Magic: Magic in Eastern Europe

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Demonology, introduced by Christian religious thought in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, profoundly affected western European thought with respect to its conception of magic. The transformation of the witch into an expression of the demon who seeks to ensure his power on earth and prepare for his own advent obscured popular thinking, which possessed its own type of representations and its own system of values inherited from a rather deep-rooted paganism. In eastern Europe, where this intervention did not occur in the same way, the phenomenon of magic continued to evolve in its primary form, as a unified practice anchored in a popular culture of which it represented only one facet.

For so long isolated from the historical and sociological upheavals that affected western Europe, the peoples of eastern Europe still hold to a different worldview and use different means to account for the human condition. As Mircea Eliade states in his De Zalmoxis à Gengis-Khan (1970): "As in all other provinces of the Roman Empire, autochthonous religious realities outlived, more or less transformed, both the romanizing and the christianizing processes. There is enough proof of a pagan heritage" (p. 73). The common inherited substratum preserved by the Romanian and Balkan populations is considered by Eliade as "the principal unifying element in the entire Balkan peninsula" (ibid., p. 183). As early as the 1930s, Pierre Bogatyrev, in the introduction to his Actes magiques, rites et croyances en Russie subcarpathique (1929), noted a renaissance of paganism among ethnic groups practicing orthodox religions, even though he insists that this renaissance evidently took place "under the aegis of the Revolution and Soviet government." He adds: "Orthodox religion and witchcraft, the rival sisters, form an unexpected ensemble. All of village Russia is divided into witchcraft parishes that do not yield to ecclesiastical parishes."

Given the importance of the pagan heritage (not to mention the circulation of motifs, sociocultural exchanges, and so on), it is not surprising that a rather large body of magical practices is shared by the majority of the traditional societies of southeastern Europe. In fact, there is no domain in which magic is not practiced; magic crosscuts all spheres in which human beings move. But recourse to magic becomes especially obligatory for the different phases of the life cycle; in this way it ensures its principal function, that of integrating individuals into their own collectivity and their own development. Throughout this region, for example, the Fates, those fabulous beings whom the Bulgars call "women or fairies of fate" and whom the Greeks name simply Morai ("fates"), participate in the "programming" of an entire life, from birth to death, including marriage. They are the ones to whom a woman addresses herself (even today, in a hospital setting) on the third day after childbirth:

You, the Saints, You the Good Ones, You the Fates Predestine this child, This newborn. Come as sweet as honey, Come as smooth as water, And as good as bread, As gay as wine, As limpid as water, And give him intelligence and wisdom. To this child newborn, Give him health and good fortune in life. May he be protected by God.

In Romania, especially in the region known as Little Walachia, the Fates intervene in the principal magical rites dealing with marriage and love through the intermediary of their plant, the mandrake. When, for example, a mandrake is unearthed during rites designed to determine a young woman's mate, the Fates are addressed in the same terms as those used to ask about a child's destiny: "You, the Saints, / You the Good Ones, / You the Pure, / I give you honey, wine, bread, and salt. / Let me know the destiny of [so-and-so]." The Fates are also invoked through their plant in incantations that accompany magical rites aiming to reunite separated couples:

You mandrake, You the Benefactress, Herb of the Saints, Know her lot. And if her husband had been destined to marry, If this union be his fate, Bring him back And reunite them, Keep them bound forever. Give them a second chance. If God had wanted them to separate, May they separate. But if not, Bring them together, you, Benefactress, Herb of the saints. Unite them a second time. Enliven her home.

At times of death, the Fates through their plant are once again asked to intervene in a sort of ritual magic that is experienced and felt as a form of euthanasia. After the mandrake is unearthed "in order to summon death," an act performed in complete silence and sadness; it is boiled and the ill person is bathed with the decoction; at this time the Fates are invoked and asked to declare the lot they have selected for the sufferer: death or life. If it is death (as is usually the case), they are asked to palliate the victim's suffering: "May his fate be decided. / If it be death may it come quickly. / May he not suffer any longer." This type of magic ritual also appears in the Balkans, at least among the Bulgars, as Christo Vakarelski (1969) demonstrates.

Many other magical practices are shared by these traditional societies. Among them, the most important are the rites aiming to vitiate the contamination associated with childbirth and those aiming to avoid the contamination of deathall intended to ensure the separation of worlds that should not intersect. An extended comparative study, for example, could be undertaken on the magical precautions taken so that the dead remain dead and do not transform themselves into vampires, who are today still dreaded, feared, and fought. Represented as wild or monstrous carnivorous animals, these eternally unsatisfied beings are doomed to seek out earthly pleasures. They refuse to be relegated to the beyond and, instead, assume human form in order to finish on earth what they could not realize in life. In order to make sure the dead do not become vampires, certain preventive measures can be undertaken. One can, for example, deposit nine stones, nine marble chips, and nine millet grains under the person's head and utter the following incantation:

Your mouth, I petrify. Your lips, I marbleize. Your teeth, to millet I transform. So that harm shall you never wreak.

