ROMANIAN ASTROHUMANISM (IV)
In 2007, the Romanian sky lovers
celebrate 100 years since
Ion Ottescu published the first real guidebook of Romanian astromythology.
On this occasion, we republish
ROMANIAN METEOR MYTHOLOGY
an essay by
Andrei Dorian Gheorghe and Alastair McBeath
(Vice-President of the International Meteor Organization) -
first published in
Proceedings of the International Meteor Conference
Petnica, Yugoslavia, 25-28 September 1997 (IMO, 1998)
Design: Gabriel Ivanescu
The mathematician Ion Ottescu (1859-1932) crowned his own life's work
ninety years ago this year, by publishing in the Romanian Academy Annals
the unique book "The Romanian Peasants' Beliefs in Stars and Sky"
(Ottescu, 1907; Ottescu, 1997, in preparation).
This opus, for which he collected information from the whole of Romania,
is divided into eight principal chapters: The Constellations
(including the Milky Way), The Earth, The Sky (including the stars,
and "shooting stars"), The Sun, The Moon, Eclipses, Comets
and Atmospheric Phenomena.
However, it contains some interesting references to world mythology too,
and gives details on the myth-variants found in the Romanian popular mind.
It is the Romanian aspects, which comprise the bulk of his work, that make
this text so important, as thanks to the Romanian people (and before them
their Dacian forebears) having defended their homeland so successfully down
the millenia, the myths thus preserved appear to have remained virtually unaltered,
or have undergone only minor changes, since their formation.
The Dacians were the descendants of the first people to live in modern Romania's
territory, prior to the Roman conquest by Trajan in the early 2nd century CE.
Many of these myths can consequently be approximately dated to the
lst-2nd centuries CE, but some parts are undoubtedly much older than this.
Also in 1907, Victor Anestin (1875-1918), the most important early Romanian
astronomical popularizer and meteor observing pioneer, founded Orion,
the first Romanian astronomical magazine.
This magazine was revived in 1990, and was instrumental in assisting
the renaissance in Romanian amateur astronomy that has occurred since the
collapse of the Communist regime in 1989.
We have prepared a separate paper on the contribution to Romanian meteor work
of this magazine for WGN (Gheorghe and McBeath, 1998, in press).
As part of the celebrations of these two anniversaries this year,
we here present some details of Ottescu's meteor myths, supplemented by our
own continuing researches into this field.
So far, we have identified six chief meteor themes in Romanian mythology,
discussed individually in the following sections.
The first two are taken from Ottescu's work, the third comes from Victor Anestin,
the fourth was first developed by the young mythologist Dan Mitrut,
while the last two items have resulted from the combined efforts of the
authors' on-going investigations.
2 Meteors as falling stars
For the Romanian peasants (as also with some other peoples across the world),
the saints and angels living in the heavens set alight candles,
which are seen as stars.
These candles represent individual lives on Earth.
Each person has their own star-candle, which is lit at
their birth, and when they die, their star falls, and is extinguished.
Support for this is found even in the Romanian national myth-ballad Miorita
("The Little Ewe"; cf. (Alecsandri, 1866)), which derives from the ancient
Dacian ritual of periodically sacrificing the best young man as a good herald
for the supreme god Zamolxe.
Miorita concerns three shepherds, one each from the three major historical
Romanian provinces, which were states in the Middle Ages:
Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia.
The shepherds from the first two provinces decide to sacrifice the Moldavian,
because he is the best of them and the richest.
The magical little ewe of the myth's title warns the Moldavian shepherd of
his fellows' intention.
Nobly, he accepts his fate (this makes sense, as the participant in the Dacian ritual
would have been considered especially favoured, his death honoring his god),
but asks the little ewe to tell his animals:
"I married a proud princess,/ The world's bride,/ And a star fell/
At my wedding party,/ The Sun and Moon carried my coronet/ .../
And the stars were my torches..."
In essence, this myth compares death with a cosmic wedding.
If a star is very great and bright, it belongs to an emperor,
but if it is small and faint, it belongs to a simple man.
