Magical Herbs of Love in Bulgarian Folklore

Disclaimer: The information in the article is not a recommendation for treatment, but to acquaint you with interesting old customs and historical facts. You should always consult a medical professional before undertaking any herbal remedies.

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Happy New Year! We wish everyone luck, health, and love. We look forward to what the new year will bring even though we don’t know what is in store for us during the days that follow.

In Bulgarian folklore, on December 24, families start the process of forecasting the future with their ritual bread. Inside it are hidden lucky charms – messages for health, love, and success – normally wrapped in foil. Everyone in the household hopes to get one and secure their fortune for the entire year.

In the past, in addition to such rituals and traditions, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew the power of each herb and how to keep their home healthy and happy. They used herbs and flowers to cast love spells. And love itself is magic.

In Bulgarian myths and legends, you can find this magic by using herbs. Herbal rituals could fill many books, but with Valentine’s Day swiftly approaching, I’ve selected a few to help you learn how you can use them to attract love into your life and how to keep it.

Herbs for love

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Based on Bulgarian folklore, if you sprinkle your partner with powdered basil while he or she sleeps, the person won’t cheat. I prefer to use basil for my watermelon and feta cheese salad, but you’re welcome to try this ritual for a little love magic.

Common ivy, English ivy (Hedera helix)

If you know someone who’s getting married, give the bride a branch of ivy. It’s supposed to bring her happiness in marriage.

Mistletoe (Viscum album)

Oh, Mistletoe… I have one in my yard. I never knew how powerful the plant is. Do you know why you need to kiss under the Mistletoe?

Shakespeare calls it ‘the baleful Mistletoe,’ an allusion to the Scandinavian legend that Balder, the god of Peace, was slain with an arrow made of Mistletoe. He was restored to life at the request of the other gods and goddesses, and Mistletoe was afterwards given into the keeping of the goddess of Love, and it was ordained that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss, to show that the branch had become an emblem of love, and not of hate (from: Botanical.com. “Mistletoe”).

In Bulgarian folklore, mistletoe is a sacred and magical herb. In winter, the bushes remain green and fresh on top of the tree host, reminiscent of spring and new birth. If a girl hangs a branch of mistletoe hangs over her bed in the winter, she’ll meet or marry her lover during the year.

Maybe give this one a try if there’s someone you long to be with and see if this ritual works. It’s harmless enough.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

If you worry too much about a loved one who’ll be away on a long business trip, place dandelion flowers and seeds into his pockets or luggage. He won’t even think about infidelity. Dill seeds have the same effect.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

“Samodivi,” Bulgarian woodland nymphs, rub their arrows with valerian, so that whomever they catch or wound immediately hates a woman or lover for life. The woodland nymphs wanted the men to love them instead.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

If you burn a pinch of ginger in your home, the relationship between you and your partner will improve.

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

If a woman washes her face and hands with a decoction of dill seeds, her partner’s love for her will increase.

Melilot (Melilotus officinalis)

Many songs and folklore tales mention this plant. It helps protect girls from being abducted by the dragon zmey. In Bulgarian folkore, the herb is also used to separate lovers as well as saving someone from zmey’s love.

Lentil (Lens culinaris or Lens esculenta)

In Bulgarian folklore, lentil is used in magic love potions. To do this, you’ll need to collect one lentil from forty different shops. After boiling them, knead them into bread while saying, “As I tried to collect 40 grains from 40 shops, so should my husband work so hard for me and love me forever.” Then, when the bread it done, give it to your spouse to eat (from Lilia Stavreva’s Български магии и гадания [Bulgarian Magic and Foretelling], p. 209).

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Beloved calming Lemon Balm. Besides its great aroma, this herb has a calming effect. Give your love tea made with it to calm them and also nourish their love.

Yellow Avens or Common Avens (Geum)

This herb is called an “old herb” (staro bile), probably because it is as old as its love magic. It will not only help you find the love of your life, it’s also used to keep away bad spirits and help you lose weight and get in shape. Stories tell how once pierced yellow avens with his arrows, and then gave it to the fairies so they could enchant and ruin the lives of more than one lover.

If you wear the herb, it will enchant everyone around you. That sounds like the movie “Love Potion No. 9” with Sandra Bullock.

Iris (Iris germanica)

The iris is a magical flower. Whoever takes a bunch of irises and puts them on his belt or hat, his soul will forever remain with the one who wears it.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)

Wormwood is another herb used to separate lovers. A girl who doesn’t want to marry an old bachelor picks up “bitter wormwood” in a dewy meadow and rubs her face it it so that the man will not like her.

An Old Love Charm

On St. Luke’s Day, take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme, and a little Wormwood; dry them before a fire, rub them to powder; then sift it through a fine piece of lawn, and simmer it over a slow fire, adding a small quantity of virgin honey and vinegar. Anoint yourself with this when you go to bed, saying the following lines three times, and you will dream of your partner “that is to be”:

“St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,

In dreams let me my true-love see.”

(From Botanical.com, “Wormwoods”).

European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum)

Wild ginger evokes a feeling of love. People use this magic grass to cast spells to unite two young people.

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I hope this information helps you spice up your holiday on Valentine’s Day. As you can see, your love life can be improved just by going to your pantry. Many of the spices and herbs in your spice rack can make both your kitchen and your relationship magic. It’s as easy as pie if you know the power of herbs and seasonings. Our mothers and grandmothers understood the power of herb and used them in everyday life for love, health, and great meals, uniting everyone in the kitchen and around the heart.

Herbs Cover

I’m working on a new book about the 77 1/2 healing herbs from Bulgarian folklore. It includes information like the above, as well as recipes from Baba Vanga and other famous, trusted healers, as well as more interesting facts about herbs.

Sign up for our newsletter for updates on this book and others.

 

Epiphany – St. Jordan’s Day

Jordan’s Day is celebrated on January 6.

The old Bulgarians believed that at midnight the rivers stopped flowing and their water became healing. On this day, the holy water from the church service was brought home, where the oldest woman sprinkled it for health. Also, people drank from the water for good health, and the rest was kept for healing throughout the year.

After returning from the church, people put an ax in the middle of the house, with the blade up, and they jumped over to stop diseases.

Divination and magical rituals are also performed on this day.

The leaves of the ivy are used to foretell health. In the evening before the holiday, ivy leaves are strung on a thread, one leaf for each member of the family, and the leaves are left to spend the night outdoors under the moon.

People believe that at night the sky opens, Saint Elijah rides out on a horse, and puts a sign on each leaf. A leaf without a stain means good health!

Be alive and healthy, and happy name day to everyone named after Saint Jordan!

A Magical Wand

The year 2021 is coming to a close. After the world-shaking events of 2020, many people hoped that 2021 would be better. For some, it may have, but for many, the trials afflicting the word continued on. But still, each new year brings hope, as if somehow the turning of the calendar to a new year will wipe away all the bad that preceded it.

We don’t have a magical wand that will do that, unfortunately. But, we’d like to share with you a Bulgarian custom performed with the hope of bringing recipients good health, happiness, and wealth for the coming year: Survaki.

In Bulgaria, Christmas was forbidden. For more than forty-five years, Bulgaria was a Communist country, so it was inappropriate to celebrate religious holidays. Christmas day, like any other religious holiday in Bulgaria, was a working day. New Year’s was the New Christmas or Koleda. Even though everyone could celebrate New Year’s openly, most people, including my family and grandparents, would secretly perform the old Christmas traditions on that day.

We didn’t have Santa Claus, but the identical Russian version called “Dad Moroz.” He was a friendly looking old man with a long, white beard and a red suit. He gave presents to the children, but he didn’t come down the chimney. He entered through the front door and met us in person. Most importantly, we received gifts on the evening of December 31 instead of on December 25.

Each year, I waited to get a doll I wanted to have for a long, long time, or a blouse I’d been looking at through a window shop for months. The presents were so meaningful to me that I was afraid to play with the doll. Sometimes, I kept it in the box for months. I’m sure my mother still has some of my dolls in her memory boxes. Even an orange was a great gift. New Year’s celebrations were the only time people had the chance to taste what was then considered exotic fruits: bananas, oranges, tangerines, and others. These were impossible to find during the rest of the year.

The new year was a time of remembrance. And what better way to remember than through food and smells. Even though Bulgaria is a small country, its cuisine is diverse. The meals, like the colors woven into the nation’s rugs, represent the hospitality and rich spirituality of its people. The food gathers people around the table where the many generations can talk and connect. Even my grandmother’s cats waited quietly near the stove for a taste of the special holiday bread.

I learned most of the rituals, cooking, and traditions from my grandmother. Some I only observed, while others I helped her perform and prepare. Before dinner, she purified the house and bread with smoke from incense burning on hot coals. I walked behind her, wanting to carry the metal container holding the embers.

Once everything was ready, we sat around the table to eat and talk. On New Year’s, the dinner table was similar to how the Christmas (Koleda) table would have been set. It held the traditional ritual bread with fortunes. We didn’t have a fireplace in my grandmother’s house, but she cooked and baked bread on a wood stove. Instead of only the customary vegetarian meals we’d normally have at Christmas, the New Year’s table contained a variety of traditional meals including meat. My mother and grandmother prepared delicious dried red peppers filled with rice, spices, and sometimes boiled, crushed beans.

Even though it was forbidden for Bulgarians, Christmas was, and is, an important holiday. In the past, it reflected the beginning of the winter holidays. The harvest had been picked, the wine bottled, and the grain milled. Everyone was ready to rest and celebrate a quiet holiday. On Christmas Eve, the family gathers around a special table and also respects the deceased predecessors of the home. It’s a night full of magic and love.

Some of these traditions are preserved and practiced here (abroad) among our Bulgarian community. Families and friends gather to celebrate with meatless dishes and the famous soda bread (pitka) with lucky fortunes and a coin baked inside. Everyone prepares what they’ve learned from their grandmother, mother, or from information and recipes on the Internet. It’s a world without borders, and we have access to all kinds of information to make our celebration unique for us. On Christmas, we also drink a homemade brandy called rakia.

Whoever fails to find the lucky coin has a second chance on New Year’s Eve when a special pastry called banitsa is made. The hostess puts fortunes in the banitsa and makes sure each guest gets a piece with one. What is a banitsa? It’s the queen of the Bulgarian cuisine and among other societies. It’s an egg-and-cheese-filled pastry made from filo dough.

Nowadays, we make the traditions special by sharing with our neighbors. In return, they share specialties from their ancestry. Our Greek neighbor’s baklava is famous in the neighborhood. She also makes a spinakopita (a Greek banitsa), which I admit is quite tasty. We also know an Italian family who prepares food for the whole street, plenty of wine and a variety of dishes.

The Italians also prepare and serve a special multi-course seafood dinner on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia). It’s a wonderful holiday mealtime tradition that originated in Southern Italy and is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. They make bread and have adopted our “fortune coin” tradition.

After the Christmas fever passes, we count the days to New Year’s: Survaki.

As we say in Bulgarian, “New year, new luck.” Since for most of my life, New Year’s was the New Christmas, I can’t watch a movie and eat Chinese takeout quietly at home. It’s still an important day for my family and friends. We usually gather in a friend’s house or in a lake cabin and prepare a variety of food in Bulgarian style. We cook and clean for two days, bake bread, and make banitsa with fortunes.

As the New Year rings in, our energy levels are high. We make a toast with sparkling champagne and dance the Danube horo, while we eagerly await the arrival of the Survakari. If you ask my children, I’m sure they’ll say this is a weird ritual. Survakane nowadays are the youngest members of the family, the children. We teach them how to sing and perform the ritual. They chant “Surva, Surva Godina” while patting every guest on the shoulder with a survachka for health and prosperity in the New Year. To make sure you receive their luck, you have to give money to the singers.

Koledari_book

On Survaki, people party and ring in the new year, but like many Bulgarian holidays, other rituals ensure good health, fertility, and wealth. The day is especially exciting for children. They participate in the fun-filled tradition of creating a survachka stick. They then travel from house to house with the survachka. When they arrive, they tap family and friends on the back with the stick to bestow blessings on them. They also tap livestock and domestic animals to ensure they remain healthy and fertile. In return, the children receive gifts from the family. At one time, participating in the ritual was a right of passage for boys into manhood.

