Nestinarstvo – The Fire Dancing Ritual of Bulgari

A centuries-old custom that can be traced back to the Tracians, Nestinarstvo (Fire Dancing) is a mysterious ritual in which people actually dance on smouldering embers without getting any burns.

Believed to be one of the oldest pagan rituals in the Balkans, Nestinarstvo has defied persecution by both the Christian Church and communism and is still practiced in some Bulgarian and Greek speaking villages of the Strandzha Mountains. One of this remote settlements is the legendary Bulgari village, where people still dance on hot coals, just like their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

The enigmatic ritual of Nestinarstvo begins at sunset, when the chief nestinar (fire dancer), wearing a white shirt and red sash wrapped around his waist, arrives in Bulgari’s square and begins spreading the hot embers in a circle. Street lights are turned-off  and all the villagers gather around the scorching dancing ring, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes and drums. The nestinari begin dancing around the circle, carrying religious icons, and then suddenly walk through fire, their feet lightly touching the red-hot embers, sometimes pressing down hard in circular motion. The dance continues until the nestinari put out the blaze with their feet.

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The entire village of Bulgari takes part in the celebration, but only professional nestinari actually perform the fire dance. In ancient times, only women were chosen as nestinari, but nowadays it is also performed by men. These mysterious fire dancers have snow pale faces and keep their eyes half-closed during Nestinarstvo, leading many to believe they go into a spiritual trance that allows them to tell the future. As a matter of fact, a Bulgarian historian who has studied fire dancing since 1972, and wrote a book on it, called “Fire and Music”, claims she heard the prophecy of a Greek nestinar, in 1993, that predicted the Yugoslavian war that soon followed.

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But the most amazing thing about Nestinarstvo is that medical examinations of the nestinari have revealed that the skin of their feet is tender and presents no traces of burns. Another curious fact is that objects that fall on the smouldering embers, like head-scarves of the women nestinari, never catch on fire. Eyewitnesses have even reported stories about fire dancers who tripped and fell on the hot coals, but simply got up and continued their dance like nothing had happened. According to the people of Bulgari, not anyone can perform this ritual, you have to be born a nestinari. They are special people who must have complete faith in the good, and wish evil on no one. This apparently keeps them safe, but requires a lot of mental preparation to master. Of course, having cold feet doesn’t hurt, either.

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