Romanians - 1943

excerpt THE ROMANIANS' SPIRITUAL LIFE The Two Myths of Romanian SpiritualityIn any culture, there is always a central myth that discovers it and that is to be found in all its major works of art. Romanians' spiritual life is dominated by two myths that express, with a flawless spontaneity, their spiritual vision over the Universe and the interpretation they confer to existence. The first is the legend of Master Manole, the one who, according to tradition, built the beautiful monastery Curtea de Arges. As the legend tells, everything Manole and his artisans built during the day, collapsed at night time. In order to last, the building needed a soul, and that could be achieved only by sacrificing a human being. When Manole and his artisans deciphered the cause of their work's caducity, they decided to wall in the first person who approached, at dawn, the place where they were working. At dawn, Manole sees from afar his wife with the baby in her arms, coming to bring him food for lunch. Manole asks God to send a storm so that his wife might stop. Yet, not even the torrential rain, sent by God at Manole's prayer, could stop the predestined wife. Manole himself had to wall in his wife and son in order to fulfil the oath, and so that the beautiful monastery could last. Indeed, from that day on, the construction collapsed no more. This legend is not the creation of the Romanian people. It is found in all South-East European countries; the legend is, in a nutshell, the mythic and epic formula of one of the most widespread rituals in the world: the so-called "construction rituals," which also imply the belief that any building, in order to be long lasting, must be "en-livened" by the sacrifice of a living being, human or animal. Nonetheless, the legend of Master Manole is, according to folklorists, the most complete and the richest in spiritual significance. The popular poetic inspiration created on this topic a masterpiece that can stand comparison with the most beautiful examples of universal folkloric poetry. What we are interested in is the fact that Romanians chose this mythical subject matter and rendered it an unequalled artistic and moral expression. And they chose it because the Romanian soul mirrors itself in the myth of the supreme sacrifice, which makes a man-made work of art, be it a cathedral, a country or a hut, long-lasting. They sang Master Manole's sacrifice in numberless verses because they realised that they were actually singing about their own historic destiny, their constant sacrifice. Romanians' adherence to this legend is in itself significant: nobody applies their entire poetic genius and all their spiritual resources to rewrite a myth without revealing their ardent preoccupation, its resonance upon the collective soul.Even more than in the legend of Master Manole, Romanians found themselves in the splendid folkloric poem Miorita (The Ewe Lamb-La corderita), of which numberless versions are found everywhere. It is called "folkloric poem"; but, as all great creations of a people's genius, it reveals affinities with religion, ethics, metaphysics. It is the simple and tragic story of a shepherd, who is announced by his ewe lamb of the imminent danger of being killed by two fellow shepherds, jealous on his herds, and who, instead of running away, accepts death. This attitude of serenity in front of death, this way of defining it as a mystical union with The Whole, found in Miorita an unprecedented illustration. It is an original vision on life and death – the latter being conceived as a bride, offered to the entire world – which is not expressed in philosophical terms, but in an admirable lyrical form. A culture, as well as an individual, is discovered not only by its own, personal way of exploiting life, but also by its attitude in front of death. The value ascribed to death has a considerable significance when it comes to understanding a culture or an individual. Miorita is one of the folkloric creations that best captures the attitude of the Romanian soul in front of death. The latter is not seen as a disappearance into non-being, or as a larva pseudo-existence in an underworld or a tortured existence between heaven and earth, but as a mystical wedding, through which man is reintegrated into Nature. One shouldn't run away in front of death, or, not to mention, lament when it comes; death is a cosmic-proportion act, which must be serenely and even somehow gladly accepted, because, due to it, the individual frees himself of his limits. It's not about a lyrical form of pantheism, even if Nature is present in this reintegration act. For Nature doesn't equal God; it is considered one of His creations. By the act of dying, the soul is reintegrated into the large cosmic family, the Creator's work in its completeness. Many other folkloric creations emphasise and complete this revaluation of death. The same conception is found in the poems written by Mihai Eminescu, one of the greatest 19th century poets. We find it throughout the entire Romanian people's folklore and in its funeral ceremonies. It is possible for it to be a conception inherited from the Geto-Dacian ancestors, or it can be an original interpretation belonging to Christianity, which, let's not forget this, gave a positive interpretation to death. It is still customary with Romanians to offer death some significance in accordance with the Christian acceptation of existence, which, as we have seen, falls back on the belief in a cosmic order established by God and on the conviction that at the end of times Good will prevail over Evil. These two myths – that of Master Manole and that of Miorita – are even more interesting as Romanians cannot be generally called "mystical." They are a religious people, yet worldly, natural, vigorous, optimistic, disregarding any kind of frenzy and any kind of morbid exaltation of the so-called tendency to "mythicise." Common sense is the dominant characteristic of Romanians' spiritual life. The Fundamental Characteristics of Romanian CultureThe endless invasions which started in the 2nd century and lasted until the 18th century imposed specific conditions on cultural creation. In sculpture, there is the rule of "the resistance of materials": one cannot carve wood the same as marble and vice-versa. As far as Romanians are concerned we can speak of a different type of "resistance," one that establishes the laws of the cultural creation activity: the time factor. You cannot count on it, you cannot be certain that things will last; you have to believe, not for eternity, but for the moment. It was only by hazard that some of the artistic works of primitive Romanians survived the countless plunders and fires and were kept intact up to the present. Among these primitive works of art, it is worth mentioning firstly the Romanian monasteries Sucevita, Cozia (constructed during Mircea the Elder's rule), Putna (under Stephen the Great), Curtea de Arges (under Basarab), etc. From the monuments built before the 14th century, only ruins and fragments remained. Most of the churches from villages and market towns were built of stone and few could withstand the invasions. Those that were left rouse the visitors' interest through their simplicity and suppleness. The Romanian monasteries distinguish themselves through their unique style, a successful synthesis between the Byzantine and the Gothic styles. A specific innovation is the presence of frescoes on the external walls of the monasteries. These frescoes give an extraordinarily lively tinge to the religious monuments, an unprecedented "animation"; there is a harmonious relation between the lively colours of the forests and gardens and the solemn hues of the old paintings. During Brancoveanu's rule, a new architectonic style began to be known in Romania. The churches and the palaces acquired more modest proportions. You can discover in these masterpieces Western influences, and the adornments are exuberantly inspired from the vegetal world. Since the invaders stopped it from building in rock, the Romanian people created in wood, silver, and in fabric, with all possible intensity. Its artistic genius found infinite possibilities of manifestation in the minor arts. The images, the embroidery, the silverware, the works of art in metal performed by Romanians, are considered the best of this kind. This inborn artistic genius manifests itself even in the most insignificant details of everyday life with the Romanian people. The garments, the tools, decorating the village house, the wall carpets, the pillar and beam ornamentation, everything is created with inimitable talent, an expression of a strong personality and of a boundless imagination. The artistic treasure of the Romanian people is a living thing: the peasant tries to embellish and render more harmonious his daily environment, turning everything he touches into a work of art, animated by a pure internal necessity, by an exigency of his instinct. What most draws the attention is the flawless taste in combining the colours, in harmonising tonalities by drawing his inspiration, in creating the ornamental motifs, either from the geometric world, or from the vegetal and animal one. Romanian popular art distinguishes itself by the innate eye for colours. It's enough to see the wall carpets, the garments, the pottery, the glass-painted images and even the Easter eggs, engraved and painted, to understand that the "eye for colour" is the key note in the Romanian art. Furthermore, the source of inspiration is limitless because the motifs are never exhausted. As I have said before, the geometric designs coexist with motifs taken from nature (flowers, leaves, birds), but transformed through a stylization specific to the Romanian people. There are no standardised works of art: each object has its own individuality. No wall carpet resembles another; even when they belong to the same style it is hard to confuse them. The same happens with national costumes: there are no two identical costumes. This source of inspiration, this infinite variety of motifs can be noticed in other areas of Romanian folk art; for example in music and in poetry. Indeed, the abundance of the verse surprises both the musicologists and the foreign folklorists. Often in a dance we meet ten versions of the same musical or poetic theme. Romanian folk productions are not stereotype. The creation continues, that is, the work of art, once created, doesn't separate from the source of inspiration, is never "settled," never complete enough. We can discover in this method belonging to the Romanian folk creation a deeper sense, a significance rich in metaphysical elements: the human being can never create a perfect work of art, because perfection belongs to God alone; therefore, each and every man must continue the other's creation, because the work of art is not "an inert thing," a simple inert object, but an organism that needs to constantly feed on the genius of human beings.I referred to Romanian folk poetry when I mentioned Miorita and The Legend of Master Manole. It is impossible to deal with this matter in a few lines, because, as the experts say, this poetic treasure is unique, not only through its literary value, but also through the abundance of motifs and versions, through its symbolic valences. And that because a folkloric poem of real value is never only a "poem," but is, at the same time, a global capitalisation of existence. A beautiful folkloric text communicates what the people that conceived it believe about Life and Death, about God and the World, about Good and Evil.With Romanians, the poem is usually accompanied by music, the poems "are sung." There are many texts and countless musical versions of the song called doina (elegiac song typical of Romanian lyrical folk poetry and music), but the style is always the same, and you can always distinguish a doina from a hundred other songs. It is a slow, melancholic song, sometimes of a painful sorrow. Naturally, this is not the only Romanian musical theme, neither is it the most widespread. We quote it because of the popularity that the doina enjoys abroad. One cannot speak of Romanian folk poetry without speaking of dor, the "saudade" of Romanians. It is a complex feeling, difficult to analyse in a few lines (Cf. our article "Dor" a saudade romena, in "Accao" newspaper, 31 December, 1942). This word is used to express the melancholy of being far from the loved ones, the nostalgia for the happy times that passed, as well as the ardent desire for somebody or something dear. This longing (dor) is to be found both in the most melancholic verses, and in the most passionate ones. To sum up, the Romanian popular culture is one of the most organic and substantial cultures known in Europe. And it is easy to understand why if we think of the fact that the Romanian people is mostly made up of peasants (80% of the inhabitants of the country) and that it preserved until now an archaic rural civilisation, which disappeared nowadays in the countries with a developed urban structure. The archaism of this civilisation is explained through the race and territory maintenance that exists between Geto-Dacians and Romans. In the north of Transylvania, they have kept especially folkloric traditions that can be explained only through the proto-history of the Geto-Dacians (for example, the ceremonies related to the mandragora: cf. our study: Le culte de la mandragore en Roumanie, "Zalmoxis" I, 1938, pp. 209-225). The Romanian folkloric civilisation is one of the best preserved and at the same time richest civilisations in Europe. It is easy to understand that such a civilisation could create such perfect artistic monuments and an extraordinarily vast and elaborated poetry. The most significant Romanian writers drew on this treasure: Mihai Eminescu's poetry, Ion Creanga's delightful prose, Mihail Sadoveanu's novels and short stories (to quote only three writers of the 19th and 20thcenturies) – all of these carry on the folk art. Due to this organic dependence of the greatest Romanian writers on the common source from which they sprang and on the folk works of art, there is no discontinuity between the vulgar and the cultured language. Moreover, while from all the cultured authors of other European literatures only La Fontaine and, perhaps, Cervantes are understood and appreciated by any peasant from the respective country, the majority of Romanian classical authors are the favourite writers of the village people. A writer like Goethe or Schiller is hardly accessible, in his main works, to a German peasant; the same happens with Dante or Petrarca for the Italian peasants; with Montaigne, Racine or Rabelais for the rural French population; with Shakespeare for the English. But, a writer like Creanga, most of Mihai Eminescu's poems, Mihail Sadoveanu's entire work, Odobescu's historic press and other classical Romanian writers are appreciated and sought by the peasants, even if they can hardly read, and somebody has to read aloud for them. This mere fact proves to what extent the Romanian modern literature has its roots in the rich soil of folk culture.

by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)