Nestinarstvo: Bulgaria's Ritual of Firewalking

Nestinari | © Apokalipto/WikiCommons
Nestinari | © Apokalipto/WikiCommons
Photo of Maria Angelova
29 December 2017

If you are traveling to Bulgaria and want to see something really unique, plan your trip so that on June 3 you can be in northeastern Bulgaria for the ritual called Nestinarstvo, or walking barefoot on burning embers. This is the only time and place where the original pagan firewalking ritual takes place, although many restaurants organize a similar show for the tourists, which is meant to be spectacular but has little in common with the original tradition.

What is Nestinari?

Nestinari is the Bulgarian word for the people who walk barefoot on burning embers. The ritual itself is called Nestinarstvo. A few nestinari perform a day-long ritual culminating after sunset when the center of the village of Bulgari is covered in burning embers on which the nestinari dance. They hold an icon of the Orthodox Christian saints Constantine and Helen in their hands, which is believed to keep them safe from harm. The steps and the melody of the nestinari dance are unique.

The fire burns all day to create the embers | © FelixMittermeier/Pixabay

When did the tradition begin?

It is difficult to trace the roots of the tradition, but researchers believe it all started as an ancient Thracian ritual dedicated to the Sun, where the embers symbolize the warmth and light of the sun. It was only the Thracian king (who was also the highest priest) who could perform the ritual. When Christianity arrived and overwhelmed the Thracian territories, the ritual was transformed a little to suit the new religion, and that’s how the icon with the saints was included. The ritual was banned during the Communist era in Bulgaria, but the locals kept on doing it, on a smaller scale. For the last 30 years, it has been revived and attracts many tourists.

When does it take place?

The day of Nestinari is always on June 3, the date of the saints Constantine and Helen.

Where does it take place?

The village of Bulgari is located 75 km (46 mi) from the main Black Sea coastal city of Burgas. The best way to get there is by rental car or with an organized tour, as the local transportation is not reliable.

The village of Bulgari | © Spiritia/WikiCommons

Who participates?

Once, nestinari was a hereditary title that was passed from mother to daughter. The nestinari were in charge of guarding the normality of life; they had a whole secret calendar of rituals they performed throughout the year. This tradition was lost in the 1960s. Today’s nestinari are believed to be chosen by the saints, i.e. they shouldn’t get burnt when they step on the embers.

Why do people do it?

The ritual is believed to bring well-being, health, and fertility. At one time, while dancing in trance on the embers, the nestinari also made predictions about the future.

How do they do it?

Scientists have offered a few solutions to this question – for example, that the flow of air is blocked by the ash that gets deposited on nestinari‘s feet, and that’s why their feet don’t burn. The tradition goes that nestinari fall into something like a trance, and they are protected by the two saints Constantine and Helen. In fact, nestinari spend a lot of time before the actual ritual in a small house specially dedicated to acquiring the trance state of mind. Whatever the secret, it is the mystery of it that makes the ritual so special.

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