Traditional Animal Ecology

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In the case of primitive or rural cultures, one can undoubtedly speak of elements of ecology well before the term itself was ever used. This is even more natural when considering that the life of traditional communities maintained an organic relationship with nature, the latter often providing exclusively the material used for shelter, clothing, nourishment, and healing, or acted as the agent of their spiritual life as expressed through ritual and magic. It was therefore absolutely necessary that the relationship with plants and animals, whether wild or reared in farms, should be ruled by guidelines and interdictions dictated by the collective mentality and expressed through magical and ritual types of behaviour. It was thought that, by passing these rules on through the generations, and especially by observing them strictly, it was possible to influence the evolution and behaviour (whether harmful or useful) of the animals themselves. Ultimately, by using certain gestures, sounds, texts, or magical signs, a certain ad hoc domestication of the animal as well as of the human in relation to the animal took place. The relationship with the animals gives a social group a special identity, as shown in the shelters for the farm animals – such as sheds – which were sometimes sturdier and certainly more spacious than the peasant’s own dwelling, the choice of magic names for the animals around the house (which were connected to the day of the week they were born or their role around the house), a strict daily as well as ritual diet (at big holidays the animals too had to receive pieces of colac, cozonac [traditional types of bread and cake – translator’s note] and eggs painted in red so that they may be healthy and fertile during the year), magical treatments in case of illness (incantations, prayers), the stylised animal motif found on most rural objects (even on tomb stones), or the half-human half-animal creature unleashed in the mask games taking place at the turn of the year. In Romania’s case, the phenomenon does not limit itself only to the traditional village of the past but continues in the present as well, extending even into the beliefs and superstitions of the urban space. For the short time spent in the countryside during childhood there is still today a varied repertoire of rhymed magic formulae, which have also partly been adopted by town folklore. These are texts with the help of which the child needs to be ready to face natural phenomena or unknown animals, which the child thus has to accept, understand and ‘tame’ in a ritual fashion. Children learn suitable verbal formulae – for the coming of the sun out of the clouds, for greeting the new moon, the rain and the rainbow that follows, or for when coming across a ladybird, a cricket, a firefly, an ant, a butterfly, a snail, a bat, a swallow, a stork, a cuckoo, a turkey, a frog, a hedgehog, a dog or a carcass –, formulae which are believed to facilitate a subsequent suitable relationship [with these phenomena and creatures].
Thus educated since childhood, peasants will continue throughout their adulthood to use formulae and magical practices for rearing or healing animals. Any shepherd knows that a ram’s bell has been magically endowed. Its mouth is closed, containing gun powder and an incantation written on a piece of paper, which are meant to give the ram leading the herd courage and to protect it from evil. The shepherd also knows something else, something which is little known in towns, which is that any big heard is divided into groups of 100-200 sheep, each one of which is led by a ram or even a more feisty sheep. Each leader has a small bell with a different sound. The shepherd buys from the market two bells with the same sound for each group. Thus, if the ram is killed by a wolf, falls into a ravine, or sets off into the wide world, the shepherd can use the second bell which he will ring himself and the sheep will gather on their own – they can hear better than us and can distinguish more accurately the sound of their bell. It is believed to this day that those who look after sheep or bees are lucky in everything. Romanian myths about the creation of the world mention how God offered the sheep the possibility to defend itself: it offered it claws, sharp horns, fangs and poison, but the sheep refused and remained the most vulnerable animal. In rural beliefs the sheep is thought to be the animal of God and the goat the animal of the devil. Up until last century some shepherds had a magic sheep which would follow them everywhere they went: they sometimes adorned their horns in gold, talked to them and maintained a relationship which we would struggle to picture today. Recently, in a mountain village, I came across a lamb which was being raised inside the house, was treated to its own pillow made of down and slept in the farmer’s bed; it seemed to have behaved like a human from the very first day of its life. This exceptional behaviour did not seem to astound anybody, magic lambs had been born since always. [1]The bull and the cow are animals which are pleasing to God; they were blessed in the manger by the Mother of God. This is why, on Christmas night, they are the only animals to learn about the fate of the people and discuss it amongst themselves. A baby calf has always been considered a gift of wealth, which is why the numerous cases of barely born calves being killed during the communist years seem even more monstrous. [2] According to tradition, godparents would usually give a calf to their godchildren when they were baptised and got married. The bull is appreciated and praised in Christmas carols: nobody is better than a good bull, it turns the black earth and brings out the white bread. Even to this day, during Whit Sunday festivities, people still adorn the horns of a white, strong bull with flowers and green branches.