The Snake in Romanian Folklore – pieces&bits

The Snake does not have a continuous, fluent presence in Romanian folklore. On the contrary, his presence is ambiguous, apotropaic figure as the “şarpele casei” (house serpent), harm bringer in many legends and ballads ( for example, the Milea ballad mentioned in Coman’s essay on the snake as a mythological figure in Romania) or linked with male virility  as an avatar of the Zburător ( the Incubus in Romanian folklore).  Ultimately, the snake is an earthly mirror of the the balaur ( the dragon in Romanian folklore)

There are countless rites and methods for avoiding the snake as a harm bringer, and holy names are mentioned in most of the spells cast against snakes. When encountered, the snake is to be killed by decapitation, as its powers lay in its head.  It is said that snakes awaken on the 9th and 25th of March, when according to superstitions, one is not supposed to say his name,  and one should circle one’s home with burning fires and ash to stop the snake from entering. Also, offerings for the house serpent are dispatched as a slice of mămăligă (polenta) placed near the roots of a tree.

Below,  an example of words recited against the snake as a bringer of harm, and their approximate English translation :

Şede fată pupuiată
Pe un vârf de piatră;
Face pâne de cenuşă
Şi cu lapte de căpuşă.
Să mănânce şarpe negru
Şi şerpoaie neagră.
Să mănânce şarpe alb
Şi şerpoaie albă.
Să mănânce şarpe pestriţ
Şi şerpoaie pestriţă.
Să mănânce serpe galbăn
Şi şerpoaie gâlbană.
Să mănânce serpe vânat
Şi şerpoaie vanaţă.
Să mănânce serpe roşu
Şi şerpoaie roşie.
Şi cât ce li-oi da,
Şi cât ce-or muşca,
Drept în două or crapă.

(I. Bârlea, Cântece, II, p.367. inf. Ioană Ofrim, 60 a. Oniceşti, Maramureş.)
A girl is sitting (the noun girl is followed by the adj. pupuiată which would roughly translate as dolled up);
On a cliff;
Making bread out of ash
And tick milk.
For the black snake to eat
And the black female snake.
For the white snake to eat
And the white female snake.
For the spotted snake to eat
And the spotted female snake.
For the yellow snake to eat
And the yellow female snake.
For the purple snake to eat
And the purple female snake.
For the red snake to eat
And the red female snake.
And that which I will feed them,
And that which they will bite,
They will break in half(the snakes).

As şarpele casei, the snake becomes a guardian of homes. It is said that such a serpent appears as a large, albino specimen, as it lives inside the walls and it’s never exposed to sunlight. In some areas, it is believed that it descends from the attic and drinks milk alongside the children of the house. The house dwellers leave different offerings for the serpent, as mentioned above, and killing, or even harming it in any way, brings years of bad luck.

Zburătorul is an evil supernatural being that haunts the dreams of young women, tormenting them with vivid erotic imagery. Often, when in love with this incubus, women become physically ill. The zburător usually appears as a charming, young man, but can shapeshift into a winged serpent, often fiery.

Coman points out that the snake as a chthonic figure plays an important part in certain myths, as he often devours the hero. The time spent inside of the snake (associated here, of course, with the dragon) is like a return to the womb, followed by the protagonist’s rebirth as a wiser, more powerful character. Often, the hero absorbs the power and wisdom of the snake by slaying it.

Last but not least, the snake is mentioned in water related folklore, as in some areas the Știma Apei being depicted as a half snake – half woman creature.

 

 

Additional resources: http://enciclopediaromaniei.ro/wiki/Zbur%C4%83tor

http://destepti.ro/simboluri-din-mitologia-romaneasca-si-universala-sarpele

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Solomonarul – brief introduction

Finding a translation, or a definition, for that matter,of the word Solomonar would be rather difficult. In fact, this shadowy figure of Romanian folklore is surrounded by so many legends and tales, that it makes it impossible to establish a unilateral profile for the Solomonar, or a clear delimitation of  his attributions. Even the origins of this peculiar character are widely disputed by Romanian folklorists.

