by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Christianity arrived in Bulgaria before paganism had gone. Centuries later, life in Bulgaria is a inimitable mixture of beliefs and superstition

Batman martenitsa

You have a birthday and your best Bulgarian friend has a gift for you: a leather wallet. You unwrap it carefuly, you admire it and then, on closer inspection, you find one stotinka (the equivalent of less than half a penny) inside it. Giving an empty wallet is a bad omen in Bulgaria. It means that it will never get full.

Now that Bulgaria is not going to ban smoking indoors you reach for your cigarettes. Do not even think of lighting a cigarette from a burning candle, especially if you are on the Black Sea coast. It means that you will be taking the soul of a sailor.

OK, Easter is coming. In the Orthodox faith it is a lot more important than Christmas. In itself this warrants a whole article that will inevitably touch on why Orthodox believers celebrate death more than birth, but this is beside the point now. Holy Week in Bulgaria, starting on Palm Sunday – called in Bulgaria Tsvetnitsa, or Flower Day – will see thousands of people attend church, culminating in the midnight before Easter Sunday. Then it is time for the eggs, but be careful not to over-indulge – Easter eggs can cause a pimple on your bottom. The same will happen if you sit on a broom.

In Bulgaria, as elsewhere in the Orthodox Balkans, Christianity arrived before paganism had gone. Consequently, daily life here is a free, sometimes chaotic mixture of Orthodox beliefs and pagan superstition.

The majority of ethnic Bulgarians will vehemently profess their membership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (not to be confused with any other Orthodox church such as the Greek, the Russian or the Serbian, because they are autocephalous, or independent of each other). Senior members of the political elite will vie to be seen on television attending a church service, because in this way they will be asserting continuity and national pride. To understand why going to church matters so much in Bulgaria one has to consider what the Bulgarian church is about.

Under Ottoman domination, the Bulgarian church became a byword for resistance and national identity, or so the Bulgarian textbooks will have us believe. Rarely is there a mention of the excruciating church taxes that often surpassed the sultan's demands, and in some cases led people to call upon the assistance of the Ottoman Army against greedy priests. But a symbol of ethnic identity it was, to differentiate the Bulgarians from the neighbouring Greeks, Romanians and Serbs.

Under Communism, the church was totally subservient to the government. The commissars considered the church to be the opium for the masses and actively discouraged any form of religion except Marxism. Significantly, the senior clergy was infiltrated by stooges for the Communist secret services, a situation that remains almost unchanged to this day.

Free holy water: on church holidays Bulgarians would queue up for

Free holy water: on church holidays Bulgarians would queue up for

After 1989, there was an explosion of religious fervour as physical and mental barriers around the churches were dismantled. Hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians discovered the Christian virtue of making the sign of the cross, although there were somewhat comic instances of former Communists, now democrats, who were seen on television crossing themselves the wrong way. Orthodoxy was once again a cornerstone of national identity – and a bridge to the glorious years before Communism.

But younger Bulgarians, especially, soon discovered that the staid atmosphere of Orthodoxy with its emphasis on chanting, crackling beeswax and smouldering censers replicating pagan mysteries spectacularly failed to address their real-life needs. The Orthodox priests spoke to them in a language they didn't understand and, more importantly, had little to say about the bulging array of post-Communist problems that every Bulgarian had to tackle in order to survive.

Some espoused outlandish religions called in Bulgaria "sects," but the overwhelming majority turned back to the usual heathen atheism that had pervaded the Balkans for many centuries with its amalgamation of legend, folklore, old wives' tales and stories of former glories.

So next time you sit in a restaurant, even if the people you are sitting with are outspoken Orthodox believers, make sure you do not sit at a corner of the table: if you do, you will never get married. The same will happen if someone uses a broom to sweep the floor in your direction.

Once you are seated, do not even think of putting your handbag on the ground. Or else... you will become poor.

Whenever you are indoors, it is considered extremely dangerous to open more than one window at a time. Draughts in the air are considered the second most perilous thing to going out with wet hair. They are held accountable for a variety of terrible diseases, the most common of which is back pain. There is even a popular saying: "Many have died from draughts, but no one from a bad smell."

