Folklore has been an integral part of Romanian culture for many centuries. Most of the country is made up of rural communities, leading to a strong traditional culture and a love for storytelling.
Romanian mythology is vibrant and often scary, full of blood-sucking creatures, vicious and fickle lovers, and bloody battles. Not to mention great and powerful heroes without age and giants who keep guard over the earth!
With immense dark forests, mysterious mountains, and, in many periods of history, enemies on all sides, it’s no wonder the stories are often quite dark. You’ll also find that some of the figures are shared with the neighbouring Hungarian mythology, as borders were fluid and travellers have been moving between the two forever.
It is good to note, as well, that the nomadic Roma people and the Romanian people are two different cultural and ethnic groups, and this post discusses the mythology of the Romanians.
Romanian legends & folklore
These are a few of Romania’s most widely-known folktales and legends! From the country’s own Prince Charming to the origins of Dracula.
The Romanian creation myth
According to the tale of creation, God and the Devil are master and servant, the devil (Nefârtatul) being God’s foolish brother. Both reside above the infinite ocean called Apa Sâmbetei. One day, God decided to create the earth, and enlisted the help of the animals and of his brother. He told Nefârtatul to go to the bottom of the ocean and, in his holy name, bring up a handful of clay. From this clay he would make the earth.
Nefârtatul went forth, but he tried to call the clay in his own name so that he would be ruler over all. But the clay refused to budge until finally he gave up and called it in his brother’s name – of course, it immediately came to his hands.
God began to grow the piece of clay into the earth, and when it was large enough that he felt he could leave it to expand in peace, he lay his head down to rest. As he slept, his trickster brother decided to push him off the edge. But as he pushed, the earth’s expansion kept God from ever falling off. So Nefârtatul pushed in each of the four cardinal directions, trying with all his might to claim the earth for himself. That is, until he realised he had drawn a giant cross in the ground, and backed off in fear of the sacred symbol. And thus, while he still tries to take control of the earth, it never did become his.
I also found a very cool alternative version to the creation myth here, which foregoes the Christianised God and Satan for a worm and a butterfly!
Făt-Frumos, the Romanian hero
Făt-Frumos and Ileana Cosânzeana, 1965
While Făt-Frumos doesn’t sound like the sexiest name in English, this classic Romanian fairy tale figure is the local equivalent of Prince Charming. His name translates to handsome son, and he embodies purity, passion, spiritual and mental strength.
Făt-Frumos is actually present in many Romanian folk tales. This is just one of them!
Făt-Frumos and youth without age and life without death
Once upon a time, there was a great king and queen. The queen was pregnant and in labour, but her son, still in the womb, cried and refused to come out. The king begged him to join them in the world, but no matter what he offered him – love, riches, kingdoms – the baby refused to be born. Finally, his father desperately promised him youth without age and life without death. Promptly, the baby agreed, and was born.
Făt-Frumos grew up to be wise and quick-witted, a perfect prince to rule the kingdom. But when he came of age, the young man asked his father to make good on his promise, and give to him eternal youth. But the king said that he had no power to fulfil his pledge, it was impossible. So Făt-Frumos left them, insisting that he would roam the world and find immortality.
In his search, Făt-Frumos had many adventures, acquiring a flying horse and fighting many of the monsters we mention below. Finally, he came to a fairie palace, the palace of Youth without Age and Life without Death. The fey creatures that lived here quickly took a liking to him and invited him to stay. Făt-Frumos enthusiastically agreed, having found his place of eternal youth. And so he came to live with them for uncounted years, enjoying unearthly delights.
One day, Făt-Frumos found that he missed home, and could hardly remember what his life had been before his fairie revelries. So he told the fairies that he must go, and bid them farewell despite their objections.
As the prince walked home, he found that he was growing steadily older, until he was a crooked, white-haired man. When he came to his palace, he cried out, for it lay in ruins, overgrown with moss.
