This article presents healing rituals from the Bulgarian traditional culture, in which the Mother of God plays the central role. Her image there is very different from her Christian canonical one. One of the differences is that in the healing incantations, the Mother of God is invoked together with God as a couple. Additionally, according to the folk beliefs the Mother of God is a patron of some healers and some of them also claim that she has taught and has been guiding them in the proper doing of the healing rituals. The healing incantations present her as a mistress of the elements, ruler of the forest nymphs called samodivi. She appears on crossroads when she hears the cry of the sick. All these functions and special features bring her closer to the ancient notion of the Great Mother Goddess than to the Mary of the Bible. Together with the verbal part of the rites, this research also focuses the attention on the action code, because they both invoke the hypostasis of the divine presence. Some typological similarities with ancient healing rituals connected with the image of the Mother goddess are thoroughly presented. Their distinguishing elements are studied in-depth. The separate parts of the ritual action for healing are commented on as well. The healing is understood as expelling the impurity, which causes the imbalance and as achieving the harmony in the body and the soul of the sick person. The healing happens with the intervention of the Mother of God and she restores the order of the macrocosm (outside the person) and of the microcosm (inside the person). Besides, as the examples show, the Mother of God remains anonymous. She is invoked only by naming her function to be Mother. In the healing spells she is also invoked as mother, but as mother of everything and everyone; she is omnipresent and watches over everyone, responding immediately when her help is asked for. All these patterns of the Mother of God in Bulgarian healing rituals present her as a hypostasis of the Great Mother Goddess.


The concept of the divine in the image of the Great Mother Goddess is attested in South-eastern Europe and especially in the Bulgarian lands from prehistoric times (at least from 8-7 millennium BCE). This concept may have its origin in the prehistoric epochs, but with time it was developed among and by various people and cultures, which were present at different times in the territory of modern day Bulgaria. So for example in the Thracian culture this prehistoric veneration continued and subsequently passed to the newly arrived other ethnicities like Slavs, proto-Bulgarians etc., who for their part additionally enriched it with beliefs and rituals of their own. The overlay of ideas and practices have not prevented the survival of the old ones and in some cases turns out to be a favourable ground for the endurance of many highly archaic rituals and beliefs which have typological parallels in the corresponding geographical region. Coming and going religious structures have given a different outer appearance of these ideas. So the primordial, all-embracing Great Goddess has been named in various ways and called on in different ritual manifestations. These names or better to say „namings‟ and images were altering according to time and its trends. The local Thracian epithets of the Goddess during the Hellenistic and the Roman age were ‘translated’ with their pantheon conformities. Thus, on the monuments from this age she was known as Artemis, Diana, Cybele, Hekate, Aphrodite, Demeter and others. In later times, for the Slavs, she was named Mokosh, Lada and others. For the Slavs and their pantheon, we possess only scarce information, which is primarily from the written tradition, but there are not enough material finds. From the literary sources we understand that the ancient authors also identified the Goddesses worshiped by the Slavs with their ancient parallels. An example for this is the finding of a relation between the Slavic Goddess Mokosh and the Goddess Hekate.

Most likely, the proto-Bulgarians also brought with themselves their own concept, which was later connected with the image of the Great Goddess they found in these lands. With the adoption of Christianity, the ancient images and concepts of the Goddess assumed new names. The folk kept their far-off beliefs and rites, but transformed them once again in order to preserve them. It is unlikely that this process was conducted deliberately and on purpose. More likely, the natural admiration and the necessity of unity with nature were the reasons for seeking ways of preserving the rituals and beliefs which provided the possibility to interact with it. There are some preserved evidences for the performing of pre-Christian rituals after the adoption of Christianity. Of particular interest is some information from the hagiography of St George the Hagiorite tenth-eleventh century CE concerning a village in the Rhodope Mountains where at that time a marble Goddess statue was worshipped by the local population and the saint broke it into pieces in order to enforce Christianity. This evidence confirms once more the stability of folk‟s inner necessity of their Goddess. The marble image might be broken down to pieces, but the sacred springs, the sacred caves, the sacred home hearths, remain and continue to be the places, where to the present day, the proximity of this power, which the ancient people sometimes just called the Great Goddess, keeps on being sought and experienced. In ancient times she was called Bendis, Hekate, Zerynthia, Cotyto, Cybele, Artemis, Demeter and in numerous other ways, now she is called Maria, Marina, Helen or in a different way. But the Goddess today continues to be sought and venerated in ritual, because in it the Christian female saint remains a Goddess.

