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Baba Marta: What the ancient Bulgarian custom of tying a “Martenitsa” symbolizes & where it comes from

In Bulgaria today people wish all the best to Baba Marta (in Bulgarian “chestita Baba Marta/Честита Баба Марта”). The centuries-old Slavic tradition of binding the martenitza, which was also common among the Thracians and Hellenes, is connected with the ancient pagan history of the Balkan Peninsula, especially with the agricultural fertility cults. Find out how Bulgarians embrace this ancient custom, what the martenitsa symbolizes and what the legend of Baba Marta means in this article.

What does the Martenitsa symbolize?

Martenitsa brings the desire for health and fertility

The first of March is the holiday of Baba Marta. According to Bulgarian beliefs, it is a symbol of spring and brings the wish for health and fertility at the beginning of a new cycle in nature.

Martenitsas are made of two twisted threads – red and white. In Bulgarian tradition, white is a sign of beauty, purity, innocence and joy. Red color gives vitality to every being and symbolizes life itself, health, love, victory, courage and the light of the rising and setting sun.

In Bulgaria today people wish all the best to Baba Marta

Traditions have been preserved over the centuries. Bulgarians believe that wearing Martenitsa appeases Baba Marta so that she does not send frost, nor storms. The preserved martenitsa are hung on the clothes or tied to the wrists. There they remain until the first sign of spring – a stork, a swallow or a tree in blossom.

Martenitsas are a heritage of the Thracians, the original inhabitants of what is now Bulgaria. The ancient Bulgarians believed that there is an evil force in nature called “wickedness”, which also awakens in spring. In popular belief, March 1 marks the beginning of spring.

Martenitsa represents the cycle of life

Martenitsas since ancient times is attributed the magical power to protect against “bad luck”, especially diseases and lessons. The white and red symbol is a kind of amulet against evil forces, and putting it on is a kind of magical ritual act. According to a tradition handed down, Martenitsas bring health, luck and longevity.

According to legend, who made the first Martenitsa?

Martenitsas are a heritage of the Thracians, the original inhabitants of what is now Bulgaria

A legend created in the 1930s connects the appearance of martenitsa with the proto-Bulgarians. According to the legend, the first martenitsa was made by Achinora, the wife of Khan Asparuh, in the second half of the 7th century, when Asparuh crossed the Danube and discovered the territories around the Balkans for the Bulgarians.

Martenitsa brings health, happiness and longevity

Achinora waited a long time for her beloved and finally tied a white thread to the leg of a swallow. Then she let the bird deliver her message of health and love. The bird was on the road for a long time. The thread injured its leg, turning it blood red. Finally, it found the Khan and landed with him on March 1.

Martenitsas are worn either until March 9, the church feast of the 40 Martyrs, or March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.

Who is Baba Marta according to Bulgarian folklore?

Baba Marta is a mythical figure of Bulgarian folklore

Baba Marta is a mythical figure of Bulgarian folklore. In folklore, expressed in proverbs and fairy tales, her name is connected with the name of the month “March”. There are three months personified in Bulgarian myths – January, February and March.

January and February are depicted as brothers with hot temper – Big Sechko and Little Sechko (Голям Сечко и Малък Сечко). Baba Marta is believed to be her sister, sometimes smiling and friendly, sometimes unpredictably evil.

There are many customs and festivals connected with Baba Marta and the month of March, dedicated to the coming spring. The most famous Slavic custom is throwing martenitsa at people and young animals on March 1 – the day of Baba Marta’s arrival.

How people welcome Baba Marta in Bulgaria.

Snake-hunting rituals are performed throughout the month, and in folklore Baba Marta is depicted as the sister or wife of the Great Sechko (January) and the Little Sechko (February). She is always displeased with them – sometimes they have drunk her wine (if they are her brothers), sometimes they have done a great mischief. The old woman (the bride) is angry with them, and as a result the weather turns bad.

An old goat-herder is said to have gone to the mountains with her flock in the last days of March, thinking that Baba Martha would give her good weather, being as old as she was. Baba Martha got angry, asked her brother February to lend her a few days, and sent them.

Martenitsas has been attributed the magical power since ancient times

In folk tradition, these days are called “busy days”. Baba Marta triggered heavy snowfalls and blizzards that froze the goatherd and her flock in the mountains. The frozen became a pile of stones from which healing water flowed.

The legend of Pijo and Penda: love on equal terms

Pijo and Penda are symbols of masculinity and femininity

The traditional figures of Baba Marta are Pijo and Penda, symbols of masculinity and femininity. The legend of Pijo and Penda says that they are Thracian gods, namely the god March (“Mart”), lord of the change of spring, and Bellona, the woman who won his heart. At their wedding, the goddesses presented the new queen of Balkan with a crown of pink roses to adorn her hair.

