Bulgaria: A nation of fire and ice

Bulgaria was established over a thousand years ago in 681 AD and it is the oldest European country which has preserved its original name. Therefore, it is not surprising that as a country and a nation, it prizes age old traditions, customs and rituals.

Nestinari (fire dancers) in selo (village) Bulgari 2010
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nestinarstvo is an ancient ritual practiced in Bulgaria whereby nestinari — fire dancers — walk and dance barefoot on burning embers. The origins of this ritual are difficult to trace and there are numerous, different theories as to where the tradition has come from; the most common belief is that the ritual originated from ancient Thrace and the Thracians who worshipped the Sun.

While Bulgarians are not the only people who practice walking on fire, it must be noted that firewalking and nestinarstvo are not the same. Nestinarstvo combines paganism and Christianity as the ritual is not a mere demonstration of the ability to walk on burning embers but something deeper and more spiritual.

Selo/village Bulgari in the Strandzha mountains is the only place in Bulgaria that still retains the true essence of this ritual — although, nowadays nestinarstvo has become a tourist attraction which can be seen in most parts of the country. On June 3rd, the day of Saints Constantine and Helen, a fire is lit in selo/village Bulgari and at night, its embers are spread out for the nestinari to dance on. It is important to note that not everyone can be a nestinar as it is believed that this is something which is passed down in one’s family; what is more, the nestinari go under a state of trance before and during the ritual and some even get visions and premonitions while they dance.

The big mystery of this ritual lies in the fact that after the dance, the feet of the nestinari have no burns: some nestinari cannot explain this themselves, some claim that while they are in a state of trance, they see Saint Constantine pouring water on the burning embers ahead of them and some believe that this is owed to the power of their faith.

Celebrating the Epiphany (Bogoyavlenie/Yordanovden) in Kalofer, Bulgaria 2008
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another old and unique Bulgarian tradition takes place on the 6th of January where rather than dance on scorching hot embers, men dive into and dance in ice cold water. Like many Christians around the world, Bulgarians celebrate Epiphany (known as Bogoyavlenie or Yordanovden) on January 6 — but, they do so very differently.

On this day, following the Church service, the priest throws a Holy Cross into a nearby lake, river or sea where an odd number of men must jump into and retrieve the cross. It is believed that the man who finds the cross will be blessed with good health throughout the year. It is interesting to note that in the town Kalofer, the people have created an even more specific and unique tradition as the men who jump into the river Tundja dance the Bulgarian horo as they wave the Bulgarian flag. This tradition can be seen in DJ 89’s music video below which reminds us that: “A nation that walks on fire and ice cannot be destroyed.”

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