The Calusari were the members of a Romanian fraternal secret society who practiced a ritual acrobatic dance known as the calus. According to the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade, the Calusari were known for "their ability to create the impression of flying in the air" which he believed represented both the galloping of a horse and the dancing of the fairies (zine). Indeed, the group's patron was the "Queen of the Fairies" (Doamna Zinelor), who was also known as Irodiada and Arada, and who Eliade connected with the folkloric figure Diana.
Due to their connection with the fairies, the Calusari were believed to be able to cure the victims of fairies and for around two weeks - from three weeks after Easter till Pentecost - would travel to all the local communities where they would dance, accompanied by a few fiddlers, in order to do so. In their dance, the Calusari carried clubs and a sword, as well as a flag and a wooden horse head. They swore on the group's flag to treat each other as brothers, to respect the customs of the Calusari and to remain chaste for the next nine days.
Upon their return home, their flag was fixed into the ground, with one member climbing it and crying out "war, dear ones, war!".
The origins of the Calusari are unknown, although the first written attestations are from the 17th century musical notations of Ioan Caianu. Eliade noted that "Although the oath taken is made in the name of God, the mythico-ritual scenario enacted by the calusari has nothing in common with Christianity" and that, in the 19th century at least, there was clerical opposition to the group, with its members being excluded from taking communion for three years in some regions.
The Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade believed that the term Calusari originated with the Romanian word for horse, cal, from the Latin caballus.
The generally accepted derivation of Calus is from the old Latin double form "collusium, collusii", meaning both "a dance group" and "a secret society", however other derivations have been proposed. The Romanian word calus also means "a small piece of wood placed in the mouth to prevent talking", and derivation from this word has some support from the presence of the mute figure in some groups, and the ritual silence that used to be observed by the entire group. Others see calus as a diminutive of cal "horse", in turn derived from the Latin caballus, and point to the horse's mythical associations with fertility and war, as well as the imitation of horses found in certain Calus dances, although these dances do not currently play a principal role in the ritual. Another theory is that it derives from "Coli-Salii", the Roman priests dedicated to the worship of Mars.
Traditionally, the Calusari group is a secret, male-only society associated with a spring rite, possibly a remnant of tribal warrior societies. The group leader (usually an older man) recruits a number of acolytes, always young, single adults chosen for physical prowess. The group members take an oath of secrecy, whereupon they participate in an initiation rite and taught the forms of the dance. The groups of Calusari roam the country in spring-time, visiting villages by turns and taking part in the week-end dances - hora.
The calus is a male group dance, although there are records of traditions from Oltenia region that included 1-2 young girls, now obsolete. A "bride" would be chosen by the group from each village they passed through, based on her dancing skills. The "bride" would be oath-bound to join in the ritual dance, for three years in a row.
Dancers wear white trousers and white tunics, with brightly coloured ribbons streaming from their hats. Bells are attached to their ankles, and dances include the use of ornate sticks held upright whilst dancing, or pointing at the ground as a prop. The dance itself is highly acrobatic, emphasizing extension and high jumps, much like the Ceili dance.
Like many Morris dances, in many traditions Calusari dancers include a fool, known as the "nebun", or "crazy"
The dance includes the following elements.
The starting figure of walking (plimbari), or a basic step, in a circle moving counter clockwise.
More complex figures (miscare) performed in place between walking steps.
Figures are formed from combinations of elements, often have a beginning-middle-end structure.
Other male group dances originating from ritual dances are found along the Carpathians and in Transylvania. The Carpathian variants such as Trilisesti and TÃ¢ntaroiul from Moldavia and Barbatescul and De sarit from Maramures include only the most basic features whereas the De bÃ¢ta, Haidau, and Fecioreasca of Transylvania are very close to the Calusari with the addition of more complex later developments.
The English Morris dance is also similar in choreography, the meaning of the ritualistic sword dance, and the costumes. It could simply be a common European folk dance, hence its connections with common folk beliefs such as fairies.
In Popular Culture
A Season 2 episode of the television series The X-Files, entitled "The Calusari", featured a group of Romanian elders (ethnicity and religion unspecified) attempting a folk exorcism on a Romanian-American boy. Their practice -- which on the show involves chicken sacrifice, ritual dagger-waving, and the drawing of a swastika in blood on the boy's stomach -- is ultimately revealed to be well-intentioned and effective rather than sinister, as it first appears.
Notes and references
Eliade, Mircea (February 1975). "Some Observations on European Witchcraft" in History of Religions Volume 14, Number 3. Page 161.
Eliade, Mircea (February 1975). "Some Observations on European Witchcraft" in History of Religions Volume 14, Number 3. Page 160-161.
Eliade, Mircea (February 1975). "Some Observations on European Witchcraft" in History of Religions Volume 14, Number 3. Page 162.
Eliade, Mircea (1973). Notes on the Calusari in The Gaster Festschrift: The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University. Number 5. Page 115-122.
Kligman, Gail (1977). Calus: Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual. Chicago: Chicago University Press. pp. 45-6.