The legend says that Pijo and Penda were Thracian gods

Instead of the crown, Bellona, who was even more belligerent than her husband, adorned herself with the title of “Goddess of War”. She threw the crown of pink roses at the foot of the Old Mountain on her wedding day. There, the most enchanting, divine roses blessed with the love of Mart and Bellona bloom to this day. People call this area “Rose Valley”.

How people welcome Baba Marta in Bulgaria

The first of March is the holiday of Baba Marta

On the first of March in Bulgaria, before sunrise, the oldest woman must thoroughly clean the house, take out a red cloth – a tablecloth, a mat or an apron – and spread it out. It is believed that this will please Baba Marta and evoke her goodwill towards the house and its inhabitants.

Children, virgins and young brides wear Martenitsa on their arms. The young ones must necessarily go out so that Baba Marta will see them and be pleased with them. The old women, on the other hand, must stay in the house so as not to anger the old woman. In many places on this day bonfires are lit and sounds are shouted in the yard to drive away snakes and lizards.

Children, virgins and young brides wear Martenitsa on their arms

Nowadays, the holiday is still celebrated in some places in Bulgaria according to the old custom. In Razgrad, every housewife throws a red cloth on one of the fruit trees in the garden at sunrise on March 1. In Troyan, housewives tie red wool to door locks, fruit trees and cattle horns before sunrise.

In Haskovo, the grandmother, who ties the martenitsas for the children of the family early before sunrise, dresses entirely in red outerwear.

Where else, except in Bulgaria, do you find martenitsa?

The white thread symbolizes the heavenly world and the red one the earthly one

Although wearing the martenitsa is considered a uniquely Bulgarian tradition, it also exists in Romania, albeit in a slightly different form. There, Martenitsa is called “Martisor”. Only women and small children wear them on their wrists. Men have a martenitsa only in a hidden place, for example in their shoes.

In Greece, Martenitsa is tied only on children’s hands, while in Bulgaria it is also tied on young animals and trees, as well as on men.

Where, except in Bulgaria, are there still Martenitsa

The custom is also practiced in neighboring countries to which Bulgarians have migrated over the centuries. It is celebrated in the southern parts of Moldova, where about 90,000 ethnic Bulgarians live, and is also known in Albania, the Republic of Macedonia and Serbia.

Things to know: other interesting facts about Baba Marta

In Bulgarian tradition white is a sign of purity, red symbolizes love

  • Originally, the white color of the Martenitsa symbolized the heavenly world – the masculine, the light and the power – and the red thread – the earthly, material world and the feminine. Later, under the influence of Christian mythology, the white color became a symbol of virginity and purity – it was the color of Christ. Red, in turn, represents femininity and health – it is a sign of blood, conception and birth. Martenitsa represents the cycle of life from the bottom up, from the world of man to the world of gods and light.
  • The symbolism of Martenitsa has its origin in the time of the Great Mother Goddess. One of her zoomorphic symbols is the snake. The sign of the snake resembles in its form the “∞”, the sign of immortality in hermeneutics, which means infinity in mathematics. It can also be defined as a running spiral or a running wave.

There are many customs associated with Baba Marta

  • According to Bulgarian custom, brides wear their martenitsas on the right side and girls on the left. Bachelors wear them with the ends combed through, and mature men straight around the knot cut off so that they do not dangle.
  • The Martenitsa should not be thrown away. Legend has it that the one who does so will throw away his luck.
  • After the martenitsas are taken off, they are hung on a flowering (or green) tree. In some areas of the country, it is customary to place them under a large stone and check after nine days to see what is underneath. If ants have settled, the year will be rich in sheep. If there are other larger bugs, good luck with cows and cattle and if there are worms, many horses will be driven. In other places, they threw the Martenitsas in the river so that they sink in the water and everything bad flows away.

Martenitsa should not be thrown away

  • Another widespread custom was choosing a day. Everyone thinks of any day on March 22, which is supposed to predict how the year will be. If the day is sunny, it will be successful, if it rains and the weather is bad, the year will also be bad.
  • Martenitsas are found in Greece only in the high mountain regions, away from the major urban and cultural centers. In the ancient mysteries of Eleusinia, the participants tied a horse braided from wool to their right arm and to their left leg. To this day, the custom has barely survived in the sparsely populated areas of the country such as Epirus, Macedonia, southern Thrace and parts of Thessaly.

The traditional figures of Baba Marta are Pijo and Penda

  • According to Romanian beliefs, the Martenitsa (“Martisor”) is an ancient symbol from an old scenario for the rebirth of nature at the threshold of spring. This ancient custom is associated with the moment of symbolic death and symbolic birth of a local female deity, Baba Doxia. Martisor is also the popular name for the month of March, which marks the beginning of the agricultural year.
  • On the occasion of Baba Marta on March 1, 2011, the logo of the Google search engine was decorated with intertwined red and white threads and a red and white tassel through the Google Doodle application.