Earlier, I wrote about the Bulgarian tradition of Baba Marta Day, celebrated on the first of March each year. It is one of the oldest pagan traditions in Europe that still exist, and one that the people use to joyfully usher in the warmer spring weather after their notoriously brutal winters. Martenitsa (plural: martenitsi), a gift made of red- and white-colored yarn, is traditionally given to friends and family on March 1 as a way to welcome in the spring and its warmer weather. These are usually fashioned into little wristbands, but another common configuration of the martenitsa is as Pizho and Penda; the male doll, Pizho, is usually distinguished by its white dominating color, while Penda, the female doll, is usually mostly red. There are many legends as to how Baba Marta Day came into existence, but they all are similar in some of the representative colors and the adornments given.
In old folklore, “Baba Marta” (Grandmother March or Granny March in English) was portrayed as somewhat of a bipolar and moody woman. When she was happy, skies were blue and the sun shone; if she was angry, winter would last a little bit longer. Some say that Baba Marta only visits clean homes, so Bulgarians have their own version of spring cleaning due to the Baba Marta celebration. Towards the end of February, people cleaned their homes, which also represented a clearing out of the old things from the past year, allowing for the spring “new”.
Like the many different beliefs as to why the martenitsa are used to appeal to Baba Marta, there are also several varying accounts as to how the colors – red and white – came to be chosen for the adornments. One myth explains that this tradition honors Mars, the god of war and the agricultural guardian (springtime). Bulgarians have had a history full of war. Martenitza.org (link now dead) stated: “As warriors left their wives to go to fight, womenfolk gave their husbands red and white strips of cloth to tie round their wrists. Some gave small woolen figures of a girl and a boy. The colors represented the blood of the warriors and the pale faces of the women they were leaving behind.”
Another legend recalls the story of the story of Khan Kubrat, the Bulgar ruler credited with founding the first kingdom of Bulgaria. As he neared the end of his life, he asked his five sons to keep all of the Bulgar tribes together to maintain the country. But soon after his death, the country was invaded by the Khazars, a Turkic people from a neighboring region. In the story, the Khazars kidnapped Kubrat’s daughter, Houba. Bayan, one of Kubrat’s sons, joined with the Khazars just so he could stay with his sister. Another son, Kotrag, moved north, and the remaining three, Asparukh, Kouber and Altsek, went south to stay away from the Khazars. The latter three arranged that if they found a safe place to settle, they would send a bird to Bayan and Houba with a white thread tied to its leg. Soon, the bird came to the brother and sister, and they tried to plan an escape, but the Khazars found out and followed them. Bayan and Houba didn’t realize that the Khazar soldiers were so close. As they were about to release the bird to return the signal to the other siblings, Bayan was wounded by a Khazar arrow. Dripping blood onto the white thread (red and white), Bayan still was able to release the bird and they eventually found their brothers. Asparukh gave his soldiers torn pieces of Bayan’s bloodstained clothes in small strips to honor his wounded brother.
Yet another story involves the same siblings, but in a different setting. This one centers around Khan Asparukh, founder of the First Bulgarian Empire and the brother who honored Bayan in the previous story. According to this account, Asparukh, leader of about 50,000 Bulgars, finally reached land on the other side of the Danube and decided to settle there. Being content with the new land, he went to offer the pagan god, Tangra, a gift to bless the new kingdom. Early Bulgar tradition had it where a sacrificial fire must be lit with a sprig of dill, but none was around. Soon, a falcon perched on Asparukh’s shoulder which had that needed sprig of dill tied to its leg, along with a white woolen thread which was half tinged red. It seems that Asparukh’s sister Houba sent it, having had a dream of his dilemma. During the flight to Asparukh, the falcon’s wing was rubbed sore and soaked part of the thread in blood. Asparukh attached the thread onto his clothing in remembrance.
I was inspired to research and write this article about this just by glancing at this photo from my good friend, Bob, who allowed me to use it in my article. Bob Leathers is a great photographer who constantly blows my socks off with his random shots, and he has some quite refined tastes in music. Check out his music project’s home page here: The Wandering Musicphile.