Photo credits: Virginia Lupu, from the series “Tin Tin Tin,” 2018–19.
When I was around 6, my grandma found out I was deathly afraid of the dark and struggling with nightmares, so she decided to take me to a healer she knew in her village. She woke me up the next morning and off we went, to the other side of the village, ending up in front of an old rusty gate. An old woman welcomed us in and as they started talking, I was admiring her huge vineyard, all-encompassing and only letting a few rays of sun pass through. I heard her say “Oh, the little one? Let’s go next to the willow tree and I’ll disenchant her ” and I was taken to the back of her yard and placed between a well and the willow tree, where she started chanting an incantation that I did not understand and that only made me feel awkward, as all the attention was aimed towards me.
The scene described above uncovers a crucial piece of Romanian tradition and spirituality: the “deochi” or evil eye, which occurs when someone looks at you with lust or envy, sending all kinds of bad vibes your way. Most times, if you tell your grandma that your head hurts, you feel weak, dizzy or just weird, she will tell you that you’ve clearly been subjected to the evil eye, all due to your irresistible beauty – you’ve definitely caught someone’s eye on your way over. What happens next is a prayer is said, usually while stroking the evil eye victim’s head, or if your grandma is cooler than mine she knows an incantation for it (called “descȃntec”). In this video, you can see a Timok Romanian woman (1) chanting in a variety of Romanian that is quickly becoming endangered. Often, when my grandma wards off evil spirits for me, I am swayed by the mixture of human warmth, positive energy and a splash of placebo, so I usually feel better, but the day that the woman chanted for me I was not moved, and my nightmares were not cured.
The “deochi” or “evil eye” has been mentioned in both the Old and New Testament, rendering it an old tradition that really stuck to the Romanian psyche. Apparently, 65% of Romanian people believe in its power. (2) The remedy has been stated: a granny’s love. But what about protection? The best way to protect oneself is by wearing a red thread, which is why people traditionally wrap a red thread around newborns’ wrists to ward off evil before they are christened. (3) Romanian superstition is undeniably vast, ranging from the evil eye to practices like putting basil under your pillow to dream about your future husband on 6th of January (“Bobotează”). Everyone thinks of us as vampires, but we are more concerned with witchcraft.
Like every kid does, since a very young age I’ve been fascinated by the occult. I used to search for spells to do with my friends, and we would put out a blanket, light candles and do spells – only for protection, no black magic involved! One time a huge storm started right as we finished our witchcraft and a woman who noticed us came out of her house, yelling out after us: “Look at them! The witches! Go home, look at what you’ve done!” We all ran to our homes, terrified of what we had unleashed upon the world. We never did any spells ever again. This anecdote, and the cruel joke that was played on us by the woman, are just distant echoes of the inhumane judgement administered to witches in the Middle Ages. Transilvanian witch hunts, with accounts from Sibiu and Brasov (two cities from Transilvania) included burning the witch on stake (1653), in 1703 there are accounts of witches being drowned and in 1711 of burning at stake and decapitation. In Sibiu, it used to happen in Piata Mare, a huge square where the execution of witches was turned into a sinister street show. (4)
In current days, witchcraft is still sought after and people still do magic: manifesting their crush’s love, asking fortune tellers who they should trust professionally, going to healers to chant away their curses, etc. Needless to say, witchcraft and fortune telling have a fertile ground for business. There are different types of witches now: the ones that heal, the ones that tell fortunes, the ones who work for God and those who don’t – most will tell you they work with God though. Here one must mention the complex link between Roma women and witchcraft. The Roma Futurism Manifesto, which is a definite must-read and tells the story of Roma women better than I could, “reclaims the figure of the Roma witch, so stereotyped in our collective imaginary, and witchcraft becomes our political response to the social inequalities and the injustices of the world we live in.” (Mihaela Drăgan) Roma women have (too) long been judged as dangerous or malevolent witches, and Mihaela Dragan, along with Giuvlipen theater stand against these injustices, using witchcraft to heal the intergenerational trauma of the Roma people. If you are interested in using magic to destroy the patriarchy, here is a spell to solidify and give strength to feminism, featured by the queer and feminist Romanian magazine Cutra and created by Witch Mihaela Mincă: when the sun rises, take three sips of water (the first water that comes out of your tap or the first cup from a well) and place three red rose petals in a glass, and then say:
“Mă spăl ca feminismul să fie // I wash myself for feminism to be
Prosper și iubit // prosperous and loved
Tu apă curată din izvoare adunată // you, clean water from rivers gathered
Luminează fericirea femeilor // light the happiness of women
Să rămânem curate, luminate // for us to remain clean, lit
Ca apa din fântână, ca busuiocul din grădină // like the water in the well, like the basil in the garden.”
More on Virginia Lupu’s vision and her plight to demystify the figure of the Roma witch here.
As an agnostic, I don’t believe in anything until I see it – that applies to God, the occult or my friends’ promises. However, as an Aquarius born on the 21st of January, on the cusp with Capricorn, it goes without saying I’m an intuitive, creative soul, original and ahead of time with my ideas, highly inventive, and airy, ever-changing my views as the wind blows. Moreover, I do not 100% percent believe in tarot, fortune-telling or the fact that I am a White Moon woman since my period comes on a waning moon, which must mean I need to spend more time self-caring and recharging my chakras. Although I don’t believe in anything until I experience it, I also don’t believe in a fixed, rigid belief – how can you really know what you know, man? I like to play around with these notions instead of having existential crises, so I listen to my tarot reader.
When it comes to fortune-telling, I have been dipping into the tarot reading youtube community. I’ve listened to many tarot readers, both Romanian and American and with a pain in my growing patriotism I have to say I enjoy the latter more. The Romanian readers had too much of a literal way of interpreting that didn’t sit well with me, while the English-speaking community seemed to leave more open to interpretation, speaking of ‘energies’ and ‘inner journeys’. Personally, I have a specific way I consume this content (and some of my fellow brainwashed friends could relate) – I almost exclusively listen to past or present readings, never for the future (that is where my belief and interest fade). I listen to what is envisioned by the tarot reader to test my reaction, as an exercise to pinpoint what I feel and what I do not. If I relate, that means that I feel the energy or sentiment they are expressing, and if not, then I know I did not – I use it as a self-reflection tool. I am not as attracted to the idea of fortune-telling, at least not when it comes to me doing it. The one method I practice is coffee fortune telling. A coffee cup (made in the Turkish way) is prepared, drunk and the residue swirled around a few times before placing the cup upside-down to dry. Then, the fortune-teller looks for certain symbols or images that uncover a story that will answer the drinker’s questions.
I got the habit from my grandma, a very religious woman with a sharp intuition that always led to fascinating stories. She told me stories from when she was a child and her father taught her how to see her future husband by placing mirrors facing each other, at a perfect angle to create a mise-en-abyme at the end of which you can see the figure of who will meet you at the altar. She told me that she saw her destiny: a dark haired man with strong shoulders. I always used to listen to every detail, completely enmeshed in her spoken memoir. Later on, she told me that she used to dream of her first love: a photographer who would always capture her beauty and whose muse she became. He went to the army right before she married my grandfather. She told me that decades later, after they had long taken different paths in life, she had recurrent dreams of him calling her from the darkness. She phoned his sister after a while and found out he had recently died, so she lit a candle for him and only dreamt of him in a light, open space afterwards. The story that marked me the most was when, one morning, after drinking her coffee some coffee grounds remained at the bottom of her cup and after swirling it around a few times and leaving it upside down to dry, she looked inside and was struck by what she saw: the face of a friend and former work colleague, lying on a hospital bed with a priest at her legs and a candle lit up next to her. She called her family and found out she had recently died. My blood freezes whenever I think back at the story and my grandmother’s enchanting tone. I do not know even the most basic of symbols, and have never been taught to interpret, and I believe my grandma hasn’t either, but I still find it interesting to test my intuition and imagination on coffee-cups. I read coffee as people look at clouds. If you look out at a sky filled with clouds and have some imagination, it will show you shapes and patterns that can take you far in interpretation. I do the same with coffee – every cup has its own story.
What I take from all of this is a sense of hope in the void of not having religion in my life. This is an attempt to grasp meaning in a meaningless world and to listen to one’s intuition. I know people might ask, is it really belief if there is still a foundation of doubt? And I think the answer is yes, through flexibility of mind and allowing oneself to dream and play. I choose to keep the occult in my life and I encourage you to do the same – not through any sort of categorical prediction, but just for fun.
(1) Timok Romanian (also known as Vlach, Vlach Romanian; Serbian: vlaški, standard Romanian: română timoceană) is a variety of Romanian spoken in Eastern Serbia, South of the Danube.
(2) In this survey, 65% of Romanian participants have responded ‘yes’ to the question “do you believe in the existence of the ‘evil eye’?