Dracula. Who hasn’t heard of Dracula? His name is right up there in our blog title and web address. Look him up and you’ll find millions of online search results. And while he may not be the first vampire ever recorded there are records dating as far back as the beginning of the 18th century), he’s certainly the most iconic. What the world might not know, however, is that Romanian myths and folklore goes far beyond Bram Stoker’s famed and famous character. Dragons, werewolves, zombies, enchanted fairies – we have them all.
Step aside, Daenaerys Targaryen…
…because here come the zmei and balauri – the scaled, fire-breathing lizards of Romanian myths and legends!
Although they might appear similar, the two types of monsters are actually very different. Let’s start with the balaur. This particular sort of monster is most (in)famous for being slain by the Christian Saint George (or Gheorghe, as he is known by Romanian Orthodox believers). In folklore, it was believed that these gigantic creatures were originally snakes that lived deep inside the forest. If one of these snakes lived for seven years without seeing or biting a human being, it would grow wings, clawed feet (and some say extra heads for each year of isolation) and would fly out into the world in search of (human) prey.
A folklore hero battling a balaur. (Source)
The zmeu, on the other hand, is a shape-shifting creature that feeds on human flesh (same as the balaur), lives in a golden castle as opposed to a mountain peak or a cave, and is fond of kidnaping young, beautiful women to be his consorts. Sometimes, the zmeu is depicted as a tall, mysterious stranger with black hair and a thick black mustache; in this form, he mingles with the humans to stalk or woo his chosen bride. Other times, he appears as a half-human, half-balaur creature with demonic features. Inevitably, as the story progresses towards its happy end (and how else could it be?), the zmeu will revert to his true form to fight and be defeated by the hero.
Have you met our zombies…?
The restless dead show up in folklore all around the world, and Romania is no exception. Whereas franchises such as Resident Evil or Walking Dead build on the premise of a mass infection or some other scientific mishap, the undead that haunt Romania’s rich mythology – dubbed strigoi, some say because of their uneartly screams – have a different origin. It is said that, if a man’s heart is dark and evil while he lives, then death will not bring him peace, either. As such, he will rise from the grave and haunt the ones he hated in life. There are plenty of records of strigoi in modern history, ranging from the 1920s to the far more recent case of a supposed such haunting in the Oltenia region in 2003.
We were going to upload a picture of a strigoi here, but we got too spooked while Googling for one. 🙂
…and our werewolves, too!
You’ve seen pop culture werewolves (Teen Wolf, anyone?)… but did you know that the original werewolves, in their mythic incarnation – dubbed varcolaci, which translates as “with the hair of the wolf” – were so powerful they could literally ascend to the heavens and eat the sun and the moon?
In Romanian legend, werewolves are changelings who take their true form every month on the night of the full moon. Although the myths don’t always agree on the way they look (some depict them as furry humans with thick claws and sharp fangs, others as full-fledged beasts larger than a man), it is known that they are stronger, faster and longer-lived than everyday folk.
A blood-red moon is believed to signify that a varcolac is nearby. (Source)
The moon, in fact, plays a double part in this story; on the one hand, it triggers the change, but on the other, it also plays the victim, as the werewolf (or, in some versions, only its shade) ascends to the sky to devour it. A red full moon was considered a bad omen precisely because it was believed that the moon was bleeding where the varcolac was biting into it.