Kukeri – Masked Men

November 16, 2014

If you’re in Bulgaria on New Year’s or on Sirni Zagovezni, the first Sunday before Lent, you will be in for a fascinating parade and series of skits as the kukeri make their appearance. kukerThese are men who dress in furry costumes that cover most of their bodies, and they wear colorful wooden masks with scary faces of rams, goats, or bulls. The hand-carved masks display snapping jaws, twisted horns, and frightening eyes. Some masks even portray two faces—one evil and one good—to symbolize the duality of nature.

The men often attach to the masks shiny objects, such as mirrors, ivy (sacred to Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and rebirth), basil (for love), and multi-colored threads and fabrics. Red symbolizes the sun’s fire. Black is the embodiment of the earth itself. And white signifies water and light. All three elements were essential for restoring the fertility of the land after a long winter. (photo credit: kafene.bg)

Like many of the Bulgarian traditions, this one also has Thracian origins. During the time of the winter solstice, ancient people believed that the heavens and earth were at their closest points and became one, allowing evil spirits to enter the realm of mankind. These spirits sought to bring chaos to the world by preventing the return of light, that is, the rebirth of the Sun God. Without the Sun’s return, the earth could not be fertilized. Therefore, Thracian warriors would don animal skins, which allowed them to contact the spirit world, enabling them to battle against the evil spirits. The celebrations that began with the Sun’s rebirth continued into ancient Dionysian rites symbolizing life, death, and rebirth, performed in the spring before the sowing of the harvest.

Stopping at houses along the route, the men perform various skits pantomiming plowing and sowing of seeds, rocking back and forth indicating heavy ears of corn weighing them down, jumping into the air to portray tall crops, rolling on the ground to draw on its strength, fighting evil spirits, as well as the conception and birth of infants. In return, they are given food (bread and wine, symbolic of the flesh and blood of pagan sacrifices) and money, which will later be sold and the money given to charities or to help offset the cost of the celebration.

While the kukeri dance and jump along the streets, large copper or bronze bells surrounding their waists clang loudly. (A single bell can be as large as a foot in diameter and weighing twenty pounds.) The noise from the bells, the frightful masks, and the mirrors on the masks are meant to chase away evil spirits. It is also done to ensure a plentiful harvest, good health, and happiness.

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Cultural Diversity

November 4, 2014

Today, we’d like to explore more about one reason why we wrote Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey. It’s more than a tale about eternal love. As mentioned in the introductory blog, it’s also a story about the modern Bulgarian people and their culture.

This isn’t a discussion about religion. It’s about the activities people perform that are unique to their culture. Granted, the activities may take place during religious holidays, but they don’t necessarily have a religious significance, although often they do.

Why is understanding culture important? One reason is it defines who people are. The common experiences that people share influences their perception of the world and consequently how they behave with each other and those outside their community. bulgarian_voices1People who believe in evil spirits may be more cautious around others. In Mystical Emona, Maria is constantly giving Stefan charms to ward off the evil she believes intends to harm him. As an outsider, Stefan reacts differently to her actions than those who have lived with her in the village.

Is either of them right or wrong? No. Different cultures shaped their view of what evil spirits are, or if they even exist. Will living in a place that is vastly different from your own change your perception? Quite possibly, yes.

Then the question arises: Should people who move to another country forget about their heritage and immerse themselves in their new culture? Or should they retain the purity of their traditions, ignoring all else? Or perhaps a bit of both – creating new traditions from each culture?

There is no set answer. Everyone is different, so what works for one person or family may not be appropriate for another. Some beliefs may be so strongly ingrained into people’s personalities that no amount of time can erase them. While other beliefs may pass by the wayside, with people openly embracing new beliefs, or incorporating them into what they believe and creating new traditions.

Consider these thoughts about what culture does.

  • Provide comfort and security: Customs, traditions, and beliefs give people hope for a better life for themselves and their children.
  • Pass on cultural and religious heritage: Traditions are a great way to teach children about the family’s cultural and religious history, giving them personal identity.
  • Connect generations: Spending time with older generations is a great way to build memories and enables people to learn about beliefs, traditions, and heritage.

We’ll leave you with a quote from Mystical Emona where Peter is telling Stefan about Sultana, a znahar, a woman who heals with herbs. Many people considered her a witch. “When people don’t understand things, they call them bad. Miracles still happen, but you need to believe deep in your heart before you can experience them.” So, culture is about believing.

Modern Style Baklava

November 1, 2014

We love adorable ‪#‎Halloween‬ treats, but here is a simple and easy, modern style baklava. This is very popular dessert in Bulgaria. Baklava or baklawa is a rich, sweet pastry featured in many cuisines of the former Ottoman countries. It is made of layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, or pistachios, and sweetened with syrup or honey. To

Don’t like sugar? Explore more recipes on Maria’s Kitchen. We have a few dishes that are made with yogurt. Delicious and healthy. Explore and enjoy!

bread_pitka_template_baklava

Nestinarstvo – Fire Dance

October 31, 2014

Nestinarstvo (Bulgarian: нестинарство) is a ritual where people, predominantly women, dance on embers with their bare feet as a means to purify themselves with the fire’s healing powers. The Thracian word “nestia” means “fire.” Like so many Bulgarian customs, fire dancing incorporates both Orthodox and pagan beliefs.

It originated in remote villages in the Strandzha Mountains area, in southeastern Bulgaria. The celebration occurs on the Day of Saints Constantine and Helena, originally June 3, but now May 21. The ritual also celebrates the cults of the sun, fire, and water in order to bring fertility and health. Fire had protective powers and increased the sun’s divine power, and water had healing powers. Emperor Constantine I himself worshiped fire, and so he allowed the nestinari to perform their dance even after he legalized Christianity.

“Nestinarka” Art by Nelinda.com
“Nestinarka” Art by Nelinda.com

The celebration begins in the morning when people gather outside the home of the oldest dancer. They light candles and bow to the icons on the saints at the chapel that has been set up near the woman’s house. The dancer leaves her house when she hears the sound of kettle drums and bagpipes. She is pale and is already in a trance. Next, everyone goes to an ayazmo, a sacred spring, where they drink its healing water. The gathering continues to a meadow near the forest. Singing and dancing take place, and a fire is built.

When evening arrives and the fire has turned to embers, those present form three or nine circles, which is associated with the Sun, the “Fire of Heaven.” They perform a chain dance, a horo, around the fire and kiss the icons of the saints that they hold. The dancers raise the icons above their heads as they enter the fire so they can dance on the embers without injuring themselves. The music begins to speed up and so does the dancing. Fire opens a door to the spirit world, the oldest of the nestinari sees the future of the village while she dances in her trance-like state.

The following in an excerpt about the Nestinarstvo from Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey.

As the fire died down to coals, people quieted. The smell of charcoal mingled with the salty air. Angelina looked at Kalyna, then put on a CD of bagpipes and kettle drum music. A heavy, slow folk song rose in the darkness. Everyone stood and encircled the coals. Then a man on the other side played a long flute-like instrument.

Stefan started. “What’s that instrument? I think I-I heard that music in my dreams once.”

“It’s called a kaval. Shepherds often play them.” She wrapped her arm around his waist and nestled into his side. “The nestinarstvo, or fire dance, is fascinating. It’s a famous tourist attraction. Not too many people can do it, but it fills those who can with energy. Watch.”

Angelina loosened her hair and took off her sandals. With her eyes closed and her arms stretched out to the sky, she stepped onto the live coals. She danced to the slow rhythm of the music, her long white dress flowing around her.

“Magic in the night” Art by Nelinda.com
“Magic in the night” Art by Nelinda.com

“Mystical Emona” was highlighted on October 9 at Boston University during an event called “Bulgarian Voices: Love, Light and Rituals.” It is also available on Amazon US and UK. In addition, we are working on a non-fiction book that will describe many of these Bulgarian customs and others in more detail, as well as their Thracian origins. Look for it in December.

Here is one interesting video from UNESCO to learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ru506gJ1iI

 

 

Music and Dance

October 30, 2014

Bulgarian folk music and dance are quite different from what Americans are used to. Dances are performed by men and women in lines or circles (horo). The performers wear traditional, colorful garments of primarily white, red, and black, embellished with much embroidery. The colors and designs have meanings. White and red represent the sky and earth, the marriage of the male and female gods of creation, while black is the destruction of the earth, when it is no longer fertile. Traditionally, the embroidered designs were not symmetrical because this was considered a diabolical creation. To have symmetry was to invite the evil eye.

