FOR FREEDOM AND PERFECTION. The Life of Yané Sandansky
Mercia MacDermott





It was the mountain that gave him birth and made him what he was. She was his spiritual mother, and the salient features of his character were hers. Hers was the unyielding granite of his will, and hers the eternal upward thrust that impelled him in his life-long quest for freedom and perfection. Her many moods were reflected in his piercing eyes, which could be as sunny as a summer firmament, or as cold and leaden as winter clouds. His enemies saw only the jagged rocks of his wrath and the storms that whirled around them. Those who transgressed his law knew that they might as well ask mercy of an avalanche as try to avert his vengeance. But, amid her snows and awesome crags, the mountain nurtured velvet meadows with flowers as delicate and as extravagant in their abundance as any that bloomed upon the milder plains, and she gave her chosen one not only her intransigence, but also a measure of her softer and more tender qualities. Above all, she brought him up to be what she had always been—the guardian and protector of the exploited and the oppressed.


Vlahi, his native village, was itself the creation of men who had sought in Pirin the freedom and security which Ottoman rule had long banished from the fertile valleys. Only Bulgarians lived there and even the local Turks seldom put in an appearance there, except on market days. In 1878, the Greek Bishop of Melnik attempted to persuade the villagers to open a Greek school, but they refused since there were no Greeks in Vlahi, and they had no wish to see their own children fall victim to neo-hellenist propaganda. In 1880, an attempt by the Greek Syllogos of Serres to impose two Greek teachers upon the village met with a similar rebuff.


Vlahi stands on the western slopes of Pirin, over 2,000 feet above sea level—far below the great peaks, it is true, but, to the traveller toiling up from the plain, it seems to be situated on the very edge of the world’s end. From the valley of the Struma a track leads up into Pirin, twisting and turning, and going ever higher, like a bird gliding on an upward current of air, until the traveller, looking back, sees Macedonia as the eagles see her, with the tall poplars beside the Struma and the peach trees of Petrich no bigger than blades of grass below the awe-inspiring mountain panorama of Ograzhden, Maleshevska Planina [1] and Belasitsa. Soon all sight of the



1. Maleshevska Planina—the Malesh Mountains. The whole area is also referred to as Maleshevia.





outside world is lost, as the track winds ever deeper into the heart of Pirin, ever upwards, through wild ravines, past waterfalls and over foaming streams. The only sign of life is an occasional flock of goats, whose sure feet carry them over terrain impassable to man. Then, when it seems that one can go no further, Vlahi appears, perched above two gorges through which the melted snows of El-tepé and her granite sisters rush headlong down to join the peaceful Struma.


Here, where the two swift rivers join, is the central part of Vlahi, known simply as Seloto—the Village—from which paths fan out eastwards to six outlying mahali, or wards, each of which is about an hour’s walk from the centre, and one of which preserves the name of the original Bulgarian settlement: Drakolovo. The northernmost of these mahali is called Shemeto. Out of sight of Seloto, it lies, as it were, in the lap of Pirin, high above the Kresna Gorge, where the Struma coils about her feet like a glistening serpent, and yet far below her bare shoulders and her cloud-crowned head. To the west, Maleshevska Planina stretches across the horizon. To the east, the highest ridge of Pirin rises in a curving rampart, as formidable as a Titan’s fortress, as protective as a mother’s breast. There, eternally white in winter snow and summer nakedness, the marble summit of El-tepé—the Mount of Storms—soars over nine thousand feet into the sky, and there the unsleeping ‘Eyes of Pirin’—small lakes of great depth and purity—gleam in their granite sockets between the great peaks.


In this vast, spectacular setting, Shemeto itself is a mere handful of hillsides, dotted with oak groves, and dropping into the micro-valley of a glass-clear stream. It is a place of strong contrasts, where beauty and hardness go hand in hand. Overhead, huge eagles wheel in the pure air, and, below them, wild tortoises eke out a slow and barren existence on rough soil which clearly reveals its kinship with the granite rock from which it was ground by time and tempest. By late summer, even the flowers are dry, wiry and difficult to pick.


The people of Shemeto, poor and hardworking, lived in sturdy stone houses scattered over the sunniest slopes. Half-way up one of these was the modest home of Ivan Sandansky, who worked for one of the richer villagers. Here, on May 18 1872, his wife, Milka, gave birth to a son who, in due course, was christened Yané—the affectionate diminutive of his father’s name. The Sandanskys already had two children, Sofia and Todor, and Yané was their third and last. [2]


Little is known of Yané’s childhood. On entering the world he would at once have become part of a traditionalist, patriarchal community, where a wealth of ancient customs enlivened the daily struggle to survive and wrest a living from a harsh environment. [3] It was not unusual for



2. Ivan Sandansky was born in 1831 and Milka in 1836. Their daughter, Sofia, was born c. 1856, and their son, Todor, in 1864.


3. I am much indebted to Lyubomir Spirov Yordanov whose diploma thesis Duhovna kultura i folklor na selo Vlahi, Blagoevgradski okrŭg. 1967 (The Spiritual





mothers to give birth in the fields where they toiled, but, throughout their pregnancy, they would be urged to look at things that were beautiful and wise, such as books, red apples and the sun, so that their children would be beautiful and wise. The umbilical cord of the newborn would be tied with a red thread and cut with a sickle, so that the child would have good luck and a sharp mind.


In mountain villages such as Vlahi, medical care was unknown, and the newborn babe was protected against illness and misfortune by a multitude of incantations and magic rites, involving water, garlic, fruit, hot-coals, coins, bread, honey, and flowers. When the child took its first step, the neighbours were invited to a ceremony in which objects symbolizing different professions were placed on a loaf. Whatever object the child chose was believed to indicate his future profession. If this ceremony was not carried out, then it was feared that the child would stumble all his life. No one has recorded what object little Yané chose, or, indeed, what objects were set before him, but, if the custom was in any way indicative of the future, Yané must surely have chosen a weapon or a book, for both were to be his constant companions through life.


The first five or six years of that life were spent amid the wild beauty of Shemeto. Little by little, his horizons widened beyond the cradle into the rooms, beyond the house into the courtyard, beyond the wall into the mahala, and still further afield. The houses of Vlahi, [4] with their lower storeys built firmly of stone, seem to grow out of the rocks, as though they were one with the earth and the mountain. Today, they are few and ruinous, but in the nineteenth century they numbered more than three hundred—half of them concentrated in Seloto, and the rest unequally divided between the six more distant mahali. Domestic architecture in Vlahi owed much to the influence of Melnik, then a populous, prosperous town, whose wealthy merchants travelled as far as Western Europe. The houses had many windows and gaily painted façades, and invariably there was a spacious balcony or veranda on the upper floor where the family lived, the lower floor being used purely for storage. Each house was surrounded by a high wall roofed with curved red tiles and furnished with massive gates. An internal staircase led to the upper storey where there were usually three or four rooms. The largest of these was the general, every-day room where the family lived, ate, talked and slept. Here was the hearth where the meals were cooked and around which the children gathered on winter evenings for warmth and stories. Inside there was a stout chain with a hook on which a cauldron hung. On either side there were shelves for the household dishes, which were usually made of copper coated with tin, and under the shelves there were built-in cupboards



Culture and Folklore of the village of Vlahi, Blagoevgrad Region) is the main source for the ethnographic material—customs, songs, etc.—contained in this chapter.


4. Nothing remains of any of the houses in Shemeto, including Yané’s, except a few stones indicating where walls once stood.





where the bread and other household necessities were kept.


Half the living-room consisted of the odŭr—a raised wooden platform where the family slept on straw pallets, if they were poor, or on soft mattresses, bought in Melnik or the Turkish markets, if they were rich. The odŭr was normally covered with a brightly coloured striped rug, which, on special days, would be exchanged for an even more beautiful one, with complicated designs suggesting fruits, flowers and birds. Sometimes there would also be a heavy tufted rug. A long row of gay, hand-woven cushions completed the furnishing of the bed.


There was little else in the room: the floor was covered with a rug coarser than that on the odŭr, and more cushions were arranged around the edge of it, for there were no chairs, and everybody sat on cushions. Meals were served on a low, round table which was subsequently removed. The adults generally ate out of one dish, while the children ate separately.


In spite of the simple, not to say primitive, character of their homes, the people of Vlahi, like all Bulgarian country-folk, had a highly developed sense of the aesthetic, and tried wherever possible to combine beauty with utility, as far as their limited resources would permit. Their copper dishes were engraved with pleasing patterns; their wooden ceilings were lightly carved, and so were their cupboard doors. Great skill and imagination, as well as much labour, went into the making of their glowing rugs and cushions, woven from hand-spun, home-dyed wool, and even their everyday clothes—made almost entirely by hand from start to finish—were enriched by ornamentation that added untold hours, even months, to their production.


The economy of Vlahi was essentially a closed one. Having abandoned the Turkish-controlled plains for the freer forests and high pastures of Pirin, the people lived chiefly by wood-cutting and rearing sheep and goats. Handicrafts were hardly developed beyond the level required to satisfy the needs of the family, or, at most, the mahala. In spite of the altitude, the climate was mild, for the high peaks sheltered Vlahi from the East, and warm air from the Aegean came up the valley of the Struma, so that snow seldom fell before January and never lay for any length of time. The soil around Vlahi was light and easy to work, and, although it was not very fertile, most things—including vines—grew well, so that the people had enough grain, beans, vegetables and other produce to feed themselves reasonably well. Apples, plums, pears and walnuts flourished in the gardens, but no one grew them for profit—simply for themselves. Little shops supplied the population with groceries, such as salt and sugar, which had to be brought in from outside, and often the shop-keeper would accept eggs, wool, animals, etc., in lieu of money, and then sell what he did not want in Melnik, or to the Turks who attended the weekly market to sell such things as nebet sheker (a kind of sugar in large crystals), fish, raisins, melons and printed cloth, and to buy rams, sheep-skins, livestock, etc.


Remote as their village was, the people of Vlahi were neither intellectually





nor spiritually cut off from the outside world. Many of the men, at least, travelled to Melnik and even to the international port of Salonika. In 1844, after the crippling restrictions imposed by the Turks had been relaxed, the people of Vlahi obtained a ferman to build a fine new church, which they dedicated to St Iliya—the Christian successor of Perun, the ancient Slav deity who gave his name to Pirin. At the same time, they built a ‘cell school’ [5] in the courtyard of the church. The education which it provided soon proved inadequate, and in 1866, a more modern school was opened with financial help from the Rila Monastery. The teaching was based on the Bell-Lancaster reciprocal method, and the syllabus included secular subjects such as grammar and geography. In the following year, a group of village worthies, including the parish priest and Yané’s maternal grandfather, Stoiko Harizanov, sent a letter to the Russian consul in Salonika, begging for books and equipment: ‘We, the undersigned inhabitants of the Melnik district, of the village of Vlahi, your Excellency’s humble slaves, having a great desire to educate our children, bestirred ourselves and built us a church and school, which are not yet fully paid for; moreover, we have nothing—that is, not a single piece of equipment— neither in the church, nor in the school, and our present situation is such that we cannot soon acquire them, for we are burdened with heavy taxes, and our land is wild and infertile, so that we cannot feed ourselves and pay up, let alone buy necessities for the school and church.’ They went on to ask the consul for sets of church books, vessels and vestments, for textbooks—in Russian, if necessary—and, in particular, for a globe and maps of the world. [6]


Among the most educated men in Vlahi was Yané’s maternal uncle, Spas, son of Stoiko Harizanov. Spas Harizanov had studied in Russia, thanks to the financial support of a fellow villager, and, on his return, he became a teacher in the neighbouring village of Kresna. [7]


Those who did not have the good fortune to study abroad stayed in Vlahi and struggled to wrest a living from the ‘wild, infertile’ land. They worked hard, and enriched their isolated, uneventful lives with all manner of rituals, ceremonies and celebrations, most of which were common to the whole Bulgarian people, and clearly had their roots in the distant pagan past. Many of the customs concerned animals and crops as well as people. On Christmas Eve, for example, when the children went carol-singing round the village for sweets, walnuts, corn-on-the-cob and little bread rolls, they also visited the sheep-pens, etc., singing: ‘Long life to



5. Such schools taught reading and writing, based on church books. They were usually on monastery or church premises, and often the teachers were monks—hence the name ‘cell school’.


6. Letter dated June 10 1867. The letter was preserved in the archive of Stefan Verkovich, and was published by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Dokumenti za bŭlgarskoto vŭzrazhdane ot arhiva na Stefan Verkovich. Sofia 1969, p. 285.


7. Kresna is now called Stara Kresna (Old Kresna) to distinguish it from the town of Kresna (formerly Gara Pirin).





your kids, lambs and calves.’ Special little loaves, smeared with honey and decorated with flowers, were made not only for newborn babies, but also for foals and calves. On several days during the autumn, the people did not work, in order to ward off damage by various animals: Mishovden (Mouse Day), for example, was observed against the depredations of mice; the Wolf Holidays, at the end of November and beginning of December, were kept against wolves, and St Catherine’s Day—against bears. Few people in Vlahi were rich enough to possess horses, but those who did celebrated St Spiridon’s Day as the special festival of the horse, and distributed hot bread among their neighbours in order to bring good health to their beasts. By tradition, a man’s horse was slaughtered at his funeral.


Altogether, the people of Vlahi recognized more than forty annual festivals, which were occasions for rest, going to church, feasting, dressing-up, visiting each other, dancing the horo, and other pleasant activities.


Not only the birth of a child, but every important landmark in human life, from birth to burial, was marked with appropriate ceremonies, designed to ward off evil and to ensure health and happiness. Match-making, betrothals and weddings were occasions for particularly elaborate rituals. Weddings usually took place in the autumn or winter, when there was plenty of wine and little work in the fields. The ceremonies would begin on a Thursday and continue until the following Monday, when, if the bride had proved to be a virgin and all was well, the mother-in-law would go round the village offering everybody rakiya sweetened with honey.


Many ancient customs were also observed during the building of a house. The work would begin on a Monday with a new moon, so that the house would rise beautifully and fast, and, when it was ready, it was consecrated in a manner that was entirely pagan: an animal, usually a ram, washed and garlanded with flowers, was ceremonially slaughtered in the cellar. Its head was then buried by the eastern wall to strengthen the structure, and, in the evening, guests would come with gifts and would dance the horo three times round the house. A snake found in the courtyard of a house was never killed, for it was considered to be the lord of the house.


For the people of Vlahi, the boundary between the natural and supernatural, between practical measures and magic, was very dimly denned. They believed in dreams and omens, in spells and talismans, in the power of the spoken word, especially when used in curses. They had lively imaginations, and saw the Milky Way as the emerald girdle of God, and the sky as his blue mantle. They endowed the sun and the moon with human qualities, and imagined that they could sorrow or be glad. When there was much bloodshed on earth—as often there was in the Ottoman Empire—the moon would surround herself with a red halo, and the sun would be darkened in eclipse out of sympathy with the people below.


Unwritten history was preserved in songs and legends about places





and natural phenomena around the village. One such tale tells of a stony place called Turskio Gruach—the Turkish Cairn—in the middle of which there was a quantity of charcoal lying about. Here, many years ago, the Turks caught an outlaw chieftain from Vlahi, named Spasé, whom they tortured to death in an attempt to find out where his band was hiding. First they cut off his ears, then his nose; then they gouged out his eyes, and finally, when he still refused to betray his comrades, they impaled him on a gigantic spit and roasted him alive. Equally horrific was the story told about the Maidens’ Peak: here a lecherous Turkish bey and his men from the neighbouring village of Grŭnchar are said to have forced a group of girls from Vlahi to dance before raping them, after which the girls died of shame. Another version refers to only one girl, the beautiful Mara, whom the bey raped and chopped into little pieces: ‘In the morning, the peak is yellow because the maiden went out to spin golden wool; at noon it becomes dark, because it is black with Turks, and in the evening it is crimson with the blood of the maiden.’ [8]


Local pride was reflected in a song about another Turk, shown in a more sympathetic light—young Suliman, whose mother wants him to marry a white-skinned Turkish girl from the city. He refuses, saying that city girls sit in the shade, doing nothing all day, and stink of cosmetics; he will marry an infidel from Vlahi, for such girls are active all day in the open air, their complexions are naturally red and white, and they smell of sweet basil.


Every aspect of life found expression in the songs which the people sang: work, family relationships, the recurring annual round of activities and festivals, joys and sorrows, problems and dreams. They sang of the seed-time and the harvest, of sickness and suffering, of love both true and false, of heroes and villains, of fiendish cruelty and of superhuman devotion. The people of Vlahi had a marked taste for the macabre: safely seated around their hearths, in the flickering light of fires and pine-splinters, with their gates and doors securely locked and bolted, alone with their families, or gathered at sedyanki, [9] the people of Vlahi would listen to tales of horrors and bloody vengeance, of vampires, demons and monsters, tales of everyday life that would suddenly take a chilling plunge into the supernatural. They would sing of a huge ‘Black Thing’ that appeared at a sedyanka and gobbled up a bride-to-be and a company of friends who had come to help her prepare the many gifts—shirts, socks, aprons, and such like—which by tradition are presented to the guests at a Bulgarian wedding.



8. See Yordanov, Opus cit., p. 581. Told by Petra Mladenova, then 78 years old and illiterate.


9. The sedyanka was an important element in the traditional Bulgarian way of life. In the evenings, girls from a whole neighbourhood would gather in one house to spin, peel maize, or perform some other task collectively in a pleasant atmosphere of songs, stories, gossip and banter. The young men would also come to the sedyanka, not to work, but to meet the girls, something for which there was otherwise little opportunity in view of the strict patriarchal morality that prevailed.