In another fundamental Romanian myth-ballad, "Zburatorul - The Flying Being"
(cf. (Radulescu, 1872)), we find this belief expressed thus in
describing a meteor's flight across the sky:
"Is it a star that falls? Is it an emperor who dies?"
3 Meteors as dragons
The Romanian dragon is called a balaur (which Dan Mitrut's researches indicate
can be translated as meaning golden serpent- see (McBeath and Gheorghe, 1997,
in press), or zmeu when it appears in its more human form.
As demonstrated in, for instance, (McBeath, 1997), dragons have a long association
with meteors, and we find evidence for the widespread nature of this belief
in Romania too.
Here, we present five variants on this theme, the first three taken from the
work of Ion Ottescu (Ottescu, 1907), the fourth from Ottescu as modified by
Mitrut, and the fifth with contributions from the authors.
3.1 Dragons as enemies of men
The flying balauri may attack a man alone in the night,
killing him or disfiguring him.
Clearly, being struck by a meteorite would not be pleasant for anyone,
although in modern times, only property has been recorded as being damaged by
meteorite falls, and one dog reported as being killed by the fall of the
Nakhia meteorite in Egypt in 1911 (cf. (McSween Jr., 1987, p.16)).
This may be similar to the idea of deities flinging thunderbolts (which may be
either lightning strikes or meteorite falls) at humans,
which in turn may be a relic memory of actual impact damage to humans.
3.2 Dragons as celestial fighters of one another
Zmei in particular are commented upon as aerial battlers,
butting at each other with their heads, until their blood flows.
This blood then falls to the Earth, becoming coagulated and blackened along the
way, and is burnt as a charm by the peasants to drive away children's fears.
Numerous substances of various consistencies and appearances have long been
suggested as falling from the heavens, but few have these blood-like
and coagulated aspects to them.
The obvious substance to explain this zmeu-blood is perhaps coal, although this is
not very satisfactory, and it is more likely, as Ottescu himself suggests
(Ottescu, 1907, Chapter 3), that this is actually the mineral wax, a type of paraffin,
from Moldavia called ozokerite.
There remains the possibility that a heavy fall of meteoric dust, perhaps in
association with a meteorite fall, might be responsible for this association, however.
It is tempting to think of the tektites here too, thought to be solidified
meteoritic glass droplets following a major impact,
some of which do resemble coagulated blood.
The main European tektites are the moldavites, but confusingly,
they are named from the Moldau River valley in the Czech Republic,
not Moldavia in Romania.
The moldavites are often of a gem-quality, with a beautiful translucent
green colour to them, appropriate only if zmeu-blood is green, and if so,
perhaps tales or specimens of these stones reaching Romania
might have sparked the legends we find here.
3.3 Dragons as erotic wizards
Here, the balauri enter houses by way of chimneys overnight,
to disturb the sleep of maidens.
Two main myths illustrate this aspect.
The first is the same ballad mentioned above, "Zburatorul", in which a girl from
a Wallachian village is visited in the night by a zmeu in the fashion described.
He appears to her in her dreams, which become very erotic, as a
handsome young man, and torments her thus, to the horror of the local old women.
In the second myth, which is called "The Dragon-Man" (Plopsor, 1921), a balaur
able to transform himself into a man, enters a house and abducts a young maiden
using the chimney route as before, but he is finally tracked down and defeated
by the brave hero Novac, who rescues the maiden.
Night terrors and erotic dreams have long been put down to supernatural
interference in human affairs, and events in the night sky, such as moonlight
shining on a sleeping person, or being exposed to the light of "shooting stars", are
just two of the ways in which this link can be accomplished in myth and legend.
The fact that meteors can be said to sneak silently over houses during the hours
of darkness, will clearly add a further element to the mystery here.
There is another connection with meteors and young lovers,
as we will see in the next section.
3.4 Dragons as instruments of love
Sometimes, these draconic "travelling stars" (another alternative name for meteors
in Romania) can be bewitched by a magician's words into changing their direction
while in flight.
This direction change indicates to a young girl who is watching the place of
her future lover.
The fireball-balaur can become an instrument of seduction too, as anyone who is
hit by the dragon's tail becomes the prisoner of an unknown love (Mitrut, 1997).
