by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Forget the make-believe nestinari in restaurants and resorts and experience the real thing in the village of Balgari

firewalkers bulgaria 1.jpg

The unusual, almost Native American-like drum rhythm and the bagpipe tunes echo over the silent crowd, gathered around a large circle of live embers glowing into the night. All eyes are on a tiny group of barefoot men and women in traditional clothes, who dance slowly at the edge of the circle, holding icons.

"They are in trance," says one of the onlookers.

"No, they are afraid," whispers another.

One of the barefoot women raises her icon and, howling "Vuh, vuh, vuh," enters the fire. Her feet move expertly, stepping firmly onto the embers. She walks, waves the icon, makes one, two, three circles, then crosses the fire twice. The other follow: their icons, too, raised high, their feet, too, onto the embers. The fire dancers come and go, some leave soon, others persist, the drum and the bagpipe repeat again and again their simple yet mesmerising melody, until the last of the nestinari leaves the fire.

The dances of nestinari, or firewalkers, have been the staple show of "traditional" restaurants targeted to foreigners on the Bulgarian Black Sea side since Communism. There is a place, however, where the genuine nestinarstvo is still alive, although inevitably adapted to the changing times. It is the village of Balgari, in the Strandzha, where on the night of 21 May nestinari dance on the day of St Constantine and Helena.

firewalkers bulgaria

A whole day is needed to prepare a fire large enough for the dancers. The layer of living embers is about 10 cm thick

No one knows when fire dancing appeared in a handful of Bulgarian and Greek villages in the Strandzha. Ancient sources mention fire walking priests of this or that deity in the 1st-3rd centuries, but in Italy and Asia Minor. The earliest records for nestinari in southeastern Thrace are from the 19th Century.

At that time, firewalking was a rite spread around the Strandzha. It was practiced in several villages, and although its name is Greek by origin, it was done by non-Greeks, too. Nestinari were mostly women, and they danced on living embers not only on the day of St Constantine and Helena (whom they thought of as a husband and wife), but also to saints like John the Baptist, Elijah and Marina. Nestinari were revered as people with special powers, and everyone obliged the prophecies they made during their fire dance. "It is almost a sect," a witness wrote in the early 20th Century, "although they don't want to proselytise."

The icons of the saints, which were said to protect the nestinari, were kept into special chapels outside villages. They would stay there, adorned with "clothes," for the whole year. When their feast day came, a band of three unmarried and un-engaged boys would take them out and, followed by the village's nestinari, a bagpiper, a drummer and the villagers, would bring them to the local sacred spring. People would spent there some time, praying and lighting candles, then the procession would return to the chapel. The icons, the nestinari and the musicians would spent the rest of the day there, preparing for the fire dance. Meanwhile, the oldest non-practising female nestinarka in the village would prepare the fire and the embers.

In the evening, the procession would gather again and head to the embers, for the last part of the rite, the firewalking and the foretelling. This went on for decades and centuries, if not for longer. The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the exchange of populations in the 1920s changed nestinarstvo, or anasteria as it is known in Greek, forever. Greeks from the Strandzha resettled in other parts of continental Greece, bringing the rite there, most notably at the village of Langada, near Thessaloniki.

fire walkers bulgaria

Bulgaria is the only place in Bulgaria where the rite is preserved

In Bulgaria, only three villages preserved the rite – Balgari, Kosti and Brodilovo. Communist Party apparatchiks persecuted nestinarstvo as a "dark superstition." In the 1950s, the rite survived only in Balgari. In the 1970s, however, historians started reevaluating the historical heritage of the Strandzha as the last stronghold of culture and beliefs of the ancient Thracians. Interest in nestinarstvo intensified. Scientists saw it as a Thracian rite, devoted to the Great God and the Great Goddess in a Christian guise. About the same time, commercial nestinari started to dance in seaside resorts.

It was only in 1990, when the original rite was reestablished in Balgari.

For many, the most astonishing part of the ritual is how the nestinari survive the embers. No reliable explanation has been given by scientists, but old nestinari believed that St Constantine and Helena were protecting them. None would enter the fire without their icon, and every burn was interpreted as a sign that the injured had sinned. 

Firewalkers bulgaria

No firedancing is possible without the mesmerising music of the drum and the bagpipe. Some believe it helps nestinari to enter a trance and communicate with spirits, much what ancient shamans did

Curiously, the Orthodox Church never objected this obviously pagan ritual. Unlike so many old rites, it did not denounce it as the work of the devil. Not a priest in the Strandzha dared to say anything against the nestinari. Otherwise, he would be chased out, if not worse, by his own parishioners.

In 2009, nestinarstvo was listed by UNESCO as non-material heritage of world significance.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.