Bulgarian Easter Traditions

Easter for many of you was this past Sunday, but for the Orthodox, it will be on May 2 this year. In recognition of this holy day, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my book, The Wanderer, my memoir about my experiences of being an immigrant, and how our customs and traditions influence our lives. At the end, I’ve also included a traditional Easter recipe: Lamb with Dock. Enjoy!

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Since the majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, many of us celebrate Easter twice—once on our own holiday, and again to honor friends and new relatives with different backgrounds, or just to make our children part of the surrounding culture.

Easter holidays in Bulgaria start with Lazarov Day (Lazar’s or Lazarus’ Day) and Tsvetnica (Flower Day) and culminate on Easter. This year Tsvetnitsa is on April 25. These are the best spring holidays when nature wakes and everything comes back to life. People open windows, clean their houses, and go to church every Sunday. When I was a student, we were forbidden to attend church. Back in the Communist era, we were told we had to forget religion and traditions so as not to undermine the authority of the Party. Even so, we hid and walked to attend the service secretly, so we weren’t expelled from school. The world is small, as we like to say, and one year, I stood side by side with my French teacher in church. She looked away from me with candles in her hands and pretended she didn’t see me. I did the same. We both knew we needed to keep the secret.

egg_knocking_colorIn Sofia, the measures were quite strict, but in small villages and towns people were able to celebrate and attend church more easily. In the years when I studied in Sandanski, a small town in southern Bulgaria, a friend invited me to the holiday in one of the neighboring villages so that I wouldn’t be alone at the boarding school. The alley was pretty: white houses stained with colored rugs, and yards arranged with flowers and greenery. The church stood at the entrance to the village on a small hill with a view to the nearby Struma River. After the liturgy, young and old went out and, instead of the traditional “knocking” of their colored eggs (that is, tapping them end to end), they began to throw them over the church roof. Then they went outside the church yard, set food on picnic tables, and the fun began. The people of southern Bulgaria were warm and hospitable, and I always felt at home during my school years. It eased my nostalgia.

Bulgaria is a small country, but every region, village, and town has its own rituals and beliefs. It was interesting to observe traditions by visiting families and places that were new for me. I think we all need to be open to new experiences and appreciate the beliefs of others. Each ritual or custom has a reason behind why it’s performed.

Some of these traditions are regarding eggs, one of the most common foods at Easter, for Bulgarians and other nations as well. From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of birth, resurrection, and eternal life—life and death—with a belief that the world was born from the golden egg, that is, the sun. The parts of the egg represent the four elements. The shell is symbolic of earth: the membrane represents air, the liquid is water, and the yellow yoke is the sun and thereby fire.

The time to celebrate in secrecy eventually passed, and after the change of government in October 1989, democracy brought back freedom. Everyone then had the right to practice their religion. Easter and all other holidays are impeccable for Bulgarians not only today, but also in the past.

When I was a child, from time to time I stayed with my grandparents in a village in northern Bulgaria. Easter in my memories was about colors and flowers. I remember Lazar’s Day and the lazarki, a group of cheerful girls who walked from door to door to sing for the prosperity and health of the occupants. The girls carried baskets and dressed in traditional costumes, wearing wreaths made from flowers. At the time, I badly wanted to join them, but I was too young. When they arrived at our house, Baba went to the cellar and brought eggs, honey, and walnuts as gifts for the girls.

On Tsvetnica, the next day, we went to church to pray. For us, it was a double holiday because my grandmother’s name was Tsvetana (which means “flower”), so we also celebrated her name day. On Flower Day she made me a wreath from willow branches and flowers so I would be slender and playful like the tree. After church, people came over to celebrate her name day. The feast was not as it is now. Back then, the doors were open for all guests—those expected and unexpected alike. They came in happy, bringing gifts and wishing her good health. Baba gave them red wine and home-baked bread and other meals she had prepared for her special day. Since it was Lent, people fasted and kept other prohibitions.

My grandmother used natural dye to color the eggs: beets for the red, onion pills for the orange, and gold from the seeds of the dill. She also used these natural colors to dye wool and cotton. She told us we needed to color the eggs before sunset on Maudy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). If we couldn’t color them on that day, we had to dye them without telling anyone. The reason for this was that we had to make sure the devil didn’t discover us dyeing eggs on Friday or Saturday. If he did, he’d destroy the healing and protective powers those special eggs held.

I still generally dye the eggs on Thursday and always make a red egg special for God. Traditionally, this is the first red egg. It has magical, healing power; on Easter morning, I rub the egg against my children’s cheeks and make a cross on their foreheads for health. We keep this red egg set aside for a whole year. Sometimes our kitten forgets it’s a holy egg and breaks it early. When the kitten doesn’t break it, we don’t throw last year’s egg away. Instead, we bury it in the garden for fertility.

The culmination of the Easter festivities happens on Sunday. In Bulgaria, we went to church and on the way back visited the graves of our closest relatives to give them food, eggs, and wine.

Now and in the past all our Easter festivities are filled with light and love. Nature wakes up, and everyone is looking forward to the coming summer and long, sunny days. People are craving light, joy, and love.

A major part of the festivity is the meal. In addition to the traditional bread called kozunak and the colorful eggs, Bulgarian cook lamb.

lamb-with-dock

Lamb with Dock

Lamb with dock or spinach is one of my favorite meals during this season. This delicious dish is suitable for Easter and to welcome Spring.

I’m not a gardener, but I have few spices (mint, parsley, fresh garlic) in my garden that are a traditional part of Bulgarian cuisine. Dock is one of these plants, but you can substitute fresh spinach or even kale if you like to experiment. There’s nothing complicated in preparing lamb with dock.

