Thracians’ Gate to World of the Beyond (Summer Solstice Rituals)

We knew little about the ancient Thracians when we started to work on Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey, our debut novel. When people mention Thrace, the only heroes who readily come to mind are Hercules, Orpheus, and Spartacus – if even those. But Thrace has a vast history beyond its mythology or the conflict with Rome. We enthusiastically rolled up our sleeves and researched their culture, religion, and customs.

Quite often now when we mention the book, people ask, “Where is Thrace?” or “Who were the Thracians? Is that a country?”

So, let’s start with the easy question: “Where is Thrace?” The Thracians lived in southeastern Europe along the Black Sea, in the region that is now modern-day Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. At one point, their territory extended even well beyond that area.

“Who were the Thracians?” poses a more difficult question. What we can tell you is that they have been around for a long time. Since the people themselves did not have a written language, everything that is known about them comes from other sources. The first historical reference to them was in Homer’s Iliad, where it was mentioned that they were allies to the Trojans. But evidence of them as a distinct people exists as far back as 1500 BC.

They were a warlike tribal nation, living in mountains and valleys. But they were also great artisans, finely crafting delicate golden objects and painting beautiful murals.

A photo from the exhibition of the Lukovit Thracian treasure in the Lovecг history museum
Daznaempoveche, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Thracians were well known for their horses. They venerated the animals, considering them mystical creatures that carried men back and forth from the underworld, spoke to give advice, and predicted their master’s future. Thracians believed the animals were immune to spirits and sickness, and could safely transport people through forests and by rivers and lakes where spirits dwelt at night. Some customs dealing with horses were: When a ruler died, his horse was buried with him. Women embroidered images of horses onto clothing to protect family during travels. Heroes took oaths on their weapons and their horses.

Vazovo_Thracian_Pegasus
A golden thracian pegasus, found in Vazovo, Bulgaria.
Ivorrusev, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A polytheistic people, they worshiped the Sun and Moon. In her “The light imaginary and real sacred space in Thracian rock- cut sanctuaries,” Prof. Valeri Fol wrote: “In the Rock Sanctuaries the rising of the sun symbolizes the birth of the Sun God and his divine power in the days of the Summer Solstice. On the day of the Autumnal Equinox, after which light diminishes, it is equivalent to taking on the path to the World of the Beyond. The rock-cut Sanctuaries most strongly imply the unity of nature and man….”

Bronze head of a statue, probably of Seuthes III, found in front of the Golyama Kosmatka tumulus, Kazanlak district, late 4th century BC
Filipov Ivo, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every year, thousands of enthusiasts in Bulgaria travel to sacred the Thracian rock sanctuary to see the first rays of the sun on the day of the summer solstice.

Buzovgrad Megalithic
Filipov Ivo, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bendis, called the Great Goddess, was one of their primary deities. Better known, however, is Dionysus, the god of wine, whom the Greeks incorporated into their mythology. It’s through the story of Orpheus (you remember him; he went to Hades to retrieve his wife, Eurydice) that the tale of this drunken god is probably best known. The story didn’t end well for Orpheus. The Maenads, followers of Dionysus, tore his apart. Yup, gruesome.

Even today, Bulgaria is known for its wine. Many myths and legends mention Thracian wine. Homer says the most popular wine, one with the best aroma and body, came from the Thracian city of Maroneia. Odysseus also used Thracian wine to put the Cyclops Polyphemus to sleep before he struck the beast in the eye with his spear.

When Christianity crept into the region, the Dionysian cult faded away. But even today the feast of Saint Trifon is celebrated, and the festivities trace back to the cult of Dionysus (for example, pouring wine and electing a king).

But, that could be the topic of another entire post.

Click the links to discover more about our books:
Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey
Light Love Rituals: Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore

Healing Flowers, Midnight Magic, and Mystical Dancers

Spassovden is a time, in Bulgaria, when Rusalki return from their winter home in Zmeykovo (Dragon Village). They spread life-giving dew on the fields. This dew has an added benefit besides fertility for crops: it can heal diseases, especially the dreaded Rusalka disease, which the spirits themselves bring on people who disobey rules against working.

