August 15th is a big day in the Romanian Orthodox calendar. It marks the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Feast of the Assumption, celebrating the belief that after she died, Christ’s mother was airlifted straight into Heaven before her body had a chance to decay. Other names for it are Assumption Day or Mary’s Day and it’s not only a national holiday, but also the occasion for pilgrimages and solemn parades at many Romanian monasteries, including the famous ones of Moisei in eastern Maramures, Nicula near Cluj in Transylvania, and Putna, one of the magnificent churches that the 15th century prince, soldier and saint, Stephen the Great, founded in Moldavia. As with many Christian feasts, the Dormition replaced a pagan festival, in this case, one that was associated with the harvest. In Tilişca, a village in the Cindrel range of the Southern Carpathian Mountains, they reserve Assumption Day for the annual sheep breeders’ festival. A couple of years ago, I went to see what it was like.
Celebrating saints is something Romanians excel at. Religion is worn on the sleeve and often mixed with a vigorous dose of pagan mythology. Folk beliefs and folk music are closely intertwined, so adding the practical side of pastoralism to this holy event doesn’t strike the wrong note.
Up in the mountains south of Sibiu, and other regions where transhumant shepherding continues, raising sheep is regarded as an art as well as a vocation, and sheep farmers still play pipes. It’s a way of whiling lonely hours away. True, you’ll probably see more young shepherds listening to their mp3 players than tuning up their panflutes or their single pipes but come festival time – and most festivals are linked to a saint’s day, because here every day of the year has a saint attached – young and old alike delight in showing off how well they can tootle a pretty tune. Musical competitions – singing, dancing and playing an instrument – come naturally to the Romanians. Their folk music was bowdlerised under the Communists – especially under the forced homage to Ceauşescu called Cântărea al României – but the simple beauty of shepherds’ impromptu piping survives. Clad in their sheepskin cloaks the shepherds resemble the god Pan himself.
Shepherds who kept their flocks on the high mountains sometimes need to call to neighbouring farmers: to do this, they used an alphorn called a bucium, or just shouted, as they do today, hollering across the valleys to make themselves heard.
Romanians are intensely proud of their Dacian heritage, especially here, so close to the Dacians’ strongholds.
Back to St. Mary’s Day in Tilişca. To start the proceedings, there was a meeting in the town hall. After the protocol speeches, voices were raised in anger: what’s going to happen to our small-holdings if nobody will collect the milk from one or two cows, or a handful of sheep and goats? It didn’t matter that this was a shepherds’ gathering, the points were valid: the cooperative and state farm systems had destroyed some feudal estates along with a lot of what was good, but the European Union’s farming model was not designed for purpose either. Nor was it proof against local perversion.
Some peasants country folk still took a few litres of milk by hand to Bucharest, where city dwellers were hungry for real-tasting food and happy to pay for it. But they couldn’t go on making these long journeys indefinitely. ‘What happens when we get too old to work?’ ‘How will we maintain our meadows?’ Since the 1989 Revolution when some land was given back to its pre-Communist owners, Romania has become a nation of tiny farms. Most of them are under a hectare in size, and while they provide inestimable benefits to the environment, they are deemed too small to count in the so-called ‘free’ market. Reforms to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy which come into effect in 2014 are supposed to take account of this.
But at the shepherds’ annual meeting, the questions went unanswered. It was easy to feel that the assembled authorities, the mayor and president of the sheep-breeders’ association who sat in a jolly row facing the audience, didn’t really care. They were here for the party: and so after sending a few blandishments in the protestors’ direction, they led the company to the church.
It wasn’t a long service, and afterwards, there was a parade. Teams of folk dancers and musicians had come from far and wide. They were of all ages too, from tots to totterers. One behind the other, the folk groups processed down one street, over a river bridge, along the main road, and back into the village centre along another street. Their flutes and pipes played plaintive rhythms that were out of sync with each other and changed key with the Doppler effect as they passed. They were rousing though; a wake-up call that rang against the rock walls of this tight little valley, asking for a response that didn’t come.
Then we all went up the road to the caminul cultural (the community centre) for a slap up meal.
People bowed their heads for grace, but after those few seconds of silence, the noise was devastating: raucous chatter and laughter reverberated around 30 trestle tables where red paper napkins adorned snowy cloths and a wealth of food met our eyes. Now and again, you could hear the shepherds playing their pipes for fun. We ate loads of soup, meat and bread, and drank each other’s health in plum brandy. We gorged ourselves on local specialities such as bulz and balmos, milky, cheesy dishes based on the bright yellow sweet-corn flour that makes one of Romania’s most famous dishes, a spongy staple of every peasant home, that polenta or porridge they call mămăliga. And then there was dessert: sweat, creamy layer cakes so squidgy they are almost obscene.
With sated stomachs, the company drifted out. Before we left, my friend and I thanked one of the beaming, bustling middle-aged women who had provided the feast. We asked her if she had her own farm, and how she survived. Her face crumpled. ‘We get nothing’, she said; ‘less and less each year for more and more work. And we are growing too old.’
The sheep-breeders’ party reconvened in a natural, grassy amphitheatre on a hillside overlooking the village. At the bottom was a high wooden stage replete with amplifiers. On this, the folk troupes sang, twirled and strutted to the jerky rhythms of time-honoured dances. The rest of us lolled on a carpet of grasses so varied in shape, colour and smell and so riddled with cornflowers, bugloss, tiny pinks, sage and thyme that we were drunk with the abundance of it all as well as the alcohol we’d consumed. The only solution was to doze in the shade of the willows, with only half an ear on the proceedings.
Above us in the beech woods lay the remains of Tilişca’s own Dacian fort. It was only a ten-minute walk away, but nobody went to look at the few remaining stones, the beautifully engineered, square-cut blocks which are one of the Dacians’ hallmarks.
It was easy to imagine the Dacians lounging about here too, in more or less identical black and white get up. They would have been shepherds, miners, builders and metal-workers. Thanks to the Communist propaganda, we have been taught to think of them as proto-socialists, ordinary folk with no pretentions but their courage. Their farmers might have had the same kind of shielings that Romanian shepherds use today.
Lying there among the grasshoppers, I couldn’t help feeling the Dacians would have made a stand against the corruption that’s bringing Romania to its knees. And that their true heirs were not the demogogues who love to call themselves simple shepherds, but the querulous pensioners who had had the courage to pipe up in the town hall.