The world’s gone crazy, it seems. These days, it’ll be a difficult task to repair the rift that divides our land. In times of old, people would call on the kukeri (or survakari) to chase away the evil spirits causing such discord. We’ve written about this group in the past on our blog, but this seems an appropriate time to resurrect the topic.
Kukeri are fascinating, so much so that we’ve included them in our fiction and non-fiction books alike. But what are these beings? Are they human or creature?
In today’s culture, they’re merely men (with women becoming more involved as the years go by). In the past, however, they were something more. The participants had magical powers. They were Thracian warriors who dressed in animal skins in order to battle with evil spirits. If the kukeri won the contest, they’d frighten away the evil ones and capture their power. This power and right to perform the rituals were passed down from father to son in many villages.
The celebration occurs at different times in various parts of Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. It’s both a winter and a springtime festival to restore order and prosperity in the land. The kukeri celebration is one of the oldest surviving traditions that can be traced back to Dionysian rites, symbolizing life, death, and rebirth. Men initiated rituals when spirits threatened the Sun’s rebirth during the winter solstice.
The kukeri continued the practices into the spring, before the sowing of the harvest, when the earth was awakening after a long winter. The kukeri performed rituals to renew nature’s strength. They’d harness nature’s reviving energy so fields could become fertile. The men would demonstrate their own ability to produce offspring. The belief was that only men, who carried the seed of life in their bodies, had the ability to rouse and nurture the female Mother Earth.
Today, the celebration is mostly for fun. It’s festive, noisy, and somewhat frightful. The kukeri dress in furry costumes like wild animals and wear colorful, wooden masks with scary faces, mostly of rams, goats, or bulls. The participants parade through the village; they jump and yell, perform skits about plowing and sowing seeds, and pantomime political and other popular figures. As they move in special rhythmic steps, giant bells around their waists clang loudly.
Our nation has just celebrated Thanksgiving. The brave took to the road, tired of being apart from loved ones and confused by the information from our leaders and others. Now everyone is saying this Christmas will be different. As I look back over the past nine months, I wonder how we can make this “different” better.
Since we moved to Virginia, I’ve been working from home. My day starts around 6 a.m., sometimes earlier. In the summer, the sun was already up, shining over my red roses. I sip my coffee and start my work day, with meeting after meeting. We are busy but everyone used to be cheerful.
Across the street at a day care, cars used to arrive one after another, dropping off little children dressed in colorful clothes. They were like little chicks running around: some laughing from excitement, others screaming, unhappy to be apart from their mothers. The noise bubbled over until 8 a.m. before everything returned to normal—quiet. Later, around 5 p.m., the street would return to life as people got out of work and parents returned for their kids. This time all the children were excited: some ran toward their moms with pictures in hand, others with crafts.
Since March, the scene is different. I see no one riding on the school bus.The street is still and eerie. My morning is missing the colorful flock of chicks, their giggles and screaming. The cars are getting dusty in everyone’s driveways. We go quickly to get food and return to our “ship,” our safe harbor. People turn on the TV to see some light, some hope, but the news makes us feel even worse. We worry about family, friends, our jobs. Everyone is getting tired, too tired at times to even keep worrying.
On the other hand, I’m happy I can work from home. It’s a privilege and I’m grateful. I feel the tension at work as we’ve had a few rounds of layoffs and more are on the horizon, but we still are supporting each other.
The bad, the pain, has forced us to slow down and think about the important things in life. Will Christmas be different this year? Yes, definitely. But its intent can be the same if we keep the main reason behind it alive. Now more than ever we need to take care for those in need and share what we have. Some remain prosperous, others have less, but I think we can all share something of ourselves. We can buy fewer non-essential goods that only end up piled up in our closets. We can make donations to people in need and make their Christmas brighter. Check on your neighbor. Maybe they lost their job and can use some extra cash to get food or pay their rent or other bills. After all, sharing and love are the true meanings of Christmas.
To cheer friends and followers, I recorded one of my stories, The Christmas Thief, in English and Bulgarian. You can listen to them on YouTube.
Let’s bring calmness to our busy, stressful days and see the lights of the season. Sit next to the fire, relax, and enjoy.
I’m confident next year will be better. The kids can return to school, play sports, and have birthday parties. We can go to movies and games and have a huge bucket of popcorn or a hotdog. We need to believe!
Here are a few Christmas books from author friends of ours. We hope you find something to make the season merry. Health and Blessings to everyone.
We are all experiencing anxiety and fear these days. It’s to be expected as we’re seeing our world and lives change. A crisis like this is too complex to put into words. In times of human struggle, the world needs kindness and empathy.
Can you push through your anxiety and find blessings in these challenges?
I’ve learned a lot about myself in 2020. One thing is that I shouldn’t take for granted the little things in life.
Like many of us, this year has made me look at my life and see what’s most valuable. What I’m thankful for. I think it’s a simple but hard question for many: what do you value most? For me, my family and my health are the most important. My family, because I love them dearly. My health, because as my baba use to say, “Nobody can drink from an empty cup.”
Christmas has a special place in my heart. While I was growing up, Christmas was forbidden in Bulgaria by the Communist party. We only celebrated New Year’s, but my grandmother was always able to keep the Christmas spirit and traditions alive. In this post, I’ll introduce you to one of my favorite rituals, “fortune bread.” I weave rituals and traditions from my childhood into all my books, to keep them alive and pass them on to future generations.
