Prayer, blessing, vow: the secret lore of the Bulgarian healers and sorceresses

Besides healing capacities herbs were believed to help contact creatures from the invisible world...
“There is a herb for every ache”, a Bulgarian proverb goes. And indeed, the Bulgarian folk medicine has proved effective in a wide range of diseases and has created an elaborate system for the prevention of various health problems. In cases when the illness was believed to have been caused by magic, some specific rituals and verbal methods were employed in the healing process.

There are many legends in Bulgaria about herbalists and medicine men who had the skill to treat successfully any ailment. Some of them knew how to help their fellow villagers by using plants, minerals and a range of animal products. The community had deep respect and even awe for clairvoyants, sorceresses and medicine women and men. Their skills were rare, so the community usually placed them high in the social hierarchy.

In the Bulgarian tradition healthy plants are divided into girls’ and magical. The magical group includes mostly herbs that grow in either valleys or high in the mountains. They had the power to contact the creatures of the invisible world and to assist the work of magic. Central to folk medicinal beliefs is the mysterious herb called BILE. It was a key ingredient in the magical infusions used to banish evil powers and illnesses. In most Bulgarian dialects the word BILE is a synonym of BILKA, or herb. However it was this magical herb that has lent its name to biliar or biliarka, the men or women who could cast and break spells. They would use a diversity of herbs with names that suggest their effect on the human system. The Bulgarian name of harefoot is the Enchanting Herb and it could make a lad fall madly in love with a girl. The name of monkshood in Bulgaria is the Loving Herb, and it had the power to make a girl appealing to all young men. There was a herb however with the opposite effect and it was called the Dividing Herb able to end a love affair. Alongside these properties, herbs had a few healing effects that biliars knew quite well.

Znalets, vrazhalets and znahar in Bulgarian are names of people who are not simply healers but ones who could clearly see where the pain has come from. Before removing the cause of the ailment, they would first issue a diagnosis to the patient. Only then they would move to a selection of treatments. Healers did not indulge into casting spells with the exception of cases when black magic was the cause of the illness. In such cases they employed a bunch of verbal formulas that accompanied the ritual actions meant to banish the disease.

Though they never revealed the precise content of the phrases and chants they used, it was known that the verbal treatment would begin with a prayer to the powers of the yonder world. In a bid to get a blessing for the patient, healers sometimes prescribed the following ritual. The healer took the sick man by the hand and led him to the front door of the house. There the patient had to make a deep bow touching the threshold. He did the same in front of the hearth. There the healer or sorceress sprinkled him over the head with water in which embers had been placed. After that she placed bread and wine over his head and was asking the illness to go away, saying: “Go away, sweet and full of honey. Come on, have enough food and drink. And for your wellbeing, he (here the name of the patient was said) vows not to eat meat. This vow had to be observed for life.

The craft of healers was handed over from generation to generation. However it is noteworthy that certain kinds of treatments were accepted as the priority of medicine men. Other treatments should be carried out by women exclusively. Men would hand down their knowledge and skills to a blood relative, either a son or grandson. In case when the firstborn son was not gifted, they would transfer their skills to other sons. If the family had no sons, the eldest daughter would be trained. Medicine men would keep secret their greatest skills until their last hours on earth and only then, dying, they would reveal them to the chosen successor. The same practice was common among female healers and clairvoyants. They too, were expected to hand over their knowledge to either a daughter or granddaughter. Under the trade’s canons, this rule was observed strictly. Whoever violated it was risking the loss of the family healing talent and magic powers.

The old time surgeons and orthopedicians were called “praviltsi”, or “ortho-healers” meaning medicine men specialized in setting sprained or broken bones and in the treatment of the patients to full recuperation. There are still legends alive about such a medicine man in the region of Lom, Northwestern Bulgaria. He lived in 19 c. and practiced his profession for 65 years. For all that long time he had not a single failed treatment. An ethnographer has recorded the following story about the great talent of that man and about his rare intelligence. Prior to Bulgaria’s Liberation in 1878, the ruler of the regional center Vidin was a very demanding Turkish pasha. It once happened that his baby daughter fell from the cradle and her joint was sprained. The pasha summoned the medicine man and asked him to treat the girl however without even touching the child. The old wise man thought for a while and he finally found a solution. He selected a nice horse from the pasha’s stables. He ordered the servants to give it food all day, but no water at all. In the morning they took the horse out and put the girl on its back. The healer gave very precise instructions on how to tie the legs of the girl to the animal’s tummy and only then the thirsty horse was given water. It drank a lot and its belly swelled and so the joint of the child was set. The pasha rewarded the old medicine man very generously. It was curious that this renowned healer had only one daughter to whom he handed over his secrets. He had been an only child too and his mother had inherited the special knowledge from her own father. 

Translated by Daniela Konstantinova

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