The Celtic otherworld in Romanian folk belief

Although largely identifying its modern cultural ethne as ‘Slavic’, Romania’s historical and archaeological past shows that in the ‘Dacian’ Iron Age and late Classical periods its identity was definitely what we today would consider ‘Celtic’. This identity survived until the ethno-cultural engineering of Romanisation, and then the ‘migration period’ displacements of the late 3rdC CE which caused Roman withdrawal in the face of southern migration of Goths and westward migration of Scythic peoples: This introduced the cultural and linguistic foundations nowadays associated with the idea of ‘Slavic’, albeit with an enduring ‘Roman’ identity, preserved in the country’s name. These processes culminated with the early medieval hegemonies of the Caucasus tribes of Avars and Bulgars who eventually formed a stable state which, by fits and starts, had finally Christianised under Byzantine influence by the 9thC CE.

When Herodotus commented upon the Dacians (called ‘Getae’ by the Greeks) in his 5thC BCE Histories, he noted in particular that these peoples believed in the continuity of the soul after death. They were, after all, a people related to the Thracians, among whom the poet-seer Orpheus was supposed to have arisen, providing the European classical world with one of its most important religions, believing firmly in reincarnation. This provided its adherents with a particular map of the Otherworld which modern Celticists can quite easily identify with…

In the modern popular understanding about Romanian folklore, the most influential stories and beliefs surround the dark and fearful aspects of Strigoi – the restless dead who wish to abstract the life-force of the living. These are the model for the modern conception of vampires (and werewolves), and who we nowadays like to think of as humanoids with long sharp canines used to bite and suck the physical blood from peoples’ bodies. The reality (if you can call it that) of the idea of Strigoi is somewhat more complicated, and deeply tied to the ancient beliefs of souls and the otherworld which underpinned the religion of Europe’s Iron Age peoples, possibly extending deeper into antiquity. Characteristically, Strigoi can be either human (‘witches’ – the Italic word for ‘witch’ is ‘Strega’), but they might also be the undying or resurrected dead who seek to abstract human life-force (sometimes as actual blood) and who sicken their victims before finally taking their lives. They can shape-shift into animal forms and pass normally insurmountable physical barriers, and become invisible.

Coupled to the belief in a more sinister Stregoi is the important Romanian myth of the Blajini – the meaning of which translates almost exactly to that same phrase used in Ireland for fairies: ‘Gentle People’. These were spirits supposed to occupy a parallel reflected otherworld which mirrored our own, and at there is still a tradition associated with them, celebrated at Easter, known as Paştele Blajinilor. This festival (often celebrated a week or so after Easter proper) has strong associations with the ancestral dead. Apart from visiting or tending the graves of the departed, it is attached to a custom in which dyed or decorated eggs (often red) were made and eaten in their honour and the shells dropped into rivers to take them to the Blajini (the idea being that they should then know that it was Easter)! Readers of my blog will recognise that this custom is another explicit demonstration of an ancient European belief that all rivers flow to the ‘world-river’ (Apa Sâmbetei to Romanians, Okeanos to the Greeks), which bounds the shores of both our own and the ‘other’ world. Apa Sâmbetei is usually translated or understood as ‘Saturday’s Water‘, but is actually fairly obviously ‘Saturn’s Water‘ since the realm of Saturn or Cronus was in ancient mythology upon the far shores of Okeanos. The term evidently comes through the influence of Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Romanian folklore held that the souls of departed travelled through streams and rivers to reach the Otherworld, and this is exactly paralleled in the remains of Celtic pagan beliefs demontrated throughout medieval Irish literature, as I have previously discussed.

More interestingly, another belief attached in traditions to the Blajini was that they continually fasted in the Otherworld in order to sanctify our own world with the divine grace this practice bestows upon christians. They therefore provided a ‘boon’ to humanity, that demanded respect. This is the same belief that Scots minister Robert Kirk described in the Scottish Highlands in his 17thC ‘Secret Commonwealth’ manuscript, concerning the otherworld ‘counterbalance’ – namely when we have plenty, ‘they’ have scarcity!

