Nestinari - Bulgarian Fire Dancing

If someone asks you to describe the Bulgarian people - tell them Bulgarian men swim in ice cold water and Bulgarian women dance on fire! This may sound like a metaphor but is actually true.

In Bulgaria, Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 and is known as Bogoyavlenie or Yordanovden. On this day, a wooden cross is thrown by a priest into the sea, river or lake and young men race to retrieve it. As the date is in early January and the waters are close to freezing, this is considered an honourable act and it is said that good health will be bestowed upon the home of the swimmer who is the first to reach the cross. But today we will tell you about the other tradition - “nastinarstvo”, which became famous worldwide and it is part of the UNESCO heritage.

Nestinarstvo is a fire ritual originally performed in several Bulgarian- and Greek-speaking villages in the Strandzha Mountains.

It involves a barefoot dance on smouldering embers, called in Bulgarian “zharava”. It is performed by nestinari (they can be both women and men), usually in the square of the village in front of the whole population on the day of Sts. Constantine and Helena (21st of May) or the day of the village's patron saint. The ritual is a unique mixture of Eastern Orthodox beliefs and older pagan traditions.
In 2009, the ritual was entered in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists and the National Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage "Living Human Treasures - Bulgaria".

On the day of the celebration, after sunset, the crowd would build up a large fire and would dance a horo (a traditional round dance) until the fire dies and only embers remain. This horo dance must be joined by all present people for at least a few minutes – for health and success.

The Nestinari's barefoot dance on embers that follows as the climax of the night is accompanied by the beat of the sacred drum and the sound of a bagpipe. It is popularly thought that some of the dancers reach a religious state of trance while dancing, explaining why their feet don't burn and they allegedly don't feel pain.

Once, the nestinari were a closed community of a dozen families who would never marry outside the group, because fire-dancing was only handed down within the family, but today the ritual is performed even as a tourist attraction. But if you ask - “How they do it?” The only answer you will receive will be - “Believe and don’t ask!” The secret of nestinar dances is sacred to them and they will never reveal it, unless to their own successors.

Nowadays the last place in Bulgaria where nestinari dances are held is the village of Bulgari.

Although Christianized, the ritual is an old pagan one, and while dancing the performers often say prophecies and people listen to them carefully, because they are known to become true.  

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Bilyana Ninova

Bilyana Ninova is a Marketing specialist, content creator and hobby photographer.

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