Numerous magical practices (echoing religious rites) are also associated with the cyclical succession of the seasons and with the household. Incantations surrounding the home usually seek to expel malevolent forces and bring good luck:

Just as the waters melt in March, Just as they are transported by the torrent And just as they clean and carry All the rust, All the trash, May my home and all those who live in it also be Cleansed Of all malfeasance, all bad luck, All illness, all ill will That may be in its walls.

These incantations and the rites they accompany are essential, for they situate man in a context of rituals that integrate him with nature and the order of the cosmos. In fact, it is in this domain that, from Romania to Bulgaria to Russia to Greece and Albania, the magical rites most resemble each other in both form and content.

Magical practices are also directed at administrative and legal authorities. For villagers the power of persuasion is the best weapon against these authorities with whom they are usually involved in a "battle of words." Silencing the authorities is seen as the ultimate form of persuasion, and many incantations thus request that they be silenced just like the dead:

Just as the dead have now grown cold, May all members of the tribunal grow as cold. May no one be able to proclaim my guilt. May they stop speaking, May they lose their voice Just as the dead have lost theirs. The arms of the dead are crossed over their chest. May the case made against me grow as cold as they. May it go away.

In many regions of eastern Europe one could say that folk culture was not profoundly modified by the more or less important changes that occurred in modes of production. It is, however, not easy to speak of magic and witchcraft as it is currently practiced and experienced in these countries, because both official discourse and research data relegate these practices to an obscure past or consider them forms of charlatanism. A series of field trips conducted in Romania in recent years, however, confirms that folk beliefs remain very much alive and that recourse to magical practices in frequent, especially when it concerns the health of children, the prosperity of the home, the productivity of animals, and so on. In fact, one does not have recourse to magic merely on an occasional basis; it is the imaginary fabric into which all individuals are enveloped. There are few mothers, for example, who do not know one or another incantation to neutralize the effects of the evil eye (belief in the evil eye is found throughout the Mediterranean Basin and elsewhere). The following Romanian example is expressed in extremely violent terms:

May he burst, the envious one. Evil eye he cast. May he explode. If a virgin spellbinds him, May her braids fall off. If his wife spellbinds him, May her milk dry up, May her breasts wither, May her child die of hunger. If a youth spellbinds him, May he burst completely.

Many practices and incantations form part of any individual's basic knowledge, but one seeks recourse to magic only if one has the gift, the power, the desire, and the daring to do so. The specialists commonly known as witches possess the gift and the daring to practice a distinct form of magic. A witch is frequently described as someone who uses supernatural forces to do evil (although most witches will say they do what they do for the good of humankind). Witches were and still are enormously feared because they are said to "give life or death." Consulting them always means incurring some form of danger, especially since they are thought to collaborate with the Devil (who appears in his diverse forms during the séance). Access to witches is also difficult and troublesome: they live often in faraway places (necessitating a tiresome journey, waiting one's turn among the others who have come for consultations, sleeping in a strange place); one can only see them on specific days and at specific times (at night, for example); one must be recommended to them by someone in whom the witch has confidence. Thus access to specialized magic could be said to presuppose a kind of punitive expiatory path.

People have recourse to witchcraft especially in cases of serious disequilibrium or when a significant disturbance has disrupted the natural order of things. Witches are especially sought out, for example, in cases in which a marriage is endangered by the intervention of a third party (usually the husband's mistress, a rival who wishes to substitute herself for his legitimate wife). Indeed, marital relations and extramarital ties are a source of great conflict and violence, and the greater part of specialized forms of magic is played out in this arena.

To control her husband, who should not waste his energies elsewhere, a woman has recourse to two forms of specialized magic, both of which aim to reunite the legitimate couple. In the first form the wife attempts to kill the intruder (the "rival," the "stranger") or to eliminate her from the protected sphere. In the process, the two women enter into a kind of magical battle using a number of possible weapons: a charmed knife that must symbolically reach the other; dolls made from scraps of the man's or the mistress's clothing: a yellow plant (dosnica ), described as "terrifying," which causes the rival to wander to the ends of the earth; the mandrake, which can make people go mad; and an insect or a frog (seen as the mistress's substitute) captured under special conditions and made to suffer the worst treatments.

