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Fire-dancing- latest Bulgarian heritage phenomenon designated in UNESCO register

UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the preservation of non-material heritage, meeting at its 4th regular session in Abu Dhabi, UAE, designated the ancient Bulgarian fire-dancing tradition to be included in UNESCO’s representative register of mankind’s non-material cultural heritage. The move aims to assist in the preservation and perpetuation of the tradition for the benefit of coming generations.
Fire dancing is an ancient tradition, practiced only in South-Eastern Bulgaria, in the Strandja Mountain region. According to popular superstition, lighting up a fire keeps evil forces away from people, nature and the Sun, thus reinforcing its divine power. Walking into the fire is said to be cleansing, opening the invisible gateway to the other world. This comes to account why the predictions fire dancers make always come true.

For hundreds of years indigenous residents in the villages of Bulgari, Kosti, Brodilovo and Gramatikovo, have performed the fire dancing tradition in the month of May, the ritual culmination being on the 21st day of that month, the day when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church does homage to the cause of Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena. Emperor Constantine the Great has gone down in history with the official acknowledgement of Christianity as a religion equitable to all other religions in the Roman Empire. And yet, the Orthodox Church has never acknowledged fire dancing, so much so, that even in the early XXth c. the people performing the ritual continued to be an object of persecution. However, despite all adversity, the tradition has survived till date. Tradition maintains that fire-dancing skills are hereditary; the chief fire dancer is the one to appoint his successor when his dying hour arrives or he finds himself totally incapacitated to carry on dancing. If he has a son, the chief fire dancer transmits his power to him and if not- to his daughter, in the presence of all fire dancers. This is believed to sustain the capability of predicting the future.

The icons of St. Constantine and St. Helena have a special part in the tradition. The pair of icons and the ritual drum are as a rule kept in a chapel the whole year round. Incidentally, the icons have special handles; on the feast day they are traditionally decorated with embroidered hand-made cloth and flower tributes. A tour of the sacred places in the village and the village homesteads at the start of the celebration is one of the highlights of the ritual. Early in the morning on 21 May, a holy water spring, lying close to a church, monastery or any other holy place, is opened up. Cleansing and consecration rituals are performed followed by a village votive offering on the day, usually coming in the form of mutton soup, cooked in huge pans and ladled out free to all and any. Towards nightfall all make their way to village centre, when the fire kept up burning throughout the day is expected to have produced an extensive bed of glowing embers. They are spread out in a circle and then it is time for the people to join a horo folk dance, traditionally done in three or nine circles. The circle is associated with the movement of the sun, while the fire is the earthly equivalent of the “heavenly fire”, as the sun is referred to in Bulgarian folklore. The culmination of the day arrives when the fire dancers, to the haunting tunes of a bagpipe and a drum, the fire dancers fall into a trance and then walk into the embers to dance, holding the icons. At midnight the chief fire dancer makes his predictions both for the community and individual people. When the dancing ritual is concluded, the icons and the drum are escorted back to their home chapel; for his part, the chief fire dancer returns to his own home in the company of a party of males only.

Dimitar Marinov, a renowned Bulgarian ethnographer, quoted in the early XXth c. an eye-witness account:” What is predicted miraculously turns to be the case and the fire dancers, well, they seem to have charmed feet. If it isn’t the work of God!

Written by: Albena Bezovska
English version: Margarita Dikanarova

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