Background to Bulgarian Myth and Folklore
The world’s myths, traditional tales and folklore are windows into the development of the human psyche. They represent a distillation of human experience that both transcends and reflects boundaries of time, geography and culture: they have universal relevance yet are culture-specific.
Bulgarian folk narratives are distinguished by their stark, primal qualities, their spare poetic beauty and powerful archetypal characters - epic heroes, warrior women and beguiling beings who inhabit a magical landscape that has its own reality, laws and logic. They are many-layered and reveal some very ancient roots, perhaps going back to Thracian times and beyond.
The samodivi, the fierce, enchanting nymphs of the forests and the waters who can call down the moon and ride wild deer with bow in hand, may reflect some aspects of the great Thracian goddess, Bendis. The medieval hero Krali Marko is overlaid with an earlier mythology possibly extending as far back as the Thracian Horseman god who dispensed both life and death. And stories of animals that are human and humans that are animals may derive from an even earlier era.
Traditional narratives are born into and shaped by particular cultures and landscapes. While stories speak directly to us across time and space, an understanding of their cultural context can reveal a new dimension of meaning which has been obscured through the passage of time. Stories are two-way mirrors: a way of looking back into the past in order to see forward into the present.
This page provides the context for understanding Bulgarian traditional narratives, those myths, heroic epics, fairy tales, folk tales and legends that survive through to the present day. It provides an overview of Bulgaria's ancestral cultures and the legacy that they have left in the country's traditional tales and folklore. It also provides a summary of current Bulgarian folklore which holds the key to certain enigmatic symbols and narrative elements. In this way, we can begin to unlock the secrets of Bulgarian tales and truly appreciate the richness of these gifts from the past.
Modern day Bulgaria lies at the crossroads between East and West, and has three main ancestral peoples: the ancient Thracians, the Slavs and the Bulgars. It is this mix that has contributed to modern Bulgaria’s rich heritage and still vibrant folklore and traditional culture.
The Thracian great goddess depicted on a 4th century BCE greave (leg armour), Mogilanska Mound, Vratsa, Bulgaria
The ancient Thracians were an Indo-European tribal people who settled in that area of the Balkans whose heartland is now the modern state of Bulgaria at least 4000 years ago. Lying at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Thracian culture reflected influences from the Scythians in the north, the Phrygians to the southeast and the Greeks to the west, yet it had its own distinct identity.
It was a strong rich culture but the Thracians had no written language of their own, so much of what we know about them comes from their archaeological remains, and from the Greek writers who were their contemporaries.
Apart from the tale of the legendary singer, Orpheus, whose birthplace is said to be the Rhodopi Mountains (in modern Bulgaria), the mythology and culture of the Thracians is largely unknown in the west, having been eclipsed by a Greek-centred view of early European history. Yet from the Bronze Age through to the Roman conquest, Thrace was an important power in its own right, and the ancient Greeks borrowed freely from its exotic religion and ecstatic cults.
The Thracians were a fierce powerful people ruled by tribal priest kings. They were excellent warriors renowned for their skill and bravery in battle, fighting alongside the Trojans against the Greeks in the Trojan War. They were expert horse breeders, produced fine wines and were master metalworkers, creating exquisite adornments, ritual objects and vessels in silver and gold. Ancient Greek authors describe them as high-spirited, violent, uninhibited, lusty, drunken, musical and artistic.
The Thracian pantheon centred on the great mother and goddess of wild nature known by many names: Bendis, Kotyto, Hekate or Perke, Mountain-Mother. It is likely that she encompassed influences from the strong fertility goddess cults which thrived in the Balkan lands during the earlier Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Chalcolithic (Copper Age) periods.
As great mother she initiated creation, bringing forth from herself her son, who was both the sun in the daytime and the fire god at night. She united with him in divine marriage so that the cosmic cycle could be fulfilled and fertility renewed. She was also associated with the moon and was sometimes depicted riding a doe, bow in hand with a quiver of arrows upon her back.
Dionysus, usually called Zagreus in Thrace, was the twice born son of the great goddess. He was the dark god of wine, of intoxication, excess and inspiration. He had a wild band of female followers called Maenads, and ecstatic orgiastic rites were held in his honour. Poetry, music and dance swept along with him. He was the dying and reborn god who was sacrificed in the form of a bull, his body torn into pieces and his blood spilled upon the earth. In this way he united in divine marriage with the great mother goddess, fertilising her so that he could be reborn and the annual cycle of life could be renewed.
In contrast, the cult of Orpheus was ascetic, solar-based and open only to men. Orpheus was the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus (or alternatively of the sun god Apollo) and the muse Calliope. He played the lyre and sang beautifully, and is best known in the West for his descent to the underworld to bring his beloved bride Evredika (Eurydice) back from the dead. Music as a transforming power was central to Orphic rites, and the aim was to achieve immortality.
The Thracians revered the forces of nature, worshipped the sun and believed in the immortality of the soul. Caves were significant as symbolic entrances to the womb of the earth. Death was not to be feared, and past and present were not separate in time, but coexisted as one. Human sacrifice was sometimes practised, including the ritual slaying of a king's favourite wife upon his death, an honour for which the king's wives apparently competed.
The Thracian Horseman, sometimes simply called Hero, was probably a god of nature and vegetation. He combined both solar and underworld aspects. He is depicted on countless votive plaques, often riding towards the tree of life with his cloak flying behind him, or spearing a boar.
After the 6th century CE the Thracians mixed with the Slavic and Bulgar peoples who settled in the area, but the subsequent Bulgarian kingdom inherited their legacy.
Bulgaria is rich in Thracian archaeological remains and the landscape is scattered with huge burial mounds enclosing Thracian tombs. Traces of Thracian myth and religion have also survived in current Bulgarian folklore and customs, such as those given below.
Koukeri are masked male dancers and mummers, who wear fantastic, often animal like masks and huge bronze cowbells round their waists. They carry sticks, which symbolise the phallus, in a spring fertility rite possibly derived from the ancient Dionysian new year festival.
The epic hero, Krali Marko, was a real historical person who lived in the 14th century AD. He has since become overlaid with an earlier mythology that may reflect some aspects of the Thracian Horseman god, who was sometimes simply called Hero. There are many heroic songs about Krali Marko’s adventures with his magical horse Sharkoliya. Traditionally these epic tales were told through song.
Nestinarstvo sacred fire dancing There are now only a few genuine Nestinarki/Nestinari (female/male fire dancers) left in the Strandja area of Bulgaria. They enter into a spiritual trance to dance barefoot on burning embers during the festival of St Konstantin and Elena in midsummer, in a relic of an ancient Thracian solar ritual.
Samodivi /samovili (plural): There are many tales about these wild female nymphs of the waters, woodlands and the mountains, renowned for their exquisite singing and dancing. In Bulgarian folklore they share some characteristics with the Thracian goddess Bendis. In one tale, Vida, a powerful samodiva of the Pirin mountains, rides a stag harnessed with reins of grass snakes and stirrups of serpents. She kills the beautiful male singer, Ivė (a relic of Orpheus?) with her bow and arrows, and flies up to the moon, before restoring him to life in the curative gardens of Magda samovila. In other tales, samodivi call down the moon and milk it like a cow. In some tales they kill or take the heads of humans who cross them, reminiscent of the Maenads, the ecstatic female followers of Dionysus who tore Orpheus apart in a drunken frenzy.
Trifon Zarezan is the patron saint of vineyards. On 1st February (new calendar) or 14th February (old calendar), there is a ceremonial pruning of the vine shoots, and a wine libation is poured onto the earth. The custom is associated with a Bulgarian legend which tells how the Virgin Mary punishes Trifon by causing him to cut off his nose with his pruning shears. The custom and legend reflect elements of the Thracian cult of Dionysus, the dying and reborn god of wine.
Bulgaria’s ancient style of singing, famed throughout the world for its haunting vocals and exquisite harmonies, surely follows in the tradition of Orpheus. It is also thought that Bulgaria’s unusual uneven rhythms may derive from Thracian music.
The Firebird is a popular Russian Slavic fairy tale. The Bulgarian version is known as "The Golden Bird."
Illustration by Lev Lominago.
The Slavs migrated to the Balkan peninsula from Central Europe in the early part of the 7th century AD. They were a freedom-loving agricultural people, living democratically in clan communes with no rigid organisational structures or hierarchies.
They believed in many deities, spirits of nature and demons, and for them, the world was alive with all-pervasive supernatural powers and energies, including wood and water nymphs, witches, vampires and werewolves. Certain trees and animals were revered as man’s ancestors, fire and the sun were an important part of rituals, and the celebration of seasonal festivals, particularly the solstices, featured prominently in their religion. Like the Thracians, they also practised occasional human sacrifice.
At the centre of the Slavic mythological universe, giving it structure, stood the World Tree. The realm of the dead lay at its roots, the world of living creatures at its trunk and heaven rose at its crown.
The Slavs worshipped their gods in the form of stone or wooden idols in shrines located near old trees. Their main god was Perun, the god of thunder, who gave his name to the Pirin mountains in southern Bulgaria. Volos, or Veles was the god of horned animals. Black Mother Earth was revered but female deities were otherwise less significant. They may include Lada and Lyulya, who are controversially goddesses of love, spring and beauty.
Some elements of Slavic myth and religion have survived in current Bulgarian folklore and traditions.
Ladouvane A girls’ ritual that perhaps takes its name from Lada, arguably the Slavic goddess of love. The ritual includes a fortune telling custom called “the singing of the rings.” Lada also features in some traditional Bulgarian wedding songs.
Koleda This winter solstice festival is known in Britain as Christmas. At this time, groups of young men called Koledari go from house to house singing special ritual songs for different members of the family. Many of these songs are wonderful short stories with a strong mythological content.
Vampires Vampires are the un-dead, they that return from the grave to walk the night, throttling sleepers and drinking blood from humans and animals. Of the various types of Slavic demonic beings, they are perhaps the best known in the West. But unlike the vampires that stalk the pages of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Bulgarian variety cannot infect others with their bite nor shape shift into bats. Instead they are created when proper burial and mourning rites are not fulfilled. If death is unnatural, if a human or animal jumps over the freshly dug grave, if a corpse is not properly washed or the deceased is not fully mourned, if the dead person has led an evil life, then a vampire may be spawned.
According to some people, during the first 40 days of their existence vampires look like shadows or shapeless blood-filled bags of skin, after which they become strong enough to form bone and to take on human shape. Then they can leave the grave during the daytime, get a job, and even get married. But they must always be careful not to cut or prick themselves, otherwise they will burst and be reduced to a bloody pool upon the ground.
Vampires can be destroyed by pouring boiling oil or putting hawthorn into the grave, by fire, nail, stake or silver bullet. Although vampires are frightening, they are also a bit stupid and therefore easily tricked. You could, for example, scatter grain on the ground and it would stop to count each one obsessively, giving you the chance of escape! Or you could send it to get fish from the river, and it would fall into the water and drown.
Zmey The zmey, or dragon is often seen as benign and has an important place in Bulgarian myth and folklore. Each village had its own guardian zmey to protect the fertility of the land and to battle against the malignant forces that cause drought and hail. The ferocity of these battles gave rise to thunderstorms and lightening, linking the zmey to the Slavic thunder god, Perun.
The Bulgarian dragon is a complex being who has also absorbed elements from his Thracian and Bulgar ancestors.
The Legend of Kubrat , His Five Sons and the Bundle of Sticks. Painting by Dimitur Gyudzhenov
The origin and ancestral homeland of the Bulgars is uncertain and disputed. It may have been the Pamir mountain lands north of Pakistan or less likely the Altai Mountains of Central Asia.
The Bulgars left their ancestral lands long ago, becoming part of the Great Migration of peoples in the early centuries AD. They kept herds, revered horses, and drank mare’s milk as an essential part of their diet. They were skilled in metalwork, and lived in clans under the leadership of rulers who held absolute power. They were excellent warriors with a well-organised army, fighting alongside Attila the Hun. In the seventh century AD they established a state called Great Bulgaria in the Russian steppes north of the Caucasus.
But Great Bulgaria lasted only a few decades before it came under attack from the Khazars and began to disintegrate. Asparuh, one of the five sons of the great ruler Kubrat of the Dulo clan, set out with a section of the Bulgar tribe to seek new lands. He established the first Bulgarian state in the Balkans in exchange for protecting the local Slav population against Byzantine attack. It was legally recognised by the Byzantines in 681 AD, but the Bulgars were a minority ruling group, so eventually their language and culture were absorbed into that of the Slavic majority. The Kapantsi, an ethnic group living in north-east Bulgaria, may be descendents of Asparuh's original tribe.
These early Bulgarians left behind impressive stone settlements such as those at Pliska and Preslav, and the magnificent Madara Horseman rock relief but little is known about the religion and mythology.
