East-West Church & Ministry Report
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

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
ISSN 1069-5664

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