The rainbow: Bulgarian legends and beliefs

Photo: ВТА
Zuna, zunka, damga, wine & wheat, tkanitsa, bozhurlak – all these colorful names denote the motley stripe that goes across the sky after rain with the seven colors of the spectrum arranged in it. In Bulgarian folklore the rainbow was perceived as a magic condition of the natural elements. In this edition of Folk Studio we bring you a few Bulgarian legends about this natural phenomenon.

As we have been told at school the rainbow appears after rain and results from the dispersion of light. Raindrops deflect and reflect some of the white-colored sunrays. As is the case with the prism, the first deflection takes place as rays enter the drop, and it breaks down light into colors. During the second deflection, as the light leaves the drop, the division increases. Red, orange, yellow, green blue, violet are the colors arranged across the sky. In Bulgarian traditional beliefs God has created the rainbow to appease humans that he will never again send them a great flood. The memory of the indescribable disaster with which God punished human beings for their sins, provoked fears any time a heavy rain fell. The gentle radiance of the rainbow was a sign that God had not withdrawn His blessing from the Earth.

In pagan beliefs the rain and the moisture housed in the clouds, would be managed by mythical dragons. They lived at the edge of the world together with other mythical creatures that managed the natural phenomena. In the Christianized folklore myth about the distribution of the world among the saints, the rain and thunderstorms went to St. Elijah. After pouring the rain from his huge casks, he sometimes dropped his waist-belt on the earth. His waist-belt was colorful stretching across the sky. This is how the rainbow shaped up, another legend contends. From this story derives the saying, “St. Elijah dropped his belt.” There is a similar saying that goes, “Granny Zunka dropped her belt”, in which Zunka is one of the names of the rainbow. Zuna or zunitsa mean a bow, of a cask or of a wheel, but they also mean a belt.

In the Bulgarian folk costumes the belt is abundant in colors with its fibers dyed in all the colors of the rainbow. Some wedding songs offer a wonderful metaphor: the bride, beautiful as the sun, wears the rainbow as her belt. Wood-nymphs too wore such a motley belts with their white garments. In songs and legends the beautiful women of the forest are clad in white shirts or frocks, had waist-bands of gold and a motley belt over them in which however the green shade is the dominant one.

In another legend Granny Zunka lives in the sky and drinks water from the clouds. When the moisture in the sky is finished she descends to the earth to drink water from a spring, from a river or from the sea. The place where she goes to drink is a secret. Humans can see her in the sky, but cannot possibly find the ends of the long colorful waist-belt. In folklore beliefs the rainbow only seldom visits the earth and always drinks from a sliver cup. The magical cup is laid by the spring. The one who finds it will be lucky. He will find out about his future and all his dreams will materialize. If he drinks from this cup he can switch his or her gender. The man will become a woman and vice-versa. The same can happen if somebody goes under the rainbow.

The zunka is also useful in various fortune-telling practices. Depending on what color dominates in the lovely radiance in the sky, Bulgarians could make a forecast about the future harvest. A more intense red meant that grapes would be abundant. Yellow was a blessing for wheat and green for the grass.

Translated by Daniela Konstantinova
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