Fire-dancing in Bulgaria
6 June 2007
The Christian holiday of Sts. Constantine and Helen celebrated on May 21, incorporates a variety of folk rituals. In the Rhodope Mountains where sheep breeding was the prevalent means of livelihood in the past, herds were taken out to pastures on that day. In the farming regions of the Thracian Valley, rituals were held to protect crops from hails.
The holiday is particularly attractive the way it is celebrated in the Strandja Mountain, Southeastern Bulgaria, the center of fire dancing or Nestinari ritual.
The culmination of the rituals on May 21 involves barefoot Nestinari dancers dancing on live embers. The dancers prepare scrupulously for the day performing rituals purgatory for both the spirit and the flesh. They practice fasting, seclusion and meditation. In this way Nestinari achieve spiritual union with their celebrated patrons, Sts. Constantine and Helen. Fire dancers believe that the two saints protect them and lead them to the fiery culmination of their dancing. Holding the icon of Constantine and Helen, they step on live embers. In this way performers act as mediators between saints and people. The icon used in fire dancing is washed symbolically with sacred water. After that the icon is dressed in a shirt and adorned with jewels. In the past the Nestinari from neighboring villages would launch competitions deciding whose icon would be the most powerful one.
The Christianizing of Nestinari celebrations however could not wipe out its original basis of ancient beliefs and practices. One ancient cult that happily survives in it is the veneration for springs and trees. Preparing for the day of fire dancing, villagers go out on an expedition of cleaning the holy spring of the village. They bathe the Nestinari icon in its waters and drink from it for health. The holy spring is the point for offerings too. The proximity of the holy spring is the right site to erect a small chapel, called ‘stolnina’ or ‘konak’, dedicated to Sts. Constantine and Helen. It keeps the holy drum of Nestinari. Only on the fire-dancing holiday the drum is taken out of the chapel. Accompanied by a bagpipe, the drum’s sound suggests the Nestinari pageant’s rhythm. The procession visits holy springs and trees and goes round village houses and churches. However Christian priests do not take part in traditional Nestinari celebrations. As centuries went by the church has either branded the holiday as pagan, or has been more tolerant. The pre-Christian mythology of the day links to the cult to the sun and its earthly embodiment – fire.
At twilight, festivities move around the big fire in the village central square. A large quantity of live embers is spread into a big circle, the sign of the sun. All night long villagers dance festive chain dances around it. The climax arrives at midnight – fire dancing itself. Totally enraptured in ritual ecstasy, the Nestinari dancers come to the fiery circle barefoot, dressed in long white shirts with icons of Sts. Constantine and Helen in their hands. The Nestinari drum and bagpipe quicken their rhythm, making it strangely hypnotizing. Lead by the music and entranced by their ritual mission the Nestinari trample on live, scorching embers. They dance in the ember circle, as if the external world never existed. The talent of fire dancing and communicating with divine powers is inherited. Today the Nestinari ritual survives in only two villages in Strandja Mountain – Bulgari and Kosti.
Written by Roumyana Panayotova