Saturday, 7 December 2013

Saint Nicholas

As in every other beginning of winter, on the night of 5 of December, Saint Nicholas comes bringing with him the first snow.

In the evening, children take out their best shoes or boots. Every piece of dirt is removed and the leather is shined to the lustre of the mirror. There is laughter, but also, in the cold winter night, there is a slight nervousness in the air, because Saint Nicholas, unlike his older brother Santa Claus, rewards as much as he punishes.

As a child, when you display your shined boots in a neat line close to the door, for Saint Nicholas does not like to be seen and needs quick access to leave the gists, you wonder. Have I beed good enough, kids enough to get a gift? Or have I beed naughty and mean, with the result of getting a stick instead of a present? Did the adults around me gave a good report to Saint Nicholas? And if the old man Nicholas is displeased with me, will he later go to Santa and tell him I deserve no gifts?

You sit there, nervously looking at your boots, and your mind flies over the previous year. You remember the times you have been good and kids, and you also remember those times when you spoke in anger or did not listen to your parents, and in your little head, you try to put it all on the balance. You finally go to bed and make a little quiet promise that next year you will be a better person, a better sibling and friend, you will listen more and help more.

And early in the morning, as the first light appears, you run with excitement to your boots. Sometimes the first thing you see is a straight, long stick and your heart freezes. And yet you go closer, and in your boots are sweets and games, or maybe something you wished for, and you smile. The stick is a quiet reminder of the times when you have not been as good as you could, the presents a joyful recognition of your good deeds.

In the Romanian tradition, Saint Nicholas is Santa Claus younger brother. Unlike Santa's joyful laughter and roundness, Saint Nicholas is skinny and moody, happy to reward as much as he is to punish. He does not like to be seen and promises of change do not sway him. And yet, children love him equally as much as they fear him.

Older boys, on the verge of maturity, on this night start practicing the carols that will be sung on Christmas and New Year, while young unmarried girls will eat a piece of bread with lots of salt so in the night, when the thirst becomes unbearable they can dream of a man that gives them water, indicating he is the one that they will marry.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Sangiorz or a Holiday of Spring

Sangiorz or St. George is one of the biggest holidays in today's Romania. And yet, beyond it's Christian overtone, the holiday maintains its ancestral, pagan character.

Like many other Romanian holidays, Sangiorz starts the previous night, on 22nd of April. The popular tradition says that in this night, witches and female ghosts, naked and with their hair falling free down their back, meet on the borders of the villages in groups of thirteen. The borders between villages become metaphorical borders between countries and the groups of witches start to battle. The winners receive the rain, which will fall over the fields, bringing with it abundance and joy. The unfortunate losers take with them the draught. 

It is said that those who can not sleep in this night, can still hear the female ghosts singing at the crossroads and the men are absolutely forbidden to leave their houses without covering their hair. If they don't wear a hat, the female ghosts will put reins around their heads, making the men into their horses. Without a choice, pulled by his hair, the man has to run wherever the ghost orders.

In this fantastic night, the ghosts are scared of loud noises. This is why, the young men of the village play the alphorn and the pipe, while the children hit copper pots and scream, trying to banish the ghosts.
To banish the witches that fly freely in this night, the peasants sprinkle new or chanted water all over their possessions after which they sprinkle one another.  The windows and the doors are oiled with garlic and herbs are put in big pots, filed with water and left outside overnight. In the morning, the herbs are chopped and fed to the cows with salt and oats.

The tradition says that whoever walks in the grass in the morning, before the sun rises, when the dew is at its richest, will be blessed with beauty and good health due to the fact that the skies open to allow the trees to bloom.

Still yet on this eve, the young, unmarried men of the village, light the life fire by rubbing a pieces of soft dry wood into a pieces of hard wood. While the purpose of the life fire is to bring blessings and good luck to the entire village, the young man that crates the first spark is considered blessed more then any other. Chanting magical formulas, person by person jumps over the fire. The ashes of this life fire are mixed with plants and herbs by the old wise women, in order to create medicines for skin problems.

The legend says that in this night, fires can be seen over the places where ancestral treasures are buried.

In the morning, in order to earn blessings of health, young and old alike would wash in a river or a spring. Young girls hold basil and wheat grains in their mouths to be blessed with growing tall and willowy.

The rubbish collected durring the Sangiorz day is put at the roots of fruit trees.

From a group of unmarried men, one man is chosen to play th role of the god. The birth of the spring od, Sangiorz, is symbolised by dressing the chosen young man in plants and small branches of trees. A cap is made out of the bark of a wild cherry and a wood rod, decorated with young tree branches is given to the young god to wear. The other young men carry with then pipes and alphorns. In the morning, the young men and the chosen god start walking through the streets of the village, singing and playing their instruments. In the yards, the Sangiorz god dances and tries to hug the women, while hitting the man with fresh nettles and protecting himself from being hit with water. If a man manages to wet the Sangiorz god, it is a bad omen of poor harvests for that person. The entire group of young men receives as gifts eggs, wine and meat. Once the Sangiorz god had dances in every yard of the village, the man is undressed from his clothes made out of plants and branches and is thrown in a river or a spring, suggesting the passage of time and the god getting old and passing from this world. The "clothes" are ritualistically buried. The entire ritual has positive magical valences. Blessings are rained over the village, the harvests are assured to be plentiful, good luck and health are given to everyone.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Offerings to the Dead

Funeral and remembrance of the dead traditions in today's Romania are many and varied, some entire ceremonies with well established dates, others spontaneous manifestations of love or respect. All of them, however, suggest a deep respect for the ancestors inherited from the ancient 'pagan' times. 

In a culture that believed in the forever life of the spirit with thousands of years before Christianity, the dead are never truly dead, just existing in a separate, yet close universe, that maintains close ties with this world. Not only that the dead can cross from one world to another to offer consolation and advice, to manifest their displeasure, but the dead are considered to have needs and cravings just like the people from this world...

In some parts of Romania, all the possessions of the one that passed away are given away to strangers, so the dead can enjoy the same things in death as they did in life. In all parts of the country, food and drinks are shared in the memory of the dead at fixed dates, with ceremony and pomp and spontaneously with no ceremony.

At fixed dates, the women of the family lovingly prepare food and drinks, sweet breads with nuts, and a special cake made out of wheat grains, nuts and sugar, and take it to the church along with a list containing all the names of the passed away in as many generations as can be remembered. In a special ceremony the priest blesses the food and reads entire family trees (for example Mary, daughter of... mother of... wife of... and so on) after which the food, drinks (usually red wine) and the cake are shared in front of the church with the saying :"May it be for the soul of...", at which the receiver answers back "May it be well received".

At certain intervals after death, (three days, six weeks, one year, seven years), the women of the family prepare an entire feast, including most of the dishes and drinks that the dead loved in this life. Family and friends are invited and during the feast stories are being told about the one that passed away.

With less ceremony, candles are being lit and left to burn out, either at home or at the church, whenever one feels the need to connect with his ancestors. The only formal occasion for lighting candles is the Easter night when candles are lit at the church and then taken in procession to the grave yard, soon after the clock strikes midnight and are left to burn out on the graves. Lit from those, another set of candles is carefully taken home, being considered that it brings light in this life and the other, in this night when the veils between the worlds are thin.

Yet another way to cherish the ancestors with no ceremony are the libations. You might eat, or more often drink something, and knowing that your dear one loved it in life, you gently pour few drops on the Earth, or crumble some of the food, and say quietly or aloud "May it be for the soul of..." It is considered that the soul can enjoy it in death as they enjoyed it in life.

And yet, at other times, you may cook something and knowing the dead person loved that dish, you take a plate to a friend, neighbor or stranger and give the food away not only in remembrance of the dead, but for the use of the soul that still lives.

And still at other times, with their needs ignored for too long, the spirits cross into this world, in dreams most often and bluntly request certain foods or drinks to be offered to them. Sometimes the spirits can be quite specific: "I am craving for that and that and give it away to that person for me".  Other times the soul of the departed can be satisfied by simply cooking the dish and letting the aromas disperse in the air, before being consumed in the family.

Not respecting the wishes of the departed, even more so if the departed made an effort to cross into this world to express those wishes, can cause varied reactions from a restless dead that starts haunting your dreams, to physical manifestations of displeasure, to bad luck. Even if the departed does not cross into this world to request their due, forgetting to honor and make offerings for the departed can result into a restless spirit who can not peacefully cross into the other world because they are too tied up to this world by not having their needs met.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Before the Writing of Sumer

A little village lost beyond the Carpathian Mountains... Few houses, and those not exactly beautiful, on one side and the other of the main street and few more streets lost between fields of wheat and corn, protected by fruit bearing trees say nothing about this village. Is just another village, no different from countless other villages around today's Romania. And yet, and old man, dressed in the traditional white and black colors of the one that got to know life, says: "This village of ours, that you can see today, is our new village. The old Tartaraia, as the ancestors say, was a bit further away. From the valley, all the way here where you start climbing the hill, was a mighty village, full of life with our ancestors, only God knows how far back in time. That's hat out grandparents knew, from their grandparents and so on."

