Healing Flowers, Midnight Magic, and Mystical Dancers

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

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

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

Rusalii – Dancing for Health

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

Who or what are the Rusalii?

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

Rusalii

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

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

Midnight Magic

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

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

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

Magical Healing Night

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.”