BULGARIAN CUSTOMS AND RITES
Folk art developed as a continuation of the artistic traditions of Thracians, Proto-Bulgarians and Slavs. The first half of the 7 c., when the Bulgarian state was founded, is generally accepted as the starting point of its original formation and development. Having inherited a rich culture, the people used it as the basis for a new art. An art, specific in ethnic colouring had emerged, reflecting the characteristics of the socio-political life and historic fate, of the lifestyle and mentality of the people. In the years of Ottoman rule (14 - 19 c.) folk art united the nation, thus preserving its original appearance.
According to the Greek philosopher Democritus, life without festivals resembles a long journey without inns to stop at. According to the ethnographic experts the rites, connected to Bulgarian customs, exceed 11 000. Indeed, there are lots of rites, which accompanied the Bulgarian from the cradle to the grave. All these rites have something in common and that is the covetness for good and beauty.
It was already mentioned that one of the most cruel forms of assimilation of the Bulgarian nation during the Ottoman rule was the levy of Bulgarian boys for the corps of Janissaries, the Turkish army. The Turks took small boys at the age of 5 - 8 years from the conquered lands, took them to special schools in the Ottoman empire where they were taught the Moslem, military art and obeyance to the Sultan. They grew up alone, with no family, and later they became one of the most severe and ruthless soldiers of the Turkish army. There are lots of Bulgarian folk songs and legends relating how sometimes these soldiers were sent to the places, where they were born, and killed their parents or raped their sisters, because they had no memories.
In the day when the Turks gathered their so called “blood taxes” the Bulgarians hid all small boys in the family, slaughtered a cock and using its blood they drew a cross sign on the entrance door. That sign on the doors was usually left by the Turks, meaning that a boy had already been taken from this house.
Later this day (02.02.) was called the COCK’S DAY and was dedicated to all boys. On this day all mothers of male children visited the midwife of the village to express their gratitude. The old lady welcomed them, dressed in a special costume, decorated with pieces of wool and necklace of popcorn, symbolising the main occupation of the Bulgarians - agriculture and stock breeding. That was a typical ladies’ celebrations performed for the health of the boys and men, but no men were allowed to be present.
There were also customs dedicated to maidens. One of them - LADOUVANE - was performed on the New Year’s day. The young girls tried to foresee their future, that’s why they drop their rings, together with oats and barley (symbols of fertility) into a cauldron, containing spring water. The rings were tied with red thread to a bunch of ivy, crane’s bill or basil. The cauldron was left overnight in the open, beneath the stars, and on New Year’s Eve following ritual dances around it, the girls’ fortunes were told - who of the girls would marry, would she go to a rich house, would she be happy, how many children would she have, etc.
LAZAROUVANE is another ritual that bears an element of love and marriage. This also determined the particular attention paid to dress - festive and beautiful, with superb heavy jewellery. The Lazarouvane is a string of ritual games and songs studied in advance by the girls and these were girls fit to be married.
There was a wide spread belief, saying that a girl who didn’t take part in this Lazarouvane rite would be kidnapped by the dragon, living in the vicinity of the village, and would marry him.
In these days of old, people believed that these rites were a guarantee for happiness, long life and a house full of children.
Bulgarians are also great admirers of wine. Viticulture and wine production have a long-standing tradition. They occupy and important place in the life of Bulgarian people. Wine is a constant attribute, accompanying any celebration.
The celebration, dedicated to all vinegrowers is called TRIFON ZAREZAN. It is celebrated particularly festively. Every year during the first half of February, the vine growers, dressed in their best clothes and decorated with crane’s bill and boxwood go to the vineyard, accompanied by the sounds of music. The best vine-grower of the village prunes symbolically vines in the four corners of the vineyard, pours wine on them and wishes for good vintage. In some areas, a “Vine King” is chosen, who is crowned with a wreath of vinetwigs. Everybody treats him with great respect, for it is that fertility will depend on the King’s happiness. After the ritual in the vineyard all the people go back to the village and treat themselves with wine. Everybody treats his neighbour with wine and tries his. The result is that at the end of the day most of the men are a little dizzy. This is a typical men’s celebration and old people say the more you get drunk on this day the richer will be the vintage.