In antiquity, Survaki was a time to move away from darkness toward light as days became longer. The festival gets its name from the Thracian god Sureget, also called Surgast, Suroter, or Surat, all meaning “glorious sun.” Many nations besides Thrace worshipped the Sun God. In India believers called him Surya (from the Aryans who conquered that nation), and the Thracian’s northern neighbors, the Scythians, called him Getosur.

The survachka branch itself has ancient origins. Made of cornel or dogwood, it was one of the sacred World Trees. People believed that by performing mystical rituals, they could transfer the branch’s magic to those who held it, giving them prosperity, health, and long life. Equipped with this power, they could communicate with heaven and the underworld, acting as mediators between this life and the next one.

Survachki are adorned with yarn, wool, popcorn, dried fruit, beads, and other small items. Each survachka is unique. I used to teach in the Bulgarian school years ago, and I demonstrated to kids how they can make them. It’s a fun activity to learn about your Bulgarian heritage. I call it a magic wand. The survachka has an ancient story. The stick held power to chase away evil spirits, which, during the winter solstice, could cross the threshold between the spirit world to the land of the living.

We don’t have dogwood here, so we improvise. If we find a fruit tree, that’s fine, but when no tree is appropriate, the idea is to continue the tradition of the magic wand. Making the survachka is an opportunity for old and young to be together and to create something they’ll remember and pass on to their children.

Cheers, “Nazdrave,” and a prosperous year! Fill your homes with health, children, and abundance.

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The above content is excerpts from Light Love Rituals and The Wanderer.

An Interview with Brendan Noble

Brendan NobleBrendan Noble is a Polish and German-American author currently writing fantasy inspired by Slavic mythology: The Frostmarked Chronicles. Through these books and his “Slavic Saturday” post series on YouTube and his website, he hopes to bring the often-forgotten stories of eastern Europe into new light.

Shortly after beginning his writing career in 2019 with the publication of his debut novel, The Fractured Prism (Book 1 of The Prism Files), Brendan married his wife Andrea and moved to Rockford, Illinois from his hometown in Michigan. Since then, he has published six full-length novels, including four in The Prism Files and two in The Frostmarked Chronicles, along with a novella for the latter series.

Brendan founded Eight-One-Five Publishing in 2021, wishing to inspire and help authors in the Rockford area write, publish, and distribute their works, regardless of socio-economic status.

Outside of writing, Brendan is a data analyst, soccer referee, and the vice-president of Rockford FC (Rockford’s semi-pro soccer club). His top interests include German, Polish, and American soccer/football, Formula 1, analyzing political elections across the world, playing extremely nerdy strategy video games, exploring with his wife, and reading.

About the Book

Title: A Dagger in the Winds and The Trials of Ascension (The Frostmarked Chronicles books 1 and 2)

Location: Fantasy realm inspired by Eastern Europe (particularly Poland)

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Audience: Upper YA

Time period: Fantasy realm inspired by time period around 500 – 800 CE

The Frostmarked Chronicles - Noble

Interview

Tell us a little about The Frostmarked Chronicles.

The Frostmarked Chronicles tell the tale of an outcast named Wacław and a witch named Otylia, two once-best friends who were torn apart against their wills as children. Combining Slavic mythology and epic fantasy, it explores what a fantasy realm would look like if Slavic gods, demons, and spirits roamed the world.

Quick description of A Dagger in the Winds:

An outcast cursed since birth. A witch chosen by a goddess. Torn apart by fate, together, can they save their tribe from eternal winter?

Rejected by his father and forced away from his best friend, Wacław is a dreamer who has never actually dreamed. Each night, his soul leaves his body, allowing him to wander invisibly until he wakes. He’d do anything to understand why—even give a blood offering to the goddess of winter and death.

But when a dark force soon rises within him, his only hope for answers is the one girl he’s forbidden to see: the witch Otylia.

Favored by the goddess of spring, there’s no one Otylia hates more than the winter goddess—except her once best friend Wacław. It’s been four years since she saved Wacław’s life using forbidden magic. Her thanks? Abandonment. She’s needed only the spring goddess since.

But when her goddess goes silent on the first day of spring and she discovers Wacław bearing the winter goddess’s mark, Otylia realizes the horrific truth: Winter will not end, and her lost friend is the key to uncovering why.