The dancers move their feet in fast, intricate patterns, or at times, slow and deliberate ones. They often jump and shout while they twirl around a room.

The music has an eerie, hypnotic quality to it. Common instruments are the gaida (a bagpipe made from goat’s skin), kaval (a flute-like instrument), tupan (drum), and outi (stringed instrument). In Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey, Stefan hears someone singing in the forest when spring arrives. An excerpt follows:

The whistling of the wind sounded like a reverent song drifting out of the forest. He moved toward it, stopped, and spun around. The tune came from every direction, as if the forest itself sang a hymn of praise to the arrival of spring. Riveted by the music, he remained immobile until the last note drifted away like mist evaporated by the sun. So unlike any song he had ever heard, it filled him with peace, and he experienced a oneness with nature.

And in another scene, preparations are being made for a wedding – gaida, zurla (another type of flute), and tupan playing at the joyous celebration.

soare On that glorious wedding day, festivities abounded in the village. The aroma of roasting game from the magnificent feast mingled with the fragrance of flowers decorating the streets and houses. Joyous, mellow notes of zurlas joined wailing skirls of gaidas and the steady beat of sticks against tupans. Music vibrated through the air, drowning the clamor of the multitudes.

Combine the music with the lively dance, and get swept away to another place and time. Listen to the following to get a sense of what you might have heard had you been there.

Folk music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTmF2aCEJrY

Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_gm0j1H1kc

Gaida: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jccGfGBkky4

Kaval: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMpxFGUDgDI

Outi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZgSj7ko9do

Interesting Facts about Bulgaria

October 29, 2014

While researching Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey, I came across some interesting tidbits of information about Bulgaria and its inhabitants. They made me say, “What? No way.” Some of these are incorporated into the story; others may be used in future novels as the journey continues.

The Cyrillic alphabet was invented by two Bulgarian monks. Bulgarians are proud of this fact, and get quite annoyed with the rest of the world for attributing the alphabet to Russians.

First electronic digital computer was invented by a Bulgarian-American. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYup. Those devices we can’t live without today started with John Atanasoff in the 1930s. Although Atanasoff was American-born, his father emigrated to Aerica from Bulgaria.

Bulgarians created yogurt. Truly, they did. Way back in the time of the Thracians. I kid you not. You can find more than three hundred varieties in the country, and many popular dishes are made with yogurt.

Shaking one’s head in Bulgaria means “yes,” while nodding signifies “no.” Think of the nightmares that can cause. I read an article recently by someone travelling in Bulgaria who was approached by a gypsy. When the boy held out his hand for money, the man shook his head. This only encouraged the boy, who smiled eagerly. Believe me. It’s best not to tell a Bulgarian they have this backwards.

Bulgarians are more likely to celebrate their “name day” than their birthday. “Name day? What’s that?” you might ask. Originally, it was a feast day for a particular saint. So, anyone who had the same name, for example, “Maria” or “Mary,” would celebrate on August 15, the Assumption of Mary. Bulgarians have a lot of saints, so there is no shortage of days to celebrate name days. From what I could gather, way, way back, when people didn’t know what day they were born on (yup, I’m talking a long time ago), they took up this custom of celebrating the feast of the saints since they DID know their own names. So why not have a little fun to mark each passing year?

Bagpipes are played by Bulgarians. Nope, it’s not only done in the United Kingdom. The Bulgarian version is called a gaida.

Famous people with Bulgarian association: Mark Zuckerbuerg, creator of Facebook – his grandfather emigrated from Bulgaria in 1940. Tom Hanks, well-known actor – is married to a Bulgarian. Nina Dobrev, actress on “The Vampire Diaries” – is a Bulgarian.

Those are a few of the things I learned about a country most Americans aren’t really even sure where it can be found. If you want to find out more about these people, their culture, and their beliefs, take a look at Mystical Emona. I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I did.

Mystical Emona was highlighted on October 9 at Boston University during an event called “Bulgarian Voices: Love, Light and Rituals.” It is also available on Amazon US and UK. In addition, we are working on a non-fiction book that will describe many of these Bulgarian customs and others in more detail, as well as their Thracian origins. Look for it in December.