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The hearth at the heart of the Bulgarian home

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Photo: archive

In traditional Bulgarian culture the home is a temple where prayers are said, rituals and sacrifices performed. A special role is assigned to the practices around the table and the hearth – material symbols of intangible forces which protect the household.

In olden times special rituals were performed to consecrate a newly built house. According to prominent ethnographer Dimitar Marinov, a great many of them were devoted to the hearth. Traditional beliefs set great store by it, as it was considered a sacred place. Magic spells and “evil air” would lose its powers around it, but only if the fire was kept burning around the clock. If the flames were to die out, that was bad for the home and for everyone living in it. Getting a new fire going was done once a year and there were special rituals that were strictly observed. It was the man’s job to provide the wood for the fire and the woman’s – to keep it burning. It was believed that magic spells were cast on a fireplace that was barren and abandoned. That was why every night the woman of the house would dredge the embers with ashes and then rekindle them the next morning. Even the objects the women used for both these actions were believed to have miraculous powers. The poker and the fire-tongs were believed to ward off illness, pests and animals that could harm the household. In view of this protective function they are part of various rituals for health and overcoming obstacles.

Once a new house was up, the spot where the hearth would be built had to be carefully chosen. Bulgarians invariably placed it dead-centre of the room we would nowadays call living room, kitchen or dining room. In fact the oldest Bulgarian houses had just one room where all family members lived. The fireplace was placed “facing the Eastern Sun”, i.e. where the Sun rises. Sometimes it faced south, although that depended on the circumstances during the construction of the house. But it never faced North or South.

Building the hearth also started with a ritual to sanctify the spot. According to the description given by Dimitar Marinov, a hole was dug, then water was sprinkled with a bunch of “all kinds of magical herbs”. Incense was burnt using the ploughshare, and the herbs were placed inside the hole and covered with a slate. Incense was burnt a second time while the master of the house chanted ritual incantations. The hearth was then considered to have been “founded” and the first fire could be lit; the first smoke came out of the chimney. It is believed that the spirit of the home’s patron saint dwelled in the space around the fireplace.

In many rituals the hearth was seen as synonymous with the home. That was where sacrificial animals were slaughtered. The budnik or Christmas log was also consecrated next to the fireplace. When matchmakers, clad in their best clothes came to ask for the hand of the bride, they would first take a bow at the hearth and only then pay their respects to their hosts. When the young bride first stepped over the threshold of her new home she would be taken to the fireplace. There she stoked the fire she would keep burning every day. She performed the same ritual at her parents’ home – a symbolical farewell with the place she was born and grew up. Again by the fireside, her friends would put the veil on her head before she left for the wedding ceremony. In pre-Christian times the wedding itself sometimes took place by the fireplace.

In the traditional vocabulary the hearth was the equivalent of the home, the family, the country. In songs and tales there is an expression “hearth and home”. The sanctity of the place even absolved the sin of the “eloped girl” – a girl that had run away with her beloved without the blessing of her parents. And if her in-laws placed her next to the hearth, that meant they had accepted her as a daughter-in-law. Having “passed through the fire” she took her due place as a member of the clan.

English version: Milena Daynova 

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