Similarities with Thracian/proto-Bulgar beliefs and symbolism repeat many elements of the Japanese Amaterasu emerging from the sky rock-grotto cave myth…
Excerpted from Bulgarian Myth and Folklore:
Apart from the tale of the legendary singer, Orpheus, whose birthplace is said to be the Rhodopi Mountains (in modern Bulgaria), the mythology and culture of the Thracians is largely unknown in the west, having been eclipsed by a Greek-centred view of early European history. Yet from the Bronze Age through to the Roman conquest, Thrace was an important power and influence in its own right and the ancient Greeks borrowed freely from its exotic religion and ecstatic cults.
The Thracians were a fierce powerful people ruled by tribal priest kings. They were excellent warriors renowned for their skill and bravery in battle, fighting alongside the Trojans against the Greeks in the Trojan War. They were expert horse breeders, produced fine wines and were master metalworkers, creating exquisite adornments, objects and vessels in silver and gold. Ancient Greek authors describe them as high-spirited, violent, uninhibited, lusty, drunken, musical and artistic.
Thracian myth and culture is dramatic, veering from light to dark, encompassing both solar worship and dark Dionysian rites. It is located in a wild mountainous landscape where the great goddess hunts, the horse is sacred and the mysterious Thracian Horseman dispenses both life and death. And Orpheus, the great singer, musician, healer and sorcerer, descends to the Underworld in search of his dead consort Eurydice, offering the promise of immortality and rebirth.
The Thracians revered the forces of nature, worshipped the sun and believed in the immortality of the soul.
***Caves were significant as symbolic entrances to the womb of the earth. Death was not to be feared, and past and present were not separate in time, but coexisted as one. Human sacrifice was sometimes practised, including the ritual slaying of a king’s favourite wife upon his death, an honour for which the king’s wives apparently competed.
Sexual union between the goddess daughter and the hero son. The mother of the gods stands beside them.
Letnitsa Treasure 4th century BC
The Thracian pantheon included Bendis, the great mother and goddess of wild nature, also known as Kotyto or Perke, Mountain-Mother. It is likely that she encompassed influences from the strong fertility goddess cults which thrived in the Balkan lands during the earlier Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Chalcolithic (Copper Age) periods.
As great mother she initiated creation, bringing forth from herself her son, who was both the sun in the daytime and the fire god at night. She united with him in divine marriage so that the cosmic cycle could be fulfilled and fertility renewed. She was also associated with the moon and was sometimes depicted riding a doe, bow in hand with a quiver of arrows upon her back.
Dionysus, usually called Zagreus in Thrace, was the twice born son of the great goddess. He was the dark god of wine, of intoxication, excess and inspiration. He had a wild band of female followers called Maenads, and ecstatic orgiastic rites were held in his honour. Poetry, music and dance swept along with him. He was the dying and reborn god who was sacrificed in the form of a bull, his body torn into pieces and his blood spilled upon the earth. In this way he united in divine marriage with the great mother goddess, fertilising her so that he could be reborn and the annual cycle of life could be renewed.
In contrast, the cult of Orpheus was ascetic, solar-based and open only to men. Orpheus was the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus (or of the sun god Apollo) and the muse Calliope. He played the lyre and sang beautifully, and is best known for his descent to the underworld to bring his beloved bride Evredika (Eurydice) back from the dead. Music as a transforming power was central to Orphic rites, and the aim was to achieve immortality. (Read more about the Orpheus myth in the Travel Guide to Mythological Bulgaria.)
The Thracian Horseman, sometimes simply called Hero, was probably a god of nature and vegetation. He combined both solar and underworld aspects. He is depicted on countless votive plaques, often riding towards the tree of life with his cloak flying behind him, or spearing a boar.
After the 6th century AD the Thracians were absorbed into the Slavic and Bulgarian peoples who settled in the area, but the subsequent Bulgarian kingdom inherited their legacy. It is thought that the nomadic Karakachani people, who still live in Bulgaria and retain a distinct cultural identity, are direct descendents of the ancient Thracians.
Bulgaria is rich in Thracian archaeological remains and the landscape is scattered with huge burial mounds enclosing Thracian tombs. Traces of Thracian myth and religion have also survived in current Bulgarian folklore and customs, such as those given below.
