Skribent: Mila Apostolova
Being half Bulgarian, I grew up and bathed to some degree in Balkan and Slavic culture. What fascinates me the most about Eastern European culture is the relationship that we have and cultivate with the spiritual figures of our people. These figures, mostly women, are symbols of wisdom, healing, and magic. Sometimes I’m surprised by the level of influence that these women have on our identity and our beliefs. Even in the most skeptical people, it seems to manifest in one way or another. In the current context of technological developments and the growing distance between human beings and spirituality, magic somehow managed to keep an important role, at least from an identity- and cultural point of view, in Bulgaria.
This is a text to remember the traditions, spiritual practices, and beliefs rooted in each of us, the Balkans.
The history of magic in Bulgaria is interesting because it’s a country with a rich religious heritage, having its roots in multi-layered traditions. Even after the declaration of Christianity as the state religion of Bulgaria, and along with the Orthodox church’s development, Bulgaria remained a country with beliefs originating from paganism. Those beliefs consisted of a union of human characteristics, spirits from nature and supernatural powers. The junction of Christian beliefs and paganism has been the source of Bulgarian spirituality for centuries, preserving magic-related practices.
The most popular spiritual figures in Bulgaria are the fortune-tellers, commonly women, who along with fortune-telling,also heal with herbs and magic (especially in cases where disease is caused by magic). Many people who think they are ill due to a curse or an “evil eye” seek the help of a fortune-teller, who is usually known and recommended by friends or family members. In Bulgarian society, fortune-telling is accepted as a profession, and both upper- and lower-class individuals seek such services. In practice, fortune-tellers use different techniques according to the client’s needs. They can use herbs while saying words of enchantment to cure bad spells, use acupressure and massages to treat physical illnesses or perform tarot readings for enlightenment and clarity about the future. To honor local traditions, their offices are often decorated with Orthodox icons, which are strongly rooted in Bulgarian culture.
I grew up hearing stories about fortune-tellers. One of them, whose name I still don’t know, was a healer in Sofia. My grandmother’s acquaintances used to go visit her, and at one occasion they saw a bald little girl and her mother, seeking the healer’s help. The girl had a condition that made her entirely hairless, I imagine it was alopecia. The healer placed her hands on the girl’s head and after a while a small tuft of hair appeared. The healer then said with relief: “we can solve this”. I don’t know if this story is true, but I do know that fortune-tellers and healers are extremely requested, and they are given a lot of trust and respect from others, including myself.
I grew up hearing that the bees would disappear because Baba Vanga said so, or that Bulgarians should eat more white beans, as Baba Vanga advised.
Another figure I grew up hearing stories about is Baba Vanga, one of the most famous and influential fortune-tellers in Bulgaria. She was so well known in the country that even politicians and civil servants used to visit her, especially to make sure they were not cursed in a way that would affect their success. I grew up hearing that the bees would disappear because Baba Vanga said so, or that Bulgarians should eat more white beans, as Baba Vanga advised. Her influence in Bulgarian society is something I find special, and it upsets me to see the tabloids attribute false prophecies to her just to support a certain narrative of ongoing events. For example, many tabloids affirm that Baba Vanga predicted the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the war in Ukraine, but without going into details nor referencing the source (such as an interview with her).
I remember a summer vacation when I went with my family to the mountains in Bulgaria. We stayed in a small village near Sofia, where my sister and I loved walking around between the small shops and typical restaurants of the area. In one of the small shops in wooden construction, I came across some strange objects, small furry animals on a string to be hung somewhere. At the bottom of these talismans, a bell was hanging. Reading the name on the plastic envelope, I discovered that those objects represented the Kukeri. And that’s how I learned another spiritual tradition from my country.
The Kukeri are the protagonists of a winter season ritual. In this ritual, a group of men wear costumes and dance to scare evil spirits away. Usually, they dress like beasts, using wooden masks with horns and belts with hanging bells, but their costumes vary according to the region. People also believe that the Kukeri help ensure that next year’s harvest is good.
The atmosphere of these rituals seems almost supernatural, where the Kukeri emanate a strong connection between man and nature, where the disguise allows them to move between two worlds: the real and the fantastic, the living and the dead, the past and the future. Masks take away the man’s identity and transform him into a supernatural creature capable of entering the world of spirits and communicating with them. Some Kukeri wear belts with bells of different sizes as it is believed that their sound will allow the transition between the world of the living and the one of the dead. This explains the bells hanging from the little kukeri I found in the store.
Nowadays, those metamorphosis rituals are not as intense as they used to be. However, the participants still share the magic of the tradition by attending ceremonies and marches around the city, while wearing traditional clothing. The Kukeri’s survival is a testament to their resilience and perhaps even a product of the magical powers of the rite itself.
Bulgaria also has a great tradition of using medicinal herbs to treat a panel of different diseases and symptoms. When the sickness is thought to have been brought on by magic, certain rituals, and linguistic techniques are used to aid in the healing process. The healers have knowledge of how to use various animal products, minerals, and plants to prevent and treat the patient’s symptoms. Those healers are usually female fortune-tellers, who can heal symptoms related to evil spells, but men can also play that role in the community. However, certain treatments can only be given by women. Many plants are considered magical and are not only used in healing processes but also in spell-making, like the aconite plant that is known to be a “loving” herb, having the power to make a girl attractive to everyone around her.
Women who are both clairvoyant and healers gained their powers supernaturally, through dreams from saints or near-death experiences, such as what happened to Baba Vanga. As a child, she was attacked by a tornado and thrown into a field, losing consciousness. After that incident, her eyesight began to decline, but she developed spiritual and herbal healing abilities, which turned her into a clairvoyant. It is important to note that even though both men and women can be healers, this role is often reserved for older women because they are traditionally seen as more intuitive and wiser.
Magic practices and beliefs are part of the traditional Romani culture, and a quite common profession among women is fortune-telling and healing. The belief in the supernatural powers of Romani people assigns them an important place in the traditional Bulgarian rituals and magic. Typical characteristics of their power are their protective handmade objects and amulets, as well as palmistry and the production of spells. The amulets are usually made of iron, a material thought to prevent illnesses, but can also be made of garlic or broomcorn.
The tendency to relate Romani healers or fortune-tellers to “sorcerers” or divinators creates different images of who they are and what they represent. In fact, Romani people are treated with different attitudes. One is interest and respect, coming from people who seek their services, but the most common attitude is fear. According to reports from locals, there was a fortune-teller named Kera who lived in the Romani neighborhood of Stara Zagora. She was very respected in the community; even people from other towns would visit her and ask her to undo evil spells or tell them about the future. Other reports mention that an old Romani woman named Kaymeta was very feared by the inhabitants of Sandanski, the town where she lived. People were scared that her magic could reach them in negative ways, and they would cautiously whisper her name when speaking of her. In both cases, they are seen as people with power over others. What varies is the belief about how their powers are being used.
In Silistra, a city in Bulgaria, the Romani people believe that whenever someone wants to do evil to a child, they can steal a piece of the child’s clothing in the dark and use it to cast a spell on the child. In Bulgaria, the evil eye theme is taken very seriously, even by people who do not consider themselves superstitious. Many Bulgarians have methods to protect themselves from the evil eye, not only through amulets but also through mental exercises and bodily movements that are thought to scare away the evil eye.
Despite all the socio-cultural changes, modernization, and technological evolution, magic has adapted to its new environment. Magical practices and beliefs are an integral part of popular culture in Bulgaria, giving people clues on understanding their world and surroundings. Even if those practices are more present in certain regions than others, it’s always interesting to learn more about them and, who knows, maybe connect with some on a personal level.
Mila Apostolova (f. 2001) studerer kognitiv nevrovitenskap ved Universitet i Oslo.