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Legends about Bulgarian Mountains

Photo: Veneta Nikolova
In its relatively small area Bulgaria has gathered the most impressive mountains in the Balkans. Stara Planina Mountain known internationally as the Balkan Range, has lent its name to the whole peninsula. It is long and monumental, crossing Bulgaria from its western border all the way to the Black Sea, dividing the country into a southern and a northern part. The highest mountain in the Balkans however is Rila Mountain, southwestern Bulgaria. Neighboring Pirin is also alpine and equally impressive. Larger than them is the Rhodope Mountain to the southeast. Bordering on the seaside further east is the smaller but very exotic Strandja. All of these represent Bulgaria’s most emblematic mountains though there are others too. In Radio Bulgaria’s Folk Studio we revisit legends about them.

In traditional culture the mountain is a holy place. Ancient people believed that by towering to the skies, mountains got closer to God. This idea has obviously inspired a legend about the Rhodope Mountain and the Balkan Range called Hemus or Hem by the ancient Thracians. In the legend the two mountains were still little children, their dad being a sea god. Hemus was the elder brother and Rhodope – the younger sister. Both lived a carefree childhood full of games. Once however, they decided to mock the old gods. Hem made himself a long white beard, and Rhodope let down her gorgeous blond hair. That rather daring game infuriated the Old God, the Lord of the whole world. In his divine fury he transformed Rhodope into a large, curvaceous mountain. Seeing the metamorphosis, her brother Hemus petrified and turned into another mountain, however mannish and severe. To make the punishment even harsher, the Old God divided the two mountains with the spacious Thracian Plain.

A family drama evolved in a story about the mountains Rila and Pirin. The young, beautiful and diligent girl Rilka fell for a stranger Pirin and wished to marry him. He had a crush on her too. However Rilka’s parents refused to give their daughter to the stranger. So the two young people went on marrying without parental consent, and ran away. Soon they had two children, a son called Iskar and a daughter they named Mesta. While their mom took care of them at home, their dad went out hinting. The two kids were so naughty that they often had rows and even fights. Once, being unable to calm them down, their mother uttered a curse: she urged God to take them apart forever, and turn her into stone not to worry about them. Unfortunately, the curse materialized. Rilka turned into the Rila Mountain. Her son Iskar turned into a boisterous river, while Mesta was transformed into a calmer one, flowing to the south. While the tragedy happened their father Pirin was out hunting, but the curse reached him too: he turned into the Pirin Mountain where the River Mesta ran. In this way the legend cut off any father-son contact allowing the father to keep in touch with his daughter alone. That explains why Pirin is always grim on the side where he faces his former wife Rila.

Not only legends, but folk songs too tend to animate mountains making them actors in stories about human relationships. There is a song in which the Balkan Range asks Mount Vitosha: “Are you asleep, Mount Vitosha?” Vitosha replied it was not asleep but was rather tired because it had had guests from the Pirin Mountain. Vitosha complained that the guests had burnt down its green forest and roasted its lambs to feast in the woods. In another song the Balkan Range adopts the baby of a young woman taken to slavery by the Turks. The mother tied the cradle with the boy to two neighboring trees and entreated the mountain to take care of her child. The mountain endowed the boy with miraculous powers: in just nine years it matured to become a young and energetic man.

English version: Daniela Konstantinova

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