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The «Opening of the skies» in a platonic myth and in the «Mioritza» ballad



«Whenever things happen to be set in writing to some extent…there comes over the world, at preordained times, like a disease, the heavenly flood that spares only the unblemished…so that humans become once more ignorant like the youth, unaware of how many things they used to know in ancient times…and you remember just one flood, although there have been several.»  Plato, Timaeus


Main outlines: The Mioritza ballad, the twin gods in the Danubian Knights’ cult and in the folklore cosmogonical myths. The particularities of the Romanian cosmogonic dualism. The «Opening of the skies» in the Platonic myth of the cave and in Mioritza.


Little before the ban of the «Royal Foundations Journal», Petru Comarnescu   wrote in this prestigious magazine about the publication of Constantin Brailoiu’s work titled Sur une ballade roumaine – La Mioritza (1946), at a time when the author was in exile in Geneva. The title of Petru Comarnescu’s review was The Positivism of «Mioritza». Whereas the title had been meant to follow the optimistic vision – of materialistic origin by all means – that had already started to be officially imposed through mass media, the content of the article signed by Petru Comarnescu(1905-1970) was far from that.

In his interpretation, Constantin Brăiloiu, the renowned musicologist of the Romanian school of sociology (the school founded by Prof. Dimitrie Gusti and Mircea Vulcănescu), claimed that the verse of the ballad would have been in the pre-Christian age an incantation meant to «pacify the soul» before the journey to the other realm. A second folklore theme would have been the subsequent transformation of the incantation into a mourning chant intoned at a shepherd’s death in wilderness. For the last part ofMioritza, Brailoiu (1893-1958) had also thought of certain ritual practices he had found out about while he had been on the teams of monographic research of the Romanian villages. One of these was the magical compensation by faking a posthumous wedding of those who had died young. Constantin Brailoiu, the founder of the «Folklore Archives of Bucharest», believed that this last part of the ballad had been added later   in time.

While in   exile, Horia Stamatu (1) also wrote about Mioritza. According to the interpretation set forth by this outstanding poet and religious thinker, fundamental in this ballad would be the perpetuation of the memory of a terrible deed and the mystical wedding, a clear sign of an ancient belief according to which life, taking unknown paths, follows its course after the body dies, because beyond this world lies the other realm. The meaning of this «beyond» this world was very well captured by Mircea Vulcănescu(1904-1952) in his masterpiece The Romanian Dimension of Existence – A Phenomenological Outline. According to him, between the two existential realms there wouldn’t be a no return threshold but a customs point between two worlds that interpenetrate each other and can even communicate with one another under certain circumstances. Separated by a «change of the nature of the being,» the obstacle between «here» and «there» would be some kind of «inside obstacle.» We’ll have further on the chance to see how subtly Mircea Vulcănescu tackled these aspects when speaking about the belief according to which «the skies open» on Christmas (december, 24th at midnight).

Let us revert now to the «mystery of Mioritza» that Horia Stamatu(1912-1989) was trying to unravel in 1984. According to his interpretation, the staggering fact that would have been preserved in the collective memory of our ancestors could have been the killing of Orpheus, the musician that had become famous for the perfection that his art had reached, a murder that was perpetrated on the soil of ancient Thrace and recorded by the Greek mythology, then immortalized in the Eleusinian Mysteries, but also possibly imprinted in the memory of the Thraco-Dacians who worshipped Zamolxis. «Historical memory often takes refuge in tales,» wrote Lucian Blaga (1895-1961) in Caron’s Boat(Editura Humanitas, București, 1990, p. 508).

As a   matter of fact, one could also say that at the bottom of the ancient folklore drama(2) performed on Christmas (Vicleimul/The Bethlehem) lay not only the Christian faith about the birth of Messiah as such but also the memory of a terrible happening, the killing of babies at Herod’s order.

Horia Stamatu writes that in orphism and in Zamolxes’ religion fundamental was the concept of immortality, related to the concept of good. And it is this very belief in good and immortality that Mioritza ballad conveys. Along the millennia – old continuous inhabitance of ancient Dacia, the Mioritical myth, in its analogy with this kind of sacred archetype would have reflected the Romanian thinking and feeling in its deepest essence, perpetuated from the Orphic myth to the Mioritical one.