Embark on an epic journey through a world rooted in Slavic mythology and folklore that has powerful gods, menacing beasts, cursed forests, forbidden romance, and plenty of secrets to uncover.

What is your passion about this country? Why did you choose it for you setting?

Growing up as half Polish, I never realized some of our family traditions came from our Polish heritage. When my grandparents on my mother’s Polish side of the family died in recent years, though, I took an interest in my heritage. I dove into learning about Polish soccer/football and tried to learn more about its language and history, since so little of it is taught in the United States. That led me to Polish mythology (and Slavic mythology as a whole).

As someone who’d loved Greek myths in school, these new gods and demons were fascinating to me. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find about them in English, so I decided to compile as much on them as I could through my Slavic Series posts on my website and YouTube, sharing the cool stories with others. I’d also enjoyed the bits of the Witcher that had Slavic mythological inspiration. Nothing I saw, though, was like the Percy Jackson books I’d read as a kid. It was all loosely pulling from tales or implementing a few demons here or there. So, I decided to write my own epic fantasy with the gods and myths wrapped into a new world.

Is this the country you were born in? If not, have you ever lived there?

I am from the United States and have unfortunately not had the chance to visit Poland or Europe at all yet. Though, it is definitely on the top of the places I would like to visit once the pandemic has passed.

What will readers discover about this country when they read your book?

Despite The Frostmarked Chronicles being high fantasy, Wacław and Otylia’s Krowikie tribe is rooted in the Vistula Veneti and the successor tribes of the Dark Ages. Their tribal government, customs (like the Drowning of Marzanna), warfare, and conflicts with surrounding groups are inspired by real events, just in a new world. Throughout the series, readers will meet Slavic gods, encounter horrific demons and spirits, visit mythical realms, and delve into some of the themes of Slavic myths.

What other books have you written? 

My previous series is called The Prism Files. Based in the modern Twin Cities of Minnesota, the series examines an alternate history where the United States never became a republic. In the dystopian present, people are sorted into color-coded classes by the corrupt Prism Test, and through the four book series, a Red slave named Ivan must infiltrate the elites of the society to end the Prism. This one has no Slavic mythology, though the remnant American monarchy is inspired by the Russian one.

The Prism Files

What People Are Saying about The Frostmarked Chronicles …

“This is one hell of a journey, one hell of an epic adventure and once I picked this up I was so engrossed in the story the day just slipped on by! It’s so well written and the world building is so incredible that you can actually visualise yourself there as we follow our amazing characters on their journey.” – Goodreads review of A Dagger in the Winds

“I was so excited for this book and it did not disappoint. A Dagger in the Winds artfully weaves Slavic mythology into a story of feuding families, disgraced young people, and the hope of finding yourself. Both main and supporting characters are incredible and give hope that there is redemption for even the demons among them.” – Goodreads review of A Dagger in the Winds

“The world I found myself in, was so beautifully crafted, so many different aspects come to life, the underworld is unlike any I’ve read before, magnificent.” – Goodreads review of The Trials of Ascension

Connect with Brendan

Social Media: Website | Newsletter | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads | BookBub | YouTube |

Email: brendan@brendan-noble.com

Where to Buy: Amazon | Apple Books | B&N | Kobo | Books2Read |

Baba Yaga: Deity of Death or Regenerator of Life?

Back in March, we gave a brief overview of the infamous Baba Yaga, which you can read here to refresh your memory. But, this famous witch is more than a mere child-eating demon. If Hansel and Gretel had happened upon Baba Yaga in the forest, the witch might have taught them a thing or two about Slavic customs. She is a “baba,” after all, a wise, skillful old woman, who often performed the role of a midwife. Saving lives, not consuming them, she’d tell her honored guests.

First, she would let them know that by venturing into the forest, they had entered the in-between realm, the land of unconsciousness, the other side of life. It’s here that she guards the entrance to the “other world,” the world of the dead. It was once her role, long ago, to escort souls to the world beyond.

Baba Yaga and boy
Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And next, if they questioned her about her penchant for sticking children into the oven, she’d tell them it was an age-honored tradition in parts of Russian and elsewhere to perform a ritual on premature babies to make the infant strong and resilient. Just like you make dough rise by putting it into a warm oven, so you do the same with a baby born early.

