For a description of Strandja, see Strandja under CULTURE>Ethnicity>Strandja.
The following is excerpted from Kapka Kassabova’s 2017 book Border, a Journey to the Edge of Europe, publishers Granta Books, London, & Graywolf Press, Minneapolis. Photos are of Strandja, but not necessarily the event described.
“agiasma – Greek word for curative holy spring. Springs were once cult places for the Thracians, whose worship of the Mother Goddess was embodied in the womb-like sanctuaries and moist cave slits of Strandja, where the rays of the Sun God and son and lover of the goddess were received.
Thousands of years later, the human relationship with agiasmas endures, perhaps because the agiasma is a mediator between the material and magical realms, between the night of winter and incubation (Chaos) and the sun of summer and rebirth (Cosmos).
From May onwards the water starts flowing freely. The agiasmas have opened, people say. You come to an agiasma to wash your face and conscience, be cured of ailments and curses, and greet the new season. Hang a strip of your clothing on a nearby tree and your sickness will stay behind, or a little bit of your sorrow. The trees are so heavy with fabric that in winter, when the springs retreat into themselves, the grumpy authorities come to clean up the mess. One morning, I was taken to a place deep in the border forest. It was called Big Agiasma.
EVERYTHING BEGINS WITH A SPRING
… I joined the convoy that crept along the canyon to a place off the map. The place was a clearing in the border forest criss-crossed by hunting tracks and drove roads … I travelled in a Soviet-era minivan with women from the village. The driver did his best on the dug-out road but we still jumped up and down on the hard seats until the remaining teeth in the collective mouth rattled. The women carried icons on their laps, like children, ‘dressed’ in lace and fabric, but when I peeked underneath, I was startled by the human faces with expressive eyes.
‘Some of these are very old’, said a woman with thick, man-like features. The oldest icons dated three centuries back. The women looked after them as if they were orphans.
‘That’s why we only take them out of the church on the day of Constantine and Elena,’ said a woman called Despina. She lived in my street and had a lush garden and a bedridden husband.
‘How are you enjoying our village, dear?’ said another woman who always chewed gum. I liked her. She had an open face that said shit happens. “The cherries are coming. You don’t get cherries like this in the city.’
‘Maybe they have cherries in Scotland,’ Despina said.
‘No, in Scotland they have whisky,’ corrected the woman with the chewing gum, and she winked at me. ‘And the men wear Tartan skirts, right?’
There was a chuckle. As a sign that I was in the in-crowd, they gave me an icon to hold on my lap. I avoided looking at the woman with the scary blue irises who said nothing, and who may or may not have had the evil eye.
‘We don’t have many visitors, dear,’ said another woman, once a cook at the school canteen. ‘You should’ve seen the village before.”
‘The school, the library,’ said Despina. ‘The orchards, the fields, the herds. Thousands of cattle heads. Our village was wealthy.’
‘Let bygones be bygones’ the woman with the chewing gum said.
‘A few years ago, we went to Meliki,’ the man-faced woman said, ‘to visit the Greeks. Lovely people.’
‘Lovely people,’ everybody agreed. The Greeks in Meliki were descendants of those who had left the icons behind a hundred years ago. They still practiced the fire-walking ritual was called anastenaria in Greek, nestenarstvo in Bulgarian.
‘We’ve been to Turkish Strandja, too,’ the woman with the chewing gum said, ‘to our old villages. To see Mum and Dad’s house. But there’s nobody living there any more. Just ruins.’
‘Empty villages.’ the man-faced woman said. She was a street sweeper and people called her ‘The Ear’ because she had phenomenal hearing and could eavesdrop on a whispered conversation streets away, inside houses, perhaps even inside heads. I saw her every day with her broom, sweeping away invisible dust from the empty square, tuned into some frequency across the hills. I tried not to have thoughts when I passed her but she always squinted at me hard, and I shuddered.
The van finally came to a stop. In the clearing, the people were gathering.
The clearing was known as The Homeland, a real feat of metonymy. It had seen gatherings of fire-worshippers, musicians, revellers, mystic seers, and ordinary drunks for hundreds of years, and quite possibly thousands, until the late 1940’s, when the cult of nature was interrupted by the cult of Stalin. My generation had grown up in the last blink of that interruption.
Cauldrons of lamb soup were bubbling on fires and the women from the van set about stirring the broth. There were five wooden platforms called odarche, one platform for each of the fire-worshipping villages along the border. Empty, they looked like execution stands. Now people were coming up to them in small precessions from the river and placing icons on the stands. It looked like a scene from The Wicker Man. Instead of a prayer the icon-holders did a ritualistic circular dance on the spot with small steps and hand gestures. The whiff of paganism was unmistakable under the burning incense of Orthodoxy.
