Metaphors and the Development of Mythical Language With Examples from Romanian Mythology; paper presented at the International Association of Comparative Mythology Conference, University of Tubingen, 2013


While metaphor is the subject of intense linguistic study, with some even consider-ing that language itself can be perceived as metaphorical, its role in mythical language is less discussed. The lack of research on the cultural and linguistic context formation of myth was sensed by Boris Oguibenine: “the fundamental aspect of the formation and survival of a linguistic and cultural community has apparently never been the object of serious research.” (1998, p. 5) Further, he recognizes that linguists attempting to reconstruct an old culture ideology encounter obstacles such as the fact that a culture “[…] is not presenting itself as a world of objects and concepts […] but as signs of objects and concepts in a discourse or in a set of discourses.” The complex issue of archaic mythical language becomes more challenging if we add in the recent studies on the subject of metaphor and its cognitive role in human thought formation.
Since symbol is generally regarded as the essential trope in mythical language, little attention has been given to metaphors and their role in myth formation. The distinction between metaphors and symbols comes from the certainty that metaphor is governed by rhetorical rules of the ‘con-text’ and it may turn out to be illogical if interpreted ad literam, whereas symbols seem to maintain their original more stable substantial nature, representations of the general in particular (Goethe), or, societal established codes participating in the process of creating metaphors. As a verbal or material form of expression in the mythic-ritual discourse the symbol could be controlled, whereas the metaphor, as an intense cognitive effort to navigate the mysteries of the abstract world, could escape control, leading the human mind to new abstract concepts, new revelations into the spiritual realms. Admitting that ‘the religious discourse is metaphoric’ we can say that metaphors act within the human thought process taking it into new spiritual experiences and forming ‘the mythic or religious consciousness’. Further, as myths deal in the world of the divine, and the divine realms are abstract concepts, they are, therefore, embedded into mind through conceptual metaphors within the context of mythical language. Thus, the prehistoric religion, that is myth, employed a metaphorical language.
The importance of the metaphor in mythical language was formulated by the philosopher Ernst Cassirer when he stated: “the intellectual link between language and myth is the metaphor”. (Cassirer 1953, p. 83) Further, he distinguishes be-tween the general metaphor as a conscious denotation of a thought which includes another by using a known vocabulary, and the radical metaphor as a condition of mythical and verbal expression, which operates not as a mutation into a different category, but as a creation of the category itself.
In recent times, researchers regard metaphor as an instrument of comprehension, not simply a figure of speech: metaphor manifests itself in speech, but it is a part of thinking, in the process of conceptualizing one mental realm through an-other. George Lakoff (1993) argues that metaphor is the major mechanism through which we understand an abstract concept and realize the process of abstract thinking.
Another researcher, Robert N. St. Clair (2000), distinguishes between the verbal metaphor and the visual metaphor, an important observation for the study of myth. He argues that we cannot understand an oral culture because we are using the instruments of the ‘literate’ culture. In our formal school systems, the focus falls on analysis, whereas in the oral culture, attention is given to understanding how things are related to one another. In the print or ‘literate’ culture, information is analyzed by using the verbal metaphor based on language, while oral culture uses the visual metaphor based on reorganizing the visual space. St. Clair’s ideas re-garding visual metaphors and their role in oral societies seem applicable to the study of mythology, as myth was precisely an expression of oral culture. Such distinction between two kinds of metaphors observed by Cassirer and St Clair reminds us of the Romanian philosopher and poet from the 1940’s, Lucian Blaga, who differentiates between the ‘image metaphor’ and the ‘revelation metaphor.’ (Blaga 1940, p. 358) Interestingly, in their effort to understand this figure of speech, these philosophers find a dual perception of the ways metaphors operate, one of which seems attached to religious perceptions, in fact revealing the strains encountered in understanding the mythical language with our literate conceptual system of thought.
Bernard Debatin (1995) finds that metaphor is a unity which opens up a perspective on an object while simultaneously describing it, and thus fulfilling a creative-cognitive function. Based on its particular power of synthesis, metaphor can bridge the gaps between experience and thought, between imagination and concept, making possible the linkage between new and prior experiences. Metaphor’s function of orientation and openness towards the world comes from the cultural heritage of images. The prior experiences or images could generate the absolute metaphor, could become a metaphoric system of orientation, visible and accessible to reasoning that are deeply rooted within the culture.