[3] In Romanian mythology, the bull carries the earth on its horns. The devil tries to steal the earth, the bull shudders and then there is an earthquake. If this mythological bull were cut up, a rain of blood and fire would begin to scorch the earth. Carols also talk about a bull carrying in its horns a silk cradle in which sleeps a maiden who is ready to be married. Romanian myths also recall the story of the bull which preferred to swim for 40 days than to get onto Noah’s Ark; this act of defiance was punished when so many birds perched on its horns that it drowned. The cow is a river of milk and the milking is done by taking many precautions; if the cow stops giving milk, it is symbolically threatened with a sickle and the cow recovers, or it can be ‘recoocooed’ (răscuci): two children stand on each side of the cow and one of them says ‘coocoo’ and the other says ‘recoocoo’. And then the cow will live for a long time, be healthy and give a lot of milk. In Banat (region in the West of Romania – translator’s note), for Christmas, a colac is baked in the shape of a cow.The horse is an ambiguous animal for the Romanians. It was cursed twice: by God because it refused to take him somewhere saying it was busy eating, and by the Mother of God because it ate the straws in the manger and made a lot of noise trotting around. This is why it was fated never to have its fill, only at Horses’ Easter. [4] On the other hand, old country songs say Good is the poor horse, because it carries your body when you’re awake or drunk and in times of hardship. There was also another agreement struck up at the beginning of the world between the bull and the horse: the horse had horns and the bull had big teeth; after it was cursed by God, the horse swapped its horns for the bull’s big teeth so that it may be able to eat more. According to traditional mentality, the horse carries the soul of the dead across to the other world but, in the real world, the cart carrying the dead is never pulled by a horse but by a bull. When the world was created, the bull and the horse had a choice between hay and oats, between a slow walk or a fast walk, and between being eaten by humans or being eaten by dogs. Each of them chose as they saw fit: the horse chose the delicious oats and a fast walk, but it was left with being eaten by dogs, whilst the bull accepted to eat hay and be slow but it chose the honour of being eaten by humans. In fairy tales, the devil turns into a horse, not a bull. Women who ride commit a deadly sin. But it is believed that God created the horse to serve human thought. This is why there is an unspoken relationship between the human and the horse.[5] There is a strong relationship between a young Romanian man and a horse: if a young man died of a sudden death, his horse would be offered as alms to another young man, by his grave. The donkey has Christian connotations because it once carried Jesus, which is why there is a cross on its back and why it is believed that the wild beasts of the forest do not attack it. In fairy tales the devil cannot attack someone riding a donkey. The donkey does not die at the master’s house, it goes to die some place else. This animal became a donkey by accident. A long time ago it was an insolent colt God got mad at and asked to come to him but the colt pretended not to hear him and so God pulled it by the years and condemned it to eating thistles. It was also believed that the donkey was a woman who had made two mistakes at the same time, namely, it had kneaded bread on a Sunday evening.[6] She was pulled by her ears and she became a she-donkey. Another version relates that the donkey itself was pulled by the ears because it boasted of being able to sing more beautifully than the nightingale. The dog is considered to be man’s best friend and in Romanian myths and ballads it has miraculous traits. At the beginning of the world it was the dog who testified before God when the cat complained that the human didn’t feed them enough. Also it seems that God created the dog from the broken whistle of a shepherd. At the same time though, stories say that God first gave the wheat to the dog. The stalk of wheat was full of grains, all the way to the ground, and the dog would gnaw it at the root; this is why God decided that the wheat have ears only at the top of its stalk and gave it to the human. The latter was upset because of this waste and this is why, in spring, it punishes the dog which becomes the scapegoat for all the scarcities of the cold season just passed. [7]A few years ago I discovered that, in a village which is highly accessible and frequently visited by Romanian and foreign tourists, dogs were still being treated through the old healing technique of the incantation. There even were some old ‘forgiven’ [8] women which specialised in this kind of treatment and who were called to utter with an intonation only they knew human spleen/bull spleen/sheep spleen/dog spleen/snake spleen/dragon spleen/go away/leave it clean/as the Mother of God left it. I also learned then what all the inhabitants of that village knew already, which is that one does not recite incantations to big animals, such as cows, but only to small ones: sheep, dogs, cats, and birds. If someone does not know the incantation or does not use the services of a healer, they can only say Our Father, because only God, through the Mother of God, has made these animals and has left them clean and healthy, that’s why it is said may the Mother of God make it whole again and clean.The village world has a rich inventory of special names