December is magical in Bulgaria. The harvesting is done, wheat is in the mills, wine is ready for drinking. It’s a time to stay near the fire, cook hearty meals, and celebrate with family and friends.
The beginning of the winter festivities starts in late October and continues until early spring when nature awakens and people need to go back to the fields and vineyards. This is the time when name days abound. These are special days dedicated to a person’s name, and are an important part of the celebrations. For Bulgarians, name days are even more important than birthdays.
One major celebration is St. Nicholas day, Nikulden, on December 6. Everyone who has a name related to “Nicholas,” whether male or female, celebrates this name day.
The saint is not only the patron of the seas, sailors, and fishermen, but also a patron of merchants and bankers. According to beliefs, he helps young people to get married. On his day, people prepare a meal of ritual bread, baked carp, and wine.
For me, Nikulden is the start of the Christmas preparation and celebration. Christmas Eve, or as we call it Budni Vecher, is one of the most beloved and cozy family holidays. People from near and far return to their families to celebrate Christmas and wish all the best for the coming year. On Christmas Eve, we perform rituals and traditions that have been observed in Bulgarian families for centuries.
Before setting the festive table on Christmas Eve, the owner of the house lights a special tree in the hearth, called a budnik. The wood is pear, oak, or beech. I created a new tradition in my family by keeping the trunk from our Christmas tree and using it as a budnik log for the next year. It feels like the tree carries the magic of Christmas and our memories.
The meal is an essential part of the evening. The dishes on the table are an odd number and are healthy. Seven is popular because it’s signifies the number of days in a week, and people make a variety of nine dishes because nine represents the number of months of a woman’s pregnancy. In some parts of the country, they make twelve dishes, as many as the months of the year, but I guess they like to cook.
I don’t have enough time for that. I usually do only seven dishes, because it takes time to cook everything from scratch, and nowadays we work full-time jobs and juggle other household tasks. Besides, seven is my favorite number.
Honey is a must have on the table to make sure the new year is sweet and prosperous. I like to include walnuts, because we do fortune telling using walnuts. Each person selects a walnut and if the nut is good inside your year will be healthy and happy.
But my favorite ritual as a child and even now is the fortune bread called pitka. It’s always home-made, as it’s a symbolic sacrifice. We put a coin wrapped in foil inside the dough. Whoever gets the coin in his piece of bread will be the lucky one during the year.
Christmas is a special time for many people. The holiday can be chaotic and has become one of the most commercialized days of the year. Yet, still, it’s a holy day for many people, despite the fact that the stresses of the season take over. We talk about this holiday in our book Light Love Rituals. You can also learn a little more about Budni vecher in our children’s short story The Christmas Thief, where a little boy learns about sharing.
Today, October 26, is St. Demetrius’ Day. This saint was often said to be the twin of St. George, the mighty dragon slayer. He’s the protector of winter and cold, and the patron saint of soldiers and the crusades. His holiday marks the end of the farming season. Our guest today, Plamen Dinkov, carves images of this saint, along with many other holy images.
Did you know trees have souls and hearts? If you doubt it, take a look at Plamen Dinkov’s art to verify it for yourself. With his talented hands, he turns every piece of wood into a fairy tale, a prayer, a confession of love. His works help me dive into a world without pain and anger, where beauty and harmony reign.
His masterpieces are born from the roots, Bulgarian folklore, the traditional Bulgarian school of woodcarving. In his work, you’ll find scenes from Orthodox churches, icons, St. George and his fight with the dragon, and many other legends and magical tales. Bulgarian mythology is an endless topic of inspiration for artists and writers alike.
I asked Plamen to write something about himself to help me present it to my fans. I share his words and creative path and help you know him better.
“I was born in 1957 in Blagoevgrad, and I spent my childhood and school years in Vratsa, where my love for art and woodcarving was born for the first time. I live and work in Sofia. Initially, I was also involved in metal plastics and artistic processing of metal in the Association of Masters of Folk and Artistic Crafts, but slowly woodcarving pushed everything aside. For 40 years I have been doing what I love the most. I learned everything in carving on my own, without any help. I even made my first tools myself. It was not easy, I had to discover the intricacies of the craft on the go, but it brought me great satisfaction and maybe gave me the opportunity to build my own style … The artist works for the audience, but the great thrill, love, intoxication for me is before, in the sleepless nights when the next work is born in your mind and in the days when it slowly comes out of your hands. My art has been bought and is available all over the world – Italy, Greece, France, Spain, Germany, Russia, America, etc. I am proud, of course, of my woodcarving crosses purchased and donated during the visits of Pope John Paul II and King Juan Carlos of Spain to Bulgaria in 2002 and 2003. Most of my works, though, are here in Bulgaria, in private collections and homes. I have notebooks and notebooks full of ideas for new things. There are a lot of ideas – there is so little time. If God said so, I would fulfill as many of them as I could … Finally, a question that a person often asks himself: Was he happy? Yes, I am a happy, extremely happy person! I do what I love and live in my world full of beauty and love!”
