Last week of the 19th of March Bulgarians were celebrating Todorovden (the day of Todor). St Todor is the patron of horses, so on this day, Bulgaria honors the horses. This article will tell you about the ritual and traditions of St Todor, but also about some history connected to horses in Bulgaria. Did you for example know that the Proto-Bulgarians were skilled horseman´s? Or have you heard about the mystery relief of the Madara Horseman? And that there is a project to re-establish wild horses i Bulgaria?
The Martyr of St Todor
In the Christian Orthodox calendar the first week of the Great Lent is dedicated to St Theodore Tiron. Theodore Tiron was a warrior who died the death of a martyr in the year of 306. Legend tells that 50 years after his death the Emperor Julian the Apostate (332-363) was on a mission to revive the ways of the pagans, and during the first week of the Great Lent he ordered blood from pagans to sacrifice. The blood was supposed to be sprinkled over the food on the marketplace so that the Christians would break their fast without knowing it, after that Julian the Apostate meant to mock the Christians, humiliate them and call them pagans. This never came to be, God sent St Theodore Tiron to a dream of Eudoxius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, in order to warn him what was going to happen and told him to tell the Christians not to buy or try anything from the market. Instead they should boil their own wheat to eat, and ever since the Christians would honor St Theodore for what he did on the first Sunday of the Great Lent.
St Todor & the Horses
St Todor is a day of health and fecundity of the horses. Traditionally the young brides went up before the sunrise to bake ritual loaves shaped as a colt or a horseshoe. The loaves got decorated with a clove of garlic, maize grains, salt or walnuts. After baking the bread the brides would walk around and give it to friends and neighbors meanwhile they were imitating the sound of horses. This was done in order to make the horses beget so there would be horse cubs later the year. The young brides would also take some parts of the loaves and mix it with the horse food together with maize, boiled wheat, beans and peas.
St Todor is the patron of the horses and it is believed that he rode a white horse. On the day of St Todor it is a tradition to arrange horse races, these are called Tudoritsa, Kushia or Domle. It was only unmarried men who participated in these races, they woke up before the sun went up, gave them water, bread and salt to eat. After that they adorned them with beads, ribbons, strings of red peppers or flowers. In some regions it was a tradition to pay a tribute to the households of the village where you were treated with wine and buns. In other region it was a tradition to make three rounds around the church yard, the cemetery or the village square before the races begun. The winner of the race was honored with the respect for his skills from the whole community.
This day marked the spring as well, and women cleaned their hair for the first time after the winter. They would do it before or during the race. It was believed by cleaning the hair on this day, the hair would grow long and thick just like the tail of the horse. The water that they used for cleaning their hair was later on poured out on the streets where the participators would ride with their horses. Sometimes they would run after the horsemen´s with their wet hair, this was done in order to prevent headache, vertigo and insanity. It was also a tradition to give symbolic gifts to young brides for their fertility, such as baby slings, shirts, distaffs and boiled wheat. The gifts would be given together with a ritual for the fertility.
Even thou this was part of the old society of Bulgaria, the modern Bulgaria still honor the horses on St Todor´s day. Many people still decorate them and to race with the horses are still very popular.
Proto-Bulgarians- Great Horseman´s
Bulgarians has a long tradition of horse riding and even in today´s modern world Bulgarians still honors and pay respect to horses.
The Proto-Bulgarians lived around the 7th century around the area of the Volga-Ural region and the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They were nomads and as they moved over the Eurasia steppe they got influenced by different culture such as the Huns, Iranians and other Indo-Europeans. They kept their way of living on the steppes wherever they moved, which mean that they preserved the way of shamanism, Tangra- the father of the sky, as well as military titles and organisation.
They established a polity of Old Great Bulgaria around 635 which came to be absorbed by the Khazar Empire at 668 A.D. In 679 Khan Asparukh established the First Bulgarian Kingdom. The Proto-Bulgarians became a part of the political and military elite. Then they merged together with Thracian´s and Vlash´s that already lived there, they got Slavicized and started to form the modern Bulgarians. Some of the Proto-Bulgarians moved to Volga river around the 7th century where they founded Volga-Bulgaria and managed to keep their identity until the 1300th century.
Anyhow, the Proto-Bulgarians were famous for being good horseman´s with all their experiences of living on the horse backs and hunting on the steppes. And a nearby village to the western Balkan Mountain (Stara Planina), Vladimir Mustakerski have started a school of horse riding and archery called The Path of the Horseman and the Bowman. The intention was to feel the spirits of the ancient Proto-Bulgarians and the courses does not only attract Bulgarians but also Americans, Germans, Greeks and Argentines.
The Madara Horseman
On the Madara Plateau of east Shumen, in northwest of Bulgaria, there is a relief carved in the stone. Archaeologists has dated it back to late 7th century or early 8th century and it depicts a horseman. The relief is 23 meter above the ground on a vertical cliff that is 100 meter high. There are more questions then there is answers to this relief. No one know who carved it or why, neither who the horseman were.
The horseman is facing to the right and pointing a spear towards a lion that lays in front of the horse hooves, to the left there is a dog running after the horse. The horseman has a halo and a bird in front of his face, these two are barley visible for the eyes because of erosion and bad condition of the monument.
Some say this relief is connected with the Proto-Bulgarians and the deity of Tangra or perhaps the Iranian deity Mithra, meanwhile other researcher claims that it has resemblance to the tradition of the Sasanian rock reliefs. There are theories that it has the Turko-Altaic mythology. Even Thracian some say. Some say that it has nothing to do with religion or mythology what so ever, but rather is a road sign for travelers back in the days to know where they were. No one knows. Yet.
The relief was discovered by archaeologists around the 1925 that at the same time found a complex dated til the 9th century (it is believed to be owned by a private ruler that made sacrifices to Tangra). There are inscriptions carved in the rock around the rider in medieval Greek that reveals much information about that time of Bulgaria (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madara_Rider).
In 1979 the Madara Horseman became enlisted on UNESCO World Heritage List.
Horses in Bulgaria
In 2014 Jen Miller and Sophie Die Pegrum, two American film makers made a documentary about wild horses in Bulgaria and Poland. A film about the Tarpan, an extinct type of the Euroasion wild horse. The Tarpan was a pre-historic horse that ranged fron the southern France/northern Spain to east and central Russia. They became extinct in the wild in the late 1900th century and the last one died in the beginning of the 20th century. Since that time with help from DNA, scientists has tried to re-create a look a like Tarpan again. The Konik (Polish for “Little Horse”) has been let out in the wild of Poland and Bulgaria in a project to “rewilding the Europe”. If you are in the eastern part of the Rhodopi mountains of Bulgaria, you may be lucky to see the konik.
Speaking from my personal experience when me and my boyfriend been hiking in the Rhodopi mountains we have run into a gang of horses. My boyfriend told me that these horses are not wild, that they belong to someone, someone that takes care of the them in the winter and gives the shelter and food. One of the horses came to me, I got a bit scared but tried to remain calm. The horse was very peaceful, I pet it and when the horse realized that I did´t had any food it continued to the heard. Maybe they are not “truly” wild but they live like free horses, running around in the mountain. Wherever they want to go, free.
Sources for this article: