Romanian Iele & Sânziană

d-_paciurea_-_himera_laviuThe Iele are mythical young women in Romanian mythology and there are several differing descriptions. Often they are described as Fairies (Zane in Romanian), with great seductive powers and power over men. They have great magical skills and attributes similar to the Ancient Greek Nymphs, Naiads and Dryads which means they were all women who were and still are witches.

The same common mythological base is suggested by the close resemblance with the Nordic female elves, youthful feminine spirits of great beauty living in forests and other natural places, underground, or in wells and springs. Their sacred tree is the maple; and with magical powers, they have the ability to cast spells with their circle dances. Dancing before the Dionysus and Pan cults, were the great communication of women of empowerment who worked together to keep their community both safe and purified. These mythological terms such as  the älvdanser (“elf dances”) or älvringar (“elf circles”) were attributed to women after they lost their goddess circles because of men and their wars, and men and their Christian religions.

Arguably, Iele are the Romanian equivalent of the Fairies of other cultures, the small aspect of the magical soul connected to the insect kingdoms of earth, including the butterflies. Greek and Roman Nymph mythology, the Vili of Slavic mythology and the Irish Sídhe all fall under this domain. The Iele can fly and sometimes live in the sky, in forests, in caves, on isolated mountain cliffs and in marshes, and reported to have been seen bathing in the springs or at crossroad as they would then serve the goddess Hecate.

They mostly appear at night by moonlight, as dancing Horas (light), in secluded areas such as glades, the tops of maples, walnut trees, ponds, river sides, crossroads or abandoned fireplaces, with bells on their ankles and carrying candles. In almost all of these instances, the Iele appear to be incorporeal and the effect of their specific dance, the Hora (light) is similar to the dances of the Bacchantes.

The place where they had danced would after remain carbonized, with the grass incapable of growing on the trodden ground and with the leaves of the surrounding trees scorched. Later, when grass would finally grow, it would have a red or dark-green color, the animals would not eat it, but instead mushrooms would thrive.

Dimitrie Cantemir describes the Iele as ‘’Nymphs of the Air’’ but the origin of these beliefs are unknown. Most likely they are after Christianize Romania, in order to hold onto the magical nature of their past, but vilified them to match the anger women must have felt when Religious men began to control everything in villages and communities.The name iele is the Romanian word for “they” (feminine). Their real names are secret and inaccessible, and are commonly replaced with nicknames based on their characteristics which are Iele, Dânse, Drăgaice, Vâlve, Iezme, Izme, Irodiţe, Rusalii, Nagode, Vântoase, Domniţe, Măiestre, Frumoase, Muşate, Fetele Codrului, Împărătesele Văzduhului, Zânioare, Sfinte de noapte, Şoimane, Mândre, Fecioare, Albe, Hale, etc.

These names must not be used randomly, as they may be the basis for dangerous enchantments and it is believed that every witch knows nine of these pseudonyms, from which she makes combinations and which are the basis for spells.

The Iele are not to be solitary creatures, but gather in groups in the air, where they can fly with or without wings; they can travel with incredible speed, either on their own, or with fire. The Iele appear sometimes with bodies, at other times only as immaterial spirits. They are young and beautiful immortals, their frenzy causing delirium in onlookers, and with bad tempers, but not  necessarily evil. They come in groups of three or seven. This version is mostly found in Oltenia.

They can resort to revenge only when they are provoked, offended, seen while they dance, when people step on the trodden ground left behind by their dances, sleep under a tree which the Iele consider as their property, drink from the springs or wells used by them. Terrible punishments are inflicted upon the ones who refuse their invitation to dance, or the ones who mimic their movements. The one who randomly hear their songs becomes instantly mute.

A main characteristic is their beautiful voices which are used to enchant their listeners, just like the Sirens from ancient Greek mythology. Invisible to humans, there are however certain moments when they can be seen by mortals, such as when they dance at night. When this happens, they abduct the victim, punishing the “guilty” one with magical spells  after they previously caused him to fall into sleep with the sounds and the vertigo of the frenetic Hora, which they dance around who they abducted, to disappear forever without a trace.

Iele are also believed to be agents of revenge and when they are called upon to act, they hound their victims into the center of their dance, until they die in a furor of madness or torment. In this, the Iele are similar to the Ancient Greek Erinyes and the Roman Furies. To please the Iele (because they could not please the witches anymore) people dedicated festival days to them:

The Rusaliile, the Stratul, the Sfredelul or Bulciul Rusaliilor, the Marina etc. Anyone not respecting these holidays was said to suffer the revenge of the Iele: men and women who work during these days would be lifted in spinning vertigo, people and cattle would suffer mysterious deaths or become paralyzed and crippled, hail would fall, rivers would flood, trees would wither, and houses would catch fire.

People also protected themselves from the Iele with Garlic and Mugwort tied together and  worn around the waist, in the bosom, or hung from the hat; or hanging the skull of a horse on a pole in front of the house. The most important cure is the dance of Căluşari. This custom was the subject of episode of the popular TV series, The X-Files.

2000 year old Ritual Dance


The Sânziană

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Sânziană is the Romanian name for gentle Fairies who play an important part in local folklore, also used to designate the Galium verum or Cruciata laevipes flowers. Under the plural form Sânziene, the word designates an annual festival in the fairies’ honor. Etymologically, the name stands for sân (common abbreviation of sfânt – “saint”, “holy”) and zână (a word used for fairies in general). Another likely etymology is that the word comes from the Latin Sancta Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt and moon, also celebrated in Roman Dacia (ancient Romania). Diana was known to be the virgin goddess and looked after virgins and women. She was one of the three maiden goddesses, Diana, Minerva and Vesta, who swore never to marry.

People in Romania and Moldova celebrate the Sânziene holiday annually, on June 24. This is similar to the Swedish Midsummer holiday, and is believed to be a pagan celebration of the summer solstice in June. According to the official position of the Romanian Orthodox Church, the customs actually relate to the celebration of Saint John the Baptist’s Nativity, which also happens on June 24.

The folk practices of Sânziene imply that the most beautiful maidens in the village dress in white and spend all day searching for and picking flowers, of which one MUST be Galium verum (Lady’s bedstraw or Yellow bedstraw) which in Romanian is also named “Sânziànă”. Using the flowers they picked during the day, the girls braid floral crowns which they wear upon returning to the village at nightfall. There they meet with their beloved and they dance around a bonfire. The crowns are thrown over the houses, and whenever the crown falls, it is said that someone will die in that house; if the crown stays on the roof of the house, then good harvest and wealth will be bestowed upon the owners. As with other bonfire celebrations, jumping over the embers after the bonfire is not raging anymore is done to purify the person and also to bring health.

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Another folk belief is that during the Sânziene Eve night, the heavens open up, making it the strongest night for magic spells, especially for the love spells. Also it is said that the plants harvested during this night will have tremendous magical powers. It is not a good thing though to be a male and walk at night during Sanziene Eve night, as that is the time when the fairies dance in the air, blessing the crops and bestowing health on people – they do not like to be seen by males, and whomever sees them will be maimed, or the fairies will take their hearing/speech or make them mad.  In some areas of the Carpathians, the villagers then light a big wheel of hay from the ceremonial bonfire and push it down a hill. This has been interpreted as a symbol for the setting sun (from the solstice to come and until the midwinter solstice, the days will be getting shorter).

The consequences of heavens opening on Sânziene are connected by some to paranormal events reported during that period of each year. According to popular beliefs, strange things, both positive and negative, may happen to a person wandering alone on Sânziene night. Strange ethereal activities are believed to happen especially in places such as the Băneasa forest (near the capital of Bucharest) or the Baciu forest (near the city of Cluj-Napoca).

Sources: Phoenix of Elder Mountain and the Mythology from littlespyeye.wordpress.com; image of the Chimera by D. Paciurea, Romanian artist; Tumblr, Romanian Folklore

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