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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 11:33 GMT
Romanian witches' roaring trade
Gheorghe's Maria in the village of Raba
Grains of corn are a traditional witch's tool
By Silvia Radan in Bucharest

All I can remember from the experience is a tirade of fast whispered words and a sudden gob of spit on my forehead.

Forty-one corn grains, 41 brothers - how well you know to ripen and heap up on the cob

Maria's spell
I was a young child and had been very sick. I was crying a lot and my grandmother thought I was going to die.

She took me to a witch in the village and asked her to remove the devil from me.

This autumn I went back to my native village, Raba in the Jiu valley, near Targu Jiu, to see what happened to the old woman.

She was smoking like a Turk, as they say in Romania, and yes, she was still in business.

Map of Romania
Gheorghe's Maria, as people call her, in a reference to her husband, says that she mainly cast spells over children, but she receives adults too.

"People from all the villages around here come to me. Even yesterday Gicu's daughter, Ermina, came to me.

"'I'm dying, I'm dying,' she kept crying, 'My head is killing me.' It's Leana, her grandmother, who keeps jinxing her - she admires her too much.

"Well, I removed the evil and she went home and fell asleep and when she got up she was like new."

Reading grains

White and black magic, which are just history in many countries, are still widely practised in Romania.

Witches tell the future, cure illnesses or bad habits, cast love-spells or cause death.

Often in remote villages people go to a witch before they go to the doctor.

Gheorghe's Maria
Bewitching smile: Filter cigarettes go down well
One ancient tool for telling the future, still very much in use today, is corn grains.

Gheorghe's Maria knows how to read the future in the grains. "When I was young my grandmother used to say 'Steal! Steal, girl, if you want to have remedy, and I kept watching her and learnt her art'."

When she said 'steal', she meant watch and take the knowledge that can't be learnt from a book.

Then Gheorghe's Maria brings 41 grains of corn and she gives me a demonstration.

"Forty-one corn grains, 41 brothers, How well you know to ripen and heap up on the cob, So you should know about Silvia, If she has dismay, if she has joy; If it's bad give me 9, if it's joy give me 5, Joy to the left, sorrow to the right."

Then she starts switching the grains around into different groups, while "reading" the numbers.

She casts all sort of good things for me. At the end I want to offer her money, but she refuses. However, a packet of filter cigarettes brings a big smile to her face.

Gypsy skill

Witches aren't only consulted in villages. In urban areas, gypsy women are well-known for their skill in witchcraft and they make good money out of it.

Margareta is the most famous witch in the town of Targu Jiu.

Margareta adjusts her fees to the wealth of the client
She says that 30 years ago she had a dream: an old woman came to her and told her she would find a pack of playing cards in her husband's fur coat and she should take it.

The next morning she did search the fur coat and indeed, she found a pack of cards.

While we are talking she brings out the cards, asks my friend Matei to make a cross three times with his right hand on them and starts reciting rhymes, referring to Matei as the Red King.

She goes on like this for about half an hour, counting and arranging the cards, giving small details of Matei's life - like the fact that he has two married daughters or a well in his courtyard.

At the end of it he seems rather shocked, admitting that pretty much everything she said is true.

'Married' knife

Margareta says she usually practice her magic twice a week - on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

O, big water, O, big lady, I'm praying for you and I worship you

Margareta's spell
There are big queues at her gate, specially in winter when dozens of people gather to divine something or get an evil spell exorcised.

Many of them are young girls in search of their true love, but adults come as well for all sorts of different reasons.

As well as "reading" the future in playing cards she can break up a marriage, exorcise spells or even cure alcoholism.

For each case she uses a bottle filled with water from three holy wells, a glass of honey and an item of clothing from the person who is to be cured.

To the holy water bottle she adds a piece of frankincense and some dried sweet basil.

Margareta's bottle of holy water, and the nine-times married knife
The married knife is dipped in the holy water
With all these she uses a nine-times married knife - secretly hidden by nine brides into their grooms' pockets during the wedding ceremony.

Since it won't do any harm, Margareta agrees to show me what she can do by casting away any evil from her neighbour: "O, big water, O, big lady, I'm praying for you and I worship you How you wash away all rubbish, all dirt, Wash Ioana too from all evils, All horrors, all doings, all spells As she ate and as she drank."

Margareta adapts the spells to deal with the specific problems of the bewitched person who has sought her out.

She adapts her charges as well - judging the wealth of each person who consults her and setting her fee accordingly.

There is nothing shameful about visiting a witch in Romania, although like a doctor's appointment, it isn't something people want to broadcast publicly.

And some witches now have a particular, modern reason for wanting to be discreet about their work.

As Romania's income revenue system becomes more efficient, they are liable to be taxed on their earnings - and even a witch's spell cannot always deter the tax inspector.

See also:

11 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Romania struggles to escape past
15 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Romania
09 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Romania
25 May 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Going back to Romania
30 Sep 01 | Europe
Romania has no stake in Dracula
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