ROMANIAN ASTROHUMANISM (III)
SKY MYTH AND GREAT SKY DRAGON
An essay by Alastair McBeath
(Vice-President of the International Meteor Organization)
and Andrei Dorian Gheorghe -
first published as
“THE GREAT ROMANIAN SKY DRAGON”
in The Dragon Chronicle
(the International Journal of Dragonlore)
Number 11, September 1997, London, U.K.
Design: Gabriel Ivanescu
The rich mythology and folklore of Romania is poorly-known
beyond the borders of that country, largely because of cultural isolation
for much of this century and before.
The mythology is in general a mixture of Christian and earlier Pagan themes,
and in parts seems to preserve very ancient aspects from earlier cultures
that other European mythologies have either forgotten, or perhaps never had.
For instance, the Romanian constellations are similar to those found in the West,
but are a mixture of adapted Christian and agricultural symbols,
with a few retaining historical links to the Roman conquest of Romania
(then called Dacia).
In future articles, we hope to introduce you to other aspects of Romanian dragonlore,
but here we will concentrate on the great Romanian sky dragon,
called Balaurul or Zmeul, represented in the stars by the constellation of Draco,
which we encountered in an earlier issue
of The Dragon Chronicle (McBeath 1995).
The physical appearance of the Romanian Draco in the sky is
much as we find it
in the Western star patterns (Ottescu 1907; Suhay 1991, 1992; Gheorghe 1996).
Its head “Capul Balaurului” points towards “The Man”
(in Romanian “Omul”; the constellation Hercules),
or is sometimes shown lying beneath his foot,
which is the more typical rendition in Western tradition.
Its body is coiling and serpentine, and winds between the
Greater and Lesser Bears (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor - also known in Romania
as “Carul Mare” and “Carul Mic”, the Greater and Lesser Chariots).
In Romanian, these twists or coils are called “Colacul” or “Încolacitura”.
It has no wings, but like the Chinese dragon,
this seems to have little influence on its ability to fly.
It also has no legs or claws.
Balaurul/Zmeul is a major player in the main Romanian
This myth in essence provides both an explanation for the existence of part
of the constellations and the Milky Way, and a handy mnemonic tale,
listing these same constellations.
In the mind’s-eye, it would be easy to imagine communities or families
sitting by the fireside on a winter’s night retelling the tale to an
enthralled younger audience, to ensure its passage orally from one generation
to the next, perhaps spiced by the occasional argument as to the “proper” order
of listing among the elders.
The version of the myth we present here is based on (Gheorghe 1996), which is
an English-language translation and adaptation of that in (Ottescu 1907).
ROMANIAN SKY MYTH
After the world’s creation, the Sky and the Earth were
very close together.
But man was indifferent, and did not understand this divine generosity
(God’s counsel being good under any conditions).
Man’s indifference was so pronounced that one day a woman threw a
child’s stained nappy into the sky - though fortunately,
it did not actually touch the sky.
God became very upset at this, and removed himself and the Sky far away
from the Earth, so that we now say of something, “It is far away, like the sky”.
The woman was the culprit, for the woman has “a long
dress and a short mind”
or is only “good to make trouble”.
But the Man suffered because of God’s absence, and so he decided to journey
to the Sky, looking for the Creator.
He knew the road would be difficult and long, so the Man
took with him
his Great Chariot with four oxen, his Small Chariot, his Votive Light from the wall,
the Great Cross of the church, the Fountain of the Crossroads, his Axe,
his Great Auger, his Small Auger, his Sickle, his Scythe, his Great Plough,
his Small Plough, his Mastiff from the sheepfold, his Little Dog from the courtyard,
the Hatching Hen with her Chicks, the Sow with her Piglets, the Shepherd,
the Herdsman, the Charioteer and “Hora” the Ring Dance from the village.
Because he wanted to appear before God like a good Christian, he took with him
the most necessary human beings and things, to provide him with cheery company
and help in times of trouble.
He also took seeds and wheat to till and sow in the sky’s fields for his future food.
Then he set off, and he travelled for a long time, but
in the middle of the Sky’s road,
“He Who Will Be Killed By The Cross”, the Devil, stopped him.
“Where are you going?”, asked the Devil.
“It isn’t your business”, replied the Man.
“Who are you looking for?”, queried the Devil.
“Leave me alone!”, shouted the Man.
“You are a petulant fellow!”, retorted the Devil.
“That’s not true! You are a scoundrel and an evil one!”,
was the Man’s response.
Then the Devil, furious, pulled out from his bag the Dragon, the Violent Serpent,
the Great Bear, the Damned Scorpion, the Angry Horse and the Skull,
and threw them around the Man to scare him.
But the brave Man began to fight with the Devil, and their
battle created a
great storm beneath the Sky, called by us on Earth “the rabid wind”.
In the meantime, the strong Mastiff and the Little Dog attacked the Horse,
so the Horse ran far away.
The Shepherd struck the Dragon with a yoke.
The Herdsman banished the Serpent with “Hora” the Ring Dance.
The Charioteer crushed the Skull with the Axe.
With the battle going so badly, the worried Scorpion burst in a moment.
Only the oxen of the Great Chariot ran off,
when the frightened Great Bear became rigid with terror.
Now, we see these events in the sky.
In the midst of all these creatures, people and things, the victorious Man appears
large and grandiose, while the Devil is very small and huddled.
God made the Man to be king in the Sky, as on Earth.
Even the Devil recognizes the Man as his master!
But the Man still has a long way to go to reach God.
He trusts in God’s help when he asks Him something with a pure soul.
We know too the Man’s road.
It can be seen on clear nights without the Moon.
Its name is the Milky Way.
It became white because in the battle the Shepherd accidentally overturned
the milk pails when he struck the Dragon with the yoke,
and the milk poured out all along the Man’s path.
This is a fascinating myth, and one which would benefit
from a fuller discussion
of many of its aspects than we give here.
The Sky’s removal to a great distance, taking with it God because of
a woman’s actions has distinctly Christian overtones;
the Biblical Eve’s actions resulting in the expulsion of humans from Paradise,
for instance, but in this case the heavy criticism of the woman - and women
generally - seems particularly offensive to modern eyes.
The various constellations listed, which we have not already mentioned,
equate with the following modern star groupings:
The Sky’s Votive Light is Polaris, the Pole Star;
the Great Cross is Cygnus, the Swan,
and the Fountain of the Crossroads is the brightest star in that constellation,
Deneb (at the tail-tip of the Swan, or the head of the Cross);
the Axe is Perseus;
the Great Auger is the bright star Betelgeuse (the “top left” star from
a northern hemisphere site) in Orion, the Hunter,
plus the middle star in Orion’s belt (epsilon Orionis);
the Little Auger is the triangular group of three quite faint stars in Auriga,
the Charioteer, often called the Kids (epsilon, zeta and eta Aurigae), which lie
just to the “right” of the bright star Capella as seen from north of the equator.
The Sickle is a curving line of seven faint stars in southern Orion
(tau, 29, upsilon, iota and theta Orionis plus two other unnamed stars),
in the quadrilateral formed by the brilliant star Rigel (“bottom right” star in Orion),
kappa Orionis (“bottom left”), and the three stars of Orion’s belt
(delta, epsilon and zeta Orionis);
the Scythe is Cepheus, the King;
the Great Plough is Orion;
the Little Plough is Orion without Betelgeuse;
the Mastiff is Canis Major, the Great Dog, with its leading star
the glittering white Sirius;
the Little Dog is Canis Minor;
the Hatching Hen and her Chicks are the Pleiades or Seven Sisters,
a small star cluster in Taurus, the Bull;
the Sow with her Piglets are the Hyades, a larger star cluster
in Taurus - the bright star Aldebaran, set in this cluster as we view it from Earth,
may well be the Sow, as another Romanian name for Aldebaran
is “the Star of the Pig”.
