In past times, as the numbers of people on Earth rose immensely,
absolute dominance grew difficult for God. So He decided to seek out
priests on Earth in order to be able to rule better. To find the best
person, God built a huge fire and announced that the lad who could jump
over it would be his mediator on earth. It so happened that a youth not
only managed to carry out the task, but also started to dance in the
fire. After this, God said: "Let his name be Constantine." But the lad
said that without a sister, he would not be able to rule justly. A lass
from the audience performed a dance, and they named her Helena. From
that time on, women have been dancing in the fire.
This is the legend, and they have held its tradition right up to the present.
At least twice a year they pray, foresee and foretell.
At least twice a year they become the mysterious fire-dancers. They
dance barefoot in the fire, holding the icons of Saint Constantine and
Saint Helena in in their hands.
In Bulgarian, they are called the Nestinars. I was told about their
rites and abilities during my childhood, but I found the idea of people
dancing in the fire too unacceptable, even strange. Later on, I began
to realize that the tradition they maintain is a stable part of my
culture. Although it still makes me shiver in a way…
As if the sound of their name hides something impressive and
extraordinary. It has the smell of a night fire, where passions rise.
On St. Constantine’s Day, they get up early in the morning and "dress"
the Nestinar icons. All icons are "dressed" in red – a symbol of the
fire and its power, and also of the female beginning. In a solemn
procession, playing drums and kaval – a typical Bulgarian wind
instrument, similar to a flute or a recorder – and singing national
songs, they head for the holy spring outside the village. There they
"bathe" the icons – they clean the handles with the holy water – and
eat ritual bread together. At noon the stacking of the Nestinar fire
begins. When darkness descends upon the earth, all the villagers
gather, the musicians arrive and the procession heads for the fire. The
Nestinars do not mind by-standers, so outsiders can join them as well.
After they arrive at the fire, they form a cordon, encircling the bed
of embers that has been prepared for them. The "Nestinar obsession"
reaches its peak and accompanied by loud whoops, they leap onto the
embers. First they trace the form of a cross, and then they walk
randomly. They dance short steps with their whole soles in contact with
the embers. This obsession is a way in which their patron saints touch
the Nestinars: in their trance state and dream visions they feel able
to pass the saint’s power on to the other people. The Nestinars have
always received the deepest respect of the whole community thanks to
their prophetic gift.
Strikes of drums, shouts, chaotic movements, red rays of fire…The dancing sometimes continues for more than two hours…
How do they do that? – You would ask.
I don’t know.
Are there miracles? – I think so.
To walk on embers without being burnt…. No calluses on the skin of their feet… not a slight trace of cauterization…
If you ask them, they would tell you it is phenomenal, but at the same
time natural: a manifestation of charisma. The Nestinars treat their
skill as a gift and are deeply convinced that their power comes from
their unhesitating faith and trust in the patron saints – St.
Constantine and Helena. They are vehemently pious, consider themselves
Christians and emphasize the fact that they are more "Orthodox" than
the others. They believe they are righteous and their communication
with God is the truest one.
I was very surprised to find out that the Nestinars do not celebrate
Christmas; they do not worship Jesus Christ, but another Son of God –
St. Constantine. Perhaps that is the main reason why I do not feel a
real kinship with their ideas. Anyway it does not reduce the power of
their skills. The temperature of the embers is at least 400°C – human
proteins denaturalize above 70°C. Maybe we could understand the
Nestinars’ insensitivity to pain thanks to their special psychic state,
but what about the lack of burn damage?
Their faith seems to have its roots in the past, in the days of little
villages, of tightly closed communities with many prejudices, but it
has not died. Isn’t this the point of every tradition?
Thousands of secrets still remain veiled …
Thousands of enigmas still pose so many unanswered questions…
Isn’t that our future?