To follow Plamen Dinkov, you can like his FB page:
No one has been able to “prove” the existence of dragons, but in the hearts and minds of the people, they did exist at one time. I’d like to share with you excerpts from the Dragon book that will be available soon. We’re aiming for November 2020.
People believe dragons have created various structures. Some of the most common are dolmens, chambers formed by large stone blocks. These chambers are found throughout Europe in mountainous regions, with sheer cliffs that hide a cave. Some date back 7,000 years, while most are thought to be from the early Neolithic age (around 4000–3000 BC). In folk belief, they’re called dragon houses, and are said to be proof dragons existed, although archaeologists say they are likely to have been burial chambers.
Other dragon tales tell how geographical sites came into being: rivers, lakes, mountains, and more. Springs at the bottom of a cave or a rock are often said to be tears of a kidnapped girl. Here are a few places people once believed dragons created.
Great Stones of Khlyabovo Ridge: A long time ago in Khlyabovo, Bulgaria, a dragon protected the villagers. In return, the people provided him with animals from their flocks. Some men rebelled, saying they would no longer feed the dragon. And so, the dragon abducted and ate villagers. One boy, Katos, fought with the dragon all day, finally wounding it. When the dragon fell from the sky, it petrified and formed huge stones. Even today, local people say they see flames, the fire of the dragon, coming out of the rocks.
Serpent’s Wall or Dragon’s Rampart: According to folklore, long, tall embankments in parts of Ukraine came into being when a hero tricked a dragon into dividing the land between them. The hero harnessed a plow to the dragon, and the dragon pulled and pulled, mile after mile, deeper and deeper, creating the ever-growing embankments. The hero didn’t cease urging the dragon onward until the creature died of exhaustion. A more historical purpose of the embankments was as a defense mechanism against invaders, with the dragons being symbolic of foreigners.
Balaur Hill: This hill, named after a Romanian dragon, arose when a gigantic balaur fell from the sky and died. A single rib measured 22 inches (56 centimeters) in width. His body slowly rotted over a long period of time, forming a great mound.
Margarets Hill and Latin Well: A Bulgarian story talks about how a Latin man and his daughter Margarita cultivated a vineyard on a hill, which was near a well that dragons and fairies came out of. Near the well, the father built a cellar to store his wine. A young man courted Margarita in the vineyard, but one day a whirlwind arose and a black cloud covered the hill. The young man, who was a zmey, embraced her and flew into the cloud and headed toward the well. As the cloud descended, lightning crackled, and the two young people sank into the well, never to be seen again. The hill and well were named after the girl and her father. Even today, people will tell you, if you part the bushes and grass on the hill you can see the ruins of the basement by the well. At night, no one goes near, because it’s still a zmey’s haunt.
The story below relates how a hot spring gained its name.
Many, many years ago, an old zmey ruled the forests between Struma and Mesta [rivers in Southwest Bulgaria]. He had two sons, and they were zmeys, which he sent here and there for work.
“And what was the work of the zmeys, Grandpa Marin?” the curious asks.
“Their job,” he explains, “was to arrange the clouds, to spread rain, hail, thunder, and lightning.”
Once the smaller zmey was flying over the village of Mosomishte. It was Easter, so all the people were at the horo, and among them was the priest’s daughter, the beautiful maiden Toplitsa. The zmey saw her from the clouds, liked her, and then came down and grabbed her from the horo before anyone knew what was happening. The poor father asked and searched everywhere, but didn’t find any trace of her. A long time passed and her parents stopped thinking about her.
One summer day, the priest climbed St. George’s Rock to gather wood for fire. It felt like something was pulling him higher and higher, until suddenly he saw his daughter, all in golden clothes and adorned with coins. They hugged each other in tears and the girl said that the young zmey had grabbed her, but her father got angry and drove them away from Alibotush mountain, where his palace was. Now the two lived on St. George’s Rock. The zmey’s bride was afraid that her husband would meet the uninvited guest, so she quickly sent her father away, but she wanted to give him a farewell gift. She filled up a sack of coins, but since she had already learned some zmey magic, she made the gold light as a feather so that it would not weigh on her father on the way.
She told him to open it when he got home. They said goodbye and Grandpa Priest left with the sack on his shoulder, but something kept irritating him to see what was inside. In the end he couldn’t stand it, he opened it and what did he see? The sack was full of onion peels! He got angry, poured out the peels, then took the sack and went home without wood. He decided to shake the sack one more time and what did he see? One coin was stuck inside.
The priest told everything to his wife and she scolded him and ordered him to go back immediately and to bring the onion peels, which were enchanted coins. The priest hurried, climbed back, but it was too late. Right in place of the peels, a large river of hot water gushed out and dragged everything down. When the priest shook the sack, his daughter saw him from the rock and got very scared that the zmey would see and get angry. She began to pray to God for help, and he heard her prayers and made the hot water gush out and take away the onion peels. Since then, they named the river Toplitsa after the priest’s daughter.
According to the legend, its warm water gradually cools and when it becomes really cold, the river will dry up.
Another interesting tale I discovered while doing research is not from Eastern Europe, but it has many of the same types of characteristics as those stories.
