Fiction: Zalmoxis, ruler of the underworld


A fictional story created and written by Damian Galvin, to capture the magic and beauty of Romania and its people.  Reading time: 14 minutes, please LIKE and share if you enjoy this.

Lucian, a young man of 23, had a very unfortunate childhood in the city of Pitesti.  As an only child, his parents, Lusu and Mariela, spoiled him with love and affection. They taught him well, gave him good values in life and protected him from every conceivable danger.

Lucian’s father, Lusu, was a gold miner in Rosia Montana, so was often away at work for weeks at a time, coming home exhausted for a few days. Lucian, by the age of 7, did not have the chance to know his father very well. One day, the local police officer knocked at the door later one evening and asked to come in to discuss a sensitive issue.  Mariela sent Lucian to bed to have some privacy. The policeman announced finally, trembling as he tried to hold his composure, that her husband Lusu was involved in a fatal mining accident and that he had died one day earlier. He explained was sorry to have to bring such news. Mariela did not react at first. “Could there be a mistake?” “How do you know it was my husband?” at which point the Policeman produced Lusu’s documents and personal belongings from a small bag he was carrying.  At this, Mariela broke down in tears. She was devastated to lose her childhood sweetheart and only love in her life. The Policeman made Mariela some tea to calm her down, but she was beyond control. Crying so deeply, it woke the neighbours and Lucian.  All came running to see what the commotion was. Eventually, the policeman left the house and Mariela remained with her son and neighbours. She cried all through the night until she was dehydrated. She screamed, prayed, cried some more, for the next days and weeks.

After a few days, she went through his belongings and found the usual identity papers, working permit, some small amount of money, a photograph of herself and a small, old, hand-drawn map with some writing she could not interpret.  Lucian didn’t really understand what loss meant as he had spent a lot of time apart from his father already. But still, he was deeply saddened by the loss of his mentor and father. He would miss the rare but exciting bedtime stories, the walks in the hills, the jokes his father shared with him that he made Lucian promise not to repeat to his mother. All of that was now gone. As Lucian looked through the belongings, he found the map. He pleaded with his mother to let him keep this as the only object he had to remember his father by. Later, he had the picture framed and hung on his wall.  Much of the text on the map was illegible, except one word, ‘Zalmoxis’, which meant nothing to Lucian or his mother at the time.  It had some locations marked which appeared to be of mountains near Polovragi, in the Carpathians, somewhere between Pitesti and Targu Jiu.

The years passed by and Lucian became even closer to his mother. They would do everything together, growing closer. But on Sundays, Mariela would insist on walking alone in the hills north of Pitesti, where she found solitude by talking to her one love, Lusu. She imagined holding his hand, kissing, laughing together and discussing all the small things lovers do. She never explained to anyone what she discussed on those walks but she wrote poetry to Lusu. One poem she wrote was thus:

  • I love you so deeply, so much,
  • The sound of your voice
    and the feel of your touch.
  • I love your smile, and your kind, thoughtful way,
    The joy that you bring to my life every day.
  • I love you today, as I have from the start, 
  • And I will love you forever, with all of my heart. 

One day, when Lucian was 13, his mother went for her usual Sunday walk. It was no ordinary day though. It was their twentieth anniversary.  But she never returned at the normal time. Lucian sat anxiously waiting, pacing up and down. Dusk came and he became very worried. He called on the neighbours who quickly gathered a search party. They made their way to where they thought Mariela would have walked, but without anything to go on, it was pure guesswork.  In the darkness of the hills, they could do little more than calling her name.

They returned home very anxious. Few of the close friends slept, keeping vigil. At sunrise the next morning they set out again, many of them, with dogs to help. They searched all day well into the late afternoon when suddenly, a local farmer within the group called out. “Over here, over here”. Lucian and those within earshot came running to the spot to see what the farmer had found. In a ravine, lay the crumpled body of Mariela. Lucian scrambled down the nearly sheer face into the ravine, 10 meters below and embraced his mother, screaming her name, but it was too late. She was cold and her body was stiff already. She appeared to have fallen the full height and died.

Lucian was beside himself with grief. Now he had lost both parents and most of all, his mother, his closest friend. How could she leave him alone in this world? He had a mixture of anger and deep sadness. One of the neighbour families took it upon themselves to look after Lucian. They moved him into their home and treated him like their own. The husband, Bartolomeu was a Professor of history at a local college and the wife a shopkeeper.

