The legends behind Baba Marta and the Martenitsa
Written by Scott Green, edited by Scott Green and Andrea Vushkova, photos by Zhanet Stamatova and Andrea Vushkova
As much as I would like to give you some historically accurate timeline, it is impossible to say from where or when this tradition began. There are many legends and tales, some involving real historical figures, some seeming like the writings of a kids book. In my previous article, I wrote about the most widely known legend of the martenitsa. Now, let’s look at some different tales and discover more about Baba Marta.
Legend of the children of Khan Kubrat
Bulgarian legend tells the story of Khan Kubrat (the father of Khan Asparuh) of the nomadic steppe people who founded the confederation of Old Great Bulgaria in the early 7th century. As death approached, he called for his five sons to keep the Bulgar tribes together and maintain the country.
Soon after his death, the country was invaded by the Khazars from a neighboring region. They kidnapped Kubrat’s daughter, Houba, so Bayan, one of Kubrat’s sons, joined them as he couldn’t stand to be separated from his sister. Another son, Kotrag, moved north.
The remaining three, Asparuh, Kouber, and Altsek, went south to keep their distance from the Khazars. These brothers agreed that if they found a safe place to settle, they would send a bird to their siblings Bayan and Houba. The bird would have a white thread tied to its leg. In no time at all, the bird came to the brother and sister. They planned their escape, but the Khazars were wary and discovered their plan.
Bayan and Houba, unaware that the Khazar soldiers were following them, prepared to release the bird to signal the other siblings. Bayan was wounded by an arrow from a Khazar soldier and, as he released the bird, he dripped blood onto the white thread (red and white). Eventually, Houba and Bayan were reunited with their brothers. Asparuh tore up pieces of Bayan’s bloodstained clothes into small strips to give to his soldiers in honor of his wounded brother.
Legend of the falcon and the dill
Another legend talks of Khan Asparuh, who established and became ruler of the First Bulgarian State. Leaving Houba behind, he went to light a fire with a sprig of dill in offering to the pagan god Tangra, to bless the new land and his rule. Unable to find any dill, he was becoming desperate. Next thing he knew, a falcon perched on his shoulder and tied to its leg was the much-needed sprig of dill. Along with the sprig was a white woolen thread that had been tinged red by the rubbing on the falcon’s leg. It seemed that Houba had sent it, having dreamt of his dilemma.
A warrior’s gift
Finally, one more belief about the martenitsa is that when Bulgar warriors left their wives to go and fight, the women would give their husbands red and white strips of cloth. They would tie these around their wrists in the hope of bringing health and luck to the battlefield. Some gave small woolen dolls of a girl and boy (Pizho and Penda). The colors of yarn represented the blood of the warriors and the pale faces of the women they were leaving behind.
Baba Marta in Folklore
The tales around Baba Marta aren’t always those of love and family. In folklore, Baba Marta (Grandma March) is often portrayed as a feisty and temperamental old lady who is always in a bad mood with her two brothers, January and February.
A particularly sad tale is that of an old shepherd who decided to take her flocks higher into the mountains during the last days of March. She thought that Baba Marta would bestow good weather on her because she was as old as Marta herself. Baba Marta, infuriated at being considered old, asked her younger brother April if she could borrow a few days. April granted her this wish. With this extra time, Baba Marta let loose strong winds and blizzards, which froze the shepherd and her flocks in the mountains.
Folklore also says that on that day (March 1) Baba Marta does her pre-spring cleaning and shakes out her mattress for the last time before the next winter. The feathers that fall from the mattress pour over the ground like snow, the last one of the year.
And just like Baba Marta, we’ve shaken our books and brains, so this is the last tale we tell for today.
Честита Баба Мартa! – Happy Baba Marta!