2018 Society for Romanian Studies Conference (ASE, Bucharest, June 25-28, 2018): Whatʼs in a sheep? State of art of a contested Romanian national symbol

As in the case of other eastern European nations, folklore had a significant role in the development of Romanian national consciousness starting in the middle of the 19th century, continuing to the 1918 unification, and further with the manipulation of peasant traditions to fit the communist cultural politics. Described as one of “the national myths”, the tragic plot from The Ballad of the Little Ewe (Miorița) came to define Romanian cultural identity aesthetically as well as psychologically. Configured as a favorite self-representation icon, the ballad’s hero came to embody the good and the bad of a Romanian’s essentialist portrait, the cultural intimacy of the Romanian people, in Michael Herzfeld’s terms.

The popularity of the ballad’s central figure was encouraged by the highly influential romantic image of local shepherds in Romanian official history and standard literature. These rugged pioneers of an early nationalist movement defied any geographical borders and fulfilled a historical role in connecting economically and culturally the three historical regions inhabited by Romanian language speakers through the phenomenon of transhumance. The folk symbol is still currently active in patriotic discourses, but also increasingly scrutinized by a more critical segments of the civil society.

In order to explain the contemporary national controversy over this folk icon, the paper highlights and discusses the main moments of its emergence from the point of view of folklore studies and cultural anthropology, as well as the sources through which a piece of oral literature achieved its nationwide profile. Some of these means, such as the secondary education of many generations of Romanians, promoted ready-made interpretations of nationalist philosophy. The paper also give examples of the folk symbol’s trajectory within the culture of the Republic of Moldova, where the ballad complies with the national Moldovan mythology, giving rise to politically charged public art. In order to explain the particular path taken by the Romanian folk item, the paper offers a comparative perspective, with the trajectory of folk ballads sharing the same plot found in the folk literatures of neighboring nations.

The end of investigating the past lives of this folklore element and its intricate transformations within the Romanian and Moldovan national imagery will be to analyze the recent debates on the Miorița shepherd’s adequacy as a current and future national symbol.