The magical rituality including the healing rites is a very conservative type of folk knowledge. One other reason for the preservation of so many very archaic features in it is that it is kept in secret and the influence of the so called official culture is not as strong as that on other kind of rituals and beliefs, which are public. Because of that, in this paper I will present some examples how the image of the Virgin Mary is perceived in a very different way than the Christian canon allows. In the magical rituals and especially in the healing rites the Virgin Mary is at first anonymous. She is called „the Mother of God‟
as it is usual in the Bulgarian folk tradition, i.e. it is important to point out her function as Mother and as divine Genetrix. It is usual that she is invoked together with God as a couple. In some cases she appears alone and is the only help sought by the sick person. Already in the ancient ritual texts, as the Hittite ones for example (but not only there), the Great Mother Goddess was invoked for help against various diseases. She was the force, who brought the order and the health back. At the same time the Great Goddess was believed to have power over all supernatural forces and so she was the mediator to gain the help of the benevolent ones and to expel the malicious ones. So in the Hittite myth and conjuration of the fire the following description is to be seen:

they have sent the illness,

they have sent the illness of the eyes,

they have sent the illness of the feet,

they have sent the illness of the hands,

they have sent the illness of the head,

to disappear from it the warmth

and it has cried out.

The sea has asked it:

Why are you crying?

The fire answered:

The warmth has disappeared from me …“

Almost the same as structure and meaning is the following incantation against the evil eye from the Bulgarian traditional folk-magic:

„…they have strocked (the name of the person),

they have cried out, they have screamed;

they have taken the dream,

they have taken the face,

they have taken the eyes,

they have taken the head,

they have taken the body,

they have taken the feet,

they have taken the eating,

they have taken the drinking .“

In the cited Hittite ritual the fire cried out and this cry was heard by the sea, but after that the fire sought the help of the Goddess Kamrusepa. Similar is the case in the Bulgarian healing rituals, but there the role of the Great Goddess is played by the Mother of God:

„…(name of the sick person) has cried out. The cry was heard by the Mother of God …“
This is one of the most widespread motifs in the Bulgarian healing incantations – the sick person cries out from some disease and pain and the Mother of God hears this cry and  helps. Here I will present one such incantation, which is interesting because it has a very clear ancient parallel.


Mother of God was on her way, (she met) the Modritsa coming towards her,
she asked her:

“Where are you going?

I am going into the mountain.

I will send you, I will send you away from (the name of the sick person),

here is no place for you,

here they cannot take care for you,

they cannot make up the bed for you,

they cannot cover you.

There in the green forest,

there are seventy wives,

seventy unmarried young women,

seventy unmarried young men,

there they will take care for you,

there they will make the bed up for you,

there they will sing for you,

there they will dance a ring dance for you.

There are seventy apostles,

they will take care for you,

all the heavenly saints will do that.

Just as the fair disperses,

so shall the misfortune disperse,

just as the market disperses,

so shall the misfortune disperse,

just as the salt put in water disperses,

so shall the misfortune disperse.

The first part of this incantation is almost the same as in one ancient healing incantation inscribed on a silver lamella dated in 1-2 century CE, where instead of Mother of God appears the ancient goddess Artemis of Ephesos, also a Great Mother Goddess.


For The ‘Half-Head’ [Migraine): Antaura came out of the sea. She shouted like a hind. She cried out like a cow. Artemis of Ephesos met her (saying): “Antaura, where are you going?” (Antaura): “Into the half-part of the head.” (Artemis): “No, do not [go] into the [half-part of the head .. . ]. ” Left edge: … for the reliefs (?) … .
One of the better preserved versions of this spell, commented on by R. Kotansky, includes more common features with the Bulgarian folk spell. The difference there is that, while in the Bulgarian one the Mother of God is the successor of Artemis, so in the other one as helper is mentioned Jesus instead of Artemis. The further part of the incantation describes how the sickness is sent into the forest, i.e. into the mountain and there are a lot of comforts for the spirit of the disease – food and drink etc. The next ritual to be discussed here is a complex rite including the use of herbs, magical attributes, actions and incantation addressing the Mother of God.


In the region of the town Sliven there was an old man, Stoyan Yordanov Sabev, 86 years old, from the village of Zhelyo Voyvoda, who was very famous as a healer. His help was asked by sick people also from North Bulgaria, because his ritual baths with various herbs helped a lot of people against all kinds of sicknesses. In the past it was usual to see more than 40 carts full with sick people waiting by the house of old man Stoyan. He started to heal after 1927 when his mother died, who was a folk healer also. During his healing work he did healing baths against fear for more than 3000 people. The way of making the ritual bath is as follows: He used to take 41 kinds of herbs, among these burning bush, elecampane, valerian, lemon balm, coltsfoot, hart’s-tongue, common toadflax, 20 bathurst burr, 21 male fern, 22 St John`s wort, 23 cross gentian, 24 wild tulip, also leaves from nine kinds of fruit trees –  from pear-tree, apple-tree, plum-tree, common toothwort 25 and others. The herbs were boiled in water by the old man Stoyan and after that the herbal infusion was to be put outside in the garden under the stars. For the herbal bath the sick person was told to undress and the herbal infusion was poured out on them. The bath was done on Wednesday and on Friday early in the morning around 5-6 o’clock and in the evening around 9 o’clock. While doing the bath old man Stoyan used to say the following incantation:

Evil hour, evil harm,

Mother of God has gathered them all,

seventy seven,

different faiths (i.e. spirits) unbaptized,

unanointed (i.e. unblessed),

there where there is nothing to eat,

and nothing to drink,

where there is also nothing good:

Mother of God has brought them into the church,

has sorted them out into various kinds and

has set them free into the woods and

has set them free as the she-wolf sets her wolf-cubs free. 26

After 20 days it was possible to know if the bath had helped or not. After that the healer used to do a second herbal bath. For the baths the old man Stoyan used also some other magical attributes – a hub from a horse cart, a wolf`s skull, a horn from a snake. These things were to be put on the head of the sick person at the time of the bath while pouring the herbal infusion out. The dirty water from the herbal bath was to be collected in a vessel and to be poured out on some place, where nobody had stepped.

  • 20 Linaria vulgaris
  • 21 Xanthium spinosum
  • 22 Dryopteris felix-mas
  • 23 Hypericum perforatum
  • 24 Gentiana cruciata
  • 25 Lathraea squamaria
  • 26 The text in Bulgarian as follows:

Зъл час, зла злина, 

Божа майка ги събра,

седемдесет и седем,

вери некръстосали, не миросани,

там дето няма ядене

и няма пиене,

там няма и добро:

Божа майка ги увела в черковата и ги

разпределила на вери и ги пуснала в гората, и ги

пуснала като вълчицата вълчетата.

As already mentioned, the ritual includes different elements –  herbs, actions, magical attributes, time prescriptions, incantation. The only supernatural authority called for help here is the Mother of God. She is called not only by the meaning of the incantation, but also with the other ritual utensils. The herbs used in this ritual and especially some of them, as burning bush, elecampane, valerian, male fern, common toothwort and gentian are strongly connected with the samodiva , i.e. the forest nymphs. The boiling of the herbs and leaving the infusion under open sky, under the stars, are very archaic elements in the ritual, known since ancient times and well attested in the ancient sources. The liminal time for doing the ritual before sunrise and after sunset has a symbolical meaning also connected with the idea of liminality and passing from one condition (sick) to another (healthy). The Mother of God is the most impressive image in the incantation, because she is described as a ruler over all kind of spirits, she gathers them and bring order among them, so that they cannot bring harm anymore. She sends the spirits of the diseases into the woods, far away from the human world and from the cultural space. In the last sentence of the incantation this action of the Mother of God is compared with the notion of how the she-wolf takes her wolf-cubs into the woods. Here is something interesting to be mentioned, according to the folklore data three „Mothers of God‟ are worshipped –  the Little, the Middle and the Big. 27 The Middle is honoured on November 21 and is considered to be the mistress of wolves – “This Mother of God gives orders to the wolves”28

According to the folk belief these three „Mothers of God‟ are sisters. 29
The Triple Mother of God provokes interest, because it is absolutely unacceptable from the perspective of the Christian canon, but obviously in the folk notion there is no obstacle for its existence. 30

  • 27 The Wolf Mother of God is considered to be the middle one, because the other two celebrations dedicated to Mother of God are respectively Little Mother of God on September 8, i.e. the birth of St Mother of God and Big Mother of God on August 15, i.e. her Assumption. Thus the Wolf Mother of God is the middle one, because she is situated between the other two, i.e. between her birth and her death.
  • 28 For the continuity of this calendar cycle and the information about the Wolf Mother of God see Marinov, D. Religious folk customs –  selected works in 5 volumes, v. I, part 2. Sofia, 2003, 397-402 (Маринов Д., Религиозни народни обичаи – избрани произведения в 5 тома, том І, част 2София, 2003, 397-402).
  • 29 Ibid 398.
  • 30 The double and triple images of saints are an interesting phenomenon in the folk beliefs and usually it is due to strong pre-Christian groundings of the worship, in this connection see
    Popov, R. Twin Saints in the Bulgarian Folk Calendar. Sofia, 1991. (
    Попов Р., Светци близнаци в българския народен календар. София, 1991).


Three lumps of sea salt are taken. The healer (female or male) stands in front of the ill person. The lump is taken with the right hand and whirled around the head of the person while saying:

God’s mother sat at the crossroad,

tucked up her white sleeves,

began to spin a black tow and said:

–  Wild samodivi, cross over nine forests,

over nine cold waters –  

to bring our child a cure.

