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The Bulgarian Festival Calendar

 

Saint Constantine and Saint Helen’s Day

Saints Konstantin and Helena

May 21st

 

      Authentic fire-dancing can be seen only in a small region in South-eastern most Bulgaria, in several villages in the Strandja mountain.
We intend to usher you into the mysterious and magical atmosphere of fire-dancing over live coals. Fire-dancers perform their fiery ritual to mark the holiday of Saint Saint Constantine and Helen, on May 21st.
      Nowadays, fire-dancing over ambers is performed every year only by a few “initiated” into the ritual men and women at a mature age. Some of them say they have inherited this gift as a family tradition. Others tell a story of suddenly being inspired while watching fire-dancers perform and lured by an irrational impulse started dancing themselves.
     Some of the contemporary fire-dancers remember the performances of the last authentic fire dancers for whom the ritual had been a religion, a way of life. In the past, this tradition was denounced by the official cultural policy and its upholders were subjected to persecution. After decades of surviving in secret, the tradition gradually started coming back to life and today it is not restricted only to the villages typically related to the ritual, but is observed at folklore fairs in many regions in the country.
     Present-day fire-dancers, just like their predecessors, say they feel a strange anxiety once the moment of the ritual draws near. They say that the minute they step close to the live coals, their feet and palms suddenly chill and only a long time after the dance is over recover to their normal temperature. 
     Underneath their bare feet, the coals glow as if ready to blaze up once again. It is as if the dancers don't feel the fire and cross the fire circle in tiny steps. An inexplicable emotion seizes them, they say. While dancing over the live coals, they hear only the rhythm of the drum and the sound of the bag-pipe, the whole world is as if gone. No explanation has been found why the bare feet of the fire-dancers are not burnt by the fire. Traditional medicine has sought the answer in the way the fire-dancers carefully press their feet to the coals. The performers, however, claim that they are protected by the saint patrons - Saints Constantine and Helen, who trace out a path in front of the dancers. Fire-dancers step on the glowing embers with the icon of the two saints in their hands. They say they commune with the two spiritual patrons during the ritual. They have prophetic visions and tell about them once the ritual is over.
     The musicians playing in the fire-dancing ritual are also carefully selected. They have, too, inherited their gift as a family tradition. Some of them play only at the ritual. It is a magical experience for them. The musicians know that their music “guides” the fire-dancers. That is why there is a magical harmony between the players and the dancers, inspiring each of them. This experience is very much different from any other performance, musicians say.
The fire-dancing melodies are handed down from generation to generation and are performed only at the ritual. During the rest of the year, the fire-dancing drum is kept together with the ritual icons in a special chapel. It is usually built in the vicinity of a holy, healing spring. The drum and the icons are consecrated in its waters every year before the fire-dancing procession. People, known for their virtue, are chosen for the occasion to carry the icons ahead of the procession on its way from the chapel to a place, where a huge bonfire has burnt throughout the day so that there will be live coals for the fire-dancing. The procession, the fire and the fire-dancing purify and consecrate the space inhabited by people. The ritual is also believed to intensify and kindle up the energy of the Sun. This is what the ritual means nowadays although, no doubt, it has ancient roots.

 

