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The Slavs - Episode 2


Ancient Slavic Rituals in Bulgaria

A little village community of Bulgarian peasants and shepherds in the Carpathian mountains. Preparations are being made for a traditional ritual, in which bells play an important part. But in this early stage their sound must not be heard, they must not even be seen for fear of waking evil sprits. Early in the morning, the bells are carried in great secrecy to an isolated cottage. There some of the villagers are dressing up in grotesque masks and costumes. The Survakari or Masked Mummers re-enact the victory over the animals that threatened herds and flocks and crops. Animals such as the wolf. Birds such as the eagle. It is one of the oldest festivities in the Slavic world. It goes back to the time of the first settlements set up by groups of nomads, who came from the steps of Asia over one thousand years ago in search of new territories in Eastern Europe. They changed from hunters always on the move, into colonisers of the lands to which their long march had brought them.

With their enormous masks, which represent both wild and domestic animals, the Survakari Mummers are a link with the heroic exploits of the past. In this particular village of Bulgaria, [Ognanari?], the masks give a very vivid idea of what the rituals where like in ancient Europe when nature worship was practised. Now the cowbells can be rung triumphantly to drive away all evil spirits and the threat of ill luck. In the original version of the celebration, the bear was a real one. The possessing of the oldest and ugliest woman in the community on the other hand, has always been staged symbolically. She stands for winter, after going through the mime of being sexually assaulted, she turns into spring. The reference to making the earth fertile is underlined by the gesture of snatching the ears of corn. Not so long ago the wrestling match between the bravest young man of the village and the captive bear was as we said not mimed but real. To risk one's life in this defiance of the violence of nature, gave a sacred significance to the festivity. A colourful celebration of the victory over nature, won by nomads who finally settled down so many generations ago. Those men and their beliefs are the theme of the second episode of our series about the Slavs.


Ancient Slavic Rituals in Bosnia-Herzegovina

In the most isolated parts of Eastern Europe, such as the high valleys of Bosnia, ancient Slavic rituals and authentic Slavic folk traditions live on. They bare witness to a way of life that has changed very little since the first groups of settlers came here. In these out of the way places they were safe from invasion and attacks by marauders. Despite their solitude and isolation or perhaps because of them, the people of this area are very hospitable. There is a special ritual for welcoming visitors. Bread and salt are offered to travellers who stop for a rest. They are treated as honoured guests until they continue on their way.


Veneration of the Dead

Veneration of the dead was also very strong among the early Slavs. We have proof of this in the cemeteries of their first settlements like this one in Herzegovina. After a thousand years nothing remains of the habitations of the living, but the homes of the dead are still there. The attitude towards death that inspired the early Slavs is still very powerful in the rural world of the whole of Eastern Europe. The simple rituals that survive, were once a way to fend off the fear of death. It's believed that the soul of a dead person continues to live near his family's house. There is even a family reunion with the dear departed. The dead person is offered bread and wine, as well as all the other things he enjoyed when alive, fruit, cakes and so on.

White is the colour of mourning. The same white as that of the spotless table cloth that even the poorest of country folk will spread on his table, and on the day of the dead it is also spread on the grave of a loved one. Gifts and greetings for a husband and father. We filmed this touching scene in the Carpathian Mountains.


The Harvest

Today the countryside in the huge area of Europe inhabited by Slavs is very different from what it once was. Harvest time in the Ukraine. Here as elsewhere mechanisation is used to obtain the maximum output for the lowest expenditure. This has meant a radical change in country life. Before, this land was worked with a hand plough, but the memory of those times is not completely forgotten. In some parts of Bulgaria, a picturesque ceremony with masks is staged in the fields before they are sown.

The earth was identified with the mother and her symbol was the fertile waxing moon, represented by an ox's horns. That is why the horns of the oxen were decorated with flowers during the ploughing. The meaning of the old traditions is still recalled in this festivity of the Kukeri. The primeval relationship with the earth has always been deeply embedded in the soul of man. Every year the earth mother used to be invoked to give a good harvest, enough to satisfy the needs of the community.


Seasonal Festivities

The outcome of the months of sowing and tending were foretold by the summer festival of the Kukeri. The prophecy was made by rolling an empty flower sieve, if it fell to the right, the harvest would be protected by the unseen forces of nature. Summer is the season of abundance throughout Eastern Europe, but when the sunflower becomes an ice flower, winter mercilessly paralyses the lands where the Slavic peoples have lived for over a thousand years. Suzdal, in Russia, is one of the many places where the fear of winter used to be driven away with ritual festivities. There are countless customs in different areas, but they are very similar, in fact they probably all derived from the same primitive festival of ancient Europe.

An effigy of hated old man winter is carried about the city before being burned. The personification of winter, Father Christmas and his plump wife are told to leave and make way for the young girl who symbolises springtime. To hasten the arrival of the spring, winter is set fire to. This sequence was filmed some years ago. A reminder of a popular tradition which today has been robbed of much of its spontaneousness. In the Slavic world too, as everywhere else, people have lost contact with their roots.

Another custom is also preserved only in an old film, the ceremony of the cross brought up out of icy water, once a common festivity in the high valleys of the Balkans. There were many forms of purification rituals. In performing them, the ancient Slavs defied the three elements they considered the mightiest forces of nature - water, earth and fire. And the greatest purification was to be found in icy water. Throughout the mountainous volcanic territory, this act of purification enabled man to pray with the certainty of being heard. He prayed for the ice to melt and for the season of life to return. With the thaw, rivers and ponds, canals and lakes are freed from the strangling grip that has paralysed everything. The country world obviously has every reason to celebrate this event. The houses shake off their heavy burden of snow. Once more it is possible to visit friends and neighbours. The end of winter is a time of joy. For the Slavs, it has always been an occasion for song and dance, or picturesque customs.


Śmigus Dyngus

One of the Slavic traditions linked with the thaw, is the Polish country festivity known as Śmigus Dyngus. This too is a fertility right. The fertility that comes through water. The water the young men throw at the girls obviously has a sexual meaning. In the Polish countryside, Śmigus Dyngus, is a day of games and practical jokes for young people. They may not know it but this carefree holiday was once a sacred ritual, for making those taking part in it purified and fertile. Even in its present form, the festivity is a boisterous way to celebrate the return of spring.


The Tree of Life

Young Poles, even those who live in the city, welcome the spring also with a dance that has clear Indo-European origins. Around the 15th century before Christ, the first colonisers of the whole of Europe, brought with them, from central Asia, the ritual dance of the Tree of Life. The dance was spread across the continent by each new population, including the Slavs. Today, their descendants still keep that heritage alive. The dance continually creates and disintegrates a great circle. This too, is symbolic and unmistakably descends from Indo-European ritual.



Our journey through the world of Slavic traditions, now takes us to another part of the Polish countryside, this time in summer. So far we have seen how purification is obtained through the elements of earth and water. Now it is the turn of fire. This time, a symbolic sacrifice is involved. The Wianki festivity takes place on the longest day of the year when it is still dusk at 10 o'clock at night. The Wianki celebration culminated in a leap over the purifying fire. There used to be mystery and magic in these traditions. The bond between man and nature was once very strong, but it has been snapped by the profound social changes that have affected country life, also in Slavic territories.


The Nestinarka

In the old days, man was afraid of the possible consequences if he tried to tame the forces of nature, and so first, he had to undergo an almost superhuman test. In the Slavic culture, as in so many ancient peasant cultures, the test involved challenging the power of fire. The story of the Slavs has been coloured by the drama of moments such as this. The element of fire was also the inspiration for Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird. An extract from it, accompanies the magic steps of the Nestinarka, the fire dancer chosen by her fellow villagers for the test. Tradition and renewal are interwoven into the tapestry of legends and beliefs and picturesque customs, treasured by generation after generation of Slavs.

In Slovakia and in Bulgaria these are the craggy mountains of Belogradchik. They colonised inhospitable lands with stubbornness. So, with the dawning of the historical era, the area inhabited by the early Slavs extended from the fertile plains between the Dniepr and the Don as far as the most inaccessible valleys of the Balkans. There, it took the hard work of generations of settlers to rest strips of land to cultivate from the stone cluttered slopes and forests. Those separate groups of settlers gradually turned into communities that shared a common identity. But several centuries were to go by before the waves of the great migrations, brought other Slavs here to swell the numbers of those early settlers. And it was only then, that a territory as immense as a third of Europe became the permanent homeland of all the Slavs.