To the sound of a bagpipe and drum or tupan, I joined the small procession down to the river where the women, without any water touching them, undressed the icons and washed them, then dressed them again and placed them on the platforms.
The wooden tables, like the platforms, were fixtures and this whole place was a permanent set-up for parties. The orgiastic vibes were already in the air at midday. It felt as if the ritual of the icons held a meaning beyond faith, revelry or culture – there was something else here that was being re-enacted. I sensed it but couldn’t name it; it was something to do with the border.
There were visiting Greeks who brought their own icons, and a group of Greek women were bending down. This had been their ancestors’ Homeland, and their grandparents were buried in the Village in the Valley. So the Homeland was also a site for a special brand of tourism: ancestral tourism.
I headed up the hilly track to the Big Agiasma that had just opened – which was a big deal because once the Big Agiasma opened, so did all the springs of Strandja. A girl came up to me and touched my shoulder. She was dressed all in white, like a nymph.
‘Hello,’ she said, ‘I’m Iglika.’ Iglika means primrose. ‘What’s your name?’
I stopped in my tracks. Her skin was a golden galaxy, her hair a river of wheat. She belonged in a song. I felt a superstitious worry; how can you go through life like this without someone giving you the Evil Eye? I told her my name. She laughed with pearly teeth.
‘Your name is Waterdrop!’ she said and took my hand in her cold palm. ‘You have an affinity with water. I think we’re quite similar. You know, I studied at Manchester University for two years. But I can’t live in Manchester. Nobody can live in Manchester. I came back.’
She talked all the way to the Big Agiasma, bubbling like a spring, but when our turn came in the big line of people, she fluttered away. Iglika was from a village called Crossing, because it’s near one of the few existing crossings over the 147-kilometre-long Veleka River that erupts in a Turkish hill and carves out canyons through Strandja before it joins the Black Sea without a thought about borders. Rivers are borders in the mythical mind – that’s why the icons were being ‘washed’ here.
I didn’t see Iglika again that day. The people from the Village in the Valley welcomed me to their table. The lamb soup was poured into bowls and passed around; it was the kurban, cooked from the lamb slaughtered early that morning. Kurban, (from the Arabic qurban) means the sacrificial killing of an animal, sometimes to the sound of drum and bagpipe, that still accompanies major celebrations in rural Greece and Bulgaria, both Christian and Muslim, though I had never seen a kurban until now. In the old days, each fire-worshipping village had its own sacrificial knife, axe, and tree stump. Those were gone, but what remained were the little chapels or konaks, on the fringe of fire-worshipping villages, usually built on top of a spring where the icons were blessed and incensed before being taken to processions like these.
‘There is a church in the Strandja village of Zabernovo, built on top of a spring and antique cult site,’ said someone behind me with perfect timing. The woman had ash-blond hair, a tobaccoey complexion and secretive eyes. She sat apart from the tables, at the base of a giant oak, as if she had always been there. Her name was Marina.
The church in that village, she went on, contained a well where the original mythical act of wrestling took place. Even now, if you go to the well at the right moment in the seasonal cycle, and know how to see it, a man and a black ox come out of the well at nightfall and wrestle until dawn. There is no winner. At first cock’s crow, they go back into the well.
Marina was an ethnographer, and after thirty years in Burgas, she had returned to Strandja and her native border town to look after her aged parents. She didn’t ask what I was doing there; she had a way of reading people.
High above us, the oak forest swayed soundlessly and the sky was young with summer. There were children and octogenarians, alcoholics and ethnographers. You could tell the newcomers like me – we looked inhibited. The locals had wild faces – faces that aren’t seen in cities. Men were pouring potent home-brewed beverages. Someone stood guarding the icons on each platform.
‘Theophany,’ Marina said, ‘The belief that icons are human manifestations of gods and so mediators between the mortal and the divine.’
I asked her why the Big Agiasma is called big. It looked quite small to me.
‘We mustn’t take things literally,’ Marina’s face shook into a smile, and she told me the following story.
In antiquity, a divine stag came each springtime and cleared the spring with his horns until the water began to flow. Then he offered himself voluntarily for slaughter as the sacrificial kurban. He did this every year. Which is why you never shoot a stag in this forest, just in case it’s the divine one, the gold-horned one who, from the Bronze Age onwards, runs toward the sun of the new season and whose earthly embodiment is fire, Marina said.
Though it seemed to me that these days, the forest belongs to the various hunting mafias who shoot whatever they like.
‘This is how the Big Agiasma opened,’ she concluded, ‘and because of that, it’s here that the fire worshippers of each generation first tune in with the fire. Opening, undressing, bathing, dressing, moving in a circle anticlockwise, these are the rites that have been with us a long time.’