The epitome of dark myths and legends dwell deep within the wide forests of Romania, a country that was once brutal and full of mysteries. Romanian villagers faced constant danger from natural forces, wild animals, and wars– terrible things that could not be reasonably explained but through the telling of tales. Earthquakes happened only because your lack of faith wears the Pillars that hold up the world. It was a vicious Pricolici that killed your cattle or a blood-sucking Strigoi that caused you to grow ill. Vlad the Impaler was a great hero who saved you from evil forces that threatened your homeland. Though it might seem silly to us now, these superstitions were what helped the Romanian people deal with the harshness of life, as well as providing entertainment around a fire on a cold, winter’s night. All things begin and end with a story.
Where to start? Genesis… the creation stories in Romanian folklore are numerous and varied, from its ancient, Indo-European roots to a Christianization of the tale involving God and His perpetual antagonist, Satan. This is the story of two friends, bored with the eternal waters of oblivion, who try to bring their talents together to build a world.
In the beginning of beginnings, before time and matter, there was a boundless ocean called Apa Sâmbetei, the abode of the Brother, Fîrtat. For countless eons Fîrtat wandered, all alone above the primordial waters, without a brother or a friend. He was upset, not knowing how to solve his loneliness, and in his distress Fîrtat threw his walking staff into the watery chaos. When the staff hit the waters it grew into a tree, and coiled within its roots was a black serpent. Being asked by Fîrtat who it was, the serpent opened its jaws and out popped Nefîrtat who answered, “I am your brother!” Fîrtat shook his head, “I can have no brother, but you will be my friend, Nonbrother.”
Together the Brother and Nonbrother took it upon themselves to create the world. Fîrtat asked Nefîrtat to dive down into Apa Sâmbetei and retrieve sand from the bottom. Three times Nonbrother descended only to come up empty-handed. The third time that Nonbrother failed, the Brother told him to clean the mud from under his fingernails and from that they would create land.
Fîrtat formed an island, under the branches of the cosmic tree, and laid down to rest. While they slept, the black serpent under the tree whispered evil ideas into Nonbrother’s ear, convincing him to push Fîrtat off the island and drown him in the waters. Due to some magic, however, everywhere Nefîrtat pushed Fîrtat new land would grow and prevent him from falling into the Deep. All night long Nefîrtat tried to drown his friend until land had grown completely around the cosmic tree, trapping the serpent in the underworld. When the Brother awoke he marvelled at what the Nonbrother had done, but now the earth was much too big. Together the two beings squeezed the earth, creasing the land– forming mountains and hills, lakes and swamps– until finally it was compressed into a proper size.
At last the two divinities thought to build the sky, a firmament to separate the waters above from the waters below. Setting it upon the highest branches of the cosmic tree, Fîrtat and Nefîrtat embedded the stars, the moon and the sun like jewels in the sky. Due to a slight miscalculation, however, the sky was too heavy for the earth and the land began to sink into the waters. Nonbrother quickly thought to support the land with four pillars, which would then be held up by four fish, and together the two friends made it so.
Now that there was light shining down upon the world, the cosmic tree bloomed and bore fruit which Brother and Nonbrother used to shape all manner of men and creatures that walk this Earth. While Fîrtat created animals of beauty and practicality, Nefîrtat, with his wild imagination, experimented creating giants, shape-shifters and other strange beasts. In the beginning, everyone got along together in peace, but over time, evil seeped into the world from below and the troubles arose.
The idea of vampires and werewolves, popularized by American cinema classics such as “The Wolfman” and “Dracula”, actually originated from ancient, Romanian superstitions about undead, bloodsucking, shape-shifting horrors–nightmares that seemed very real at the time. Fears of illness, poor crops, or foreign enemies were transformed into invisible devils that could be warded away with signs, sigils, or even strings of garlic.
The Uriaș were the first people ever created. These giants were incomprehensible in size; some of them had heads as big as mountains and with a couple steps they could reach any country they desired. Despite their powerful stature, the giants were friendly and, in bygone times, humans and the Urias lived together in peace. One day, however, a terrible war ensued between both races and atrocious crimes were committed on each side. It was at this time that God (or The Brother) decided to start over, flooding the world with the primordial waters, killing mostly everyone on Earth. Among the humans, only Noah and his family survived on the Ark. Legends say that Urias burial mounds contain a massive horde of riches and can be found on the eve of Christmas, Easter, or St. George’s Day, when magical fires burn above their graves.
