Bulgarian Magical Healers: Don’t Call Me a Witch!
Is healing outside of modern medicine miraculous or perhaps even magical?
Do you know where Bulgaria is? It’s nestled along the western side of the Black Sea, just north of Greece. The country is perhaps best known to the Western world for the city of Varna, the place where Dracula set sail on the Demeter. But the country has so much more to its acclaim — Thracian tombs, rose oil, yogurt, honey, and herbs. Not to mention all the creatures who call it home — vampires, witches, dragons, and nymphs. You’ve most likely heard of Veelas from Harry Potter stories. In Bulgaria these nymphs, or fairies, who can charm men are called Samodivi and inhabit forests. Their sisters the Rusalki thrive in water bodies. You’d probably call them mermaids.
Bulgarians are steeped in superstitions, with numerous ways to ward off illness and curses caused by the “evil eye,” but they are also believers in the divine. Orthodox and pagan practices combine into unique perspectives on every aspect of life from birth to death. Folk medicine is widespread — in cities as well as in tiny, remote villages. Herbs play an important role in these cures. A popular saying is that an herb exists for every ache. Even during the time of the Roman Empire, Thrace (modern Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) was known for its vast richness of medicinal plants.
No day is more important for healers than Midsummer, or Eniovden, a celebration of the summer solstice. Beginning at dusk on the previous evening, women and healers collect herbs because they’re most potent on this day. Although it may sound strange, they collect seventy-seven and a half herbs. It’s said this is the number of illnesses that exist, with the half herb designated for unknown ailments. (No, I don’t know how they determine a half herb. Perhaps they break one in half. Like so many other rituals, it’s secretive.)
Women who gather the herbs use some to create a giant wreath that young girls pass through. This protects them from being captured by a zmey, a male dragon who easily falls in love with a maiden and desires to have her for a bride. (Lest you think this might be quite the adventure, believe me it’s not. Those marriages always end in disaster for the poor girl who gives in to the zmey’s pleas and promises of wealth.)
Mostly, however, healers use herbs to cure illnesses, especially those caused by spirits or through curses. In ancient times in Bulgaria, during the time of the Thracians, the summer solstice was associated with spirits crossing from one realm to the next. And so, it was a day when people, livestock, and fields required protection. Only those versed in magical rites could perform these sacred rituals. They used herbs that had the power to contact invisible beings in order to help them cure the afflicted person.
Who are these healers, and how did they obtain this power?
Both men and women can be healers, although most often the role falls to an elderly woman called a znahar. But, please, don’t call her a witch. To this nation of people who believe in a single, omnipotent God as much as they do in beautiful, enchanting Samodivi, a “witch” is a veshtitsa, a spiteful person who practices the dark arts and wishes to cause death, sickness, discord, and the theft of fertility from the land, rather than healing and well-being. A community fears a veshtitsa, while they respect a znahar.
In rare instances, the znahar receives her healing arts by a supernatural means — from a saint, angel, or Samodiva through a dream, or even in a near-death situation, when the boundaries between this life and the next merge. The znahar in this case not only becomes a healer, but also a clairvoyant. The most famous was Baba Vanga (1911–1996). As a child she was reportedly caught up in a tornado and dumped into a field. From that point on, her eyesight failed, but her psychic and herbal healing abilities developed, which she claimed came from invisible creatures.
Samodivi are said to be daughters of the Great Goddess Bendis, and are therefore protectors of nature. In this capacity, they have the power to heal creatures and the land itself. Bulgarians believe the nymphs initiate chosen women into the sisterhood, and pass on to them the secrets of healing with herbs. The ceremony takes place in the woods right before sunrise on a Sunday on a night when the moon is full.
A more common initiation, however, is one passed down from one generation to the next, or from grandmother to granddaughter. The females involved are expected to be “ritually pure,” that is pre-menstrual or post-menopausal. These points in a female’s life bring them closest to the states of birth and death, respectively, allowing them to transition between the earthly and otherworldly realms so they can communicate with spirits.
The initiation can take place in various sacred places — by a river (symbolic of birth) or next to a hearth (representing the home or temple of the gods). In the first, the initiate climbs a willow tree by the river. With its branches in the air, and its roots in the earth, getting nourishment from the water, the tree unifies all three elements. The initiate recites the words to the sacred ritual three times, then moves to another branch and repeats the words three more times. Once more, the initiate moves and repeats the words three more times, ensuring the power will “take root” in the individual.
When performed at the hearth, the elder woman places bread in a covered clay dish called a podnitza and sticks it into the fire. Using iron tools, which have purifying power to chase away evil, she buries the dish with ashes, then places the tools on both sides of the hearth. Facing the fire, the initiate kneels on a broom, which symbolizes purification, the sweeping away of all unclean things.
The elder woman places three grains of wheat on the initiate’s right knee and three on the left, then tosses three grains into the fire. In ancient rituals, wheat consecrated the sacrifice offered to the gods. Placing it on the initiate, therefore, purifies her so she can become a vessel divine power can flow through.
Next, the elderly woman stands behind the initiate and recites the incantation, which the initiate repeats. They repeat the words three times. The elderly woman removes a metal or clay ceremonial object from a wicker basket placed to the right of the initiate. The initiate makes the sign of the cross three times, then touches the object to her forehead, then to her heart, and finally to her knees. She makes the sign of the cross again, and places the sacred object on her left side.
The elderly woman stirs a bunch of basil in a bowl of water and recites a blessing. After the blessing, the elderly woman sprinkles the initiate with the water using the basil to endow her with divine power. The initiate drinks the water from three places. This provides her with guidance for her mouth, hands, and heart: to speak, do, and feel those things that bring health and life to others.
A mediator is needed to transfer the healing power to the initiate. This is done with the bread, called dobra dusha, kind soul. The elderly woman breaks three pieces from it. She eats one, the initiate another, and the third the elderly woman places on the inside of the chimney. The two women now share the power. The initiate will gain her full power only after her mentor dies.
In the final rite of the ceremony, the elderly woman ties a red thread to the initiate’s right hand and pins a geranium onto her clothing. These both are symbolic of protection.
A Znahar’s Herbal Remedies
A znahar is said to be able to diagnose the origin of an ailment. If it’s caused by black magic, she not only uses herbs, but also recites an incantation to remove the spell. However, the spell must never be spoken without the use of the herbs, or both will lose their potency. And the spells must be uttered only when she fully understands the magic of each herb. Reciting spells over herbs before this point will harm both the woman and the person she attempts to heal.
The healing ceremony begins with a prayer to beings in the spiritual realm so they’ll bless the sick person. In one ritual, the healer leads the patient to the front door. There, he bows, touching his forehead against the threshold. He rises and proceeds to the hearth, where he again bows. The healer places embers in a bowl of water. Using the designated herb, she sprinkles the ill person’s head with the water. She holds bread and wine over his head and asks the illness to depart.
Magical herbs grow in valleys or high in the mountains. Using them is reported to enable the znahar to contact spirits to help with the magic. A few of these herbs follow:
· One mysterious herb is bile, used to expel demons causing illnesses.
· Angelica protects against spells and demonic attacks.
· Pink iris root provides happiness, success, strength, and energy for those who are depressed.
· Basil is used for cleansing and healing.
· Vervain enhances magical powers and prevents attacks against the mind.
· Lilac brings peace and tranquility.
· Nettle breaks spells and exorcises demons.
· Wormwood keeps dragons away.
Konstantinova, Daniela Prayer (trans.). “Prayer blessing, vow: the secret lore of the Bulgarian healers and sorceresses.” Sept. 27, 2012. http://bnr.bg/en/post/100170254/prayer-blessing-vow-the-secret-lore-of-the-bulgarian-healers-and-sorceresses.
Mag, Selena. “Secrets of magic herbs” (translated from Bulgarian). Mar. 13, 2009. http://www.selenabg.com/index.php/2008-07-29-07-51-40/1616-2009-03-13-06-32-15.html.
Mishev, Georgi. Thracian Magic past and present. Sept. 2013. (BM Avalonia: London).