If it comes from a male –

from the male let curse of the evil eye burst forth.

If it comes from a female –

from the female let the curse of the evil eye burst forth.

If it comes from a male –

let his left testicle burst; if it comes from a female –

let her left breast burst.

As the people scatter from church,

so shall the evil eye scatter from the waist,

from the heart, from the little nails.

As the line dance scatters,

so shall the evil eye scatter from the waist,

from the heart,

from the little nails.

Yesterday three brothers were born,

yesterday they were born,

yesterday they began to walk,

yesterday they began to speak

and they took fast horses,

and went into the Tilileyan forest (i.e. a mythical faraway forest)

to cut a tree –

from the top down,

from the roots up.

When it happens this child to sit under that tree,

only then can it be

cursed by the evil eye. 32

  • 32 The text of the incantation in Bulgarian:
    Божа мале седнала на кръстомпът, запретнала бели ръкави, запрела църна къдела и рекла: 
    – Диви самодиви, през девет гори да минете, през девет води студени –  на нашто дяте ляк да донете. Ако е от мъжко –  от мъжко да са пръснат уроките. Ако е от женско – от женско да са пръснат уроките. Ако е мъжко – да му са пръсне лявото мъдо; ако е женско – да й са пръсне лявата бизка. Къкто са хората от черква разтурят, така да са разтурят неговите ураки по снагата, по сърцето, по некътчетата. Къкто са хоро пръска, така да са пръскат неговите ураки по снагата, по сърцето, по некътчетата. Сноща са родили трима братя, снощи са родили, сноща проходили, сноща продумали и отзели бърза коня, и отишли в гора тилилейска дърво да отчат – върха надолу, корена нагоре. Кога дойде да седне тва дяте под тва дърво, тогава нега  ураки да фанат.

In this healing rite, that aims to remove the influence of the evil eye, the divine helper is called again Mother of God, but she is described truly as an ancient Goddess. So she is invoked and makes her divine appearance at the crossroad. The Goddess is invoked by one of her signs – the salt, which in Ancient Rome was honoured also as a separate Goddess called Salus. In the incantation the dual nature of the Goddess is named through the white and black and thus she is made closer to the image of the Thracian goddess Bendis, who was called δίλογχος – the one with the double spear, explained by the lexicographers as meaning that the Goddess accepts honour both from earth and sky. The Goddess isinvoked to reorganize the Cosmos both in the horizontal–  represented by the crossroad, and in the vertical – represented by the spinning. The spinning itself again directs us to the image of Bendis in the case, where she is described as a spinner. 33 With her spinning the Goddess creates the connections and threads in the Cosmos, i.e. she connects 34 it and generates its unity, unifying the vertical and the horizontal. In the healing incantation-charm the Goddess gathers around her the samodivi, these successors of the ancient nymphs, which in folklore are believed to be healers as well. So she acts as their leader and mistress and this function once again brings this image of her closer to that of the Great Mother Goddess, as she was known in ancient times having the same function. After the calling of the healers nymphs (the samodivi) in the incantation, a part follows which is based on the principle of associative magic – ‘as – so’. The spoken destruction of the sex characteristics of the person causing the illness has also the goal of destroying the effect of his deeds. The sex characteristics in this case represent the power of the person causing the illness –
the testicles of the man, the breasts of the woman. In the next element the three brother riders appear, who are sent to the world beyond with the charm to bring a tree, under which the ill person should sit and only then could he be harmed again, i.e. the last part of the incantation is for the future protection of the patient.
The traditional societies, such as the Balkan ones, including Bulgarian, until the middle of the past century, retained the connection of the ritual with the cultural tradition despite the official religious doctrine (Christianity or Islam). Keeping this connection and performing the rites as they were done for centuries, has enabled the preservation of strongly archaic ritual practices and also the ideas about the Divine invoked by them. They call on the mythical concept of a force, which appears as a mother of the All, as a healer, a zealous mother-guardian. As the discussed practices have shown the Christian female saint remains a Goddess in the ritual. She is still invoked to bring health to the body and soul to those who pray to her.

  • 33 As a whole the image of the Goddess in her function of a Mistress of Fate is commonly connected with knitting. This image is known from the Hittite ritual texts, see Bossert, H. Die Schicksalsgöttinnen der Hethiter . // Die Welt des Orients, Bd. 2, H. 4. 1957, 349-359.
  • 34 It is likely that the name Bendis can be interpreted as originating from the Indo-European bhendh “to connect” exactly in this sense as the One, who connects and unifies the elements and the cosmic forces.

More extensive read can be found in this book:


Get the book here:


or here:

The Bulgarian translation and extended version can be found here:




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s