The Healing Power of a Traditional Bulgarian Spice

Tomorrow will be 20 years since the tragedy of 9/11. It’s hard to believe that a new generation has made their way to adulthood since the horrific day. This is a solemn time in our country, a time to honor the lives of the thousands of people lost in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania to terrorism. I still remember the disbelief I felt when a co-worker told me the news. I was certain he was playing a terrible joke. Nelly, too, was horrified and shocked at the news like the rest of the nation. She was working the night shift at Middlesex College. For me, that autumn holds an even more personal tragedy. My mother suffered a stroke and died the following month. The pain of her loss remains with me even today. My wish is that the nation can put aside its differences on September 11 and honor those who died on that day, and remember that we all suffer and want to keep our nation safe. I wish that the herbs you’ll read about below could heal our nation of its great divide.

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The aroma of freshly baked bread and “sharena sol” (colorful salt) always transports me to my childhood. Using it on Bulgarian cuisine is an irresistible tradition. The taste of oregano, savory, fenugreek. The aroma of freshly picked organic herbs from my baba’s garden. This is how I describe this authentic Bulgarian spice.

What Is “Sharena Sol”?

Colorful salt is a spice that contains several herbs. Our grandmothers and mother have known the power of herbs and have planted them in gardens to use in everyday life.

Let’s look at the individual herbs in the spice and what their health qualities are.

None of what follows is medical advice. Always consult your physician or health advisor prior to using any herbs in your diet.

Herbs

Savory

Garden savory has a fragrant, pleasant, spicy aroma. The main health benefits of savory are for the digestive system. This herb not only helps digestion, but it also prevents gases from forming. Years ago, a healer taught me a recipe for helping to cure canker sores in the mouth. Take one spoonful of honey mixed with a pinch of savory, chew for a minute, and spit it out. Don’t drink water for about five min. It works miracles.

Fenugreek

Fenugreek stimulates the generation of estrogen, helps lowers cholesterol, and improves the microcirculation of blood. All this makes fenugreek a great herb not only for your health, but for supporting feminine beauty. It’s believed to reduce the risk of heart attack.

The Miracle Thyme

Thyme is one of my favorite herbs. My grandmother gathered it every year from a pristine sunny location in the mountains. It was one of the main herbs in her kitchen. It’s not only aromatic, but also a useful herb in folk medicine. Tea made from thyme is believed to ease symptoms for people suffering from respiratory infections, obesity, menstrual cramps, insomnia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, upset stomach, and constipation. If you have a cold or the flu, consider drinking a cup of hot tea made from thyme and sweetened with honey. This is a great way to strengthen the respiratory system to deal with colds. If you have a high fever, it will promote sweating to help your body cool off.

Tea from thyme is particularly good as an expectorant, to help clear lungs and respiratory tract from accumulated secretions and mucus. It’s also praised as a tea that helps with weight loss because it can suppress your appetite, while still stimulating energy and providing nutritional substances, which prevent overeating and snacking. Also the compounds in this tea can improve metabolism, which helps you burn fat quicker to lose weight.

Some people use thyme as a remedy against heartburn. And, not least of all, it helps strengthens your immune system. I’m sure this alone will get this herb added to your favorite list.

Recipe to Ease Heartburn

Pour three teacups full of boiling water over three or four teaspoons of thyme stalks and leave for 3 to 4 hours. Boil the mixture again for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the stove, strain, divide into three parts, and drink three times a day before meals.

Oregano

Folk medicine healers (znahari) say that oregano is an excellent antioxidant which has a powerful reinforcing effect on the immune system. I read somewhere that it has twelve times the antioxidant capacity of oranges and is forty-two times that of apples. Oregano also has antiseptic and soothing properties. It’s used for soothing coughs, severe colds, influenza, bronchitis, and asthma. It’s also used to relieve constipation and stomach and intestinal cramps, liver and bile diseases. Because it has a calming effect on the central nervous system, people have used it to ease nervous excitement, insomnia, and headaches. My grandmother combined oregano, honey, and ground egg shells to ease bronchitis, asthma, and coughs.

Pumpkin Seeds

Many cultures use pumpkin seeds for their nutritional value. They are used in folk medicine to treat urinary tract and bladder infections, high blood pressure, blood sugar, and kidney stones. Raw seeds are used to remove parasites like worms.

I’m sure some of you sprinkle them on salads. Modern science confirms that pumpkin seeds have nutrients beneficial to your health. They are a good source of zinc which helps the body fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Zinc also helps to protect the lining in our digestive tract. Pumpkin seeds contain vitamin E which is a powerful antioxidant, essential to protect our body. They’re rich source of protein, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, including cancer. When you buy a pumpkin to cook a pie, don’t throw the seeds away. Clean and bake them. You can also buy them from a grocery store.

How to Make Sherana Sol at Home

In different regions of Bulgaria, ingredients vary. The recipes are transmitted from generation to generation, with each person modifying it to their own taste.

I don’t use pumpkin seeds in my recipe, but if you want, you can bake some, grind them, and add to the other spices in the mix.

  • 1 Tablespoon spoon salt (sea salt or your favorite salt)
  • 2 Tablespoons sweet red pepper (paprika)
  • 1 teaspoon lightly roasted (and finely milled) dry sweet pepper seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon ground fenugreek
  • 1 teaspoon powdered thyme
  • 1 Tablespoon powdered savory

Mix all ingredients into a uniform mixture and place in a glass jar. In Bulgaria it’s placed in a special shallow clay dish as shown in the picture.

Sharena Sol

Nothing is tastier than a simple meal of warm, homemade bread with butter and fragrant sharena sol. You can also sprinkle it on a toast with butter. Think of it like garlic bread, but this is even better. I also use the spice on feta cheese.

I hope you can find the ingredients in your garden or in the store and try the taste of Bulgaria with this easy-to-make spice filled with so many powerful herbs. You can make the recipe without salt if you want to use it on feta cheese or other salty food.

If you enjoy herb lore and want to learn more about herbs used in Bulgarian folklore and folk medicine, keep an eye out for our new book about the 77 1/2 herbs of Midsummer’s Day. We hope to publish it early in 2022.

Sources:

https://novinibg.net/rigan-za-kakvo-pomaga-tazi-bilka-e-istinsko-sakrovishte/

https://medpedia.framar.bg

https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-pumpkin-seeds#1

https://www.lifefood.eu/eu_en/blog-how-to-protect-yourself-from-coronavirus-with-these-5-superfoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing Flowers, Midnight Magic, and Mystical Dancers

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

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

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

Rusalii – Dancing for Health

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

Who or what are the Rusalii?

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

Rusalii

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

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

Midnight Magic

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

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

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

Magical Healing Night

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

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

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

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

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

 

Summer Reading – A Magical, Cultural Trip to Bulgaria

Learning about your heritage and preserving your traditions in your own family is a great way to teach your children about the family’s cultural and religious history and to add to their personal identity. Observing, preserving, and creating new traditions are ways of honoring your ancestors and also welcoming new members in.

This is the reason a few years ago I started writing books inspired by Bulgarian mythology and folklore, and tales learned from my grandparents in Bulgaria. What better way for the whole family to read, do activities and learn more about their heritage, or learn about another culture?

My Dragon Village series is not an exception. It’s inspired by the mythological village called Zmeykovo (Dragon Village) where all mystical creatures live. It’s a perfect summer read. As soon as book one was published, it became an Amazon #1 New Release in Children’s Multicultural Literature. In book two, readers will meet new exciting creatures and learn more legends while taking a journey of a lifetime. Book three will be available later this year.

I didn’t forget about summer reading for parents. My novel Mystical Emona, set in Bulgaria, is an inspiring story about love. It takes place in Emona, a small village on the coast of the Black Sea. It’s a place where wild horses have roamed the land since of the time of King Rez and the Thracians. In the novel, Stefan is a widowed artist from Boston, Mass, with a young daughter. He hopes moving to a secluded village on the Black Sea coast will ease his pain, and the wild, untamed beauty of this surrounding will inspire him to take up his art once again. He meets a mysterious woman and his life changes. He is drawn to her by some unknown bond, but cannot give his heart to her fully because his memories refuse to release their hold on him. Then the dreams begin. Some delightful. Others terrifying.

Bulgarian culture is rich in folklore and traditions surviving since the days of the ancient Thracians. As pagan and Christian religions collided, many celebrations merged into one. Light Love Rituals will take you on a journey to discover these unique festivals.

Light Love Rituals not only describes the rituals, but also makes them interesting and understandable to people of all ages. The book is divided into four seasons, beginning with winter. It includes activities where you can learn how to make martenitsi, survachka, and Easter eggs dyed with natural colors.

A short quiz after each season lets you test your knowledge of what you’ve read. To help you engage in the traditions in the book, you’ll meet Maria and her family. They’ll open the doors of their home so you can participate in these celebrations along with them. For an added taste of Bulgaria, try some of the traditional recipes at the end.

Everyone loves food. It brings friends and family together around the table. Even during the pandemic, cooking and family have become more important.  I grow up in Bulgaria and let me tell you, no finer tradition exists than making Bulgarian cuisine, which is as rich as the soul of the people. The meals, like the colors woven into the nation’s rugs, represent the hospitality and rich spirituality of its people. From the mystical Rhodope Mountains, the birthplace of Orpheus, to the Thracian Valley, known for its roses, whether the dishes are light or hearty, they will always be savory. Learn about the queen of the Bulgarian cuisine “banitsa.” Traditionally, lucky charms are put into the pastry on certain occasions, particularly on New Year’s Eve. These charms may be coins or small symbolic objects (e.g., a small piece of a dogwood branch with a bud, symbolizing health or longevity). More recently, people have started writing happy wishes on small pieces of paper and wrapping them in tin foil. Wishes may include happiness, health, or success throughout the New Year.

Happy reading and enjoy your summer fun!

You can discover all of our books here and the various retailers who sell them: Ronesa’s Books.

Dragon Slayers Trivia

May 6 was St. George’s Day for Bulgarians (April 23 for some other nationalities). If you’re like most people, the first thing you’ll think about when you hear that name is that he slew dragons, since that’s how he’s often portrayed in art. Like many other dragon slayers, St. George saves maidens from the beast. But did you know these heroes have additional reasons for defeating dragons?

St. George Killing a Dragon

 

Dragons steal more than maidens. Some (such as Lamia and Hala) steal water and fertility itself from the land. Heroes fight with these dragons to force them to release the water to restore fertility and natural order to the land.

Some of these dragon slayers have amusing names, like Little Rolling Pea, who derives his name from the manner in which he was conceived:

“There was a husband and wife. The wife went for water, took a bucket, and after drawing water, went home, and all at once she saw a pea rolling along. She thought to herself: ‘This is the gift of God.’ She took it up and ate it, and in course of time became the mother of a baby boy, who grew not by years, but by hours, like millet dough when leavened.”

Like Little Rolling Pea, these heroes have supernatural qualities, growing to adulthood faster than normal being one of the things that identifies them as future heroes. Great strength and cunningness are other characteristics.

Dragon slayers can’t take full credit for their heroic deeds, however. They are often assisted by a variety of animals. In some stories, the hero comes across an animal in trouble, and he helps out. In return, the animal performs tasks that enable the hero to defeat his dragon foe. At other times, people the hero meets along the way provide him with magical objects to help him defeat the dragon or escape from it.

Or they may help the hero reach his destination. Dragons live in faraway places, called “the other world” (among others), which is a name for the land of the dead. And, in order to be able to access and return from this place, the hero must have special knowledge or use his magical gifts.

Not least of all, the hero also often has a heroic horse to aid him in his battle. These horses can speak, and they offer their wisdom. The horses also prove worthy in battles.

You can learn more about dragon slayers in our book A Study of Dragons of Eastern Europe. We’ve also published a book of Dragon Tales from Eastern Europe.