It is for this reason that I chose to discuss the Solomonar in more than one post, for it would be a blasphemy to treat this folklorical theme superficially. As documentation, I have chosen both studies written by contemporary ethnologists, such as Andrei Oișteanu or Mihai Coman, as well as folk tales collected by late 19th century folklorists such as Tudor Pamfile and Simon Florea Marian.

I will try to structure my post(s) in a coherent manner to cover as much as I can on this unique folkorical figure. I will begin with discussing   the attributes and attributions of the Solomonar, followed by some ideas on the initiation process the origins of the term and possible connection to King Solomon.

The Solomonar is always a male figure, a human being with “extraordinary powers”, as mentioned by Coman. However, it is clear that his powers are not native, but learned and practiced. The Solomonar must undergo an initiation process after having spent several years studying in an underground school. Pamfile mentions that the Solomonar will always be the youngest brother of seven brother monks.

It is said that they travel alone, dressed in rags, roaming through villages as beggars. If the villagers refuse to offer them food, the Solomonar will bring storms and hail upon that particular village. A Solomonar is able to do that by riding a dragon, mythical creature with which he has a special connection ( to be detailed in a future post) in the sky.

No matter the sources of the legends, the Solomonar is always accompanied by a series of symbols. First and foremost, he always carries a great book with him, It is also said that during his learning time, he is obliged to travel to the East and write down all the world’s knowledge into a tome. It is unknown if the book he carries is the same with the universal knowledge tome, but Coman points out that this may be a christian contamination of the original myth. It is in christian iconography that we find the motif of the “holy book”.

Other common symbols are: the hook, the staff (in some legends, the staff was used to kill a snake), an enchanted bag, an iron axe and a rein crafted out of birch tree bark.

It is said that a Solomonar begs for food and receives various products in small quantities, but never meat. According to Oisteanu, he never eats what he receives, but leaves it on a water stream, perhaps as an offering for the departed.

So, the Solomonar is  a man (and not a god, or even a demi-god), invested with special abilities (some legends claim that his teacher was the Devil himself – but that is only natural, since with the arrival of christianity, pagan figures were assimilated with diabolical forces) following an initiaion ritual. He has a complex connection to dragons, and, when he doesn’t ride them, or when he’s not wandering through villages as a beggar, retreats somewhere underground. He seems to master the weather and he constantly tests the virtues of villagers. In all his magical pursuits, he is aided by a series of enchanted objects.

Magical Plants & Herbs in Romanian Folklore: Vincetoxicum hirundinaria or Iarba Fiarelor

iarbafiarelorAccording to Butură, Iarba Fiarelor was used as medicine against wounds and rheumatic pain. However, the most interesting documented use of this particular plant is the mythical one : apparently Vincetoxicum hirundinaria was thought to possess the power to open all locks, doors and coughs, and break any object built out of iron ( in Romanian, fier = iron). It was said it glowed red during the nigh, but came back to its normal color after sunrise.

Evseev mentions that the plant was known to be toxic; it was said that if cows accidently ingered it, they died. Besides glowing red at night, Iarba Fiarelor had other supernatural properties that could help one distinguish it from useless weeds. For example, it could float against the current. It was said that the origin of the plant was in the first drop of blood that fell from the navel of Christ.

Voronca also mentions Vincetoxicum hirundinaria in her chapter on thieves, among other things. It was thought that, in order to gain protection, thieves used to kidnap pregnant women, rip their babies out to drink up the blood and eat the flesh of the unborn. Moreover, in order to remain stealthy when robbing the victim, they would bring the hand or finger of a dead man with them and ritualistically circle the victim’s house while carrying the fetish.

These connections between thievery and the dead are to be analysed later, in another post.

 

Magical Plants & Herbs in Romanian Folklore: Hyoscyamus niger or Măselariță

 

Hyoscyamus niger is known as Măselariță in Romanian folklore or henbane in common English. It grows along fences and roads. Its leafs and seeds contain alkaloids, such as atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine.

