"Residence in Bulgaria", St. Clair and Brophy



Witches - Herbalist and poisoner - Prescriptions for a fever - Exorcism sought from the Turkish Hodja - Strictness of morals - Family jars - Birth and infancy - A suitor and his negotiations - The betrothal - The wedding - Dances - The last fashion - Death and burial - mourners.

IT is a natural consequence of superstitious beliefs so implicit and so well organized as those which amongst the Bulgarians form a second religion, differing from, but more deeply-rooted than, that of the Greek Church, that they should have their professed ministers. Wherever there is a chance of gain some one will present himself to profit by it, and as the most paying investment is the folly and credulity of mankind, quackery of all kinds will continue to flourish so long as there are fools upon the earth; from Egyptian Thaumaturgy to Mr. Hume and. the Davenport Brothers, from them to the Witch of Derekuoi, and from her to the Prospectus of an American Land Company, all is but an exemplification of the great truth that cunning will always find an easy prey in superstition and ignorance.

In Bulgaria, where the recognized religion neither affords sufficient food for that craving after the marvellous and supernatural which is innate in the savage or but imperfectly reclaimed mind, nor replaces this appetite by a more legitimate longing, it is not to be wondered at that superstition steps in to supply the want by the means of male sorcerers or female witches, who add to their pretensions to occult power the profession of village doctor. [In the villages of Bulgaria, no  licensed medical practitioners exist ; it is easy to imagine that in the case of a dangerous epidemic, plague, typhus, or cholera, this absence of physicians might become a very serious evil to Europe.]

In every village there is an old woman learned in all ancient customs, ceremonies of divination, and in the worship of such powers as are anathematized by the Church; able to propitiate or to combat the Kingdom of Darkness, acquainted with the official residence of Baba Mart, on familiar terms with Azrael, and the possessor of an unlimited quantity of marifets or charms, from that which will bring rain to that which will exorcise the demon of fever; able to cast spells which will cause their object to die the lingering death of the spellbound, or cure him of the bite of a cheshme cat; finally, the High Priestess of every pagan rite, and the first to kiss the hand of the Papas.

Whatever she may have been formerly, the Bulgarian witch of this present day has but little resemblance to her sister of Europe two hundred years ago; she has lost the art of flying through space upon a broomstick, nor does she attend the Sabbat on the Brocken - indeed, probably neither she nor her ghostly superiors (if the latter are genuine Bulgarian spirits) have ever heard of the existence of the Harz mountains - she is not the spouse of the Devil, but the most respected woman of her village; vampires may be poisoned, or bottled and burnt, but the witch receives offerings of fowls, milk, and eggs, from her grateful or timorous fellow-villagers; and in justice to her it must be allowed that she would be almost a greater loss than the Papas; for though like him she taxes the village, she occasionally renders good service in return by a knowledge of simples (a branch of medicine now too generally neglected) which effects cures apparently little less than marvellous.

We trust to the indulgence of our readers to pardon us a slight digression involving a hypothesis. The Catholic clergy of the West, in their early struggles against classic and barbarian paganism, anathematised the ancient gods, and stigmatizing them as devils, declared that the false divinities whose images still live in marble in the museums of Europe, as well as the elementary spirits of barbarian superstition, were burning in Hell. The Byzantine clergy were not sufficiently powerful thus to crush the heathenism of their new converts, and, probably owing to the troubles caused by the Arabian and Ottoman invasion as well as to their own sophistic origin, were more anxious to put down schisms in their own body than to wage war against the latent memories of paganism. Even now the Greek Church, whilst launching its thunderbolts against the Bulgarian schism with one hand, amicably extends the other to the Bulgarian sorceress; perhaps the Papas, spiritual descendant of feeble Byzantium as the College of Cardinals is the representative of the powerful Roman Senate, hopes to find a rampart against Islamism in the ancient beliefs of the Bulgarians, for whilst he denounces it as a deadly sin for a Christian to be exorcised by a Turkish Hodja, he not only tolerates but approves the spells of the witch.

As the witch is on good terms with the clergy, respected and feared by the people, and stands in no danger of persecution, she has no need to make a secret of a profession which she can exercise openly, and her only point of resemblance to the almost extinct wise women of Europe is her power of doing evil, which she sometimes redeems by 'white witchcraft;' at the festivals of which we have spoken, she is the chairwoman; by the aid of her marifets she assists the Bulgarian in his entry into and exit from the world, and is at once doctor, sorceress, and general reference-book of the village, forming the complement of the Papas, and occasionally even poaching upon his preserves.

Is the Bulgarian ill, he sends for the witch; has he lost some money, he sends for the witch; is he going to give a feast or to die, he sends for the witch; does he require a philtre, he sends for the witch; does he wish to get rid of an enemy, the witch is still his resource; in regard to the last exigency it may be remarked that the herbology of the witch renders her at least as dangerous as she can be useful. In our own village is a woman who is well known (indeed she herself makes no great secret of the matter) to have poisoned her first husband in order to marry a second; the morals of the peasantry are far from stigmatizing this resource of feeble or cowardly wickedness, and in a country where autopsy is unknown, and where even murder by violence often goes unpunished, poison has a fair field and a great deal of favour; the method is simple: the wife goes to the witch, pays a fee, explains the case, and receives an Ilatch (literally, medicine) which she administers to her husband, and which is infinitely more effectual than the plan resorted to by more timorous consciences, that of tying a knot in their enemy's hair.

The 'Evil Eye' is believed in by the genuine Bulgarians as well as by the Gagaous, with both of whom, as amongst the negroes of the Gaboon , all illnesses are considered as the effects of spells wrought by human or supernatural maleficence, and their Materia Medica is consequently (also like that of the Africans in question) a mixture of incantations, for the deception of the uninitiated, and the really efficacious use of simples.

When a witch is called in as physician to a case of illness, her first care is to ascertain the gravity of the malady, its nature being of little importance, and this she discovers by the following ceremony: after the preliminary words of incantation she takes a long scarf in which a knot has been tied, and measures it on her arm from the elbow to the finger tips, and if the knot falls near the hand or on the fingers of the patient his illness is entirely imaginary, but if it touches the elbow he is condemned to death beyond the power of the Bulgarian Pharmacopoeia.

As she has generally a certain practical knowledge of diseases and a kind of medical experience after her own fashion, she is occasionally able to judge the case correctly, and no doubt can make the knot fall where she chooses; but nevertheless she is often mistaken, a circumstance which by no means lessens her prestige amongst the villagers.

Our late landlord Tanez was given over by the witch and had made up his mind to die; as his illness was merely the effect of accumulated over-doses of wine, a seidlitz powder which we administered very quickly put him on his legs, and we rather gloried over the witch; however, one day we said to him. “Well, Tanez, the witch has made a mistake this time, for you are just as well as ever you were.” “No, no; she has said 1 must die, and so I shall some day, you'll see.”

About six months afterwards Tanez kept his word, and the wise woman's prophecy was verified!

Another time the same great authority had told a poor fellow suffering from aggravated diphtheria that he had nothing the matter with him, and that he must go and work in the fields as usual; with some difficulty we managed to get him to take our prescriptions, and to effect a perfect cure: his thanks were conveyed much after the manner of Tanez, “You see, sir, the witch was right, for I am quite well now.”

When the gravity of the case is once decided, then, as every illness is the effect of spells of one kind or another, the patient must be cured by incantations or 'medicines' which banish the demon possessing him; some of these remedies are sufficiently original to be worth giving - for the benefit of the Faculty. Tertian fever is caused by a certain fly having settled upon the sick man, and the two prescriptions most in vogue are as follow:-

1. Take a puppy dog under a month old, the younger the better, wash his hind quarters, and especially his left hind leg, in tepid water, which give as a draught to the patient.

2. Take a snipe, boil it without plucking, and give the broth as a drink.

The dried stomach of a stork is a sovereign cure for the effects of the evil eye, which is a great cause of mortality in Bulgaria. [Last year a woman applied to us for part of a stork for this purpose, but it was probably administered too late, as the child died three days afterwards; in this case the "evil eye" exactly resembled the Southern Italian Jettatura, the infant having sickened directly after a neighbour had said: “What a pretty child!” But as far as we have been able to ascertainy the Neapolitan counter charms of spitting in the infant's face, or "facendo le corna,” seem to be unknown in Bulgaria.]

Naturally enough, the witches "are not disposed to be communicative on the subject of their secrets, and it is therefore difficult to discover their pathology, but from what we know of Slavonic witchcraft in Russia, Poland, and this country, we can affirm that their proceedings strongly resemble those of the wise men or women on the West coast of Africa. Here, as there, illness is merely a possession by an evil demon, and madness or idiocy is the result of the presence in or on the body of a more than ordinarily powerful spirit, to exorcise whom it is necessary to apply to a Turkish Hodja, both Papas and witch being powerless in such a case.

