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Nestinari: Bulgarian Firewalkers (Chap. 22)

Several early sources describe the “firewalkers” or “fire-dancers” in the villages in the Strandzha Mountains south of Burgas, in the SE corner of  Bulgaria.  Here is one I’ve translated.  (* marks the positions of footnotes in the original—not translated.)  (The derivation from “truth” is, incidentally, a folk etymology.)

Nistinare” –article by S. Shivachev in magazine Svetlina, 1898-9, with detailed description of the ritual.

The word nistinare comes from nistina/istina “truth”, as it is generally pronounced in the local dialect.  They say that the nistinare were real true Christians, and therefore this name remained for them.  Nistinarstvo is all one sect, a mixture of pagan and Christian customs and rites, which, in all probability, remained still from the time of Christianizing this country.  The main rites are:  family (animal) sacrifices (korbane: dish made from the sacrificial meat), the singing of song-verses praising to St. Constantine, and dance on fire.  The nestinare [sic] generally are not too devout and as a result do not go to church, do not confess and take communion, and do not celebrate the feasts.  That is so as far as concerns the other feasts throughout the whole year, including also some of the holy ones—Holy Sunday/St. Nedelja; quite the opposite, however, is their service to the feast of St. Constantine and St. Elena, celebrated on May 21; this feast is celebrated most solemnly also in the nistinarski villages.  It is celebrated and there are gatherings in the villages of Gramatikovo, Ulgari, Murzovo, Kolandzha, Rezovo, Blatsa, Madzhura, and Pirgoplovo, all Bulgarian villages.  In Kosti and Brodilovo they gather beginning already on the 17-18 May and ending the 24-25.  Throughout this time, all the inhabitants of the villages—men and women, old and young, rich and poor—put on their very newest clothes.  From the houses, the workshops, café’s, on the plazas and in the streets one hears songs, the wailing of zurnas, thumping of tapans/drums (in the Bulgarian villages also the wailing of gaidas/bagpipes).  Everyone is merry and busy.  Every house undoubtedly has from 1-2 or more guests.

The main ceremony, the ritual, begins early on May 21 with the killing of several bulls.  This day, besides 1-2 municipal bulls, they slaughter also several others earmarked (doomed, dedicated) for the saint by various people, locals and outsiders.  There may be a year when they honor for the saint up to 20 bulls on May 21.  That day, early, when church is not yet out, outside in the plaza and on other plazas the people begin to dance the horo, which continues until church is out.

The divine service, performed by several priests, is accomplished most solemnly.  The church now is totally filled with people, locals and guests, who with reverence listen and wait to the end.  As soon as church is let out, the village priest, preceded by young men carrying all the religious banners* (khorugv from Russian) for the saint, to the number of 18-20, decorated with gold and silver repoussé covers, and followed by the crowd, goes to a place where there is a chapel and the holy water spring (ajazma or ayazma) to the saint, where stand bound inside, in a small enclosure, all the to-be-slaughtered bulls.

First of all, they bless the water here and sprinkle all of those present and the bulls.  After that, the priest reads a prayer to the sacrificed ones, at which time they kill them one by one.

