Mystical tales from Transylvania
Like many rural corners of Europe, Transylvania has a tradition of oral storytelling that stretches back centuries. In a pre-scientific world, these allegorical tales served a dual purpose. They helped explain otherwise inxplicable events – disease, death, natural disasters – but also offered a source of entertainment to pass the long winter nights. Often, legends also provided moral guidance: one tale tells of the bau-bau (also known as the omul negru, or ‘black man’), a spindly figure dressed in a cloak who steals naughty children and hides them in his cave for a year.
Many of Transylvania’s superstitions have proved remarkably resilient, although perhaps this is unsurprising in a land where some villages have hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Driving through the sleepy hamlets around Miklósvár feels like journeying through Europe’s pre-industrial past: pastel-coloured cottages and tumbledown barns line the streets, horse-drawn carts rattle through the snow, and wood smoke drifts up from rickety chimneys. Many houses are still protected by ornate kapu, the distinctive carved wooden gateways which were imported to Transylvania by Saxon settlers over eight centuries ago.
Similarly, most villages have a witch or folk-healer who dispenses spells, removes curses and provides spiritual guidance. Since 2011, witches, palmists and fortune tellers have even been made liable for income tax – a controversial decision that proved so unpopular that local MPs felt the need to start wearing the lucky colour of purple in the hope of warding off the witches’ hex.
Nany Etelka has spent her entire life in the little village of Băţanii Mici, 20 miles from Miklósvár, and now runs the village mill with the help of her two adult sons, Domi and Laecsi. ‘I can still remember the stories I told to my boys when they were small,’ she recalls. ‘Many of them I learned from my mother, who learned them from her mother, and so on. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are hundreds of years old!’ she laughs, raising her voice to be heard above the creak and clatter of the mill’s iron machinery.
She bustles into the kitchen, where a forest of pots and pans dangles from the rafters, and a battered coffee pot bubbles away on the stove. ‘During Communism, we were not encouraged to celebrate our culture,’ she explains. ‘But telling stories was one of the best ways we had of keeping our past alive.’
As she hands out mugs of treacly coffee and slabs of homemade kolach, a type of sweet corn bread, she explains that Băţanii Mici also happens to be the birthplace of Transylvania’s most famous storyteller: Benedek Elek, a journalist and folklorist who devoted much of his life to setting down the region’s fairytales. His stories of cruel kings, enchanted animals and paupers-turned-princes are still a staple bedtime read for most Romanian and Hungarian children, and a bronze statue of the author now stands in the village’s main square – a sign of the fondness with which the author is remembered, not just in Transylvania, but across much of Eastern Europe.
It’s not hard to see why Transylvania’s landscape has sparked the imagination of so many storytellers. Hemmed in by mountains, pockmarked by valleys and swathed in old-growth forests, it’s a land of strange and often supernatural beauty. Beyond the towns and villages, much of the country still feels fantastically wild. Lynx, deer and wild boars populate its woodlands, and golden eagles can often be spotted wheeling amongst the mountain peaks. In the more isolated corners, brown bears and packs of wolves still roam free.