Saturday, January 4, 2014

Holy Rivers and Holy Rituals: St. Jordan's Day in Bulgaria

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Philip Larkin, excerpt from his poem, Water

New Year Greetings to all. I hope 2014 will be a great year.  The Alien Diaries is now going into its 4th year and this is the 200th post!

Many years ago, I read an article in the local newspaper about parishioners of a Greek Orthodox Church in New York City.  Every year, on the 6th of January, their priest threw a cross into New York Harbor, and a group of young men dove into the icy water to retrieve it.  It was good luck and good health for the person who found the cross, and a blessing on the waters as well.

I was fascinated by the ritual, and when I began to study Bulgarian folklore, I found out that was done in Bulgaria, too, since the majority of people there are Orthodox Christians.

Water and religion seem to go together.  And it's not just Christianity.  For example, in India, the Ganges is the Hindu holy river.  People go there to bathe, and go there to die, so they can be cremated and have their ashes strewn upon the waters.  It assures them of a good situation in the next lifetime.

According to a number of religious beliefs, even Pagan, water is used for purification rituals. Despite what you've been told, holy water is not clean and if you've read what I have about the Ganges, it is terribly polluted.

Moving water, also known as living water, is supposed to be especially powerful, magical, and holy. It is mentioned often in Christianity and Judaism. This web page has 47 Bible quotes from the Old and the New Testament that pertain to water.

Despite the irony of holy water being dirty, the faithful sprinkle, wash and immerse themselves in it.  Ironic?  Maybe.  But religious ideas have no logic.  They are taken on faith. I gave up religion many years ago, but I find the cultural aspect of it fascinating, especially when it pertains to folk beliefs.

Today's post is water-related and about the celebration of St. Jordan's Day in Bulgaria. This day is also known as Epiphany and observed on the 6th of January.  It commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. In this instance it's the Jordan by proxy.

This video is from the Bulgarian National Radio affiliate in Vidin. It begins in a church, with the priests chanting a blessing. At 1:45, two older women bottle water from the font in the church, and one of them sprinkles some on a girl. Then the group forms a procession, complete with brass band music, and walks towards the Danube, River of Many Names. The young men, who are probably on the verge of hypothermia, jump in the water (at 3:36) to retrieve the cross while the crowd watches and cheers.  The river has been made holy for another year.

Another instance of ritual purification took place on December 6 of last year, this time on a border police boat.  An icon of St. Nicholas was immersed in the Danube. 

By the way, St. Nicholas has many different personalities depending on where you live. Here in the States, he's known as Santa Claus, a totally different personage than was depicted on that icon.  In Bulgaria, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of bankers, traders, sailors, and fishermen. In this case, the icon was placed in the water in memory of fisherman and boaters who had drowned.

Finally, let's have a look at a very boisterous Epiphany celebration, this time in Kalofer, Bulgaria.  It involves another river, the Tundzha.   In this video, the priest throws the cross, one of the men catches it, then they start to dance, sing and play musical instruments, up to their thighs in icy water. The cold doesn't seem to bother them, and they're having a great time! This dance is called the Ice Horo. Notice the's there in case of emergency.

If you enjoyed this you may also like:

The Bulgarian Fascination With Water: Evidence From Folklore, Music, and Proverbs

Some Interesting New Year Rituals and More Cross-Cultural Celebrations

Sometimes Lost In Translation: Bulgarian Proverbs

By the way, there is a program on the Bulgarian National Radio titled Жива вода (Living Water). In Bulgaria, living water is connected with folklore, not religion as it is here in the States.  You can listen to it from Monday-Friday at 18:30 (Eastern European Time, GMT +2).  Adjust for your time zone. Even if you don't understand the language, you'll enjoy it if you love Bulgarian folk music.

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