Anomalous Thracian: Constructing Living Tradition
A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
Review of THRACIAN MAGIC: PAST & PRESENT
In late September, I received a long-awaited parcel in the mail: my copy of Georgi Mishev’s debut book, Thracian Magic, put out last month by Avalonia Books, translated very diligently to English from its original Bulgarian by Ekaterina Ilieva. Both Georgi and Ekaterina are involved in a Thracian ritual group in Bulgaria called “Threskeia”, through which they lead Thracian-inspired rituals and religious rites on the sacred sites of the Balkan mountains. I first became aware of the publication some time ago, and within the last year succeeded in contacting the author and translator online, and have enjoyed a small bit of dialog with them back and forth over the months. I was excited for the release of the book for a number of reasons, and was thrilled at its arrival.
The main thing to know about this book is this: there is nothing else like it available anywhere, in English or Bulgarian languages. Mishev is closely connected with the leading scholars of the interdisciplinary academic field of Thracology (being the study of Thracians and Thracian culture through archeology and literature) in Sofia and abroad, and this is reflected deeply in his writing. His work draws heavily from their important studies, and in many ways honors their decades of hard scholarly work by bringing these traditions and myths to renewed vigor and life. The book’s introduction is written by celebrated scholar Valeria Fol, widow of the late and immeasurably influential Alexander Fol (who pioneered the study of Thracians in his country and beyond throughout the second half of the 20th century). As anyone in the English-speaking world who has pursued Thracian studies in their own language can attest, resources available to us are exceedingly limited, frequently hard to obtain, and invariably written for the academic world.
This book is a true gift to us in many ways and has a little bit for everyone interested in any aspect of exploring the Thracian spiritual legacy. The author is a scholar-practitioner, which helps to lead the reader in the direction of a living tradition (rather than merely an ancient one revisited or reconstructed) in a way that resonates deeply with me. While his approach to the Thracian traditions and mine are not identical in all ways, it is heartening to see these traditions treated with such diligent respect and reverent care. But let’s get down to what the book is, and what the book isn’t.
Thracian Magic: Past & Present is a beautiful blend of ancient Thracian history and religion with unparalleled access to references of Bulgarian folk traditions that are alive and well today. Alexander Fol frequently drew connections between ancient Thracian practices and modern Bulgarian regionally specific celebrations in his early work in Thracology, and Mishev has taken this even further and fleshed these connections out beautifully. The Bulgarian folk rituals and traditions available within the book are worth the price of the book on their own, as they are powerful and useful regardless of their connection to the ancient Thracian practices. However, these connections are clear and the author does a good job of supplying the reader with references to well establish the shared contexts and syncretisms that are believed to have led to the modern folk traditions. He does a good job of keeping the Bulgarian traditions separate from the Thracian practices, however, by clearly introducing who the Thracians were in the ancient world and how the formation of the Bulgarian state happened, much later.
However, there is so much more here than a set of rituals. The sections are broken down into the following sections: Balkan Antiquity (Paleo-Balkan, Thracian, and Bulgarian summaries); Magical Faith (an overview of seven important Thracian mythological figures and deities); Mysteries and Magic (exploring the difference between the Healer and the Magician in traditional Bulgarian culture); Concept of the Goddess (incredibly useful chapters on mountain, sun, fire and wolf attributes of Thracian goddess worship); and a bonus illustrated index of sacred herbs. In addition to covering their primary topics thoroughly, each section is literally filled with other treats that I did not expect, such as incredibly rich accounts of the samodiva (a type of Thraco-Bulgarian spirit which is generally translated as a fairy or elf, closely tied to the natural world) which are simply not available anywhere else in English.
The rituals and practices detailed throughout – numbering around 55 in all – are sometimes short and sometimes sweet and always delivered in a clear and useful fashion. These, I suspect, will be of great interest to a number of readers. Perhaps my only critique is that I can’t seem to find an individual index for these, which means I’ll be bookmarking each one for easier locating. They are organized in appropriate places within each section and chapter, and always linked together and detailed with relevant cultural contexts. This last part – the cultural context – is perhaps the most striking feature and quality of the book: Mishev has gone to exhaustive lengths to provide an accessible understanding of Thracian and Bulgarian culture, not just giving away spiritual mysteries and magical formulas.
In closing, if you don’t have your copy of the book yet and are currently reading my blog, stop reading my blog and order the book. (Then come back and read my blog some more.) This is a worthwhile read and is available on Amazon.com and Avalonia’s main website for direct ordering. The physical book is of good, readable quality: the page-stock is not cheap and the binding feels tight and secure, while the overall size (10”x7” or so) is suitable for comfortable reading pretty much anywhere you’d want to sit down and tune in. And, lastly, I want to extend my praises (again!) to the translator; Ilieva has done a great job and the text flows without the usual “choppy” mechanical feel I’ve come to expect from Bulgarian-English translations, which makes the reading of it that much more enjoyable. This is a work of labor and love from both of them – which is clear as soon as you flip through to the extensive bibliography, which is organized by the language of each reference – and I am incredibly pleased with the outcome.
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