Teya Z. Dancer
Long before most currently practiced religions developed and spread across countries and continents, people honoured that which sustained their lives and made for an easier existence, that which meant more food, more warmth, more daylight. The predecessor and the essence of all religions: the all-mighty Sun.
Like all gods, it was both loved and feared, for its powers could reward or punish – give life or take it away. In fact, the sun was taught to have a life of its own, a state of existence, and, accordingly, a state of … inexistence. Each time, it was born out of the longest period of darkness on Earth, only to die again in the longest period of light. Our ancestors all over the world knew exactly when it happened, and they didn’t only celebrate the death and rebirth of their God. They celebrated the never-ending circle of life.
The Sun and its ‘opposite’, the Moon, are the cornerstones of every pagan religion. Everything happened for or because of them, and they still have their special place in folktales and traditions all over the word.
In Balkan folklore, the relation between the Sun and the Moon can be that of lovers, siblings or rivals. Whatever their connection, these two celestial gods were vitally important for the way magic worked on Earth.
The babi-healers were women who knew about this magic and that it could be extracted and applied to heal and help those around them. They were skilled herbalists, who knew when the powers of those herbs were strongest. They knew that they had to wake up with the first rooster’s croak on the morning of the longest day of the year, go into those Balkan forests that they knew so well, and find as many herbs as they could before the sun was at its highest in the sky. On this day, they knew, the herbs had the strongest healing properties. After that day, the day of the summer solstice, the herbs would begin to fade away, and their powers would decrease with the length of daylight on Earth.
Before witches were labelled as such, and before the term took on a widely negative significance with the rise of certain religions, those women were called healers. Baba (plural ‘babi’) literary means ‘grandmother’ in modern Bulgarian. In older times, also ‘the midwife was called “baba’” [and] she was treated as kin by the women she delivered and their offspring’ (Kononenko, 2007: 173).
In her novel Stopankata na Gospod, Rosemary De Meo writes about her experience in a Bulgarian mountain village, where she learned first-hand about the history and practice of Old Bulgarian magic. She explains that the syllable Ba meant ‘soul’ in Old Bulgarian, and Baba meant ‘old soul’ . With time, she writes, ‘baba was the name people began to give to those with magic in the village – witches’ (De Meo, 2017: 217).
Baene is another, perhaps older term used for women (bayachka/i) who help others with their powers. It is performed either against something (fear, illness, a curse, etc) or for something (fertility, good luck, health, etc). The ritual can involve water, the baking of soda bread, wax or lead pouring (molybdomancy), or simply, and most commonly, whispering prayers or charms to the person seeking help. The term is unique to the Balkan region, although a similar practice with different names exist also in Russia and the Ukraine.
The Immured Wife
The legend of ‘The Immured Wife’ (Vgradena Nevesta) is quite famous across the Balkans. It is the sad story of a woman offered as sacrifice by her husband so that the bridge he and his brothers were building would stop collapsing at night. She was tricked to jump in the water and then forcefully immured into the bridge’s walls. In some versions, the wife begs the builders to leave one of her breasts exposed, so that she can nurse her new-born baby for one whole year.
At school, we were told that the legend was as old and as unique as the bridge itself, but I knew then as I know now that similar legends existed long before Nevestin bridge was built. As often happens, different historical periods and political interventions in how not only Bulgarian but Balkan history is read and written, has influenced a lot of what we know about these folktales. In a Yugoslav version of the story, for example, nine brothers are building a wall to hold off invading Turks.
Like all folklore, Balkan folklore is abundant in rituals, magical creatures, spirits and heroes. It has inspired timeless folktales and offers an amazing ground for exploration in both academic and creative writing. Researching the few existent ancient records of this early form of creative writing (or perhaps it should be called ‘creative telling’) has been an amazing adventure for me, one that has enriched my knowledge on more levels than I had expected.
And while we know today that the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ of the Sun happen because the Earth’s poles have their maximum tilt either towards or away from the Sun, we don’t – or shouldn’t – think of these events as less magical. On the contrary – the astrology, biology and chemistry of our world is the true essence of magic on our planet and beyond. Modern science doesn’t diminish or ridicule pagan beliefs that mark the longest and shortest day, the equinoxes and the changing of the seasons. It reinforces them. And the imagination which helped people to make sense of it all is, in my opinion, nothing short of the greatest creative telling there ever was.