Construction Rites And Legends

The essential resemblance between the legend recorded by Bandinus in 1647 and the folk legends about the Flood, collected at two and a half centuries' distance (around 1900), is conspicuous. In all these variants (but especially in the one chronicled by Bandinus) some motifs from Master Manole, one of the most fundamental and best represented Romanian legends may be identified. This fact ought not to surprise us; the legend of the Flood is a reworking following beliefs and practices that are characteristic of the Romanian archaic mentality. The same cultural mechanism as the one discussed in a previous subchapter (see "the iron table") is at work here, except that in this case, despite the much greater complexity of the inserted motifs, the interpolation is no longer forced and the narrative artifice no longer evident. One of the explanations is that of unstrained assimilation:the master builder (Manole) – the master carpenter (Noah);the monarch, at whose behest the monastery is being built – God, at whose behest the ark is being built;the monastery (or the house, the city, the bridge – the type of constructions around which this type of legends circulate) – the ark (with its multiple symbolism: house, city, temple, "bridge over the waters");the destructive evil spirit – the Devil;the crumbling of the monastery while it is being built – the magic gesture of the sounding of the board.While Marcus Bandinus recorded the legend of Noah building the ark without making any mention of Master Manole, it seems quite likely that he should have "borrowed" some motifs belonging to the latter. This probability would allow us to push the date of the first written record of the ballad back in time to the middle of the 17th century. Bandinus himself remarked (which, evidently, was not hard to do) that this was an archaic pagan legend (anilis fabula) contaminated with biblical elements (sacrae scripturae coloribus vestitam). This contamination, however, does not prevent us from identifying the majority of principal motifs that also exist in legends of the type Master Manole:God asks a craftsman (a master joiner, in later folk variants) to raise a building (the ark), meant (like the monastery) to bring salvation. The master sets out on his task, with a hundred helpers. This epic motif is evidently interpolated and the result of contamination, because neither the biblical, nor the apocryphal text (nor, for that matter, the Romanian folk legends of the Flood collected around the year 1900) make any mention of masters helping Noah. In the form that Bandinus records, the motif of the helping masters seems to have been taken over from legends of the type Master Manole, where this topos is always present, ever since its earliest records."What Noah worked at the ark during the day, the Devil wrecked overnight." This topos brings the Noah and the Master Manole legends together, against the apocryphal text and even against the late folk legends, where the ark does not crumble repeatedly, but only once, when it is finished.The prime cause that makes the construction crumble is the Devil – an incarnation of the principle of Chaos (opposing Creation) and the typical Christian replacement for the chaotic element or the evil spirit (the one who crumbles the monastery that Manole has built). This is the same dual motif – Cosmos-Chaos, Creation-Destruction, God-Devil, etc. – that lies at the center of gravity of most Romanian cosmogonic legends.Noah loses all hope, but the necessity of performing a certain ritual act, which shall obliterate the malignant manifestation of the demon, is revealed to him.The master performs the ritual gesture, the construction is finished and it does not crumble again.This analogy might be discovered to have the following shortcoming: the theme of human sacrifice is missing from the legend of the Flood. This topos, though important, does not seem to me to be the key of the legend. For the archaic mentality, essential were the motif of the principle of Chaos opposed to all creation and that of the Demiurge performing a magic act – which, at different times and in different places, has taken different forms – of slaying, driving away or placating the chaotic element and thus carrying through the creation of the world. The absence of the theme of human sacrifice may be accounted for from more than one perspective. In actual practice, this gruesome ritual has been eradicated or mitigated since times immemorial and has been supplanted by simulacra of sacrifices or sacrifices of simulacra (various animals, the puppet, the shadow, the "measure," or, more recently, the photograph of a man, farm products, money, etc.). Under the influence of Christianity, people have also appealed to the prestige of cult objects. In one way or another, the icon, the crucifix, the holy water, the candle, etc. have been employed in magic and ritual practices associated with the foundation of a new building. Human sacrifice has been preserved only formally, in narratives, but, even in these epic cases it often appears in disguise: death is accidental and not induced, or, if it is induced, it is for a reason other than the real one. For example, in the legend of the founding of the monastery of Putna, as recounted by the chronicler Ion Neculce in the early 18th century, it is said that the prince Stephen the Great (Prince of Moldavia 1457-1504) and three of his servant-boys fired a bow and arrow; where the arrows of the monarch and of two of the youths fall, the altar, the belfry and the gate of the monastery are built. The third youth was beheaded for shooting the arrow farther than the sovereign. Moreover, some legends completely invert the scenario, owing to a radical change in mentality. The old mythic and ritual scenario could no longer be understood, let alone embraced. On the contrary, becoming anathema, it was replaced by its opposite. The ancient beliefs and practices became incompatible with the new mentality and, in due course, he who was formerly considered a hero that scrupulously enforces the "law of the land" (the ritual sacrifice) became, to the new mentality and in the new form of the epic theme, a law-less individual and was treated accordingly. We may discern the functioning of a similar psychosocial mechanism in the legend of Lycaon, transformed by Zeus into a wolf for having offered him a child in sacrifice.A similar phenomenon of inversion is identifiable also in an 1842 variant of the legend of the Three Hierarchs Chirch from Iasi. The architect walls his wife and child in, thus managing to complete the building, but, informed about the unlawful act that had been committed, the Prince Vasile Lupu decides that the name of the architect should be erased from the church epigraph and that he should be abandoned on the roof, from where, trying to fly, he will meet his death. It is probably not devoid of significance that this inversion crops up in a legend from Moldavia, a region where, on the one hand, the low frequency of the theme of the "walled-in woman" is a certified fact and, on the other hand, where another theme is richly attested, that of founding a building on the place and out of the wood of a tree from where the malignant spirits have been cast out by magic means. English version by Mirela ADĂSCĂLIŢEI, revised by Alexander DRACE-FRANCISfrom Cosmos vs. Chaos. Myth and Magic in Romanian Traditional Culture, The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, 1999

by Andrei Oişteanu