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…

 

 

 

The End of Reincarnation

The ultimate fate of Bran and his party in the medieval Irish tale Imram Brain maic Febail (‘The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal’) is that upon attaining the otherworld, when they try to return to the land of the living a great age has passed and the party are unable to set foot in the land without crumbling to dust. In other words, the Christian narrator denies them access to reincarnation. Bran is only allowed to pass on his story and then fade into legend, the narration finishing with the lines:

And from that hour his wanderings are not known.

The motif of immortality’s end appears in a modified form in the other famous Irish medieval legendary tale of the ‘Children of Lir’, who were transformed into immortal swans and cursed to travel Ireland for hundreds of years until ‘released’ by the coming of Christianity. The ‘Voyage of Bran’ leaves the state of Bran and his party indefinite, but the Children of Lir resume a withered mortal form or crumble to dust, though not usually before receiving christian confession and going to the Christian afterlife.

There are other Irish accounts of very long-lived members of ancient races receiving similar treatment. Some of these, such as in the pseudo-historical Christian narrative of the Lebor Gabála Érenn or ‘Book of Invasions’, and other related historical legends written in the middle ages, contain accounts of ‘Fintan’, one of the first settlers in Ireland who legends and stories claimed lived on in various animal and human forms until the coming of christianity. The Welsh medieval author Walter Map (De Nugis Curialum) left us the tale of King Herla which was based on similar themes as that of Bran, Finn and Caílte. The Middle Irish tale of mad pagan King Suibhne (‘Sweeney’) who literally flies around in a semi-animalistic form until released to heaven by a saint may also continue the Irish Christian tradition which told stories designed to counter a pagan belief in reincarnation.

The theme of submission of the pagan order to that of christianity occurs most strongly in the middle irish manuscript tales of the Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Ancients’ or ‘Tales of the Elders of Ireland’ etc) which contains the majority of the ancient tales dealing with Finn and his band. It is set within a Christian framework in which the ancient giant warrior Caílte mac Rónáin (Finn’s nephew) relates tales of Finn and of the Tuatha Dé Danann to an interested St Patrick: By implication Caílte is exchanging the reality of an otherworldly existence in the pagan time frame with a Christianised legendary life in the hearafter.

All of these tales are careful to create a linkage between the old and new religious orders, again demonstrating conformity with the principles of the Christianised reformed laws of the Roman Empire propounded by Theodosius and his successors during the late classical period, during which time christianity was setting up shop in the Atlantic West of Europe. It was a theme of peaceful cohabitation of old and new which formed the skeleton of many medieval narrative and literary traditions, and managed to preserve the tenets of paganism, which after all seemed to explain everything which christianity could not and would continue to influence the folk traditions and beliefs down to modern times.

Lucan on metempsychosis

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (d.65 CE) – otherwise known as Lucan – was a poet and author with close ties to the imperial court of Rome. He is best known for his description of the Roman Civil War in the 1stC BC, albeit more for its poetic rather than historical merit. Like Caesar, he commented on the druidic belief in the transmigration of souls:

While you, ye Druids, when the war was done,
To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned:
To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars
To know or not to know; secluded groves
Your dwelling-place, and forests far remote.
If what ye sing be true, the shades of men
Seek not the dismal homes of Erebus
Or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life
Still rules these bodies in another age —
Life on this hand and that, and death between.
Happy the peoples ‘neath the Northern Star
In this their false belief; for them no fear
Of that which frights all others: they with hands
And hearts undaunted rush upon the foe
And scorn to spare the life that shall return.
(Translation by J.D. Duff: “Lucan: The Civil War”, Loeb Classics Library, London, 1928.)

It is possible he was quoting from Julius Caesar, yet almost a century after Caesar’s murder it still appears that the apparently core druidical doctrine of metempsychosis was contentious to Romans such as Lucan. The politics of the day was that the focus of the druidic religion had been pushed back into the Atlantic islands of Britannia and Hibernia, and Rome was in the process of its campaign of subjugating the former. Both Caesar and Lucan’s attitude towards the reincarnation doctrine was mirrored by other Roman writers such as Pomponius Mela (De Situ Orbiis c.43CE) who (like Lucan and Seneca) was from Roman Spain. These authors, along with Pliny the Elder, provided rhetorical accounts unkind to the religion of the druids during the period that Rome’s armies were pushing up through Britannia. A political reason to attack the core doctrine was that it was perceived that it rendered believers fearless of death.

Romans had no objection to the veneration of native gods in the territories they conquered, and must have actually created many as they went. The large number of remaining inscriptions and statuary items dedicated to these ‘Romano-Celtic’ deities in Britain is proof of this. It is a matter of conjecture, though, if these represented ancient original cults, especially as Roman historians and literary commentators during the first 100 years of Roman subjugation in Atlantic Europe indicated a Roman campaign against fundamental tenets of this style of religion, particularly the doctrine on metempsychosis.

It is quite likely that Romano-Gallic and Romano-British ‘deities’ were the result of an active campaign of interpretatio romanum designed to change the fundamental nature of local pagan belief to match one acceptable to the Mediterranean mindset of Rome (centred around their idea of ‘proper veneration’ of the ‘eternal gods’) and to the (often non-Roman) troops and auxiliaries it employed to do its dirty work in frontier provinces.

In Lucan’s time (middle of the 1stC CE) Ireland and the western and northern reaches of the ‘Britannic Isles’ would still have followed the doctrines that Julius Caesar wrote of after he had started to purge them in the 1stC BCE.