Nestinarstvo, also known as "the Bulgarian fire-walking ritual", is an interesting tradition, observed mostly in villages across the Southeastern parts of the country, near Stranja mountain. The ritual is always held on the 3rd of June, which according to Orthodox Christian tradition is the day of saints Constantine and Helen.
Hello everyone and welcome back to Bulgarian Steps! With today’s post, we’ll tell you about an extraordinary and unique ritual, practised only in the rural parts of Bulgaria. Bonfires, mysterious legends, health and wellness rituals, fortune-telling and, of course, a ton of dancing surrounds the Nestinari – Bulgaria’s legendary fire walkers.
Nestinarstvo, also known as “the Bulgarian fire-walking ritual”, is an interesting tradition, observed mostly in villages across the Southeastern parts of the country, near Stranja mountain. The ritual is always held on the 3rd of June, which according to Orthodox Christian tradition is the day of saints Constantine and Helen.
The modern variations of the practice are centred around (trained) people walking barefoot on burning embers. Depending on where and how it is practised, the ritual can take anywhere from a couple of hours to an entire day. In the past, the nestinari would spend the whole day performing intricate rituals until a few hours after sunset, when everyone would gather at the village centre and observe the mystical dance. This was usually accompanied by drinking, feasts for the public. The ritual itself was believed to bring health, good fortune, fertility and wellbeing. In the practice’s earlier iterations, the nestinari were also expected to make predictions about what the future holds.
As per the Christian tradition, deeply intertwined with the ritual’s current version, modern-day nestinari also carry the icons of Orthodox Christian saints – Constantine and Helen.
How does this work
While the ability to dance on fight might indeed seem magical and mysterious to the uninitiated, it is an entirely earthly practice, well within the realms of possibility. For one, the feet of all fire dancers are entirely covered in ash before the ritual. This serves to dramatically decrease airflow and protect them from burning.
On the spiritual side, the nestinari as supposedly achieving this feat thanks to the help and protection of the saints Constantine and Helen. Prior to the beginning of a ritual, the nestinari spend a significant amount of time in a specially designated secluded building, where they enter a trance-like state and mentally prepare of the spiritual weight of the task ahead.
Nestinarstvo throughout the years
In the past, the nestinar tradition was a lot more complicated. Back then, not just everyone could be initiated into the ranks of the fire walkers. Instead, it was seen as a “mystical art”, a gift, passed on from parent to child. Nestinarstvo was a lifelong calling, and the children were only allowed to succeed their parents once the former was too old to continue carrying out their duties. The home of the head nestinar was seen as a “sacred site”. There, the head priest kept a special altar, called “stolnina”, where they stored holy artefacts and their special ritual tools.
The knowledge of how to perform the rite was kept within the given family line, and it was seen as a big honour. During those years, the nestinari also took a lot more central part in the life of their villages. They were not unlike the “shamans” you can read about in other cultures. There were hundreds of small rites and rituals that they’d need to observe and keep track of, all throughout the year. Furthermore, their duties also extended to lore-keeping, interpretation, fortune-telling and giving spiritual guidance.
Origins of the Nestinar Tradition
Pinpointing the exact origin of the nestinari tradition is almost impossible, primarily due to the lack of sufficient written information. As with most Bulgarian Pagan traditions, the knowledge here was not just passed via word-of-mouth, but also mostly kept hidden from outsiders. Scientists and researchers are yet to reach a consensus on why the ritual was first introduced in Bulgaria, despite their best efforts. While most theories suggest that the nestinari movement resulted from a mix between Thracian and Christian ideas, there are also meritable theories, linking it to the Dionysian cults of Ancient Greece (hence the fertility element, for example). Furthermore, there have also been a handful of ethnographers claiming a connection to even older traditions in the far east. Sadly, the information is far too scarce to provide enough evidence for any of the theories. Of course, this has done little to dissuade the followers of the nestinari movement from observing their practice year after year, much to the delight of tourists and Bulgarians alike.
The Sun played an essential role in Thracian spirituality, and the Thracian people were known to hold various rituals, related to Sun worship. In their society, the king also served as the highest priest and only he was allowed to perform this ritual. Once Christianity took over and replaced the faiths of old, the ceremony had to undergo certain changes in order to survive. Naturally, the Church was unhappy with the practice, due to its obviously pagan roots. During certain periods, the persecution was so bad that the nestinari disappeared almost entirely from the spiritual life of Bulgarians. A “mutual agreement” was eventually reached, as the ritual grew to incorporate Christian symbolism and icons. Over time, as nestinarstvo got further embedded into the Christian lifestyle, the clergy gradually warmed up to its existence.
While Bulgaria was under communist rule, the ritual was banned along with most other types of spiritual celebration, This, however, did little to prevent its practice in the remote villages, scattered across the countryside, which ultimately helped preserve it to the present day. During the last thirty years, the Nestinari tradition has enjoyed considerable popularity from locals and foreigners alike.
And that about wraps it up for today’s post, folks! We hope that you’ve enjoyed this article and that we’ve helped you learn something new and interesting. Please remember that we do not claim to know “everything there is to know” about Bulgarian folklore. Quite the contrary – we are doubtful that there is any single person in the whole world who could make such a claim with a straight face! Gathering information about Bulgarian Folklore, and, well – most ancient traditions in general – is quite the challenge, even with the help of the Internet. So, if you happen to have some interesting bits of information, knowledge or experiences that you’d like to share with us, please do not hesitate to drop us a comment or send us an email! We would be delighted to add your information to our library and help preserve the history and traditions of Bulgaria for the generations to come!
Thank you all for reading, and we’ll see you next time!