In a world where everyone is quickly moving towards globalization, it's hard to remember how once upon a time, people and countries relied heavily on unique traditions, rites of passages and religious beliefs. Yet, despite the contemporary lifestyle, there are several Romanian customs which managed to successfully endure the test of time. Some are practised only in remote Northern villages, whilst others are very much alive within Romania's vibrant beating heart: Bucharest.
As a child growing up in Bucharest, I rarely got the chance to partake in ancient traditions, despite my fascination with rituals and superstitions. I mostly loved hearing folk stories which allowed me to imagine the mystique. I imagined witches and wizards, fairies and demonic creatures. My curiosity and enchantment with witchcraft pushed me to read books and try to understand the ethnology of the Romanian mythical culture. I didn't believe in ghosts, nor vampires for that matter, and although I understood the meaning of most rituals, it was still the unknown which kept my spirit of enquiry alive. Whether a sceptic or a believer, there is no denying that certain traditions are intriguing, interesting and fascinating.
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The embellished ox
This tradition takes place during the summer solstice when young lads dressed as devils go around their village to select a beautiful ox. They embellish the animal with bells and flowers and walk it around the streets. According to various ethnologists, the ox meant to represent an ancient deity. It was believed that this zoomorphic god, Mithra, went around the village, accompanied by a procession of masked characters with appearances and events reminiscent of the Greek god Dionysus, procession associated with fertility and life force. At the end of the ritual, the ox was taken back to its stable to get some rest. The young men dressed as devils, would then run to the nearby river, undress, and jump into the water to purify themselves.
The folk tales of the "Sânziene" has always been my favorite Romanian ritual. I would ask mother to tell me more stories about the mythical fairies and the forbidden forests, and always end up with chills down my spine. The folk practices of the Sânziene imply that the most beautiful maidens in the village would dress in white, pick flowers (a specific Romanian flower called Sânzianã) and braid floral crowns. During nightfall, the beautiful women would meet and dance around a bonfire. At dawn, each flower crowns would be thrown onto the villagers' roofs. If the crowns remained in place, the owners of the house will benefit from health, wealth and happiness. If the crown fell, it was believed that someone who lives there will soon die.
Another folk tale related to these beautiful Romanian women is that during the Sânziene Eve night, there would be a great potential for magic spells and so, one should plant many herbs and flowers to acquire magical powers.
Another belief was that if you are a single male you should not walk around at night during the Sânziene Eve. It was said that in exchange for seeing the fairies, the man would have to give away his sanity, sight or hearing. Although the fairies are good in principle, they are also wicked. Should you hear your name called during the Sânziene Eve night, you should close your eyes and cover your ears, to show the enchanted fairies you are not interested.
The guarding of the garlic
This tradition is in a sense the equivalent of the American Halloween. Although less of a tradition and more of a celebratory party, the "Guarding of the garlic" happens during Saint Andrew, on the night of the 29th of November. Also known as the Night of the Spirits (Noapte a Strigoilor), the tradition of garlic guarding meant that people would smear their doors and windows with the pungent-tasting bulb to keep all bad spirits away. Indoors, they would throw loud and fun parties, where people would eat, laugh and play games. This can be seen as very similar to the New Year's party, where everyone wants to leave behind the bad and the old and welcome the new and the exciting into their lives. Back in the ancient times, it was believed that the New Year would start right after this garlic guarding celebration.
In certain regions of Romania, such as Moldova, Romanian women would collect strings of garlic and leave it to be guarded by an old woman for the whole night, whilst the youth would be on their way to the party. In the morning, everyone would share the garlic and bring it back to their own homes which were said to have magical powers and cure bad diseases for the rest of the year.
The week of the lunatics
In Romania, Easter is celebrated by everyone. Different parts of Romania have their own unique traditions and rituals associated with the re-birth of Christ, however, one custom seemed to be predominant throughout the country: the painting of the eggs. But beyond the norm, there are other bizarre events happening before Easter, and one of the most intriguing is called the week of the lunatics.
