Abstract: The article addresses contemporary enthusiasts’ activities dealing with the ancient Thracian heritage in Bulgaria. Alternative re-writings of the past, cult movements and historical re-enactments have been analysed in view of the creation of a popular narrative, which is being endlessly shared, experienced, re-appropriated and re-formulated online. Based on the concept of community of practice, as it has been recently introduced in Heritage Studies by Nicolas Adell, Regina F. Bendix, Chiara Bortolotto and Markus Tauschek, the focus of the paper is on possible entanglements between various academic and dilettante, professional and amateur, religious and political actors, all of which contribute to the establishment of an “edited” past.

Keywords: participatory culture, historical re-enactments, Neopaganism, Thracians


Introduction: The Thracian Heritage in the Era of Participatory Culture

In March 2018 the online edition of the Bulgarian daily newspaper “24 Hours” (Bulg. “24 Chasa”) published an article entitled „The ancient Thracians looked just like us, the modern Bulgarians“ (24 Chasa, 2018).[1] The publication gives information about old practices and makes comparisons with current phenomena by quoting the book “The Thracians” (Bulg. “Trakite”) without mentioning its author. With this, it added to an already well-established niche of popular discussions over Bulgarian ancestry. It was by no means something extraordinary for the general public discourse, which is steadily fuelled by TV reports on ongoing excavations and spectacular archaeological discoveries, updates about Bulgarians’ ancient gene pool or announcements about new museum exhibitions – most of them certifying that the first (European) civilisation has originated from the very national territory. Being autochthonous, the Thracians are needed in this context namely because they can substantiate the claim for such a “genetic” Europeanness of a country which is often perceived within a Balkanistic framework (Todorova, 2009). Thus, the latter can be manipulated and re-conceptualised academically and politically for the sake of various domestic, regional and international goals (cf. Mishkova, 2015) – considered as sufficiently local and yet European enough, the ancient people occupy an essential place in the national mythology and self-representation strategies. Characteristically, the main agents in these operations are professional and amateur historians who have been investigating Thracian impact on Bulgarian history and culture for more than a century. Nowadays, however, (pseudo)scientific achievements are proudly and endlessly shared across social media and blogs where a huge number of commentators either loudly support or furiously refute the expressed opinions. Back offline, recent years have witnessed multiple groups that re-enact, perform for touristic purposes or practice fragments of ancient rituals and events, while at the same time re-negotiate their relations to the past. Thus, the boundaries between expert and dilettante activities are significantly blurring, as the campaign “The Wonders of Bulgaria” also demonstrates. Under its umbrella, since 2010 the nation has been voting for and selecting the top 10 of the annual archaeological discoveries. The initiative has been launched by Standart Media Group and its final round is usually set-up as a show with heated debates broadcasted on the public TV channel, where teams compounded of mayors, historians and excavators are brought to defend in a popular way their respective cultural site or artefact enrolled in the competition.[2]

Taking into account the current situation in which the performative aspects of the past seem to become more and more present in the public domain in nowadays Bulgaria (Ditchev, 2016; Ivanova and Bakardzhieva, 2016; Kalfina, 2015; Mazdrashka-Mihova, 2015; Troeva, 2017b; Vaseva, 2017: 257-260; see also Bakardzhieva in this volume), this text reflects on these developments from a participatory perspective. Such a point of view towards cultural heritage is based on the understanding that being culturally and socially (re-)created and experienced, all heritage is intangible (Smith 2006); and on the acknowledgement of the “superiority of process (the acts of interaction, dialogue and communication) over product” (Fairclough, 2012: XV). This patrimonial experience, however, does not consist just of a passive act of inheriting. Rather, more than ever heritage is in action, it is a question of doing: “produced and mobilized by individuals and communities in any number of actions, including remembering, forgetting, generating, adapting, and performing. Heritage shapes and reshapes people’s sense of place, sense of belonging, and cultural identities locally and nationally” (Waterton, Watson and Silverman, 2017: 3 et pass.). Nowadays these operations are often influenced and sometimes even driven not only by institutional strategies, but also by peoplе’s feelings and personal or collective engagement with a specific cultural property. In this regard, the analysis of the contemporary “Thracians” echoes and gives empirical evidence to Laurajane Smith and Gary Campbell’s emphasis on affect and emotion as “essential constitutive elements of heritage‐making” (Smith and Campbell, 2016: 444).

These developments of the heritage concept belong to a broader deinstitutionalised framework and these tendencies can also be traced on a global level in various dimensions. Two more of them should be considered here. The first one refers to the evolving “repositioning of traditional heritage in popular culture”, as it has been highlited recently by Mike Robinson and Helaine Silverman (2015). This shift is marked by the continual and dynamic production and consumption of heritage through which it overcomes dominant ideologies and therefore becomes more democratic and accessible to groups and individuals. The focus is on “forms and formats of heritage that are constructed, valued, and consumed outside of the apparatus of state agencies, beyond closed notions of tradition, and that emanate from and engage with an idea of culture that is mobile and rooted in the popular” (ibid.: 2). Such an interplay between presumably distinct spheres originates from the capacity of heritage to be re-imagined and charged as a sign-vehicle of a wide range of actual sociocultural tensions in “the interconnected world and our own lived realities”: “popular culture is a cultural field of production in which more heritage is brought into the world precisely because it has meaning and shapes identity” (ibid.: 26).

