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.

~~~

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.

 ~~~

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.

***

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.

“The Witcher” Connection

The Witcher Connection

Have you seen Netflix’s The Witcher? Although it’s received poor reviews from critics, fans are loving the show. We are excited that these types of shows are beginning to become more popular. It’s a move into a new type of fantasy realm. By now, fantasy lovers know about elves, gnomes, goblins, and such creatures. But what does the world, the western world, know about the creatures that haunt the lands of Eastern Europe?

Like Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, whose fantasy works are the basis for the series, we have a connection to The Witcher. It has been our goal to promote this rich folklore and mythology to readers. Some of the creatures you’ll discover in The Witcher are the inspiration for our fiction and nonfiction books. You can also meet other fascinating creatures such as the dragons Lamia and Zmey in our books.

At the beginning of The Witcher, you’ll meet a Kikimora. Although she’s not portrayed as the traditional folkloric creature, she’s still quite scary and fascinating. Time magazine referenced our work on household spirits (A Study of Household Spirits of Eastern Europe) when talking about the show.

Here’s what the TIME article had to say about the KIKIMORA:

Kikimora

When we first meet Cavill’s Geralt in episode 1, he’s emerging from a blackened swamp, in the middle of a terrifying battle with a multi-limbed kikimora.

Kikimoras are a mainstay of Slavic mythology, though the one shown in The Witcher may not exactly line up with the traditional depiction.

Throughout Eastern Europe, according to A Study of Household Spirits of Eastern Europe by Ronesa Aveela, kikimoras are believed to be female spirits that haunt houses. They can appear either young or old, but usually as deformed humans, thin and scraggly. Though they can be useful, they are largely troublemakers and occasionally dangerous.

“Do you hear creaking, scratching sounds coming from the walls and floors, or the clatter of pots at night?” Aveela writes. “All these may be signs a Kikimora lives in your house. This female spirit causes havoc from dusk until dawn.”

She posits that the origin of the name, as well as the myth, may stem from an old Finnish word, “kikke mörkö,” which roughly translates to “scarecrow.”

In The Witcher TV show, the kikimora appears as a very large, spider-like monster who tries to drown Geralt and bite his head off with a large maw full of sharp teeth. Not quite the type of monster that would be clattering pots in Slavic homes.

Still, the show’s depiction does match up with the some rarer aspects of the kikimora legends. Aveela writes that kikimoras have been associated with Baba Yaga witches who often appear in Russian fairy tales. They are contorted, long-limbed women who live in the deepest parts of the forest. Kikimoras also traditionally have bird feet, like the claws shown in The Witcher. And finally, many sources, including Aveela, say that a variation of kikimoras live in swamps and are married to Leshys, a Slavic woodland spirit.

You can read the full writeup here: https://time.com/5753369/the-witcher-history-folklore/

A Little Christmas Magic

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.” An excerpt from the book follows.

Christmas Eve. The year is coming to a close. It’s a time of festivity for Christian and non-Christian alike. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Budni vecher marks the end of forty days of fasting from meat to purify both body and soul. In preparation for the holiday, families thoroughly cleanse and tidy their houses, because on Koleda, Christmas, traditional beliefs prohibit sweeping, washing, cleaning, and any kind of household work. An old superstition says that even sewing isn’t allowed, to prevent family members from going blind.

A more unusual “cleansing” is the removal of bad spirits. To accomplish this, the female head of household walks around the home and yard with burning incense, to chase those spirits away. This tradition began long ago when people believed unseen beings lurked in dark corners. By ridding their homes of both dirt and spirits, families can greet the new year clean and full of positive energy.

Other traditions people perform on this day also have special meanings. Among these are cutting a budnik or Yule log, selecting food for the evening meal, and blessing families with incantations and songs.

~ Origins ~

People in antiquity believed the winter solstice brought beginnings, rather than endings. Up until this date, the Sun was a dying god, his light shining less each day. On the solstice, however, the Sun was reborn as a new god called Mlada Boga or Young God, and daylight once again increased.

Various religions celebrated the solstice in their own way. In the third century A.D., Emperor Aurelian combined these celebrations into a single festival called the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” observed on December 25. Eventually, the early church designated this day as the celebration of the birth of Christ, and “Young God” came to refer to Jesus rather than a pagan, or non-Christian, deity.

During the solstice, people in antiquity believed the heavens and Earth were at their closest points and merged, renewing natural energies. With the release of this power, vile spirits and the souls of the dead had free rein to mingle with people. These unsavory beings desired to bring chaos to the world by preventing the return of light, that is, the rebirth of the Sun God. People therefore performed rituals to protect families and crops.

Winter Pitka bread

That’s not all. The ashes from the budnik log are considered magical. In February, in a ceremony to bless the grape vines, these ashes are scattered around the plant’s roots, ensuring a bountiful harvest.

The winter season is magical in other ways. It’s the time of year when many name day celebrations occur. We talked about this before in the “Santa’s Name Day” post.

You can learn a little more about Budni vecher in our children’s short story “The Christmas Thief,” where a little boy learns about sharing.

Wishing you a blessed and happy Christmas and holiday season.

 

Little League Nightmare

Today, we have a guest post by Keith D. Guernsey, who writes about his humorous sports experiences, as well as his battle with cancer. Below is a topic I can relate to, since I was one of those kids always picked last in school sports events. I was once an honorary member of an adult softball team, only because they needed another player so they wouldn’t have to forfeit. I hope you enjoy Keith’s childhood adventure that he relates below.

By Keith D. Guernsey

Growing up 12 miles from Fenway baseball was a very big deal in Lexington and I was determined to give it my best shot. Opening day was a major event with a parade through the center of town and players from all the teams lining both baselines (think opening day at Fenway for all its pomp and circumstance and you wouldn’t be far off). There is where it went from bad to worse. My shiny, new all-white uniform had arrived in the mail.  I was so excited to try it on and then so sad when the pants did not fit. My late mother, in her infinite wisdom, decided (glad you are not here to read this Ma) she could fix them; so I let her give it a shot, but all she had was gray material to use. So what ended up happening was that 100 Little League baseball players lined the first and third baselines at the Center Field in Lexington, and 99 had perfectly pressed sparkling white uniform pants. I had white pants with a large gray patch directly in the center of the posterior. With a last name of Guernsey (rhymes with cow) and being rotund in places where I shouldn’t have been, the laughter and humiliation were complete.

This was my most embarrassing moment but surprisingly not by that much. In little league baseball there was a rule that everyone had to play. This made the coaches unhappy but the players (especially the lousy ones like me!) ecstatic. My coach sent me out to right field (told you I was the bench warmer money can buy) with a great deal of trepidation and the sincere hope that no one would actually hit the ball to me. If you are unfamiliar with LL ball, it is where the coaches put their worst players in hopes nothing too awful will take place. Unfortunately for him it did. One of the first batters that came up to bat after I went in the game lined one way over my head and hilarity ensued.  I ran (waddled?) back after the ball when my cap flew off. Instead of continuing to pursue the ball, I stopped and went back after my lid. Only after retrieving my hat did I resume my pursuit of the ball. Suffice to say that by the time I retrieved the ball my opponent had long since circled the bases and I was unceremoniously yanked from the game. The only saving grace is that there was no AFV or YouTube to record this monumental faux pas.

Discover more about Keith in another recent interview:

Keith Guernsey – Overcoming Adversity through Love and Sports

Connect with Keith…

Social Media: Twitter | Goodreads |

Where to Buy: Amazon |

     

Keith would love your opinion on his newest book. Overcoming the Odds, at:
https://amzn.com/1798710218

 

A Spirit Here, a Spirit There, a Spirit Everywhere!

Up until the nineteenth century, it was common belief throughout rural areas of Eastern Europe that spirits lived everywhere in the world of the peasants. Every home and every place outside of the home had its guardian spirit: springs, old trees, fields, vineyards, boundary lines, and so forth.

Household spirits had different names. In Russia and other Slavic countries, he was called the Domovoy. He was most often friendly, and was treated like a member of the family. He’d warn you if trouble was coming, and he’d make all kinds of noises if your house was on fire, in an attempt to wake you up.

Domovoy image
Domovoy, house spirit by Evelinea Erato, © Bendideia Publishing

Among the Bulgarians, the house spirit was called the Smok. He frequently took the form of a snake. This spirit was revered and wouldn’t be killed. To do so would cause disaster and even death for the family. Give him a bowl of milk and some eggs, and he’d be happy and protect you and your home.

Smok image

In addition to these helpful spirits, many evil spirits also occupied places.

The Ovinnik lived in the barn (ovin), and often appeared in a catlike form. He tried to be good and helped with the threshing process. But, at other times, he might also be in a bad mood and burn your barn down.

Ovinnik image
Ovinnik, house spirit by Evelinea Erato, © Bendideia Publishing

The Bannik lived in the bathhouse (banya, which is similar to a sauna). He was known for peeling the skin off of those who annoyed him, especially anyone who lied to him.

Bannik image
Bannik, house spirit by Evelinea Erato, © Bendideia Publishing

Even worse than these spirits was the Vodyanoy or Vodnik, who lived in the water (voda). On occasion, he might help fishermen catch more fish. Most often, however, he was a demanding being, requiring horrific sacrifices: live horses cast into the water, and even drunks or strangers who happened to be around. His cruelty affected his family as well, and he was known to murder his own wife or children.

Vodyanoy image
Vodyanoy by Ivan Bilibin, Public Domain

If you’d like to learn more about the Vodyanoy, you can download a FREE ebook from Book Funnel. Follow the steps and once you verify your email, your file will be available.

Link to free ebook: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/1rq3ku0fa9

Award Winners!

This year, we entered our nonfiction books into the prestigious Readers’ Favorite annual awards event… AND WE WON! Gold and Silver!

Unlike many awards events, the Readers’ Favorite is not a popularity contest. Authors don’t have to scramble begging, pleading with friends, family, and fans to vote for their book. Quite the opposite. This event is one where judges read and rate the books. It’s open to indie and traditional publishers, and many well-known personalities have participated and won.

Our winners:

A Study of Household Spirits of Eastern Europe
GOLD MEDAL

Gold Medal Winner - Household Spirits

Light Love Rituals: Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore
SILVER MEDAL

  Light Love Rituals - Silver Medal Winner

You can find all winners of the 2019 awards here: Readers’ Favorite 2109 Award Contest Winners