All Bulgarian rites and celebrations as wedding, childbirth, baptism ceremony - were accompanied by lots of music and dances. The traditional Bulgarian dance, called CHORO, express people’s happiness and joy of life. Usually it is danced in a circle under the sound of traditional instruments. The dancers hold each other’s hand and dance with quick and short steps. At the “head” of this string of people there’s always someone prominent, who is symbolically the leader of the dancers.
Bulgarian folk music is primarily vocal. Over 70 000 FOLK SONGS have been collected at the Folklore Institute of the Bulg. Academy of Sciences. Songs are inseparable from the Bulgarian’s life as a whole. The claim that songs are the essence of a nation is hardly an exaggeration. Songs have accompanied the Bulgarians during workdays and holidays, in periods of historical upsurge and in times of trial, in joy and in sorrow. The paradox that the Bulgarian sings when in sorrow is not accidental. The Bulgarian used to create songs everywhere, for any occasion - traditional songs, songs sung wile working, songs sung at the table, dance songs and many others, It’s interesting to know that on board of the spaceships Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 there is a Bulgarian folk song as a sample of a human voice. Each of the spaceships carry a gilded copper gramophone record - a message to other intelligent civilisations. Besides scientific information about the Earth, the record also contains selected records of mankind’s musical treasury. Among them, along with a Beethoven symphony, there is also a Bulgarian Rhodopes song.
What are the distinguishing features of the Bulgarian folk song?
It is chiefly homophonic. Even when two groups are singing (choir and choir, soloist and choir), even when they alternate in singing or one of the side leads, followed by the other, the song sounds single-voiced. The rhythm and wealth are on a scale which is qualified by specialists as ranging “from states fantastic to primitive monotony.” This is achieved by means of diverse time on the basis of extended time. This technique makes Bulg. folk songs unique, while extended time is its distinguishing feature that is unknown in European music.
Speaking about music and dances - there is a unique dance on red embers - called NESTINARSTVO. This old custom was brought over from Asia Minor in older times. It merged with the old Slav tradition of making a fire and jumping over it at Midnight Night (24 June). This is a health and fertility rite.
The dancers spent the whole day praying in the chapel. Late in the evening a fire was made, the embers were spread first in the form of a cross and then in a circle - an expression of the solar cult of the Bulgarians. The dancers, having been in religious trace for days, ran crosswise over the carpet of glowing embers in their bare feet to the accompaniment of traditional instruments (bagpipes and drums). They held icons in their hands of the patron-saints of this celebration - St. Constantine and Helena, believing that they saved them from burning their feet.
The technique of this fire dancing is still a mystery. In the past the secret of dancing on red embers was kept in the family and was delivered from a mother to a daughter, from a father to a son. The feet of the real fire-dancers never get burnt - and this is not only a religious trance. According to some specialists the secret is a special step over the embers which is a kind of stifling of the fire; according to others, the steps are too quick for burning.
Today, there is only one village in Bulgaria, in which this ritual is still preserved. There are also some records, that fire dancing was performed in Greece too.
Another interesting ritual is the MUMMERS CUSTOM. It marks the beginning of the spring calendar and preparations for it take some more time. Everybody makes his own personal mask - a proof of the skill and aesthetic feeling of each mummer. This is why no two ritual masks resemble each other. In general they are multi-coloured, covered with beads, ribbons and woollen tassels. The dress is a fruit of the individual imagination too. The purpose is to look as frightening as possible. The whole ritual is a kind of masquerade. Early in March the mummers walk through the streets to the sound of drums and bagpipes. They visit every house, dance for a while and are given some corn, wine and small coins. When they have made their round of the whole village they end up in the square, where the entire village is awaiting them and there they start to dance again. The dancers have big bells tied around their waists and while they dance - they jump very often, so that a great noise is made. Bulgarians of old believed that this sound of the bells and the frightening appearance of the dancers would drive away the evil and sickness.