In his “League of the Ho-de’-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois,” originally published in 1851, Lewis Henry Morgan (1954: 149 ff.) described a Seneca legend about the “homed serpent.” He-no, an assistant of the Great Spirit responsible for the formation of clouds and rain, and a keeper of the thunderbolts, was a guarantor of fertility. In one account he made his abode in a cave behind Niagara Falls. A young woman at a village at the mouth of Cayuga creek above the falls was betrothed to a disagreeable old man, and to escape her fate she put herself in a bark canoe and released herself on the current to plunge to her death and freedom. On her descent over the falls, however, she was caught by He-no, taken to his cavernous home and married to one of his helpers.
Before this event the people of her village has been plagued by a mysterious pestilence, and He-no now revealed to her the cause: a gigantic water serpent dwelt under her village on Cayuga Creek, poisoning the waters and feeding on the bodies of the dead buried there. He told her to advise her people to move to a new location, which they did.
The serpent, losing its source of sustenance, emerged from the earth to find the cause, and entered the lake to follow the people to their new home. While swimming in the channel of Buffalo Creek, the monster was spotted by He-no, who struck it with a thunderbolt. As Morgan (1954: 160) puts it: “The Senecas yet point to a place in the creek where the banks are semicircular on either side, as the spot where the serpent, after he was struck, turning to escape into the deep waters of the lake, shoved out the banks on either side. . . . The huge body of the serpent floated down the stream, and lodged upon the verge of the cataract, stretching nearly across the river. A part of the body arched backwards near the northern shore in a semicircle. The raging waters thus dammed up by the body broke through the rocks behind; and thus the whole verge of the fall upon which the body rested was precipitated with it into the abyss beneath. In this manner, says the legend, was formed the Horse-Shoe fall.”
Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice! In the last few years, we’ve all heard the word “diversity” used on TV, in newspapers, and during work training sessions. For a lot of people, diversity is about a person’s skin color, but the subject goes well beyond color.
Diversity means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our differences, whether they are race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies. When we’re open to diversity, we see people from different angles and accept them as equal to us.
Whenever anyone asks me where I’m from, I tell them and then ask the same question in return, because everyone has come from somewhere in the last twenty years, or fifty, or a hundred. America is a melting pot, but all these newcomers, immigrants like me and others, bring to this country new ideas, passion, creativity, and a desire to succeed and build their dream. This is the steam moving the engine and making this country great. Diversity is power, but you need to know how to nourish individual cultures to drive innovation, passion, and inclusion.
Love is natural; hate is learned. A child hugs and kisses another person long before he learns to hit and hurt. Yet as we grow, we become aware of all the hatred that fills this world—hatred toward those we know little to nothing about, simply because they have different beliefs, religions, skin color, or any other aspect that makes them not like us. But we are humans. We are all the same. What makes us different is due to where we grew up, what we were taught.
Each person is a constant project: changing and adapting—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. All our lives we wander to find a better place to live or a better job, to learn new skills, to make a discovery, or to invent something of value. Today, technology has removed boundaries. We can easily physically travel to different places in the world, but we can also “bounce” around the virtual space of the web, where we make acquaintances worldwide.
In our travels, we build our homes, make new friends, raise our children, attend weddings, and say goodbye to friends and family, sending them to the world beyond. Even thousands of miles from where we were born and raised, we keep our customs and practice the traditions that we have been nourished with. We share them with friends who have a different cultural heritage, upbringing, and faith; and we in turn accept new ones.
We must learn to respect other cultures as much as we support people in our own community. Traditions are a great way to teach children the cultural and religious history of mankind by giving them their own identity and roots. Culture is a temple for the human soul. This is what we carry with us as we wander, what we develop as we adapt to the place we choose to call our home.
In my book “The Wanderer – A Tear and A Smile,” I reflect on my life as an immigrant, the appreciation of my Bulgarian culture and the culture of my adopted country, America.
September is here. We’ve had many sunny days this summer where I live in Virginia, but now the sunrise is coming a little later each day, and the nights are getting cooler. I find myself thinking about what changes autumn will bring in this unusual year. I want summer to go on a little bit longer, so I can savor the sun, the sand, and the sea. I want to linger in that lazy feeling of endless summer.
My grandmother used to say that when there is an “R” in the name of the month, it means that it is one of the cold months. We will have to wait until May to enjoy the warm rays of the sun. Maybe this is normally true, but this September has been like a summer month, with temperatures 20 degrees above normal.
On September 14, Bulgarians and other Orthodox Christians celebrate the Day of the Cross. On this day, a special festive table is arranged and a strict fast is observed. The apples have ripened, the grapes are plump and sweet, and the harvest has begun. However, it is forbidden to eat red foods such as apples, peppers, tomatoes, and others as an expression of respect for the cross on which Jesus shed His blood to save mankind.
The oldest woman in the house prepares ritual bread, called Cross Pitka (round homemade bread) for the holiday. She shapes a large cross on the bread before she bakes it. Its ingredients include half a kilogram of flour, half a teaspoon of honey, half a teaspoon of baking soda, half a tablespoon of vinegar, and water for kneading. According to tradition, you have to sift the flour three times before kneading the dough. The ritual bread is broken when the whole family gathers around the table. The bread will rise only a little while it’s baking, so you should eat it while it’s warm. Once it cools, it’ll become hard.
The Day of the Cross is considered the day on which autumn begins. Therefore, typical autumn foods like grapes (any but red ones) and tikvenik (a pumpkin banitsa) must be present at the table. (You can find a recipe and more info about tikvenikhere.)