Quite how such events can be reconciled with actual meteor activity
Occasional meteors have been reported as following non-rectilinear paths,
and such paths are theoretically possible, but the direction change would be
quite slight for most meteors (Beech, 1989).
A sudden change of direction is also possible if a severe fragmentation event
occurs during a meteor's flight, but this is exceptionally rare, and again
the alteration in flight direction might not be large enough to be noticeable.
It is probably more likely that this aspect of Romanian meteor myth recalls,
in a variant form, the ancient omen lore associated with various signs
in the heavens, among which were featured meteors.
The earliest such details are found in Mesopotamian clay tablets dating to
at least c.1900 BCE (Bjorkman.1973).
3.5 Dragons fighting heroes
Aerial combats are popular in most mythologies.
Deities, major monsters and great heroes are often credited with powers
of flight, either intrinsic or (especially in the case of heroes) borrowed from
elsewhere for the event.
Heroes fighting dragons or other monsters are commoner still in myths,
but one main Romanian tale combines both,
"Praslea the Brave and the Golden Apples" (Ispirescu, 1882).
In this myth the hero Praslea and a zmeu fight in the sky all day until nightfall.
At one stage, they transform themselves into fire-wheels,
and strike at each other thus.
Eventually, the zmeu throws Praslea into the Earth up to his chest,
but Praslea casts the zmeu into the Earth up to its neck, and then beheads it.
The two fire-wheels in the sky may plausibly be the Sun, as Praslea,
in common with many dragon-fighting heroes, such as the Greek Heracles,
is a solar hero; and a brilliant meteor which was brighter than the Sun briefly,
or at the very least was clearly visible in daylight.
The climax of the battle would be the Sun's "throwing" the zmeu-fireball to
the Earth as a meteorite.
The nightfall after the defeat of the zmeu may have been due to a cloud of dust
left by the bolide's passage through the atmosphere,
rather than the actual sunset too.
4 Meteors as divine heralds
Old Romanian beliefs say that sometimes the sky is opened for all the good people
to receive wonderful divine messages from God.
Victor Anestin (Anestin, 1913) described these times as follows:
"At the beginning of January and the end of November,
very great, luminous fireballs have been seen from our country,
which obviously gave birth to the superstition of the "sky's opening",
since the dates for such events coincide with the
Boboteaza holiday - January 6 - and St. Andrei's Night - November 30."
As Romania adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1924,
these dates probably refer to the old-style Julian calendar, thus the dates by the
modern calendar would be around January 18 and December 12.
The latter date ties in well with the Geminids, but the former is a mystery,
as no known strong shower is active in mid-January currently.
Statistically, there is a tendency for sporadic fireballs to be somewhat
more prevalent in February early in the year, perhaps beginning in the
second half of January, which might be invoked as an explanation,
but this remains a curiosity. Links with any meteor showers are likely to be
quite recent, probably 18th or 19th century in origin, and the match with the
Geminids seems particularly good, as their peak was normally on December 12
when they were first observed during the mid-19th century.
The dates may instead relate more to Christian religious customs,
with November 30 approximately opening the Christmas season of services
and festivals, and January 6 closing it.
This would tie in with the concept of Christ's miraculous birth close to the
winter solstice - hence the idea of the heavens being opened,
allowing the people to receive the divine Word.
This could still have a meteoric component, as in popular Romanian beliefs,
as elsewhere, meteors were sometimes seen as heralding a birth,
or as angels descending from the sky.*
5 Meteors as angels
This idea devolves to one of the Romanian glow-worm myths (Bogdan, 1902):
"One day, God came down to Earth with a group of angels.
One of them fell in love with a shepherd girl, who had blonde hair and blue eyes,
and who guarded her flock on a bright green field.
When they returned to the sky, God transformed the angels into stars,
since he was concerned they would tell what they had seen on Earth to
the other angels.
The shepherdess' lover requested that God should cast him back to Earth instead,
so he could be near his love.
God did so, and a trail of sparks fell from him as he descended once more to
Earth, from which sparks the glow-worms were born."
