31 May - 6 June
The week after Whitsunday is called Rousalska Nedelya (Mermaid Week). It is believed that until the day of the Holy Ghost the mermaids have already done their job on earth – they have sown the seeds of fertility.
Houses are decorated with wormwood and young girls put sprigs of it in their bosom, young men in their left pocket, and the children on their neck, in a small cotton bag like an amulet. In this way people protect themselves against the mischief of the mermaids. A man never starts alone on a journey on that day for he may lose his mind – get the mermaid disease. And only the mermaids can heal him. The “rousaliy” are men who go in groups of uneven numbers (3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13) the whole week and give people and nature health and fertility. They are dear guests in every house. In Western Bulgaria the rousaliy are also called kalushari.
The leader of the kalushari is called "Vataf" and the position is hereditary – following the male line. It is only the Vataf who is allowed to pick medicinal herbs and only he knows the incantation, which is pronounced over the herbs and the flag. By verbal magic he transmits the magical force of nature to the chosen kalushari.
The kalushari are young married men, who are healthy and quick, they don’t drink, they are honest and goodhearted, can keep secrets and suffer privation for they may not go back to their homes during the whole Mermaid Week. After each one of them endures the fasting period determined by the Vataf, he is consecrated by the leader and he has to learn the rituals. It is only then that the consecrated kalushar makes an oath before the flag, the mermaid stick and the other kalushars.
The oath is very strange and the words are a terrible curse: “Let no fire burn in my house, let no smoke pass through the chimney, let snakes and lizards make their nests in it, let owls lay their eggs in it. Let my wife see no cradle, let no ewe bleat, let us not hear the ox and the cow, the stallion and the mare, let no dog bark, let no rooster crow. Let weeds grow all over my house. Let me not see with my eyes and hear with my ears, let me not pronounce a word with my tongue, let me not walk with my feet and hold with my hands. Let everything get dry wherever I set foot, let everything I touch burn in fire. In front of me – the plague, behind me – cholera. Let my bones find no grave if I break the oath of the Kalusha.” After that he kisses the flag and the stick, the Vataf sprinkles wonder-working water on him. On kissing the hand of the leader the man is accepted as a kalushar and he can carry the mermaid stick. The stick is very special. The old kalushars say that the mermaid stick is like the scepter of the priest. The stick is made of sycamore, ash-tree or corneltree.
It is about a meter and a half long and 2 cm thick. At its lower end there is a sharp metal point, it is decorated with various colors and bells, box-tree branches and multicolored threads. In the upper end the Vataf makes a hole in which he puts herbs and closes it with a wedge. The sticks are kept by the leader and he gives them to the kalushars only during the Mermaid Week. The stick is preserved and inherited as a precious treasure. The Vataf carries a flag and no one else can have it. It is made by the leader himself from white linen in the presence of all kalushars. It is about two and a have cubits long and spreads to the middle of the stick. In the four ends are sown miraculous herbs, it is sprinkled with “silent” water and played with mermaid music. On the top the Vataf makes a nosegay from the herbs – meliot, gentian, hellebore, iris, wormwood, dittany and three bulbs of garlic. When it is ready they all bow to it, the leader kisses the flag and the kalushars kiss the stick. The kalushars are dressed as the people in the village where they live. Only their feet are clad in white woolen socks, decorated with herbs. They have iron bells sown to their dress and when they perform the rituals and dance they make a big noise. On their fur caps they put wreaths of herbs. The kalushars cannot dance without someone playing the music. The preferred musical instrument is the shepherd’s pipe or a wooden pipe. Later it was replaced by a bagpipe or zourna and a drum. The kalushar dances are of two kinds – some are for prosperity and others are for health, and they very much resemble the quick dance in the night after a wedding. Their cries are very similar too.