After families pluck the first grapes of the season, they bring them to the church, so the priest can consecrate the fruit. It’s also customary on this day for people to give each other grapes, so the next year will be bountiful.
On the Day of the Cross, thousands of pilgrims go to churches, monasteries, and other holy places to pray for health, forgiveness, and miraculous cures. One of these places of hope is the Cross Forest, located in the beautiful area in the Middle Rhodope Mountains. This was the birth place of Orpheus, the famous musician from ancient mythology. One of the most magical places in Bulgaria, Cross Forest gives you a sense you’re touching the mystery of nature.
The Forest of the Cross is said to be filled with unexplained, extraordinary power that can cure any sickness. The magical powers are at their peak on the evening of September 13, the night before the Day of the Cross. People believe the heavens will open, and Jesus will descend to Earth to grant the wishes and cure the illnesses of those who offer prayers with true faith. Many stories tell how people with cancer and other incurable diseases miraculously found a cure. They say the water cures skin diseases and helps women conceive.
Unfortunately, I’ve never visited the place myself, but my grandmother told me many interesting stories. According to legends, part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified is hidden in this place, but no one knows its exact location. Monks hid it after Turks attacked and burned the monastery.
People also believe the extraordinary healing energy of Cross Forest comes from an ancient sanctuary to Dionysius, which is said to be hidden somewhere in the forest. But the Rhodope Mountains keep their secrets.
Miracles happen there, but people must have faith. Magic or not, in these challenging days, we all need to find our own Cross Forest. We need strong faith and believe in something to keep us going, so we can stay positive as we search for cures, happiness, and personal fulfillment.
When I was younger, I loved to sit on the porch during a summer thunderstorm, hearing the rain pound on the roof and watch the lightning spit across the sky. This was especially enjoyable right after a steamy day, as the rain brought with it a cool breeze.
Long ago in Bulgaria, thunder and lightning once were thought to represent dragons fighting in the sky. Zmey (the good male dragon) would fight against Hala or Lamia (both bad female dragons). Lamia would stop the water from flowing and bring drought, while Hala would bring hail that destroyed the crops. She was also known to steal the fertility of the land. She’d carry it from one place to another in her huge ears. Wherever she dropped her stolen goods, the land would prosper.
The lightning was the Zmey’s fiery arrows, and the thunder was him crashing against his enemies. Often, his weapons fell to the ground, embedding deep into the soil and turning to stone. Anyone who found one of these magical arrows would grind it into power and add water to it to cure wounds.
Among other Slavic nations, thunder and lightning were thought to be caused by the god Perun. Under Christianity, Perun became St. Iliya (St. Elijah), the thunder-wielder, whose saint day is celebrated August 2. Thunder was caused by his chariot wheels rolling across the sky as he battled demons and dragons. St. Iliya was even known to elicit the help of good Zmeys to fight against destructive dragons.
The old people say that thunder is a sign that there will be a bountiful harvest in the Fall. Since there are no thunderstorms in winter, St. Elijah makes sinners build cities out of snow.
People believed the saint ruled over the summer clouds. As he flew over the sky, he collected them and locked them in the Black Sea. When the soil needed nourishment, he unlocked the clouds, sending dew and gentle rains across the land. At times, however, the saint became ill and was unable to perform his duties. The land suffered drought until he was well enough to once again bring the life-saving rain.
Thunderstorms, however, brought devastating rains. A couple of ways people tried to stop a thunderstorm from happening would be to light an Easter candle and kneel before it, or stick an axe handle in the middle of the yard and pour a handful of salt over it.
More information about dragons and dragon slayers will be available in our book about dragons, available around November 2020.
In the northern hemisphere, July means summer, beach, happiness, sun, school vacation, and travel. Also in July there’s a unique, modern Bulgarian tradition unknown to the rest of the world. It’s called July Morning.
People from all over the country travel to the Black Sea on June 30 and meet the first rays of sunshine on the morning of July 1. They sing, dance, talk, and share thoughts. It’s like a festival filled with love and friendship. They believe the sun rays purify and recharge them with new energy. The holiday is not pagan or religious. It’s just fun!
Many beliefs exist about why and how this tradition began.
One version is that it stared from a pure love story. In Varna, on the evening of June 30, 1984, a boy and a girl holding hands were walking on the city streets lost in love. They missed the last bus to their village. The lovers decided to wait together for the first bus in the morning. However, it was dangerous to remain in the Varna Sea Garden. A policeman rode along the pathways on a motorcycle, always on the lookout for stragglers. And he had a vicious police dog. The young people decided to leave the garden and hide at Varna’s pier. There they meet other young people who sang and danced all night. Together, they all greeted the sunrise. Since then, it’s become a tradition.
Another version, which became almost legendary in Bulgaria, is that in 1985, soldier Stoyan Georgiev – Tyanata promised himself on the night of June 30 that he would never meet the sunrise alone again. The following year, 1986, he made arrangements with some Varna friends to meet in a meadow in the Sea Garden to watch the sun rise. The following year, they met at the pier. And so the tradition continued.
In another, much simpler version, five young, progressive, free-spirited people, with long hair and denim jackets, gathered spontaneously at the pier in Varna in 1986. Maybe for the simple reason that there were no nightclubs at the time. They unintentionally began the tradition of July Morning.