A common cause of illnesses, the Strigoi is a ghastly creature that likely gave birth to both the vampire and the werewolf. This undead monster can shape-shift into any animal, turn invisible, and has a insatiable thirst for blood. There are several recorded accounts of Strigoi attacking people over the centuries including a more recent one, in 2004, where a girl swore to have been visited by her dead uncle. As a precaution, her family banded together, dug up the coffin of the late uncle, and cut his heart out. Afterwards the family burned the uncle’s remains, mixed his ashes with water, and drank it– as was the traditional way to destroy a Strigoi. Old superstitions die hard in Romania, and even today rural villagers tend to stake the recently deceased through the navel for good measure.
The Ielele are magical beings who live in isolated areas deep in the wild. These fairies are said to dance naked in the moonlight with bells on their ankles, and like the Sirens of Greek myth, can be irresistible to men. What could be wrong with that, you may ask? Well, if you are seduced by them, you may disappear forever without a trace… but what a way to go!
Like the Strigoi, the Pricolici are undead monsters but they always take the form of a giant wolf. Violent, murderous men are said to return from the grave as Pricolici to continue harming living people. Even in modern times, Romanians claim to have been attacked by abnormally large wolves that were, indeed, Pricolici. In a country that still has the largest population of canis lupus in Europe, it’s not hard to guess how this mythical creature sprang to life.
The Căpcăun is a dog-headed, man-eating ogre who kidnaps innocent children and young ladies. Many heroes have faced the Căpcăun in an attempt to rescue a fair maiden, but most often they fail miserably to the ogre’s evil tricks. This miserable creature lives all alone in a den that reeks of death and will not hesitate to attack anyone who passes by. The name “Căpcăun” may actually derive from an eastern term meaning “Chieftain”. This “Kap Khan”, or “Great Khan“, may be an embodiment of the Romanian’s fear of eastern enemies like the Mongols.
For 1000’s of years Romania has had to deal with numerous migrating races such as the Huns, Avars, Bulgars, and Cumans overrunning their territories, and then in the late Middle Ages the powerful expansion of the Ottoman Turks. There has always been problems from the east, but in these times of trouble there have been heroes to stand up for the Romanian people.
Vlad the Impaler
Amongst the many heroes that fought to protect Romania from foreign enemies, there are none greater than Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, Drăculea. Although vilified by the western world, and further transformed into a monster thanks to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula“, Vlad Tepes (Impaler) is still considered a folk hero in the eyes of Romanians. Unlike the Dracula of fiction, Vlad the III was a ruler of Wallachia, not Transylvania, and stood up for his countrymen during the incipient Ottoman conquest of Europe. Drăculea’s father, Vlad II Dracul, ruled Wallachia before him and was knighted under the Order of the Dragon, a group dedicated to protecting Christian Europe from the Muslim Ottoman. The name “Drăculea” actually means “son of the Dragon” referring to Vlad’s father, and was misinterpreted by western Europe as “Son of the Devil”. The stories of Vlad the Impaler staking his people are true; he was a harsh ruler and his favourite form of punishment was to stick criminals alive on top of a tall stake and let gravity do its part, giving them a slow and painful death.
In 1495 a crusade was called against the Ottoman Empire, led by the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. Vlad allied himself with Mathias in an attempt to protect his people in Wallachia, which had been declared part of the Ottoman Empire. When emissaries of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II arrived to collect their tribute, as they had done from Vlad’s father before, Dracula responded by nailing their turbans to their heads. From then on Vlad the Impaler organized many brilliant and successful attacks against the Ottomans, who often vastly outnumbered Vlad’s men. One of his greatest victories was when Vlad and his men, disguised as Turkish cavalry, attacked Ottoman war camps throughout Bulgaria, taking them completely by surprise. Afterwards, in a letter to Matthias Corvinus he wrote:
“I have killed peasants, men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea… We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace.”
Despite his clever military tactics, Vlad III was eventually overrun by the sheer magnitude of the Ottoman army and had to leave Wallachia to the Turks. Never giving up, Vlad retreated to Transylvania to make battle plans with Matthias Corvinus, biding his time. After Matthias agreed to give him Hungarian support to retake Wallachia, Vlad confidently started on his way home. Unfortunately, he was betrayed by King Matthias, ambushed and imprisoned for many years. Matthias claimed that Vlad was a traitor to Christendom, although in reality King Matthias Corvinus wanted to abandon the anti-Ottoman crusade, hence removing Vlad, and focus more on gaining power in central Europe.