“How so?” her guests would ask.

“Why,” she’d reply, “aren’t you a wonder. What do they teach children these days? All the smartest people know that you have to cover the baby with dough and place him on a bread shovel, which you place into the warm oven—warm, mind you, not scorching hot. We only want to plump up the little one so he completes his growth cycle. The oven is much like it’s mother’s womb and ensures the child becomes fully developed.”

“But how do you know when he’s done?” children ask with a tremor in their voices.

“Surely, you know when bread is done. By practice, you can tell. Same goes for the little one.”

The witch, with a gleam in her eye, goes on to tell them that the same can be done with older children who have become ill. The oven heat will burn away the disease and it escapes through the chimney. Then, lo and behold, the child becomes healthier. These ancient rites and traditions have served our ancestors well, she tells them, and it’s such a shame they are now forgotten.

“How are you feeling, dear children?” She approaches and touches their heated cheeks.

“Fine, just fine,” they say as they take cautious steps back to the doorway.

The woman they see before them may be ugly as sin. She may even have a snake’s tail. Once, long, long ago, before she had any resemblance to a person, she had the appearance of a frog. Her arms were twisted with claws at their tips. She was bent over and had long, dirty hair.

Baba Yaga in Her Mortar
Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is this Baba Yaga who is said to transform you through your death. Yes, you heard me right, your death. She not only burns away impurities such as diseases. She can also end your existence—but for the better. That part of you that dies is that which holds you back from becoming who you should be, the better you. Fear not, she has the power of death, but the power of life, as she is the keeper of both the Water of Life and the Water of Death.

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We could talk about Baba Yaga for 1001 nights. There is so much information about her. But we hope this is enough to pique your interest in this ambiguous witch. We are currently researching more about Baba Yaga and will publish the fourth book in our “Spirits & Creatures” series hopefully by the end of 2022 or early 2023.

Sources:

“Baba Yaga’s Cottage: Meeting the Goddess of Death and Rebirth”: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/babayagascottage/2020/03/baba-yagas-cottage-meeting-goddess-death-rebirth/

“Baba Yaga – The Ugly Evil Witch of Slavic Folklore”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSCkdWREr7k

“Баба- Яга: в сказках и в жизни” (Baba Yaga: in fairy tales and in life): https://www.b17.ru/article/6550/

The Uniting Power of Wine

That cool May evening, Chorbadji Marko, without his hat in a warm robe, was having dinner with his family in the yard.

The table was set, as usual, under the grape vine (asma) between the clear and cold spout of the cheshma, which sang like a swallow, day and night, and between the tall, bushy boxwoods, which darkened by the wall, always green in winter and summer. The lantern shone on the branch of a lilac tree, which hung amiably over its fragrant lilacs over the heads of the children.

The above is an excerpt from the novel Under the Yoke by the great Bulgarian author and patriot Ivan Vazov. It is no wonder this chapter begins with an idyllic warm family dinner under the vine or as we Bulgarians call it “asma.”

An asma is a wooden or metal structure like a pergola to support a climbing grapevine.

asma1

Whenever you go to a Bulgarian house in Bulgaria or even here in America, you’ll find a grapevine and a vegetable garden. The gardens are small, but you’ll be amazed at the variety they produce. Bulgarians are well-known gardeners, and this is true here as well. In some gardens, you can find nettle and other rare, exciting varieties known for their curative power. Another plant that is famous and beloved is the Bulgarian geranium called zdravets, an herb spoken about for centuries in songs and poems.

Let me explain why an asma and grapevines are so important to us. An asma is where friendship is offered around the table or just a place to take a break from work to sit in the shade. Under the grapevine and in the vineyard are where we celebrate wine and love every year on February 14. This day is not only St. Valentine’s Day, it’s also Trifonovden, St. Trifon’s Day, one noted for festivities surrounding grapes and wine.

Wine has an important place in the life of Bulgarians. Each region in Bulgaria is known for a specific type of wine, and they all have their unique tastes and quality. Bulgaria was one of the largest wine producers, but lost its place after the government changed in 1989. The glory of Bulgarian wine has been written about around the world and has been raved about by many connoisseurs of fine wines.

