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Like other European countries in recent decades, Bulgaria has been suffering from a demographic crisis - its population keeps decreasing and aging at a steady pace. One reason for this alarming trend are the reproductive problems of young families: according to statistics, between 200 and 300 000 couples out of the 8 million Bulgarian population can not have children despite their desire. The inability of a family to have their own children is a serious problem for which different solutions are sought. Despite the huge progress in medicine, pharmaceuticals and modern IVF technology, many couples still resort to the ancient ritual practices in their strong desire for having a child. These rituals have no rational scientific explanation, but are rather motivated by faith and tradition.
We find such an example in Gorni Voden, formerly an independent village and today a quarter of Asenovgrad. There is the church of the Assumption of the Theotokos known as the "Golden Apple". Its patron feast is not celebrated on August 15th when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church observes the Assumnption of the Theotokos, but it is celebrated on the fifth Saturday of the Great Lent, two weeks before Easter. Then, apart from the festive liturgy, a unique custom called the Golden Apple is practiced: the faithful are given blessed apples for health. After observing a certain period of fasting, the spouses who want to have a child divide the apple among themselves and then eat it on an empty stomach with the seeds, as if they were taking the holy communion with it.
People in Bulgaria also used to make special belts for a child – they had to go round the church three times with a cotton thread that was folded and wound like a Martenitsa thread and the woman who wanted to get pregnant, tied it round her waist for 40 days. Old people today say they have seen many cases in which the Golden Apple has helped childless families acquire offspring. There is a custom that children who were born onto this world thanks to the Golden Apple, are to be baptized in the same church and bring gifts to the Virgin in gratitude.
A special conception ritual, once again practiced via putting a thread around one’s waist, is still performed to this day in the smallest Bulgarian town of Melnik. People there honor the Belt of the Mother of God – a miraculous relic left over from Mary after her Assumption. Among locals, the belt is known as the "holy zone" (from the Greek zone – meaning a zone). A large monastery has been dedicated to it, which was subsequently destroyed and today a modest chapel rises in its place.
Nevertheless, it attracts many believers in the neighborhood, especially on its patron day on August 31 when people mark the feast of the Honest Laying of the Holy Belt of the Virgin Mary. In the miraculous icon, also known as "the holy zone", priests bless red threads that women tie around their waist in order to conceive and become mothers. Here there is no custom to eat apples, but in the nearby Rozhen Monastery old vines are growing whose grapes are also considered miraculous.
According to legends and beliefs, the holy belt of the Virgin Mary has been preserved until today and continues to perform miracles. Various churches claim to keep parts of it, but most Orthodox Christians believe that it is kept in the Vatopedi monastery of Mount Athos. Since women have access to the monastic republic, they can not worship the relic and pray before it. So the monks made special belts that they sanctify under the Holy Belt and distribute them to the faithful. These belts are also considered miraculous – they can offer help for serious illnesses, especially inability to conceive and have children. Although rare, the belt is exported outside the monastery – for example it was recently taken to Russia where it was met by people with great veneration as a fertility relic.
So in today's world of high technology and science, the ancient rituals of conception and childbirth are not yet extinct. Medicine with its costly and lengthy procedures proves unable to help everyone. Many people still resort to the Christian faith and the traditions of their ancestors. Perhaps this is done because they give not only hope for practical results, but also offer spiritual support, treating not only the body but also the soul, thus incorporating the humans into the realm of divinity.
Author: Vihra Baeva, PhD, senior researcher at the Institute for Ethnology and Folklore studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
English version: Rossitsa Petcova