The hot, humid days of summer will soon be upon those of us who live in the northern hemisphere. I look forward to warmer weather. Here in New England, the temps are up and down. We have a saying not to plant our gardens until after Memorial Day, for fear of frost.
Today, we’d like to tell you about another hot topic—fire dancing, or nestinarstvo. May 21 marks the celebration of Kostadinovden, the Day of Saints Constantine and Helena. You may be familiar with Constantine and his legalization of Christianize across the Roman Empire and making it the dominant religion. But, did you know he had an association with the fire dancing as well?
A popular legend says that God once looked for an assistant from among unmarried men to help Him manage people. God wanted to find a good way to test a person’s loyalty. Then an idea came to Him: a fire dance. He built a fire that burned toward the heavens. It burned for a long time. When only glowing embers remained, God said the whoever could walk on the coals with his bare feet would be His assistant. Only Constantine was brave enough to try. He danced on the coals unharmed, proving to God his heart was pure, and so he became God’s assistant. Constantine’s task thereafter was to make sinners dance upon the embers. This was done in an effort to burn away their sins, since people believed fire had magical powers to purify whatever passed through it—both objects and souls.
Even though fire dancing is an ancient ritual of pagan origins, St. Constantine, who was said to worship fire, permitted it to continue. However, the ritual was almost wiped out during the 1912 Balkan War. Today, it continues in remote parts of the Strandja Mountains, such as the village of Balgari, because these places were difficult to reach during the war.
The Thracian word nestia means “fire.” Some say nestinari originates from the Bulgarian word nistina or istina (truth), since the dancers were true Christian believers. Others say that Nestinarstvo comes from the Greek words for fasting (nisteía) and fire (estia), because prior to conducting the ritual, the dancers fast and abstain from alcohol and evil thoughts to prepare themselves with the sacred dance. Some texts say Thracians originally performed the ritual in honor of the Great Mother Goddess Bendis and her offspring, Sabazios, the Sun god.
In the time of the Thracians, priestesses performed the ceremony. They were considered to be sun brides and wore their headscarves in the same manner a bride did. Today both men and women participate, and either a man or a woman can be the lead dancer.
The ability to dance on coals is considered a divine gift, one often passed down within a family. This lead dancer chooses her replacement when she can no longer perform the ritual. Often the successor is a son or daughter, since people believe the parent passes on to his child not only the skill to walk on coals, but more importantly, the ability to predict the future.
The Nestinarstvo celebration is performed to ensure health and fertility, not only for people, but also for animals and land. It holds traces of Dionysian mysteries that mark the rebirth of nature and the world.
Those present at the dance form three or nine circles around the area where the dancers perform the ritual. These circles are associated with the Sun, the “Fire of Heaven.” Both fire and water are connected with the ritual. Fire has protective properties and increases the Sun’s divine power, while water has the capacity to heal. The dancers claim that while they are in a trance, the coals look as if they’re covered with water.
Magical aspects of the ceremony have also survived. In ancient times, the nestinari were leaders of the village. While they were in a trance, they contacted their ancestors, then made predictions and performed healings. Nowadays, nestinari claim reverence to the saints gives them protective power so they can dance on embers without injuring themselves.
Once they have entered a trance or prihvashtane (possession), the dancers feel pulled toward the fire with all their senses. The outside world disappears as they communicate with the saints. As they dance, they neither see nor hear what is happening around them while they leave their physical world and enter the invisible realm. The path they walk along on the embers is viewed as a temporary death, that allows them a new birth from which they receive knowledge from the beyond. They believe Saint Constantine embodies himself not only within the nestinari, but also within the instruments and music that play while the nestinari dance, much like a pagan belief that the gods could reincarnate themselves in sound and instruments.
To find out more about this and other Bulgarian customs, check out our book Light Love Rituals.