According to Borza’s dictionary,  henbane was used against toothaches ( hence the name, măsea = tooth). It was also used to cure snake bites and insomnias in children (!).

According to Oișteanu, we know from Dioscorides that henbane was used by Dacians. They called it dielleina or  dielina. Dioscorides writes that the Măselariță causes insanity and deep sleep. In Roman territory, it was known as altercum/alterculum or insana. Romans used the plant at feasts in the name of the dead. One of the Romanian names, nebunariță (nebunie = insanity) proves the continuity of its use. It was also used by witches for flying ointments. According to legend, plants such as henbane,  belladonna or datura were created by the Devil himself.

 

Magical Plants & Herbs in Romanian Folklore: Corylus avellana, Alun or European Hazel Tree

Illustration_Corylus_avellana0Corylus avellana, or the common European  hazel tree,  is known as alun to most Romanians. Over time, the alun tree has had multiple uses in tool crafting, medicine and magic.

According to Butură, the Căluşari would use hazel wood to craft their banner. In some areas, gypsies, widely associated with witchcraft, would only use hazel wood walking sticks. In Banat (west Romania), women would build hazel wood fires in  for the dead in graveyards.

Marian notes that hazel branches have, according to Romanian folklore, magical powers over snakes and unclean spirits.

The broom that Baba Cloanța, hag with magical powers from Romanian folklore, rides on is also crafted out of hazel wood. Legend has it that when a young woman misses her boyfriend from afar, she has to visit such a hag, bringing her a white rooster and some silver coins. In the witch’s house she will find three hazel branches. After the magical work is done, which involves burning some coals stolen from graves, chanting, and battering a pot with the hazel branches, the girl’s lover will arrive riding a post made out of – you guessed it- hazel wood. It is said that witches cast binding spells using pitchforks crafted out of the same type of wood.

It is not only witches that craft their tools using hazel branches, but also the ones who fight against the Solomonari,legendary sorcerers belonging to the Romanian folklore. Legend has it that the Solomonari, after spending their first seven years underground studying the Art from a book written by the Devil himself, ride their dragons above the clouds, bringing terrible storms and hail.

The men that battle the Solomonari are called Pietrari (piatră – stone). Their main weapon against the feared sorcerers is, of course, the sacred hazel branch.

Oișteanu mentions witches bringing or conjuring rain away with the help of hazel branches by going naked near ponds and casting various spells.

*image stolen from gutenberg.org

Magical Plants & Herbs in Romanian Folklore: Datura stramonium or Ciumăfaie

Datura stramonium, widely known as Ciumăfaie in Romanian folklore , also goes by the names of  Bolîndăriță ( from boală – disease), Ciuma fetei ( the girl’s plague, lit.),  cornută ( from corn – horn, the horned one, lit.), Iarba dracului ( the devil’s weed) or  Nebunariță ( from nebun – insane). As found in Borza’s dictionary of ethnobotanics, most of the plant’s given names relate to madness or even rabies, due to Datura’s well known psychotropic properties.

In Valer Butură’s Encyclopedia , it is described as having white flowers and black seeds. It grows on roadsides, or along fences. Its leafs were used for healing pustule, as  they would draw the puss. It was also used during plague epidemics, hence the common name  Ciumăfaie ( ciumă – plague).

In Bucovina, women use Ciumăfaie for love spells, bindings and curses. According  to Marian, witches place Datura seeds in the victim’s drink in order to break their will.  Marian has a different view on the connection between Datura and the plague: the disease was personified as an ugly, old lady and so was Ciumăfaie, plant which they linked to the disease, due to the fact that the effects of  the plant when ingested were as horrid and hard  to battle as the symptoms of the plague.