In an article on the conceptual metaphor theory as methodology in comparative religion Edward Slingerland (2004) states that if we need to know what people truly think about a concept we need to look at the metaphors used in relation to that concept. More so, conceptual metaphors as a primary tool for reasoning about self and the world need to be observed in the shared conceptual structure in which they are formed.
These conclusions may help reach a clearer understanding of myth, as an expression of the human psyche needs to know itself, its surroundings “through a metaphoric system of orientation”, and to establish the permanence of the shared cultural structures to which it belonged.
Once we agree on the function of metaphor as an essential component of abstract thought, the next step would be to unveil how such a conclusion may trans-late into understanding the myths we are familiar with. Would we be able, by using our contemporary bank of imagery, to penetrate the web of metaphors and actions by which mythical language conveys to us their archaic meaning? Following St. Clair’s suggestion that visual metaphor dominated the mental processes during the prehistoric oral tradition societies, we could start from the assumption that physical elements such as the earth, the sky, or the trees, for example, were transfigured into sacred realm through radical metaphors (Cassirer’s formula), and thus become the concept itself, the divinity. Metaphors and symbols formed together logical sets of facts that applied to other sets of facts within the context of myth creation. Thus, within the mythical story, a divinity was a metaphorical manifestation, anthropomorphic or otherwise, of the divine in action. To illustrate this thought, let us consider, for example, the Goddess Demeter, the Mother Earth: articulated in a metaphorical act, as in the saying, ‘Demeter feeds us all’, she becomes the metaphorical manifestation of the divine in action.
It could be said that myths are stories of the divine as metaphorical manifestations engaged in various acts. This view has validity as long as the social group recognizes such imagery in which the divinity functions. The group has to recognize not only the divinity in the metaphorical context of a myth, but also its actions and attributes.
Since the potential of metaphoric process to create new categories is so versatile, time and changes in the human understanding of the divine may alter such beliefs, and new meanings may develop. What once was perceived as a sacred story of divine actions addressing certain social values of a certain community may be transformed by new events, new revelations or leadership. The metaphors that were once connoting a particular divinity may lose their spiritual sacred value, as, for example, Demeter who in today’s understanding of the divine became irrelevant. Yet, there are cases in which a rather significant phenomenon takes place: a divinity may resurface under a different name, apparently as a new divinity, but retaining underneath the sacred powers and attributes of the old one. The mere observance of such a phenomenon could elude us. By borrowing a concept from physics we may call these metaphors, collapsed metaphors. To clarify, we shall refer to the famous Schrödinger’s Gedankenexperiment: a cat locked in a box can be considered simultaneously dead and alive, but as soon as we open the cover and ‘observe’ it, our previous reasoning ‘collapes’ and the cat is found either dead or alive. Similarly, we can say that mythical metaphors operating within their original ‘box’ – the mythical environment – become collapsed metaphors the moment we ‘observe’ them through our own cultural environment.
By losing their previous mythical milieu, metaphors can collapse into a new cultural reality, the reality of the new observer. What was once a metaphoric manifestation of a divinity may emerge either as apparently a new divinity or simply as a character in the story. For example, the Hindu dragon Vrtra, obstructor of the fertile rains, who is slayed by the hero Indra, or the German dragon, protector of the gold, who is slain by Sigurdr, or the Romanian balaur, who threatens the beautiful fairy, are all metaphorical manifestations of the danger facing the dragon slayer. Thus, we may entertain the possibility that the German dragon may be a collapsed metaphor of a dragon similar in function with Vrtra, the obstructor of the fertilizing waters, which resurfaced with a new meaning, that of obstructing the hero’s access to gold, changing its scope from that of obstructing the richness brought by the fertilizing waters into that of obstructing the richness and power associated with gold.
In Romanian mythology, a good example of a collpsed metaphor can be found in the myth of creation. The two main characters in this myth, Fîrtat and Nefîrtat, represent metaphoric manifestations of light/sky/water and earth/darkness that collapsed into God and Satan in recent folkloric data. To understand if this approach may have any value let us examine the myth.