Kukeri are masked male dancers and mummers, who wear fantastic, often animal like masks (like the one pictured above), and huge bronze cowbells round their waists (like those pictured below). They carry sticks, which symbolise the phallus, in a spring fertility rite possibly derived from the ancient Dionysian new year festival. (Ritual adapted for Beyond Nine Forests)
The Kazanluk Tomb and the Valley of the Kings
If you travel through the Thracian plain that separates the southern Bulgarian mountains from the northern Stara Planina Balkan range, in the area known as the Valley of the Roses, you will see that the landscape is dotted with countless tumuli. These are the tombs of the Thracian kings and leaders who lived in these lands for 2000 years until their people were assimilated by the incoming Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians in the 6th century AD. Most of the burial mounds have not been excavated and many secrets lie waiting to be revealed.
There is a concentration of tumuli (called mogila (s) or mogili (pl) in Bulgarian) in the area northwest of Kazanluk along the route to the Shipka Pass. It was an area sacred to the inhabitants of Thracian Seuthopolis and today it is known as the Valley of the Kings. Some fine tombs have been excavated and recent spectacular discoveries such as those near Shipka (the Golyamata Kosmatka tomb, believed to be that of King Seutes III, excavated in 2004) have shed more light on this ancient and proud warrior civilization.
The Kazanluk Tomb is a good starting place to find out more about the Thracian way of life and death. Its frescoes are beautifully executed artistic masterpieces but they are so delicate that the original tomb is not open to the public so you can only visit a replica which lies right next door in a small park on the northern outskirts of the town. It is a sensitive reconstruction and it is still possible to sense the power of the original within it.
The stone-built beehive tomb dates to the end of the 4th century BC. It is very womb-like. It has an ante chamber and a low narrow passageway leading into the small round-domed burial chamber. The passageway is beautifully painted on both sides with two friezes, one of battle scenes and the other with vegetation motifs, set above a strip stained a deep red. But the crowning glory is the intimate vaulted burial chamber, decorated with exquisite frescoes. At the centre sits the chieftain for whom the tomb was built. Source: Bulgarian Myth & Folklore
Encircled by a 263 metres long wall of hewn stone blocks, symbolizing the sun, the tomb itself represents the earth goddess. It is hidden within a huge mound 20 metres high overlooking a vast valley. A grand stone staircase cuts into the mound, leading up to a large landing. From there a wide passageway leads to the impressive rectangular doorway into the temple.
Going inside is like entering the earth itself, and is a reminder of the Thracian belief that the goddess of Earth lived inside a cave. There are two chambers: a rectangular antechamber and an inner sanctum. The sanctum is a beautifully constructed domed chamber supported by Doric semi-pillars and covered with ornate stone plates. The vaulted ceiling is painted with a red, black, green and blue coloured frieze.
The sanctuary was probably used in Orphic mystery rites. Young men would probably have danced ritual dances on the outer landing before entering the inner sanctum.
The ancestral homeland of the Bulgars, often known as the Proto (early/original) Bulgarians, is uncertain but it was probably the Pamir mountain lands north of Pakistan or less likely the Altai Mountains of Central Asia.
The Proto-Bulgarians left their ancestral lands long ago, becoming part of the Great Migration of peoples in the early centuries AD. They were nomadic, kept herds, revered horses, and drank mare’s milk as an essential part of their diet. They were skilled in metalwork, and lived in clans under the leadership of khans who held absolute power. They were excellent warriors with a well-organised army, fighting alongside Attila the Hun. In the seventh century AD they established a state called Great Bulgaria in the Russian steppes north of the Caucasus.
But Great Bulgaria lasted only a few decades before it came under attack from the Khazars and began to disintegrate. Khan Asparuh, one of the five sons of the great Khan Kubrat of the Dulo clan, set out with a section of the Proto-Bulgarian tribe to seek new lands. In 681 AD he founded the first Bulgarian state in the Balkans in exchange for protecting the local Slav population against Byzantine attack. But the Proto-Bulgarians were a minority ruling group, so eventually their language and culture were absorbed into that of the Slavic majority. The Kapantsi, an ethnic group living in north-east Bulgaria, are thought to be descendents of Asparuh’s original tribe.
Proto-Bulgarian religion centred on the worship of the seven celestial bodies: the sun, the moon and the five then known planets – Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn. Their main deity was the sky god, Tangra (perhaps also called Edfu), whose sacred animals included the horse and the eagle. White horses were particularly revered, and horse’s entrails were used for divining.
The goddess of fertility and Tangra’s consort may have been Umai; her image is engraved into the rock at Perperikon (see the Travel Guide to Mythological Bulgaria). Shamanism was practised and each clan had a sacred animal totem ? deer, dogs and wolves seem to have had special significance. Waterfowl were a symbol of life.
Although they had no writing system as such, the Proto-Bulgarians used runes and had their own very accurate calendar based on a 12-year cycle like the Chinese calendar, each year bearing the name of an animal, bird or reptile.