today, and great precaution is taken when it comes to threats from beyond the grave. I will have a lot of writing to do on this topic, so there will be a second part some day, perhaps even a third one.

The generic name for an undead in Romania is “strigoi”  if it’s male, and “strigoaică”  if female. There are two types of strigoi, the living and the undead. We shall only talk about the latter in this post, as we shall cover the first later on. The living are a completely different story, so to speak.

It is said that children born with the placenta stuck to their heads become strigoi, and so do the ones born with a tail ( a prominent coccis).  Such children are born out of women that drink unclean water (The Devil’s Drool) during their pregnancy or women that don’t cover their heads when going  out at night.

Moreover, individuals that die an untimely death (suicide, murder) people that committed evil deeds during their lifetime  also become strigoi. If a cat, dog or rooster jumps over a dead body, it will rise as a strigoi.

The strigoi are repelled by incense, garlic and onions. Legend has it that people born in a Saturday (being, therefore, connected to Saturn) can see the strigoi if they spend a whole night in a graveyard.

The 30th of  November is the night when the undead are the most potent.

Tobacco in Romanian folklore

In Romanian folklore, tobacco has a spirit of its own, a female spirit called Pâca or Pafa. She appears as a crone, it is said she is as old as the world itself. She has a long, crooked nose, and she is endowed with tusks, talons, and a tail. As one would expect, Pâca is always puffing a smoking pipe and reeks of tobacco.

Legend has it that she is the mother of demons. Her sons sowed a magical seed in her honor, and the plant which sprang from it is called The Devil’s Weed (buruiana dracului) or The Devil’s Incense (tămâia dracului). The smoking pipe was also crafted by Pâca‘s children, and whenever you puff it, it is her whom you are worshiping.