The Romanian cosmogonic myth, recorded in collections from the start of the 20th Century, could be summarized in a few words: at the beginning there was nothing but water and darkness; on the top of the water some foam formed on which a butterfly and a worm appeared; the butterfly turned into a handsome young man, Fîrtat, shining light on everything aound him, and that was God. The worm turned into Nefîrtat, a lightless human form, and that was Satan. In another version God and Satan were walking above the waters. When they meet, God asked, “What is your name?” “Nefîrtate”, answered Satan, “and what is yours?” “Fîrtate”, said God. After a while, Nefîrtat complained that there was nothing to rest on, whereupon Fîrtat tells his companion to dive to the bottom of the water, and bring some mud to make a piece of land they could rest on. But he must bring mud only in his name, the name of Fîrtat. However, Nefîrtat, ignoring Fîrtat’s re-quest, dived into the water twice thinking to keep the mud only for himself, or at least to keep some for himself; each time he plunged into the waters the mud trick-led through his fingers, and he came out empty handed; only the third time, when Nefîrtat did not wish to keep clay for himself, the earth is created. (Niculiţǎ-Voronca 1998, p. 33)
The antagonistic duality of the divinities involved in this myth was considered by many as coming from the Bogomilic tradition. Mircea Eliade expressed his disagreement with this solution since the myth is not found in any Bogomilic text, or on Bosnian territory, the center for Bogomilism up to the 15th century, nor is it found in Serbia and Herzegovina. He also specifies that variants of this myth were found in the Ukraine, Russia and in the Baltic region, all areas which the Bogomil sect never reached. Mircea Eliade states that: “A priori, it is not impossible that certain ‘dualistic’ beliefs disseminated in the Balkans and the Carpatho-Danubian regions represent vestiges of religious beliefs from the Thraco-Scythian substratum.” (Eliade 1972, p. 92) It is probable that “in the folk strata in which the myth was current” there were images and symbols employed by the storyteller to impress the audience of the “mysterious structure of the divinity” (Eliade 1972). Together with other researchers, Mircea Eliade concludes that this is an extremely archaic narrative plot. A note should be made that in his analysis Eliade uses the names God and Satan for the two main characters, not their Romanian names, Fîrtat and Nefîrtat, as they appear in most of the folk collections.
From the perspective of the Indo-European mythological data the Romanian creation myth presents the mythical motif of the divine twins, under the names of Fîrtat and Nefîrtat, preserved as metaphoric manifestations of light/water in the character of Fîrtat, and land/darkness in that of Nefîrtat. They are similar and probably related to the Iranian Avirdada ‘lord of the waters’, and Amirdada, ‘lord of the trees’, relatives of the Indians Haurvatat and Ameretat, (Darmesteter 1875) and in the same class with the pair Mitra/Varuna, and Ohrmazd/Ahriman. These twin deities, representative of the Indo-European (IE) pantheon, are symbolizing waters and plants, implicitly dirt: one is luminous, the other dark, one is kind and just, the other terrible and unjust, one represents universal totality and vital force, the other immortality. Similarly, the Romanian twins display these recognizable traits: Fîrtat, who emerges from the primordial waters as a butterfly and then as a young man, is a luminous handsome deity, whereas Nefîrtat, the worm, a dark fig-ure, metaphorical manifestation of an earthly divinity, as Avirdada, a divinity of plants, is wild and quickly resorts to tricks. They are united in an inseparable rela-tion expressed by the symbolic images of worm and butterfly, metaphorically linked in an eternal circle of transformation. They immediately enter in conflict over the creation of the Earth: Nefîrtat refuses to give in to his counterpart, Fîrtat, symbolizing water and light without which plants could not grow. Fîrtat could not act alone, and only when Nefîrtat agrees and becomes the acting entity in this du-ality can creation occur. As metaphorical manifestations of water and soil, fertility and growth, the twin divinities must act together for the creation of the Earth. Fîrtat cannot create the earth alone, and Nefîrtat acting in his name alone loses mud through his fingers because he is Ne-Fîrtat, non-Life. This story sheds a glimpse of light on some important beliefs in the divine bi-unity, coincidentia op-positorum (Eliade 1972), perhaps an old Indo-European principle. As West states, “One may say that bipolarity (not trifunctionality) is the fundamental structuring principle of Indo-European thought” with its “ability to create negative compounds with the prefix *ṇ-…” (West 2007, pp. 100-101). Contrary to the general understanding that in the IE cosmogonic drama one twin kills the other in order for the world to be created, in this myth the creation happens only when the two divinities agree with each other, and enter into harmony. Perhaps as an archaic agrarian society, the Romanian understanding of creation reflects their basic be-liefs in harmony of nature.
