Friday, February 11, 2011

Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers

Hello and welcome to the first post on my cultural exploration of Bulgaria. As with all good ideas I came up with this on Twitter, sharing about my Names Day that was on Feb 10th. I’m in no way expert in Bulgarian folklore and cultural history and every fairy tale, legend, myth or ritual has its nuances among the different regions of the country. What I’m attempting to do is record as much as I can about Bulgaria in a sort-of database that could be useful should any one feels curious about my culture. So, if you are interested tune in every Friday.


Saint Haralampi [sometimes referred to as Haralambos or Haralampii]

This Friday I want to tackle my Names Day, St. Haralampi. First, let me explain the concept of the Names Days. I’m not aware if any other Eastern Orthodox Christian countries celebrate these, but the concept is simple. Bulgaria has a vast religious calendar that hosts all holidays, many of which are Names Days. I’m having hard time keeping this formal, because it looks as if I’m dumbing it down.

Yesterday was St. Haralampi, during which all the people who have this name or a variation of it celebrate. I’m Haralambi, so I celebrate, but so far haven’t heard of a female version of my name, because Haralambi is essentially a Greek name [because I’m ¼ Greek]. Mandatory for all Names Days is to wish the ‘name bearer’ [I invented this term, because I don’t want to type up ‘people who celebrate their Names Day’ all the time] health and prosperity. I don’t get many, because my Names Day is obscure. Not many are named after the saint, due to his Greek origin.

Now that I’ve covered the basics, I want to talk more about my saint. Saint Haralambi isn’t a well known historical figure. What is known about his life is that he died defending his faith, which automatically listed him as a martyr and thereafter as a saint. Legends say that he was a Miracle Worker and a great healer. Because of his healing, he was named a patron of diseases [icons portray him chaining all personifications of diseases and in particular, the plague itself] and beekeepers [because of honey’s healing properties].

As legends go, on February 10th Saint Haralampi captured the Plague [an ugly, old woman] and chained her. Celebrations during this day are meant to keep the plague outside the house. To protect themselves from this terrible disease, people fenced houses with hawthorn and briers [if my translation is correct], sewed garlic cloves to the headscarf for women and shirts for men. Some even dressed with special “pestilential shirts” sewn of nine widows.

The ritual bread.

Women are forbidden to work on this day, lest the plague enters their home. What they do is to bake a special bread [shown above]. Here the facts become rather meshed up. One source says that women coat the bread with blessed honey from the church and nuts. Then they cut it into four pieces that correspond with the four directions of the world. One is kept at home and the other three are given to neighbors and relatives as a token of health. But before any of this goes down, the house must be scrubbed clean.

There is another custom. Only the “pure” women [no idea whether by “pure” the text refers to virgins or healthy women] to bake bread and bring it outside the village at the crossroads to appease the plague. Alternatives to this suggest to leave food and water on the ceiling or to hang bread wrapped in cloth on an abandoned wall along with a wooden vessel of wine. To be on the safe side and drive away the plague, it’s called diminutive names: "sweet and honey", "good", "aunt". I’d go for a bit more mystical and call her “honeyed one.”

The most interesting custom so far has to do with the use of twins. The whole village has to be ritualistically plowed by two twin brothers. They have to do so using a plow made from a twin tree [or twin wood, I’m not sure about the translation here] and twin oxen.

If St. Haralampi’s Day is not celebrated, he will grow furious and will release the plague and other terrible diseases from their chains down on the ungrateful ones. Yes, my saint is not as benevolent as you thought. No wonder people commit to so many customs and rituals in his honor.

How honey is consecrated.

Also, on this day consecrated honey is believed to have especially strong healing properties as it can cure rashes, measles, wounds on the body. If you smear it on children’s foreheads, they remain healthy.


With this I conclude my first post. I do hope that you have found this interesting. Personally, I have inspirations for about three stories, so I know I enjoyed writing and researching it. I’m certain that there is more to be said and if you have questions I’ll be more than happy to look into them.


T.S. Bazelli said...

Looking forward to more of these!

Harry Markov said...

@ Theresa: Yay. Glad you enjoyed it and if you want a particular topic I would love to supply that. :)

Kaaron said...

Wonderfully inspirational and fascinating! Look forward to the next one.

Harry Markov said...

Glad that you enjoyed it. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, fascinating. Looking forward to more - you could write a novel on this guy!
(And please don't smite me!)

Harry Markov said...

Theoretically I could. He sounds so awesome and there is so little known about him that I can twist however as I please. :D

Gary Baker said...

Fascinating ... see you next Friday

Porky said...

Traditions are vanishing slowly wherever we live. I wonder how much can be kept? It's surely of value to all of us that as much as possible is recorded, and this is a help. Good post.

Harry Markov said...

@ Gary: Glad to see more interested in this series.

@ Porker: That's true. The same thing is happening all over the world. The reason why I'm concerned about Bulgaria is that it's a very small country and not really many are interested in its traditions.