A mad woman was lately taken to the Greek Monastery on Cape Emineh in Roumelia to be exorcised by the monks, who employed in vain a whole arsenal of pious weapons, [Amongst these remedies, an iron cross, heated nearly red-hot, was placed on the woman's breast and back, and a number of similar cruel marifets (which we forbear to mention) were practised.] and she was finally led to the Hodja of Akindji, who speedily produced a favourable change in her mental health; the relative, Dimitri of Dervishkuoi (from whom we heard the particulars), who ventured to give the patient into infidel hands, was punished by the Papas's refusing him the Communion this Easter.

The witch is, however, more liberal than her colleague the Greek Priest, and will occasionally hand over to the Hodja a case which she considers hopeless, but she will not tolerate the competition of any M.R.C.S., and if such a person were to establish himself in a Bulgarian village he would probably fall a victim to the Ilatch of the sorceress.

Bulgarian morality [This word is here, used in a specific, not a generic sense] is tolerably good, for a people with whom religion has no real force, and is so much taken for granted, that the Papas administers the Communion to young girls without previous confession, a privilege denied to married people; a reason for the comparative purity of morals may perhaps be found in the fact that previous to her marriage a bride goes through an ordeal such as that to which the ancient Queens of France were subjected. Owing to this rule of morality, infanticide is terribly common with those women who form the exception, and is invariably considered by Mrs. Grundy as less culpable than the fault of which it is a consequence.

As for the ties of family, which are so often represented by European tourists as entirely absent amongst the Turks, it is sufficient to say that almost every Bulgarian family rejoices in a general and daily interchange of blows, in which the weakest, the women, naturally go to the wall.

From the cradle to the grave the Bulgarian is haunted by strange customs and observances such as are little known in Europe. When a child is born, the witch, who is present officially, brings a reaping hook into the room, and then proceeds to rub the infant all over with salt, and to fumigate the room in order to drive away all intrusive evil spirits from the mother and child.

With the exception of this bath of salt, a Bulgarian child is never washed until he attains the age of seven years; and for the first years of his life, a piece of garlic (in the case of a girl, one or two coins) is tied upon his head to preserve him from the evil eye. As soon as he is able to work, he is surrounded by superstitions which he is obliged to observe: if he fetches water he must throw away some of it; if he brings flour from the mill he must burn incense under it; in short, he cannot take a step without coming in contact with a superstition or an adet (custom) [A short list of Adets is given in the preceding chapter] which, if not respected, will avenge itself on him, and, without counting the spirits who lie in wait for him in the forest or at the fountain, his life is filled with fears which go far to compensate for its great enjoyments of eating, drinking, and dancing.

When a young man wishes to marry he speaks to his parents, who arrange the matter with those of the lady chosen, and Swaty [For this word there is no exact equivalent in English; the Swaty are friends of the young man who act as his proxies in the delicate matter of ‘proposing’ to the parents of the lady however, never to herself; the latter ceremony, which is so much thought of in England, not being customary in Bulgaria.]  are sent to propose in due form; the amount of the corbeille is settled, as well as that of the Baseh Parasi or head-money presented by the suitor to the mother of his intended, and then the gody or betrothal takes place; this is a ceremony of great interest to all Bulgarians, who have the same tastes as those commemorated in the songs about their great heroes, of which the constant chorus is -

‘Pak jede i pije,'
'And he eats and drinks.'
The Gody is usually held at the house of the girl's parents, where the elder guests sit around a cloth spread on the floor and covered with various dishes all strongly flavoured with garlic, whilst the wine-jug circulates freely; in another room the young people indulge in a similar repast, and afterwards dance outside the house, the girls singing songs at intervals. The young man then brings in his presents, which consist of various articles of feminine clothing, several pairs of slippers, bracelets, ear-rings, a head-dress and necklace of gold or silver coins, [The usual amount given is about eight Turkish Liras.] and a silver girdle: the value of these offerings is discussed by the father of the girl, and a fresh bargain ensues, the suitor adding coin by coin to the necklace till his future father-in-law is satisfied, and when this result is attained all the finery is placed in a tekneh, a wooden dish used for making bread and for a cradle. Then all the guests set to work again at the banquet,
'Jedet i Pijet,'
'They eat and drink,'
till daylight dawns upon the many tipsy and the very few sober. The next day the young lady puts on all the presents of her fiance, and is considered as 'engaged.'

This betrothal is in no ways a religious ceremony, and leaves it open to either party to break off the engagement, but such a rupture seldom occurs; the marriage never takes place within six months of the Gody, and is often delayed for two or even three years.

With some rare exceptions these arrangements are by no means love-matches; the young man wishes to establish himself as head of a household, and chooses a wife as he would a yoke of buffaloes, looking upon her as a machine for labour and the probable mother of sons who will in time be able to work for him, and whom he can beat as his father beat him until he became too strong to permit it, for a Bulgarian son when he grows up makes no scruple of returning with interest the blows received from his father. Thus the bride is chosen, not for the beauty of her more or less Kalmuck features, but for the muscular strength which will render her valuable as a beast of burden.

Sometimes you may meet with a Bulgarian Lindoro who translates his passion into the music of the Gaida, or courts some stalwart Rosina by playfully throwing lumps of mud at her as they meet at the fountain, or who buys an enormous pair of boots and spurs to attract the attention of his beloved, and proves the strength of his affection by treading upon her toes.

But Lindoro here, like the true Lindoro everywhere, is poor, and perhaps seeks by a disinterested love to attract into his own purse a few of the zecchini which he needs: at any rate it is no blasphemy to doubt the purity of his motives in a country where a powerfully-built wife is a good investment, instead of being an expensive luxury.

Our servant Theodore sighs for Miss Tuturitza, the daughter of our neighbour Kodja Kostantia, ex-assassin, and landowner of Derekuoi; but who can say that the idea of some buried pots of money, gained on the highroad, does not furnish at least as much fuel to his flame as the personal or mental attractions of his lady-love ?

The marriage (Swadba) is prepared for by the bridegroom's installation in his new house, and the purchase of various domestic animals, especially a pair of oxen or buffaloes, without the possession of which the match would be considered a very poor one for the lady, if not entirely out of the question; when all is ready he sends his parents or his Swaty to announce that he wishes the ceremony to take place in two or three weeks.

During the week preceding the marriage, which is always celebrated on a Sunday and generally in the dead season, [The term is not here used in the London sense, but means the time when there is but little work going on in the fields.] the parents of the bride and bridegroom prepare the furniture, &c., of the new menage, the girls of the village dance before the house of the bride, and the youths pay the same compliment to the bridegroom. On the Friday before the marriage the presents, hung on a cord, are exhibited in the bride's house, and she herself has her hair plaited into innumerable minute tresses; then she takes, for the first and last time in her life, [Horrible as this statement seems, it is the literal truth; till the age of seven years a child must not be touched by water, and although after that period the face, hands, and feet may be washed, the cleansing of the whole body would be ' chok gunah,' a great sin, and is never practised by either male or female Bulgarians, with the solitary exception above mentioned.] a complete bath, whilst her two bridesmaids, in the same primitive costume as the bather, look on, but without sharing in the ablution.

On the eventful Sunday, when the Papas is ready, the ceremony takes place in the church, if there be one, or otherwise in the bridegroom's house, and after the marriage the happy couple are led in procession to the mansion of the bride's father, where the young girls dance, corn is sprinkled over the husband and wife, and the latter, her face covered with a veil (often scarlet), kisses the hands of all the married women of the village, receiving in return a fig from each of them.

Then all the usual feasting goes on, and all the guests drink more than is good for them,

'Jedet i pjet,'
and the married couple are shut up in their own house for a week, during which time they may neither go out nor receive visits.

When this period of imprisonment is over, the married women fetch the bride, who carries two water buckets, to the fountain. round which she walks three times preceded by the oldest of the women, then the contents of the buckets are thrown over her, she kisses hands all round, and again receives a present of figs.

The same day she pays a visit to her mother, and is henceforward considered as a member of the sisterhood of married women.