If you do go out with wet hair, be warned: your brain will become inflamed.

If a friend has a newborn baby, under no circumstance should you say it's sweet. Call it ugly. In this way you will prevent any bad luck befalling it. Alternatively, you should spit on the ground next to the baby. Your saliva will ward off the evil powers out to get the infant.

Free holy water: on church holidays Bulgarians would queue up for

Vampirism is not so widespread in Bulgaria as it is in Serbia with its Peter Plogojowitz or Count Dracula's Romania, but the reason for this, no doubt, is the Bulgarian insistence on not passing anything over a dead body lying in its coffin. Watch out for the cat: the corpse will also rise again as a bloodsucker if a (black) cat jumps over it.

On the subject of death, do not put bread on the table flat side up. This is like turning a dead man with his eyes to the ground.

Make sure you do not sit behind the back of anyone. That's a certain way of ensuring he will take you to the nether world. Oh, and don't hang your washing with the front side facing you. Only a dead man's clothes are hung this way.

A reliable way of knowing who will die is the owl. If it nests in a house, you can be sure someone from that house will die.

A lesser evil will happen if a black cat crosses your path. The best thing to do is to change direction and go along another street. An extra precautionary measure is to keep your fingers crossed.

None of the above will work unless you also touch wood. This is the only known way of making the devil look the other way.

You should also be aware that if you have an accident and break your leg, it is the work of the "Small Devil." The "Big" one has grander schemes for you.

A fair number of beliefs relate to bodily sensations. If your right palm itches, you will get money. If your left one does, you will give money (or was it the other way round?). If your nose itches, you are in for a fist fight. And if you stumble while you walk, you have been telling a lie!

If you sneeze, someone is thinking of you. Who? A friend has to give you a threedigit number. Add up the digits and then count which letter of the Cyrillic alphabet it corresponds to. I can never get anyone to think of me because 100 rarely gets mentioned as a number. Of course a "nazdrave" or "cheers" is always welcome, both East and West.

Blue-eyed people bring bad luck. You can ward it off by washing your own eyes with holy water – or with water that has been poured through the bristles of a broom.

Bad luck is very important in a country that has consistently had bad luck historically. Do not talk about your plans in advance or they are bound to fail. Touch a chimney sweep the moment you see one. Do not leave an umbrella indoors unless it is wet, in which case you should keep it open. If you suddenly notice that you have put on an article of clothing inside out (or have buttoned yourself up in the wrong holes), do not try to remedy things. You have inadvertently protected yourself against bad luck.

Other sure-fire tools against bad luck include, but are not limited to, a red thread, a blue bead (the Evil Eye), a clove of garlic (not in your tripe soup) and holy water.

Do not give a knife as a present to anyone. That means you hate them. If you do have a particularly good knife you wish to give to someone they should pay you back with a coin, to neutralise the evil.

Love, obviously, is high on the list of Bulgaria's most common superstitions. Do not bring your loved one an even number of flowers. These are reserved for funerals. You should always bring an odd number. Red flowers are for love, white for purity. Yellow means jealousy. Thinking of getting married and trying on rings? Never take a ring from someone's hand. They should put it on the table first and you should pick it up from there.

A leap year? Gold is a bad omen. If you are a woman, switch over to your silver jewellery.

And now for sex and fertility. The May Poles of the West do not work here. If you are a peasant, you should copulate with the ground in the spring. This will ensure a good harvest.

If you are a woman, one of the most eccentric ways to keep your husband always faithful to you is to get a small fish and insert it in your vagina, where it should spend the night. On the following morning you should dry it, then grind it into powder and put it in your husband's drink when he is not looking. In this way he will be yours for evermore.

The Bulgarians' obsession with myths and legends indicates that the mysterious past is more often than not held up as an inspiration. It shows, perhaps, the uncertainty they feel for the road ahead, now their country is at least theoretically a part of a rational and capitalist West. In the face of the many internal and external crises they have had to endure, it is simply comforting to believe – and keep your fingers crossed.


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