There is no doubt that time and the fluidity of human thought acted upon the metaphors and symbols from myths and fairy tales brought to us by oral tradition. Out of their initial context, such metaphors collapse onto new social conditions and acquire new connotations: Fîrtat/Nefîrtat, the divine metaphorical manifestation from the Romanian myth, have lost their earlier agrarian significance of land and water, resurfacing as Christian deities, and becoming God and Satan. Under their newly acquired names, these divinities are a good example of collapsed metaphors: while they keep their imaginative force, they receive new connotations. Thus, we could recognize Fîrtat in the Christian God, associated with light, creator of the Earth, while Nefîrtat, the former partner in creation, is perceived as an un-derground divinity, guardian of Hell and its fires, the fallen angel. Nefîrtat, the trickster, a metaphor of the darkness and the ground, has collapsed and resurfaced in Satan, the devil, the fallen angel of the underground, a manifestation of evil.
Remarkably, the Christian storyteller solved the conflict between the old understanding of the myth and the new one in which the two characters received the Christian names, by adding a segment at the beginning of the story, a paragraph in which the two divinities introduce each other with their previous names, Fîrtat/Nefîrtat, but in the course of the story their new names God and Satan are used.
It may help our discussion to add that the old meaning of the word ‘fîrtat’ in Romanian language is that of ‘blood brother’, ‘frate de cruce’, literally translated ‘brother of the cross,’ mostly used among young men after they engaged in a ritual act of brotherhood, swearing loyalty and devotion to each other for the rest of their lives. In essence, this contract reminds us of Mitra, whose name means contract. In the contemporary Romanian language the word ‘Fîrtate’, a vocative form, lost its divine connotations. The phonetic similarity between the word ‘frate-brother’ and ‘Fîrtate’ determined the general consensus among linguists that these two words are in fact one, that Fîrtate originates in the Latin form ‘frater’. This explanation is problematic mainly because the Romanian myth, especially the diving theme, is not to be found in the Roman mythology, nor is there a god with a name similar to that of Fîrtat. We will have to assume that Dacians borrowed the Latin form ‘frater’ and used it for two separate concepts, one meaning ‘brother’, Rom. frate, the other phonetically modified in Fîrtat, to name a god of light, not to be found in the Roman mythology. Furthermore, in all the Indo-European languages, the word ‘brother’ the cluster bra/fra/pra remains constant, as in: Skt. bhratar, Av. bratar, Phrygyan braterais, Gr-Lat. frater, Old Ir. brathair, Got. brothar, Lit. broterelis, Old Sl. brati, Toch. pracar, pratri.
Perhaps a better explanation for the Romanian Fîrtat is PIE *wihxrós as in OIr fer ‘man’; Lat vir ‘man, husband’; OE wer ‘man, husband’ in the same family as Varuna, Tyr, Virinius, Fjorgynn, Avirdada, expressing the same meaning: life, wa-ter, fertility, man.
Other examples of such collapsed metaphors can be found in folk tales, as the Romanian trickster Păcală, together with the French Cadet Cruchon, the German Till Eullenspiegel, the Neapolitan Vardiello, or Giufa in Sicily, whom we may con-sider as ‘collapsed’ manifestations of the Indo-European tricksters, Hermes, Peku-lis, Loki, Bricriu, or Pusan.
The Indo-European Trickster played nasty pranks on the other gods, stirring them into action, thus conveying the divine information to mankind. His pranks were metaphorical manifestations of a divinity challenging the other gods, forcing them either to obey the ethical norms, or to create something new and useful, traits that bring him closer to Nefîrtat. In time, unlike Satan/Nefîrtat, he lost his mythical reality, and ‘collapsed’ in folk stories as a humorous character in conflict with the immoral behavior in the community, yet keeping the main characteristics of the god. As he belongs to the third function in the Dumezilian class system, he is an agrarian deity who governs wealth and fertility. Similarly, the Romanian folk Trickster Păcală, among the European Pooka, Peik, or Puck, all apparently related to the Lithuanian god Pekulis, is known as the one who punishes the unfaithful wife, the crooked, and the pervert.
The Romanian stories together with those from European folklore, could offer many examples of collapsed metaphors and new perspectives in the effort of understanding archaic myths. With their ability of traveling through time, collapsing from one social context into another, metaphors collapse and are assimilated in mythical language, as they re-invest themselves into new connotations, new mean-ings according to the new changes and requirements of the community.
These examples are only a modest attempt to address the mythic data from a different perspective, that of metaphors as ancient instruments of conceptualizing the divine, metaphors that collapse, resurfacing into new ones, in a perpetual cognitive effort of understanding the unknown.


