ROMANIAN ASTROHUMANISM (IX)
An essay by Andrei Dorian Gheorghe &
(Vice-President of the International Meteor Organization
and Meteor Section Director of Britainís Society for Popular Astronomy)
Design: Gabriel Ivanescu
Following on from Ade Dimmick's most interesting review of
draconic eclipse myths in The Dragon Chronicle 16 (1999, pp.33-35),
we thought it might be useful to expand on the points
he made about the Romanian eclipse dragons, the Varcolaci, and to explore
further types of eclipse myths containing draconic beasts in Romanian tales.
As Ade mentioned, the Romanian peasants' belief as described by Ion Ottescu
in Chapter 6: Eclipses of his "Romanian Peasants' Beliefs in the Stars & Sky"
(1907; unpublished English translation by the current authors, 1998)
is that solar or lunar eclipses occur when the Sun or Moon is eaten by
unearthly monsters called Varcolaci (from the Latin for "worm-like creatures",
proceeding from Vermicolacius, or Varkolak in Slavonic).
These creatures are explained in various ways as being either a kind of animal
smaller than a dog (or simply small dogs), balauri or zmei (on which
dragons see our TDC 13 article (1998, pp.21-23)),
animals with many mouths like octopus suckers, or ghosts called Pricolici.
They also have various origins, including appearing from children who
die unbaptised, from children born to unwed parents,
if someone chews maize while poking the fire,
if someone brushes dust towards the Sun while sweeping their house,
or if a woman spins without a candle in the night.
These lists read almost like pocket dictionaries of folkloric fears and taboos!
Ottescu comments further that the Romanian etymology of the word varcolac
indicates it derives from "wolf",
thus the little dogs should actually be little wolves.
Even this has its draconic element, since as we discussed in TDC 12
(1998, pp.13-19), the dragon battle standards from Dacia,
Romania in the time of ancient Rome,
consisted of a metallic wolf's head attached to
a serpentine cloth "windsock" body,
designed to roar and howl fearsomely at the Dacians' enemies.
According to Ottescu, some peasants think that eclipses of the Sun and Moon
happen when God commands the Varcolaci to eat them, in order to
scare people into abandoning their sinful ways.
A more poetic belief runs: "As Saint Sun and Saint Moon are very beautiful,
some monsters that live in the sky [the Varcolaci] desire to kiss them.
When they try to do so, however, they actually swallow them,
but the Sun and Moon are able to draw out of the monsters' mouths,
and return more beautiful than before."
"Kiss" here may be intended in a euphemistic sense,
rather like a vampire's kiss,
initially pleasurable but ultimately catastrophic.
Yet another explanation is that the Varcolaci gnaw at the Sun and Moon
so they can descend to harm the Earth-dwellers
in the ensuing perpetual darkness.
Fortunately the Sun and Moon can run very quickly,
and thus avoid permanent damage.
This touches on the important question of how the Moon or Sun remains
whole after being eaten.
One explanation is that as the Moon is more powerful than the Varcolaci,
she can only be bitten by them, because if she were to be swallowed,
it would mean the end of the world.
This is why the peasants make a terrific din when there are eclipses,
in order to scare away the Varcolaci.
However, some peasants prefer to light Easter candles and pray instead.
Another idea is that because the Moon is so great, she tires out the Varcolaci
which attack her, forcing them to release her out of exhaustion.
Alternatively, some peasants maintain that it can all be explained
through running; the Moon runs very quickly, while the slower-running Varcolaci
can only nip briefly at her, before falling behind.
In a solar eclipse, the Sun is saved
because in Romanian belief, he rides across the sky daily on a lion,
and the lion fights with the Varcolaci, protecting him.
In myths, we sometimes come across expanded versions of these ideas,
as for instance in "The Amulet Myth", a well-known tale most recently
published in Romanian under this title as Volume E 99 by the
Carmen Sylva High School, 1998.
In this, the Sun disguises himself as a handsome young man, and descends to
a village to dance a Hora.