Specific procedures accompany the use of any of these means. For example, while piercing a symbol representing her rival with the charmed knife, the woman will utter the following incantation:

You, charmed knife, Go into her body. Beat her, Crush her, So that her blood spouts forth. If she is alive, pierce her heart. If she is dead, seek her out in the Beyond.

While thinking of her rival a woman may prick an insect with a needle or a knife and utter:

May the one who is breaking my home, The one who does not let me live with my man, The one who gives me no peace, May that one die and disappear.

In the second formidentified as the "magic of filth"the wife will simply attempt to dissolve the soiled relationship in which her husband is involved in order to reestablish her original tie with him. She will use decoctions made from urine, semen, menstrual blood, fecal matter, sweat, or other secretions of intimate life (which serve as substitutes for the people concerned). These decoctions may be clandestinely fed to the husband. If he eats his own secretions (an act of autocannibalism), he is said to devour himself, thus reintegrating the forces and energies he seeks to dispense elsewhere. If he eats the substitutes of his wife, he is said to become impregnated by her, filled with her person.

Incantations accompany the administration of these decoctions; if, for example, the wife uses menstrual blood, she utters the following words (similar to those used in practices on certain Greek islands today):

Just as the menses are cyclical, Have their hour and time, So, to each of my words May he likewise return. May he return to my body, May he return to my desire. May my husband cling to me, May he explode, may he burst, May he not do without me.

The wife may also manipulate these secretions in other ways. She may, for example, take the earth on which her rival has trod and place it on her husband's feces, uttering an incantation all the while.

One could speak at length about these and other forms of magic still practiced in Romania and other east European countries. Indeed, despite all the sociocultural modifications and modernizing trends that have taken place in this part of the world, magic has adapted itself to its new environment. It is not a survival of a bygone era but an integral aspect of popular culture; it provides people with the power and know-how to understand their world and their position within it. Magic is still the arena through which different communities find a common language, a discourse through which they recognize themselves.

See Also



Argenti, Philip P., and H. J. Rose. The Folk-Lore of Chios. Cambridge, 1949.

Bïrlea, Ovidiu. "Descïntecul." In his Folclorul românesc, vol. 2. Bucharest, 1983.

Bïrlea, Ovidiu, and Ion Muslea. Tipologia folclorului: Din raspunsurile la chestionarele lui B. P. Hasdeu. Bucharest, 1970.

Bogatyrev, Pierre. Actes magiques, rites et croyances en Russie subcarpathique. Paris, 1929.

Eliade, Mircea. De Zalmoxis à Gengis-Khan. Paris, 1970. Translated as Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God: Comparative Studies in the Religions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe (Chicago, 1972).

Eliade, Mircea. Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religions. Chicago, 1976.

Gorovei, Arthur. Descïntecele românilor. Bucharest, 1931.

Kabbadias, Georgios B. Pasteurs-Nomades méditéranéens: Les Saracatsans de Grèce. Paris, 1965.

Krauss, Friedrich S. Slavische Volksforschungen. Leipzig, 1908.

Lorint, F. E., and Jean Bernabé. La sorcellerie paysanne. Brussels, 1977.

Megas, George A. Greek Calendar Customs. 2d ed. Athens, 1963.

Stahl, Paul-Henri. "L'organisation magique du territoire villageois roumain." L'homme 13 (1973): 150162.

Vakarelski, Christo. Bulgarische Volkskunde. Berlin, 1969.

New Sources

Aleksieva, Ekaterina, and Dinna Ancheva. Ancient Magic in Bulgarian Folklore: Perls of Syncretic Folk Art, Village of Bistritsa, Bulgaria. Sofia, Bulgaria, 1991.

Brzozowska-Krajka, Anna. Polish Traditional Folklore: The Magic of Time. Translated by Wieslaw Krajka. East European Monographs, no. 498. Boulder; New York, 1998.

Petzoldt, Ruth, and Paul Neubauer, eds. Demons, Mediators between this World and the Other: Essays on Demonic Beings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Frankfurt am Main; New York, 1998.

Ryan, William Francis. The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia. University Park, Pa., 1999.

Voiculescu, Vasile. Tales of Fantasy and Magic. Translated from the Romanian by Ana Cartianu. Bucharest, 1986.

Yovino-Young, Marjorie. Pagan Ritual and Myth in Russian Magic Tales: A Study of Patterns. Lewiston, N.Y., 1993.

Ionna Andreesco-Miereanu (1987)

Translated from French by Brunhild Biebuyck
Revised Bibliography