Romania is home to many a folk creature; vampires, werewolves, wizards and dragons have all been known to haunt the Romanian countryside. Not to mention fairies, and their Queen, Doamna Zînelor, also known as Irodiada, or Arada.
Now, no one celebrates Her anymore, right? In a post-Christian, post-Internet world, asides from neo-Pagans and Wiccans, it must be safe to assume that the cult of Doamna Zinelor is all but extinct, correct?
And then in come the dancing Călușari…
The dancing who?
The Călușari originated as a secret fraternal dance troupe. According to religious scholar (and Romanian) Mircea Eliade, they were known for “their ability to create the impression of flying in the air”, which he thought represented both the galloping of a horse as well as the dancing of fairies (Zine), which points back to their patron deity, Doamna Zînelor, the Fairy Queen.
Given their ties to the Zine, they could also cure magical maladies, most significantly between Easter and Pentecost. For these few weeks they would visit surrounding communities with fiddlers in tow and would dance away any dark magic that blighted the local citizens. This would include the works of the seductive, Nymph-like Iele, whose ire at no longer being worshiped reached its peak at Pentecost.
Dressed in white trousers and tunics, with bright ribbons tied to their hats, and bells ringing from their ankles, they would dance through the air, using ornate staffs, as well as clubs and swords. Their retinue would include a fool (the “nebun”, meaning crazy), a wooden horse head, and the flag of the Călușari.
They would swear an oath of loyalty their flag, as well as an oath of chastity to be held for nine days after the dance. Perhaps to mark the end of the latter vow, they would plant the ceremonial flag on returning home, after which each dancer would climb it and declare “War, dear ones, War!”
Somewhere, Freud is smiling.
The Brides of the Călușari
So, if this is a ritual secret society enacting the rites of Doamna Zinelor, the Queen of the Fairies, there is one pressing question:
Where are the women?
It’d be a peculiar Goddess cult that has no women.
Enter the Brides of the Călușari…
While going from village to village, providing blessings door to door, there are records that the Călușari would select one woman from each locale to be a “bride”, based on her dancing skills.
Keep in mind, the Călușari were sworn to celibacy until their journey was over, so unlike other Spring Brides/Harvest Queens, one assumes that any sexuality was purely symbolic.
This bride would dance with the Călușari on their annual return; this obligation was binding for three years.
The Horse of the Călușari:
There remains the question of the mythic significance of the wooden horse head. Some scholars have argued that its presence indicates a Greco-Roman origin, perhaps tied to the cult of Mars; Eliade proposed the name Călușari was etymologically related to a horse’s bit, though most scholars have gone in favor of “secret society” or “dance group”.
The Church and the Călușari:
As recently as the 19th century in some regions of Romania, Călușari were officially barred from communion, sometimes for up to three years.
The fact that they met in secret, and had a springtime initiation rite (thank you, Demeter), plus their association with Doamna Zinelor probably didn’t help their cause.
Not to mention the use of magical incantations as well as the drawing of magic circles during their healing ceremonies (this sacred knowledge (descântece) was passed on by the vataf (master) who had inherited the knowledge from his vataf).
Still, in a land plagued with vampires, werewolves, wizards and dragons, they probably weren’t the greatest supernatural threat faced by the Church.
And therefore, despite Church opposition, the Călușari kept dancing.
And they still dance to this day…
The Future of the Călușari:
As of 2008, the Căluş Ritual is listed by UNESCO on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
This means at least a certain amount of international recognition and support.
So yes, the Călușari will still keep dancing…