We discussed the traditional Romanian ring-dance of the Hora in "The Great
Romanian Sky Dragon" (TDC 11, pp.11-14, 1997, especially see p.13).
We should note here that the Hora is also a symbol of Romanian national unity
(officially since the regions of Wallachia and Moldavia joined to become Romania
in 1859, though in fact the dance was of considerable importance long before then,
perhaps even from prehistoric times, as a Cucuteni-culture sculpture
from the 4th millennium BCE, found at Frumusica, eastern Romania,
is in the form of a Hora of six naked women).
More importantly here, it is also a solar symbol.
A commonly shouted chant during the dance is
"Play the Hora with your feet/ For the Sun to rise again!"
Having come down to Earth for the dance,
the Sun is abducted by a zmeu in its dragon-man form.
The zmeu and its captive are followed by a hero,
who tracks them all through the summer,
autumn and winter, before finally catching up with the dragon.
The ensuing fight thus occurs just before the beginning of spring, and naturally the
hero kills the zmeu, but he is fatally wounded during the combat, falls into the snow
and dies, reddening the snow with his blood.
In his memory every year between March 1st to 8th, Romanian men and boys
offer the women and girls an amulet with red and white tassels.
This is similar to the Bulgarian custom of the martenitsa, though for a different
reason (see "The Zmey of Bulgaria", Alastair McBeath & Eva Bojurova,
A similar myth, though with a happier ending, is "Greuceanul"
(translated into English here from Petre Ispirescu's collection
"Romanian Legends and Tales", Bucharest, 1882).
In this, a gang of zmei abduct the Sun and Moon.
Desperate, the Red Emperor (a curious, often very distant, character in
Romanian folklore, whom we discussed briefly in our article on
Mihai Eminescu's poems in TDC 16, 1999, pp.13-14) promises that
his daughter will marry whoever can liberate the celestial lights.
The brave hero Greuceanul, assisted by his friend the Craftsman of the Earth,
discovers the castle of the zmei, and after many adventures,
he defeats them one by one, firstly the youngest little zmeu,
then the older big zmeu, the father-zmeu, and each of their wives,
Finally, he must battle Scorpia, Mother of the Zmei (see our
"Gheonoaia & Scorpia" article in TDC 14, 1998, pp.25-27
for more details on her).
Here, Greuceanul fools Scorpia into swallowing a golden copy of him
made by the Craftsman, on which she chokes.
Having rescued the Sun and Moon, he naturally goes on to marry the
Red Emperor's daughter.
Lastly for this time, draconic eclipses, especially lunar ones, sometimes form
the backdrop for other tales, as a time suitable for magic or unusual,
One such is a tale turned to poetry in 1842 by Vasile Alecsandri (1819-1890;
he also composed the Romanian Unity Hora lyrics, was the founder of
Romanian poetic drama, and in 1881 was awarded the Latinity Prize in France).
This is "Baba Cloanta", literally "Old Mother Beak", first published in the
magazine Propasirea, in 1844.
Baba Cloanta usually appears in myths as an ancient, ugly, evil woman
with magical powers, the archetypal powerful, black-magic wielding,
She is sometimes treated as identical to Muma Padurii (Mother of the Forest),
who sleeps in serpentine coils around a fire, feeding her tree-sons with
sleep stolen from insomniac people.
In this story, Baba Cloanta falls in love with Fat Frumos,
the traditional Romanian hero we have frequently mentioned before.
She tries to bewitch the hero to fall for her,
as she hides in a bush by night.
A single shooting star sweeps across the firmament,
and then a dark spot appears on the Moon.
She begins her magic just as
"The varcolac is broadening/ Up there, on the Moon, like a cloud",
beginning the eclipse.
Of course, Fat Frumos is not so easily captured, and Baba Cloanta sells
her soul to the Devil to get her revenge on him,
but before she can catch him,
a cock crows signalling both dawn and the end of the eclipse,
as the Moon has returned to its normal bright silvery-whiteness
and the Sun comes up.
© 2007 SARM
(Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy)