Fire-dancing is one of the most beautiful pagan customs which still exists in the Bulgarian part of Strandzha mountain. We celebrate it every year on May 21 when the feast of St. Constantine and his mother St. Helena is. Both saints are considered patrons of fire dancers, known as “nestinari” in Bulgarian. The date is also the most important in the fire-dancing ritual calendar.
Fire dancing is a pagan custom believed to come from the Thracians
Fire dancing is a pagan custom believed to come from the Thracians. In the early morning on May 21, the icon of St. Constantine and St. Helena is transported to a place designated for their sanctuary. Then the icon is washed in water and rituals begin, which usually continue throughout the day. Large fires are set, on which a mutton sacrifice is prepared. By dusk, the raging flames are subsided and only embers remained. At this time the fire dancers begin to pray in front of the icon of St. Constantine and Helena. Most prayers pass under the rhythm of a big drum.
The fire is collected and spread until it takes the form of a Christian Cross, in front of which several prayers are also said. And here comes one of perhaps the most inexplicable native traditions – walking on fire. The men take the icon of the saints and enter the flames, and the women go through the fire shouting “wyh, wyh, wyh.” Hence the widespread exclamation “wyh”, especially popular in the villages of Strandzha Mountain.
Fire dancing is passed from the older to the younger
As usual in Bulgarian folklore, fire dancing is passed from the older to the younger. The specific rule for fire dancers is that the skills can only be passed from grandmother to grandson or from grandfather to granddaughter. Of course, there are various theories about the meaning of the unusual dance. Some fire dancers claim to have felt a connection to the fire as a child. They say that in their childhood they enjoyed watching the flames until the moment they realized they wanted to enter the embers.
After the dance, the fire dancers carry a child in their arms over the embers – it is believed that this ritual is performed for health. “Spectators are also invited to enter the smoldering coals. People who enter with hesitation and prejudice usually leave quickly with burnt steps,” said a local fire dancer. “Those who come in convinced, with faith, come out unscathed, without a single wound.”
The purpose of the ritual is considered to be purification from evil and from the accumulated negative energies during the cold season. For themselves, fire dancers believe that in this way they are reborn and are protected directly from the god Sun. Another interesting theory links the pain experienced by fire dancers during the dance with that of an ordinary person who, although he encounters difficulties on his earthly journey, still retains the good in himself and becomes stronger.
The purpose of the ritual of fire dancing is considered to be purification from evil
Historians are of different opinions why exactly St. Constantine and Helena are patrons of fire dancers. What we know for sure is that Constantine was an emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is believed that both he and his mother Helena have Thracian roots originating from the city of Nis. According to legend, during one of the last battles that the emperor fought, a cross was revealed from heaven. But not Latin, but Christian. At this point, Constantine decided to stop the persecution of Christians. Fire dancing named “nestinarstvo” on Bulgarian, is also considered to be directly related to agricultural labor. The time when the rite was performed is just before the hard and intensive work in the field begins. It is believed that walking on embers is a symbol of cultivating the land, and “the heat underfoot” – the incredible effort to be made.