Blaga, L 1940, Trilogia culturii; geneza metaforei si sensul culturii, Fundaţia Re-gala pentru literatură şi artă, Bucureşti.
Cassirer, E 1953, Language and Myth, Dover Publications, New York.
Chelariu, A 2003, Metafora Metaforei, Cartea românească, Bucureşti.
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Eliade, M 1972, Zalmoxis, the Vanishing God; Comparative Studies in the Reli-gions and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Gimbutas, M 1958, Ancient Symbolism in Lithuanian Folk Art, American Folklore Society, Philadelphia.
Lakoff, G 1993, ‘The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor’, in A Ortony (ed), Meta-phor and Thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 202-251.
Niculiță-Voronca, E 1998, Datinele și Credințele Poporului Român, Ed. Saeculum, București.
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Puhvel, J 1987, Comparative Mythology, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore & Lon-don.
Seineanu, L 1978, Basmele Romane, Editura Minerva, Bucureşti.
Slingerland, E 2004, ‘Conceptual Metaphor Theory as Methodology for Comapara-tive Religion’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 72, no. 10, pp. 1-31.
St. Clair, RN 2000, Visual Metaphor, Cultural Knowledge, and the New Rhetoric, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.
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West, ML 2007, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, Oxford University Press, Ox-ford.


About ancarchelariu

Research in Indo-European Mythology with special attention to the Romanian Mythology and Folklore
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4 Responses to Metaphors and the Development of Mythical Language With Examples from Romanian Mythology; paper presented at the International Association of Comparative Mythology Conference, University of Tubingen, 2013

  1. Mara says:

    Dear Ana,
    It is so great to read this paper, and I am so happy you have posted it! Many thanks! 🙂

  2. nawazesh says:

    Re your post: Zamolxis: Comparative Mythology

    “Dushman” is actually a new Persian word, meaning ‘enemy’.

    This is surely a borrowing by the Indic Romani on their travels through Western Asia in the middle ages.

    • Mallory-Adams gave us this:
      PIE *dusmenēs ‘hostile’, literally ‘bad-thought’;
      Cogn.: Grk dusmenếs ‘hostile’; Av dušmanah- ‘hostile’; Skt durmanās ‘sad’
      Your observation may have some validity. We will have to check a Romani dictionary.

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