The married women are not generally allowed to join in the village dance, although some of the bolder spirits amongst them occasionally do so; this dance which is called in Russian Bitchok, is here styled Horo' (Xopos), and strongly resembles the 'Romaika's dull round.' A circle of dancers is formed, the girls and men holding each other by the belt or girdle, and going round and round for hours to the music of the gaida; the motion is slow, monotonous, and ungraceful, but the coup d'oeil from a distance is picturesque enough, from the gaudy colours of the female dresses. In our village the feminine taste for ornament has invented a new head-dress, consisting of pieces of the English or French newspapers received by us, which are in great request by the village beauties as 'Bonjouks' or jewels;' the portions most sought after are the headings or the advertisements in big capitals, so that the Derekuoi young ladies may often be seen wearing on their foreheads such placards as the following; 'The Times,' 'Mort aux Rats, 'Pall Mall Gazette,' 'Vente a cause de Faillite,' 'Holloway's Pills,' 'Plus d’huile do foie de Morue,' 'A vendre a grand rabais,' 'Mme. Elise, Marchande de Modes,' and a host of other typographical varieties which are highly prized in the first circles of the Derekuoi fashionables.

At the end of every life, whether one of hardship and labour like the Turks, or feasting and idling like the Bulgarians, comes Death; but just as the latter considers baptism not as the admission of the infant into the Church of Christ, but as a mere sprinkling with water for which the Papas receives so much, so he looks upon death as the discharge of a mere animal function.

When he is given over by the witch, he prepares for the passage from life to an unknown world with a sang froid strongly resembling courage, but which is merely the result of a fatalism arising from apathy; he bargains with the Papas as to the price of his burial, orders the mortuary feasts, and in short prepares himself very quietly to repose in the grave which is already dug for him. During all this time the room is filled with women, shrieking and groaning in a manner sufficient almost to kill a healthy man.

At the moment of death all pots, kettles, and other utensils are turned upside-down, in order to prevent the soul of the departed taking refuge in one of them and therefrom commencing a system of annoyance against the family; candles or tapers are lit around the body, and the head is dressed with flowers; a great Eikon (picture of a Saint) is placed upon the breast, the body is clothed in its best clothes, or in some specially made for the purpose, and a pair of slippers, whilst all the members of the family run outside and scream a lamentation which is generally after this fashion: - [This song is a literal translation of a death-song sung at a house close to ours; they are always on the same model, lamenting the loss of the services of the deceased.]

Oh! Tanaz! Boze! Boze!
Who will cut wood for us now?
        (Shrieks and howls.)
Who will kill the sheep,
Oh who will take care of the poor buffaloes ?
        (Shrieks and howls.)
Who will carry the corn to the mill ?
Who will beat us as you used to do,
Oh Tanaz ? "
        (Shrieks and howls.)
Five minutes afterwards an araba with a couple of oxen or buffaloes is brought round, [Of course if death occur during the night, burial is put off till dawn but owing to the terribly hasty plan of interring before the body is cold, premature burial must be frightfully common; two instances have occurred, in which we were as sure as (not being medical men) we could well be, that the supposed dead men were merely in a state of trance or lethargy, and did all in our power to stop the burial, but in vain. Some years since a man contrived to rise from his shallow grave, came back to his home, and gave his wife a tremendous beating to prove his identity, and to punish her for being in such a hurry to get rid of him; but a few months afterwards he died again, and that time his disconsolate widow took precautions which prevented him ever re-appearing to trouble her again.] containing a ladder, on which the corpse is placed without either shroud or coffin ; but only two men accompany it, one to drive, the other to act as sexton ; arrived at the cemetery, the body is thrown into the grave, a few spadefuls of earth thrown upon it, perhaps a stone placed, and all is over. No burial-service is ever said, for although a minimum sum of forty piastres must be paid to the Papas for every burial, he never appears, nor in any way officiates; if the family choose to have masses said for the soul of the dead they must make a new bargain, but in the country it is not much the fashion.

The same evening there is a great Death Feast of relations and friends in the house of mourning, which is repeated in ten days, and again at the expiration of one month, three months, six months, a year, and three years; these are called in Bulgarian Pominki, commemorations. If the dead man leaves a widow, she goes to his grave every morning for forty days and throws water over it “so that he may not die of thirst.” Besides the Pominki, the Bulgarians hold a feast in the cemetery on Palm Sunday, and after much eating and drinking leave the remains upon the graves of their friends, who, they are persuaded, will eat them during the night; on Easter Monday an Easter Egg is placed on each grave.

The Bulgarian mourning, which is worn only by women, consists in wearing every article of clothing inside out; as with us, it varies in duration according to the consanguinity of the relation lost; that of a widow is fixed at one year.

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