As to the second fundamental element of the ballad, that at the end of the ballad, philosopher Mircea Vulcănescu had pointed out that the concept of life after death had been preserved in the Romanian Orthodox Christianity in a form reminding of the early Christianity, altogether different from the one in the Catholic faith. Rooted undoubtedly in ancient times, the concept according to which life follows its course after the death of the body would have lain at the basis of the cult of the Geto-Dacians who worshipped Zamolxes and that of the Greeks who have been initiated in   the Orphic Mysteries.

In accord with Dan Botta who saw «Mioritza» as a liturgical drama of ancient origin, bringing down to our times an ancient Thracian religiosity, Horia Stamatu noted with good reason that «folklore lays stress in particular on what expresses continuity from the ancient faith up to present times, such as is with the Romanians the concept of immortality, uninterrupted in Dacia since ancient times until Christianity.» (See Horia Stamatu, The mystery of «Mioritza», in Ego Zenovius…, Editura «Jurnalul literar», București, 2001, p. 83).

As far as I am concerned, there is one more aspect that should be searched in order to unravel the mystery of «Mioritza». This particular aspect, often overlooked, is the kinship between the two shepherds that kill the third. A possible understanding of this kinship in the ballad may be suggested by the cult of the Danubian Knights (or«Thracian» Knights).

According to Teohari Antonescu(3), the iconography of the sacred scenes of the Danubian Knights (/gods) discovered by archaeologists on the soil of pre-Roman Dacia suggests the salvation conditioned by selfsacrifice (4). Looking much like a sacred ritual drama, the myth of the Thracian Knights tells about winning the immortality of the soul and the renewal of nature through initiation sacrifice. These religious concepts are illustrated by symbols expressing the duality of the «killer» gods.

Teohari Antonescu(1866-1910) pointed out the similitude between Mioritza and the cult of the «Danubian Knights» featuring two brothers killing the third. There have been theories according to which, although it would be about the death and resurrection of a murdered god, the «Thracian Knights» myth prevailingly illustrates the twin dualism of the «killer» brothers. Romulus Vulcănescu (1912-2001) advances the inciting theory according to which this myth replaces the «ancient noniconism of the Good Brother («Fârtate») and the Evil Brother («Nefârtate») as twin gods that created the Universe.»(Romulus Vulcănescu, The Romanian mythology, Editura Academiei, Bucuresti,1985, p. 227). Lucian Blaga explains the Romanian   cosmogonical legendsfeaturing the two gods by the penetration of the Bogomilic heresy concepts (a heresy founded by Bogomil in the 10th century ) into the folklore.

According to other, probably more justified opinions, the Bogomilic influence was minor since «it appears late against of an archaic dualist background that had decanted its basic elements in the autochthonous mythology long before heresy.» ( Romulus Vulcănescu, The Romanian mythology, Editura   Academiei, Buc., 1985, p. 235).

What appears to be most interesting with philosopher Lucian Blaga is the change of the features of the dualism in the Romanian cosmogonical legends. As compared to the radical dualism of the Bogomilic concepts, in the Romanian folklore the cosmogonies built around the Lord and the Satan evince a mild dualism, of an almost humorous nature: «the primeval things and happenings are pictured as if sieved by the mind of a jocular peasant,» writes Lucian Blaga in Caron’s Boat (Editura Humanitas, București, 1990, p. 461). The philosopher also notes that the two brothers, beings grown from the same stem, called the Fârtate and the Nefârtate, «include assertion and negation alike, raised to the rank as cosmic powers. However, in our legends, the Good Brother and theEvil Brother do not fight against each other in a definite, dramatic, ruthless way»(Lucian Blaga).

In the archaic dualism of the Thracian Knights’ cult, same as in the story of the«Mioritza» ballad, one can observe the harmonization of the deed with the two gods who agree to ritually sacrifice their younger brother. Their being two makes room for the Platonic concept of difference as Identity and the NonIdentity. The existence in theDanubian Knights’s cult of two «elder» brothers may also point to the concept of   previousness in the order of creation. This implies that the two brothers are supposed to be more closer to perfection. The third brother may be seen as the «Mixture», were we to adopt a Platonic terminology including «Identity», Difference («Non-Identity») and«Mixture» (5). The third is doomed, but not entirely. The iconography of the Danubian Knights’s cult features the skull of the «killed» man (buried with honors by Dacians on a sacred mountain). This might be a sign of immortality. Whereas a part of the thirdDanubian Hero is different from the rest, it results that the «Mixture» is not irreversibly altered as a whole.

