Purity, Blood, Women, Midwives and Milk in Maramureș

Below are excerpts from a great book on Romanian folklore, specifically from the village of Ieud, Maramureș County, Romania. [for more information on Maramureș, see: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/maramures-romania/] It’s called The Wedding of the Dead by Gail Kligman, Univ of California Press, 1988, based on personal research while living in Ieud in 1978-79.

Purity and Pollution

Clearly, religious belief is fundamental to the indigenous folk ideology of gender. Central to the conception of men and women are notions of purity and pollution. The human body experiences carnal desires; periodically, corporal pleasure must be tempered. The body requires cleansing so that a balance between physical and spiritual well-being can be maintained. Religion regulates this balance through food prohibitions and days of fasting. Each week consists of zile de post (days of fasting) and zile de dulce (days of sweetness). Wednesday and Friday are days of fasting, during which people are not supposed to eat meat, milk, eggs, butter, olive oil, or fish. (Many people also fast on Mondays.) Instead, people eat corn bread, coleșă (mush), onions, potatoes, beans, sour pickles, cabbage…People young and old still adhere to these restrictions. Since zile de post are days of abstenance, weddings and other occasions for celebrationas and excess do not begin on these days.

From a broader perspective the annual cycle is punctuated with periods of fasting. (Including the weekly fast days, there are a total of two hundred fast days…The major fasts are for Easter (forty days before and one week after), Christmas (forty days, from November 15 to January 6), St. Peter and Paul (June 25-28), and St Mary (August 1-15). During these periods people are expected to follow the regime of zile de post. Today, howerver, only the elderly strictly maintain this custom. Marriages, the dance, and other celebrations do not take place during these times. Spiritual reproduction is favored, whereas social reproduction is temporarily restrained. By alternating periods of excess and restraint, feasting and fasting, religious ideology legitimizes itself. Body and soul are thus beleived to be spiritually cleansed, an important factor in the conception and presentation of self.


A primary component in the religious tale about life and death, purity and pollution, is blood. Blood is life’s force (a factor significant to the power attributed the menses, discussed below); excessive letting of this substance weakens or kills. Blood is sustenance and, as such, is a critical feature of Christianity. “The sacrement of communion is based on the transfer of energy through blood”… and believers partake of Christ’s power by imbing his life’s force – the blood of communion: “Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-57). But just as excessive loss of blood is perilous, so is excessive intake. The Bible cautions against addiction to this powerful force; lust in and of itself is sinful, and lusting after another’s blood leads to the committment of mortal sin.


With regard to purity and pollution, the bodies of women are more problematic than men’s are. Women are considered constitutionally becișnice (weak; in the vernacular, polluted) and spurcate (polluted, defiled). According to Church teachings, it was Eve who sinned, the ultimate proof that the innate nature of the female sex was associated with temptation and lust. From the patriarchal Christian perspective that has permeated the worldview of these Transylvanian villagers, the Devil presides over self-indulgence and finds a susceptible audience among young women, who are thought to be “by nature” prone to traffic with him. This ideology of gender, emerging from a religious tale of sexuality, guilt, sin and evil, therefore links women with devilish appetites. Because women have been, and are, considered the weaker sex, (a characterization with which many women still concur), they have been assigned to the domain of the diabolical, aligned with the Devil in action. Desire is an integral feature of the Devil’s purview, and among mortals, it is women who manipulate desire’s potentialities or are readily manipulated by it. In Ieud, men and women alike state emphatically that tăte femile sînt a dracului (all women are the Devil’s), meaning that women have qualities similar to the Devil’s and are, similarly difficult to deal with. (This is an allusion to the Fall – women as acceeding to temptation and being temptress herself. The Devil and women are symbolic media through whom deviation from norms may be explored.) Ieudeni invoke the authoritative voice of religion to lend credence to this “truism.” It is said that women, left to their own desires, will not respect the norms of social, much less sexual, intercourse. (This will be discussed further in the third chapter’s section on the association between women and death.) The Devil, his active principle, feminity, and his incarnations, women, represent the wish for a liberty, that of desire which leads to social disintegration…Desire run amok creates monstrous beings of one sort or another that arouse trouble for the living. “Civilization” is society’s recourse.

In popular belief, through transformations of symbolic logic, menacing fairies and spirits are thought to be women… Moroșeni [residents of Maramureș – DB] are warned not to be fooled by the seductive cretures of the fată pădurii (girl of the forest). Illnesses enter the house in the form of a female being who then “weakens” others, for example, ciumă, or plagueTradition dictates that on New Year’s Day and on Easter, everything possible must be done to prevent a woman from being the first person to enter a household from the outside. Otherwise, the family will suffer from illness and bad luck. In a similar vein, Death is thought to be a woman who comes to people and cuts them down with a scythe. (This represents an interesting inversion, as women do not customarily wield scythes.) Not surprisingly women, the symbolic kin of dangerous beings, are the primary customers for magic practices (such as the love charms associated with courtship, mentioned earlier); sorcery is also, by and large, a female profession... In light of these beliefs, women’s characters are always questionable and frequently denounced. It is not accidental that a bride’s virginity is scrutinized during the wedding ritual, but no one inquires aftr the groom’s. The burden of purity is placed on women, who are expected to uphold the norms of society and, therefore, patilineality. Ultimately the Devil and desire are subdued by the powers of patriarchal will exhibited through God and men.

The belief in the pollution of women stems partially from their menses and from the natural endowment of female generativity. Scholars argue that women have the innate potential to threaten the social order…The act of giving birth, the sacred obligation of women, is colored by natural, profane blood. Although blood is positively valued because it is the essence of health, kinship, and certain holy sacraments, it is also negativelt valued because it is associated with natural processes percieved to be threatening and polluting: menstruation, birth, and death. Many believe that “a woman is not cleaan when she gives birth.” At the same time, women are encouraged to have many children because it is believed that with each child the mother’s blood is changed, making her healthier (although perhaps physically weaker). Birth is coupled with sexual sin. After a birth, neither mother, child, nor midwife may enter the church for forty days. During this period, the mother and child are expected to stay near the house so as not to a se spurca tot satul (pollute the entire village). The forty days constitute an imposed time of purification after which prayers are read that reinstate the mother and midwife, as well as welcome the child into the social milieu of the village.


The blood of birth and its link with sin create a ritual tie between the mother and the midwife, or moașă. Interestingly, moașă is also the word used to designate a grandmother, the woman who has given birth to the mother of the child. (In similar fashion, a grandmother may be addressed as mama dulce by her grandchildren.) A midwife is recognized as a symbolic grandmother, or godmother. The ritual kin bonds are. again, corporately extended. She and her husband are therafter addressed respectively as moașă and moș by the women (and their families) she has helped to give birth. The mothers arer the midwife’s nepoate, meaning both goddaughters and neices.  The children born with her assistance, her nepoți, are simultaneously her godchildren and her nieces or nephews. After her death, the midwife will be lamented by her respective “goddaughters” and mourned by all of her respective godchildren. The terms moașă and moș also mean “ancestor.” Birth introduces the newborn into the world – of the living as well as the dead – thereby assuring the reproduction of the patriline…

Because of the nature of the midwife’s tasks, she is said to umblă cu păcatele, or be involved with sins. (Elsewhere in Romania this phrase has the additional connotation of performing an abortion.) If a woman goes into labor at night, her husband must go to fetch the midwife. In view of the symbolic syncretism between darkness, evil, and sin, the husband is obliged to call the moașă three times. Otherwise, it is feared that the midwife is being tricked or tempted by the Devil, the greatest sinner of all. (Three is considered “sacred”, hence certain acts of sorcery require that the person resist responding until called three times.) The midwife works with sins; therefore, she herself is in a precarious position.

To dispel potential danger, in addition to the church purification prayers her goddaughters ritually purify her. Once a year, on the second or third day of Easter or Pentecost, the moaşă’s goddaughters honor her (in the same way that the godchildren ritually, but sporadically, honor their nași). The sărbătoarea nepoatelor (celebration of the goddaughters) is a holiday that celebrates female solidarity in terms of the shared ability to give life; at the same time as it purifies that aspect of femaleness considered to be polluted and polluting. The goddaughters go to the midwife’s house late in the afternoon.  On entering, each woman ritually purifies the midwife; after dipping her hands in a bowl of blessed water, the goddaughter runs her hands over the midwife from head to toe three times, saying “Ierte-Ţi, Dumnezău păcatele dumnitale șî a cui ti-o făcut pă dumăta” (God forgive your sins, and who has sinned against you”). Each goddaughter brings a gift of grain, meat, sugar or flour for the midwife.  In return the midwife provides food and drink.  The women celebrate together. There is a great deal of singing, strigături *, and gossip. Husbands arrive later in the evening to take their wives home, because some of the women have overindulged in drink and require assistance. The men relish this opportunity to escort their wives home; usually, it is the wife who must retrieve her hisband from the local bar.

The sărbătoarea nepoatelor continues, in spite of the changes wrought by the communist rergime. Although unlicensed midwives are no longer permitted to practice, formally trained midwives assist in the village birthing room. Because they help bring children into the world, they are accorded the ritual honor that is their due. On the appropriate day, all of the living moaşe in the village are acknowledged by their goddaughters.


But women are seen not only as polluted beings; they are deemed both good and bad, and both representations may be deemed as stemming from their naturalness. This is significant, because the tendency to locate ‘femaleness in biology’ and in the natural order leads to overgeneralized (if appealing) analyses of nature-culture-gender relations. Lactation is considered purifying, especially because it often temporarily prevents the flow of blood. Hence, in Ieud (and much of the Catholic-related world) the female temptress gives way to the virgin bride. The sacred dimension of life-giving is encapsulated in the icon of the suckling child nourished by the generosity of his pure mother. This is an image that graces the walls of every home. (Again, the veneration of Mary is a Catholic phenomenoon and is not typical of Orthodoxy. The continuing allegiance to May in Maramureș, particularly the pilgrimage on her saint’s day, August 15, celebrates the historical religious roots of belief and ignores the contradictions posed by the present Orthodox practice.) Virginity and purity are fetishized and sacralized. As will be seen in later chapters, complex beliefs about pollution, virginity, honor, and shame have been constructed in self-defense against the physical manufestation of female maturity…The patrilineal paradox is a case in point. Family honor and prestige rest on the virtue of the female sex, those who are in but not of the family. Birth is shrouded in pollution and purity through blood and milk.

Sheep milk

Concepts of the sacred and profane and of purity and pollution are used to ‘explain’ and to interrelate categories of relations such as gender, (male, female), species (animal, human), order (nature, culture), and activity (domestic, agricultural/pastoral). The milking of sheep provides an interesting example of cultural logic illuminating the ambivalence of the heirarchy of relations thus formulated. In most parts of Maramureș, women are not permitted to milk sheep, although they do milk cows. Sheep, but not cows, are sacred. Because sheep are God’s animals, lamb is sacrificed and consumed on Easter. Pollution via sexuality or blood cannot be risked. One shepherd explained in explicitly sexual terms why women should not milk sheep. His argument was based on practical considerations. Cows are milked from the side, but sheep must be held betwen one’s legs. If women were to milk sheep in the presence of shepherds (which is done collectively at the sheepfold). how could the shepherds resist the temptation? (Only recently have women begun to wear panties under their peasant skirts.) Most people, however, attribute the taboo on women to menses. Accordingly, menstruating women in particular are discouraged from approaching the sheepfold. It is believed their blood will curdle the sheep’s milk. Women and sheep are placed in opposition: women, pollution versus lactation, sheep, purity. Men are caught in the middle. Tales of the rivalry between sheep and women abound. In a secularized variant of the Adam and Eve theme, a shepherd succumbs to the sexuality of a woman and loses the prescient assistance of a miraculous lamb. Women are also blamed for the ‘stealing’ of the milk of sheep; that is, by sorcery they cause sheep to be ‘dry’, or unable to give milk. Shepherds must be attentive to the condition of their sheep; they also have recourse to counter-magic to rectify such situations. The economic motivation for these ‘attacks’ must be noted. How much milk the sheep give on the day the shepherds depart for high pastures determines the amount of milk and cheese received later in the summer. Sheepfolds are composed of several families, friends, or relatives. Competition may arise among them or between different sheepfolds. But any problems with sheep’s milk are attributed to the evil workings of women. Thus, women are again responsible for disssention, trouble and disease in and between households.


John Uhlemann wrote: I met Gail Kligman in Chicago in the ’70s. I had been to Maramureș several times at that point, but my short visits prevented any sort of deep understanding. She was a wonderful, almost hyperactive person, full of energy. Her father, by the way, was the famous Albert Kligman, MD, Ph.D., discoverer of Retin-A and one of the greats in Dermatology (I am a dermatologist by profession, so I was familiar with his articles). We had a good laugh over all that. She shared many stories that were very helpful to me in understanding the world of her research. Her first book, by the way, was on the Caluș traditions of Romania.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: