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

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

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

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

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 The first historical reference to them was in Homer’s Iliad, where it was mentioned that they were allies to the Trojans.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing Flowers, Midnight Magic, and Mystical Dancers

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

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

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

Rusalii – Dancing for Health

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

Who or what are the Rusalii?

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

Rusalii

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

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

Midnight Magic

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

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

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

Magical Healing Night

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

 

Bulgarian Embroidery (Shevitza)

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

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

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

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

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

Embroidery1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embroidery2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

or

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

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

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

Roses, June’s Liquid Gold

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

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

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

IMG_4567

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that amazing?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Bulgarian Easter Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lamb-with-dock

Lamb with Dock

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

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

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

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

To prepare lamb with dock, you need:

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

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

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

Kukeri to Chase away Corona

The world’s gone crazy, it seems. These days, it’ll be a difficult task to repair the rift that divides our land. In times of old, people would call on the kukeri (or survakari) to chase away the evil spirits causing such discord. We’ve written about this group in the past on our blog, but this seems an appropriate time to resurrect the topic.

Kukeri
Bulgarian Kukeri. Masked men, who chase away evil spirits away, during the Bulgarian custom “Surva.”

Kukeri are fascinating, so much so that we’ve included them in our fiction and non-fiction books alike. But what are these beings? Are they human or creature?

In today’s culture, they’re merely men (with women becoming more involved as the years go by). In the past, however, they were something more. The participants had magical powers. They were Thracian warriors who dressed in animal skins in order to battle with evil spirits. If the kukeri won the contest, they’d frighten away the evil ones and capture their power. This power and right to perform the rituals were passed down from father to son in many villages.

The celebration occurs at different times in various parts of Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. It’s both a winter and a springtime festival to restore order and prosperity in the land. The kukeri celebration is one of the oldest surviving traditions that can be traced back to Dionysian rites, symbolizing life, death, and rebirth. Men initiated rituals when spirits threatened the Sun’s rebirth during the winter solstice.

Kukeri

The kukeri continued the practices into the spring, before the sowing of the harvest, when the earth was awakening after a long winter. The kukeri performed rituals to renew nature’s strength. They’d harness nature’s reviving energy so fields could become fertile. The men would demonstrate their own ability to produce offspring. The belief was that only men, who carried the seed of life in their bodies, had the ability to rouse and nurture the female Mother Earth.

Today, the celebration is mostly for fun. It’s festive, noisy, and somewhat frightful. The kukeri dress in furry costumes like wild animals and wear colorful, wooden masks with scary faces, mostly of rams, goats, or bulls. The participants parade through the village; they jump and yell, perform skits about plowing and sowing seeds, and pantomime political and other popular figures. As they move in special rhythmic steps, giant bells around their waists clang loudly.

You can see some of the various costumes the kukeri wear across Bulgaria in this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWIK0SfT4Mw.

Can their bells still work their charms in this day and age? A group in Bulgaria recently performed the dance to chase away the corona virus. You can read the full article here: https://bnr.bg/en/post/101404060/survakari-will-chase-away-the-coronavirus-in-villages-near-bulgarias-pernik.

Hope and Miracles

September is here. We’ve had many sunny days this summer where I live in Virginia, but now the sunrise is coming a little later each day, and the nights are getting cooler. I find myself thinking about what changes autumn will bring in this unusual year. I want summer to go on a little bit longer, so I can savor the sun, the sand, and the sea. I want to linger in that lazy feeling of endless summer.

My grandmother used to say that when there is an “R” in the name of the month, it means that it is one of the cold months. We will have to wait until May to enjoy the warm rays of the sun. Maybe this is normally true, but this September has been like a summer month, with temperatures 20 degrees above normal.

On September 14, Bulgarians and other Orthodox Christians celebrate the Day of the Cross. On this day, a special festive table is arranged and a strict fast is observed. The apples have ripened, the grapes are plump and sweet, and the harvest has begun. However, it is forbidden to eat red foods such as apples, peppers, tomatoes, and others as an expression of respect for the cross on which Jesus shed His blood to save mankind.

The oldest woman in the house prepares ritual bread, called Cross Pitka (round homemade bread) for the holiday. She shapes a large cross on the bread before she bakes it. Its ingredients include half a kilogram of flour, half a teaspoon of honey, half a teaspoon of baking soda, half a tablespoon of vinegar, and water for kneading. According to tradition, you have to sift the flour three times before kneading the dough. The ritual bread is broken when the whole family gathers around the table. The bread will rise only a little while it’s baking, so you should eat it while it’s warm. Once it cools, it’ll become hard.

The Day of the Cross is considered the day on which autumn begins. Therefore, typical autumn foods like grapes (any but red ones) and tikvenik (a pumpkin banitsa) must be present at the table. (You can find a recipe and more info about tikvenik here.)

After families pluck the first grapes of the season, they bring them to the church, so the priest can consecrate the fruit. It’s also customary on this day for people to give each other grapes, so the next year will be bountiful.

On the Day of the Cross, thousands of pilgrims go to churches, monasteries, and other holy places to pray for health, forgiveness, and miraculous cures. One of these places of hope is the Cross Forest, located in the beautiful area in the Middle Rhodope Mountains. This was the birth place of Orpheus, the famous musician from ancient mythology. One of the most magical places in Bulgaria, Cross Forest gives you a sense you’re touching the mystery of nature.

The Forest of the Cross is said to be filled with unexplained, extraordinary power that can cure any sickness. The magical powers are at their peak on the evening of September 13, the night before the Day of the Cross. People believe the heavens will open, and Jesus will descend to Earth to grant the wishes and cure the illnesses of those who offer prayers with true faith. Many stories tell how people with cancer and other incurable diseases miraculously found a cure. They say the water cures skin diseases and helps women conceive.

Unfortunately, I’ve never visited the place myself, but my grandmother told me many interesting stories. According to legends, part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified is hidden in this place, but no one knows its exact location. Monks hid it after Turks attacked and burned the monastery.

People also believe the extraordinary healing energy of Cross Forest comes from an ancient sanctuary to Dionysius, which is said to be hidden somewhere in the forest. But the Rhodope Mountains keep their secrets.

Miracles happen there, but people must have faith. Magic or not, in these challenging days, we all need to find our own Cross Forest. We need strong faith and believe in something to keep us going, so we can stay positive as we search for cures, happiness, and personal fulfillment.

Pick up a copy of The Wanderer – A Tear and A Smile: Reflections of an Immigrant for more insight into Bulgarian faith.

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.”

Herbal Remedies for Health

NOTE: The following information is not meant to be taken as a cure for any illnesses. If you’re sick, always contact your health-care professional. The information that follows is common folk medicine, which people have used from generation to generation.

In these times when people across the globe are stressed and anxious about the future, it’s important to maintain and strengthen our immune system. Look around your kitchen and you’re certain to find products that are beneficial to your health: fresh vegetables, fruits, spices. The kitchen, the garden, the meadows are gifts that are good for our health.

Every culture and every household have beliefs and recipes passed down from generation to generation. A number of herbs and products in Bulgarian folklore are believed to help us achieve this. Here are some of my favorites, plus a couple of tasty recipes with simple ingredients you can easily find.

Ingredients for Healthy Living. Photo by Nelinda.

Honey

Bulgarians honor bees and in the summer, on July 8, pay tribute to their patron, Saint Procipius, or Prokopia the Beekeeper. On this day, early in the morning, people who raise bees go to the hives to remove the first honey of the year. They burn incense, allowing the smoke to enter the hives. The beekeepers bring two pitkas (ritual bread) to the hives – one for God and one for the saint. They take the honey and the bread to the church, where the priest consecrates them with a special prayer. The beekeepers then spread the honey on the bread and give them to neighbors to ensure the health of both the family and the bees, so the bees will produce even more honey. The rest of the consecrated honey is used as a remedy for mumps, measles, and other illnesses throughout the year.

Honey is a delicious immune-stimulator! It’s rich in many vitamins, including B and C, and has iron, calcium, zinc, and more. Honey acts as an antioxidant, much like fruits and vegetables. Using it regularly will stimulate your body’s organs, helping to improve your physical and mental state.

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm. Photo by Nelinda

The herb is native to the mountainous regions of Southern Europe, but you can buy it in the spring at Home Depot and other chains or local flower nurseries. The leaves of the lemon balm are well-known in Bulgaria and used in herbal teas. I have a few plants in my garden because its lemon smell keeps away mosquitoes and other insects.

Ever since ancient times, it’s been used to cure diseases resulting from the nervous system. The plant has a calming effect, it stimulates appetite and digestion, and suppresses nausea and vomiting. In folk medicine, the leaves are used to treat high blood pressure, dizziness, headache, vision problems, and tinnitus. Gargling with water infused with lemon balm also gets rid of bad breath.

Yogurt

Yogurt is an integral part of many Bulgarian meals. It’s served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I was a child, my grandmother used to make yogurt with jam and call it “ice cream.” It was a much healthier option than regular ice cream.

It’s good for the digestive system, bones, and teeth, but it also helps strengthen the immune system, fighting disease and helping the body resistant to infection.

Walnuts

Walnuts are rich in vitamin B, vitamin E, fiber, magnesium, iron, and mineral salts. They are also high in calories, so limit them to no more than 42 grams a day. Even walnut leaves are a natural remedy, often used in tea to help prevent atherosclerosis, goiter, and skin problems such as eczema.

Nettle

Nettle is also a gift from nature that appears in the spring. If you pick it yourself, make sure to wear gloves, because nettle is not a friendly plant; it “bites.” My grandmother used to say that if you pick up nettle with your bare hands, it’ll prevent you from getting arthritis, but I never tried this. You don’t have to go and look for it in fields, though, because you can buy dried nettle online or in your local farmer’s market. You can drink it as a tea or add it to soup. I like to add fresh nettle to cream soup.

Recipes

Honey-walnut elixir

Combining walnuts with honey creates an elixir that boosts the immune system, and fights colds, exhaustion, and anemia. The elixir is suitable for children, because it naturally increases the body’s defenses.

You’ll need medium-sized jar, about 24 oz. like the ones used to make jam. Cut a handful of nuts into small pieces. Then peel a medium-sized lemon and cut the fruit into small pieces. Add the nuts and lemon to a half jar of natural honey. Stir the mixture well.

Take 2 or 3 tablespoons once a day.

Tip: Don’t throw away a used lemon after the juice has been squeezed out. You can use it to clean your cutting boards. If you add a little baking soda inside the peel, you can use it to clean pots. It works like magic. I even like to massage my hands with lemon peels and yogurt. It makes them soft and cleans the germs naturally.

 

Dessert

Here is one of my favorite desserts using yogurt, walnuts, and honey. If you don’t like walnuts you can omit them.

400 g yogurt

4 Tablespoons honey

50 g walnuts (or other nuts)

Divide yogurt into individual bowls, one per person. Pour honey over it. Sprinkle with the chopped nuts.

Tip: You can bake the nuts for about 5 minutes in a preheated 220 degrees C (about 430 F) oven and then crush them and sprinkle them with milk. The dessert works well if you replace plain yogurt with strained yogurt. It’s best to look at the label and make sure it has Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria in it. You can substitute honey with liquid chocolate or your favorite sweet.