Based on historical facts, Winston Churchill was one of those known connoisseurs. Every year, he ordered wine from Melnik, a small town in Bulgaria famous for its red wines. The climate and soil produce heavy, full-bodied wine with a unique taste. In the town, which has no more than 300 inhabitants, there is a wine museum, and almost every house has a cellar carved into the rocks where the sparkling red liquid is stored. The mastery of making wine is passed from generation to generation.

Like everyone in rural Bulgaria, my grandparents produced wine. My mother still keeps this tradition alive in her small vineyard. It’s a ritual she performs the entire year, starting with paying respect to the god of wine in February. After months of hard work, she harvests the grapes in late fall when they’ve turned into red, holy juice and puts it into wooden barrels that have been in use for many generations. An important part of the process is to clean the barrels with warm water and other special ingredients inside and out to make sure everything is clean, pristine, and ready for the young wine. She also puts a cotton bag containing herbs into the barrels to make the taste of the wine unique and bring out its healing power. Each household has their own recipe. One popular ingredient is St. John’s Wort, an herb used by healers. It is believed to increase the hormone of happiness. Combine this with the wine and you definable have a great cure for stress and anxiety.

My grandmother was poor and she used wine, honey, and herbs to cure coughs and everything else. She mixed wine and black pepper, wine and honey, and boiled wine with different herbs. My grandfather drank the wine and the rakia produced from the wine to heal his soul and forget what was stolen from him by the Communist party until he left this world early.

It’s no wonder why wine is so important to Bulgarians. It has an old history going back to the Thracians, who used to live in the area which is now modern Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and at one time even extended farther. Thracians were fine craftsmen; they believed in immortality and had beautiful horses. Some scholars speculate that when the Thracians populated the area, they were the first to bring viticulture to the region. They brought grape vines, cultivated them, and began wine production.

wine symbolism

In the past, Trifon Zarezan was a popular event in February. Groups of men, young and old, went to the nearby vineyards, bringing food and wine to celebrate the day. After setting their bags of food, baklitsi (wooden vessels for wine), and tools down, they walked around the outside of the vineyard, holding up icons of Saint Trifon. When they returned to the starting point, they faced east and made the sign of the cross three times. The oldest in the group would kneel by a strong grapevine root and pour red wine around it three times. He also broke a crust of bread and put four pieces into the hole, equal distances apart, saying, “How many drops in the wine that many grapes in the vineyard this year.”

They also scattered “magical” ashes around the vines to ensure a good harvest. The ashes came from a budnik, a log burned on Budni vecher, Christmas Eve. Sometimes a priest went to the vineyard, but since he was old, I don’t remember seeing him as part of the festivities. In some villages, people also selected a “King of the vineyard.” His success during the year ensured everyone else would have bountiful harvests.

They used shoots from the grapevine to make a wreath to decorate their baklitsa or to wear as crowns. They’d also cut more shoots to take home to place by the family’s icons. My grandmother kept the wreath and used it in the fall when she made sauerkraut. She placed it into a barrel to cover the cabbage and make sure the juice stayed steady and didn’t get too sour. In my books, you can read and learn a lot about the rich traditions and rituals.

We also use wine and bread in rituals to welcome people to this world and send them on their way to eternity.

In northern Bulgaria, it’s a custom on souls’ day to pour wine over your loved one’s grave and when you leave, to pour a drop at the cemetery gate. Some soul always sits there at the invisible doorstep. Wine is poured as a symbol of remembrance for all souls—for those you know and those you’ve never met. Baba used to carry home-baked bread, boiled wheat with sugar and nuts, and wine when she visited the cemetery to honor all the dead.

No Bulgarian table (trapeza) lacks wine; it’s part of weddings, name days, and bereavements. It’s part of life. Nowadays, people continue to congregate in the vineyards, sing songs, and celebrate. The tradition has its own followers here as well. Whoever has a name day that day opens the doors of his home for relatives and friends. Wreaths are also made from vine rods, like the wreath of Dionysus.

Food and wine unite people no matter what their nationality or language is.

~~~

Note: This article contains excerpts from The Wanderer and Light Love Rituals.

The Wanderer - A Tear and A Smile       Aveela_Light-Love-Rituals-thumbnail

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.

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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.

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