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Fire-dancing in Bulgaria
     The Christian holiday of Saints Constantine and Helen celebrated on May 21, incorporates a variety of folk rituals. In the Rhodope Mountains where sheep breeding was the prevalent means of livelihood in the past, herds were taken out to pastures on that day.  In the farming regions of the Thracian Valley, rituals were held to protect crops from hails. The holiday is particularly attractive the way it is celebrated in the Strandja Mountain, South eastern Bulgaria, the centre of fire dancing or Nestinari ritual.
    The culmination of the rituals on May 21 involves barefoot Nestinari dancers dancing on live embers. The dancers prepare scrupulously for the day performing rituals purgatory for both the spirit and the flesh. They practice fasting, seclusion and meditation. In this way Nestinari achieve spiritual union with their celebrated patrons, Saints Constantine and Helen. Fire dancers believe that the two saints protect them and lead them to the fiery culmination of their dancing. Holding the icon of Constantine and Helen, they step on live embers. In this way performers act as mediators between saints and people. The icon used in fire dancing is washed symbolically with sacred water. After that the icon is dressed in a shirt and adorned with jewels. In the past the Nestinari from neighbouring villages would launch competitions deciding whose icon would be the most powerful one.
        The Christianizing of Nestinari celebrations however could not wipe out its original basis of ancient beliefs and practices. One ancient cult that happily survives in its veneration for springs and trees. Preparing for the day of fire dancing, villagers go out on an expedition of cleaning the holy spring of the village. They bathe the
Nestinari icon in its waters and drink from it for health. The holy spring is the point for offerings too. The proximity of the holy spring is the right site to erect a small chapel, called ‘stolnina’ or ‘konak’, dedicated to Saints Constantine and Helen. It keeps the holy drum of Nestinari. Only on the fire-dancing holiday the drum is taken out of the chapel. Accompanied by a bagpipe, the drum’s sound suggests the Nestinari pageant’s rhythm. The procession visits holy springs and trees and goes round village houses and churches. However Christian priests do not take part in traditional Nestinari celebrations. As centuries went by the church has either branded the holiday as pagan, or has been more tolerant. The pre-Christian mythology of the day links to the cult to the sun and its earthly embodiment – fire.

      At twilight, festivities move around the big fire in the village central square. A large quantity of live embers is spread into a big circle, the sign of the sun. All night long villagers dance festive chain dances around it. The climax arrives at midnight – fire dancing itself. Totally enraptured in ritual ecstasy, the Nestinari dancers come to the fiery circle barefoot, dressed in long white shirts with icons of Saints Constantine and Helen in their hands. The Nestinari drum and bagpipe quicken their rhythm, making it strangely hypnotizing. Lead by the music and entranced by their ritual mission the Nestinari trample on live, scorching embers. They dance in the ember circle, as if the external world never existed. The talent of fire dancing and communicating with divine powers is inherited. Today the Nestinari ritual survives in only two villages in Strandja Mountain – Bulgari and Kosti.

 

Flames of Faith

     It is night-time on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, not far from the Turkish border, and the glowing circle of wood embers on the beach glints like a miniature sun. An old woman in a red-and-white dress holds aloft a battered Orthodox icon depicting a man and a woman. Her face in rapture, her feet bare as she stands inches away from the fire, she relates the story of the Nestinari.
    ‘God the grandfather came to earth. He would speak to no one, because no one was without sin. So he brought forth fire and called on all men to walk in the flames. Only one man wasn’t burned: Saint Constantine. God and Saint Constantine spoke for years, but Constantine grew weary and sad. He had no wife, no family. So God brought forth the fire again and called on all unmarried women to walk in the flames. A sinless man needs a sinless woman. Only Saint Helena endured the fire.’
    Holding the icon of the two saints, the baba steps on the coals. She moves slowly, deliberately. Her eyes are focused forward, but she avoids catching the gaze of anyone in the surrounding crowd. She spends a few minutes on the coals – too long to chalk up her tolerance of the heat simply to practice, not long enough for the whole process to be totally unbelievable. She’s sweating and murmuring to herself.
      A man plays the gaida, a Balkan bagpipe made from goatskin. A flute and a pounding drum join in. Only the glowing, red-hot coals puncture the darkness. The old woman bends down and picks up some coals. She puts one on her tongue. The drum’s tattoo and the wild, gyrating melodies of the flute and the gaida continue. The baba seems to be in a trance. I forget myself as I watch. Later, I am reminded the word ‘ecstasy’ derives from the Greek ‘ex-stasis’, or to stand outside oneself: to leave one’s body. As the baba leaves the fire and the music subsides, some onlookers applaud. Others approach, touch her and then cross themselves.
      Cultures throughout the world engage in fire rituals, but the Bulgarian Nestinari are unique in the way they linger on the embers. They claim this is in order to become possessed like oracles out of Homer’s Odyssey. ‘In many places they play with fire, but here it is Orphean,’ says fire walker Vesra Roleva, referring to the ancient Greek cult that believed the human race was formed from the ashes of titans vanquished by Zeus. ‘The Nestinari are a symbol of health and luck and the longevity of the Bulgarian nation.’
     Experts are less sure about the Nestinari’s origins. Some agree with Roleva that fire walkers are the modern-day remnants of ancient cults. Many link the custom to Dionysus, a god first worshipped by Thracians around the sixth century BC, but whom the ancient Greeks later adopted as the patron of wine and wild celebration. Other experts say Asiatic tribes introduced the custom to the Balkans when they arrived in the seventh century.
Whatever their origins, the future of the Nestinari looks uncertain. Bulgaria has long been isolated on the political and cultural periphery of Europe – for most of its history it has faced east, towards Turkey or Russia. Now, as the country enters the European Union, foreigners are flooding into Bulgaria’s cheap beach and ski resorts, prompting locals to devise ways to profit from this unprecedented influx. Fire walking packs in the tourists at resorts and restaurants, but raises concerns among Nestinari who feel as if globalisation is cheapening the tradition.
    ‘Now we follow the ritual, but make it somewhat like a show,’ says Analyia Karcheva, a Nestinari who performs in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. She reflects for a moment and shrugs her shoulders: ‘A lot like a show.’
    Karcheva and other Nestinari consider themselves authentic fire walkers, but they worry that something has been lost since the days when Nestinari were rarely seen outside the Strandzha, the frontier region between Bulgaria and Turkey where I first saw the ritual on the beach.
    Karcheva, for example, speaks with a mixture of adoration and nostalgia about witnessing a famous Nestinari, the late Baba Zlatna, as a child in the mid-1950s. ‘The states of mind she was in, you had to see it,’ she says. ‘She went into this trance. Then she was possessed by something. That’s the difference between her and us. She had visions. We don’t.’
     Not all Nestinari are sceptics. Many speak about how fire walking challenges the relationship between pleasure and pain, how the dancer transcends the body’s limitations and makes contact with divine energy that allows her or him to see the future. Some describe the energy as primeval and pagan. Others feel it’s a gift from Christian saints whom the church superimposed on the ritual during the Middle Ages. Everyone agrees that the fire cleanses them of their sins. Thus many Bulgarians, most often in provincial villages, still revere the Nestinari and believe it is good luck to touch them after they have walked on the coals.
     Katya Roseva is one such true believer. ‘It’s just a matter of overcoming your primal fear,’ she says. ‘Sometimes that fear is what keeps us human. We choose to overcome that. If you are sinful, the embers hurt. If you are chaste and good they won’t. I feel the life of the fire. You might say I have a relationship with it.’
     Rumen Manolov is a rarity – a male fire walker. He adds that in special places and during special times, such as May 21, the feast day of Saint Constantine and Saint Helena, he has seen the future while walking on the coals – usually predictions of what might befall the community, such as if a politician is going to lose an election or if a natural disaster such as a flood is due to hit. ‘In order to prophesy, we need to dance in a sanctified place, close to a church or monastery and we need to have fasted for two days beforehand,’ he says.
Ask the Nestinari why they do not burn their feet and eyes will roll. It is a sore point because it emphasises the theatrical aspect of fire walking, the spectacle that attracts tourists whose knowledge of Bulgaria is limited to newspaper stories about mafia bosses gunned down in the streets of Sofia.
      They will share with you, however, what they think is the secret: as the coals burn, they are slowly covered by their own ash, providing the Nestinari with a few millimetres of insulation. If you do not linger too long on any one spot, they say, your feet will not burn. Perhaps that is true, but in early June when Nestinari flock to the village of Bulgari in the Standza to fire walk, ambulances line up outside the festival grounds to whisk away neophytes who scorch themselves.
     In the end, it is hard to separate any Nestinari performance from the supposedly
authentic ritual, says Georg Kraev, a folklorist at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia. When Nestinari perform for tourists in a restaurant, he asks, are they really inauthentic? If the original Nestinari were part of bacchanalian revels, then food and drink were around when the first people walked on coals. ‘A tavern is an ancient thing,’ Kraev says.
     It is never particularly easy to reconcile past and present in the Balkans, however. Bulgarians have a long tradition of keeping their traditions alive despite the pressure of outside influences, be it Romans, Byzantines or Ottoman Turks. Even when that influence is the EU, the holy grail of democrats that helped free Bulgaria from the yoke of communism more than 15 years ago, many of the Nestinari are suspicious of change.
    ‘I’m not happy about Bulgaria opening up to the world,’ Roseva admits. ‘But we are a persistent people. Nestinari are part of the past and they will be part of the future.’
Stamp of Authenticity
  Authentic fire dancing takes place in a few villages in south eastern Bulgaria on 21 May, Saint Constantine’s and Saint Helen’s day.
Ancient Roots
    Fire dancing can probably trace its roots back to ancient Thrace where it may have
sprung out of a cult of sun worshipping. The Thracians were renowned warriors during the Greek and Roman periods, famed in particular for their speed of movement and ability to hurl a javelin prodigious distances. Theirs was not a literary society and they left behind no great buildings but a few very nice tombs have come to light recently. They were highly skilled goldsmiths.
Cold Feet
Some Nestinari say they feel their hands and feet becoming cold prior to the ritual. They attribute this to the intervention of the saints.