The Shepherd is the bright star Vega in Lyra, the Lyre,
which lies near Draco’s head and not far from Deneb in Cygnus - his sheep are
the other stars of Lyra;
the Herdsman is Boötes, the Herdsman;
the Charioteer is Auriga, the Charioteer;
and “Hora” the Ring Dance is the circlet of stars forming Corona Borealis,
the Northern Crown, which lies beside Boötes.
We present some further details on “Hora” in the box on the next page.
“HORA” THE RING DANCE
This is a popular, dynamic, Romanian dance for men and women,
but it has a magical variant too,
and it is this which banishes the Serpent in the Sky Myth.
The magical version is performed by the Ielele, or the Iele,
voluptuous, gambolling, and sometimes vengeful, maidens,
who in some tales appear with immaterial bodies.
Various types of Iele exist too,
including the Dragaice “daughters of the dragon”
and the Vantoase “daughters of the winds”.
They perform their dance in a forest glade
or in the air by the light of the full Moon.
In doing so, they are naked or wear transparent clothes,
and have bells on their feet.
If a man should try to secretly watch them doing this,
they perform a Hora around him, hypnotising him.
They then magically alter his face into an ugly one, and depart,
leaving the glade burnt out.
The music for the Hora is traditionally played on a pipe-flute,
similar to those used in India for snake-charming.
In essence, the Hora is an image of circular perfection, one which
hypnotised and charmed the dangerous Serpent, a symbol of
disordered chaos in the Sky Myth. (Ottescu 1907; Kernbach 1983)
He Who Will Be Killed By The Cross is the faint star Alcor,
which “rides on the back” of the brighter star Mizar (zeta Ursae Majoris),
in mid-tail of Ursa Major, the Great Bear.
This curious star has a long association with the Trickster-Controller figures
of various mythologies, and is often a crucial player
in myths regarding the world’s end.
The ancient Babylonians called it “the Fox Star”,
for instance (cf. Gössmann 1950, text number 205 mulKA5.A (235)).
The Dragon is of course Draco;
the Serpent is made up of the two constellations Ophiuchus and Serpens,
which we also looked at earlier in The Dragon Chronicle (McBeath 1997);
the Great Bear is naturally Ursa Major - hence the confusion of what happened
to the Great Chariot and its oxen, since this is the same constellation;
the Scorpion is the zodiacal constellation Scorpius;
the Horse is Leo, the Lion, another zodiacal constellation,
and not Pegasus, the Flying Horse, as might have been expected;
finally the Skull, or Death’s Head, is Perseus, another reduplicated constellation
which ends up defeating itself as the Axe.
cover a very specific strip of the sky stretching across the
Northern Celestial Pole from Scorpius on one side to Orion on the other.
The region roughly follows the path of the Milky Way (not surprisingly),
excluding only the anciently-recognised constellations of Cassiopeia, Aquila,
and parts of Gemini and Sagittarius of those that lie chiefly on the Milky Way.
Cassiopeia in Romanian lore is God’s Chair or the Monastery,
Aquila is God’s Eagle,
Gemini is the Brothers, usually taken as Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus,
and Sagittarius is normally seen as a Roman archer.
Godly constellations would naturally be excluded by the initial action in this myth,
while the Brothers and the Archer could be seen as unlikely to assist
a Romanian/Dacian Man.
Oddly enough, almost
all of this strip of sky is featured in the diagrams in
(McBeath 1996a, 1996b and 1997), except for Gemini, Canis Major
and Canis Minor, which are just off the left hand edge of the figure in
(McBeath 1996a, p.21), so regular Dragon Chronicle readers
should have no trouble working out where all these constellations are.
Those less fortunate should consult a good star atlas, such as (Ridpath 1989).
The constellations following the Milky Way may well have had
especial significance in the past, and it is interesting how frequently some of them
are linked together in myths.