Dock – commonly known as broadleaf dock, cushy-cows, butter dock, kettle dock, curly dock, and smair dock – is a species of flowering plant in a buckwheat family Polygonaceae. It’s native to Europe but is also available in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

Since ancient times, dock has been known as a medicinal plant and used in traditional remedies. It possesses various antiscorbutic, astringent, cholagogue, depurative, homeopathy and laxative properties which have beneficial effects to maintain one’s overall health.

To prepare lamb with dock, you need:

2.2  pounds boneless, trimmed, lamb shoulder, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 midsize onion or a green fresh onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1  1/2 Tablespoons sweet paprika
2 cups water
25 grams butter, cubed
1  1/2 cups from the water where the meat was boiled
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
1 bunch of dock or replace with spinach, trimmed and roughly chopped
Salt & pepper

  1. I always precook my meat. Start with making portions of the meat, put in a pot and cover with cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Boil the meat for about 1 hour on medium heat.
  2. Sprinkle diced lamb with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place a large pot or casserole dish over medium-high heat and drizzle in half the olive oil. Add half the lamb and cook for 4–5 minutes until meat is golden. Transfer browned lamb to a plate, and repeat with remaining lamb and oil.
  3. In the same pot add more oil, then add the onion and garlic and cook a further 3–4 mins, until the onion begins to soften. Once the onion has softened, add the rinsed rice.
  4. Transfer browned lamb to the pan and mix and stir paprika through it. Add water (from the water that the lamb was boiled in) and bring to a boil.
  5. Add the chopped dock or spinach and mix thoroughly.
  6. Place the pan in the oven (non preheat) on 375 F (no need to cover) and bake for 1 hour, until rice is cooked and lamb is very tender.

Enjoy this delicious spring meal made with gift a from nature.

Baba Yaga, Demon or Goddess?

In Bulgaria, March is a time for supernatural creatures to return to the human world from their winter residence in Dragon Village (Zmeykovo). Baba Yaga is one of the most well-known of these figures in Slavic folklore. “Baba” is a word that means “old woman” or “grandmother,” while “Yaga” comes from a word that possibly means “ill-tempered” or “quarrelsome,” as well as being derived from numerous other words, such as “illness,” “horror,” and “torment,” to name a few.

And she was indeed an ill-tempered old woman, and ugly, ugly, ugly. She has a crooked nose and iron teeth. The witch is skinny, with bones poking out.

If you haven’t heard about her, she’s a witch with a proclivity for eating children who wander onto her property. She lived in a hut that stands stilt-like on one or two chicken feet, and a fence of the bones of her victims surrounds her property. The witch doesn’t fly on a broom. Instead, you’ll see her in her mortar, using a pestle to guide her through the air.

Her hut, too, is a wonder to behold. It hops about, spinning, screeching, and moaning. When Baba Yaga wants it to stand still, she recites a special incantation.

Baba Yaga and Chicken Hut

While doing research on dragons, I discovered Baba Yaga has been compared to Hala, called a storm demon in some locations. Wherever she travels, she stirs up the wind.

But, Baba Yaga was also once a goddess of birth and death, the guardian of the fountains of life and death. Like nature, she is wild and untamable. She is the image of the matron of the family, one who no longer has to care for her own children. These women were knowledgeable in folk healing, and were thought to possess the power of life and death.

Baba Yaga can determine a person’s fate and represents the darker side of this wisdom. If her guest performs special tasks, without complaining, the witch will give the person magical gifts to help them as they tackle other adventures. If they complain, or ask too many questions, their fate is to end up in the witch’s oven. Even though she is known for her wisdom, she ages one year for each question she’s asked, so, yes, that can certainly put a damper on her willingness to help.

As time went on, she eventually became the hideous creature whose main desire was to devour children, rather than help bring them into this world.

Baba Yaga is one of our favorite characters in our Dragon Village middle-grade fantasy series. We’ve also collected so much more information about this fascinating personality that we’ll share in a future book about Folklore Witches in our Spirits & Creatures series. For now, though, we’ll leave you with some artists renditions of this famous witch: https://www.picuki.com/profile/bulgarianfolktales.

Dragons, Wine, and Love

Did you know that people once believed (and may still believe) that comets streaking across the sky were dragons? It could be a dragon hurrying to visit his beloved. He flies down through the fireplace chimney before he changes into human form to meet her. Since February is the month for love, if you see a comet in the sky, maybe it’s a dragon heading to visit his loved one.

You may wonder what connects dragons, wine, and love. The answer lies within the traits of the dragon zmey. Belief in the zmey was, and perhaps still is in some areas, the most widespread across Eastern Europe.

Zmey's Bride in Cave illustration

In appearance, the zmey can be your typical dragon, or a beastly combination of man and snake. But, he’s also a shape-shifter and so he may appear in a variety of forms: animal, human, and natural phenomenon, among the most common. He may also become an eagle, especially when he’s battling storm-bringing dragons (like the hala or the lamia). One form he takes I found rather amusing was that he could become a “shiny white chicken” strutting around the yard. He can also change into different types of vegetation and inanimate objects. That’s to say, he could be just about anywhere!

Most often, however, you’ll see the zmey as a handsome youth. His hypnotizing eyes, a body that may glow, and small wings beneath his arms distinguish him from other men. He’s also highly intelligent, has super strength, and many other abilities. He’s like the Superman of mythical creatures.

Although we portray him as a unique character in our Dragon Village stories (more of those coming soon), in most countries, the zmey is a species of dragon: male, mostly benevolent (depending on the location), and the wielder of multiple roles: he controls the weather, protects his chosen village, but most importantly, he’s a passionate lover.

The zmey has a discerning palate. His drink preference is wine, but it must be squeezed from the largest, ripest, sweetest, and blackest grapes. He likes it formally presented to him wrapped in a towel. To go along with that, you must serve him the best white bread, made from only the purest grains, which have been sifted with the smallest sieve.

Not only is he a connoisseur of wine and bread, he’s particular about his choice of females. Even though the zmey can select a bride from among female dragons of his species, he finds it difficult to suppress his cravings for human girls. The zmey’s chosen bride is often the most beautiful girl, the first to begin dancing the horo (circle dance) at village gatherings. She’s not only beautiful, she’s also personable, outgoing, and hardworking.

Zmey stealing girl illustration

Don’t go and hide your daughters! You’re safe at the moment, because it’s only during the warmest months that he steals girls from their families, especially on Eniovden, the summer solstice (June 24), and during the harvest on Georgiovden, St. George’s Day (May 6), when girls have gathered in the field. He likes it when they’re all together. It makes it easier for him to decide which one he likes the best. He may not always kidnap her. He may first woe her with promises of wealth.

When the dragon has found the girl of his dreams, he may not win her over right away. He’ll often visit her at her home to persuade her to go away with him. I’ve often wondered if he brings her roses in his nightly visits. Perhaps not, since he himself can turn into flowers.

Once he has his intended bride, be prepared for a spectacular wedding, with as much pomp and circumstance as a royal wedding. Unfortunately, only the bride-to-be can see the arriving procession. Whirlwinds. Fire. Thunder. White horses. Golden chariots. The groom tells the girl to be ready for the wedding party. Washed, clothed in ornamented wedding attire, hair braided according to customs, she waits in the yard for him to come in the night to whisk her away. With tears in her eyes, she turns and says a final “goodbye” to her mother, for she may never see her again.

Zmey wedding illustration

The zmey and his love have a darker side. Once he loves a girl, she has little choice in avoiding his attention. People believe she can’t escape her fate. The zmey is an obsessive, controlling, jealous lover. He possesses the girl’s consciousness until he’s all she can think about.

There’s a Bulgarian saying that describes this: It’s as if dragons love her. She hides, withers, loses weight, and fades.

Held captive by his love, the girl pines away, avoiding social gatherings, especially the dances she once loved so much. She’s quiet, sad, and depressed; she often cries or mumbles; and she suffers from hallucinations. Her skin becomes dry, pale or colorless, and withered. She has sunken cheeks and watery eyes. Once loved by a zmey, the girl will never find satisfaction with a human lover—if the zmey even allows her to find one.

A Study of Dragons thumbnailAs you see, the zmey is an interesting, multi-layered creature. You can learn so much more about him and other dragons in our book A Study of Dragons of Eastern Europe: https://books2read.com/dragons-aveela.

 

Dragon Tales thumbnailYou can also discover some dragon fairy tales in our book Dragon Tales from Eastern Europe:  https://books2read.com/dragon-tales. Both are available wherever you buy ebooks and print books.

From My Window

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.

English: https://youtu.be/NaphVVd7KgQ

Bulgarian: https://youtu.be/4BtBA7_JoPE

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!

Christmas Books

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.

eMagazines

Mom’s Favorite Reads eMagazine December 2020: https://books2read.com/u/4EPpV0


Mom’s Favorite Reads eMagazine December 2018: https://books2read.com/u/4DgDM7

Short Story


The Gift
by Rhonda Hopkins: https://books2read.com/u/bprYvg

Children’s Stories

 

The Christmas Thief by Ronesa Aveela:
https://books2read.com/Christmas-Thief


Secret Santas by Sylva Fae: https://books2read.com/u/4XLepv


Children’ Christmas Collections:
(boxed set of all 4 ebooks): https://books2read.com/u/3yzQAn
(paperbacks): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1670783774/


Christmas in Greece by Millie Slavidou: https://books2read.com/u/4NXez6


Christmas Elfabet by Katie Weaver: https://books2read.com/u/baaqeQ


Cami and Wyatt Share the Christmas Spirit by Stacy Bauer: https://books2read.com/u/b6KGN6


The Very, Very, Very Bad Gingerbread Boy by Cusper Lynn: https://books2read.com/u/mKyVnZ

Romance

Mary & Bright by Katherine E. Hamilton: https://books2read.com/u/mBGDQy


A Country Christmas by Melanie P. Smith: https://books2read.com/u/4XLER9


Christmas Surprise by Melanie P. Smith: https://books2read.com/ChristmasSurprise2

Crafts

Christmas Crafting with Lacey by Lacey Lane: https://books2read.com/u/mYAqwP


More Christmas Crafting with Lacey by Lacey Lane: https://books2read.com/u/bQde8Z

Adult Humor / Graphic Novels


The Ugly Christmas Sweater Cats’ Revenge
by Cusper Lynn: https://books2read.com/u/bWP6Xz


Snarking All The Way by Cusper Lynn: https://books2read.com/u/3kABRG

Here Be Dragons

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.

Source: Photo by Stankow, 13 September 2013. Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

 

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.

Source: PIC. “ЛЕГЕНДИТЕ СА ЖИВИ! Николина от село Пирин била последната любов на Змея Горяни.” (“LEGENDS ARE ALIVE! Nikolina from the village of Pirin was the last love of Snake Goryani.”) May 9, 2017. https://pik.bg/легендите-са-живи-николина-от-село-пирин-била-последната-любов-на-змея-горянин-news655961.html.

 

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.”

Source: Blust, Robert. “The Origin of Dragons.” Anthropos 95, no. 2 (2000): 519-36. Accessed September 20, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40465957.

 

A Day with Rusalki – Blurry Photos Miss Cryptid 2020 Contest

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.”

You can find the contest and listen to the podcast here: http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-week-3/

The part about Rusalki starts around minute 27.

Here are the other entries in the contest:

Week 1: http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-week-1/

Week 2: http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-week-2/

Roundup (finalists): http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-roundup/

And the winner is… [Winner announced at time – 01:07:19.]

Blurry Photos - Miss Cryptid Contest 2020 - Week 3 - June 6 Nandi Bear, Rusalka, Euroa Beast
Blurry Photos – Miss Cryptid Contest 2020 – Week 3 – June 6
Nandi Bear, Rusalka, Euroa Beast

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 and Prince. Illustration by Nelinda. © Bendideia Publishing.

Act 1

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.

 

Act 2

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.

 

Act 3

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.

Magical Night of Healing. Illustration by Nelinda. © Bendideia Publishing.

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.

 

ЛУННА ИНТЕРЛЮДИЯ

“Лунна Интерлюдия” е откъс от Дебютният роман “Мистичната Емона – Пътешествието на душата” издаден през 2104.

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Минало, настояще и бъдеще се събират в тази експлозивна съвременна приказка за любовта и отмъщението.

Пътувайте в света на Балканите с “Мистична Емона: Пътешествието на душата” и открийте тайният живот на самодивите. Сигурно сте срещали тези чудесни, мистериозни и опасни създания в различни книги, но  Мистичната Емона ще ви запознае с тях така както легендата ги представя.

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ЛУННА ИНТЕРЛЮДИЯ

24 юни

С подивял поглед той се набираше да догони момичето, а дългата му рижа коса бясно се развяваше във въздуха. Когато тя се спъна и падна на колене, той скочи от въвишението, разкъса роклята й и я прикова към земята. Тя пищеше, докато ръцете му насилваха тялото й, оставяйки пурпурната следа от неговата възбуда. Спускайки глава, той задуши звука от гърдите й, като наказа устата й с целувка. Тя раздра лицето му с пръсти и по бузите му започна да се стича кръв. Той изпсува и се изправи на колене, което й позволи да скочи на крака и да се опита да избяга. Само след миг той поднови гонитбата. По-силен и бърз от нея, мъжът я настигна и я хвана за дългата й златиста коса. Жертвата се извъртя и започна да го бие по гърдите. Той я плесна по лицето и така добави още тъмни цветове по кожата й, след което я удари в корема с такава сила, че тя се преви на две, опитвайки се да си поеме глътка дъх.

Златен пръстен със син камък, блестящ като звезда, проблясваше на ръката й. Той я хвана за китката, но момичето стисна ръката си в юмрук. Силата й я напускаше, тя не можеше да му устои. Той прибра пръстите й и завъртя пръстена.

Един от неговите войници се изправи наблизо наметна пъстроцветната си зейра и намести шлема си. Две момичета лежаха вкопчани на кълбо на земята, разпилените им коси скриваха лицата им. Водата от сребърните съдове за вода пълзеше към него като змия.  Безмилостният мъж заповяда с крясък на войника:

– Вземете този пръстен и го сложете при останалото злато. Заровете цялото съкровище под ореховото дърво до реката. Ще го изровим, преди да се върнем в селото ни.

Мъжът отново насочи вниманието си към момичето и завърши това, което беше започнал. Той остави порцелановото й бяло лице натъртено и набраздено от сълзи. Очите й, изпълнени с болка и омраза, отново пламнаха, след което се затвориха. Главата й се сви на една страна и тя извика: „Душан!“, след което загуби съзнание.

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Стефан се събуди със стряскащ вик. „Боже мой, какво ми става?“

Не беше сънувал два месеца – нито нещо приятно или неприятно, а сега този кошмар нахлу в съзнанието му. Сърцето му туптеше, сякаш се опитваше да изскочи. Той стисна гърдите си, където сапфиреният пръстен го изгаряше. Нападението над момичето беше толкова истинско – болката й, писъците й, отчаянието й. Лицето й остана в неясен образ, но пръстенът… Ръцете му трепереха, но той все пак постави едната около врата си. Гореше, не – пламтеше, и сви дланта си в шепа, и я задържа върху врата си, за да облекчи вълненията в ума си.

Отново същият сън! – притрепери Стефан.

Камолес, любим … Душан … Калина … Всичките тези странни сънища…

Има ли някаква връзка?

Балкан се протегна в кучешкото си легло. Погледна към Стефан и изскимтя.

– Какво има, приятелю? Събудих ли те? – Стефан се изниза от леглото, потупа кученцето, след което отвори прозореца, за да поеме глътка свеж въздух.

В красивата звездна нощ луната бдеше над морето, лъчите й се носеха по вълните като блещукащи светулки. Нямаше опасни непознати, които да дебнат отвън. Тревожният му кошмар беше свършил, но го остави замаян, а коремът го болеше. Страхуваше се отново да заспи, дори и да можеше.

Седнал на леглото той погледна часовника. Три часа сутринта. Часът на дявола!

Султана Знахарката. Може би тя ще може да го отърве от тази лудост с нещо по-силно от нейния омаен чай. Не получи ли помощ и облекчение, скоро ще полудее, ако продължи да мисли за този сън. Не можеше да чака до зори. Освен това тя беше казала, че спи малко и че той може да я навестява по всяко време.

В бързането си да стигне до къщичката й, той се спъна на стъпалата на верандата и се приземи върху червения божур. Стефан пъхна едно цвете в илика си. Вероятно Султана може да го добави към колекцията в аптечката си.

Ярката луна озаряваше пътеката, но в тъмната гора клоните пукаха и листата шумоляха сякаш горски същества се гонят по тях. Той се оглеждаше на всяка крачка, но нищо и никой не го следваше.

Когато наближи чешмата, чу бавна и нежна музика да се носи във въздуха. Няколко жени се държаха за ръце и танцуваха в кръг около прастарото орехово дърво, а в основата на дънера му светеше синя светлина. Венци от цветя украсяваха пуснатите им коси, а къдриците им се плъзгаха по раменете. Дългите им бели одежди се вееха в ритъма на танца под блестящата луна.

Това ли бяха циганите, за които Мария говореше на Великден? Той се скри зад едно дърво, защото не искаше да преживее същото след случилото се в Несебър.

В края на горската поляна една сенчеста фигура, свиреща на дълъг инструмент, наподобяващ флейта, лееше тайнствени ноти. И всяка нота увисваше в тъмнината като нежна копринена мрежа, обгръщайки жените в своите нишки. Колкото по-дълго Стефан слушаше, толкова повече звукът го хипнотизираше.

Темпото на музиката се ускори и жените продължиха да следват ритъма. Краката им танцуваха в росната трева, а телата, окъпани в сребърните и златните лъчи на лунната светлина, се приближиха още по-близо, стеснявайки кръга около дървото. Танцът им стана див и хаотичен, гласовете им – по-силни, изпълвайки нощта със смразяващ звук.

Последна проницателна нота се разнесе във въздуха. Жените пуснаха ръце, вдигнаха ги към небето и започнаха да се въртят в яростен кръг. Коланите върху робите им тупнаха на земята. Когато и последните ноти избледняха, жените отпуснаха ръце. Робите им също паднаха и сякаш изчезнаха, не оставяйки нищо друго върху блестящите им тела, освен вълшебната лунна светлина. Стефан се опита рязко да си поеме дъх, но гърлото му вече се беше свило от вида на тяхната прелест. Неспособен да откъсне поглед от тях, той си спомни картината, нарисувана върху неговото платно.

И тогава флейтистът отново засвири нежна мелодия. Жените вдигнаха лицето си към луната и запяха със странни думи. Стефан слушаше с удивление великолепието на гласовете им, докато телата им, като екзотични цветя, сякаш полюшващи се напред-назад от лекия бриз, се носеха в ритъма на поклащането на дърветата. Думите им го обкръжиха, сякаш самите жени го заобикаляха. Огледа се, но нощта не издаде никого освен танцуващите пред него жени.

Осъзнал, че се натрапва, но все пак запленен от тези неземни същества, той отстъпи с бавна крачка назад. Всяко внезапно движение можеше да издаде присъствието му. Нощният въздух отекна с пукот, когато той настъпи сух клон.

Жените замряха на мига – ни танц, ни песен. Взирайки се в неговата посока, някои извикаха: „Ела танцувай с нас“. Съблазнителните им гласове го накараха да настръхне, принудиха го да опипа врата си. Беше късно да се скрие, твърде късно да бяга.

Една от жените тръгна към него. Косата й се стелеше по раменете й като златна река и се увиваше около тялото й като бавно засилващо се торнадо. Устата му пресъхна, а сърцето му започна да бие още по-учестено, когато тя съвсем се приближи. Той силно стисна очи, твърде много се страхуваше да я погледне. Тя проговори и думите й се понесоха във въздуха и отекнаха в главата му. Стефане… Стефане… Стефане.

Тя откъде му знаеше името?

Тялото й се приближи толкова близо до него, но все пак не го докосна. Той усети дъха й като топъл, нежен ветрец да гали шията, бузата и устните му. Беше сигурен, че тя може да чуе дори ударите на сърцето му. Тя остана още един дълъг миг, обграждайки го от всички страни, прегръщайки го със своята същност и след това изчезна без да издаде дори звук.

Очите му отказаха да се отворят, за да наблюдават какво се случва, а краката му отказаха да го послушат и да бяга. Чувайки как гласовете на жените се носят около него – дали в съзнанието му, дали в реалността – все още подканвайки го с присмех да отиде при тях, да танцува с тях, Стефан си мислеше, че ще полудее.

Постепенно познатите звуци на нощта се върнаха – ромонът на потока, бухането на бухал, шумоленето на вятъра изсред клоните на дърветата. Той отвори очи и раздвижи крайниците си. Облекчението, че жените са изчезнали, получи израз под формата на дълбока въздишка. С трепереща походка той тръгна към мястото, където до преди миг жените танцуваха. Земята около ореховото дърво беше стъпкана под формата на пръстен и покрита с еделвайси.

Това поредният странен сън ли е? О, майчице! Губя разсъдък!

Стефан напръска лицето си с вода от чешмата. Когато луната се скри зад един облак, недалечният вълчи вой накара сърцето му да започне да бие още по-бързо. Той на спринт взе останалата част от пътя до къщичката на Султана. Един от прозорците светеше. Вероятно е будна. Той потропа по вратата и зачака, крачейки неспокойно по верандата. Вътре прозвучаха бавни, тежки стъпки.

– Кой е? Късно е. Какво искаш? – лекото треперене в думите й, които минаха през процепите на дървената врата, разкриха нейната предпазливост.

– Аз съм Стефан. Трябва да говоря с теб. – Ами сега? Кое беше сън? И кое беше реалност?

Вратата се отвори със скърцащ звук, постепенно разкривайки лицето на Султана, пламтящо от светлината на огъня, който гореше и пукаше вътре.

– Влизай, влизай. Каква изненада да те видя! Всичко наред ли е? В опасност ли си? – Тя отвори вратата още по-широко, погледна навън, но пусна мандалото веднага щом той влезе вътре.

– Моля те, помогни ми. Омайният чай не действа. Имаш ли други билки, които могат да ми помогнат и да ме отърват от сънищата, които сънувам?

Султана докосна рамото му:

– Пребледнял си! Седни до огъня. Я се виж! – и мърморейки под носа си, тя се запъти към лавицата в задната част на стаята.

Той направи крачка към огнището:

– Мария?

Тя седеше до камината, държейки кошница с билки.

– Стефане, скъпи, изплаши ни. Какво става? Защо си бил навън толкова късно?

– Ужасни кошмари! Жени, които танцуват в гората. Полудявам! – Той седна до нея, после се изправи и разтърка ръце над огъня.

Султана се върна.

– Я се виж! Сядай! – Тя потупа облегалката на стола. След като Стефан седна, тя докосна топлото му и потно чело. – Мисля, че някой ти е направил уроки, хвърлил ти е лошо око. Аз ще ти помогна!

Тя взе зелен глинен съд, пълен с вода, и използва машата, за да извади няколко въглена от огъня. Припявайки си на непознат език, тя нареди въглените в кръг над гърнето. Три пъти направи над него кръстен знак, след което пусна въглените във водата. Чу се съскане. Поднасяйки съда към Стефан, с пръсти тя направи кръстен знак и върху челото му. „Изпий водата и си измий лицето. Това гони лошите духове.

Той отвърна поглед от Султана към Мария:

– Не точно това си представях да бъде моят лек.

Мария поклати глава, като не откъсваше поглед от него.

– Стефане, скъпи, послушай Султана.

Той направи както тя му нареди и тревогата буквално се изцеди от него.

– Невероятно! Чувствам се по-добре.

Султана бръкна в джоба на роклята си и му подаде малко синьо шишенце.

– Ето нещо, което ще ти помогне, синко. Намерих тази силна отвара в книгата на баба. Много духове те преследват. Силен демон иска да ти навреди. Други духове в тебе се бият срещу него. Това ще прогони злото. Излекувай душата си. Изпий няколко капки преди да си легнеш.

И като постави шишенцето в ръката му, тя обгърна своята около неговата. Очите й побеляха.

– Получавам вест за тебе. Съпругата ти казва, че е време да я пуснеш. Тя е щастлива. Пусни я, сине.

– Ти говори с Екатерина, така ли? – Гърдите му горяха там, където пръстенът го докосваше. Със свободната си ръка Стефан го извади от пазвата си. От синия камък сияеше светлина в мек блясък.

Все още в състояние на транс, Султана хвана пръстена. Тялото й се разтресе, а ръката й се стегна около пръстена.

– Това принадлежи на друг… Носи бреме… Нещо лошо се е случило… Погребано е под стария орех при чешмата… – Тя потрепери и ръката й изтръпна. Пръстенът падна обратно върху гърдите на Стефан. – О-о, ужасно.

– Стефане, нека я заведем на люлеещия се стол! – Мария обви ръката си от едната страна на Султана, а Стефан я подпря от другата. Той коленичи до Султана, като държеше вкочанената й ръка.

– Добре ли си? Какво видя? – Той погледна загрижено в тъмнокафявите й очи. Спомняйки си съня, и неговите му ръце започнаха да треперят.

– Пръстенът притежава голяма сила…и носи послание за тебе. – Тя сложи ръце върху слепоочията си. – Не мога да чуя съобщението. Написаното върху пръстена ще ти даде отговор. Пръстен свързва миналото ти с бъдещето ти. Ти си избран. Трябва да решиш кое е реалността. Да решиш какво искаш…

– Какво искаш да кажеш, че съм избран? Избран за какво? – Стефан се изправи и стисна ръце.

– Ще разбереш. Бъди търпелив – потупа го тя по ръката. – Вярвай в себе си. Това е съдба.

Стефан започна да крачи из стаята. И погледна към Мария:

– И сега какво да правя?

– Довери се на Султана – и тя стисна ръцете му в своите; топлината и спокойствието й отново разсеяха притеснението му, сякаш вля във вените му успокоително.

Султана се изправи.

– Ще запаря чай. Трябва да се успокоиш.

– Ти си почини – Мария хвана ръката на Султана. – Аз ще го направя.

– Не, не! На него му трябва специален чай. Аз ще го направя – и тя се запъти към кухнята.

Стефан се обърна към Мария:

– А ти защо си тук толкова късно?

– Днес е Еньовден, лятното равноденствие, свещен ден, прераждането на Майката природа. – Тя седна на друг стол, взе си кошницата и започна да заплита билки. – Султана ме учи как да събирам билки и да лекувам с тях. Те са по-мощни, когато се берат на разсъмване.

– И тези ли си набрала? – каза той, докато сядаше до нея. – Но все още не се е зазорило.

– Не, тези са от градината на Султана. Скоро ще излезем. – Тя завърза няколко билки в букетче, постави го до себе си и събра още няколко клонки. – Трябва да съберем точно 77 билки и половина: по една за всеки вид болка и половин билка за всяка неизвестна болест. След това правим венец от тях. Ако оставим билките за една нощ на открито, под звездите, в кошниците, в които сме ги набрали, лечебната им сила ще се умножи. Това е традиция, която Султана и аз от години пазим жива.

– Султана си има странни начини да лекува и знае неща, които човек не очаква тя да знае. Имаш ли представя тя как се е научила да прави всичко това?

– Да.

Стефан положи ръка на рамото й и я погледна в очите:

– Моля те, кажи ми. Искам да знам.

Мария се спря за момент. Като че ли измина цяла вечност, преди да продължи:

– Преди много години, когато Султана е била дете, е попаднала във вихрушка. Хората са я търсели навсякъде, но не са успели да я намерят. Всички са се уплашили, че е била убита. Тя обаче се е завърнала няколко месеца по-късно с огромни познания за лечебната сила на билките. – Сега Мария хвърли кос поглед към Стефан.

– Продължавай, моля те.

– Хората са се уплашили от промяната в нея, защото тя им казвала неща, които ще им се случат. Започнали да я избягват, но я посещавали само когато са били тежко болни и не са имали друг избор. – Мария се спря, огледа се и прошепна: – Султана никога на никого не е казала какво й се е случило, но на мене ми сподели – едва когато започна да ме обучава.

