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CultureFire dancing in the Bulgarian lands - an ancient custom or magic?

Fire dancing in the Bulgarian lands – an ancient custom or magic?

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Bulgaria – land of history, culture and traditions…

A successor to the cultural and historical heritage of seven great civilizations, Bulgaria ranks third in Europe after Greece and Italy in its number and variety of cultural monuments. There are over 40,000 immovable cultural monuments registered in Bulgaria and more than 5 million movable cultural valuables are kept in national and municipal museums. Seven cultural monuments and two natural sites have been proclaimed unique sites of world importance and inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity includes Nestinarstvo (fire dancing) masterpieces (https://www.unesco-bg.org/culture/bul-ich/?language=us).

The old people say that there is no treatment for the feet that step on the fire, that it is a state of mind, something like a trance in which the dancers fall

Undoubtedly one of the most mysterious cultural phenomena in Bulgaria is dancing on fire, which is named after the magical name of fire dancing (Bulg. nestinarstvo).

This is a very interesting pagan ritual, known since ancient times. It is found in many places around the world, captivates and enchants its audience immediately, but still remains unclear – there is no clear and definite reason why it is performed, nor exactly how this fabulous, mystical dance on embers.

This ritual is so unique in its kind that in 2009 it was included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage and there is definitely a reason.

From the side it looks pretty easy, but in fact it is not. It is set on very hot coals, the temperature of which can reach 800 degrees. It’s just unique and not quite possible, is it?

The old people say that there is no treatment for the feet that step on the fire, that this is a state of mind, something like a trance in which the dancers fall.

The ritual

At the heart of this mystical ritual is the dance with bare feet on a very hot embers. This is essentially a cult of St. St. Constantine and Helena and is held on 3 to 4 June, when the old style was the celebration of the two saints. Nowadays, the day of Saints Elena and Constantine is May 21, but the fire dance itself continues to be performed on June 3.

To perform this pagan ritual, preparations begin at dawn. The so-called “Dressing” the fire dancing icons. Pre-prepared, bright red fabric is placed, which is lined with old silver coins and decorated with various flowers. A procession is held throughout the village, and the icons are carried to the holy spring by three young people.

In the evening the church trustee and the firefighters go to the chapel of St. St. Constantine and Helena to offer their sincere prayers to the icons. It is on this day that the water from the spring is considered the most healing.

After dinner, all the people from the village gather in front of the chapel, as well as the musicians – bagpiper and drummer. Three very special melodies are played at a specific time. The first is performed during the movement from the chapel to the hot embers, the second – during the dance and stepping on the fire, and the last melody is played at the end, as it is called “Kostadinsko horo”.

The mysterious origin of the fire-dancing ritual probably leads to the culture of the ancient Thracians, who lived in the Bulgarian lands. But the ritual that has come down to us is dedicated to the Christian saints Constantine and Helena. Their icon is held in the hands of fire dancers while playing on the embers. And the feast of these saints is the culmination of the fire-dancing ritual.

There are known cases when firefighters play on other holidays – for example. on the day of St. Elijah, who is considered the lord of heavenly fire. Firefighters say that in the past their rituals were performed even six times a year.

This tradition in Bulgaria is typical only for the region of Strandzha Mountain – the most southeastern region of the country. But in most villages it has already disappeared. Now the ritual is kept only in the villages of Bulgari and Kosti. In recent years, public interest in the custom has grown and this has helped to preserve it.

Preparations for the fireworks festival begin after Easter. First, there is a ritual cleansing of the spring, sacred to firefighters, called “holy spring”. The fire-fighting icons are symbolically “bathed” in its healing waters. They are kept in a special sanctuary of the fire dancers. And together with them, the sacred drum is kept during the year, under whose accompaniment the rite is performed.

Fire dancers say that the drumming and special bagpipe melodies unleash mysterious sensations that push them into the fire.

In some settlements this mystical ritual lasts for two days, and on the second day a tour of the whole village is performed again.

It all really looks like a mystery, like a dance from another world, so beautiful and captivating, and at the same time mysterious, inexplicable and even, I would say, a little scary.

What does science say?

Here, too, the scientists have their own opinion, which perhaps partly explains this dance and how the legs of the dancers do not burn, but only to some extent. According to them, the coals have a very low thermal conductivity and the actual contact of the steps next to them is very short, because the firefighters step extremely fast.

Still, there remains a great deal of mystery as to exactly how this interesting ancient magic happens. Because how else will scientists explain the fact that not only the feet of fire dancers have no traces of burns, but also their clothes and all the other accessories they wear during the ritual dance?

History and origin of firefighting

In the past, the custom was practiced mainly in the villages of Bulgari and Kosti in Strandzha Mountain, which is famous for its mysticism.

The first evidence of the practice of the mysterious custom in our country was published in 1866 by Petko Slaveykov, and the first study was made a few years later in 1873. There are claims that this is part of a very ancient pagan cult of the god Dionysius.

fire dancing is practiced in several other countries – Greece, there is evidence of ancient people in Italy who walked on hot coals. The ritual also existed in China, Japan, and some Arab tribes in Algeria and Morocco. The art of walking on embers has been mastered by shamans in Asia Minor, Siberia, Africa, America and even some islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Why the icon of St. St. Constantine and Helena?

The legend of firefighting says that once there was a huge fire in the village of Bulgari, which was caused by the Turks and even covered the local village chapel. Seeing this, an elderly woman entered the burning temple barefoot, stepping on hot boards and coals, and saved the only surviving icon, that of St. St. Constantine and Helena. She came out of the burning building without any burns. That is why the village of Bulgari is considered the center of the custom of firefighting.

Whether fire dancing is magic, science or a state of mind, no one can say for sure to this day. The fact is, however, that this dance is unique, amazing and filled with such a strong and radiant energy, in which there is a certain mystical note.

Nowadays, on the territory of Bulgaria, you can enjoy this ancient ritual, only on June 3. Don’t miss this phenomenal spectacle, you will definitely not regret it.

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