REVIEW: Thracian Magic by Georgi Mishev
Thracian Magic, past & present by Georgi Mishev, Avalonia (London) 2012, trade paperback, 336 pages. Translated from Bulgarian by Ekaterina Ilieva. Foreword by Prof. Valeria Fol
[update 4/8: After reading this review, please see the author Georgi Mishev's comment to this post.]
I received this book as a gift from someone who knows of my interest in the folk cultures of Bulgaria and other Eastern European and Mediterranean countries. In particular, I’m interested in possible relationships between folk dances still done today that may have roots in ancient ritual, especially if Goddess-related. Although I didn’t find a lot related to specific dances in this book, there is general explanation of the use of the horo (line or circle dance) in Goddess ritual, such as in the women’s Rite for Guarding the Sourdough, and two dances are mentioned by full name. This book has a large amount of material related to Goddess veneration, particularly in what is now Bulgaria, and contains a generous number illustrations, including artworks by the author, one of which—a wonderful fire- and snake-related deity, “Mother of the Sun,”—is shown in color on the cover and inside in black and white.
The author, Georgi Mishev, is a linguist (German and Russian), historian, and student of magic, and has been a consultant on documentaries produced for Bulgarian National Television, including the Goddess-related, She. (See first video below). The country that was once Thrace is now an area shared by Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. In Thracian Magic, Mishev focuses mainly on Bulgarian Thrace and points out that before it was called Thrace the country was named “Perke,” which, he explains, “can be related to the Indo-European root per-, pir, i.e. ‘rock’, which is the symbolic naming of the Great Goddess, called ‘The Mountain Mother’.”
The book begins with background on the syncretic relationship between Thracian folk religion and Christianity. Though this type of merging is common in a number of cultures and spiritual practices, Thracian culture may be one of the few in which the ancient Goddess practices are clearly still practiced and the veneer of Christianity is often quite thin, for example, limited to replacing the names of the ancient deities with saints names as in the spring ritual practice when women and men dance nestinarstvo (sometimes transliterated nestinarsko) horo across coal embers as a form of purification (see second video below). The rite observed between the end of May and the beginning of June originally honored the Great Goddess and her son, the sun (fire) god, and has come to be associated with Sts. Constantine and Helen. Mishev includes a table tracing Thrace in comparison with the rest of the ancient world from the second half of the 5th millennium BCE to 330 CE. He describes the Thracian concept of Goddess as “Everything, the Cosmos, the birth giver of the God....” After going into more detail about ancient Thracian mythology, Mishev discusses the difference between magicians and healers in Thracian culture, and describes a large number of rituals and practices known to be performed by each. He also includes practices/rituals of “witches,” which confused me because I could not understand if “witches” were being included in the category of “magicians,” or in a separate category. This discussion includes a description of the Thracian rite for “Drawing down the Moon,” along with a sketch of skyclad practitioners. Some of these practices and the rituals discussed later in the book related to Goddess veneration include animal sacrifice, which Mishev describes in detail.
Though there is reference throughout the book to the Goddess, the most specifically Goddess material begins in Chapter 5 (more than a hundred pages). The chapter opens with illustrations of a late Bronze Age Serbian Goddess and Venus of Willendorf (dated here to 27,000 -19,000 BCE). The author then relates the Thracian Goddess to other goddesses, including Hekate and Bendis, and includes many Goddess illustrations. The chapter also includes descriptions of a large number of rituals and practices still common today that carry obvious ancient Goddess material, though sometimes combined with Christian saints and symbols. Mishev writes (or is translated as writing), “I cannot agree that the worship of the Goddess suggests a matriarchal society or that consequently the Goddess became subordinated by the male divinities....I completely agree with...Alexander Fol, that the Goddess gathers the male divinities around her in the late ages.” Yet on the next page, he continues, “According to Thracian belief the Great Goddess self-conceives and gives birth to her Divine Son and at the end of the cycle takes him back again in herself and gives him new birth....the Thracians maintain her supreme role in their ethnic faith....Thracians honour the Goddess through herself. Temples and sanctuaries are not separated or differentiated from nature....Through the Creation, the Creatrix is honoured.” Given the latter quote, it's hard for me to figure out whether the former quote is a garbled translation, or if it is the type of disclaimer common among some writers seeking to assure academics that they’re not feminists or that they don’t buy into “blaming” the patriarchy.
