The Strandzha and Malko Tarnovo region traditional spiritual culture is a combination of the Bulgarian celebration system as a whole with the typically religious features of customs and rites. Obviously this is connected to the natural and climatic facts determined economic activity of the population, co-operation between man, nature and environment
The fire-dancing ritual, called “Nestinarstvo” is typically regional. It springs from an ancient pagan custom – dance on live coals on Sts. Constantine’s and Elena’s day, practiced at village of Bulgari on 3rd of June. It is the saints’ day in an old style. The youth’s spring games of “filek” are locally presented and possess a social-normative function.
There exists a strongly presented cult to separate saints in this region. St. Marina is the most respected in the region of Strandzha. Her celebration is at the height of the summer (17th of July, the third day from the so called “dog-days”. The cult places of the saints are complexes of a cloister, a holy spring, a tree or some trees on which sick people place their clothes or part of them. In some regions a center of the complex is a cave (Slivarovo village, Stoilovo village) and the water which dropping from its moans and vault arch is taken as a holy spring. The cave near the village of Slivarovo is the biggest cult centre of St. Marina in southeast Thrace. The archaic ritual of leaving of iron and silver small sized figures of the sick organ or of a man’s figure (“votivi”) is connected to the mentioned cave. The cave has attracted worshipers from different villages and towns of the Strandzha region even from Istanbul. The visits of the cave are almost stopped because of the fact that the cave is situated over the border.
St. Constantine and St. Iliya are not only saints they are saints in which ritualism has many Thracian relicts. St. Iliya - the name of the saint means God’s fortress is worshipped as a brother of St. Marina and in the beliefs of the people he is a master of the thunders and lightnings. In every Strandzha village there is a chapel of himself. Echoes from the solar cult towards the God of sun could be seen in the admiration to the saint. There are saved icons in the Strandzha churches where St. Iliya leads a team of horses with sun rays bridle-reins and under him worshipers greet him with raised up hands, opened arms and outspread fingers (the most widespread greeting while exercise solar cults).
St. Constantine and St. Elena (the Roman emperor Constantine the great and his mother) are patrons of the fire-dancing (Nestinarstvo). The feast of the saints in Strandzha region is celebrated on 3rd of June when is the climax of the Nestinar’s ritualism. The direct cultural succession is the reason of preserving of the main features of this pagan ritual until nowadays in the region.
Before more than two millennia only the Thracian tsars had the right to direct prayers and questions to the gods and after their death to be deified. Before entering of the holy place the tsar-priest danced together with the closest noblemen but only he danced on the live coals of fire in front of the door of the tsar’s precursor. Entering in the fire connects him to gods in order to question them. After that he proclaimed the god’s will and providence.
Ritual echoes are observed in the contemporary fire-dancing games in Strandzha region. On the live coals are dancing only the devoted possessed by the saint’s spirit. Among them only the main fire-dancer can contact the deified tsar Constantine whose icon carries with and to direct the requests of the people. Only he can deliver the answers to those who are waiting for them. He is the rised from the dead tsar-priest in the role of a mediator between the two worlds and the main oracle.
The attractive power of the great fire mystery is saved till nowadays. The amazing fire dance in the village of Bulgari is only an echo from the ancient celebrations and rituals.
To the southern side of Grammatikovo village at about 6-7 km over the Veleka river in the Vlachovski dol area is located a large holy spring (Golyamoto ayazmo) – the oldest and esteemed holy spring of the Sts. Constantine and Elena. This is the place of the Nestinars (the fire-dancers). It is called Motherland by them. From this area starts the Nestinar’s settlement. On its meadow (horishte) have danced the first Nestinari and the place was holy for getting into fire. Before decades people from five Strandzha villages (Grammatikovo, Slivarovo, Kondolovo, Bulgari, and Kosti) joined the Nestinar’s procession in the last Sunday of May in order to meet near the large holy spring (Golyamoto ayazmo). They reached it dancing and the way of reaching it never been the same as on the way back. The holy movement is done in a circle contrary on the sun movement. The legend tells the procession day mysteriously was connected to the pagan times and on that very day the holy springs started to run.
St. Modest – of a special respect in Strandzha region is the celebrated on the 18th of December patron of the flocks and herds. His popularity is easily explained in this region where the means of living has been cattle-breeding.
St. Panteleymon esteemed as a healer is also respected among the Strandzha people. He is celebrated on 27th
of July. His name means “merciful” and protects the passengers in a trouble. According to the people’s belief on this day the birds are preparing to migrate to the south.