Стефан кимна и се наведе към Мария. Думите й бяха толкова тихи, че се наложи да се наклони още повече, за да чуе какво му казва:

– Самодиви са намерили Султана и са я приели като сестра. Те са я научили как да лекува и да вижда в неизвестното. – Мария хвърли поглед към кухнята. – Една неделя, точно преди изгрев слънце, когато е имало пълнолуние, самодивите са посветили Султана в сестринското си тайно общество чрез свещен ритуал, извършен в гората.

В този момент Султана влезе и постави в ръцете на Стефан димяща чаша.

– Ето, сине, изпий това. Ще ти помогне да се отпуснеш. Добавих и мед, за да се успокоиш.

– Благодаря ти – каза той и отпи една глътка. Топлината на напитката се плъзна по гърлото му. Стефан затвори очи и започна да диша дълбоко, оставяйки билките да облекчат напрежението му.

Останаха седнали мълчаливо, докато Стефан не допи чая.

– Благодаря ти за всичко, което направи за мене, Султана. Сега трябва да се прибирам.

– Не, не! – Тя сложи ръка на ръката му. – Остани тук. Духовете бродят сега навън, в тъмното. Има някакво зло. Опасно е навън. Ще спиш в задната стаичка. Не излизай. Иди лягай. Дръж вратата заключена. Мария и аз отиваме за билки. Ние сме защитени. Но ти не си. – Тя докосна цветето в илика му. – Червеният божур ще те закриля за някои неща, но не е достатъчен. Магията беше силна тази вечер. Не си тръгвай, докато не се зазори.

– Ще се оправя. Мисля, че циганите танцьори вече ги няма. – И той направи крачка към вратата.

Гласът на Мария затрепери, когато заговори:

– Моля те остани. Духовете и другите същества празнуват с ритуали в гората. Не са били цигани. Видял си самодивите да танцуват коло, кръгов танц. Султана и аз ще им платим дан: ще им оставим малко мед, за да не се поболееш.

– Аз ще… – Стефан преглътна една прозявка: от билковия чай му се доспа.

– Остани да спиш тук. – И Султана му подаде свещ и го заведе до задната стаичка.

Краката му вече съвсем не го слушаха, затова той покорно кимна и я последва. Седна на леглото и постави синята отвара на масата до себе си. Пръстенът отново се затопли върху кожата му. Вдигна го изпод ризата си. Това беше последната му връзка със съпругата му. Беше си обещал, че винаги ще пази този камък близо до сърцето си. Преумората го надви и той заспа.

Тайната се крие в пръстена.

Spassovden

An excerpt from A Study of Rusalki – Slavic Mermaids of Eastern Europe.

Spassovden (or the Ascension) is a zadushnitsa, one of many days throughout the year associated with the dead, although not specifically those who are “unclean dead” like Rusalki. Women pour wine or water over the graves of relatives, and give food to other people visiting their deceased loved ones.

In Bulgaria, Spassovden happens forty days after Easter. The name comes from the Bulgarian word spassenie (спасение, “salvation”), and so it’s the day of salvation of souls. It’s the last of the seven “Great Thursdays,” the first being Maundy Thursday (three days before Easter).

The official Orthodox holiday relates to the day Christ ascended to heaven after spending his first forty days with the apostles after he had risen from his tomb. In the same way, on Easter, God releases souls of the recent dead, so they can wander for forty days to the places they’ve known in life. Their wandering concludes on Spassovden, and the souls remain on Earth until they return to the other world on Pentecost.

In folklore, souls can appear as flies or bees, visiting flowers on trees, in meadows, and along riverbanks. If you want to hear the dead speak in their graves, all you have to do is put your ear to the ground; you’ll hear them buzzing like bees. They also appear as white butterflies that arise from the water and live only on this day. Windows remain open on Spassovden so these souls aren’t trapped inside homes. Another belief is that if you’re quiet enough when you go to a well early in the morning and peer into the water, instead of seeing your own image, you may see the reflection of a loved one you’re thinking about.

White Butterfly Souls. Illustration by Nelinda. © Bendideia Publishing.

A Day of Bread and Fertility

Spassovden is also a day of bread and fertility. Sveti Spas or St. Spas (the Holy Savior) is the saint associated with this day, although he doesn’t exist as an actual Orthodox saint. He’s a made-up saint to go along with the name of the holiday. On this day, people walk around the fields to ward off drought, praying to the saint, who “unlocks the sky and the Earth to let the rain through so there may be bread throughout the year.”[i]

Ritual traditions forbid both men and women from working on any of the Great Thursdays. If you work in the vineyard, no grapes will grow. If you work in the fields, no grain will ripen. On Spassovden itself, women avoid touching anything green, because it will bring hailstorms in the summer instead of rain. Every drop of rain that falls on this day is considered “a piece of gold,”[ii] because it means the harvest year will be rich and fertile. On the other end of the weather spectrum, to avoid a drought, women are forbidden from doing laundry and hanging clothes outside to dry.

[i] Bezovska, “St. Spas or Ascension Day.”

[ii] Bezovska, “St. Spas or Ascension Day.”

Mothers – Our White Roses

The following is an abridged version of a chapter from The Wanderer – A Tear and a Smile: Reflection of an Immigrant, Ronesa’s memoir about the challenges and joys of being an immigrant, with many reflections on life and customs in Bulgaria.

***

We love mothers. Mother’s Day is the single busiest day for phone calls home to that special lady. Mom is our temple, the first person we met when we arrived in this world. Her love is unconditional all our lives, and she’s ready to give her life for her child.

While I was working on this chapter, another shooting, actually two mass shootings, happened one after another. One in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio. Why would I even mention these horrible events? While I was watching the news, they were talking about a little two-month-old baby whose mother shielded him, and the gunmen took her life. This is what a mother does: she protects, she loves, and she is ready to die to save her child.

If you ask my children about me, I’m sure they’ll say I’m demanding, powerful, and sometimes mean, or that I expect the impossible from them. When they were growing up, it was hard for me to say “good job” on a school grade just because other moms were saying this to their kids. For me to give them this praise meant what they did had to be excellent, an A or above. I know I’ve been tough, and sometimes expected too much from my daughters. I even have called myself “the dragon mother.”

Even if we planned everything and hoped for success, life is an unpredictable journey. It throws everyone ups and downs: we win, we lose. But mothers are like a safe harbor, a sanctuary we can seek to get support, forgiveness, and courage. When life has been difficult, or if I’ve needed advice, I’ve reached out to my mother many times. She never asks or judges; she just supports me.

A famous Bulgarian song, “Prituri se planinata,” is about two shepherds trapped in a mountain with a storm coming. They ask the mountain to help them. They want to go back to the people waiting for them. One of them desires to return to his mother, the other to his wife, his first and only love. The mountain responds by telling them she will let go only one of them, the one whose mother is waiting for him. A mother, she says, waits and mourns all her life, but a wife will be sad for a while and then find another love. It’s a powerful song, showing again the love of the mother and how it’s portrayed in Bulgarian folklore.

 

Притури се планината

Притури се планината,

Че затрупа два овчеря.

Че затрупа два овчеря,

Два овчеря – два другаря.

 

Първи моли, пусни мене.

Мене чака първо любе.

Втори моли, пусни мене.

Мене чака стара майка.

 

Проговаря планината:

Хей, ви вази два овчеря,

Любе жали ден до пладне,

Майка жали чак до гроба.

 

The mountain has overturned (collapsed) 

The mountain has overturned

And captured two shepherds.

And captured two shepherds.

Two shepherds, two friends.

 

The first one begs: “Let me go!

My first love is waiting for me!”

The second one begs: “Let me go!

My old mother is waiting for me!”

 

The mountain replies:

“Oh, you two shepherds,

A beloved one grieves from morning till noon

but a mother grieves for life!”

 

Being a woman and a mother is even harder when you’re an immigrant. You need to work, take care of the family, and overcome obstacles presented by the new culture. One of the roles of a mother is to introduce her children to family traditions, their roots, but also help them embrace their new culture. It’s hard to do in this high-tech world where lifestyles and communication tools are different from those in your home country.

Even though the social dynamics are different today, we need to preserve our culture, our family rituals, making sure our children know their heritage. Knowing who you are and where you come from helps you build your future and gives you identity. This is why I started writing stories and books inspired by Bulgarian folklore and customs. I wanted my children and other people to learn more about Bulgaria, so they can respect my culture. I think we all need to respect and learn about the people around us, the new people we meet every day. Don’t judge people by their appearance, accent, or color. Take the time to learn about them. Each person has a story, dreams, and ambitions.

In Bulgaria and in Europe, Mother’s Day is on March 8. This is the day when everyone appreciates their mothers and says thank you for their hard work. I still celebrate on March 8 and also on the American Mother’s Day in May. Celebrating in May helped my children feel the same as their classmates. They make me lovely cards, and we go out for lunch.

On Mother’s Day, I get a bouquet of white roses, my favorite flowers, from my husband. A white rose is the flower of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, our Mystical Rose of Heaven. For me, Mother’s Day isn’t about being one day in the year when you get cards, kisses, and flowers. Every day when you know you’ve raised good children is Mother’s Day. Every day we celebrate the love, the pain, the sleepless nights, the cheers.

We grow, we make friends; we move, we lose many of them. As time passes, it’s more and more difficult to make new friendships. But also with time, we become wiser and gain the ability to appreciate and respect the people around us. We begin to understand that our mother has always been and will always be our best friend in life.

Our mothers are our white roses.

The Art of Forgiveness

The following is an excerpt from my memoir, The Wanderer.

According to Orthodox tradition, every spring before Easter, we ask our relatives for forgiveness. We also call our parents and other relatives in Bulgaria and ask their forgiveness. Even if we haven’t hurt or offended them, we use it as a way to get rid of the negative energy in our lives.

It’s important to differentiate between forgiveness and trusting someone again. Can you forgive a person when he hurt you several times? If you do, does it mean you approve of his actions? Are you giving this person permission to hurt you again? Some people don’t change for the better; they become more self-centered.

You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget.

Forgiveness is an important part of our lives. It’s no wonder Bulgarians, like other Orthodox, have a celebration called Proshka, Forgiveness. On the church calendar, this occurs before the Easter fast begins. The idea is to cleanse not only the body, but also the soul.

Although the church and other rituals were strictly forbidden during the Communist era in Bulgaria, my grandmothers honored them rigorously and taught us children to honor them. Before dinner, we had to kiss their hand and ask for forgiveness from them and our parents. It wasn’t just words; it was a serious matter. I saw the respect and dignity on their faces as we paid our respect.

Afterwards, for my cousins and me, the day was like a party. My grandmother made her delicious round bread, cooked fresh eggs, baked banitsa, and had homemade feta cheese and white halva. When she didn’t have white halva, she used Tahan halva, but they both melted in our mouths. We all waited for the dinner to end so we could make a hamkane.

My grandmother tied a red thread to the end of the dough roller, like a wooden rolling pin. To the other end of the thread, she attached a piece of halva, a piece of cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. We children stood in a circle on the floor or around the table with our hands behind us. We eagerly awaited our grandmother to shake the thread and make the halva dance. Like kids in America playing a donut game or apple dunking, each of us struggled to bite into the halva and get it to stay in our mouths. My brother and my cousins always won.