Photo (Jupiter and Milky Way in Sagittarius, August 2007): Valentin Grigore

-Essay by Andrei Dorian Gheorghe,
first published in Romanian as “Milky Way in Romanian Traditions”
in SARM’s magazine “Noi si Cerul / Us and the Sky”, 4 (8), 1997-

Design: Florin Stancu

Author’s Note:
The English version of this essay is dedicated to 150 years
since the birth of Ion Ottescu (sometimes named Otescu),
who lived between 1859 and 1932,
and was a teacher of mathematics, a high-school director, a general teaching inspector,
and the founder of Romanian astromythology through his book
“Romanian Peasants’ Beliefs in Stars and Sky”
(Romanian Academy Annals, Bucharest, 1907).
This is the reason for which SARM has proposed the Ion Ottescu jubilee
as the main Romanian astronomical celebration during
the International Year of Astronomy 2009.


Milky Way…
a wonder tenderly veiling us and displaying its magic over us…
a wonder in which we were born and live, but use to forget it,
seduced by the delusive comfort of civilization…
a wonder which, after the ancient Greeks,
was born from the milk of Hera’s chest, after the little boy Hercules had satiated,
or, after some Romanian peasants from Muntenia or Wallachia
(a historical province in the south of Romania),
from the milk of a mother whose little boy had been adducted by an eagle,
and she had begun to look for him in the sky.

“The Milky Way’s appearance” - Ion Ottescu wrote in his 1907 book -
“seems to move us, seems to inculcate a kind of respect to the sky,
seems to fill our hearts with a kind of greatness,
as if believers enter a majestic temple…”

A few years later, Victor Anestin wrote in his book
“Learning the Stars” (Bucharest, 1913):
“There are magnificent evenings, especially on autumn time,
when we remain spell-bound because of the Milky Way’s beauty.
The impression is deeper when we know that the luminous belt
is composed of millions and millions of stars close each other,
of immense masses of hydrogen and helium.”

The researches of Ion Ottescu on this theme, excepting the famous “Sky Myth”

(in which God punishes a man for a sin of his wife
by separating the sky from the earth;
however, the man tries to recover the sky and starts towards it,
taking with him his best fellows, animals, objects, and elements of food
to sow the heavens;
after a battle with the Devil’s army,
all the participants become constellations in the sky,
and the milk poured out during that fight becomes just the Milky Way),

shows that the usual Romanian popular name for the Milky Way
(especially in Muntenia) is the Slaves’ Road, or Trajan’s Way,
or simply “Troian”,
because the people of those times thought that it was
the road on which Emperor Trajan had come to conquer Dacia
(the ancient name of the actual Romanian territory)
and then had come back to Rome with many slaves,
but some of them had escaped and had returned home,
following the same way.

In time, the Christian influence adapted that belief
as the road on which all the slaves go to the heavenly kingdom,
or the road on which all the people - slaves of God - will go to the Final Judgment,
or the way on which the mortals’ souls climb towards Paradise.

(Another variant, inspired by the Bible and collected by Nicolae Densusianu
in 1895 in Oltenia - a historical province in the south-west of Romania - says that
the Milky Way is the road showed by God to Moses in order to save his people.)

It is interesting that, later, this belief found
historical and geographical adaptations:
-in Moldavia (a historical province in the west of Romania),
the Slaves’ Road became the way of captivity and return of the people
after the attacks of the Tatars (that had their headquarters in the Crimea Peninsula
at the Black Sea, and were nicknamed ogres - “capcauni” in Romanian,
or people with heads of dogs);
-in Muntenia and Oltenia, the invaders were Ottomans
(that owned the Balkanic Peninsula in the south of the Danube River);

Sometimes, through a phonetic confusion,
the Slaves’ Road (“Drumul Robilor” in Romanian)
became the Blinds’ Road (“Drumul Orbilor” in Romanian),
and in the north of Moldavia
another name for the Milky Way was the Sky Forest.

Ion Ottescu also presents a variant from Oltenia,
in which the Milky Way represents the straws stolen by a man from another,
but put by God in the sky as the sample of a sin.

(An almost identical variant was collected in 1895, in the same province,
by Nicolae Densusianu -
this was later certified in Muntenia and Transylvania too -
and here, a man carries his straws in a chariot, but he loses them on the road,
so the Milky Way and the Great Chariot become
“the Road of Straws” and “the Heavenly Chariot.)

Other similar variants were collected by:

-Pericle Papahagi (“Aromanian Tales”, 1905)
from the Romanian communities that lived in the south of the Danube River:
here, the thief is even the godson of the loser;

-E. Petrovici (“Folklore from the Locals of Scarisoara”, 1939)
from the Occidental Carpathians, Transylvania:
here, the thief is a gipsy;

-Tudor Pamfile (“The Sky and His Ornaments”, 1915)
also from the south of the Danube River:
here, a man steals his godfather’s milk,
which is poured out on the road by God’s Angel.

A really enchanting variant was collected in Transylvania
by Elena Niculita Voronca (“Studies of Folklore”, 1908),
in which a child convinces God to let him take his sinful mother from Hell
with the help of a blanket, which she had used in the past
to save a few frozen tomcats,
and just that rope-blanket becomes the Milky Way.

A so generous theme cannot be ended without some of the most beautiful
Romanian verses dedicated to the Milky Way, their author being
(in “Second Game”, 1930) the famous mathematician Dan Barbilian (1895-1961)
alias the poet Ion Barbu:

I salute on the night stair,
at the evening scepter,
thrice spiraled,
the world’s static river of milk.

Photo (Summer Milky Way, 2007): Alex(andru) Conu



Fascinated by Ion Ottescu’s 1907 book,
“Romanian Peasants’ Beliefs in Stars and Sky”,
Dan Mitrut (actual Vice-President of SARM) wrote in 1997 in “Noi si Cerul”:

“I think that Ion Ottescu’s Sky Myth is a fundamental text,
generally for Romanian culture,
and particularly for astromythology.
In primordial times infused by spirit,
the man tries to rehabilitate his connection to God
by transfiguring his own world through a cosmic effort.
The result is wonderful:
the darkness is broken by the white liquid, or by the light,
because in fact the light is cosmic milk.”

In 2000,
Dan Mitrut tried to reconstitute “the road of the man with a celestial soul”
by composing and launching, at SARM’s Cosmopoetry Festival,
“The Sky Myth”, a reference astrofolk song,
one of its video-recordings being presented one year later by SARM
during the Astropoetry Show (Astroshow)
of the International Meteor (Organization) Conference in Cerkno (Slovenia),
September 2001.
Here are Dan Mitrut’s lyrics for that astrofolk song:

He who did not know what the flight is…
He who did not know what the longing is…
I have started towards the sky,
A wood star, an iron plough,
Time is road, a blue road.

He who did not know what the wheat is,
Sown by fields and rivers…
The steps of the world were crying,
Shouting after my dreams:
“Only you will lead us towards the stars.”

I have brought your lives back,
The magical Milky Way…
I know, you have forgotten the light,
And my tears have fallen from above:
The sky is so hard…

The steps of the world were shouting,
Shouting after my dreams:
“Only you will lead us towards the stars.”

Come back from the heights,
I still hear that echo:
“Only you will lead us towards the stars.”

Dan Mitrut during an astrofolk music recital,
SARM National Conference, Vanatorul Complex, Bucegi Mountains, 2006
Photo: Alex(andru) Conu

© 2009 SARM
(Romanian Society for Meteors and Astronomy)