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The nestinari perform a millennia-old rite inherited from the Thracians

Tombs, shrines, treasures... you can be excused for believing the Thracians have left us only cold rocks and gold goblets, and that such heritage is to be found only in museums and at archaeological sites. 

This is not the complete picture. In spite of the centuries that have passed and the changes of religions and peoples inhabiting the eastern Balkans, bits and pieces of the ancient Thracians' language, beliefs and rituals survive in modern Bulgaria. 

There is some logic in this. When the Roman Empire incorporated ancient Thrace, in the first half of the 1st Century AD, many Thracians moved out of the plains and went up into the high mountains, taking to stock-breeding as their chief livelihood. Unlike the Thracians who mingled with the Greek, Roman and Oriental settlers in the towns and villages in the plains, often adopting their language and culture, those in the mountains succeeded in preserving their cultural identity almost intact. 

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Christianity, which became an official religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 4th Century, became a major force of change in culture. Many Thracians adopted it as their new religion, and became ardent believers. According to historical sources, the Bible was even translated into the language of the Bessi, a Thracian tribe. Initially it was the Bessi who were the sacred tribe which controlled the famed Oracle of Dionysus, but by the 4th Century AD their collective name started to be used as a blanket term for all Thracians. 

Once on Thracian soil, the new religion took in many local beliefs, rituals and even deities and demons which were still alive in people's imagination. 

When the Slavs settled in the Balkans, in the 6th Century, they didn't fight with the local Thracians – the religions and lifestyles of the two peoples had common elements. Instead of destroying the Thracian culture and religions, the Slavs adopted some parts of it. When the two peoples, together with the Proto-Bulgarians, who arrived in the 7th Century, merged to form the modern Bulgarians, the Thracian nonmaterial heritage was incorporated into that of the other constituents of the new nation. 

The most obvious evidence for this is the vivacity of Thracian toponyms which are still in use in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian name of the Maritsa River derives from the river's Thracian name, and the name of modern-day Plovdiv stems from the Thracian name of the city, Pulpudeva (not from the Greek Philippopolis). The same applies for the names of the Rhodope mountains and the Struma River, among many others. 

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Vlahov Dol locality in the Strandzha is considered the centre of the Nestinari rites. It was probably an ancient Thracian shrine

Bulgarian folklore has also preserved Thracian relics. The legendary hero Krali Marko, who rides a magical horse, is probably a late Mediaeval reincarnation of the Thracian God Rider. The samodivas and yudas – a kind of fairies who rule over nature and vegetation and could be either benevolent or malicious to humans – are seen by some historians as faded memories of the Thracian Great Goddess. 

Thracian beliefs and culture are also present in the broader European culture, their greatest contribution being two mythological figures popularised by Greek myths: Dionysus and Orpheus. 

According to some accounts, Dionysus had Thracian origins; his Thracian name was Zagreus. He entered the Greek pantheon in the 2nd Millennium BC, but his cult remained strong in Thrace. A great and popular shrine of Dionysus used to exist high in the mountains of Thrace, and the oracle there predicted the glorious futures of both Alexander the Great and Emperor Augustus. 

From the 4th Century BC onwards, Dionysus and his followers were a regular presence in Thracian treasures and art. Their images kept popping up during the Roman age, mainly on votive tablets, until the 6th Century AD. 

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Preparing the Nestinari fire

Unlike the merry Greek God of Wine everyone is familiar with from paintings of artists like Caravaggio and Titian, Dionysus of the ancient Thracians was scarier and more menacing. He ruled over the underworld and would bring divine madness to both the maenads, or his female followers, and to everyone who showed him disrespect. 

This is what happened to Lycurgus, a legendary Thracian king. According to one account, when Lycurgus heard that Dionysus had entered his realms, he either put the maenads under lock and key, or chased them out. Dionysus's revenge was bloody and brutal. He made the king believe that his young son, the prince, was a vine. The mad Lycurgus cut the boy's body into tiny pieces, as if he was pruning a vine. 

Curiously, a ritual still performed in Bulgaria can be seen as a reverberation of the story. On 14 February, the feast day of St Trifon, winegrowers and vintners go to vineyards and ritually prune their vines. St Trifon is their patron saint, and he earned the nickname Zarezan, or the Cut-One, in circumstances similar to the story of Lycurgus. One day while he was pruning his vines, he offended his sister, the Virgin Mary, for her "bastard" son. Enraged, the Virgin willed St Trifon into cutting his nose with his pruning shears. 

There is another Bulgarian ritual linked to Dionysus. It is the kukeri, or mummers, games, which take place across the country during the winter and in early spring. In an undoubted fertility rite, the kukeri dance clad in animal skins and wear heavy bells with which to scare off the evil spirits. Their leader performs a pantomime, waving a long red rod or a sabre. The act represents the insemination of nature and the conception of new life. 

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The kukeri masked dancers are descendants of ancient Thracian Dionysus rites

In Bulgarian folklore, other saints have also been influenced by the pagan cults of Dionysus and the sun. Throughout Bulgaria, St Atanasius, whose feast day is on 18 January, is seen as the one who brings the ending of winter and the revival of nature, just like Dionysus and the sun used to do this in Antiquity. Moreover, on St Atanasius Peak near Etropole, in western Bulgaria, the feast day is celebrated with a peculiar rite: the men form processions, carrying long wooden sticks with onions stuck on the tapers. According to some researchers, the ritual is a mutation of the ancient rite in which followers of Dionysus would parade carrying wooden rods with pinecones on their tapers, the god's sacred attribute. 

Orpheus, the singer whose music awed even the inhabitants of the underworld, is of Thracian origin. His name appeared in Greek written sources as early as the 6th Century BC, and he was famed not only for his mesmerising music and deeds like participating in the quest for the Golden Fleece. Orpheus was also honoured as a prophet and the man who reformed religion. After he came back from the netherworld, he established a particular religious rite. The new teaching worshipped Apollo, and granted to its followers bliss and happiness in the cold and unwelcoming realms of the underworld. This mystical teaching was called Orphism, and as Antiquity progressed it attracted a number of followers, spreading around the Mediterranean. 

But some Bulgarian historians think that Orpheus also revolutionised the religion of the ancient Thracians, bringing the bright Apollo into the realms of the dark Dionysus. This is probably why the death of Orpheus has a lot to do with Dionysus – he was torn to pieces by a group of maenads as he didn't pay respects to their god. 

Devil's Throat cave

Some claim that Orpheus, a Thracian, descended into hell through Devil's Throat cave, in the Rhodope

The myths and stories of both Dionysus and Orpheus are varied and often contradicting; there are several accounts about each stage of their lives. The same goes for the places which pretend to have witnessed these mythical events. Both 

Bulgaria and Greece, for example, claim to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Bulgaria's contender is the pristine Gela village in the Rhodope. Not too far from Gela is the awe-inspiring Dyavolsko Garlo, or Devil's Throat Cave. It is advertised as the place from where Orpheus descended into Hell in his quest to bring Eurydice back to life. And Tatul, also in the Rhodope, claims to be the place where Orpheus was buried. 

Then there's a beautiful flower and herb, Haberlea rhodopensis, which is endemic for the Rhodope and Stara Planina mountains. According to a legend, it was born from the blood of the slain Orpheus, or from his tears. One of its common name is bezsmartniche, or Immortal. Some locals refer to it as Orpheus's tears. 

Unlike Dionysus, who is undoubtedly part of the fabric of Bulgarian folklore, Orpheus's presence in sites across Bulgaria is an invention of the tourist industry of the 20th and 21st centuries. His figure actually didn't blend well with Christianity, if you don't count the popular late Antiquity motif of Orpheus as the Good Shepherd and a peacemaker, and of his belief in the immortality of the soul. These, however, died out once Christianity had been firmly established in the Eastern Mediterranean, and left no trace in local folklore. 

The Strandzha, the isolated mountain in Bulgaria's southeastern corner, has preserved more Thracian nonmaterial heritage than any other place in the country. Christianity and paganism co-exist here in an effortless amity. A ruined dolmen near the village of Zabernovo is a chapel of the Holy Spirit and a votive tablet with the Thracian God Rider is built in the local church of St George, providing an easy parallel between this pagan deity and the Christian saint. 

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Moreover, in the Strandzha, St Marina is venerated with attention unparalleled anywhere else in Bulgaria. Her chapels are often built into caves with springs, where Thracian shrines to the Great Goddess used to exist in Antiquity. She is also seen as the mistress of poisonous snakes, a power the Christian saint probably borrowed from Artemis or Bendis, the Thracian goddess who ruled over wild nature. 

The Strandzha is the only place in Bulgaria where the strange and mysterious dances of the nestinari, or firewalkers, are still performed. These are popularly known to be linked to rites which unite the powers of the underworld and of light and are performed for Dionysus. 

Practised in a bunch of villages, mainly Balgari, Kosti and Brodilovo, firewalking is performed on the feast day of the highly venerated saints Constantine and Elena, and on the sacred days of St Marina, St Elijah and St John the Baptist. In the Strandzha folklore, Constantine and Elena are not mother and son, but husband and wife, and many historians see them as poorly Christianised versions of the Thracian Great God and Great Goddess. So firewalking is seen as the recreation of an ancient ritual, performed by priests and symbolising the marriage of the sun and light, embodied by the Great God, and the darkness, a symbol of the Great Goddess. 

The most popular nestinari event takes place in the village of Balgari on the evening of 3 June, the feast day of Sts Constantine and Elena. The ritual is on UNESCOs Intangible Cultural Heritage List, but few people are aware that firewalking is not unique for Bulgarians. Until the beginning of the 20th Century, Greeks living in the Strandzha also walked on fire, and even the name of the ritual has Greek origins. After the Greeks left the mountain after the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, a group took the ritual to their new homes, in the environs of Thessaloniki. There, in the village of Langada, firewalking is performed on 20 and 21 May. 

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In today's Bulgaria, you can see firewalking at evening shows in touristy restaurants and hotels all along the southern Black Sea coast, performed as a diversion between meals. The real thing, however, is much more serious and time-consuming. 

The nestinari games begin in the morning, when a solemn procession takes the icons of Sts Constantine and Elena from a chapel where they are kept under lock and key for the rest of the year. The icons are then taken to a sacred spring, where candles are lit. The icons are washed as if they were humans, and lamb is sacrificed and eaten by everyone. 

Meanwhile, a huge bonfire is made in the centre of the village. By the evening a thick layer of live and very hot embers has formed. When the night falls, the profession heads to the fire, led by musicians playing a slow and hypnotising melody on a drum and bagpipe. When the nestinari reach the fire, they take the icons of the saints, and after some minutes of meditation at the edge of the fire, step into the embers barefoot. 

They cross the fire several times, dancing, howling and sometimes predicting the future. When they leave the embers, they are untouched by the burning heat. If a firewalker gets burned during the ritual, people believe that he or she has sinned and has been punished.