This village is called Tartaraia, an unusual name even for Romanians. In the village of Tărtăria,  in 1961 was discovered an important religious complex; the material showed a continuity of habitation for several thousand years. Among others, they found three sensational clay tablets, which according to the isotope carbon 14 dating were made at least 6,500 years ago, in 5300 BC to be more exact. Together with the three clay tablets, covered with strange signs, was discovered a small cache of offerings, accompanying the charred bones of a mature human. The artifacts suggest this person was a Great Priest or Shaman and he was cremated during a sacrificial ritual. 

The Danube Script appeared some 7,000 years ago in the Danube valley: in Serbia, Kosovo-Metohija, Southern Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and northern Greece. It flourished for one and a half millennia. Around 5,500 years ago, a social upheaval eclipsed this and other elements of the advanced culture of the Danube Civilization. Some researchers argue that there were devastating invasions of new populations from the steppes while others have hypothesized the imposition of new dominant elites.

Specialists from Hungary,  former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, the U.S. and the former USSR, tried to decipher and date the clay tablets based on the latest scientific achievements in the field (Carbon 14 and so on). Bulgarian Academician Vladimir I. Georgiev said that "tablets from Tartaraia are (...) a millennium older than the Sumerian writing" and "writing in the form of icons appeared in southeastern Europe and not in Mesopotamia, as was previously thought, the designs and marks on the three tablets representing "the oldest writing in the world", especially as Sumerian writing in sec. fourth BC, "appeared quite unexpectedly and in a developed form", which means that it was either brought there or was improved in cuneiform writing. Similarly, the orientalist, Andrei Nadirov is excited before the wonder of the tablets from Tartaraia, who transmit over times, "a message from pre-Dacian brothers". Marija Gimbutas, an eminent American scientist was writing that these tablets fit in an ancient sacred writing coming since the Paleolithic, through the Neolithic richest events, and belonging to the civilization of Old Europe. Investigations made by Hungarian researchers (Makkay Janos ERŽEN Nustupny), Yugoslavs (Jovan Todorovic), U.S. (S. Hood, David Whipp), Soviet (TS Passek, V. Titov, Boris Perlova) etc. reached the same conclusions. 

Unfortunately the meaning of the signs found on the tablets remain a mystery up to today. Over the last seven thousand years, and continuing today, traditional pieces of folkloric art in Romania (from carpets to clothes) are being produced that continue these ancient signs. The lozenge, the X, the E, the b, the D, the M, the circle, the angle, the tree, the spiral, the angle, the cross, the rosette, short parallel lines are highly productive and persistent motives attesting to the Neolithic Script.
Whilst Tartaria signs have not lost their popularity over the millennium as decorative motives, it remains the case that in rural tradition they are not purely ornamental elements, but allusive expressions of religious ideas, codes associated with magic powers and basic symbols relating to the divinity and its epiphanies.

Powerful geometric motives continue to be transmitted from mother to daughter. 


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

30 November or The Romanian Halloween

The ancestral calendar remains a mystery for most, and yet for over two millennium is coexisted in parallel to Christian holidays, proving not only the continuation of the millenniums old traditions, but also the existence of the same people from the darkness of history to the present day. 

In the Romanian popular traditions, the night of 29-30 November, marks the passing from summer to winter, from light to dark, and the rituals conserved from the Geto-Dacian civilization suggests that the night also represented the beginning of a new year. Up to today, the night of 29-30 November, other then being the night of St Andrew in the modern calendar, is the night when the bad spirits cross from one world to another, tormenting the living.

Some of these spirits are the strigoi, a type of national vampire. The strigoi are spirits who after death can not pass into the other world, either because they were wronged in life or because no funeral rites were observed for them. The legends say that strigoi have chalky white skin and a red color around the pupils. Their personality is no longer 'human' like, instead becoming very revengeful, vain and cruel. The strigoi are meant to have an extreme physical power and be able to move incredibly fast.

The legend says that strigoi are very warrior like in appearance and behavior, and when they can't find anyone to fight with,  they go around the houses of the living in order to suck the blood of the people unlucky enough to cross their path.