The «Good Brother» and the «Evil Brother», God and Satan in the Romanian cosmogonical legends, also act somehow in harmony, without being cocreators though, since Satan «appears rather as a Păcală» (a witty and jocular man acting stupid). For instance, in one of the legends gathered by Elena Niculiță-Voronca, when Satan builds a house without windows and then carries the light inside in a sack, God tells him how to make windows.

A further particular trait of the dualism in the Romanian folklore cosmogony is the coeternity of the two Brothers who both walk on the surface of the primeval waters. Therefore, the two have been together since the beginning of times.

A possible interpretation of coeternity may invoke the Aristotelian matter and form, assimilating the «Good Brother» to the formal principle and the other to the material one. A legend of Bukovina tells that Satan made man of clay. Then the Devil started to talk to him; but the clay would not speak back. Not before God had blown the holy spirit over him did man start to speak (See Elena Niculiță-Voronca, The Customs and Beliefs of the Romanian People, 1903, vol. I, p. 143-148).

This explanation may hold since the «Evil Brother» is not placed in ontological dependence to the «Good Brother», or in an exclusion relation. In the popular outlook, they represent an opposition whose terms do not exclude each other(6).The two Brothers seen as form and matter reveal also another aspect of the dualism in the Romanian cosmogonical legends. That would be the inferior rank of the Evil Brother (Nefârtate), a cosmogonical principle inapt to generate the things of the world by itself. Hence the need to cooperate with the principle of order and uprightness represented by the Good Brother (Fârtate).

There is one more aspect worth pointing out. In the cosmogenesis depicted by the Romanian legends, the «cooperation» between the two should be seen between inverted commas, weakened as it is by the helplessness and the not quite good intentions of the Evil Brother. For instance, when sent to the depths of the primeval waters to take soil grains in the name of the Lord, the Evil Brother wants to take it in his own name and fails. «Fighting God’s will» – writes Mircea Vulcănescu-, «prevents the salvation of the world, the end of the world, and holds time still» (Concrete Existence in Romanian Metaphysics). Looking at things from the perspective of the religious thinker, Mircea Vulcănescu notes that, although there seem to exist a sort of real negative coworker along with God, «in the Romanian outlook of existence, this struggle between good and evil acquires a powerful character of an illusion sprung from the bias of the vision, from failing to understand everything that is going on in the world.»(7).

A further particularity of the mythical dualism in the Romanian cosmogony (that takes a large diversity of aspects) is the preservation of the hierarchy between the two cosmogonical principles. Beyond the «cowork» of the two, even when the Good Brother gives up some of his prerogatives in favor of the Evil Brother, «the two are not of the same nature» (apud. M. Vulcănescu). When the Good Brother creates the bee, the other tries to imitate him, but fails and creates the fly.

According to Mircea Eliade(1907-1986), the cosmogonical myth serves as archetypal model for the creation on other plane, such as the spiritual one. The tale of the beginnings may be seen as a mystery of creation, as a revelation of the deepest essence of the world. We can quote here Mihai Eminescu(1850-1889). In his poem Hyperion(«Luceafărul»), he seems to say, following Anaximander, that which begets everything shall also bring its death. In order to reach the Demiurge that became active at the moment of creation, Hyperion starts his journey towards the origins of the world(8), winding then up the time until the «demise» of the unbornyet world, where the very thought that plans his birth gets lost, an image illustrated by Mihai Eminescu by the illusory boundlessness of something that can be neither seen nor known:

For where he reached there was no bourne,
To see there was no eye,
And from the chaos to be born
Time vainly made a try.
                                 ( Eminescu, Hyperion, translated by L. Levițchi).

A cosmology more elaborate on a philosophical plane than the one depicted in the myths on the creation of the world can better explain the beginning of the cosmogenesis. To Plato, same as to Mihai Eminescu, the primeval chaos was left behind by the apparition of thinking: godly, unchanging, permanently identical to itself. In the dialogue Timaeus(based on Pythagorean doctrine), Plato writes that the Immutable (Identity) creates the Diversity, as a sort of changing copy of the eternal unchange, achieving thus the harmony of the seven heavens.

This cosmogonical moment is of particular importance since «time was born at the same time with the firmament, and since they were born together, together they will perish as well.»(Plato, Timaeus, 38 b).

By contrast with the boundlessness of the chaos, the cosmos is unique and limited, like a closed cave where the stars in the sky appeared like fires lit behind a parapet. In the cave symbolizing the world created from the primeval chaos, the human souls trapped in the jail of the body look like prisoners chained in such a way as to always face only the back wall of the cave. The phenomenal world, subject to becoming, lies therefore in the closed space of the cave. According to the Platonic cosmology, the humans – with their part of immortality inherited from the divine nature of the astral gods – are not meant to enjoy a highrank eternity. They are only given a grain of eternity, of that eternity that renews itself cyclically through the repetition of the cosmogenesis of the world. «Whenever things happen to be set in writing to some extent…there comes over the world, at preordained times, like a disease, the heavenly flood that spares only the unblemished…so that humans become once more ignorant like the youth, unaware of how many things they used to know in ancient times…and you remember just one flood, although there have been several.» (Plato, Timaeus, 23 b).

Moreover, only certain people, those assimilated to the semigods enjoy this kind of eternity. According to Plato, these people are the philosophers, the only ones who understand the Good   as Ultimate Object of Knowledge. Divinely inspired, they may grasp the difference between the science of that which is forever identical with itself and   the knowledge on changing things, an opinion based on irrational sensitivity. While preserving the hierarchy, the duality of knowledge reflects the duality of the world: the noumenal world, eternal and immutable from outside the cave, and the world of ceaseless changes.

Since the Hellenic cosmos is limited, the passage between the phenomenal world and the noumenal one would be impossible unless there existed a moment of grace when the mouth of the cave gets open towards the real noumenal sun.

It may be for this reason that Plato imagined the cave opened towards the sun outside, although it gets no light inside from that sun, preserving (we could say unnaturally weren’t we aware of the role of the cave allegory) the darkness vaguely dissipated by the weak light of the fires inside. As Mircea Vulcănescu observed, the barrier between this world and the other one is not insurmountable.

In terms of the Romanian folklore mythology, there would exist two existential realms between which the barrier is not so much «exterior» as it is «interior.». According to Plato, the human soul is akin with the noumenal world and naturally tends towards it. As compared to the spherical shape of the limited universe, the Platonic image of the cave opening towards the outside reminds one of that Romanian folklore belief according to which «the skies open» on Christmas.

When the bridge between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds is lowered, in order to reach the world that can be seen through the opening of the cave, it would suffice to remove the chains, thus letting the one thus released turn towards the opposite part of the wall that they were forced to face.

But what other than «death» can mean the removal of chains to someone that under the influence of the Orphic and Pythagorean doctrine pictures the body as the prison of the soul?

We thus detect in the Platonic «myth of the cave» the same kind of liberation occurred at the moment of the sacrifice made in order to acquire immortality in the Danubian Knights’ myth and in the ballad «Mioritza».

Therefore, the symbol of the Platonic «myth of the cave» that has an opening towards the sun outside illustrates the very moment when the «skies open» and the soul freed from the prison of the body starts climbing an initiation path that takes it towards the Platonic virtue, true light of the Good that lies beyond the   phenomenal world. «Should there be such a [liberated] man, he would be among the living practically what Homer said Tiresias was among the dead, when he described him as the only one in the underworld who kept his wits, the other are mere flitting shades. Where virtue is concerned, such a man would be just like that, a solid reality among shadows» (Plato,Meno, 100 a).

For   centuries on, with no interference whatsoever, in all commentaries on this myth that Plato displayed in the seventh book of the Dialogue Politeia there have been reiterated a few extremely superficial observations that basically point to a total lack of understanding of the Platonic philosophy in its esoteric parts of Pythagorean inspiration. Unlike the other European nations, we (Romanians) might enjoy the benefit of having poured in the mould of our spirituality reminiscences of the Orphic myths and theDanubian Knights’s cult transfigured since preChristian times into a ballad of the perfection   of «Mioritza».


  1. About Horia Stamatu see in volume: Isabela Vasiliu-Scraba, CONTEXTUALIZARI («Elements for a Topology of the Present»), Star Tipp Publishing House, 2002, a biobibliography of the writer on pp. 88-91. The book is available on the Internet on the web site: .

                        In his last will and testament draft that Horia Stamatu outlines after 1983, when he started having serious heart problems, while referring in all likelihood to Nae Ionescu, Mircea Vulcănescu, Dan Botta whom he used to know closely (and not only to them!), he writes as follows: «In my lifetime I had the chance to be inspired by the greatest hearts and minds that this country boasted before it collapsed. I enjoyed the example of the hero, of the genius, of the martyr. For everything that I lacked to be worthy of their measure, I beg forgiveness from them and from all those for whom I was not able to do what I was supposed to. I believe in and wait for the resurrection of the dead and the next life.» (See A Life in Exile. Horia Stamatu, Editura «Romania Press», București, 1998).

  1. In the autumn of 1941, Mircea Vulcănescu writes a «Vicleim» (Bethlehem) in four scenes for his children and nephews to play on the Christmas Eve of 1941 (see Mircea Vulcănescu, «Vicleim», Crater Publishers, Bucharest, 1996).

                        Related through his wife to Elena Văcărescu (the godmother of Mariuca, his youngest daughter) the philosopher sends the book to her. Thrilled at the virtues of the work, the great poetess wrote to him about her intention to translate it into French (see Elena Vacarescu’s letter of October 18, 1941, published in the «Manuscriptum magazine», nr. 1-2/1996, a special issue dedicated to Mircea Vulcănescu, p. 311).

  1. A fellow student of Nicolae Iorga’s in the French and German universities, Teohari Antonescu was a professor of archaeology at the University of Iasi. He was one of the first Romanian experts in Greek and Roman epigraphy. His book on The Cult of the Danubian Knights in Dacia, published in 1889 (republished in 2004 at «Saeculum I.O.» Publishing House, Bucharest), is based not only on the references of ancient writers but also on the interpretation of archaeological artifacts.
  2. The belief in the renewal of nature through a sacrifice of initiation has been preserved with the Romanians on the Timoc Valley (Serbia) in a form noted down by Ovidiu Barlea (see Folklore Poetics, 1979, p. 133). The outlaw (the self exiled person), depicted in the ballads as a sort of «green man of the woods», was thought to make fields fertile, to make grain crops rich, as if «he had taken upon himself» the role as god of vegetation. This highlights the concept of sacrifice in the struggle on the side of the Good against the evil. According to popular belief, the world cannot resume its course and nature cannot revive when the balance tips towards the Evil. Ovidiu Barlea noted that he had found out about this belief from the historical researcher Sava Ivanovici, a Romanian living in the Timoc Valley.
  3. See Isabela Vasiliu-Scraba, The Platonic Mystic, Star Tipp Publishing House, Slobozia, 1999.
  4. As it happens in logic. They are not in a contradiction either «by mutual damage». This situation was highlighted by Immanuel Kant for the realm of the real world (see Isabela Vasiliu-Scraba, The Transcendental Topic Seen From the Perspective of the Archaeology of the Kantian Thinking, in the volume: Isabela Vasiliu-Scraba,INEFFABLE METAPHYSICS, Tipografia S.A. Slobozia, Ialomita, 1993, pp. 87-96).
  5. See Mircea Vulcănescu, Concrete Existence in Romanian Metaphysics, in the vol.The Romanian Dimension of Existence, Ed. Fundației Culturale Române, 1991, p.80.
  6. 8. See Isabela Vasiliu-Scraba, Hyperion’s   cosmogonic visions as remembrance (as Platonic «anámnesis»), pp.46-52 .

                        While writing about Mihai Eminescu, philosopher Ștefan Teodorescu (1906-1982) tended to explain the brilliant poem Hyperion through hybris: «We don’t know to this day the extent to which hybris and legitimate creativity mingle in Hyperion, one of the loftiest (poetical) embodiments of man as a whole.»(See Ștefan Teodorescu, «Eminescu and the New Humanism», 1980).

                               Transtated by Ileana Barbu

One Response to The «Opening of the skies» in a platonic myth and in the «Mioritza» ballad

  1. I read this piece and I enjoyed it very much. Many ideas could be elaborated farther, of course. One in particular stands out: the motif of the two brothers killing the third is found not only in Mioritza but also in another important foundation Romanian myth, The Legend of the Argesh Monastery. The third brother (one could argue)to be sacrificed is substituted by his wife (and he suffers the most). It could have been diffused (as a Vlach version or variation to our theme)by the Aromanian stonemasons throughout South-Eastern Europe.
    Great synthesizing effort!

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