Gergyovden – the Day of Valiance
Saint George (Gr.: agriculturalist) was a fearless warrior and orator from the Emperor’s army. Born in 284, he lost his life for Christianity at the age of just 21, in 305, yet he earned himself the fame of an invincible hero. Much like him, the Bulgarian soldier, in spite of the wars his rulers lost, never lost a single battle and earned himself glory forever. This is why the day of the saint is declared official holiday in the Republic of Bulgaria, the Day of Valiance and of the Bulgarian Army.
In the popular parable, St George is a dragon-fighting warrior, victor in unequal fights against evil mythical beings – hala, lamya [Lamia, Hydra], dragon. (In Bulgarian mythology, a lamya is a symbol of paganism and of human sin. Victory over them conveys the imposition of new Christian order and ethics.)
St George is a patron of farmers and of livestock. Like St Elias, he unlocks the sky and the earth; releases rain and dew. The summer half of the year begins on Gergyovden. at the brink of the new summer period every ritual action, word, or gesture, the whole nature that’s resurrected to life have the magical power to trigger off good and to protect from anything that we don’t want to happen.
bears the meaning of an imploration of bounty for every household. It’s a saint sacrifice, not a feast. The first male yearling lamb, the most precious, is chosen. It’s prepared as for a sacred ritual with a headdress of fresh flowers and a lit candle. If it licks some salt, the year would be sated and fruitful; if it grazes fresh grass, people would be healthy.
The blood of the lamb is used to dab the children’s cheeks for health. Then, if it’s emptied in a river, “to have prosperity flowing across the home”; in an anthill – thus, sheep will multiply like ants; in a field or a garden – the yield from whatever is sown will be abundant. If nettle is put into the vessel holding the lamb’s blood, later it can be used as a medicine against eruptions and other skin diseases. The sacrifice’s bones shall be buried in a “place where no human sets foot”. The bone from the front right leg is kept and is used as a cure and against spells. In sore throat cases, it is heated and rubbed against the child’s throat. It’s also used to paint over the ceremonial breads along the year.
St George, called also
[Floral George] sits over the borderline between seasons, brings with him a beginning, new life. This is why on this day, every fresh branch, flower, grass can cause vitality and health, protect from evil, or augur.
Flowers shall be picked early – they are for the sheep that will be milked first, the bucket, and the shepherd’s hat. They’re used to braid wreaths for the lamb and to decorate the home’s doors and windows. A sprig of nettle and a may branch are protecting against evil forces. A nettle bouquet on the front protects women from headache.
Wild geranium roots or nettle bunches put underneath the pillows overnight indicate the health status of each family member. If they stay fresh until the next day, the person for whom they’re set aside will be healthy. A wild geranium root intended for every family member is kept for a week, and then it’s planted. Whoever’s geranium takes root will be healthy and joyful all year long.
For health, a magic can be made with strings. A yellow string is attached to a wild rose shrub and a red one – to someone’s wrist. Next morning, the strings are interchanged three times. The yellow string means illness, the red one – health. The superstition is that through the interchange, the rose serves as conduit for the illness into the “dark impassable woods” and the person stays healthy.
If a girl combs herself under a poplar before sunrise, her hair would grow long like a polar. If a girl measures herself three times before a poplar, she’d grow tall and slender.
The person who wakes up first washes her face and hurries to lash the feet of all those still asleep in the house with a sprig of nettle – to ensure they’d be nimble during the summer and that no snakes or other malice would catch up with them and bite them.
Hawthorn tree (may) flowers are put under the pillow – to help people wake up early. Willow and cornel tree, as well as three blades of rye or barley, should be attached against pains in the sacrum.
As a protective measure against magic, people circumnavigate ritually fields and gardens, and pick wheat spikes and small tree branches. Infertile trees are threatened with an axe to incite them to bear fruit.
It’s advisable that everyone measures himself on Gergyovden. Parents are measuring kids for health. The balance should be suspended onto a living tree, not a dry one, in order that those who weigh themselves not to get dried up.
Water is a good blessing
and a real enchantment on this day. It should be sipped cold and on empty stomach, “to cleanse your blood”. Sipping from a new jug is a particularly lucky omen.
Everybody’s rolling into the dew for health. The dew is also used for washing the face against flecks. Dew water is used to knead ritual breads and to leaven yoghurt.
The ill are going to bathe in “left water” – places where water swirls to the left – and hope for healing. With the same objective, some are squeezing three times underneath the roots of a centenary tree. Bathing into the river on the holiday protects from fever.
If it rains and the lasses use rain water to wash their hair, the latter will grow long and thick.
The ceremonial bread
is kneaded by a girl or a young wife using a freshly poured floral (because fresh flowers are put into it) water. A thorn – to guard against evil, and a beech branch – to let the milk rise and to ensure there’s plenty of it, are added. Kids and wives, the threshing ground, the sheep pen, and the stable are sprinkled with water from the cauldron. The water for the kneading should be heated over live embers – the fire should not have flames or smokes. The bread is decorated with little lambs, a shepherd’s crook, or a pen.
Special pretzels are prepared for shepherds, goat- and cattle herders. Lasses and wives are touring three times around the pen and stall buildings bearing these pretzels for protection against enchantments and diseases.
For good milk
As due for a true herdsmen’s holiday, most important are the rituals linked with the fertility and the healthiness of livestock. The first milk is milked ceremonially. The main purpose of the ritual is ensuring good quality and abundant milk and protecting from magic. A red Easter egg is buried under the milking place. The bucket is decorated with flowers and medicinal herbs against evil eyes: ramsons, nettle, wild geranium, and gergyovche tied with a red thread. For magical improvement of the milk, one can dip into it a ring, a bone from the sacrificial lamb, a shuttle, or an egg. When milking, the milk is collected through a small pretzel or a silver bracelet.
The first milk is given away to neighbours and kin; a small portion of it is poured into a river – “to have everything running smoothly” during the year. Protective medicinal herbs and fresh garlic are also put into the livestock’s fodder.
On the holiday’s eve, no loan should be given, especially milk, cheese, butter ‑ dairy in general: to prevent that the milk runs away from the livestock.
If Gergyovden falls on a Wednesday or a Friday, the domestic animals will be fertile and will provide plenty of milk.
To Bulgarians, a holiday isn’t genuine if it isn’t shared with the entire population.
The young are suspending swings. (It’s good if they are attached to a walnut tree.) The girl that a guy swings is the one that pleases him. If a lass or a guy don’t swing on Gergyovden, they’ll suffer mishaps and bad luck during the summer.
Various competitions are organized – wrestling, horse racing, etc.
At the common table, a ritual “undressing” of the young newlywed wives is performed. The godfather (or the brother-in-law) takes off the upper wedding dress, her marriage jewellery, and her wedding shoes. From now on, she will wear ordinary, everyday’s clothes, but she will also be on a fully equal footing with other family members.
Young couples stand upright behind their parents while the latter throw at them fresh cheese – wishing them that they be sweet to each other like cheese, that the wife be fertile, that the sheep give milk.
A “left”, a.k.a. “lame” round dance is danced, led by a breastfeeding mother or a woman whose name day is observed.
Against hailstorms, leftover straw from Christmas is lit on top of a tall tumulus. As far as the flames are visible, hail would not hit this summer.
Lasses are performing the “incantation of rings” ritual, permitting that any one would know who her beloved will be and what his profession is.
Love can be foretold from garlic sticks, too. Three sticks are trimmed, each one is called a name and in the morning, whichever has grown the tallest designates the chosen one. If no stick grows, the lass shouldn’t expect marriage this year.
Young people go to the river, at a left turn, where the river makes a U-turn, and everybody throws a bite of bread into whitewater. If water carries it straight forward, without turbulence, this is a good omen.