Some experts say that their chief deity was the Turkic sky god, Tangra, whose sacred animals included the horse and the eagle. White horses were particularly revered, and horse's entrails were used for divining.
Tangra's consort may have been Umai, the goddess of fertility whose image is possibly the one that is engraved into the rock at Perperikon. The ancient Bulgar religion may have centred on the worship of the seven celestial bodies: the sun, the moon and the five then known planets - Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn. Shamanism may have been practised, with each clan having a sacred animal totem – deer, dogs and wolves seem to have had special significance. Waterfowl were a symbol of life.
Others claim that the Bulgar religion was associated with Persian (ancient Iranian) Zoroastrianism.
Although they had no writing system as such, the Bulgars used runes and had their own very accurate calendar based on a 12-year cycle like the Chinese calendar, each year bearing the name of an animal, bird or reptile.
There are possible echoes of ancient Bulgar religion and mythology in current Bulgarian folklore, as in the examples given below.
Wolves’ Days These are a set of three, seven or nine days in November when Bulgarians traditionally observe various taboos to protect people and domestic animals from wolf attack. The last day is the most dangerous, as it is observed in honour of a lame wolf, who according to legend, was the first to eat a man. The custom of Wolves’ Days may be an echo of a Bulgar wolf cult.
Baba Marta and the Martenitsa The month of March is still personified in Bulgaria as Grandmother March, an old woman whose mood is as variable as the March weather.
The first of March marks the beginning of spring. It is a special festival day on which people wish each other “Chestita Baba Marta” - "Happy Grandmother March" - and give each other martenitsas, small tassels of white and red thread for health and good luck. This custom is found only in Bulgaria and a few neighbouring areas (e.g. Romania, Macedonia) indicating that it is not Slavic in origin. Some legends trace it back to the time when Bulgaria was founded in the Balkans in the 7th century CE. One story tells that it originated when Asparuh's sister sent him a message tied with a white thread to the foot of a stork; the stork's blood is represented in the red part of the martenitsa. However there are also claims for a Thracian origin for the custom.
Bulgarian Myth and Folklore:
Unlike Greek or Norse mythologies which have ample written sources, there is no coherent structured body of Bulgarian myth – stories about the creation, about gods, goddesses, and the deeds of the divine and semi-divine beings that come from people's beliefs about the universe.
Bulgaria's three main ancestral cultures - Thracian, Slavic and Bulgar - left behind only fragmentary evidence of their individual mythologies. These mythologies combined with each other, developed and transformed to produce the body of folk customs, beliefs, artistic forms and traditional narratives that have existed right up until the modern era and which are now collectively known as Bulgarian folklore.
Of course it has incorporated other elements on the way. Bulgaria officially converted to Christianity in the ninth century but it did not completely abandon its ancestral pagan beliefs and customs. Instead many were absorbed into the new religion and survive in modified form through to the present day, interwoven with Christianity. The Thracian Horseman was reincarnated in the Christian figure of St George, seen as the bringer of summer and fertility. The Slavic thunder god, Perun, was reincarnated as the Christian St Ilya, and pagan folk festivals and rituals continued with a thin veneer of the new religion.
The Ottoman Turks conquered Bulgaria in the 14th century and ruled it for 500 years as part of the Ottoman Empire. This also left its mark on Bulgarian myth and folklore. For example, tales about Nastraddin Hodja, the Turkish imam and wise fool, were assimilated and adapted into the Bulgarian oral tradition, one positive product of this dark and bloody period of Bulgarian history.
In essence Bulgarian folklore is the combination of its ancestral mythologies in living practice, or in practice within recent historic memory. It still exists, albeit on a reduced scale, as strong living tradition and a vibrant part of Bulgarian culture. Its many layers hold the key to certain intriguing aspects of Bulgarian traditional narratives.
Bulgarian folk customs fall into two broad categories: those associated with the individual's passage through life (birth, marriage, death); and calendar customs associated with the annual cycle of nature and agriculture.
The most important of the life cycle customs are those associated with the Bulgarian wedding, and we'll look briefly at some wedding customs as a way of understanding various aspects of Bulgarian traditional tales.
The Traditional Bulgarian Wedding
Marriage is the main goal/theme in many Bulgarian tales, and the main characters are those who are ready to get married.
