Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe
Popular Faith and Practice in Bulgaria Today
Kristian Ismail and Gary Griffith
It would be beneficial for anyone interested in the spiritual climate in Bulgaria, officially Eastern Orthodox, to become familiar with its rich religious heritage which has its roots in multi-layered traditions. Popular beliefs, which are syncretistic in nature, dominate people's spiritual worldview, especially for the generation over forty-five years of age, as well as for those who live outside cities.
Remnants of Paganism in Popular Christianity
The declaration of Christianity as the official religion of Bulgaria in 865 A.D. in reality resulted in a dualistic faith, reflecting on the one hand, the beliefs and practices of pagan primitivism, and on the other hand, the officially accepted Orthodox version of Christianity. Belief in animistic, spirit-infused beings, which took on human qualities and possessed supernatural power, coexisted with the state-approved Bulgarian Orthodox Church. This blending of Christian faith and paganism would remain at the root of Bulgarian spirituality for centuries to come. The Orthodox Church strove to preserve Bulgarian Christian culture, but during five centuries of Muslim Turkish rule it had no power to undermine the pagan beliefs already inherent in a dualistic belief system. Because of this, pagan phenomena have survived as a part of Bulgarian Christian tradition at a deep level. Thus, Christianity, imposed by the government, did not erase pagan beliefs from the minds of uneducated masses.
The national calendar, for example, closely tied to agricultural cycles, blends Christian and pre-Christian elements. Established Christian holidays coincided with pagan events: the birth of Christ, for example, was named in the Bulgarian calendar Koleda, connected to the winter solstice. Veneration of saints quickly became an integral part of the spiritual practices of Bulgaria's Christianized pagans. Certain features and functions from the pagan pantheon were projected onto Christian saints. Thus, Saint George became the defender of livestock and the earth; Saint Elijah controlled thunder and lightning; and Saint Nikolaus defended fishermen. Other saints represented different cycles of the peasants' field work.
Magic, Fairies, Fire-Dancing, and Fortune-telling
Through the centuries, the practice of magic has been preserved alongside Christianity, often with a merging of the two. The cross, for example, revered and kissed, is to this day thought by some to possess magical powers. Magical practices in Bulgaria are rooted in ancient, animistic superstitions. In the words of one contemporary writer, "The world is gifted with life, created by the Almighty; invisible, mystical, and unknown powers control it; and spirits inhabit it." In the popular beliefs of the people these notions are connected not only with familiar concepts of Christianity--God, the Devil, demons, and angels--but also include many legendary and mythological figures. In the minds of the multitudes certain taboos, derived from Bulgaria's spiritual dualism, remain valid today. Many everyday tasks must be done in a certain prescribed way, both because they have been passed down from ancient storytellers, and because of Bulgarians' inclination to rely on superstitions. In this way various residual influences continue to exist without explanation. One example would be the saying, "Don't let anything pass over a deceased person's body before it is buried," which comes from the old belief that people turned into vampires if they died unexpectedly or were not prepared for burial according to certain traditions and customs. Since burial customs and rituals are numerous and it would be easy to overlook one or more, it is common to see cotton or straw which "protects" the corpse placed next to the deceased. Fire is believed to be protective, and since these items are easily ignitable materials, they are thought to provide the necessary protection for the body.
Bogomilism, an Orthodox heresy which arose during the eleventh century, took to extremes a dualistic view that divides the world between good and evil, between God and the Devil. Since Bogomilism promoted an easily understandable cosmology it found widespread acceptance among the population.
Besides the world view of good and evil contending for man, Bulgarians long held to a belief in a mythical pair of fairies (orisnitsi) which predestined man's fate. People, of course, desired to know their predetermined fate. With the passage of time systems of rules and procedures developed which were to indicate a person's fate, along with diviners who would interpret the signs. Indicators for determining fate were to be found in just about every facet of the daily life of Bulgarian peasants. Certain places and days, certain organs of the body, a facial twitch, encounters with certain animals, dreams, fire, or anything occurring in an unexpected manner could serve as a sign of what was to happen.
Fire-dancing, still practiced today, originally served as a means of divination. After singing and dancing on hot coals, a person falls into a trance, and then is said to be able to foretell the future. This custom is particularly associated with the feast day honoring Saints Constantine and Elena.
The well-known Bulgarian phrase, "Five fingers prevail over God," suggests that the Devil's magic, conjured up through various potions, is even greater than the power of God. "Five fingers" represent the arm-waving gestures of a magician casting a spell over a victim.
Fortune-tellers (vrachari) practice divination, but are best known for healing using herbs or even magic (if they determine that the illness is caused by magic) to bring about good. People who believe they have fallen ill due to a curse or influence of an "evil eye" will seek the help of fortune-tellers. Babba Vanga (Grandma Vanga), who died in 1997, was the best known and most influential of Bulgaria's fortune-tellers. It was not uncommon for political candidates and office holders to visit Babba Vanga to make sure that no curse had been put upon them that might affect their success.
Bulgarian tradition holds that the visible and invisible worlds are united by means of ongoing contacts between the living and the dead. Thus, Bulgarian peasants typically set aside the first fruits of the land for the dead, before any of the produce is consumed, to ensure good crops for the future. The dead are thought to have influence over the productivity of the land. Other practices surrounding death and burial illustrate the close relationship of the living and the dead. At a funeral hot bread or grains are passed out to those present. These offerings are said to please and nourish the deceased, and again help maintain the ties between the living and the dead.
The Role of the Orthodox Church
Many evangelical Christians consider the Orthodox Church responsible for the blending of Bulgarian Christian faith and pagan traditions. It appears that "the conquered superstition became in its own way the conqueror." Today a similar motif appears to be reinforced as both Orthodox Christian and purely political elements are blended in a popular "Bulgarian national identity." Unfortunately, this popular religion, this "Pagan Christianity," simply confirms that pragmatism and superstition in Bulgaria in matters of faith always find a way to survive and resurface.
Kristian Ismail will graduate from the Bulgarian Biblical Academy-Logos, Sofia, Bulgaria, in November 1999. Gary Griffith is Dean of the Residential Program at the Bulgarian Biblical Academy-Logos, Sofia, Bulgaria.
Kristian Ismail and Gary Griffith, "Popular Faith and Practice in Bulgaria Today," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Spring 1999), 4-5.
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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