Barefoot on burning embers
Nestinarstvo is inscribed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
19 May, 2012
If you happen to visit Bulgaria in summertime, you'd see in many of the seaside resorts a show of young people clad in white robes or traditional costumes, dancing on burning embers. It is an ancient ritual of fire-dancing, nestinarstvo inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.The ritual of fire-dancing dates back to the pagan days of the Thracians and is an expression of the worship of the Sun God, bringing fire and fertility. Fire-dancing is closely related to the Dionysian Mysteries with the performers uttering loud exclamations. Contemporary performers also heave sighs while dancing. With the Christianisation, the ritual was anathematised as heresy and outlawed and fire-dancing sank into oblivion for centuries only to be resumed under the Ottomans.The story goes that when the Turks set fire to the village of Bulgari in the Strandja Mountain, which now is the heart of authentic fire-dancing, an old woman saw the local chapel also burning and rushed to bring out whatever she could. She retrieved an intact icon of Sts Constantine and Helena, crossing the blazes as if in a trance without being scorched at all. Sts Constantine and Helena are believed to be the patrons of fire-dancing, despite the fact that under Emperor Constantine, Christianity became an official religion and his mother was a devoted Christian. The ritual is performed on their feast day, 21 May (3 June). Early in the morning a procession led by the fire-dancers takes their icons to a spring with healing water near the village. Then the icons are consecrated and a ring dance is performed. Getting back home, the fire-dancers listen to a drum beating all day long until they fall into trance: they start dancing with sacred objects in their hands such as icons and icon-lamps.Meanwhile, a bonfire is lit up in the square to exorcise demons and drive away diseases, absolve of sins and burn down a bed of embers. The first to step in are the most skilled fire-dancers, who first walk round and crosswise. Then dancing itself commences. Fire-dancers step in the fiery circle letting out an ear-splitting shriek. They cross the glowing embers, pressing those with their feet and shrieking further. Still, their feet are not scorched.Fire-dancers are born to old families of nestinars, who pass the mystery down to the next generations. Once upon a time it was only women who danced barefoot on burning embers; now men also join in the ritual. Fire-dancers would carry in their arms sick or children to cure the former and endow the latter with a long life.Until 1912, this tradition was widely popular throughout the entire region of the Strandja Mountain and in several villages in Eastern Thrace. By the mid-20th century, it was practiced solely in two villages in the Strandja and ever since the 1990s has been performed only in the village of Bulgari.
The bed of embers is prepared in a special plave as people dance around.
Nowadays men also participate in the fire-dancing.
The ritual is performed in front of the church in the village of Bulgari.
Fire-dancers carry children over the embers to endow them a long life.