The question and answer
session is found in many other tales,
and often leads into physical combat, as here, or some other trouble.
The battle itself, with armies on either side, has echoes going right back
to the Mesopotamian Creation Epic (cf. Dalley 1989, pp.228-277),
which also features a combat between Tiamat and an army of creatures
not dissimilar to those in the Devil’s bag here,
with Marduk and several weapons, some of which
seem to have an independent life of their own, opposing her.
Marduk’s weapons also include an entire group of winds, including the
tempest and whirlwind, which are elsewhere usually associated
with the dragon, and he rides in
“the frightful, unfaceable storm-chariot./
He had yoked to it a team of four and had harnessed to its side/
‘Slayer’, ‘Pitiless’, ‘Racer’, and ‘Flyer’;/”
(Dalley 1989, p.251).
The comparison is surprisingly close in a relative sense,
and may help explain an apparent contradiction, as the Romanian names for
the seven bright stars of Ursa Major are Carul Mare, Ursul Mare (the Great Bear)
or Sapte Boi (the Seven Oxen), while only four oxen are yoked to
the Man’s Great Chariot in this myth.
There are differences, however, as Marduk’s chariot-beasts were clearly
meant as horrific, destructive creatures, and are described
as having poison on their teeth.
So to the draconic
details of the battle.
The Shepherd strikes the Dragon with a yoke, knocking over his milk pails
in doing so, thus in effect, the Dragon’s actions are responsible for
the creation of the Milky Way.
The Shepherd is Vega, a star which in the fullness of time will become
the Pole Star, while the yoke of the sky is a name associated with Draco
from ancient Mesopotamian material (cf. Gössmann 1950,
text number 282. mulMU .SIR2.KEŠ2.DA (48)), and also the Pole Star.
It is often unclear as to whether the rotational pole or the ecliptic pole
is referred to in such texts as mention this name.
It may perhaps refer to both, since Draco coils about both (see McBeath 1995).
Vega is also close-by the head of Draco, as already mentioned,
and is also adjacent to the constellation of Hercules, as well as lying between
both star patterns and the Milky Way.
This yoke in effect supports the sky, and can be seen as the cosmic world axis
or world tree of other myths.
The Milky Way is generally portrayed as a road or path of some sort in
most mythologies, sometimes a burnt or scorched one, or a river, or spilt milk.
Occasionally, it also features as a gigantic serpent.
For an idea of the widespread similar nature of such myths and beliefs,
see (Allen 1963, pp.474-485) or (Olcott 1911, pp.389-398).
The spilling of milk immediately calls to mind the suckling of the Greek Heracles
by the goddess Hera, who had been tricked into doing so by the goddess Athene.
Heracles sucked with such force that Hera threw him down in pain,
but a spurt of her milk flew across the sky to become the Milky Way
(cf. Graves 1992, p.452), but there are other variants.
will also make the immediate connection between dragons
in these islands and milk offerings, often of a highly specific nature and amount
(e.g. Screeton 1978, esp. pp.61-62).
How far this particular parallel may be taken is difficult to ascertain.
We are not presently aware of any notable dragon-milk link in Romanian dragonlore,
but in Romanian tradition, anyone pricked by a venomous monster
can be purified and healed using milk.
Clearly then, the
dragon played an essential,
central role in early Romanian skylore,
a role which has probably descended from prior cultures.
We shall discuss the possible dating of this myth in a later article.
It seems that the importance placed upon the dragon is supported by the fact
that unlike most of the other constellations which feature in the myth,
Draco retains a virtually identical form and nature to that found right through
to the present day in Western skylore, something that only otherwise applies to
the two chariots (loosely), the two dogs and three of the humans on one side,
the bear and scorpion on the other.
-astropoem by Andrei Dorian Gheorghe-
Two armies in the sky,
And the Man defeating
Two armies in the sky,
And the Shepherd defeating
Two armies in the sky,
And the Milky Way defeating
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© 2007 SARM
(Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy)