The Most Prevalent Feminine Mythical Characters in Romanian Folklore

The Great Goddess of Neolithic, Mother of all, the source of life, feeder of men and animals, prefigured as a snake, bird or fish, guardian of all creatures living in the air, waters or underground, is the dominant character of the pre-historic mythology. She is mistress of the entire nature, creator and protector of animal and vegetal life, goddess of fertility and rejuvenation, holding powers over the mystery of birth, life and death. The only ruler over the earth and sky, she is the mother of all gods, with power over them, as she can generate life without a male. Portrayed holding the bullhorns she relates her connections with lunar changes, with death and resurrection.

This powerful mythical figure survived in the Indo-European pantheon, with characteristics surfacing in almost all the feminine divinities of the classical mythologies. In the Romanian folklore one can recognize this pre-historic goddess in the character of Ileana Simziana, also known as Iana Sânziana or Ileana Cosânzeana, the most adorned fairy of the land. She is the heroine of numerous songs, carols, and fairy tales; the most beautiful of all fairies, their queen, so beautiful that ‘one could look at the sun but not at her’. Her epithets are ‘the beautiful’, the moon fairy, ‘lady of the flowers’, protector of the wild animals and the forests. Ileana is a brilliant goddess with golden hair that could symbolize the waving fields of wheat. In some Romanian Christmas carols she appears carried in a silk hammock hooked sometimes between a stag’s horns, sometimes between a bull’s horns. This archaic divinity, as the goddess from Chatai-Huyul holding the lunar horn, the new moon, which indicates the cyclical death and resurrection, has the function of Terra Mater, a divinity considered to pre-date the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. Her paradoxical character is illustrated by her duplicity, virginity-maternity, contradictions that indicate the archaic mystery of the divine persisting in many European myth and legends. Similarly, the splendor of this archaic divinity is illustrated in the Greek characters of Hera bo-opis ‘cow-eyed’, the Queen of Evening Sky, of full moon, together with Demeter, the distressed mother, whereas the virgins Artemis, Persephone and Helen are goddesses of the new moon, the growing moon.

The name of the Romanian deity, Ileana, sends us to the Greek goddess Helen, both related to an archaic goddess mentioned in Mallory-Adams’s Encyclopedia: *il(i)eha –‘goddess name’, Lat. Ilia ‘Numitor’s daughter’, Skt. Ilā-Idā ‘Manu’s daughter’.

Perhaps a closer look at the myth of Helen could help understand other hidden connotations in this name. Helen was born from the union between Nemesis as a goose with Zeus as a swan. The divine egg ends into Leda’s lap or as in some Greek representations Hermes is the one who puts the egg on the altar. As the Romanian Ileana she was believed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, displaying similar connection to flowers found in a tradition in Sparta where young girls would hang flower wreathes from a certain tree consecrated to her. This may be based on the story in which she was hanged by the orders of a jealous queen, giving her other name Helen Dendritis (Chapouthier 1935). Likewise, there was the Romanian custom held on the summer solstice on the day of Sânziene, (also the day of Saint John, see further) flower fairies and forest spirits, Ileana’s companions, when Romanian girls would make flower wreathes and throw them on the house chimney, with the hope to get married that year.

Ileana’s other appellative, Simziana/Sânziana/ Cosenzeana/Cosânzeana was the subject of various controversial explanations. Mircea Eliade used the concept of Diana Sancta, Sancta Diana>Sânziana, assuming that the DRom. ziana is a development from Diana. It is to be presumed that at this time the Latin sanctus, a was already established in Dacian-Romanian as sânt, which become at a later date coexistant, particularly due church influence, with OCS sventu>DRom sfânt. Based on the adjective dius<*diwios, the form Diana <*Diviānā, is a feminine of the sky god Dius, as in Dea Dia, related to Jupiter and meaning just ‘divine’ (Puhvel 1987: 151). This explanation starts from the assumption that the goddess was a popular divinity among the Roman army and settlers, but it seems more probable that ziana (DRom zâna ‘fairy’) is a diphthongal derivative after Iliana Simziana, Ileana Cosânzeana.

In the Explicative Romanian Dictionary (Dictionarul explicativ al limbii romane, DEX online) the etymology offered for this appellative is the Latin group sanctus dies Johannis (an opinion shared by many prominent Romanian linguists), based on the fact that Sânziene day is celebrated on June 24th Saint John Day. This day was established as the Nativity of St John the Baptist, as listed by the Council of Agde, France, in 506 AD, a the Christian church attempt to associate a feast to will coincide with the folk celebrations of the summer solstice celebrated all over Europe, even though there was no religious connection between the two. The Romanian Simziene / Sânziene, (in the southern part of the country also known as Drăgaica, see further down) are fairies feared by all, associated with the nocturne rites to collect powerful medicinal plants, and have little if any relation to the Christian Saint who baptized Jesus. Presumably, the phonological innovation sanctus dies Johannis>sim(pt)-dzi-iuane>sânziane (Candrea 1927) incorporated this major Christian Saint in popular customs associating His fest day with the goddess of the land Ileana, while remaining in common and religious usage with His original name as Sântioan<Sanctus Ioannis<Greek Ιωάννης, also known in the northern part of the country as Sâmt`ion, Sâmčiuonu, Suntiuonu (Bolocan 2012). It seems hard to believe that the appellative denominating Saint John’s fest became a qualifier for the most beloved fairy of the land Ileana Simziana/Sânziana and her entourage of fairies.