This is the reason for why, in the night of Saint Andrew, the people try to protect themselves from strigoi by rubbing garlic around the doors and windows, the reason for this being that the strigoi dislike the smell of garlic. Also, on this night, the women would turn all cups and pots face down so the strigoi can't hide inside. The ash from the fires is taken out and bread is thrown around the yards so the hungry strigoi can consume the bread.

However, it is extremely rare for strigoi to actually suck the blood of the living. More common is to use spells in order to steal the beauty of the people, or the milk of the cows, the power of the bulls and to bring with them diseases that affect humans, animals and the future crops, or that they terrorize and torment their still living relatives if these relatives wronged them in life. Most legends say that strigoi can transform themselves into wolves, steal and later eat the animals from the villages.

In some villages rites of keeping the strigoi at bay are still practiced. One such tradition is called the Watch of the Garlic. The youngsters of the village get together in a house and after rubbing garlic all around the doors and windows, a merry party is started at sunset. The women would bring with them garlic cloves that would be put in a wooden crate, and an old woman, surrounded by candles, would watch the garlic the entire night, while the youngsters partied with joy, eating, drinking and dancing, not unlike a New Year's Eve. After sunrise, everyone would step out of the houses and the wooden crate containing garlic would be thrown into flames in order to protect the village over the fallowing year.

Another ancient custom observed this night is the custom of sowing wheat grains in a vase. A month later, the newly sprang wheat would be used for divination. The quantity and the height of the wheat would predict the health and the good luck of the sower. Also, maidens would eat very salted bread before going to sleep in the belief that the man that brings them water in the following dreams is the one that they were going to marry.

If the strigoi came around the houses in St Andrew's night, and if someone recognized them, there were ways to make sure that the strigoi were able to fully cross over into the other world. A young white horse would be taken into the graveyard in the morning. If the horse refused to step over a grave, the body was unburied. The legend says that the bodies if the strigoi still look almost alive, only with long hair and nails and are often turned into a different position than at burial. If that was discovered, a wooden stake was impaled into the heart of the strigoi, thus ensuring that the undead becomes truly dead.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Samedru or A Celebration Of Death and Resurrection

On 26th October on Samedru, throughout the villages of Romania, people celebrate the Old Men Of Autumn, a celebration in the memory of the ancestors who passed away. In the Romanian pantheon, Samedru is an agrarian divinity and an important god. The popular legends show Samedru as an old shepherd. In autumn, a period of symbolic aging of time, is considered that the god dies and comes back to life in a nocturnal ritual called Samedru's Fire. The tradition, still carried in most areas of Romania, even without the initiation elements, is an important holiday for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest person.

The holiday of the Old Men comes from the archaic cult of totemic ancestors. Most believe that it started in the times of Geto-Dacians, when is believed that they celebrated varied religious rituals. Part of these, around big fires, during the celebration, after consuming quantities of food, clay bowls were broken. About the pieces found in ritual graves, is believed that were offerings to the ancestors from under the Earth. The Old Men are celebrations dedicated to the souls of the ancestors around solstices and equinoxes. In this periods of crossroads throughout the year is believed that the veil between the world of living and the world of the dead is at it's thinnest and the spirits come back on Earth around the places where they once lived.

Samedru's Fire is a ceremony of the annual death and resurrection of the agrarian divinity, suggested through cutting and lighting a fir tree. In the Romanian tradition, the fir is considered a sacred tree and is part of all rites of passage. Chopping it is a ritual that symbolizes death, in the same way that lighting it is a ritual of resurrection. The ritual celebrates the end of the pastoral year and the beginning of winter.

Preparations start coupe of weeks before because Samedru's Fire is considered one of the biggest pastoral celebration, a type of New Year's Eve where the entire village is present. Commemorations take place and pyres are lit on hilltops, at crossroads, in the middle of the village and next to the waters, in places considered useful for contacting the dead, which combined with a ritual watch, are part of the tradition that on Samedru's day the dead come out of the graves and haunt the living.

Children and young people gather in advance fir-tree branches, twigs, corn cobs, hemp, dry wood and prepare them in the places where fires will be lit by Samedru. On the morning of October 25, a few lads with children go into the forest to cut ritual trees and clean them.

When the sun sets and the darkness begins to fall, the entire village gathers in silence, as at a sacred ceremonial ritual. Children - the purest souls, ignite the fires with emotion, and when the flames began to rise all call loudly: "Let the fire of Samedru, let the fire of Samedru!" . Women, prepared with baskets full of ritual food, share a ceremonial burial wheat cooked with butter or lard, coils and ritual candles, pretzels, hot bread, cheese, milk, nuts, apples dedicated souls of the ancestors.