The night before Spassovden is a time for “impossible wishes” to come true with the help of Rusalki and their favorite flower, rosen (Dictamnus albus or burning bush), which means “dew.” It grows in various places across Bulgaria and blossoms for only a short time in June. According to folklore, it blooms only on the night before Spassovden, when the flower is at its most powerful state for curing people.

The spirits are known to pick the white, pink, or red blossoms this night to make wreaths for their hair. On the Sunday morning after Spassovden, Rusalki use these wreaths to sprinkle the fields with dew. Intoxicated by the fragrance of the flowers, Rusalki become merciful to people.

Rusalii – Dancing for Health

During this week Rusalli perform their mystical dance to heal people and chase away evil spirits. Diseases Rusalki cause are not to be trifled with. To rid a person of this type of illness requires various means to scare away the spirits and drive out the illness: incantations and loud noises, such as rattling cans, ringing bells, whistling, and singing. The best solution, though, is to pay the Rusalii to heal you, and you’ll get all those methods at once.

Who or what are the Rusalii?

The word refers to a group of men who travel from village to village, healing those inflicted with Rusalka disease and possessed of unclean forces. The name is associated with the rituals or festivities celebrated as well. The rituals have mostly died out today, but are still performed for show.

Rusalii

These rusalia or rusalii celebrations, as they were called, have been recorded as far back as the late Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, legal scholar Theodoros Balsamon wrote about popular fairs called “rousalia” that occurred after Easter. And in the thirteenth century, a Bulgarian archbishop mentioned the name in a homily.

Rusalii festivals take place three times a year: around the spring equinox (Rusalka Week), the summer solstice (Midsummer’s Day or St. John’s Day), which is celebrated in northern Bulgaria, and the winter solstice (the “Dirty Days,” the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany), which is celebrated in southern Bulgaria. During the cold months, the men drive away karakondjuli (night spirits), talasumi (evil spirits), and zmeyove (dragons). In the warmer months, it’s Rusalki and Samodivi (woodland nymphs) they focus on. The spring rusalii, which has “a military flavor,” is performed to cure the sick and drive away disease; the ceremonies also are dedicated to fertility and Rusalki, who bring that fertility. The spring rusalii is when Rusalki begin “to dance their way out of the wild into the world of farmer and shepherd.”

Midnight Magic

In a ritual called “visiting the rosen” or “walking on the dewy rosen grass,” sick people go to a field where this plant grows, or their relatives bring them there if they’re too ill to venture out on their own. Most often, however, people go there in secret, not allowing anyone to see them arrive.

They choose a location that’s close to a holy spring where a church or chapel has also been built. Magic wells with water that cures all diseases are often found in locations where Rusalki live. It’s possible that the springs found near rosen fields in these sacred places are ones that connect with these magic wells. One famous place you can go to is the village of Resen, which gets its name from the flower. Or perhaps you’d rather go to Krustova Gora, Holy Trinity Cross Forest, in the Rhodope Mountains. You can also travel to the Bulgarian Lourdes, a plain near the foot of the Stara-Planina mountains, where rosen grows in abundance.

Ill people, clothed in white, wash with the sacred water, then prepare for the night ahead. They spread a white sheet on the ground to sleep on. Near where their head will lie, they place a bowl of water, a twig from a rosen bush, a lit candle or oil lamp, and a white handkerchief on which they place gifts for the spirits: a cup of honey and rolls spread with honey, shirts, towels, stockings. Before they go to sleep, the people eat a meal they’ve brought: bread, cake, roasted chicken, wine, rakia (Bulgarian brandy).

Magical Healing Night

They must keep a strict silence during the night. At midnight, Rusalki arrive, bearing their queen on a chariot of human bones. They cause a whirlwind to blow over the sleeping humans, carrying with it the soft, whispered words, laughter, or songs of the spirit maidens.