The rousaliy can heal only those suffering from a mermaid illness – the ones who are growing weak bewitched by mermaids. How is the healing done: When the band goes to the house of the sick person the Vataf examines him and decides whether the sickness can be healed or not. Then he negotiates with his family the price. He prepares the pot and the bowl. The pot must be new and made of clay, full of “silent” water and herbs selected by the Vataf, covered with a piece of cloth donated by the sick person. The bowl is also new, made of clay with green varnish. In it there is vinegar with water and crushed garlic. It is placed on a small round table, covered with a white tablecloth. The sick man is brought in by his relatives in a woven rug, which is spread on the ground before the kalushars. They stand in a circle, arranged by seniority. The oldest and the youngest one close the circle round the sick man.
At first their dance is slow but gradually it quickens. The tempo is dictated by the Vataf by raising and lowering the flag. When the flag is down the kalushars dance at one place, pressing the stick against their back and thrusting their breast. After dancing for some time, they pick the ends of the rug with the sick man and throw him in the air, crying “Hey, Kalusha!” Then they step back.
The Vataf enters the circle of the kalushars, goes to the sick man and rubs him with the mixture from the bowl on the forehead, the hands, the legs and chants: “Hey, Kalusha! There came out 77 and a half bad night evils – muddy, dirty and terrible. They came out of the forest, of the river banks, of the rocks, of valleys, of mountains. They crossed the field and swept it away, they passed through the forest and destroyed the forest, they passed through water and dried the water. Those who saw them and heard them all ran away. And this one (the name of the sick man is pronounced) came out at midnight and was stuck and cannot run away. They caught him on the spot, climbed on his head, broke his bones, tore his intestines, ate his flesh, drank his blood. He cannot go anywhere, he cannot hide anywhere, from pain and evil. So he went to the crossroads, cried out to the skies, poured his tears to the earth, but nobody saw him, nobody heard him. He was heard by the Holy Mother and she asked him in a low voice: “Why are you crying? Why are you complaining?” Said (the name of the sick man): “I am crying, I am complaining because 77 and a half bad night evils went out – muddy, dirty and terrible. They came through the fields and swept them away, they came through the forest and destroyed it, they came through water and dried it. Whoever saw them and heard them ran away. But they caught me and made me sick.” To him said the Holy Mother: “Dont you cry, don’t you complain. Find the young men, sworn brothers, find the rousaltzi and the kalushartzi to dance for you, to treat you with mermaid herbs and infusions, to protect you with their mermaid sticks. They will drive away all evil things to the forest where sheep don’t bleat, where goats don’t baa, where ewes don’t bleat and the girls don’t dance the horo. There is a good man with them, riding a black horse, on a blue saddle, with a cap and a green wreath. There the Holy Mother prepared a wedding and sent the good man to drive the pain out to the forest where there is a barren cow, where they eat offal, to spread a hide for them to sleep on, to sleep a sweet sleep and eat a good meal!" That’s enough from me, God can offer more! Hey, Kalusha!“ The incantation is mumbled in a low voice and one can hear only incidental phrases. Then the leader puts down the flag over the sick man, blows in the four directions, gives him to drink three times from the bowl and steps back. The kalushari start dancing again and this time they jump over the sick man with the exclamation “Hey, Kalusha!” After the third time the one who is playing the music plays “the rousali way” and the tempo quickens. Then on a sign from the Vataf the oldest kalushar in the band, who dances first, strikes with his stick the pot with the water and the herbs and it sprinkles everybody. At this moment the sick man gets up and runs away – he is completely healthy, and a few kalushars (three at the most, depending how bad the sickness is) fall on the ground like dead. They receive the sickness symbolically. Only this way a man can be healed. The kalushars on the ground are treated in the same way – with a dance but in the opposite direction. The Vataf makes them drink from the bowl as well. Two men from the band pick them up in their arms while they recover and join the dance. The kalushars visit the houses from Monday till Sunday noon. Then dancing they hand their sticks to the Vataf who takes them home. The kalushars kiss the leader’s hand, each one of them takes off the herbal wreath from his cap, takes off the socks and the “rousalya” ends up with a meal for all.