The week of the lunatics takes place one week before what the Romanian people call the "big fast", a period of food (and sin) abstinence before Easter. During this fasting period, people would go vegan and turn to their spiritual roots. People would have to be good, help the poor, make allowances and be forgiving. In anticipation of such custom, people needed a way to let their hair down, hence the Romanians created the week of the lunatics when the youth would turn bad. They would drink and party as much as humanly possible and would go a little (or a lot) crazy.
The goat dance
Anyone in Romania would be able to tell you stories about the goat dance. Whether you come from a remote village or grew up in Bucharest, like I, people know about this quirky winter tradition. To welcome the New Year, a young lad would disguise himself by wearing a mask which resembles a goat and an inside-out traditional waistcoat. "The goat" and his comrades would then go around from home to home, dancing, singing and cheering, to bring good luck. The dance itself is quite ad hoc, although, in certain regions of Romania, it's well choreographed. Some bring drums and whistles and put on a proper traditional show. Many wondered what the goat dance really represents and it is believed to be similar to the tradition of the embellished ox. In essence, it is performed for fertility, good luck and health.
Here are the lyrics of "The goat" song usually performed during the dance. It took me a while to find the originals and translate them. And no, the lyrics don't make much sense in Romanian either.
"Green leaf and a peanut
Good day, day good
Open the gates
For the goats to enter
Go go go Goat, Don't give in, Don't give up
Go go go Goat
Our goat is with beads
With earrings, with velvets
The goat plays cheerfully
Everyone is glad of it.
Go go go Goat, Don't give in, Don't give up
Go go go Goat
And away to the fair I've gone
To sell my little goat
And going on the road, going
A shout from behind I heard:
The buyer: Is your goat for sale?
The Shepherd: For sale!
The buyer: How much for?
The Shepherd: 800 lei
The buyer: Is it gentle, does it poke?
The Shepherd: It is gentle, does not poke (the goat pokes the buyer)
The buyer: I'll give you 400 lei because it pokes.
The Shepherd: Instead of getting just 400 lei, better to kill the goat (hits the goat with a large branch and the goat falls and does not move)
Crikey! Our goat has died!
Go, go, go Goat
A bad disease might have hit you
Or wherever you have been to,
Bad news you have found out
Oi, the goat is not dead, not from the hit
It has fainted from all the news it found out.
Your school, my little goat
Facts will straighten
Now its time to leave
We have other houses to attend
Go go go Goat, Don't give in, Don't give up
Go go go Goat "
The New Years Green Twig
For children, this New Year tradition is really special. The New Year Green Twig or the "Sorcova", is a Romanian custom practised on January 1. Children usually pick up a wooden stick and decorate it with artificial flowers. On the New Years Day, children would go around their family and friends, recite some verses whilst softly hitting the person with the twig. The Sorcova would play the role of a magic wand as it was said to bring great fortune. The verses are very suggestive and indeed similar to that of a magic spell:
To live, to get old,
Like an apple tree, like a pear tree,
Like a rose thread,
Hard like rock,
Fast like arrow,
Hard like iron,
Fast like steel.
See you next year and Happy New Year!"
Nowadays I come across so many foreigners which are aware that Romanian people (especially Romanian women) celebrate Spring with the aid of a tradition called "Martisor". On March 1, Romanian people offer each other a "Martisor", which is a small charm. Men usually buy Romanian women flowers, snowdrops being amongst the most popular gifts. On the 1st of March, one must pick a day, called "baba" (literally means old woman) between the 1-9 March. If the day you picked is sunny, it is presumed you would have a fruitful year. If the day is cloudy or rainy, it is believed that a rather difficult year lies ahead. A "martisor" also comes with a white and red string, which girls wrap around their wrists whilst making a wish. After 9 days, they must go to the men they love and ask them to break the thread with their little finger. If they succeed, the girl's wish will come true.
There are myriad other traditions and customs which can be found in all corners of the Romanian country. It is incredible to be able to partake in an ancient dance or a pagan ritual which got preserved despite countless attempts to make them obsolete. As the times are changing, so are all these mystical traditions, as some of their origins have been forgotten, their meaning has been lost and some elements have been modernised. Yet they will always live through legends, myths and folk tales, passed on for generations to come as long as people may still need them.