As the Rusalki gather flowers, they strew leaves, twigs, sand, insects, and petals over the sleeping people. Tales have been told of people feigning sleep, those who have lost a limb, hearing Rusalki say, “Restore (person’s name) leg (or hand or fingers).” All who hear the spirits speak their name are destined to be cured.

In the morning before sunrise, people who could sleep through the turmoil awake and check their surroundings. The sight before them displays the fact that the spirit maidens have been present during the night. One person in the village of Lyaskovets said that when he took his father to the rosen field for treatment, in the evening the flowers of the dew were whole, and the next morning most of the flowers were broken, as if cut with scissors.

Everyone examines the water and handkerchiefs to determine their fate. If nothing has fallen onto the cloth or into the water, it means Rusalki have chosen not to heal the person. Others are fortunate if green leaves and live insects have dropped onto the items they set out. This means they will recover. If the leaves and insects are dead, or the water and handkerchief are covered with twigs, the people will remain ill and possibly even die from their malady. Dirt left on a handkerchief is a certain sign the person will die from his disease.

~~~

A Study of Rusalki thumbnailThe above is an excerpt from our book about Rusalki. You can get a copy at all major retailers if you’d like to learn more about these lovely maidens and beliefs about them: A Study of Rusalki – Slavic Mermaids of Eastern Europe.

 

Bulgarian Embroidery (Shevitza)

Everyone has their own path. Like ants, we hurry and wander and look for something. As Grandma used to say, we spend our whole lives building our home and family.

The paths of our life are like Bulgarian embroidery; they wind like a beautiful Bulgarian horo dance and form infinity.

Everyone carries in his heart the tree of life! That tree embroidered by our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, mothers-in-law. It is woven into the wood carvings around the church altars made by the skilled hands of the woodcarver masters. In its crown stands the center of the universe – love.

The love with which the Bulgarian woman made the cloth for the sacred shirts.

In the embroideries our grandmothers and great-grandmothers have encoded blessings for health, happiness, longevity, love, abundance, children, prosperity and spiritual cultivation!

Embroidery1

Each element in Bulgarian embroidery has its meaning and purpose. The colors are not random; they are aligned with taste and symbolism.

The shirt (riza) is of great importance in the life of the Bulgarians. Shirts are given at weddings, name days and baptisms.

In the past, the embroidered shirt was the first and perhaps the most important garment of the Bulgarian’s clothing and is believed to shape his identity. Its place in the costume is as the main bearer of the signs of social status. The shirt is sacred. It is made of linen or hemp (cotton fabrics) because these fabrics were thought to have a protective effect, and the inability to count the threads in the sleeve is considered a sure protection against evil and bad eyes. The shirt is richly embroidered with traditional symbols and embroideries, which are believed to protect from evil eyes and troubles.

That is why the wedding shirt has a very lavish ornamentation. This shirt is carefully stored until old age as a garment for heaven. It was believed that in paradise, on the wedding shirt, the man and the woman would meet and reunite in eternity.

White and red are the main colors in wedding attire, which symbolize male and female, heaven and earth, connected in a sacred marriage with each other. White is a symbol of the feminine principle, of purity and virginity, and red of the masculine principle, of fire and fertility.

It is no coincidence that we use white and red to make the ritual Bulgarian martenitsas.

Embroidery2

In Bulgarian folklore, white is the color of innocence and beauty. The face of the most beautiful girl is white. In Christianity it is a symbol of faith, purity and truth. It is also associated with death. In the Strandzha region the color of mourning is white. The shirt of the haiduk (freedom fighter), who goes to the gallows, is white.

Green – this is the color of Mother Nature and new life. It is associated with the Tree of Life.

Blue – this is the angelic color that represents the sky, the sea, the water. It embodies truth and trust, purity, serenity and contemplation.