This modern-day ritual is also associated with a song by a British rock band, Uriah Heep, called “July Morning,” which has became its symbol. You can listen to the song here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qVobQTaoV7s.
Gradually, “July Morning” became the first unofficial social festival in Bulgaria – a place where you can meet new people, talk about everything you can think of, do literary readings, and sing and dance.
I always was told that July Morning was a movement that started in Varna in 1986 to protest the communist government. According to participants, it symbolizes dissatisfaction and the desire for personal freedom. Maybe this is true, because censorship was prevalent during communism, and it was forbidden to listen to Western or American music, have long hair, wear short skirts or jeans, and drink Coca-Cola.
No matter what the story, welcoming the sunrise is seen as a new and better beginning.
According to the Nova Varna newspaper, even this year, hundreds of people have welcomed the first rays of the sun on Kamen Bryag, where the ritual has been held for years. People don’t go anymore to the pier of Varna for the simple reason that it’s too commercialized and has lost its look and romance since 1986.
Happy summer and don’t forget to look at the sun and say hello. July has 31 days so there are still many days to wake up early meet the sunrise and bathe in its rays and rejuvenate.
Summer Fun Recipes
During these hot summer days, many people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer heavy meals. Bulgarian cuisine is not any different. Some of my favorites summer dishes are made with yogurt.
Did you know Bulgarians created yogurt? Truly, they did. Way back in the time of the Thracians. I kid you not. You can find more than three hundred varieties in the country, and many popular dishes are made with yogurt. The good bacteria in the yogurt is called Lactobacillus bulgaricus.
Yogurt is a favorite ingredient in summer drinks, cold soups, salads, desserts, and main dishes. Another main ingredient in almost all of them is garlic.
Here are some of my favorites.
Airan (Айран) – a refreshing drink
Mix yogurt into a glass of water. Add a little salt and stir well to obtain a consistent mixture. I add one or two ice cubes. It refreshes, saturates, and hydrates.
Tarator (Таратор) – cold cucumber soup
This will help you cool down in the hot summer.
* cucumbers – 1 larger European or 2 medium sized
* yogurt – 32 oz (2 lb)
* walnuts – 1 handful crushed (optional)
* garlic – 2 to 3 cloves or to taste
* water – 2-3 cups
* fresh dill – to taste
* olive oil or regular – 3 to 4 tbsp.
* salt to taste
* black pepper – freshly ground to taste
* white pepper – 3 pinches
Peel the cucumbers, leaving only thin slices of the dark green part, which will give a more pleasant look to the tarator. Grate it or cut it into small cubes. I prefer to grate, because it tastes better.
Beat 2 cups of yogurt well and pour them into a saucepan. Add enough cold water to get the tarator to the density you want. Add cucumbers, as well as grated or finely chopped garlic, some crushed walnuts, finely chopped dill, black and white pepper to taste. Finally, mix with olive oil / other oil and salt to taste. Put in the refrigerator to chill. If you don’t have time, put an ice cube in each bowl. I like to serve in bowls and garnish with crushed walnuts and a sprig of dill and serve.
Snow White Salad – (Snejanka) a delicious milk salad
During the summer or even in the winter, my kids like this salad. I use the same products that are described for Tarator, but I don’t add water. If you have time, you can let the yogurt drain to make it thicker. Mix all products and serve cold like a salad. Add some pita bread and you have a dinner or lunch. It can be used as a side dish for BBQ meat or gyros.
Zucchini with Yogurt – A simple, but yummy salad
Here is another salad you can make easy with fried zucchini.
* 1/2 cup plain yogurt
* 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
* 1 small clove garlic, grated
* 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
* freshly ground black pepper
* 1 lb (500 g) zucchini
* 1 teaspoon olive oil
Cook under broiler.
Prepare Dill Mixture
* In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, dill, garlic, and lemon juice. If necessary add a few drops of water to make the mixture of pourable consistency.
* Season to taste with salt and a pinch of black pepper.
* Set aside.
* Trim the ends off the zucchini and cut it into thin slices or strips (circles or long strips).
* Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
* Place the zucchini in an oven-proof skillet or pan and broil, flipping occasionally, about 10 minutes until slightly charred and tender, but not mushy.
Final Steps: Remove from broiler. Serve zucchini warm or chilled, covered or dipped in the yogurt-dill sauce.
Alternatives: If you want a richer taste, coat the zucchini with flour. Place the pieces (circles or strips) into a frying pan with about a half inch of heated oil. Fry the zucchini pieces until they are golden brown and crispy. In the summer, you can use a grill instead.
Eggs over yogurt – a light and quick dinner
After a busy day, you can prepare a quick Bulgarian dinner.
* eggs – 2 to 3.
* yogurt – 4 to 5 Tablespoons
* red pepper – 1/2 k. (spicy or sweet)
* salt to taste
* oil – for frying
* chopped garlic
* small spoonful of butter to add some twist; we love butter!
In heated but not hot oil, add each of the eggs. Fry them like you do sunny side up. I do mine medium, to make sure they’re soft. On a plate on which you’ll serve the eggs, pour the yogurt, salt to taste, and garlic. Remove the fired eggs from the oil with a slotted spoon or spatula and place on the yogurt. Sprinkle them with paprika and pour a teaspoon or two of melted butter on them. Serve with toast and green garlic or onion.