The Romanian fairies, reminiscence of the Indo-European heritage, may be related to the feminine characters that ancient Romans celebrated at the summer solstice; their fest was called Litha or Vestalia, during which young girls and women paid tribute to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and eternal fire. As in many places in Europe, in Romania at the summer solstice a traditional practice was to light and jump over  fires, ancient symbols of warmth and the sun, customs which may be related to the Roman Vestalia, but less probably to the birth of Saint John.

Perhaps a better approach to understand this archaic divinity would be to consider her appellatives Simziana in connection with her attributes as the Queen of the flowers and the forests, the Earth Goddess, and found in the Thracian mythology as Semelh ‘Mother of Earth’, and Semele, diws xemelw, mother of Dyonisos, subject of a cult among the Phrigians as well as the Scythes. This Semele, whose name means ‘earth’ in Indo-European languages, as in Thracian and Phirgian: zemelw, OSlv.: zemlja ‘earth’, Lithuanian Zemyna ‘Earth Goddess,’ cognate with Lat. Humus, Gr. Xam-ai, Xam-unh, Demeter’s name, and possibly with the Cretan  δηαί, Ionic ζηαί meaning “barley”, relating her to the Corn-Mother and the giver of food. The Lithuanian goddess Zemyna, Zemyne, Zemynele, and the Latvian Zemes, “the Baltic Earth Goddess is both grain and mother-nourisher, out of whom humans arise and to whom they return” (Dundzila 1991). The Proto-Indo-European root for ‘earth’ as listed by Mallory-Adams (2006) is *dhéĝhōm-, Skt kşam, Av za, zam, zme, Grk khthōn, Lat humus, Lith žēmė, OCS zemlja, Alb dhe, Hit tēkan, Toch A tkam; it survived as ‘human being, earthly’ and as I mentioned above as ‘goddess’ in Phirgian xemelw, Thracian Semelh ‘Mother of Earth’. We can see how for thousands of years the essential characteristics of the Earth Goddess remained the same, as in Demeter, Semele, Zemyne, and perhaps as a male deity, the Dacian Zamolxes, the god who disappeared underground for a number of years.

Among the few known Dacian words, preserved by Dioscorides, there is diesema   ‘lumînărică’ (Verbascum phlomoides), a small plant which makes a bright yellow flower, similar to ‘sânziene’ flowers (galium verum), formed of the IE root *dei-, di-, dia-, ‘bright, sun ray’ and sema ‘earth’, thus ‘light coming from the ground’, attesting the presence of the word on the Dacian territory, and help explaining the appellative Ileana Sem-ziana, Sâmziana, the goddess of the Earth, of flowers, of the forests, and her companions the Sâmziene, fairies of the land. Parallel with the form Sâmziana, that of Sânziana, may be a result of the Latin influence, a contamination with sanctus, -a, as it is reflected in toponyms like Sânt Ioan, Sân Petru, Sân Giorzan, etc.

Another possible explanation for the form Sem-ziana could be the PIE *sem, som, sm expressing the concept of ‘oneness in conjunction with others’, a very productive root in IE languages. Some examples include Lat. semper, singulus, simplex, simul, Toch. sam-, ‘equal, the same’, Skt. samtarâm ‘together’, sambhárana- ‘bring together’, sam-, ‘complete, perfect’, samvasa ‘living together’, Av. hangam, ‘to get together’, etc., (Caruba 2000) and DRom samă, seamă, adv. ‘same’, de-o seamă ‘of the same age’, asemenea, (se) aseamănă ‘the same’. According to this explanation the Romanian fairy Ileana Sem-ziana is a deity belonging to the group of fairies, Rom. zîne ‘fairies’, the sâmziene, ‘one-together with, but unique’ among the other fairies, their mistress.

