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					Dancing on Embers
      Fire-dancing is an ancient ritual in which people
dance barefoot on embers. It is typical for Bulgarians and
Greeks. This custom has dated as far back as even before
Christ as a pagan custom. The fire-dancer dances barefoot
on the embers and while doing that he can predict the
future.
      While dancing the dancers hold the icon of St. St.
Constantine and Elena decorated with flowers. It’s
remarkable how after the dance the dancers have no
traces of any burns or wounds on their feet.
      When the flame of the bonfire falls to embers the
coals are spread in a large circle. This circle has a layer
thick about 10-12 cm. At exactly that moment one of the
female fire-dancers changes her behaviour entirely – she
grows pale with busy eyes so that everyone can notice her
nervous shudder. The people call this peculiar condition
“prihvashtane” (the “fit”). Hit by hallucinations the dancer
starts to go round the circle of embers stepping under the
rhythm of the drum. While doing that she continually
pronounces the so called “vahkania” (which sounds like “ih-
ih” or “vah-vah”) typical for fire-dancing. As the tension
builds up someone hands over the icon to the dancer. The
dancers, in a sort of trance, enter the circle of embers and
start crossing it in different directions following the rhythm
of the drum and pronouncing the “vahkania”.
Purification Through Fire
         There are no sources giving us information about when fire-
 dancing originated in Bulgaria. We know that at the end of the last
 century fire-dancing has been spread all over the Strandzha Mountain
 and in some villages in eastern Trakia. In its deepest and most sacred
 essence fire-dancing or nestinarstvo means “purification through fire”.
 Fire-dancing is also a peculiar philosophy. First the dancers perform the
 act of “fit. The dancers grow pale. Their faces become expressionless.
 Their eyes are wandering with glassy stare. The dancers are so far from
 reality that they don’t feel the hot coals with their bear feet. There used to
 be whole villages whose inhabitants were initiated into fire-dancing.
 Where there were inhabitants not initiated into fire-dancing the ritual
 would be passed only in the families that were. This custom was
 observed very strictly. Another thing that we know about fire-dancers is
 that they never suffered from headaches or any other diseases. Another
 interesting information is that if a fire-dancer carries a sick child through
 the embers, the child recovers from the sickness. Another curious fact is
 that if a fire-dancer dances on embers with a watch, it stops working. If
 there is any kind of a metal object in the embers, it will burn the dancers’
 feet, whereas the hot coals will not harm them at all. Former generations
 saw the dance performed on embers as a prayer for fruitfulness and rich
 harvest, a prayer well-tried in fire. They also saw it as a means to escape
 illness but mostly they saw fire-dancing as fiery purification of the human
 soul.
Musical Instruments and
Melodies


        There are four instrumental melodies that are traditionally played at the St. St. Constantine and Elena fair.
 The first three of those melodies are called “nestinar”, and the whole cycle is called “panagyrski”. The names of
 the melodies are closely related to the respective place and act in the ritual. Consequently the duration of
 performance varies.
        The Skopos (also called “on leaving”) – the melody that is played most often. It is performed on the way to
 the sacred places and on the way back and during the ritual visiting of the houses on St. Elena’s Day and St.
 Kostadin’s Day. The purpose of the music is to purify the road, the fairs of St. Ilia, The Mother of God, The
 Trinity and all the way to Vlahovo ayasmas (water springs near a sacred for the Christians place).
        “In The Fire” – the melody is performed while the dancers dance on the embers and sometimes during their
 dance in St. Kostadin Konak (resting place). When the moment for the fire-dancers' prophecy ensues, they give a
 sign to the musicians to stop playing.
        “Around The Fire” or “Horo Lead by The Pitrop” – the pitrop (the church keeper) leads off the “horo”
 dance at the holy springs ("ayasmas") of St.St.Constantine and Elena. After the consecration ceremony of
 sprinkling holy water, the "horo" is danced by all. The melody is played round the embers after the dance; and
 from the saint patron's "konak" to the center of the village
        “On Fight” and “On Offering” – according to the information we have the fight (single combat and
 offering) is performed simultaneously on St. Elena’ Day - in and in front of the yard of St. Kostadin’s konak.
 Today the melody is played during the offering ritual in the yard of the "konak", and during the time of wrestling
 on the following day. It is a well-known melody, which played during wrestling all over the region
        A few and more motifs, following a definite order, are repeated and improvised in all four melodies.There
 are connecting intonation links between the melodies, mostly within the framework of two or three time. The
 duration of each of the melodies corresponds to the particular act of the ritual. The performance can be
 interrupted at any moment. Slight tone variations in the bagpipe part can be observed in the different villages.
 Mostly they find expression in some tone changes, addition or skipping of a group of short tones, or ornamental
 figures; but seldom are there any fluctuations in the length of the motifs.
                                                 The Icons
        The icons are the most important
sacred objects in the fire-dancing ritual.
They used to be called "saints" and
"kumizmi/kunizmi", which indicates the
special respect the fire-dancers have for
them. They are not revered as mere idols
but are treated as living human beings. All
nestinar icons are "dressed" in red (red in
the Balkan folklore is a symbol of the fire
and its power, and also of the female
beginning) "shirts" called "redbi", which are
cases with an opening at the front, so that
the image can be seen. The icons are
decorated with silver chains with dangling
small bells, coins and other ornaments.
Nestinar kerchiefs are hung onto the
"shirts". All nestinar icons have their "tail-
ends" (handles pushed into the openings of
the iconostasis), in order to be kept in an
upright position, and "be seen" by the
worshippers.
        When the everyday "shirts" ("redbi")
are taken off, the icons are cleaned in water
(the ritual is interpreted as "bathing of the
icons"). Then the ritual "clothes" are put on,
decorated with ornaments and fresh flowers.
The saints "should look beautiful".
                      The Fit
          The ability to be in contact with the patron saint,
with other saints and with the ancestors during the state of
trance and dream is the main characteristic of the fire-
dancing. The act of dancing on embers being the ultimate
expression of this ability is an inherent element of the ritual
but it is not constant. This ability together with the
predictions in the state of trance and dream are oriented at
the fate of the village, of the town, of the country and of the
very human being.
          The first step on the embers is usually preceded by
an unfixed period of prophecies, dream visions, and physical
sufferings. The pains are relieved with the dance on embers.
According to an old legend St.Constantine visited an ill
woman and told her: " If you dance in fire, you will be
healed." At first she started making prophecies, and a year
after that she was able to dance in the fire. The state of
"obsession" is accompanied by pain and suffering. The "fit'
is exhibited by darkening of the face, the fire-dancers usually
give out shrill shrieks (which approximately sound like this:
"ih-ih"/"vah-vah") and clap their hands. They seem half-dead
while dancing on the embers. The rapid drop of the body
temperature is a specific symptom of the “fit”. The fire –
dancers become very pale, they grow cold and break out into
cold sweat. The moment of "release" comes with the
stabilization of their psychic and physical condition, and the
rising of the body temperature.
          The "illness" gets over them during the days before
St.St.Constantine and Elena's "panagyr" (fair). When
"obsessed" they can dance without a fire.
The Ritual
         In Strandzha Mountain the celebration begins on the Sunday before St.St.
Constantine and Elena's Day. Nowadays the ritual also includes visiting the saint
patrons' holy springs ("ayasmas"), carrying of the icons of the two saints
(St.St.Constantine and Helena), animal offering, and serving of ritual bread. The
people who attend the ceremony ascend the plank bed, turn to East, cross
themselves, light up a candle and stick it into one of the small metal crosses
spread over the bed. Many people leave gifts - mostly woven kerchiefs, which
they hang on the parapet of the plank-bed.Sometimes the fire-dancers "get" their
"fits" there.
         On the Thursday before the 3rd and 4th of June, they celebrate the so-
called "Little Constantine". In the early morning of that day the church keeper
goes to the saint patron's chapel, and assisted by two or three other men,
slaughters a lamb. The meat is usually boiled in the fireplace of the "konak".