Another song—which gains in poignancy in view of the village’s financial problems—told of the building of a church and the terrible sacrifice that was made in order to complete it. Such quantities of gold and silver, brass and precious stones, were used in the making that the money ran out before it was finished. While the villagers were discussing how they could collect the hundred thousand pieces of silver required to complete the edifice, a samovila (evil fairy) appeared from the sky and promised that, if they would give her one hundred babies, she would find them the money. Nothing daunted, the villagers collected a hundred babies in arms, and the samovila ‘lifted them into the clouds, sucked out their black eyes, and turned them into a hundred-thousand, a hundred-thousand white coins, white coins—black tears, and flung them to the villagers, and they finished building the new church’.


‘When God was writing the law that says mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law should get on well together, his pencil broke,’ so runs a Vlahi proverb, and often the horrors and tragedies recited around the hearth had their roots less in the supernatural than in the patriarchal family, where the women unquestioningly obeyed their menfolk, and where the sons’ brides were at the mercy of their in-laws. There were tales of young men who ill-treated and even killed their innocent wives, because their possessive mothers poisoned their minds against them; tales of young girls married against their will, and of an outlaw chieftain who shot his sister’s father-in-law dead, because the latter unfairly blamed the girl for the lack of water in the house and sent her out into the dangerous, demon-haunted darkness to fetch some from a distant source. To defend one’s sister was a man’s bounden duty, and one song tells of a hero, who nailed horseshoes to the feet of a blacksmith and then cut his heart out, because the smith had refused to shoe his horse on credit when the hero was setting out to do battle with a character who was molesting his sister. On the other hand, the sisters and sweethearts of the folk songs were expected to dare all and do all for their menfolk, to the extent of wading through blood up to their knees and searching through one, two or even three thousand severed heads in order to find the head of a brother or a lover, and give it decent burial.


In most of the songs and stories, wrong-doers are duly punished, for the people of Vlahi had a strong sense of justice and right. Even when the punishment was extremely severe, even out of all proportion to the crime, they regarded it with satisfaction and never felt sorry for the villains. In a land as lawless and ill-governed as the Turkish Empire, where might and wrong flourished like the bay-tree and where the innocent suffered without hope of redress, it was natural for the people to seek consolation in fantasy and wishful thinking of the kind expressed in the semi-comic song about a tortoise that went ploughing with mice for oxen and a straw for a goad. A hedgehog came past, spilling the tortoise’s seed, breaking its goad and frightening its ‘oxen’. Enraged, the tortoise complained to a





judge, who merely laughed at it, so the tortoise took the law into its own hands, hanged the judge, sat in his place on the bench, and, in the space of three days, sent three hundred hedgehogs to the gallows!


Of all the songs sung in Vlahi, the one which best expresses the spirit of the mountain is that which tells of a young hero named Yovan, who was captured by the Turks after putting up such a fight that he broke nine chains before they managed to bind him with the tenth. His captors then broke nine knives trying to kill him, and succeeded in so doing only with the tenth. According to their barbaric custom, the Turks carried his severed head through the villages for identification, until finally an old woman recognised it as that of her son. All over Bulgaria there are songs with a similar theme, and they usually end with the Turks—who, as soldiers, admired bravery even in an enemy—complimenting the old woman on having raised such a son. In the Vlahi version, however, the mother rebukes her dead son through her tears, telling him that he is unworthy of her milk, since he has allowed the Turks to capture him and cut off his head.


A stern judgement, indeed, and one which was surely uttered by no mortal mother, but by the implacable Pirin herself, who demands of her sons that they be made of granite and marble, rather than flesh and blood. None can attain the standards which she sets—for human beings are not the supermen of tale and legend, protected and rendered invincible by magic stronger than the weapons of their foes. A mortal man can fight only to the limit of his natural powers, be that limit the ninth chain and the ninth knife, or the nine-times-ninth chain and the nine-times-ninth knife. More than that he cannot do. Yet Pirin remains a Spartan mother, demanding the impossible, demanding perfection. Those who surrender short of the limit of their powers she scorns and repudiates; those who endure to the end she calls her sons, showing her special love for them only in the tears with which she softens her rebukes.


Of all the sons of Pirin, none was more worthy of the name and of her tears than Yané Sandansky, of whom the people sing:


‘Who can grind the cliffs to powder?

Who can bind the winged eagles?

Who can trap and cage the falcon—

Pirin’s falcon, Pirin’s Yané?’ [10]



10. Filyanov, Iliya, Po stupkite na Yané—Pirinskiya orel. Sofia 1972, p. 73.


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