Then the priest makes a tour of the houses, blessing all the household sacrifices, by now cooking or boiling, the hides and shoulder-cuts of which he takes, along with some coins in addition.  When the priest is occupied with blessing the sacrifices, the young icon-carriers for the saint, led by the drum* and two gajdas or zurnas and followed by many of those gathered, most of whom are nistinare, go to the nistinarka* to meet and make their saints greet (kiss) those of the nistinarka. (1)  In such a case the Nistinarka, usually an adult woman or old woman, greets them already in the courtyard, merry and smiling to the ears, and invites them to enter.  Before they respond to her invitation, the guests dance a purely male nistinarsko horo, having as leaders all the young men carrying the saints’ icons.*  At this time the nistinarka is seized [with a trance].*  She quickly, quickly fills up the censer with fire and incense, having lit a candle, and with the censer in the right hand and the candle in her left she goes out into the courtyard and dancing grabs on parallel to the horo-leader, and opposite to him she sings the songs and blesses the saint, pronouncing with loud stress and with a high-pitched voice from time to time the exclamation “Ukh! Ukh!” This horo is danced so fast that within half an hour the Nistinarka is drenched in sweat and barely manages to keep up with the horo leaders, whom she was supposed to meet and cense.  Finally, the gaidas and tapan stop, and all those who have danced go into the house, if the house has space, or they sit down on the porch or in the courtyard on places previously prepared and covered with mats/cloth.  The icon-carriers and several of the leaders go into the house and accompany the Nistinarka, now already “caught up” [put into a trance] by the saint, and go into the nistinarka’s little church (chapel), where stand the icons to the saint,* and there they make the holy pictures (icons) kiss each other, by approaching their faces towards each other.  Here they also do some other customs, relating to the secrets of the nistinarstvo, to the young—the neophytes not yet initiated into the mysteries of the nistinarstvo, and in general to the divination and predicting which the Nistinarka is obliged in such circumstances to communicate to the most faithful and dedicated of the adherents among the sectarians. These divinations tend to be more obligatory for her in the case when she is asked by some of her own people to predict for them: Will so-and-so who is sick recover?  Will such and such a boy take [marry] such and such a girl?…  Through all the time when this kind of confession and secrecy lasts, the Nisintarka is most humble and pretends [professes?] that she has communication from above for everything that she says or does.  At every word she mentions with great reverence the saint’s name and crosses herself.  When this ritual is finished, the Nistinarka goes outside to the other guests,  gives them treats if it is lunchtime, and accompanied by them and some of the young men who bear her icons (all bannered icons from her chapel) she walks solemnly and at a slow pace to the saint’s holy spring/basin – usually a place far from the village, situated in a picturesque valley. This time the drum and bagpipes play until they reach the holy water place (ayazma). Other people from the village – nistinare and curious men, women, youth and children – also join the procession to the holy water. When they arrive there, almost the entire village and the priest will have gathered, waiting for the saints’ icons and the Nistinarka. Near the spring waters stands a chapel and an iconostasis with a cut-in plank where they set the handles of the icons that are fastened on to the iconostasis. Once everyone is there, the drum and bagpipes stop playing. The priest puts on a stole and starts blessing the water. All present gather around the priest, along with the Nistinarka and the other nistinare. In some cases, the Nistinarka women do not agree (harmonize) with the priests and stand farther aside. At the end, singing  St. Constantine’s troparion (“Your servant Constantine, O Lord and only Lover of Man, beheld the figure of the Cross in the Heavens, etc.”) and “Lord save us”, the priest first sprinkles the icons, one by one, then those present, who kiss his hand. After they kiss the cross and the gospel, they also give him a coin or two.

When he sprinkles everyone with holy water, the priest goes to the shady areas and cabins where the villagers are seated, and blesses their kurban (sacrificial dish) now completely done, their mesh bags full of freshly made cheese, and buckets of milk. He takes part of the shoulder-cuts and hides from the first ones, and some coins from the second. At the same time, he makes a blessing for the loaves of which people give him a quarter loaf or a slice. While the priest, his long robe over his shoulder or in his short jacket, runs from shed to shed across the beautiful valley to give blessing to his sacrifices, the nistinare, the icon-bearers and other observers take part in various games and entertainments. For instance, some of them dance horo led by the Nistinarka, followed by many entranced girls and older women. Young men climb the straight trunks of beech and aspen trees, 20-30 meters tall, and by swaying on top of one, they jump on top of another, 2-3 meters away. This game, often preferred by villagers from Ulgari (now Bulgari) and Murzovo, is not so safe to play: frequently the tip of the tree may break off when the trunk is too bent down and falls down along with the player. It happens that few stay alive after that; or they may fall to their death if they miss to land exactly on the top of another tree. Still other people gather around a Nistinar who has just arrived from afar or has left the horo dance and now lies on the grass or in the chapel, still unconscious. There are also those nistinare who consider themselves sinful and purposely endure varied pain and torture to be absolved of their sins. In Vlahovo village, I saw a man from Pirplogovo who was hanging on both his legs from a big snag tree, his head hardly touching the ground. The people present understood his intention in time to relieve him of this position. Ultimately, he had to reach up to his legs and get them down on the ground, then he sat down. His eyes appeared bloated and red, he looked miserable. I concluded that he was drunk, but those who knew him assured me that he was the leading nistinar in the village, and he never drank wine or rakia. While he lay down unconscious and totally exhausted, the Nistinarka came up, swung the censer around him, sprinkled on him some holy water, and wiped his forehead and face. In a few minutes, the nistinar got up, took his cap that lay to the side, and staggered slowly, rather dizzy, to his family who were on the other side of the meadow.

The more the day progresses, the more and merrier the festivities. At noon, all gathered and the nistinare feel in the heat of celebration: some dance the horo with the saints’ icons, others join the ordinary horo, still others dance the male nistinare horo; some dance chuknica, others sing festive songs, and the rest have surrounded the bagpipe, violin, and zurna players as well as the drummer and listen, enjoying the music and songs of the others, and the loud drumbeat. At this moment, the word spreads that the saint (icon) from the neighboring village is approaching, for example, from Brodilovo village. One then can hear the remote drumbeat of the tupan, and in a few minutes a crowd appears, led by the bagpipes and drums, followed by the saint icons and the villagers themselves.

[My warmest thanks to Yuliyana Gencheva for correcting and completing my translation.  The text is in old spelling and full of archaic vocabulary.]