And that brings us to what is for me, this book’s stumbling block: its translation (possibly mixed with inattentive editing). At times words and expressions seem to be translated directly, without attention given to the vernacular or differences in idiomatic expressions between the languages. For some readers, this may lend a welcome “folk” quality to the book, but for me it stood in the way of understanding some of the material. To continue with the quote in the previous paragraph, for instance, the meaning of the phrase, “Goddess gathers the male divinities around her in the late ages” is unclear. What are “the late ages?” In what way does the Goddess gather the male divinities around her? And how does this nullify the assertion that during encroaching patriarchy the Goddess(es) became subordinate to the gods? (Perhaps we should understand this to mean that only in Bulgaria [or Thrace] the Goddess escaped the subjugation to male deities? If so, I'd like some substantiating evidence, which I don't find in the description of the practices today, including the combination with Christian saints.)
Another example of probable translation difficulty is from a description of a ritual for “Healing of Night Fear”: “A pinch of ash is taken from nine places to be mixed with water and has to be drunk before dawn. As the incantations are made, so the ash is drunk. The piece spends that night on the circle, so it could be seen from what the fear has come.” To what does “the piece” refer? It doesn’t seem possible that it is a synonym for “pinch” as the ash is in nine “pinches,” which the person with fear (I assume, though it may be the healer–since the passive voice is used we don’t know) has consumed by dawn. Is it that one piece apart from the nine pinches is left on the circle and never consumed? Or is there an additional piece of ash? Or is it a piece of something else?
Then there is confusing usage of specific words, the most frequent in this book, “rationalise” and “rationalisation”. For example in a section describing “Transmitting of Incantation by a Hearth,” is this sentence : “The carrier of the rite doesn’t rationalise the practice in its whole, but following the will of the tradition preserves the separate ritual elements in their very archaic form.” The word “rationalise” here does not make sense to me. I think what is meant is something like explain or understand. Similarly, in a section on “Sacrifice to Mrta–Variation,” in a larger section on the Goddess-related Wolf Days in autumn, the use of “rationalisation,” in the sentence, “Tracing the ritual actions makes other features become visible, which lend the rite another different rationalisation.” If I were editing this (I have decades of experience as an editor–which is probably why this is bothering me so much), I would have replaced “rationalisation” with something like idea, reason, or explanation. But who knows, maybe something else was meant? I let myself go on about this because I feel that the Mishev’s material contributes a significant amount to our knowledge of the transmission and sustaining of Goddess customs and it deserves translation/editing that will make it more accessible to a larger audience.
In addition to the treasure of information in the main body of the book, the back matter contains some unusually helpful material: an illustrated “Index of Herbs,” an “Index of Images,” a bibliography of books in several languages separated into those in “Latin script” (e.g., English, German) and those in “Cyrillic script” (e.g.,Bulgarian, Greek). Also, throughout the book, citations and other material such as words of songs, are given in both English and Cyrillic.
Thracian Magic contains an enormous amount of material related to Goddess, magic, and how ancient spiritual practices are melded into later religions. I consider the book a worthwhile addition to the libraries of people interested in Bulgarian and other nearby cultures, the development of magical practices and ritual worldwide, and how Goddess practices are brought forward into the present through folk culture.
For those interested in additional information here are two videos and additional links:
Bulgarian National Television documentary, She, to which Mishev contributed :
Nestinarstvo (ritual dance on embers):
LINKS [updated 3/12]
Nestinarstvo (fire ritual, with dance)
Another You Tube Video (professional group, you can see dance steps quite clearly, brief[simulated?] trance induction at 1:42, ends with simulated embers--great dancing!)
Another You Tube Video (more of a village-type dancer; about halfway through, dancer carries children through coals)
Another You Tube Video (similar to previous, but dark, so best viewed full screen)
Bulgarian Dances Nowaday (discussion with another video of the ritual/dance)
Traditional Bulgarian Music and Dance
The Alien Diaries (March 7 post is in honor of International Women's Day)