Yellow – a symbol of gold and the Sun, a source of joy and merriment, fire, light, as well as the afterlife and the dead.

Black / brown – the color of Mother Earth. It embodies stability and security, fertility.

The symbolism of the Bulgarian embroideries is as rich as the soul of the Bulgarian people. Each region has its own characteristics.

Regardless of the differences, all roads intersect in our ancient Bulgarian roots.

Folklore and traditions help us to understand our past and identify and build our future.

***

If you’d like you own Shevitza design, you can select from various products on our Redbubble site:

https://www.redbubble.com/shop/ap/81619712

or

https://www.redbubble.com/shop/ap/81623543

Make sure to check back frequently. We continue to add new designs.

You can learn more about different Bulgarian customs in our book Light Love Rituals, available from all major retailers.

Roses, June’s Liquid Gold

As summer in the northern hemisphere approaches, life begins to return to normal. Stores and restaurants are re-opening, and those fully vaccinated are told they don’t have to wear masks. Many of us who paused our vacation and travel plans are now eager to explore the world once again. Bulgaria, as I’ve mentioned in books and blog posts, is my native country. I’d like to take you on a virtual trip there.

Bulgaria is a small country known for its good wine, Nina Dobrev, colorful pottery, and organic yogurt. Besides the different creatures found in folklore and mythology, Bulgaria is also rich in rituals and traditions, some dating back thousands of years to the ancient Greek and Thracians.

Roses play an important role in the Bulgarian culture and economy. June is National Rose Month, since the weather is ideal for growing the flower. More than 150 varieties grow across the Northern Hemisphere and even more around the globe. Roses remain a popular flower for the ever-popular June weddings.

IMG_4567

In Bulgaria, the oil from roses has been called “liquid gold” because of its unique properties and high price. Many perfumes contain Bulgarian rose oil.

Rose oil is also a natural elixir with innumerable benefits. It contains minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, which have calming, anti-inflammatory and nourishing effects.  I use rose water to moisturize my skin, because it helps maintain high levels of hydration, while making it soft to the touch.  In addition, aromatherapy with rose oil reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and has a positive effect on depressive states.

But this isn’t a wellness article. Instead, I want to share the importance of special roses called Rosa Damascena. The flower traveled from India and Persia, through many countries, to find the perfect conditions in a new home in the mild climate of central Bulgaria, in a region known as the Rose Valley. Production of rose oil here dates back to the 16th century, while in the 19th century, Bulgaria became the world leader in its manufacturing. This area is also well-known for the Valley of the Thracians, a name popularized by archaeologist Georgi Kitov. It’s here in the Kazanluk Valley that you’ll find a high concentration of monuments from Thracian culture. It’s believed there are more than 1,500 funeral mounds in the region, with only 300 having being researched so far.

The Rose Festival in Bulgaria is one of the most exciting festivals of roses around the world. Thousands of visitors travel to the Rose Valley every summer to discover the hidden mystery behind the celebration of the rose. The festival of the roses includes authentic rituals and events such as rose-picking, a rose parade, and a rose queen ceremony. You can also attend a kukeri show and explore local cuisine and dances.

Isn’t that amazing?

This year the festival was held on June 4 to 7.

IMG_4568

An article from our friends at Bulgarian National Radio talks about the festival this year and who was chosen for the new Rose Queen: https://bnr.bg/en/post/101479069/rose-festival-in-kazanlak-ends-with-parade-of-aroma-and-beauty

The New England Bulgarian community of Kazanluk started a similar tradition to celebrate their heritage and the beauty of the roses. Around 10 years ago, they established an Annual Bulgarian Rose Festival.

The event takes place in early June as a celebration of this long-standing tradition from the Balkan rose valley, where not only Bulgarians but everyone is welcome to enjoy traditional music and dancing food and roses.

IMG_1515

We hope you enjoy the warm weather, stay safe, and surround yourself with happiness, good summer books, and roses.