Ignat – The rekindling of the Sun

As a child I was pretty curious. I liked to ask questions especially when I didn’t understand something or the explanation was lacking in details. There are a lot of traditions in Romania and I think now it’s time to talk a little bit about the stories behind them. Holiday time!
Keep in mind that the majority of these traditions started more than 2000 years ago and they underwent a process of change during all this time.

The people inhabiting these lands didn’t use writing to record knowledge, instead, all of their soul was poured into stories, fables and sayings. After 2000 years these superstitions and traditions are the only thing that connect us, the modern people, with our forefathers. This belief systems are very complex and it’s our duty to remember.

So let’s talk a little bit about the tradition of Ignat, the las day on Earth of pigs.

The pig is scorched to burn its hair

Belief systems

Ignat is a custom Romanians have, that is part of a more complex calendar. Imagine that people lived differently in archaic times. Every cosmic event and every season was part of their life. They lived according to this supernatural calendar. The year has a start and an end, there is life and death and good and evil existed everywhere. If we make an analogy with modern time, now technology runs our lives. It is both good and bad. In the past, the belief system was running their life.

The word ignat comes from old Latin, ignatus, or from Sanskrit, agni. It means to ignite, to light. It is part of a complex calendar of fire-related events that symbolise the rebirth of nature and the sun. Fire ceremonies are part of this complex calendar. It starts from the autumn equinox, culminating during the winter solstice and it ends with the spring equinox.

Ignat is a custom in which, traditionally, the household pig is slaughtered. In the past, this custom was a religious sacrifice, nowadays is more of a laic custom. On the 20th/21st of December (the winter solstice), the people get ready to make the sacrifice. The tradition says that only men can slaughter. This is an archaic custom, most probably because the women were givers of life and not takers. One should not mix up the roles. In the Romanian old tradition there is this duality. Taker and giver of life, winter and summer, night and day, good and evil, etc. Every part is necessary, they are complementary.

Making a cross on pig’s forehead to thank God for the meat

What and why it happens

The sacrifice is due on the day when the sun is at it’s lowest point on the winter sky. Even if, now, we are Christians, the old customs still exist, in a religious syncretism, mixing the archaic believes and the Christian overlayer. In fact, orthodox means about the people and their ways. The people believed that they were helping the sun rise and celebrating the rebirth of seasons. The new sun and implicitly, the New Year that was to come, needed help to ascend. This sacrifice, that in the stone age had also a human part, is done in the sun’s name.

It has to start after sun rise and it has to be over until sun set. It is said that during their last night, the pigs about to be slaughtered dream a knife. Before the act starts, the place has to be cleansed. It is cleansed with new water (water that was drawn from a well or stream before dawn) and with fire, by using incense and smoke.

The man that is doing the chore needs to be a clean person and a good person. This is so that the animal will not suffer. Maybe it seems barbaric, but the pig will be a major part of the diet over harsh winters. In the old times, without a pig, people would starve. Everything has to be used; nothing wasted. I belive this is a way to show respect to the animal’s sacrifice.

When the sacrifice has ended, there are 2 main symbols that we need to observe and fully grasp. The first one is the cross symbol. Now, a Christian symbol, but 2 millennia ago it was a solar symbol, spreading from India to England. The men crest a cross on the forehead of the pig, to show the sacrifice and to purify the meat. In some parts of the country, more remote ones, the men even draw a cross on the foreheads of the kids with blood from the animal. Yeah! It’s similar to Viking or Russian customs.

The life force of the animal, the blood, is mixed up with soil or seeds and it is used in spring as an offering to the land. It is the first thing seeded to connect the sun with the earth. The life force of the world is the sun, the father, and the soil is the giver of life, the mother.

The second symbol is fire. The pig is cleansed with fire and washed. This is one of the reasons for which folklorists believe the name Ignat (to light) remained until this day. The pig is an offering to the sun. A way to help it rise again and win the struggle with winter. On this day, thousands of people gave animals as offering; everyone lit a fire. It was the rekindling.

In many ancient religions a fire offering is the best way to please the Universe. The most known are Yol or Yule of the North people, and Hanukah of the Jewish people. If we are to make a compared analysis we shall see many similarities with these people.

The legacy

The customs of East Europeans and implicitly, Romanians, may seem a little ancient and obsolete, but it is hard to take out the roots of an ancient culture that endured over time just through stories. Many modern Romanians don’t know why our grandfathers had their ways, but is our duty to remember, to burn on and to light the way for the people to came, as Ignat light the way for the new rise of the sun.

Now, I am proud to see beyond silly superstitions and to understand the need of the people to do as they have done for thousands of years. Fire is life. The sun is life. The earth is life. But, most of all, memory and wisdom is life. The wisdom to understand the way the universe is, and, will always be, by using the limited understanding we have.

Question: do you belive that if people, 2000 years in the future, will study how we do thing now it will not turn up as silly superstition?


  • My grandparents and their family;
  • I. Ghinoiu – Varstele timpului, ed. Meridiane, Buc. 1988
  • M. Coman – Bestiarul mitologic romanesc, ed. Fund. culturale romane, Buc. 1996

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