Other feminine characters in Romanian folklore are the fairies, zâne, beautiful and kind, helping people. They are opposed to Iele (3rd plural personal pronoun iele) ‘they’, fairies that could turn very aggressive towards mankind. Their number is unknown as there are fairies of flowers, of fields and birds, fairies of springs and lakes,  all in the entourage of zâna zânelor, ‘the fairy of all fairies’, the most beautiful of all, Ileana Simziana. In the spring time the tradition was for children and unmarried youngsters to start a fire, made only of specific woods and the core of ear corns. Around the fire they will put a jug with water, bread and three chairs, in the belief that the fairies will come to wash, eat, warm up by the fire, and bring good luck to the house. (Olinescu 1944: 418) As fairies of flowers and medicinal plants, the Romanian zâne are spirits of the earth, helpers of the Great Goddess, Ileana Simziana, feared and revered by women.

The word ‘zena’ is listed by Dioscorides as a Dacian word with the meaning ‘hemlock’. Looking further into this word’s etymology we find Skt. jyanay-, Av. zyanay-, zyana-, ‘to overcome, conquer, weaken’, with a reconstructed as PIE *ĝiena, *ĝeie- ‘subjugate, overpower, oppress’. (Detschew 1976) Thus the argument can be made that the Dacian word ‘zena’ meaning ‘hemlock’, presents another etymology for the Romanian zâna, plural zâne, feared powerful fairies, that could ‘subjugate’ ‘oppress’ people, damage their health or cripple them, if not revered.

A good example of a reminiscent archaic myth involving medicinal plants and their ritual magic role is the Romanian folk-song ‘The Chicory’:  refusing the sun’s marriage proposal, the girl is transformed into a chicory (Cichorium intybus), a flower used in popular medicine and rituals by unmarried girls to bring their pretender sooner (Ghinoiu 2003).

The transformation of a young woman into a plant, in this case medicinal plant, fits well with the tradition in which these fairies and nymphs were regarded as powerful feminine spirits, helpers of women. In the Greek myth Clytie is transformed into a heliotrope (Valeriana officinalis). Both these plants, the heliotrope and the chicory, are powerful herbs used primarily for their medicinal qualities, feared for their magical powers and probably used in various ritual practices. The heliotrope and the chicory belong to a whole range of sacred plants, found in the Indo-European mythology, together with the mandrake (Atropa belladonna), the hemlock (Conium maculatum), the laurel, and many more.  Among the large material written on this topic we can refer to Mircea Eliade’s study on the use of mandrake by the Romanian girls in a ‘wish-to-marry’ magic chant: “The mandrake is preeminently the erotic plant. It brings love, marriage and fertility… The mandrake is personified ‘Great Lady’, ‘Empress’, Good Mother’ “. (Eliade 1972: 224) This reminds us of the agrarian festivals celebrated in Europe from antiquity to recent times, during which young girls, covered with flowers, were playing a ritual role of the bride marrying a symbolic image of an agrarian god (Frazer 1980).

Similarly, in the Romanian folklore for the festival of Drăgaica celebrated in the southern part of the country at the beginning of harvesting, girls from a large region would select among them the one who was the most beautiful, and call her ‘Drăgaica’. She would be crowned as a bride, with wheat and flowers crown called drăgaica, her dress would be decorated with colorful pieces of cloths, and she would dance all around the village, followed by her entourage of young girls (Pamfile 1997). On the same day young men would perform the ritual named boul instruţat, boul de sânziene ‘the decorated bull, the sânziene bull’, they would select a white bull with large horns, decorate it with beautiful carpets, bells and colorful fringes, and crown it as a groom, The large entourage would walk through the village with music and noise makers trying to imitate the bull’s roar, while one of the young man dressed as a woman would engage in sexual ‘make believe’ acts. (Ghinoiu 2003)

‘Drăgaica’ or ‘the Lady of the Flowers’, is also the name of a yellow flower Galium verum with medicinal and magical powers, which together with the chicory flowers, are worn by women around their waist during harvest, in the belief that they will be protect against the pains associated with field work. All these plants, chicory, hemlock, mandrake, wormwood, ‘drăgaica’, etc., were used also in fertility rituals practiced in the Romanian communities. As mentioned, women used to acquire these plants only in the day of sâmzănii, sânziene the day of the fairies, when they would get up very early in the morning and go in the meadows at the crack of dawn, to look for and collect these special medicinal weeds covered in fresh dew, at the moment which was believed they were the most powerful and effective for various needs or ailments, or simply for wearing them around the waist to help during the hard work of harvesting.