When it is cooked, the church keeper tolls the bell, and all the people of the
village gather at the chapel. Then they start their walk to St.Constanine's holy
spring, with the purpose to clean it. It is ater that that the church keeper opens
the lid of St.Constanine’s spring, throws a coin for happiness and starts filling the
vessels, brought by the people so that they can drink and wash themselves with
the holy water, in order to be healthy in the days to come. Then each of them is
served a helping of the boiled mutton which would give them health. The people
are also served with ritual bread.
         There used to be a ritual night visiting of the whole village with the icons
of the saints, which would take place on St. Elena’s Day (this practice hasn’t
been conducted since the 1960s). The fire-dancers would visit every house
carrying the icons with exception of the houses where someone has recently died
or given birth. Each member of the family would go and kiss the icon, then the
fire-dancers would shake the icons above the sleeping children’s heads. The
function of this act is to bring health to the family and for obtaining the saints’
blessing. The fire-dancers carrying the icons were treated to some wine or rakia.
During the visiting the icons would be put to rest several times. At nightfall
people would build up a fire and the fire-dancers would dance on a circle of
embers.
             On St.Constantine's Day begins with a new succession of ritual acts. The morning starts with
     the "dressing" of the nestinar icons (the so-called "tail-end kunizmi/kumizmi"). They are made by the
     main fire-dancer of the village. The ritual of “dressing” the icons is the following: the "icons' shirts"
     are censed by the chief priestess, and then they are handed to the church keeper who puts them on the
     icons. Once the icons "have been dressed", they are "ready to head for the holy spring" in a solemn
     procession. There they are "bathed" - their handles are cleaned with the holy water of the "ayasma".




              Fire-dancers often become "obsessed" on the way to the chapel and back to the village and at the
spring as well. At noon the stacking of the nestinar fire begins. In line with some old records, fire-dancers do not
start the dance until twelve carts of wood are burnt.
       When darkness descends upon
the earth all the villagers gather, the
musicians come - the bagpipe player
and the drummer start playing a special
melody.
       When the fire-dancers fall in the
state of “obsession” they determine the
exact moment for the procession to
start. They walk in the following strict
order: first is the church keeper,
followed by three boys who carry the
icons(it was very important that the icon
bearers are unmarried), then, the fire-
dancers, the musicians, and finally the
rest of the people participating in the
procession.
       After they arrive at the fire, they
form a cordon, encircling the already-
spread embers. The "nestinar
obsession" reaches its peak. The so-
called “skopos” melody played by the
musicians also contributes to it.
       With whoops the fire-dancers get
onto the embers. First they always trace
a cross. After that they start walking on
the embers at random.
       The nestinar way of walking on
embers is particularly strange. They call
it "treading" or "pleshtene".
    Walking on Embers
        The ability to walk on embers without being burnt
is the most impressive and important skill of the fire-
dancers. Some medical specialists have observed that the
skin of the fire-dancers' feet is very delicate and without
any traces of callosities. Despite the different duration of
the dances on embers (not less than 10 min.), the fire-
dancers' feet remain intact, without a slight trace of
cauterization. It has been proved that the callosity is of no
significance because very often some fire-dancers "bury"
their feet ankle-deep in the embers.
        Another curious fact is that, during the dance the
objects dropped by the fire-dancers (kerchiefs, the touch
of clothes, etc.) do not burn. Some of the people who have
witnessed the ritual conducted in the Bulgaria and Novo
Pancharevo villages recall such cases. They say that there
are cases when the fire-dancers would sit in the fire
dressed in ordinary clothes and sometimes they would
even lie in the fire.
      Many scientists are absolutely positive that at
temperatures above 70°C human proteins denaturalize.
The temperature of the embers is minimum 400°C.
Specialists also consider that the fire-dancers' peculiar
psychic state can explain the insensitivity to pain, but not
the lack of burn damages. The fire-dancers themselves
cannot explain their abilities, they consider them a gift.
They are deeply convinced that their power comes from
their unhesitant faith and trust in the saint patrons.

				
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