Oișteanu mentions that in some Romanian cosmogonies, plants such as Datura or Atropa belladonna were created by the Devil himself. Also, the use of hallucinogenic ointments containing  Ciumăfaie has been attested in some areas of Romania. The female living strigoi would use ointments containing extracts of hallucinogenic plants in order to magically fly to their places of gathering. Datura was akso used to feed the dead strigoi in order to keep them from harming the living.

*illustration stolen from http://plantgenera.org/

 

 

 

Magical Plants & Herbs in Romanian Folklore: Atropa Belladonna or Mătrăguna

belladonnaOn my other blog , I used to have  a thing called “Creature Feature”, where I would expand on various beasts from Romanian folklore. I’ve now decided to pay a little bit of attention to the plant kingdom and the Romanian legends, rites and rituals that revolve around it.

We’re going to start with one of our well known ethnobotanical friends, Atropa belladonna. Known as Banewort or Deadly Nightshade in English, Atropa belladonna is most commonly called Mătrăguna in Romanian folklore. According to Borza’s Dictionary, it also goes by the names of  Cinstita (the honest), Cireașa lupului (wolf’s cherry), Doamna codrului (lady of the forest), Iarba lupului (wolf’s grass),  or Împărăteasa buruienilor (the empress of weeds).

It belongs to the Solanaceae family, has brown-violet flowers and shiny black fruits. Its leaves and roots  are rich in alkaloids such as hyoscyamine, atropine or scopolamine.

In his book on Romanian ethnobotanics, Marian talks about the important role that Atropa belladonna plays in love spells cast by women.

A young woman that desires to attract the company of young men has to dress up in her newest, cleanest set of clothes on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. For this ritual, she needs around 500ml of holercă (bad quality moonshine), a glass and a loaf of bread. Just before sunrise she will go to the place where the plant is growing and  go round the belladonna  while saying:

Mătrăgună, doamnă bună!

Mărită-mă-n astă lună

De nu-n asta, -n ceealaltă

-i destul de când sunt fată.

 

Mătrăgună, kind lady

Get me married this month,

If not this one, then the next,

I have been enough a maid.

 

Then, the young woman is supposed to lay the table cloth at the feet of the plant and serve it the glass of moonshine saying:

Mătrăgună, poamă bună!

Eu te cinstesc cu cinste

Cu dragoste și cu pâine,

Să vie norocul la mine…

Norocul când s-a-mpărțit,

Eram cu plugul la câmp

Puțintel mi s-a venit,

Mătrăgun-am sorocit!

 

Mătrăgună, good seed

In honesty I serve you

With love and bread

May you send me luck…

When luck got spread

I was harvesting the field

So I didn’t get a lot

I was meant for Mătrăgună.

 

After reciting the spell above, she has to drink the moonshine, refill the glass and sprinkle the refill on the plant. She will do the same with some bread. The maiden will then take the bread left in the tablecloth, put the bottle on her head, grab the filled glass in her hand and return to her home, chanting the spell.

She will repeat the ritual on the following Wednesday and Friday, choosing different roads back home and being careful not to be seen.

On Friday, she will harvest the plant and take it home wrapped in the table cloth. When home, she will put it under the pillow and bathe in an infusion of Belladonna in the evening.  She will take the plant back on Saturday morning. She has to take another way back home and never look back.

In his book on narcotics in Romanian culture and folklore, Oișteanu quotes Marian regarding  Belladonna. In Bucovina (north-east of Romania), it is believed that there are two types of Mătrăgună: the black one, which grows in shady groves, and the white one, which grows where the sun scorches the earth.

Tavern or inn owners put the plant on top of the moonshine barrels, to attract patrons.

Mătrăguna can also be used to harm enemies. If this is the case, one must harvest the plant while cussing and cursing, moving one’s limbs chaotically and invoking the plant’s magical powers. After the harvest, parts of the plant are placed in the victim’s food or drink. It is said that the one cursed like this goes insane and never gets his sanity back.

 

*image stolen from http://www.henriettes-herb.com

** the verses in bold are an approximate translation and interpretation of the Romanian incantation, due to the archaic use of language and to the fact that I am not a professional translator this is the best I could do