Christianity mixes with paganism on the day of St Constantine and St Helena
It's nighttime on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, not far from the Turkish border, and the glowing circle of wood coals on the beach is like a miniature sun. An old woman in a red-and-white gown holds aloft a battered Orthodox icon depicting a man and woman. Her face in rapture, her feet bare as she stands inches away from the burning embers, she tells the story of the nestinari.
“God, the grandfather, came to Earth. He would speak to no one, because no one was without sin. So he brought forth fire and called on all men to walk in the flames. Only one man wasn't burned: St Constantine. God and St Constantine spoke for years. But Constantine grew weary and sad. He had no wife and no family. So God brought forth the fire again and called on all unmarried women to walk in the flames. A man without sin needs a pure woman. Only St Helena endured the fire.”
Holding the icon of the two saints, the baba steps onto the coals. She walks slowly and deliberately. Her eyes are focused forward, but she isn't looking at anyone among the crowd surrounding her. She spends a few minutes on the coals: too long to attribute her tolerance of the heat simply to practice, not long enough to be totally unbelievable. She's sweating, she's murmuring to herself.
A man plays the gaida, a Balkan bagpipe made from goat skin. A drum pounds. A flute plays. Only the glowing, red-hot coals punctuate the darkness. The old woman bends down, picks up a coal and puts one on her tongue. The drum's tattoo and the wild, gyrating melodies of the flute and the gaida continue. The baba seems to be in a trance, in ecstasy. I forget myself as I watch. Later, I'm reminded the word “ecstasy” derives from the Greek ex-stasis, or to stand outside oneself. To leave one's body.
When the baba exits the fire and the music subsides, some onlookers applause. Others approach, touch her and cross themselves.
Cultures throughout the world engage in fire rituals, but the Bulgarian nestinari are unique. Only they linger on embers in order, they claim, to become possessed like oracles out of Homer's Odyssey. “In many places they play with fire, but here it is Orphean,” says Vesra Roleva, a fire walker, referring to the ancient Greek cult that believed the human race was formed from the ashes of titans vanquished by Zeus. “The nestinari are a symbol of health and luck and the longevity of the Bulgarian nation.”
Experts aren't so sure of the nestinari's origins. Some agree with Roleva that fire walkers are the modern-day remnants of ancient cults. Many link the custom to Dionysus, a God first worshipped by Thracians in present-day Bulgaria around the 6th Century BC, but whom the ancient Greeks adopted as the patron of wine and wild celebration. Other experts say Asiatic tribes brought the custom to the Balkans when they arrived in the 7th Century.
Whatever their origins, the future of the nestinari is uncertain. Bulgaria has long been isolated on Europe's political and cultural periphery. For most of its history it has faced east, towards Turkey or Russia. As more and more foreigners flood into Bulgaria's cheap beach and ski resorts, locals are devising ways to profit from the growth of tourism. Fire-walking packs in the tourists in resorts and restaurants, but raises concerns among nestinari who feel as if globalisation is cheapening the tradition.
“Now we follow the ritual but make it somewhat like a show,” says Analyia Karcheva, a nestinari who performs in Sofia. She reflects for a moment and shrugs her shoulders: “A lot like a show.”
Karcheva and other nestinari consider themselves authentic fire walkers, but they worry that something has been lost since the days when nestinari were rarely seen outside the Strandza, the frontier region between Bulgaria and Turkey where I first saw the ritual on the beach.
Karcheva, for example, speaks with a mixture of adoration and nostalgia about witnessing a famous nestinari, the late Baba Zlatna, as a child in the mid-1950's. “The state of mind she was in, you had to see it,” she said. “She went into this trance. Then she was possessed by something. That's the difference between her and us. She has visions. We don't.”
Not all nestinari are sceptics. Many maintain that fire walking upends the relationship between pleasure and pain, how the dancer transcends the body's limitations and makes contact with divine energy that allows them to see the future. Some say the energy is primeval and pagan. Others feel it was a gift from Christian saints whom the church superimposed on the ritual during the Middle Ages. Everyone says the fire cleanses them of their sins. Thus many Bulgarians, most often in provincial villages, still revere the nestinari and believe it's good luck to touch them after they've walked on the coals.
Katya Roseva is a true believer. “It's just a matter of overcoming your primal fear,” she says. “Sometimes primal fear is what keeps us human. We choose to overcome that. If you are sinful, the embers hurt. If you are chaste and good they won't. I feel the life of the fire. You might say I have a relationship with it.”
Rumen Manolov, as a male fire walker, a rarity, says that in special places and during special times, such as May 21, the feast day of Saints Constantine and Helena, he has seen the future while walking on coals. Predictions usually focus on the result of an election or the likelihood of a natural disaster befalling the community.
“In order to prophesy, we need to dance in a sanctified place, close to a church or monastery and we need to have fasted for two days before,” he says.
Ask the nestinari why they don't burn their feet and eyes will roll. It's a sensitive point because the question emphasises the carnival aspect of fire walking, the spectacle that attracts European tourists whose knowledge of Bulgaria is limited to recent newspaper stories about Mafia bosses gunned down in Sofia's streets.
But they'll tell you what they think is the secret. As the coals burn, they're slowly covered by their own ash, giving the nestinari some insulation. If you don't linger too long on any one spot, they say, your feet won't burn. Perhaps that's true, but in early June when nestinari flock to the village of Bulgari in the Standza to fire dance, ambulances line up outside the festival grounds to whisk away neophytes who scorch themselves.
In the end, it's hard to separate any nestinari performance from the supposedly authentic ritual, says Georg Kraev, a folklorist at Sofia's New Bulgarian University. When nestinari perform for tourists in a restaurant, he asks, are they really unauthentic? If the original nestinari were part of bacchanalian revels, then food and drink were around when the first people walked on coals. “A tavern is an ancient thing,” Kraev says.
It's never that easy to reconcile the past and present in the Balkans, however. Bulgarians have a long habit of keeping their traditions alive despite the pressure of outside influences, from the Romans to Byzantium to the Ottoman Empire. Even when that influence is the EU, the holy grail of democrats who helped free Bulgaria from the yoke of Communism more than 17 years ago, many nestinari are suspicious of change.
“I'm not happy about Bulgaria opening up to the world,” Roseva says. “But we are a persistent people. Nestinari are part of the past and they will be part of the future.”
NOT SO UNIQUE
by Dimana Trankova
Bulgarians regard firewalking as unique to their country. But walking on live embers is a popular way of establishing contact with the gods throughout the world or – if some American human resources experts are to be believed – a major part of teambuilding exercises.
There is a group of Greeks living in Ayia Eleni near Serres and in Langada near Thessaloniki who are quite different from the firewalking African-born Hindus and the Australian aborigines. They are known as anastenarides and they practice the same rituals as the nestinari in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha Mountain. The name given to their rite, Anastenaria, is also similar to the Bulgarian one, nestinarstvo.
The Greeks also dance on live embers, which are spread in the village centre on 21 May; St Constantine and Helena's Day. They even have a similar term for the house where they keep their icons: konaki. The Bulgarian equivalent is konak. And both groups believe that when they dance on coals they are possessed by the spirit of St Constantine. They even dance to the same music.
The reason for the cultural similarities can be traced back to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the First World War. Both conflicts brought changes to the region's national borders, forcing many people to flee their homes. The Greeks from the Strandzha region, which was divided between Bulgaria and Turkey, were among them. Those who lived near the fire-walking centre of Kosti moved to the areas of Serres and Thessaloniki, taking the tradition of fire-walking with them. It's a ritual that continues to this day.