At the funeral, Lucian stood silently looking down into the earth, seeing with it, his life being buried with her. He became reclusive and withdrawn, throwing himself into reading and studying Romanian history. Bartolomeu would guide him and teach him how to research, cross-reference conflicting versions of history and to formulate conclusions about likely accurate versions.  Lucian went on to University to continue his studies, become a master in the subject. One day, the professor in a class taught them about an ancient king/ God of Dacian times, called Zalmoxis. Suddenly, Lucian remembered the map of his late fathers.

Zalmoxis, sometimes spelt Zalmoxes, is said to have been the slave of Pythagoras who, upon being freed, travelled to Dacia (ancient Romania) and became a teacher, healer, a vegetarian and high priest. He was later deified by the Dacians as a god of The Mystery, ecstasy, the underworld and immortality.

That night, he dug the framed map out from the loft, dusted it down and began to study it with new eyes. He showed it to Bartolomeu and later that week, to his university professor. The 3 of them would meet after classes and try to interpret the map. They redrew it on clean paper and worked out all of the points on the maps, using additional maps. It appeared to point to a cave system. The Polovragi Cave in the Carpathian Mountains, starting near the Paring Mountains, a short distance from what is today called the “Women’s Cave”. It has an explored length of 27 km, but it is supposed to be much longer than that, and exits in Transylvania, to the north.

Near the cave is the river Oltetu, the Oltetu Gorge (in Romanian Cheile Oltetului) where the two mountains are separated by only two metres, with the river between them. It was once used by cave bears, and bones of cave bears were discovered about 50 metres in from the entrance. There is a road between Polovragi and Transylvania, along a river called the Oltet.

On the left border of the Oltet is the entrance to the Polovragi cave and Oltetului keys, a very fast river, in a deep trench, about 28 meters below the level of the road.  This is the smallest distance between two mountains in the world at only 2 meters. To the left are the Carpathian Mountains and to the right the Parang Mountain.

Lucian was determined to visit the cave system and over the next months, being wintertime, he planned his trip. As soon as the spring came, he set out for a one-week expedition with Bartolomeu to explore the caves, using the redrawn maps.

Deep in the cave is Zalmoxis’ chair. There are a lot of other large stones in the cave later named after Zalmoxis, such as Zalmoxis’ chair, table, tears and so on, which were discovered about the beginning of the second millennium.   On the top of the mountain in which the cave is situated is a castle (from Dac’s time) and the story was that Zalmoxis lived there and descended to the cave through a tunnel between the castle and the cave.

At one point, Lucian became separated from Bartolomeu and found himself alone in the cave, as the seat of Zalmoxis. He sat in silence and after a time, he found himself scribing Zalmoxis name in the sand. As he finished the letter ‘S’, he heard a deep groaning in the rocks, slow at first, like an awakening giant. Then gradually, a door opened right before him in the rocks. Lucian was both afraid and mesmerised. As he stood transfixed, unable to move, a large warrior appeared in the doorway. Lucian tried to scream but was paralysed with fear and his muscles were numb. Suddenly, the stone warrior spoke, in a deep voice so powerful, that it pushed Lucian backwards against the far wall. “What brings you here?” said Zalmoxis impatiently. Lucian stumbled for words and felt like a small boy again. He eventually managed to get the story of his childhood out. Zalmoxis, although made of stone, was deeply touched both by the story and by Lucian’s knowledge of history.

Zalmoxis calmed Lucian and told him he would use his great powers over the underworld to help him. He gave him some strict instructions to follow, thus:

“Tonight is a full moon. Go to Cheile Oltetului at midnight, there you will find a narrow pass with a deep, fast-flowing river. Stand in the middle, where you will find a submerged rock, ‘the rock of time’ and call out as loud as you can, louder than the rushing waters, the phrase I will teach you. When you do this, if your belief is strong enough, the waters will stop, and you will find yourself between two walls of water, high above your head. Do not be afraid. Cup your hands and drink first from the northern wall, and then from the southern wall of water. Then repeat the phrase. The walls will collapse and the river will resume. When this happens, you will return to a time before your father’s death. Take your friend Bartolemeu with you, who you will find when you return now to the castle, looking for you. You will be a small boy again”. Lucian could hardly believe his ears and had so many questions. “Quiet now, my child, listen well,” said Zalmoxis. “Return home immediately where you will find your father sleeping in bed. Place this in his pocket”, at which point, Zalmoxis handed Lucian 4 small gold nuggets in rock form. “Then go into town, and find the police officer. Tell him your father beat you because you discovered he was stealing from his employer”. Lucian was by now, very confused. He should see his father again but then betray him? Why? How could he? “Do what I say, have trust in me and you will see, everything will be fine”. If you deviate in any way, you will be cast into the underworld for eternity. Pay heed; make no deviation from these instructions”. Lucian, a deeply faithful person, was very scared of that outcome so readily agreed to the plan. “Now, the phrase I want you to state, clearly and loudly is this, ‘Zalmoxis, master of the underworld and eternal life, I call upon your powers, come to this place, come to this place’. Be careful never to use those words at any other time, or you will be doomed. Use them only tonight, and never again. Never repeat them again, never write them down, never tell anyone. Make sure no one hears you. Leave Bartolemeu some distance away and tell him to come to find you after the great winds which will occur, subside”.

With that, Zalmoxis bade farewell, turned and returned to the rock wall, whereupon the door closed behind him.

Lucian could not decide if he was hallucinating, or it was real. He rehearsed the phrase silently in his mind to get it right, careful not to say it out loud. He then scrambled back up to the castle, where he found a very concerned Bartolomeu. He recited the story, minus the specific chant. Of course, Bartolomeu did not believe him but could tell Lucian believed it. Finally, he agreed to the plan.

They made their way to the spot between the mountains, where indeed they discovered exactly what Zalmoxis has described. They waited many hours for the sun to set, and  eventually the moon to rise. Near the specified hour, Bartolomeu made his way up the path, to be out of earshot of Lucian.

Lucian made his way into the river, almost falling in several times. Eventually, he stabilised himself of ‘the rock of time’. As his pocket watch struck midnight, Lucian shouted for all his life was worth:

“Zalmoxis, master of the underworld and eternal life, I call upon your powers, come to this place, come to this place”

At which point a great wind stirred, the waters first raged even more violently as if reluctant to heed the command, but then slowed and indeed, as promised, formed 2 high walls, one either side of Lucian. He turned to the north, cupped his hands, dug into the wall, and took some water and drank. He then repeated this on the south wall. At which point, he repeated the phrase

“Zalmoxis, master of the underworld and eternal life, I call upon your powers, come to this place, come to this place’

Suddenly, Lucian felt a hugely powerful force rip through him, compressing him, almost crushing him. His skin was shrinking all over his body. He looked down at his hands and legs and realised he had indeed, become a small boy. The walls of water began to collapse, so Lucian jumped to safety just in time. At which point, the winds subsided, and the river returned to its fast, aggressive self.

Bartolomeu reappeared, also much younger, and took young master Lucian by the hand, and they set out for home, camping nearby to get some sleep, then returning to Pitesti the next day. They returned to the Lucians house, and sure enough, found Lusu sound asleep in bed. Without pause, Lucian placed the gold nuggets in his father’s pockets, and ran out of the house to the local police station, to report his father for suspected theft. The police officer took Lucian home, believing the story to be fantasy, but on waking Lusu, he asked him to empty his trouser pockets. To his amazement, sure enough, there was the gold. Lusu, completely shocked and lost for words, offered only puzzling explanations. At which point, the policeman took Lusu into custody. He made contact with the Mine owners and reported the matter to them. They requested the return of the items and instantly dismissed Lusu from his job. Lusu for his crime was held in custody for one month. The whole town spoke of his crimes and at first disowned him. But on his release, Lucian decided to tell the police that he, in fact, found the nuggets in the fields around the castle and had blamed it on his father so he would lose his job and be able to stay home more often with the family. Charges were eventually dropped but Lusu’s employers did not believe the story and refused to rehire him. His mother and father punished Lucian greatly for his deed and he promised to never repeat his behaviour.

Lusu and Mariela led a happy and fulfilling life together into old age, and Lucian became a leading national expert in ancient history, but he never repeated the true story.

The end.

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