Some of the demonic and chimerical depictions of the Neolithic Goddess, her relationship with death and destruction, have transpired into the characteristics of a group of fairies with negative powers, and the many fearful spirits surrounding them. The representations of the bird-goddess or snake-goddess could be associated with powerful demonic images. The bird-vulture-goddess was even more frightening if taken into account the fact that in some archaic societies the dead were exposed for des-carnation on a high open platform. This custom, paired with the dismembering ritual of Orpheus on the Thracian hills, may have generated in South Eastern Europe folklore an impressive gallery of demonic characters, among which the Sirens, creatures with bird heads, a woman-like body and the lower extremities of birds, Erynies or Furies, snakelike goddesses, Dirae, Harpies, female bird-demons, all feminine spirits feared and respected by all folks. In Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian traditions such feared feminine spirits were the rusalki and/or vili, beautiful girls with long blond hair, usually living near a body of waters. In Macedonia, North-West Bulgaria and Dalmatian region, they are named vili, mostly associated with wooded areas. In the Romanian tradition they are the Rusalii, usually three or nine in number, fairies that ran through clouds armed with sharp tools, or dance in circle, ‘hora’, leaving dark circle marks in the grass. They dance wildly, following their own music, and if a human happens to see them he/she can go mad, get paralyzed, or suffer of painful rheumatism. Their magic powers could also blind, cripple or deafen the one who sees them, as the word zănatec ‘crazy, having lost the mind by contact with zâne’ means. The Rusalii become more powerful during their name holiday, the 50th day after Easter, when it was believed that the dead must return to their tombs after 50 days of rummaging the earth, thus connecting these fairies with death and cemeteries (Pamfile 1910). To protect themselves from the powerful fairies Romanians will wear ‘pelin,’ wormwood (Artemisia absintium) around their waist, or decorate their houses with this plant or with ropes of garlic (Ciauşanu 2005).  Romanians call these fairies by many names, such as the Merciful ones, the Glorious, the Ladies, the Powerful, the Beautiful, the Field’s Daughters, the Forest’s Daughters, the Courageous ones, the Laborious, etc., all euphemisms used to impress the spirits in a positive way and diminish their negative force. Their name, Iele, the feminine third plural pronoun ‘they’ ‘¹ele’, could most likely be another euphemism formed out of fear of saying their names, Rusaliile, Şoimanele, simziene. Romanians believed that these feminine spirits are the nine daughters of Iraclie, [Heracles/Hercules] or of Rusalim king, the owner of the fountain of immortality. One legend says that Alexander the Great went to get a jar of water from this fountain, and took the nine girls with him. When he went to war he told the girls not to touch the jar with water, but they did anyway, hence, they flew away as falcons, DRom şoim, from which comes their other name, Şoimanele, ‘the Falcons,’ (Olinescu 1944: 441) although this connection with a bird name may be closer to their archaic bird imagery.

In the Greek tradition Rousalia is a feast of the dead, reminiscence of an ancient ‘festival of flowers’: “In Athens the ancient Anthestereia, the so-called ‘flower festival’ which was actually a feast of the dead, was replaced by the medieval and modern ‘feast of roses’ the Rousalia, held on Easter Tuesday. Rodd (1892) reports that the modern Rousalia was also celebrated elsewhere in Greece at the feast of All Souls, this time explicitly in memory of the dead. During this ancient feast, Anthestereia, the casks of new wine were broached; interestingly the Greek word anthos (flower), like the modern Spanish word flor, (or the Romanian floare, my note) refers to the yeast that forms on the top of the weak or old wine.” (Jones and Nigel 1995) The author’s conclusion is that this festival was probably a celebration of the blooming of the new life from the old and from the decaying.

Other sources relate this holiday to the Jewish feast of harvest called Pentecost by the Jews speaking Greek, and celebrated 50 days after Passover, when they used to decorate their homes with the fruits of the harvest. Adopted by Christians, it appeared first in Italy by the fourth century as Festa Rosalia, and being accepted by the Byzantines with the same name, transcribed into Greek as Rousalia, spreading through the South-East. Once the Southern Slaves settled and adopted Christianity, they received this holiday as well, which became known in the entire Slavic area. In Bulgarian pycaлиа [rusalia] is the name of a plant (Levisticum officiale), but also ‘rusalca’ a fairy with magical powers, often confused with samodiva, or samovila, a demonic figure, believed to leave around lakes or rivers. In Serbian rusâlie means ‘Christian holiday’, and rusalije are women who dance and sing in the streets on the Rusalia holiday. In Russian tradition the word is present in the 1008 Kiev Chronicle. It seems quite possible that in Christian time this holiday was adopted to justify an old festival of death and rebirth, reminiscence of a festival honoring the Great Goddess.

Henceforth, Rusalii are fairies with a Latin name, celebrated on a Jewish holiday, and adopted all over the Balkans and Eastern Europe to designate powerful water nymphs, commemorated sometimes 50 days after Easter (Jones and Nigel 1995). Such confusing attributes can bring us to conclude that these fairies are of an archaic extraction, evocative of an old festival of death and rebirth, symbolized by the blooming of new flowers and plants, and related to the fertilizing role of waters.

These powerful feminine spirits with their mixed attributes, negative and positive in the same time, showing the ambivalence of divine characters, are proof of the continuity in the European folklore of archaic divinities displaying powerful qualities.



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