Overcome by sadness, he walked through every room in search of the room where he was born. When he found it, the cracked voice of Death said ‘You are most welcome! Had you been much later, I would have perished myself!’. And with that, he slapped the old man, and Făt-Frumos fell down dead, crumbling into dust.
Vlad the Impaler, Drăculea
Vlad Hagyak Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, died 1477
The famous vampire, Dracula, may not have existed in all his blood-sucking glory, but his frightful myth is based on an equally frightful individual in Romanian history. Vlad the Impaler. A legend in his home country, Vlad was incredibly impressive in inspiring fear and horror into his Turkish enemies, demoralising their troops.
You may be able to gather his favourite form of torture from his title – Vlad Dracul liked to impale his enemies on stakes, alive, leaving their tortured bodies for the advancing enemy to find.
Vlad’s cruel and brutal acts led to many widespread tales about him, eventually leading to the bloody legend of Count Dracula, which also pulls from Hungarian vampiric myths and other European folklore, like the Polish Wąpierz.
Like salt in a meal
This little tale follows a king and his three daughters, long, long ago. The king loved his daughters very much, and when his wife died, he made sure they had every luxury and educational advantage.
One day, the king asked his daughters how much they loved him. His eldest daughter said “I love you like honey, father”, and he was very pleased. His second daughter said “I love you like sugar, father”, and he was pleased as well. What sweet love his daughters had for him. When he asked his youngest how much she loved him, she told him “I love you like the salt in your meal, father”. What a practical love! Not at all delightful. So the king, enraged (somehow) by her answer, banished his daughter from the castle, unwilling to listen to any explanation.
The princess journeyed far, distraught. Eventually, she found employment with another emperor, working as a servant girl. She was so skilled and so kind, that she quickly became handmaiden to the empress.
One day, the empress’ son was injured in battle, and he returned home to be nursed back to health. The princess spent every day alongside the empress at her son’s bed, and quickly he was healed. In that time, the prince fell in love with this charming servant girl, and asked his mother if he could marry her. It took some convincing, as this was not a prudent match for a prince to make (at least, as far as they knew). But in the end, she was convinced, as she loved the young servant girl.
The wedding day came, and the princess knew her father would be coming to the wedding, totally unawares. So she cooked only his meal herself, ensuring the serving girl brought it to just him. And when the banquet was held, the king was flabbergasted at the taste of his food. So sweet, and without any real flavour! But he asked those sitting next to him, and they said it was the best meal they’d ever enjoyed.
Eventually, he realised he was being had and demanded to know why! The princess stood up, and said that since he did not like salt, she had cooked his food with only sugar and honey. Realising her to be his daughter, and finally understanding that he had been a fool, the emperor embraced her, apologising. She forgave him, and they all lived happily ever after.
Romanian monsters & folklore creatures
Now, let’s jump into Romania’s mythical creatures! Many of these creatures can be both cruel and kind, depending on their whims.
Far from a monster, Zburator is a lover-deity who torments young wives and maidens with intense feelings of desire and sexual obsession. He visits them in their dreams, creating a second reality that is often a good deal more exciting than the truth of their waking reality.
Zburator’s lovers can soon be identified by their dishevelled, sleepless appearance. The creature himself appears as a beautiful young man. In some stories this is his true appearance, in others, he is actually a dragon-like demon who simply takes on this visage. Which is much creepier. The spell of obsession he weaves around his women can only be broken by a talented sorcerer.
The first beings to exist on earth were the Uriaș – giants or ogres so large, they could bound across continents. These massive beings were mostly good and kind, and lived in peaceful existence with humanity and the creatures of the earth.
One day, the peace ended, and a great war between humans and Uriaș was waged. Terrible crimes and cruelties were committed by both sides, until god despaired and intervened. His solution was to flood the entire earth, leaving only Noah and his Ark (you can see here how old myths have been intermingled with Christianity, rather than being simply replaced by it). Quite a choice. It must have been very, very fully flooded, considering the giants’ great stature.