 

Holidays when the fire dancing Nestinars may perform.

 Saint Constantine and Saint Helena's Day is the most important religious holiday for the nestinars. It is usually celebrated on 21st, 22nd and 23rd of May. The whole month is named after it - "Saint Constantine's Month" (or "Saint Kostadin's Month"). The residents of Bulgari and the neighbouring villages still celebrate it according to the old calendar. For the last three decades the celebrations have been held only for two days (3rd and 4th of June), though it is known that they have to continue for three days. As it was mentioned, the holiday is also called "panagyr". It belongs to the spring-summer cycle - and is one of the numerous gatherings in Strandzha Mountain.
    Usually the village gathering and the patron saint's day coincide. They take an important place in the traditional culture of the Orthodox population in South eastern Europe. Their religious significance is being gradually displaced by economic importance, especially in the big settlements and centres. Most often besides the church mass, the basic elements are the family offering gatherings, family reunions, "horo" dances and markets. Common village offering gatherings are seldom organized. However, in the remote mountain regions, far from the town centres and thoroughfares, these holidays have jealously kept their religious importance. Such an area is the inner part of Strandzha Mountain.
     Guests, coming from other villages attend the fairs there. Offering gatherings are also held, and "horo" dances are also performed. So far no significant difference in the characteristic features of fairs can be traced; not only among the Bulgarian, but also among any other Orthodox nations from South eastern Europe. The gatherings and fairs provide the precious opportunity for an exchange of traditions and habits. That exchange is of crucial importance for the preservation of special ethnographic areas.
     In Strandzha Mountain the fairs ("panagyrs") are usually organized in summer. The winter patrons - Saint Athanasius and Saint Nicholas used to be celebrated, especially in the nestinar villages. But the most revered saint patrons are: Saint Constantine and Saint  Helena, Saint Elias, Saint Marina, Saint Pantaleimon/Pantaleon, The Great Virgin Mary, The Holy Spirit, The Holy Trinity, Saint John the Baptist, Saint George and Saint Demetrius. The "panagyrs" in Strandzha Mountain do not bear the names of the villages (e.g. 'the gathering/fair of the village of…), but those of saints (e.g. "the panagyr of Saint Marina).
The nestinars perform their rituals one the days of their revered patron saints. These are:


• Saint Nicholas' Day - in winter (6th Dec.)
• Saint Modestus' Day (18th Dec.)
• Saint Basil the Great's Day; The Circumcise of Jesus (1st Jan.)
• Saint John the Baptist's Day (7th Jan.)
• Saint Athanasius' Day (18th , 19th and 20th Jan.)
• Saint Eutimius' Day (20th Jan - the last day of the Saint Athanasius' ritual)
• Easter
• 1st May - Opening and cleaning of the sacred spring (ayasma/agiasma)

                 of Saint Constantine and Saint Helena
• 2nd May - The same ritual
• Holiday (panagiros/ panair) on "The Great Ayasma" (agiasma)

           - one week before Saint Constantine and Saint Helena's Day
• Saint George's Day (6th May)
• Saint Saint Constantine and Helena's Day

            (21st, 22nd and 23rd May or 3rd, 4th and 5th of June)
• The Ascension Day, Spasovden (40 days after Easter)
• Saint Trinity (50 days after Easter)
• Saint Spirit (Monday after Saint Trinity)
• The Birth of Saint John the Baptist, Enyo's Day (24th June)
• Saint Marina's Day (17th July)
• Saint Elias' Day (20th July or 2nd Aug)
• Saint Pantaleon's/Pantaleimon's Day (27th July)
• The Transfiguration Day (6th Aug.)
• Assumption Day of the Blessed Virgin Mary, The " Great" Virgin Mary (15th Aug.)
• Saint Demetrius' Day (26th Oct.)

 

The Ritual
   Nestinarstvo is a unique phenomenon, which still remains unveiled; a mystery posing many unanswered questions.
In the Strandzha Mountain the celebration begins in the Sunday before Saint Constantine and Saint Helena's Day.
     In the past the inhabitants of several villages used to gather at "The Big Ayasma" near the area of Vlahov Dol. The area was also called "Odarchetata" (an "odarche" means a small bed in Old Bulgarian), because of the availability of five plank-beds, one for each of the five villages (Gramatikovo, Slivarovo, Bulgari, Kosti and Kondolovo) that most often practiced the ritual.
    Nowadays the ritual also includes visiting the saint patrons' holy springs ("ayasmas"), carrying of the icons of the two saints (Constantine and Helena), animal offering, and serving of ritual breads. The people who attend the ceremony ascend the plank bed, turn to East, cross themselves, light up a candle and stick it into one of the small metal crosses spread over the bed. Many people leave woven kerchiefs and gifts, hung on the parapet of the plank-bed. Sometimes the nestinars "get" their "fits" there.
     On the Thursday before the 3rd and 4th of June, they celebrate the so-called "Little Constantine" ("Kourbaneto"). In the early morning of that day the churchwarden ("vikilin", "e'pitrope") goes to the saint patron's chapel, and assisted by two or three other men, slaughters a lamb. The meat is usually boiled in the fireplace of the "konak". When it is cooked, the churchwarden tolls the bell, and all the people of the village gather at the chapel. Then they start their walk to the holy spring, with the purpose to clean it. Candles are lit and the place is swept with beech-tree foliage. After that the "vikilin" opens the lid of Saint Constantine's spring, throws a coin for happiness and starts filling the vessels, brought by the people. So that they can drink and wash themselves with the holy water, in order to be healthy in the days to come. Then each of them is served a helping of the boiled mutton.

    Saint Constantine's Day begins with a new succession of ritual acts. The morning starts with the "dressing" of the nestinar icons (the so-called "tail-end kunizmi/kumizmi"), after they have been taken to the "konak". The "dressing" ritual includes the following steps: first, the "icons' shirts" are censed by the chief priestess, then they are handed to the "vikilin" who puts them on the icons.
    Once the icons "have been dressed", they are "ready to head for the holy spring" in a solemn procession. There they are "bathed" - their handles are cleaned with the holy water of the "ayasma". "Horo" dances are played, songs are sung and ritual breads are served.
   Nestinars often are "obsessed" on the way to the chapel and back to the village and at the spring as well.
At noon the stacking of the nestinar fire begins. In line with some old records, nestinars did not start the dance until twelve carts of wood had been burnt. Now the quantity of wood used is dramatically less.
    At dusk the culmination of the nestinar complex ensues. The nestinars (later the only female nestinar) go to Saint Constantine and Saint Helena's "konak". There praying in front of the icons of the two saints, they breathe in the smoke of burning incense. When darkness descends upon the earth all the villagers gather, the musicians come and the procession heads for the fire. They walk in the following order: first is the churchwarden, followed by the boys who carry the icons, then, the nestinars, the musicians, and finally the rest.
   After they arrive at the fire, they form a cordon, encircling the already- spread embers. The "nestinar obsession" reaches its peak. With whoops the nestinars get onto the embers. First they always trace a cross. After that they walk at random. The nestinar way of walking on embers is particularly strange.

    They call it "treading" ("pleshtene"/"tipane"- Old Bulgarian), because the steps are short, even, moderately fast, and on the whole length of feet. When the "fit" is of great strength, the nestinars grab the icons, get onto the embers, make their prophecies, or… …take a handful from the embers and strew them over their heads.
     The dance on embers is usually followed by a common "horo" dance, led by the "vikilin". They play it in the hope of having health and happiness in the future.
     The nestinar trance gradually subsides, and the nestinars are ready to join the "vikilin" on his way to the "konak". There they are served a holiday dinner, including the already-boiled mutton.
The next day is Saint Helena's Day. In the past they used to go with the icons around the whole village, and pay visits to the people's homes (except those of the recently departed, and those of young mothers). The hosts would kiss the icons; and the sleeping infants would be blessed. The practice was abandoned in the 1960s.

 

"The Obsession" and The Prophetic Gift
     The ability of establishing a contact with the saint patrons and the ancestors in states of trance and dream visions, is the most important characteristic of Nestinarstvo. The final expression of that ability - the dance on embers - is a typical, but not a constant component of the ritual. The prophecies usually deal with the fate of the village, state, and people's future.
        Nestinars have always been righteous people with a prophetic gift. That is why they have always received the deep respect of the whole community. In the past the local people sought their help and advice. The nestinar's counsel usually included an instruction for something to be given away by the sick person, or the one in predicament.
       The first step on the embers is usually preceded by an unfixed period of prophecies, dream visions, and physical sufferings. The pains are relieved with the dance on embers.
    According to an old legend Saint Constantine visited an ill woman and told her: " If you dance in fire, you will be healthy again." In the beginning she started with making prophecies, and after a year she was able to dance in fire.
     The state of "obsession" is accompanied by pain and suffering. The "fit' is exhibited by darkening of the face, sharp lowering of the body temperature, and cold perspiration. The nestinar usually gives out shrill shrieks ...

                  which approximately sound like this: "ih-ih"/"vah-vah".
   The moment of "release" comes with the stabilization of their psychic and physical conditions, and the rising of the body temperature.
     The "illness" gets over them during the days before Saint Constantine and Saint Helena's "panagyr". When "obsessed" they can dance without a fire, and make prophecies on behalf of some of the saints (Saint Elias, Saint John, Saint Eutimius, Holy Trinity, Virgin Mary, Saint Athanasius, Saint Demetrius); but the most powerful visions are "sent" by Saint Constantine.
   The days of the saint patrons, the enthusiasm states are also provoked by the tune of the bagpipe and the drum, by the intensity and continuation of the music.  Rapidity is another expression of the "nestinar trance ", displayed by the dashing on the way, the acceleration of the musical tempo, and the rhythm of the drum, required by the nestinars.
The closed eyes during the dance and the trance are indicative of entering and being in another world, and communication with the saint.

