Bulgarians - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The majority of Bulgarians are adherents of the Eastern Orthodox church, whose beliefs they combine with non-Christian ideas about forces of evil such as the evil eye and bad fortune. There are also several thousand Protestants of various affiliations, approximately 3,500 Jews, and a group of Bulgarian Muslims called Pomaks. A large segment of Bulgarians are not religious at all. This number increased during the Communist regime as a result of state-sponsored atheism, but even before World War II many villagers were not devoutly religious.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, certain older women in villages had reputations for preventing or countering evil forces, while the Eastern Orthodox priest was considered to be the major intermediary with God and the forces of good.

Ceremonies. The most important religious ceremonies (in addition to regular church services and religious holidays) were christenings, weddings, the blessing of a new house, and funerals. The Communist government provided civil replacements for weddings, funerals, and christenings, though some Bulgarians continued to have religious rituals performed as well.

Arts. Folklore is an important element of traditional and contemporary Bulgarian culture. Folk songs are varied and many of them are connected to the struggle against Ottoman control. After the liberation they served as the basis for subsequent compositions. Singing was an important social activity, as work groups and drinking parties would often erupt into song. Folk dancing likewise served important social functions, and regular dances in the spring and summer brought together much of the village at the village square. Such singing and dancing continues in the contemporary context, though with somewhat less frequency. The Communist Government promoted folklore as a symbol of Bulgarian identity and sponsored numerous professional folklore ensembles and amateur festivals. Many villages and towns have amateur folk ensembles who perform in these festivals. Larger villages and towns also have amateur drama and choral clubs that perform for the village. Textile arts were also of traditional importance, especially the weaving of intricately patterned cloth and rugs. Contemporary Bulgarians have achieved excellence in many art forms, and some of their artists, such as opera singers, have gained worldwide recognition.

Medicine. Treatment for illness traditionally included a variety of possibilities: religious actions, such as drinking holy water and kissing icons; non-Christian magical incantations believed to counter or exorcise evil forces; herbal treatments using local plants and their products (such as garlic, wine, and brandy); and consulting a physician. Traditionally the last option was the last resort, but in contemporary Bulgaria it is more often the first response to sickness, though often in combination with folk treatments.

Death and Afterlife. Ideas about the afterlife are extensive, though many Bulgarians deny believing them. Traditionally, bodies had to be buried within twenty-four hours. At death the soul is believed to begin a forty-day journey to the other world. Many necessities for this journey and subsequent life, such as lighted candles, food, wine, clothing, and money, are buried with the corpse or laid on the grave. These supplies are replenished by relatives of the deceased in rituals conducted at the grave site on significant anniversaries of the death, including three days, forty days, six months, and one year. In addition there are several days in the Eastern Orthodox religious calendar devoted to the dead when everyone goes to the graveyard to light candles, lay out food, and pour wine on the graves of their relatives. The Communist government promoted civil funerals to replace religious ones and developed an annual civil ceremony at graveyards for honoring the dead. Bulgarians participated in both, and even in civil ceremonies much of the religious ritual was retained.

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