for the shepherds’ dogs, which are supposed to give them courage and strength and at the same time scare away wild animals (Fearsome, Bear, Wolf, Dragon). It also prescribes a special diet for the period spent in the mountains and coming back down to the plain, and has specific teachings and orders, as well as magical practices for cutting the fear (a lock of hair from the fur of the animal which has been attacking the herd is smoked near the dog’s nose).To this day villages hold the memory of legendary friendships between humans and animals, may they be domestic or wild, in which the animal often proves its superiority to the human (it is stronger, more faithful, more willing to sacrifice itself). In keeping with the way traditional mentality works, there is also the magical solution of transferring these attributes to the human by keeping them inside the house in the form of ‘relic fragments’ of the animal – fur, horns, teeth, bone fragments – which would sometimes be turned into ornaments and used as decoration or embedded into pieces of furniture. In the rural world, when an animal dies, almost of it is put to good use and whatever can’t be turned into food, clothing or interior objects becomes magic apparel or healing material. These sui generis remedies are used not only on humans but on domesticated farm animals as well.Humans’ state of well being was enabled particularly by using live animals. It is believed that the heat given out by a cat relieves loin pain; a bear’s tread soothes aching bones; it is also believed that a live tree frog placed on someone’s belly button can make the cold shivers caused by malaria go away; a spider kept in a nut shell and worn as a talisman in one’s breast heals children’s ‘freight-induced’ cold shivers; bee stings are to this day used for treating rheumatism; and hungry leeches are still used as a revulsive. Farm animals used to be and, in our day, still are sometimes treated with fragments of dead animals which have been magically transformed. The burned and ground head of a green lizard was used for treating the swollen throat of a pig; bear and badger lard was used for fattening cows; a burned hedgehog mixed with rancid lard was used for curing cows’ feet of scratches; burned and ground snail shells were used for cows’ cataract; raw liver mixed with maize flower was used for sheep suffering from liver fluke disease; ferret meat – burned, ground and mixed with salt – was used for curing a sheep’s cough; and marten fat was used for fattening horses and underweight goats. All these magical practices, which linger in people’s passive memory or are still being performed, make up a traditional therapeutic system with rather medieval resonances but have been preserved in spite of the parallel use of modern medicine precisely because their efficiency has been verified over time. The traditional mode of thinking, which stipulates that evil has to be treated magically with similar elements (thus following an intuitive sort of homeopathy), or the ethnobotany and ethnozoology knowledge acquired through repeated experimenting, lie at the basis of a traditional ecology. If we paid more attention to recent stories involving animals, experienced and told in villages and towns, we would be persuaded of the importance of these creatures in shaping human beings as human beings and for their knowledge of the world, which is much more subtle than the one offered by school textbooks.
What you can learn today if you open your eyes and ears:
In the farms of Balta Ialomiţei (an island on the river Danube – translator’s note) cats are fed with meat left from the master’s meal while dogs are fed with the juice left from boiling potatoes and mixed with remains of mămăligă (a kind of polenta – translator’s note); the cat hunts mice for pleasure anyway while the dog, if it is well fed, gets lazy and too meek. On another island in the same area, animal society is organised differently. Dogs receive only fish remains from their masters; on the whole island there are only 8 dogs in total and they live freely. The food is thrown to all of them together so that people can always know who is quicker and stronger. There are plenty of remains and eventually everyone will get something but, in this way, the animals are constantly kept on their toes and on the alert. If they get too comfortable the wild boars will kill them when they roam freely through the forest. But this way I know exactly who will beat whom. The white one you can see there beats the cats. Those two shaggy ones – they belong to the forest ranger – will beat the white one and will in turn be beaten by the yellow one – don’t be fooled by its skinny appearance, the skinnier they are the nastier they are. Sometimes it gets into a pack with the other two ‘cart’ dogs. And they all get beaten by the black female, who is a half-breed Rottweiler and is the only one I have to keep tied to a chain otherwise, if I set her loose, we will have no dogs left. Each one has its role: those ones stay there on the top, look down into the valley and as soon as they see someone below they begin to bark. These other two are the ‘cart’ dogs. As soon as they see me saddle the horses they start barking, otherwise they are quiet. If I leave the cart in the ‘parking lot’, there in the forest, they lie down under the cart and if anyone should try to get near to the horses these dogs will turn into beasts. And the big black one, well, she protects everything. It is thanks to her they haven’t stolen our generator from here. The horses too graze freely in the forest, it’s easy to find them because they stumble along and can’t get too far. In winter they eat the bark of the poplar trees because it contains acetylsalicylic acid, in other words