Yogurt with honey and walnuts – a tasty dessert
Last, but not the least, it’s time for dessert. If you don’t like honey, you can replace it with strawberries. It’s a delicious dessert that’s healthy and easy to make. Your kids will love this no-bake treat that’s full of protein.
Tip: When buying yogurt, make sure the Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria is listed in the ingredients.
* 1/2 cup yogurt
* 1 Tablespoon crushed walnuts
* cinnamon to taste
* 1 Tablespoon honey, more or less, to taste.
Spoon the yogurt into a small dessert dish. Sprinkle crushed walnuts on top. You can toast the walnuts lightly in a hot skillet if you’d like, to bring out more of their natural flavor. I like to put them in water, then rinse and sprinkle them with brown sugar. Next, put them on a paper towel and bake them for one minute in a microwave. Once they’re cold, sprinkle the nuts over the yogurt. Then top it with cinnamon and drizzle with honey. Serve and enjoy! And don’t forget to make a tea with a spoonful of honey.
A Rusalka is a contestant on the Blurry Photos annual Miss Cryptid Contest. We are excited that we were asked to contribute material. You can find this, and more, in our book A Study of Rusalki – Slavic Mermaids of Eastern Europe. Blurry Photos is a great site to check out if you love to “learn something weird.”
Mankind’s fascination with the sea has sparked imagination since the first person beheld its mighty waters. Curiosity led people to invent the means to travel across the great oceans and eventually explore beneath them, trying to discover their secrets. Throughout the centuries, millennia in fact, people have created myths and legends about creatures living within the sea’s depths. One of the most alluring and formidable beings to inspire writers, artists, children, and adults is the mermaid, who has been forever immortalized in stories such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. But there’s more to this sea maiden than that story tells. In Slavic folklore, she’s called a Rusalka and lives mostly in fresh-water bodies or swamps, rather than the sea.
In case you’ve never heard of a Rusalka, she’s a Slavic mermaid. The plural of the word is Rusalki, but if you want to call them “Rusalkas,” go ahead. We’ll cringe, but we’ll know what you mean. She is most popular in eastern and southern Europe: Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, in particular.
She’s not your “Ariel” type of mermaid, because she has no tail. In fact, she was once a living, breathing human girl, but she died before she married—often the cause of her death was drowning. I know this sounds odd in today’s world, but the people who believed in them lived in a rural, farming society. Fertility of both the land and people was critical to them for survival. They believed if girls died before they married and had children, then that fertility was lost, and the girls became part of the “unclean dead,” that is, they were cursed. People did have many rituals, though, to entice the Rusalki to return that fertility to them.
Not everyone can see Rusalki, but those who can will tell you they look like normal girls, except they are extremely pale, and they have long, green hair. They can also shape-shift into geese, swans, snakes, silver fish, or frogs. Or they can appear as birds, like the Sirens, and entice men with their songs.
They don’t really eat anything, because they are … well, dead, or undead, after all. But some stories said they like wheat bread with salt, cheese, butter, and eggs. What they are more interested in is getting clothes. They were buried in wedding garments, even though they never married. That’s all part of the whole fertility mindset. So, eventually, those clothes wear out and the Rusalki are left wearing rags, or nothing at all. They beg girls to leave them even a small rag to cover themselves with. Rather sad to think about, really.
Rusalki weren’t always thought of as dead girls, though. They were once considered goddesses or nature spirits. Talk about your kick-ass heroines; they weren’t wimpy, sidekick-to-men-only goddesses, but powerful ones, who ruled the land. But then, the Orthodox Church intervened. They didn’t totally wipe the Rusalki out, but the Church authority repressed the role of these goddesses as much as it repressed the role women played in society. And Rusalki lost their goddess status. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
You can understand they probably didn’t care to much about this demotion. From goddesses to dead girls, and unclean, cursed dead girls at that. All because some supposedly holy men thought they weren’t worthy of the goddess status. So, they revolted and started their campaign of torturing men… especially any man who jilted them when they were alive, because it was men who decided Rusalki weren’t worthy of exalted status.
Being dead really wasn’t so bad. If they had lived and married, the girls would have lost what the Russians called their “volia,” their freedom. As Rusalki, they could be wild and FREE of male dominance.
They usually didn’t bother women or girls, unless they were jealous of their happy life. And they left children alone, unless they had an overwhelming desire to nurture a child, since they couldn’t have one of their own… they were DEAD after all, but still retained the feelings of the average rural girl. So men were their main targets.
They would either drown them (typical mermaid fashion) or tickle them to death with their breasts… which, I forgot to mention earlier, were huge, even if they had been small during their lifetime. This was just another sign of their unused fertility.
All right, stop laughing. Have you ever been tickled? If so, you know it can be quite painful, especially if prolonged. And a Rusalka most often was accompanied by other Rusalki, so you’re talking about several of these mermaids tickling you…
When you consider that some stories say the Rusalki had iron-tipped breasts, well, just ouch. You wouldn’t want someone to tickle you that way. Okay, laugh if you want to, but I’m glad I’m not male (says Ronesa), so I wouldn’t have to endure that torture.
