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Folkwise: St. George in tales and songs

БНР Новини
Photo: library

St. George (Georgi) is one of the best loved saints in Bulgarian tradition and, possibly, the saint held in highest regard. His patron saint's day, May 6 is an important feast day, so it is said: “A grand day - Easter, a day even grander - Gergiovden (St. George's day.”)

The saint that dared challenge the dragon and slay him is a powerful and fearless saint indeed. That was how he unlocked springs and rivers, “fine rain and the fresh dew”. In popular belief as in iconography St. George is invariably armed and on horseback, at his feet - the slain dragon. There is one popular story about St. George that goes like this: for three days thunder rumbled but not a drop of rain fell and a drought set in. The dragon locked the water springs and each day had a maiden brought in exchange for water for the people. The monster devoured many girls. One day it was Bilyanka that had to go - a girl named after the bille (herb) that helped her mother conceive. Her mother prayed to God to have mercy on her child. “And all of a sudden St. George appeared and slew the dragon. And a fine rain came down and watered my fields,” ends the story, as sung in many a folk song.

Which are the pagan deities that have gone into moulding the figure of the saint in folklore? Researchers seem to disagree on that point and there is evidence pointing in different directions - from Zeus the Thunderer and the Slavic god Perun, to the Thracian Dionysus and the Thracian horseman (a familiar figure in our lands, depicted on monuments, coins etc.). According to popular belief, St. George wielded a great power over the growth of plants, the health and life of people - all of them characteristics that paint the portrait of the supreme deity. He ruled over the fields and the herds, fertility was in his hands. There are tales and legends telling the story of St. George starting on his circuit of all crop fields on Annunciation day, March 25 and ending on St. George's day, May 6.

“He started out cheerful, but came back cross - the summer crops would not grow, the winter crops would not come into ear. And he prayed to the Lord: “Give me, my Lord fine dew, fine dew and a gentle rain,” - goes one St. George's day song. In some versions, the story includes St. George's sister Ranopolia (in some parts Ranni-Polle), whose feast day is on May 7. She asks him to stop dancing the horo and to go out into the fields to see how dry they are, that no crops will grow. “Milen (from mil, dear) Georgi” unsealed the sky and a life-giving rain fell to the earth. It is said that every drop of rain on St. George's day is more precious than a piece of gold. If it were to rain on this day, that is a very good sign - it is a blessing from St. George (or God himself) and there will be a bumper harvest.

The most important element of the festive meal on this day is the sacrificial lamb. It is the first male lamb born in the spring that is usually chosen. It is preened, a wreath is placed on its head and is given green grass, bran, salt and water. On its right horn a candle is placed and lit and the master of the house (or a priest) burns incense over it. The lamb would be slaughtered near the eastern wall of the house or by the fireside - a ritual whose origin clearly goes back to pagan times.

On the night before Gergiovden the water, the herbs, the grass and all things green are particularly potent. That is why the young go out into the fields and woods to gather fresh foliage and herbs to put over the doors and the threshold of their homes, sheep-pens and stables. Green twigs would be laid down on children's blankets and unmarried men would put them over the gates of the girls they were in love with. Out of the medicinal herbs collected wreaths would be made to be tied to milk mugs, put inside the bread-trough, on the roast lamb, in the animal feed, some were kept as a cure to be used throughout the year.

There is a host of other traditions and rituals connected with the day of St. George. Many of them are about sheep and stock breeding - the first time the herd is taken out to graze, the first taste of milk and dairy products etc. One element that is a must in all parts of the country are the St. George's day swings, tied to a green tree, the divinations and prophecies for health, a long life, fertility etc. The festive meal is accompanied by horo dancing and the singing of songs telling mythical stories and legends about the handsome, fearless and much-loved saint George.

English version: Milena Daynova

Photos: library

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