Both traditions – Strigoi and Blajini – therefore represent different aspects of the same original spirit-belief which so pervaded ‘Celtic’ Europe. They show the idea of the dead living in an inverted state in the otherworld, and whose behaviour towards us seeks to address an imbalance between a mundane and a spiritual existence. However, the ‘reincarnate’ dead who walk the earth again could have no place within the Christian cosmology and folklore except as some fearful ‘evil’ force representing death, darkness, disease and chaos – these evidently evolved to become the Stregoi, whereas the Blajini were ‘allowed’ a continued existence as they largely stayed in the ‘spiritual’ realm beyond the concerns of mundanity, and therefore could not transgress the Christian doctrines to such a degree. In fact, the two ‘archetypes’ are more of a continuity, so that Blajini are sometimes of a more fearful aspect. They are therefore both analogous to the spirits of the Gaelic world, and indeed seem to share the same ancient doctrinal heritage…

 

 

 

Ancestor beliefs and the ‘time before memory’

I have made much of the importance of ancestor beliefs in my posts, and how these relate to a belief in ‘fairies’ and ‘spirits’, and I’d like to examine this a little bit more…

Before the introduction of literary culture to Atlantic Europe by the Greeks and Romans, the transmission of memories, information and knowledge was by oral transmission. This involved the development of a number of ‘tricks’ of formalisation – ‘aides-memoires’ if you will- in order to assist with memorisation, and from this grew the bardic culture: a field of expertise for coding large amounts of complex knowledge into verse and forms which allowed memorisation, as well as providing a shared mnemonic culture and good entertainment.

Statue of Iron Age 'bard' clutching a Celtic lyre, or 'Crwth'. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Statue of Iron Age ‘bard’ (Brittany) clutching a Celtic lyre, or ‘Crwth’. The lyre was common to the Greeks from an early period.

Bardism survived the Christian period into the late medieval period when they were largely only formally employed as reciters of pedigrees to Gaelic chieftains, but died out with the dissipation of the clan system – the last vestige of Iron Age culture save for those particular story traditions and beliefs which we all know and love, and which I seem to spend a lot of time writing about. Pedigrees offered clans a link with the heroic (i.e. – ‘purer’ and less controversial) past. As such, they were open to a great deal of interpretation and revision in order to satisfy the political needs and claims of contemporary bardic patrons.

Due to the limitations of memory, the usefulness of information, there is usually a cutoff point or ‘event horizon’ in oral history which represents a ‘time before memory’, and oral/bardic culture had to deal with this in a formalised way. In the context of informal folktales collected from post-literate societies (even if the reciter is illiterate), vague timescales creep into narratives: For example, Irish tales of the Cailleach Bheara collected and stored at the DeLargy Centre at University College Dublin’s folklore survey archive might refer to ‘a long time ago’ or even ‘a hundred years ago or more’ to establish a setting which involves timescales of great supposed antiquity. The opening credits to the Star Wars films open with the same legendary theme before scrolling away to a point of infinity on the screen. In a way it is a method for framing a story in a distant place where anything might be possible, or at least be more difficult to contest!

The start of all good stories...

The start of all good stories…

This ‘time before memory’ is an important place where a storyteller can establish modern ‘facts’ with abstract and alliterative origins. The freedom of the story takes the gravity of established fact and reality from the shoulders of the characters, allowing them freedom to fly in unimaginable ways and perform acts of magic. Time, physics, even conventional morality do not apply, except where it suits the storyteller to remind their audience of them.

Understanding how to address the principle of ‘time before memory’ was undoubtedly a technical discipline to a bardic/oral culture. Beyond the ‘event horizon’ it wouldn’t have been a case of ‘anything goes’, but there were instead degrees of difference depending on just how far back the tale was taking the reader. A good example of this are the written works of the traditional (orally transmitted) lyric poets of ancient Greece, most notably Homer and Hesiod (6thC BCE or earlier), both of whom deal with these shady kingdoms of the legendary past in a formalised and structured pattern. From the foundless chaos of the initial creation to the time of the Golden Age and the subsequent ‘Ages of Men’, through to the matings of gods with men and finally the Trojan War and its aftermath these narratives take the listener (or later the reader) through the various degrees of comprehensibility which end largely in a recognisable world of humans following the sack of Troy. Subsequent ‘histories’ from this part of the ancient world would use the events at the end of the Illiad to start their accounts of history ‘within memory’…

To add another dimension to bardic culture, it often relied upon former bards ‘from beyond the event horizon‘ to give authority or veracity to their accounts, as if these people were astronauts reporting back from the unknown. Thus we have Celtic story figures such as ‘Oisin’, ‘Taliesin’ and ‘Merlin’ (even the egotistical, pompous and bumbling Senchán Torpéist) who occur in stories in such a fashion. Who knows – perhaps Homer and Hesiod themselves were of the same kind?

The real Homer?

The real Homer?

The further back into the unknown and deep ancestral time a narrative tale goes, it is generally fair to say that the more fantastical it becomes. The number of human-like characters dwindles in order to suggest the origins within a single family unit – mother, father and child. Even then, they may take on characteristics which make distinguishing them from the landscape and animals of the land increasingly difficult. They grow to huge stature, as if to explain their likeness to the stars, oceans and mountains which informed the landscape of the listener.