Knights, revivalists, Roman senators, wood nymphs, all march in parades in different regions of Bulgaria. Costumes, roles, scripts, fights and epic music, as if from the Gladiator soundtrack, fascinate the audience and the participants. Why does the gaze turn back towards the past and continue to bring us back to history? The fantasy about the past is born somewhere in the middle between the objective history and the subjective thrill of the dressed up proto-Bulgarian warrior or Roman legionary. In this text I observe a specific event – “Blagovets with Baga-tur“ through which I will try to explore the problem of history re-enactment in the interweaving of two topics: imaginary worlds and community consolidation.
One way ticket to the past, please
History is like a distant destination towards which we have precipitated through a creative mechanism. Movies, fairy tales, re-enactments, roleplaying games, building strongholds in XIX c. We romanticize history, looking for some prime foundations, sublime, worthy, pathetic, heroic. Because the human is above all uomo nostalgico. The times past cause loud scientific polemics, but they are also not subject to comment, irreversible, gone, accommodating the idea about history’s certainty, legitimacy, clarity, indisputability. The past does not answer back, nor comment, it is silent. This is what Michelet (Anderson, 2006 : 198) says, the stories of the dead become stories about the dead. We create mythic images that speak to the present and construct it, while the historic nation becomes a memorial nation, as Hartog (2015) claims.
Fig. 1. Source: <https://www.pinterest.com/pin/369998925616997844/>, (accessed 01.10.2018).
Memory and the acts of remembering seem to displace their original meaning of “what we keep in memory”. We remember the memory, we glorify the glory of the hero itself, and not his personality, we keep the ideological image in mind and we overload with surreal symbolism his feat. What Foucault says in one of his lectures from the cycle Society must be defended seems relevant: “today we disregard death to such an extent that we force the dead to live after their death” (Foucault, 1997). Here he talks about Franco’s death and the artificial maintenance of his life afterwards. Such transformations in human mental attitudes towards life events, including death, that appear in the course of modernity, seem applicable to historic re-enactments: the dead hero lives in new dimensions; he is resurrected, interpreted, re-enacted. Around his image a fabric of meanings is weaved that appears in a whimsical aura, which itself becomes a revered image.
This is how today we are Bulgarian freedom fighters, tomorrow Roman legionaries, and the following weekend proto-Bulgarians abducting wood nymphs. We enter the eclectic space of history re-enactment and we add one more element to the line we have been following: besides remembering the memory, glorifying glory, and the cult of the mythologized image, we have the celebration of the holiday as a sentimental act of a given community.
“Plenty and of everything”: the insurgency of tradition and the ebullience of postmodernity
On March 25th 2017 Proto-Bulgarian survival academy Baga-Tur organized the event “Blagovets with Baga-Tur”. Baga-Tur self-defines as a youth organization and its mission is to protect, restore, spread and popularize ancient Bulgarian values and the Bulgarian spirit. The event was held at Aul – Baga-Tur, space provided by Stara Zagora Municipality and located in the park of the local zoo. The event was not publicized apart from a Facebook event, advertisements could not be seen in the city and the staff in the Information tourist centre and the Historic museum were not informed. Even at the entrance of the zoo, the ticket person is hesitating when he says: “If there is something going on, it is up there at Baga-Tur’s”. Later the organizers themselves explain that “there was no time for publicity”. At the entrance there is a small but seemingly permanent stall selling souvenirs and promotional materials: t-shirts, hats with the name of the association, neck and hand pendants, loaded not only with private symbolism (i.e. memorabilia from a visited place to be brought back in the personal lifeworld), but rather a kind of generally valid “national” amulets of the Bulgarian ancestors that bring a message and power to the owner (e.g.: “Everyone who wears this amulet carries the symbol of the sword Baga-tur and receives the power to protect the Bulgarian values!”).
|Fig. 2. Author: Fotina Bakardjieva.||Fig. 3. Author: Fotina Bakardjieva.|
All this resembles somewhat fantasy plots and since we are introducing a new genre category it is worth considering it in some detail. A few different types of fantasy can be distinguished. High fantasy focuses on the action and the story. A comprehensive conceptual world system is constructed in which socio-cultural phenomena unravel, as well as the personal features of the characters. The emphasis is on religion, mental structures, behaviour, hierarchy, customs, economic particularities, habits, fashion. An emphasis is placed on the heroes’ path, their transformation, their personal qualities that lead them to make some decisions or others, that are fundamental in the unfolding plot line. Epic fantasy is rich in challenges faced by the characters on the way to solving the massive conflict set in the storyline. There is also heroic fantasy, in which the character often experiences a transformation motivated by a change in his social status. If in high fantasy there is a multi-layered character presented with his intellectual characteristics and his mental capabilities, in heroic fantasy the character is distinguished by his physical qualities. He is strong, handsome, brave, clearly identified as the good fighter against evil (this struggle is the main dynamic of the narrative). His reward is always a kingdom and a loved one. Other types of fantasy are also distinguished, such as hard fantasy, low fantasy, urban fantasy.The event does not enjoy remarkable interest but it is as if this is not its goal. It is organized on the occasion of “the Bulgarian holiday Annunciation, when the announcement of the conception of Jesus Christ is received and also the day, when according to the proto-Bulgarian tradition the wood nymphs wake up after they slept through winter. They wake up today and you will see a re-enactment of the proto-Bulgarian custom “Blagovets”” (we are being informed by the smiling lady at the souvenirs stall) following a well prepared and elaborated script, as we can witness. This way we have a double-sided formula along the line religion-Christianity–orthodox–Bulgarian holiday, as well as along the axis folklore–mythological belief–Bulgarian holiday. A curious anachronistic amalgam. Wood nymphs, proto-Bulgarians and Virgin Mary bring together their images and construct a new body of honour.