They also loved to dance, and would flatter … or force … a shepherd to play his kaval, a flutelike instrument, for them all night long. He was fortunate if he survived and only had holes in his shoes and blisters on his fingers.
Geeze, you might ask, is there any hope to escape their attention? How could men protect themselves from these assaults? Well, the Russians would tell you to wear your baptismal cross, especially if you go into the forest or near water. You could also wear ferns in your hair when you go swimming; this prevents them from pulling you under. Magical chants are also useful to keep them away from you. Other methods are to prick the Rusalki with a pin or throw wormwood in their eyes. Be sure you DON’T carry anything that ATTRACTS Rusalki, like parsley, roses, birch, and especially not their favorite plant rosen (which is burning bush). You’re just asking for trouble if you do. They’ll think you WANT to be tickled.
Rusalki also love telling riddles. If you have the correct answer, they’ll leave you alone. But if you get it wrong… well, be prepared to be tickled to death.
As to whether or not they do any of this torture maliciously is up for debate. Some people say they are bent on destroying men. Other people claim they’re innocent maidens who are only trying to find the love they never had while alive…
Outside of folklore, Rusalki were often portrayed as tragic figures. Antonin Dvorak’s opera has similarities to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The mermaid in this story, called Rusalka, falls in love with a prince, but must lose her voice before she can have the opportunity to meet him as a living being.
Rusalka has fallen in love with a human prince who often steps into the water where she lives. Although she can caress him, alas, he cannot see her, because she is merely part of the watery element herself. She wants to become human so she can embrace him and feel his arms around her as well. She asks the witch, Ježibaba, to help her. Witches are witches and demand much of their supplicants. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that she will lose her ability to speak if she becomes mortal; on top of that, if the prince doesn’t love her, he will die and she will be eternally damned. Rusalka agrees and drinks the potion the witch gives her. The prince finds her, immediately becomes infatuated with the speechless woman, and takes her to the palace. So far, so good for Rusalka. The prince wants her.
But fate can be cruel. Although the fickle prince summons guests to his pending marriage to Rusalka, he soon pays more attention to a visiting foreign princess… who can speak and flatter him, while mocking the mute Rusalka.
Poor, poor Rusalka.
It doesn’t take long before the prince professes his love to the foreign princess and rejects Rusalka. Her eyes filled with pain, she returns to her watery home. The foreign princess, however, is disgusted with the prince, even though she’s achieved taking his affection away from Rusalka.
Poor, poor Rusalka. She doesn’t know what to do. She returns to the witch for help. Ježibaba gives her a dagger and tells her she must kill the prince in order to be free and return to her former life. Horrified, Rusalka throws the dagger into the lake. Never will she kill the man she still loves. She dissolves into the water, forever alienated from her family. And now she has become something vile, a spirit that lures people to their death in the water.
The prince, having been touched by Rusalka’s love, can’t erase her from his mind. He frantically searches for her where he first found her. He calls to her, and she appears. “Kiss me, please,” he begs. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I regret being a fool.” She tells him that her kiss will mean his death.
To which he responds, “Kiss me, kiss me, give me peace! Your kisses will redeem my sin! I die happy; I die happy in your embrace!”
They kiss and … yes, he dies.
Rusalka kisses her dead lover one more time, thanking him for letting her experience human love. She releases his body and sinks into the lake, forever condemned to bring death to those who come near. Yes, poor, poor Rusalka.
Well, you must have a bad impression of the Rusalki by now. But, even though they cause pain and death, they have a benevolent side. They’re magical healers. Every year, several weeks after Easter, on a holiday called Spassovden, or Ascension, they ride through the night sky in a golden chariot made of human bones. Their green hair sparkles in the moonlight, and their transparent clothes billow around them as they hasten their way to a field full of white, pink, or red rosen. They’re here to plunder the flower.
Not only is this their favorite flower, it’s also magical and used by witches and healers, as well as Rusalki. It’s said that if a lit match is brought to the flowers in hot and sunny weather, a flame will explode in the air. Black smoke is released, but the plant remains unaffected by the fire.
Below the Rusalki, in the field of rosen, lie the ill, the crippled, the maimed, the childless women. Each person lies on a white blanket. At their head, they put a white cotton towel, a bowl of water, and a ritual bread as a gift for the Rusalki.
Spassovden is a time for “impossible wishes” to come true. Each person there hopes the Rusalki will accept their gift and give them a cure. At midnight, as the Rusalki stir up a whirlwind in their frenzied flight, they bestow cures upon those below at their whim. To the crippled or maimed, they give new limbs; to the blind, they give sight, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute; to the women who cannot conceive, they give fertility. It’s said that if any woman conceives on this miraculous night, it’s believed to have happened in a magical way and is not interpreted as scandalous behavior.
Does everyone receive a cure? Sadly, no. In the morning, people check to see what’s floating in their bowl of water. If it’s a green leaf or flower, the person will be healed. If the leaf is dry, or the water is filled with dirt, however, the person won’t be cured, and may even die soon.
Regardless of the outcome of the Rusalki’s visit, everyone must leave the healing place in silence, to keep the Rusalki happy and make sure their wish will be granted to those who were favored by the mermaids.
Are they good? Or are they bad? I guess you’ll only ever truly know when you meet one for yourself.