aspirin, and it is very damp here and they walk through the mud and they tend to get rheumatism. They have never had any horseshoes put on, there’s no need because they don’t walk on pavement, only on ground, and you don’t need horseshoes for that. They are our ‘Volvo’, they even have a fifth gear…[9]In a village in the Danube flood plain, during the days dedicated to remembering the dead, women come out at sunrise holding a painted cock, stand at the crossroads and wait to give it to the first passer-by in remembrance of the souls of the dead. On Easter night old women come to mass holding a white cock, wearing a lit candle around their necks, and pinch the cocks to make them crow because only in this way can the alms reach the dead. The village priest recalled how the church songs were drowned by the noise, so much so that they had to move the women with their cocks to the pronaos. You should’ve seen what hullabaloo 50-60 cocks could make when they all crowed at the same time! [10]In Bucharest, a budgerigar entered through a window into the bathroom of an apartment. It was exhausted, frightened and had no feathers left on its tail. The people living there bought a medium-sized cage for it, took it to the vet, fed it loads of vitamins, and let its tail grow. The bird recovered its strength but living with it became a problem since Papagheno was suffering from loneliness-induced melancholy. It was bored and had bouts of typhoid fever. They bought it toys, a small bell and even a small plastic bird which hung from a perch and did somersaults. It was happy to receive all these things, looked at them with interest but soon abandoned them. On the other hand, its mood improved dramatically the moment a small round mirror was hung in its cage. It immediately fell in love with its own reflection. It now looks at it longingly, kisses it and clings to its shiny surface. Most importantly, every time it is given food, it religiously offers its lover the first bite – it tries to stick the seeds into the mouth of the mirror image. This is why the silvery surface of the mirror is always dirty with half-chewed seeds and the budgerigar tries to clean it with its own feathers. Papagheno is definitely in love with its own imitation, which it protects at any cost.We are in Bucharest, just after Dragobete [11]… In the small park in the city centre a male dove, his green-silvery feathers fluffed out, shows off in a very loud way – grrroogrrrlloooooo; the female dove, a bit ugly, grey and indifferent, silently pecks away, pretending not to hear his calls. He follows her closely and she seems to ignore him, even to run away from him; it is true though that the moment he looks away she watches him from the corner of her eye. He starts to turn around his tail and suddenly she does the same; he changes the direction in which he turns and so does she. One can witness an impeccable unrehearsed pas de deux. At one point he stops and goes away with a sudden absent look on his face, whilst she… follows him silently with her beak lowered. How much we could learn if we had the patience to observe and how nonsensical the invention of the National Festival of Dragobete now seems…In Vatra Dornei (a mountain resort in the north of Romania – translator’s note) there is a famous park full of squirrels which have become accustomed to tourists and children. Local tradition states that if you hit two nuts together and call out ‘Mariana’, the squirrels will get close to you. Lately, Herăstrău Park in Bucharest has become full with squirrels roaming through the oak trees. They are not afraid of people but they don’t come near them either. I naturally watched them but I did not have any nuts with me so I only called out ‘ma-ri-a-na’ very feebly. The squirrel which heard me stood up on its tail, looked at me and came very closely to my feet, waiting. Suddenly I felt ashamed because I had tricked it, I had nothing to give it, so I just held out my hand to it. It literally took one of my fingers into its paws and to its nozzle, saw that it was not what it had hoped it would be, looked at me prolongedly (in reproach?) and left. Has anyone ever done research into why squirrels answer to the call of ‘mariana’? Or into how the doves of Bucharest invite each other to the nuptial dance?
Translated by Monica Mircescu[1] M. Georgeta, 51 years old, housewife.[2] Because cows had been taken away from them and they did not have enough meat for their families anymore, some peasants would kill the barely born calves so that they may declare them dead at birth and thus be able to eat them.[3] The custom of the flowery bull.[4] Ascension Day is also called Ispas or Horses’ Easter (Paştele cailor).[5] It takes one year to tame the Arabian horse; at the end of that year, for one night, the owner lies down beside the horse and recites to it a magic incantation till dawn. This establishes an affinity which will help the relationship work silently from then on, like an unspoken agreement.[6] Tradition forbids working on a Sunday and kneading dough after sunset.[7] In the plain regions in the south of Romania there used to be a custom called tărbaca whereby lazy dogs used to be catapulted outside the village for ever.[8] The moment a woman stops being fertile, she is said to live outside sin, making her able to communicate with the divine.[9] G. Nicu, fisherman, 62 years old.[10] F. Gheorghe, priest, 59 years old.[11] A small, local, spring holiday during which young lovers go into the forest to pick snowdrops. In this way they celebrate the renewal of nature and the mating of the birds. This local tradition has been reinvented nationally and turned into a festival, in an attempt to combat the globalisation of the celebration of Valentine’s Day.

by Ioana Popescu