The traditional Bulgarian wedding is almost mythic in action, and rich in symbolism. It provides the key to several enigmatic elements in these stories.
Bulgarian wedding rituals are concerned with ensuring a successful and fertile marriage. During the wedding period, the bride and groom are at the centre of the cosmic drama of creation that has been enacted over and over again since the beginning of time. The young couple are imbued with a special life-giving power that bestows blessings and fertility upon the whole community, guaranteeing the future. The consummation of the marriage on the wedding day becomes an act of magic.
The groom must first prove himself. On the wedding day he and his wedding party set out on the great life-changing journey from his home, enduring (mock) ambush by the bride's party en route and symbolically capturing the bride's house against (token) resistance. The groom (or more usually his brother acting on his behalf) must also perform feats of daring in order to claim the bride and take her back home.
This sequence of events translates into the basic elements of many stories about the hero's journey in Bulgarian epics and fairytales: the quest, the adventure, the finding of a bride and the return. The relationship between the groom and his brother (or best man) plays a key role in several Bulgarian epics. This character, frequently described as "the wolfskin cap and the bearskin coat", often substitutes for the hero in fulfilling his tasks.
The bride has her own challenges, her own heroine's journey to make. She must bid farewell to her old life, her friends and family amid much weeping. Then she must set out for her new home and family and enter the unknown. In the heightened language of Bulgarian ritual wedding songs this is often described as a journey to a foreign land.
While the general sequence of events on the wedding day provides the basic plot for many narratives, various rituals and symbols used throughout the wedding period translate into some of the most intriguing and magical episodes in Bulgarian tales.
Tree Symbolism: the Wedding Banner, the Koum's Tree and Girls In Trees!
The wedding banner and the koum's tree play a significant part in wedding activities. Prepared in the week prior to the wedding with special ritual and song, they represent the Tree of Life, an important symbol in many ancient mythologies.
The wedding banner consists of a flag attached to a pole that has been ritually cut from a tree. The banner is topped with a red or gold foil-wrapped apple symbolising the sun and fertility, and decorated with flowers, ivy, strings of popcorn and chilli peppers. In some areas, the bride and the groom have a separate banner, with a white flag for the bride and a red flag for the groom. In other areas the groom's family prepare a single banner with both red and white flags upon it.
On the wedding day, the groom's party set out with banner held proudly aloft to fetch the bride. When they gain entry to the bride's home, they capture her banner (if she has a separate one) and symbolically unite it with the groom's to form a single banner. It then accompanies the wedding party to the bride's new home. After the wedding is over, the banner is ritually dismantled: the pole is broken, the cloth is given to the bride, and the apple is eaten by the young couple.
The wedding banner signifies that the bride must break from her family tree in order to join with the groom and start a new branch of the perpetual Tree of Life. Only then can the future be assured and life be renewed.
The koum's tree serves a similar symbolic function. It takes its name from the koum, the best man or godfather of the wedding, and the most important person after the bridal couple. It consists of the crown of a small tree or a branch beautifully decorated with flowers, red thread, ivy, popcorn and red or gold foil-wrapped apples symbolising the sun and fertility. The tree is set into a loaf of bread ornamented with serpents, representing the guardian snake. On the wedding day the tree has pride of place at the feast table until it is ritually destroyed by the koum.
In Bulgarian fairytales these symbols and ritual actions translate into the theme of a girl sitting up in a tree. She is brought down to earth by a young man (a king) or his hunters (his wedding party), either by persuasion or as in the story "Little Stag Brother", by chopping the tree down. When you come across this theme in a story, you know that the girl has reached a marriageable age and a wedding is at hand!
Braiding and Shaving Rituals: the Comb and Razor as Magical Objects
On the night or the morning before the wedding itself, two important rituals take place. The bride's hair is braided and the groom is shaved at their respective homes. Both rituals are accompanied by special songs and ceremony. After the wedding, the bride will not appear again in public with her head bare or with her hair loose like a wild samodiva. She will always wear a headscarf. The groom is no longer a boy, but a man ready to take on responsibility. The hair is tamed; the wild years of youth will be put aside and a new life will begin.
In the language of fairy tale the comb and the razor, the tools of braiding and shaving, become symbols of initiation into sexual maturity. They take on magical transforming properties and represent the transition from one stage of life to another.
Header image: detail from "Krali Marko," painting by Ivan Milev