When Vlad was released from prison, he immediately set off to Wallachia, defeated the Turkish garrison, and reclaimed his throne. Vlad III ruled Wallachia for only two more months before a large Turkish army arrived to destroy him, once and for all. Vlad Tepes died in that ferocious battle, and his head was sent to Constantinople as a war trophy.
Although in the end Vlad III failed to halt the tide of Ottoman forces, the memory of his defiance, against a far more powerful adversary, remains in the minds of the Romanian people, and his legend lives on.
Stefan the Great
Stefan the Great, King of Moldavia, was also famous for his long resistance against the Ottomans and even fought together with his first cousin, Vlad the Impaler, in several battles. Against the Turks, Stefan was victorious in 44 of 48 battles, managing to protect the rest of Europe from the Ottoman expansion. Stefan the Great was said to be extremely pious, celebrating every victory by fasting on bread and water and giving all credit to God. In his life he built 44 churches and monasteries, one for each successful battle, and after death he was canonized, declared as “Saint Volvode Stefan the Great”.
Mihai the Brave
Like a vision of King Arthur uniting the tribes of Britain, Mihai the Brave ruled all three principalities of Romania for the first time in history: Moldavia, Transylvania, and Wallachia. Although the union of these separate kingdoms only lasted 6 months, up until the nobles revolted, Mihai is still thought to be one of Romania’s greatest, national heroes. Mihai’s legacy was said to be a precursor to modern Romania, a country that was unified again approximately three centuries after him.
Făt-Frumos, Beautiful Son
One hero that never left the storybooks was Făt-Frumos (Handsome Son), the greatest figure in Romanian folklore. In the world of fairy tales, Făt-Frumos is the ideal persona of a hero who preforms good deeds, help creatures in distress and faces all odds in his adventures. One popular story, “Youth Without Age and Life Without Death“, describes Făt-Frumos’ quest to gain immortality. The basis of this story can be found in much older myths such as the Japanese fable, “Urashima the Fisherman,” from 713 AD or even the Mesopotamian epic “Gilgamesh” from 2100 BC. Such tales never die.
The story begins with a pregnant Queen whose child, just before the birth, begins weeping uncontrollably. In order to stop the baby from crying, the King offers him kingdoms, princesses, and all the good things in the world. Nothing he says seems to stop the baby’s crying, so finally the King promises, “Be quiet, my son, and I’ll give you youth without age and life without death.” With that, the child finally quieted down and was born into the world. The Handsome Son grew up to be quick-witted, wise and daring, and on his fifteenth birthday he finally asked his father to grant him the immortality that was promised to him. The King said that he had no power to fulfil his pledge, so Făt-Frumos made an oath that he would scour the world for the secret of immortality, or die trying. The King, Queen, and all the nobles begged him to stay as his parents were growing old and they would need him to rule the kingdom, but Făt-Frumos would not listen to their pleas.
On his adventures, Handsome Son acquires a talking, flying horse and fights his way past many horrible monsters (including a giant woodpecker) until they finally come to the palace of Youth without Age and Life without Death. The fairies that live in the palace take a liking to Făt-Frumos and ask him to stay with them forever, an offer to which he hastily agrees. Although the fairy kingdom was a paradise and he had achieved his goal of immortality, after time out of mind Făt-Frumos begins to long for his home and his parents. The fairies cried and told him not to go, but the Handsome Son made a decision to leave the palace of eternity and find his parents. As he journeyed home Făt-Frumos grew steadily older and older, until his was a crooked, aged man with a long, white beard. The no-longer Handsome Son cried in despair when he came to find that his castle, where he grew up, was in ruins and long ago abandoned. Slowly, in sadness, the Făt-Frumos searched every room until he came to the place where he was born.
A thin, cracked voice greeted him, “You are most welcome! Had you been much later, I would have perished myself!” With that, Death gave Făt-Frumos one slap and he fell down dead, turning instantly to dust.
Romania’s folk tales remind us of a time out of mind when heroes brought order to chaos, when the dark forest still withheld its secrets, and there were simple fables to answer the world’s ultimate questions. Stories are still being passed down through the generations, but they are dissolving in our fast-paced, modern age; where people don’t have the time nor interest in listening and letting their imaginations unfold. The world has moved on, but sometimes, when you hear the wolves howl at night, or feel a cold wind brush your skin sending shivers down your neck, your soul remembers…