The Beauty and Power of Woman

I’m sure many of you have seen the painting of a beautiful mermaid combing her hair with a dreamy look on her face. Mermaids have fascinated artists and writers for centuries. John William Waterhouse is no exception.

rusalka

Mythology and tales have had a great impact on his work. He was a renowned and notable English painter and draftsman. His paintings were characterized by an intense appreciation of natural light and setting, and a deep inspiration from bold, strong, and beautiful female figures.

He had an eye for natural beauty and beautiful female figures. He painted several portraits of some of the era’s most famous women. One of my personal favorites is his fascinating portrayal of Cleopatra, a woman of mystery in the Western imagination. It’s never been completely agreed upon whether Cleopatra was more alluring due to her beauty or her brilliance. Waterhouse has managed to intertwine the two traits. He depicts a woman of great intensity and power, and one of intelligence and sexuality.

Cleopatra

Looking at his paintings it’s difficult for me to describe the Waterhouse women, but they all have something in common. They all are the same model, a woman called Muriel Foster.

I see each of them as a morning rose ready to blossom. Each one is innocent and perfect, but at the same time, bewitching the viewer. They are calm, but strong, contemplative, and proud. In their countenances, you can see they dream of love and deserve to be adored and cherished like a fragile flower.

composite images

Waterhouse created around 200 paintings during his life. Some of his most famous and widely applauded works include “The Lady of Shallot,” “Ophelia,” “The Enchanted Garden,” “A Naiad,” “Consulting the Oracle,” and “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May,” among many others.

It’s a testament to the work of Waterhouse that the Royal Academy displayed his last work, “The Enchanted Garden,” upon his death, even though it was never finished.

You can find some of Waterhouse’s works in our Redbubble store, as well mythological themes from other great painters. Please stop by and visit: https://www.redbubble.com/people/ronesaaveela/shop

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.

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.

 

Thunder and Lightning, Very, Very Frightening

When I was younger, I loved to sit on the porch during a summer thunderstorm, hearing the rain pound on the roof and watch the lightning spit across the sky. This was especially enjoyable right after a steamy day, as the rain brought with it a cool breeze.

Long ago in Bulgaria, thunder and lightning once were thought to represent dragons fighting in the sky. Zmey (the good male dragon) would fight against Hala or Lamia (both bad female dragons). Lamia would stop the water from flowing and bring drought, while Hala would bring hail that destroyed the crops. She was also known to steal the fertility of the land. She’d carry it from one place to another in her huge ears. Wherever she dropped her stolen goods, the land would prosper.

The lightning was the Zmey’s fiery arrows, and the thunder was him crashing against his enemies. Often, his weapons fell to the ground, embedding deep into the soil and turning to stone. Anyone who found one of these magical arrows would grind it into power and add water to it to cure wounds.

Example of a stone-age arrowhead, which was believed to be a dragon’s weapon.
$1LENCE D00600D at English Wikipedia

Among other Slavic nations, thunder and lightning were thought to be caused by the god Perun. Under Christianity, Perun became St. Iliya (St. Elijah), the thunder-wielder, whose saint day is celebrated August 2. Thunder was caused by his chariot wheels rolling across the sky as he battled demons and dragons. St. Iliya was even known to elicit the help of good Zmeys to fight against destructive dragons.

The old people say that thunder is a sign that there will be a bountiful harvest in the Fall. Since there are no thunderstorms in winter, St. Elijah makes sinners build cities out of snow.

Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire

People believed the saint ruled over the summer clouds. As he flew over the sky, he collected them and locked them in the Black Sea. When the soil needed nourishment, he unlocked the clouds, sending dew and gentle rains across the land. At times, however, the saint became ill and was unable to perform his duties. The land suffered drought until he was well enough to once again bring the life-saving rain.

Thunderstorms, however, brought devastating rains. A couple of ways people tried to stop a thunderstorm from happening would be to light an Easter candle and kneel before it, or stick an axe handle in the middle of the yard and pour a handful of salt over it.

More information about dragons and dragon slayers will be available in our book about dragons, available around November 2020.