Midsummer Night Sânziene and Stealing the Romanian Blouse
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, brief as the lightning in the collied night… This is how Shakespeare’s Lysander describes love in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and it could apply to the mythical creatures dancing under the moonlight during the night of St. John’s in meadows and by riversides. The young girls are dressed in transparent gowns and wear yellow lady’s bedstraw flower wreaths.
In Northern or Central Europe, in Germany, England, Ireland, Wales and Scandinavia, in the Baltic countries and Poland they are called elves, elbes or albeis. In Romania they are called albe, drăgaice, rusalii, sânziene. The traditional celebration of “midsummer” night, as the most magical night of the year, a night of love during which the skies open and divine joy pours in cascades over the humans, may find its origins in India if we consider their magical celebration of colors, Kumb-Mela.
Nowadays, June 24th is celebrated rather as the birthday of St. John the Baptist, as suggested in the Gospel of Luke. According to legends, sânziene live up in the air, in the darkness of the forest, in caves, or on remote mountain tops. Sometimes they dance naked under the rays of the moon or next to a mountain spring, sometimes they caution travelers, lure or frighten them. During St. John’s night though, (or the Night of the Sânziene, as it’s commonly called in Romania) they dance in a circle, like bacchants, after stealing a silk blouse ie from the Romanian girls’ hope chest and wearing it as their single and dearest piece of clothing.
They seldom come out alone, appearing most of the time in groups. Sometimes they are called iele, an archaic form of the Romanian feminine plural pronoun ele (they). They are also called princesses (Domniţe), beauties (mândre), daughters of the forest (fiicele codrului), empresses of the skies (împărătesele văzduhului)… They are young, attractive, seductive and… immortal.
If young men watch them with too much desire, or if they are interrupted after they’ve already started their dance, they will turn into angry, mean fairies. A poet compared the “sânziene” thus provoked to the Furies in Roman mythology.
In any case, it would behoove unmarried girls to braid a wreath of those yellow fragrant flowers, Galium verum, the weeds of desire, which in Romanian are called sânziene, and wear them in their hair.
Then, before going to bed, they should place the yellow wreath under their pillow and wear the blouse ie, so coveted by sânziene, as a transparent nightgown.
This way chances are they’ll dream of their predestined husband and may soon come to know the mystery of Holy Matrimony…
“Go away Sun, come Moon
appease sânziene fairies
may their flower grow soon,
their yellow fragrant flower,
girls will gather it for power
and coronets in their hair…
Du-te soare, vino lună
pe sânziene le îmbună
să le crească floarea – floare
fetele să le dune
să le prindă în cunune…“
Photos: Sorin Albu
Translated from the Romanian by Elena and Paul Richard.