Why do we explore fantasy in such detail and why would we consider the bagaturs as fantasy characters? First, the fantasy culture world is a world of the imaginary, where real and unreal correspond without the prerequisite of logic. The legitimacy of this world is determined by its own rules: endless fantasies around historic events leave us wondering about the connection between Lord of the Rings and the First World War or about Vikings domesticating dragons (for example the animation movie How to train your dragon).
Besides, we should not forget that science fiction and fantasy often develop the idea about an utopic land. This is the dreamy space of heroes, valiant men and virtuous maidens, who are committed to the chimeric ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. A member of the Baga-Tur association shares: “Once we discussed with a guy from the academy what we dream about. He told me: I dream about a city Bagatur. To do everything according to our own rules, the way we know it” (the strict hierarchical nature of the association can be clearly seen on their website). The same girl continues: “I can’t go to the disco and get wasted because I am Iva from Baga-Tur and I cannot disgrace the others. I am Iva from Baga-Tur, I am Iva from Baga-Tur and this is constantly in my mind”. It is remarkable how this imaginary world slips into the world of reality, of the everyday. Maybe this way the imaginary acquires realistic image, maybe we do not talk about an escape from reality but we experience the escape in its real-ness – I live as the woman warrior, the wood nymph, etc. and this is my reality. This is what the girl shares: „In Baga-Tur’s hierarchy I have my mom and dad, sometimes I share with Viki things I will not tell my own mother. We are a big family“.
While in the case of authors such as Tolkien, Pratchett, Le Guin, elves, orcs, dragons, wizards, fairies command the content of the plots, in the Bulgarian context we take the images of wood fairies, kukeri (elaborately costumed men scaring away evil spirits), karakondzhuli (human-like evil night creatures), lizards. We metamorphize, reformulate somehow western author’s models and we adapt them in the spirit of the local, folk culture. Baga-Tur’s proto-Bulgarian fantasy entwines the bagatur, the knight and the pre-modern Bulgarian maiden in the frame of one heroic-fantasy tale (see Fig. 5). Here everything comes out of the pages of literary fiction and outlines a whole system of contemporary cultural practices, as well as expressions from the political discourse. Political because we should note the claim for constructing national self-consciousness, which makes re-enactments linked, in particular occasions, to the political power, most often in the form of financial support.
|Fig. 4. In LIFE, Source: here (accessed 01.10.2018).||Fig. 5. from the Facebook page of Baga-Tur.|
Although some would say with reproach that Bulgarian historic symbols and mythological characters should not be placed in the fantasy genre, an analytical approach allows such an interpretation. Instead of knights, dragons and mermaids Baga-Tur present the bagatur – heavily armed horse rider who has mastered to perfection the art of fighting. The wood fairies are these chthonic creatures who are equally dangerous and challenging, intriguing and maintaining the mechanisms of the imaginary, which, in the course of their work create figures of bricolage. Everyone can be a wood fairy, if they want to, “it’s a question of a feeling”, says the respondent. “We tell her, close your eyes, imagine that you are a wood fairy, you are tender, light, and you rise above the earth”. This way it is equally easy for the woman warrior, the woman seducer, the mother guardian of the home or the shy maiden to enter within the outlines of this fantasmic character.
Fig. 6. A girl awarded for archery at an international fest in Hungary. “Apart from archery, she is one of the most prominent participants in the group for wood nymph dances and customs.” Source: <http://bnr.bg/starazagora/post/100728833/bagaturi-proslaviha-balgaria-na-mejdunaroden-sabor-v-ungaria>, (accessed 01.10.2018).
How do we analyse all this? The postmodern situation is the time of the free interpretation, free creation and free consumption of cultural products. With relatively no tension Bulgarians impersonate and re-enact both Thracians and proto-Bulgarians. Roland Barthes writes:
„In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of.”
And also: “the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted“ (Barthes, 1977). The importance of the “reader” takes away the aura of the expert authority – the prestige of the professional has lost part of its light, or as Ivaylo Ditchev (2016) writes „the common person does not accept any more to live with historic narratives imposed by scholars, he wants to fix the past“. The masses take things in their hands, they fragment history, remake it and put make up on it, and in some cases, in which the figure of the layman historian arises, a hybrid is made of it. This is how we celebrate at the same time the coming of spring – the power of pantheism, we suggest religious sacredness in a Christian context, we go back to folk beliefs and historic moments, until one day it may turn out that Jesus is indeed a Bulgarian and Asparuh (founder of the first Bulgarian kingdom) chased wood nymphs.
Meaning(s)ful celebration for the community
Let us consider again the event. Completely on script “they got up early, tidied the house, planted crops, because everything planted that day grows well”, they pierced symbolically the ears of little girls, “to be pretty”, because on that day “it doesn’t hurt”, and the boys “expelled the snakes and the lizards, finally sent winter and evil powers away and welcomed the children of spring – the wood nymphs” (as recounted by the hosts during the re-enactment of the rituals). The celebration ends with a horo dance of the wood nymphs and all guests are invited to join. What is the audience reflection on what they just saw? There is no particularly festive spirit, the people do not recognize themselves either in the character of the hard-working folk people, or in the tales about wood nymphs, while the religious storyline remains in the background in the midst of tangric greetings (Tangra is the main proto-Bulgarian deity) with which members of the group are presenting themselves after a performance. Families with small kids (mostly relatives of the performers) watch with relative interest, parents – with patience and curiosity, while kids rather with ennui and lack of understanding. What creates a festive feeling is not the content of the Christian celebration or the folk ritual of pre-modern folk practices but the fact that the community has come together. Stara Zagora locals do not necessarily identify with Baga-Tur and their city is not “the city Bagatur”, but during the two hours of the presence of the twenty families there is a feeling of celebrating togetherness. Smiling faces, upbeat comments, horse riding and arching, which are part of the regular offering at the Aul, pictures with the participants, and the final horo dance at the end, all give a feeling of a new type of festivity: paradoxically organized-spontaneous. Why? In the conceptual framework of Baga-Tur the members have the mission to preserve and spread Bulgarian customs, but in reality the kids in the audience do not quite understand the meaning of the demonstrated cultural practices. For the parents it seems that this is just a chance to spend a part of the sunny weekend in a semi-fun, “semi-educational” way. The paradox is born somewhere in the middle: the idea of the organizers and the reflection of the recipients, the result is in a third sense different and the researcher discovers a new image of festivity. In reality hardly anyone believes in the waking up of the wood nymphs while those who believe in the Annunciation would probably go to church or to greet their mothers (on March 25th the Day of the Mother is celebrated in the religious and not the secular context, for which we have March 8th).
If we often associate the holiday with fun, joy, eating, leisure and a noble, justified idleness, (the Bulgarian word for “holiday” has the same root as “empty”), then in this “meaning(s)full” celebration we have the desire to be together, to come up with an occasion to hang on to, to search in its roots and construct identity. The “meaning(s)full” celebration is an abundance of symbolic forms, didactic words, historical readings, and the pursuit of identity. In the pre-modern world we had God and King, then we had society, the enlightenment concepts of the community and national ideologies, and then, in the postmodern situation, the subject seems to have remained too alone in front of himself and the world, un homme blasé, full of content and meanings and empty in terms of shared experience. Overwhelmed by big and small narratives, he searches again for his own, independent foundations, even if passing through the shades of religious dogmas, political discourses and unrealistic art tales. But above all, he remains a person seeking the human and humanity. In reality he does not celebrate the existence of God, nor does he respect the authority of the past, perhaps he just celebrates his own discovery, discovery through others and among others.
Translated by Rossitsa Bolgurova
Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
Barthes, Roland. 1977. “The Death of the Author”, In: Barthes, Roland. Image Music Text, London: Fontana Press, 142–149.
Ditchev, Ivaylo. 2016. Kulturata kato distantsia. Edinadeset eseta po kulturna antropologia [Culture as a Distance. 11 Essays on Cultural Anthropology]. Sofia: Sofia University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1997. “Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York: Picador.
Hartog, François. 2015. Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time. New York: Columbia University Press.
 Amulet Bagatur in „Your e-shop for souvenirs and gifts from Bulgaria”.
 All names have been changed.
* The article is part of the project “The New Festivity: Communities, Identities, and Policies in Bulgaria in the XXI century” of Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, financed by the Bulgarian National Science Fund – Ministry of Education and Science (Agreement № ДН 05/07, 14.12.2016).
Fotina Bakardjieva is a graduate of the Cultural studies bachelor program at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. Her research interests are focused in the area of cultural anthropology, historic heritage and its socialization and integration in urban space, anthropology of food, sociology, Modernity and Post-modernity in European culture.