The Christian dressing to this myth cannot disguise entirely its greater antiquity.
Biblical angels do not fall in love with shepherdesses, for one thing.
The group of stars the angels were transformed into is likely to be a constellation,
and the re-descending angel's image is a clear representation of a fireball
leaving a fragmenting wake behind it (Mitrut, 1997).
6 Meteors as imps
Another variant glow-worm creation myth (Bogdan, 1903) has God and
the Devil deciding to separate their subjects as angels and imps respectively.
However, one cunning imp tried to smuggle himself into Heaven in the midst
of God's army, but Saint Peter recognized him, and threw him back to the Earth.
From the place where he fell, the first glow-worms appeared.
Again, the streak of light produced by a meteor's descent, creating sparks that
resembled glow-worms to the people who saw it, resulted in the construction
of the myth to account for the facts.
As we see, there is cause and effect here, but the links we would normally expect
when we study cause and effect today are absent.
7 Meteors as the staff of God
One final, similar, glow-worm myth, also from (Bogdan, 1903),
confirms the fact that for the Romanian people,
glow-worms were indeed the terrestrial projections of meteors.
Thousands of years ago, God was offended by an ugly, giant race,
each having only one eye (which appears to be a reminiscence of the
legendary Greek cyclops' race), and decided to punish them.
He hurled down his staff of gold and diamonds towards this people so hard
that it became fiery and threw off sparks, and when it struck,
it transformed the entire race into glow-worms.
As we find also with other mythologies across the world, this legend
underlines the fact that fireballs are frequently confused with other,
lower atmosphere phenomena, like thunder and lightning.
It is this image which is most readily conjured up by a deity
dispensing justice by a bolt from Heaven.
There are still aspects of meteor myths we have not touched upon yet,
even from Romania and Great Britain, but we would welcome correspondence
from interested parties elsewhere willing to share the meteor myths of
their own lands with us and a wider audience.
We dedicate this work to the memory of Ion Ottescu.
All the English language translation from Romanian texts used here
were specially prepared by the authors.
-Alecsandri, V. (1866). Romanian Popular Poems. In Romanian.
-Anestin, V. (1913). Learning the Stars. House of School Publishers, Bucharest,
Romania. In Romanian.
-Beech, M. (1989). Meteors off the straight and narrow. Astron. Now, 3, 18-20.
-Bjorkman, J. K. (1973). Meteors and Meteorites in the Ancient
Near East. Meteoritics, 8, 89-132.
-Bogdan, N. A. (1902). Familia. In Romanian.
-Bogdan, T. A. (1903). Tribuna. In Romanian.
-Gheorghe, A. D., McBeath, A. (1998). The Importance of the Magazine "Orion"
in Early East-European Meteor Work. WGN, 26, 35-39.
-Ispirescu, P. (1882). Romanian Legends and Tales. In Romanian.
-McBeath, A. (1997). Meteoric Dragons. WGN, 25, 34-36.
-McBeath, A., Gheorghe, A. D. (1997). The Dacian Dragon Standard, King Decebal,
Emperor Trajan and King Arthur. The Dragon Chronicle, in press.
-McSween Jr., H. Y. (1987). Meteorites and Their Parent Planets. Cambridge
-Mitrut, D. (1997). Meteorii si bolizii in legende si descantece
romanesti. Noi si Cerul, 2, 16.
-Ottescu, I.(1907). Romanian Peasants' Beliefs in Stars and Sky.
Ottescu, I.(1997). Romanian Peasants' Beliefs in Stars and Sky. English translation
by A.D.Gheorghe and A. McBeath. In preparation.
-Plopsor, N. (1921). The Dragon-Man. Convorbiri Literare. In Romanian.
-Radulescu, I.H. (1872). Seraphs and Odes of the Romanians. Bucharest,
Romania. In Romanian.
* Section 4, on meteors as divine heralds, has been extensively revised from
the original in this version, as we discovered an error in allowing for the
conversion from Julian to Gregorian calendar dates which invalidated our
earlier discussion of other meteor showers and festivals.
© 2007 SARM
(Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy)