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March 10, 2011

The Celebration of the Forty Martyrs in Romania

March 10, 2011
Nine O'Clock

The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (The “Holy Forty”) are commemorated by the Orthodox Church every year, on March 9. They lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Licinius (308-324), who persecuted the Christians. The Holy Forty were Christian soldiers in the Legio XII Fulminata, in Armenia. Not all of them were Romans, some of them were Greek, as well as Armenians.

On March 9, all rural communities observed the custom of taking the plough out into the field. After being put through fire by the village ironsmith, the plough was taken out in front of the house in festive style, according to During the ceremony, the woman in the household was the main protagonist.

After the plough was brought out in front of the house, tillers, usually in twos, would stand with their heads bared in front of the oxen or horses, and the woman would come out of the house, the tillers’ sack in one hand, and a vessel of holy water, frankincense and basil in the other. The woman would come near the plough and cart, she would circle them three times, spraying them with holy water and smoking them with frankincense. The woman would utter, then, most solemnly: “May you be as clean as holy water and frankincense/ And never part when tilling/ And may you never meet any wraith or ghost that could harm you”.

An egg was laid in front of the beasts of burden, as it was said that, if the egg remained unharmed after the cart got going, tillers would be safe from harm, as well, during the tilling season. They were given a sack of victuals, and, then, the woman would pour the remaining holy water in the pail laid before the animals. The egg tradition is of pre-Christian origin, as the egg was considered the measure of all primordial things, which had, here, the role of an omen, meant to offer protection during the ploughing. In some villages, there was a tradition to gather all the ploughs in the village on the village common, on this day, the priest would come to bless the water and spray every plough, and then the tillers would head each to his own plot of land to draw the first, inaugural, furrow.

The Holy Forty’s day was also a time for weather predictions. It was believed that, if it rained on that day, it would rain on Easter as well; if there was thunder, summer would be auspicious for all harvests; and, if there was a frost on the eve of this day, then autumn would be long.

Nowadays, out of all ancient practices, the only ones to endure are the custom that women should bake, on March 9, 40 dough figures, called “holy men” or “martyrs”, reminiscent of Neolithic fertility figures, and that men should drink 40 or 44 glasses of wine (it was thought that the wine drunk on this day would turn, during the year, into blood and vigour). The “holy men” are made of leavened dough and are anthropomorphic versions of the figure eight, the figure of cosmic balance.