In ancient times, whenever there was an epidemic, such as cholera for instance, the Romanians made use of a foolproof recipe: they crushed some garlic, sprinkled it with vinegar and then rubbed this paste all over their bodies. To be truly effective, they also whispered the odd word with symbolic meaning, and wore necklaces made of garlic cloves around their neck. Most incantations against the plague would invariably include the lines ‘two dishevelled maidens/holding glasses laden’, and these became so engraved in my mind that I still dream of them every time I have the flu. I’ve never managed to find out who these girls were, but they are often invoked as the ultimate killers of all diseases. For all intents and purposes, they must have been witches. Needless to say, back then everything would have been fumigated with the kind of fumigators described in 'The Phanariot Manuscript', commonly used to keep spirits away.
What’s more, the fashion for scented smokes also happened to hail from a woman, whom I am about to tell you in an instant. This woman is the protagonist of a legend that Leon, the furrier shared with Sim. Fl. Marian towards the end of the 19th century. He dictated it to him, to be precise. Imagine this scene as Leon would keep pushing and pulling his needle through the tanned leather, while speaking really slowly so Marian could take notes. It was around this time that he also wrote his book, 'Botany for All'.
And here's the story: once upon a time there was a ravishingly beautiful woman, who liked two things above all else: roaming the world and loving men. She’d travel in utmost luxury, accompanied by an array of servants, and every now and then, she’d break up her journey with a stopover. Wherever she went, she left behind a bevy of overjoyed men, who carried on dreaming of her by night and missing her dearly by day.
As it happens, most of them ended up with not much else, because the woman didn’t settle for anyone for long. Perhaps she looked like the woman painted by Carol Popp de Szathmári. Maybe she was even more beautiful than the picture, but in any case, she was a real witch. While men respected her choices and decisions, women simply couldn’t stand her. It wasn’t so much a matter of her unbearable acts but of the reputation she had earned among men.
So more and more women found themselves offended by the success of this beautiful traveller, and eventually they put together a secret army, ready to follow the courtesan wherever she went. It should come as no surprise that they soon captured and killed her without the slightest remorse, in a most cruel and undignified manner. Still, the women wouldn’t have wanted their deed to be discovered, especially not by their men, who would have most probably taken revenge for it.
To ensure that no one can find out about the death of this seductress, they carried her corpse to the other side of the Danube, and buried it in a remote place. I should let you in on the secret that all evils were discarded in this area; for instance, some charlatans were caught selling medicinal potions in Bucharest around 1750, and, as a punishment, they were thrown into the Danube. Likewise, the green hag (if you remember her) was exiled beyond the Danube, people assuming that she’d starve to death there anyway.
In these circumstances, it was normal for the dead body in our story to be taken there, too. But as you know, all actions trigger consequences. From the remains of the former witch, there sprouted a most beautiful plant, with large leaves and fragrant flowers. Although the place was deserted and haunted by ghosts, at one point a wandering Wallachian made his way there and set eyes on this tall flower.
Seduced by the beauty and tender leaves of the plant, he took it home with him and it was from there that all subsequent madness set out. As bizarre as it may sound, any man casting his eyes on this plant would feel the urge to tear a leaf off and carry it in his pocket. Some would place these leaves under their head, while others start chewing on them at once. An uppity seneschal even slipped some into the fumigators installed at the gates of his house, and from this point to smoking there was but a small step. Strangely enough, back then women didn’t take a liking to this plant at all.
Today things are different though, and the beautiful plant, the scion of the most seductive woman who has ever lived, is known by the name of tobacco.
trans. Jozefina KOMPORALY