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:

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