So, the Uriaș are no longer among us. But it’s said that their burial mounds are filled with treasure, and can be found on Christmas Eve, Easter, and St. George’s Day, lit by magical fires.
Similarly gigantic, the Jidovi are the giants of the Carpathian Mountains. These giants are also kind and gentle, and they too stride across mountains – although they do seem to be a bit smaller than the Uriaș. In fact, in Romania you may come across an unusual form of measurement, the Jidovina, which measures several meters’ length. This is said to be the length of their great stride.
The Jidovi are said to have considered humans the successors of their earth, and so they treated us well and taught us what they knew. They also stepped gingerly, so that we wouldn’t get squashed.
These giants lived in the immense woodlands and in caves. Some believe they still live there, guarding treasures and living peacefully, silently in the safe mountains.
You’ll find that Strigoi, some of the creepiest mythological creatures, captured the whole area around Romania, with similar myths appearing in Hungary and Poland. The Strigoi is a vicious vampiric creature who returns from the dead to drink the blood of their relatives.
The Strigoi is also a shapeshifter, able to transform itself into a bat, animal or fog. It’s even capable of moving invisibly. Any man can become this bloodthirsty demon after death if they die under certain conditions. These include dying unmarried, by execution or suicide, or even by being the seventh child of the same sex born into a family. So if you have six kids, all one sex, call it there. Of course, redheads are also considered very suspicious.
Ielele are stunning nymph-like women who dance under the moonlight. Known as the Powerful Ones, and The Holy Ones, as well as many other names, these feminine creatures hate to be watched. They wear flowing white dresses and dance with their hair out, wild and uninhibited. But if you spot them, don’t linger. There are many stories of men being mutilated or losing their ability to talk after discovering these beautiful but cruel creatures.
Ielele bathe in glacial lakes, and dance on mountain cliffs and in meadows. Where they dance, they are often said to leave the ground burnt, and no living thing will grow there for years. Despite this, many consider Ielele the protectresses of the forest.
A German woodcut of a werewolf from 1722
The Pricolici is a Romanian werewolf – another name for them is Vârcolac, but this term has also been used to name goblin-like creatures.
With an uncommonly large wolf population within the Romanian forests, Pricolici are a very dominant part of rural folklore. These vicious wolf-creatures come out during the full moon, and in their older myths, lunar eclipses are actually the result of these wolves eating the moon.
Pricolici are, in some stories, the souls of murderous men who come back to earth to do more evil. In others, they are living beasts (not the undead), and happen as a result of a curse. Even in modern Romania, certain wolf attacks are attributed to Pricolici. This is because those wolves were unusually large and single-minded, attacking one individual at a time.
Pricolici, along with the vampiric Strigoi and shapeshifting Moroi, gather on the Night of the Wolf – the eve of Saint Andrews. On this night, people hang garlic on their doors for protection, and tend to stay inside.
The Căpcăun is a violent ogre-like creature. He is known to kidnap children and young women, and features in multiple Romanian folktales, where he kidnaps the princess and must be defeated.
This creature usually has a dog’s head, and will sometimes have too many limbs, an extra head, or four eyes. This physical deformation reflects his evil, warped mind, and he’s keen to kill anyone who passes his musty den.
The word Căpcăun can mean either ‘dog-head’ or ‘Turk chieftain’. If the latter, he’s a dark embodiment of the Romanian peoples’ fear of their invading enemies.
A moroi is a kind of Strigoi-light – they’re also vampiric creatures, but not quite as violent or frightful as the Strigoi.
In most local folklore, moroi are the souls of unbaptised children or faithless adults. In others, they are considered mortal vampires, and live an ordinary lifespan, simply with special powers, avoidance of sunlight, and a tendency to suck your blood.
Last thoughts on Romanian folklore & myths
There you have it! These are the most popular and well-known stories and Romanian mythological creatures. Of course, there are so many that are less widely known, but just as uniquely interesting.
If you know of any Romanian tales we should include here, let us know!