 

Walking on Embers
   The skill to walk on embers (without being burnt) is the most impressing and important one. Some medical specialists have observed that the skin of the nestinars' feet is very delicate, without callosities. Despite the different duration of the dances on embers (not less than 10 minutes), the nestinars' feet remain intact, without a slight trace of cauterization. It has been proved that a callosity is not a protection because very often some nestinars "bury" their feet ankle-deep in the embers. There exist some psychological theories of the observed phenomenon, but they do not provide satisfactory explanations. The famous Bulgarian specialist Doctor Garvalov has stated that callosities are cornea layers that can burn much faster than normal skin.
       Another curious fact is that, during the dance some items dropped by the nestinars objects (kerchiefs, the touch of clothes, etc.) do not burn. Some people have witnessed cases in which the nestinars sit on the embers, and even lie on them.
      Many scientists are absolutely positive that at temperatures above 70°C human proteins denaturalize. The temperature of the embers is minimum 400°C. Specialists also consider that the nestinars' peculiar psychic state can explain the insensitivity to pain, but not the lack of burn damages. It is accepted without any surprise or bewilderment by nestinars and their fellow villagers. Miracles are to them something phenomenal but at the same time natural, from the point of view of folklore mentality; and an inevitable manifestation of charisma. Nestinars treat their skill as a gift, and are deeply convinced that their power comes from their unhesitant faith and trust in the saint patrons.
 

And as a Greek nestinar once said: "Believe and do not ask questions!"

 

The Thiasus ("Thias")
   The bearers of nestinar ritualism have their own organization - "thiasus", independent of the church. They have their own holy places, buildings, icons, sacred objects and possessions. The whole social organization and ritualism in the nestinar villages obey the "Nestinar Law". The ancient structure of the "thiasus" is preserved. It should be pointed out that the term "thiasus" is not used with its modern Greek meaning - "a theatrical group"; but with its old Greek one, of "religious brotherhood, community". As a general term, "thiasus" can be related to any group, organized on the basis of a common belief and ritualism.
The existence of nestinar organization can also be proved by the system of nestinar holy places - "small monasteries", "ayasmas", "konaks"; kept in perfect order by the worshippers.

      The list of proofs can be completed with: the choice of a chief priest/priestess, and later on, the choice of a churchwarden ("vikilin", "teletarchos"); the gathering of the inhabitants of several villages at "The Big Ayasma, the meetings and visits of nestinars with the aim of performing the ritual.
     The priestess in Chief used to keep the knowledge and conducted the rituals. The nestinars of different villages would visit her each spring, in order to be given instructions. That visit had a ceremonious character. She met them, gave them presents, invited them into her house, so that they could bow in front of the icons.
     The priestess duties have been transferred to a churchwarden ("vikilin", "teletarchos") in 1945. And that has been the practice for the last several decades. The churchwarden usually comes from a nestinar family, and is married to a nestinar.
     The ones who carry the icons are boys, chosen for each holiday, by the churchwarden. To be among the chosen, was a matter of honour.
    According to some old surveys, there used to be "special people", who stacked the fire and spread the embers. It is possible, that the churchwarden's position was inherited by the subsequent generations, because of the sacredness of the fire.
      In past times the lowest level of the nestinar community was obviously taken by people, who devoted themselves to a god/goddess in order to serve him/her. It was a practice, urged by the desire for redemption of sins, widely known in the ancient world, and later on adopted by Christian religion. Such a level does exist in the present nestinar organization, but it is still unclear whether the believer could join the initiated; but basically, such a step is acceptable.
    There can be observed another level in the "thiasus". That is the group of the ones, who wait "to be obsessed". Briefly, they wait for "God to get into them", in order to endure his presence and be depraved of it, by the dance on embers.

 

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