An incantation is sang on this occasion: "My forefathers / Let me be all cheerful / Make my home bountiful / With lots on the table / With much help / As a field of flowers" .

During the feast are practiced numerous acts of ritual purification, divination, practices of remembering the dead and weather forecasting. Shepherds throw their coats in the middle of the road to find out what type of winter follows. If a white sheep goes near the coat, it is considered that the winter will be long and rough, and if a black sheep goes near, is expected that the winter will be mild.

Toward morning, when the fire is almost extinct, people go to their homes taking with them the ashes and coals and throw it in the gardens and orchards for the year to have good harvest- a symbol of fertility.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Calusarii or The Sacred Dance

The tradition of the Calusari comes from the ancient times of Dacia and even today still keeps it's pagan core. Once upon a time, Calusarii were priests of a solar cult. Lead by a great priest, their dances were much more then an initiation, were an exorcism. The great priest was the one that was asking the god for help while leading the army of the Calusari in their war with the evil spirits that took over the villages. More so, they used to take a vow of silence, the only one being allowed to talk being the leader who at varied times was requesting them to release certain war calls.

Xenophon ( Anabasis, VI,I 5-6) describes the ancient Thracian dance of the swords as such: "The Thracians started to dance, weapons in hand, on the sound of panpipes, while jumping in the air waving their daggers. At the end, after one of them overpowered another and all thought that the fallen one was dead: he fell with a great art".

The great priest of the solar cult shared his knowledge with only one man who took his place. With the expansion of Christianity, pagan cults slowly dissipated, while the traditions remained rooted in the world of the Romanian villages.  In this way, the Calusari remained a dance understood by less and less people. And yet, people still believe that watching the Calusarii dance brings good luck over the entire year. The Calusarii bring with them joy and protection against illness. The tradition says that each group of Calusarii gives life to the ritual dance and takes suffering away.

The Calusari are described as groups of odd numbered men, sworn to stay together in celibacy and ritual dancing for a period of nine years. Their secrets are to be never known. They are feared warriors who fight the “iele” (“them,”  magical dancing maiden fairies).

According to the Romanian historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, the Calusari were known for “their ability to create the impression of flying in the air” which he believed represented both the galloping of a horse and the dancing of the fairies. Indeed, the group’s patron was the “Queen of the Fairies”, who was also known as Irodiada and Arada, and who Eliade connected with the folkloric figure Diana.

The origins of the Calusari are unknown, although the first written attestations are from the 17th century. Eliade noted that “Although the oath taken is made in the name of God, the mythic-ritual scenario enacted by the Calusari has nothing in common with Christianity".

The Calusarii have to stay together for the sworn period to remain invulnerable and invested with the supernatural powers and if they break away from the group they would fall prey to the iele. But together, they can heal those possessed by evil spirits by performing their dancing and rituals around them.

The costumes worn by the Calusari are white, decorated with colorful sticks, hand made hankies, while the hats have beads and colored ribbons. The most important instrument is the flag, a four-five meters long stick on top of which are tied plants as garlic and wormwood, salt and white and red ribbons, sacred colors in the Dacian vision who connect the dance to the ancient rituals of Zamolxe.

The dance of the Calusari seems to be one of the oldest and most complex of the folk dances of Romania. The men who wished to enter the group of the Calusari came together outside the village, on the shore of a water, where, in a ritual, sworn to respect the rules of the group, including sexual abstinence. For ten days they live in a sacred time and space. During the entire period they wear a specific costume with bells on the legs, a stick, and sleep under churches to be protected by attacks from the Iele. The ceremony included magical practices and invocations, dances and ritual acts executed by the strictly organized group of men. After the ceremonial dances are finished at the end of the ten days, the men meet in the village, greet each other like after a long absence and life goes back to normal.  

The dance of the Calusari, in the popular tradition, meets different functions including the magical transfer of the divine fertility through spells during the dance over salt for animals and a bowl with seeds for sowing in the fields. Other benefits were of speeding up the marriage and fertility of the young women who were admitted into the end dance, healing of the sick and the sending away of the Iele (malefic fairies) through the practice of warrior acts and the used of magical plants during the dance.

The Calusari dance is considered one of the fastest and most spectacular dances in the world and was included by UNESCO on the list of non material masterpieces of the universal culture.