Anelia Milusheva is the lady who can answer all questions in this field. She is an ethnologist, an organizer of events and workshops on traditional Bulgarian culture and a lecturer at folklore-themed meetings. She is the author of two books and the winner of international prizes and awards and was included in UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Days before her lecture on "The Bulgarian Woman in Traditional Rituals", scheduled for March 22nd, we decided to ask the questions the answers to which we always wanted to learn.
We have the pleasure of talking with you days before your special class "The Bulgarian woman in traditional rituals" at the "Live elegantly" Academy. In fact, what is the woman in Bulgarian traditional concepts - her image in folklore?
The Bulgarian woman has the self-confidence of a beautiful woman, and I think that this is quite justified. However, the relativity of the concept of female beauty is also an indisputable fact. There are many patterns formed by different peoples with different cultures. Also, the ideal of a beautiful woman is historically determined and depends entirely on the era that created it and in which it was realized. Well, the beautiful Bulgarian woman from our traditional culture is different from today's beautiful Bulgarian woman. In fact, the image of the past has two main layers. On one side is the imaginary „unborn" maiden and ethereal diva, and on the other - the solid image of the woman in real life. Desires for beauty transcend reality to enter the magical world, but also come back as firmly associated with femininity and fertility. The Bulgarian woman of the past, described in the songs, has the body of a "thin poplar", "black cherry" eyes, distinct eyebrows and hair of silk. Besides the external marks, beauty had to incorporate moral virtues.
And what is the reality?
The reality is that a very thin body is not really sought after, because it can also be a sign of illness, and a beautiful woman, according to our traditional culture, must have a healthy body that has all the necessary features to fulfill its purpose - motherhood.
What don't we know about the Bulgarian woman of the past?
I'm not sure that it’s due to ignorance, rather we don't realize many things from that time, about the old way of life. For a woman to be beautiful, she had to achieve it to some extent on her own. To sew and decorate her clothes, to keep her skin white even while working in the fields, to fix and keep her hair, etc., among all her other domestic duties. Caring for this beauty is especially important in the period of maturation of the girl, until she gets married.
But what is the biggest myth about Bulgarian women – something we've all heard and believed but which is fiction?
I cannot define anything specifically as fiction, especially since this ideal of female beauty has reached us mostly through oral folklore - songs, fairy tales, legends, etc. So, it could all be fiction or it could have been distorted through the lens of personal preference. We have all heard about the claims of the father-in-law and mother-in-law to the future daughter-in-law including in terms of her appearance and beauty, but in fact quite often in real life such an attraction for the male eyes or female envy, could also be a curse or at least a daily burden for both the woman and her family.
What qualities did the Bulgarian woman possess then that she doesn't have now?
She had extremely strict rules, obligations, boundaries and conventions to comply with both in terms of her appearance and her life in general. People in our traditional past were seen as parts of society, not separate individualities. Today we are used to considering our own desires and interests in the first place. For example, if I decide to wear a bright red dress because red is my favorite color and it suits me, I will not consider my age and the fact that, according to traditional norms, my age does not allow it.
Have values changed?
Oh yes, they sure have. Our value system today is somewhat different, and so is our upbringing, although we often claim to have deep-rooted and preserved moral values. Morality today is more of a personal choice (always within some limits, of course), and society is often quite tolerant even of exceptions, whereas only 100-150 years ago, if a member of a group expressed and asserted a personal choice that was in contradiction with the values of the group, this was immediately automatically stigmatized, and the person was rejected, banished and excluded from the collective.
Let's talk about what tools and means the Bulgarian woman used to emphasize her beauty. What is folk cosmetics?
Beauty - valued, respected and desired was also carefully guarded. The world of the Bulgarian woman from our traditional culture was in many ways magically meaningful. In this regard, the dangerous invisible factors were an important part of life. The power of the evil eye, from which one becomes ugly, sick, even dies, or the so-called curses was a concept embraced by everyone. Beauty was naturally most tempting to the evil eyes. The strong fear of the invisible evil forces capable of destroying a woman's beauty created a number of precautions that the women strictly observed. Adding garlic cloves, blue beads, red threads, coins and pendants (in some cases even bird feathers, animal teeth, shells, etc.) to adorn the clothing were almost mandatory. Metal jewelry - bracelets, necklaces, earrings, pendants, etc. are also part of the protective arsenal of fiancés and young brides. The embroidery of costumes, which today we mostly accept as beautiful decoration, also has such an extremely important apotropaic function. Naturally, in their desire to preserve their beauty, women also resorted to cosmetics, as we call it today. They often used recipes from folk medicine and herbalism as various skin softening ointments, pomades and herbal potions.
Are there any old beauty rituals still applicable today?
The beauty rituals of the Bulgarian woman of the past are part of the festive ritual calendar. For example, on Todorovden, washing a woman's hair is mandatory so that it is long and strong like a horse's tail. Adding a handful of hay, herbs such as basil, mint, etc. to the water and collecting such herbs on Midsummer day; mare's milk, buds of fruit trees, silver coins, &c. enhance the magic of the rite. The strict application of the rituals of the past would seem quite ridiculous today, due to the lack of this magical meaning. Hardly any woman today will sprinkle ("sow" in her hair like seeds in a field) her head with wheat or with 39 grains of rye on Mladensi feast and believe that this will save her from hair loss and make her hair thick and shiny, at least because today we have modern scientific knowledge and medicine. However, this does not mean that some of the rituals could not be adapted and applied today. Magic is magic, and it works, be it with “silent” water on a new moon, collected rain, snake oil, chamomile potion, or parsley.
You ignite in many people the spark and interest in Bulgarian folklore. What is the best comment you have heard from someone you instructed in this area?
I can't think of a specific comment, but I'm always extremely happy when, after meeting and talking with me, people have a lot of questions and a desire to search for more information. I continue to maintain that traditional Bulgarian culture is first and foremost knowledge, and not some forgotten “granny” ideas and things from the past. They are not so easy to understand, nor does every grandmother know them, because today's grandmothers have not had the opportunity to experience and absorb everything for a number of reasons. I invite anyone who has a stronger interest in old times and culture to look for the knowledge collected and preserved, already written by our ethnographers. There is literature, it's just that it is often not on the Internet, but on the shelves of libraries.
On March 22, the "Bulgarian woman in traditional rituals" class will be held. What is the most important message you want to convey to your "students" on this day?
Let them not forget that the Bulgarian woman is a beautiful woman and the charm she brings is innately original. To seek the knowledge and meaning of the past. Yes, many things are already outdated and it would be naive and stupid to blindly believe and follow the old beliefs, prohibitions and restrictions. They were employed to bring order and peace into people's lives and helped explain their world. Today it is easier to get answers about what is really happening, without the need to be scared to death by imaginary creatures, dragons and elves. But the message I would like to send is that in order to live with greater awareness, we must try to transfer from the past the simple meaning of existence, the concept that everyone is dependent on the other and on nature, on the earth that gives birth to life, in which also all the beauty of life is to be found. Also, I always invite a responsible attitude to the obligation to preserve and pass on to future generations the skills, knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors.
If you want to learn more about the role of the Bulgarian woman in various customs and rites, sign up for Anelia Milusheva's lecture "The Bulgarian woman in traditional rituals".