Notably, these processes are facilitated by new media and technologies. It is here that lays the second important characteristic of past-(re-)making nowadays, which is closely related to the previously discussed key features of heritage and also intensifies them. As Elisa Giaccardi (2012) and Graham Fairclough (2012) have insightfully encapsulated it, specific heritage practices emerge through the potential of social media as both tools and sites for different activities, and this has a radical impact on the producing and consuming of heritage. Online infrastructures enable individuals to participate in the canonisation of what is important to them and to interpret it freely without necessarily having relevant professional knowledge, to share further their opinion and to collaborate with other enthusiasts. In other words, social media foster participatory culture and that “changes the way in which we experience and think of heritage” (Giaccardi, 2012: 9); the latter is already much more about “people’s autonomous engagement with cultural heritage in the context of their own lives and in association with the unique character of the places and communities in which heritage comes to matter” (ibid.: 2). This new paradigm enhances amateur cultures and is a sign of a cardinal change of “the rules of the game” that is taking place – it implies “questioning of the boundaries between official and unofficial heritage, reshaping and creating new relations between audiences and institutions, fostering grassroots understandings and manifestations of heritage practice, and in general bringing to the front the living and performative aspects of heritage as part of our present-day existence” (ibid.: 4).

Having said that, it is clear that the above mentioned theorisations position popularity mostly in the informal realms of the everyday and the vernacular which is supposedly in counterpoint to the certified, elite and classical heritage, and consequently independent of state agency and expertise. New technologies and devices are usually seen as instruments which support bottom-up initiatives by enabling those whose voices could be hardly heard in a conventional heritage institution, to express and affirm their community-based understanding of their own heritage digitally. Although the idea of altering or rejecting the formal hegemony is an essential subject of investigation, here I wish to introduce a slightly different question: how and especially why well-known heritage which is part of the national discourse receives a popular impulse that further tends to present itself as a critique of the established scientific canon. This observation is notable because it does not concern relatively recent cultural forms for which heritage status is not granted, and yet they “become appropriated and performed as heritage” (cf. Robinson and Silverman, 2015: 18). Rather, the Thracian legacy has been institutionalised as Heritage and it is valued by local and national authorities. Furthermore, monuments associated with the ancient populations have been attributed with the World Heritage label and their “universal value” has been undoubtedly admitted by UNESCO. Nevertheless, non-specialists perceive these political acts as insufficient and mistrust academic explanations, and this is why they add on their own readings of the history. Thus, popular activities do not always seek to broaden the scope of the official heritage nor to inscribe new elements on its list, but instead insist on having a say on the already established historical narrative.

This brings us to the emotional and intellectual commitments which people invest in relation to particular artefacts or places (Smith and Campbell, 2016), that had been already invented or constructed as such by the nation-state. Hypothesising that such a public engagement with the past has been formulated in considerable dependence on the authorised heritage script, this paper moves beyond the concerns about the new “purely” people-centred reflections on the past, and goes one step back in order to re-examine both the disjunction and the overlap between national discourse and enthusiats’ activities. Hence, it is closer to what Cǎtǎlin Popa (2015; 2016) does by criticising current Dacomaniac narratives in Romania fabricated by self-proclaimed experts on account of delegitimised archaeology; and Yannis Hamilakis (2000) who evokes the construction of an imaginary Hellenic territory in cyberspace which allows for people – many of whom away from home – to integrate Antiquity into their personal and national identities. These approaches reveal complex intersections between governmental, academic, private and popular agents and uses.

Fig. 1. A moment of the spectacle “The New Thracians” in the town of Kazanlak, 2013. Source: Municipality of Kazanlak.

Put differently, this article will look for these matching points where, purposefully or not, “official” definitions and categories meet and intersect with “unofficial” practices and meanings. In so doing, the analysis borrows from another fruitful theoretical premise that helps us to recognise those entanglements which are not always obvious or consciously produced, and yet have substantial consequences. From Critical Heritage Studies, we know a great deal about the disciplining role of the nation-state, its institutions and officers in producing an appropriate historical narrative authorised as a discourse (Smith, 2006). It is also clear that this narrative serves to consolidate nations as imagined communities (Anderson, 2006). To these fundamental interpretative paradigms, however, we have to add the important clarification that communities – along with the imagining – are also being practiced (Adell et al., 2015). In their application to the heritage field of the concept of community of practice, productively adopted from learning theory, Nicolas Adell, Regina F. Bendix, Chiara Bortolotto and Markus Tauschek argue that various actors with diverse backgrounds, persuasions and identities may cooperate “for the sake of shared political or economic interests” (ibid.: 7-8). These actors thus form a community of practice, an example of which can be easily seen for instance when a nomination for some of the UNESCO’s prestigious lists is being prepared.

Similarly, this study will explore the activities of different agents operating in the constant (re-)making of Thracian heritage today. Going further, it will however try to expand on the proposed interpretation. By a juxtaposition of contrasting social players dealing with the Thracians, I hypothesise that a community of practice can function even when no single goal is affirmed explicitly. Questioning how people, usually seen as conceived heirs of certain facts from the past, can practice their own imagining as heirs, the particular focus will be on contemporary amateur occupations with Thracian antiquity palpable in the public sphere and in the “quasi-public space of the Internet” (Mineva, 2013). Keeping in mind the conventional scholarship discourse(s), the text will first delve into the non-professional concepts of Thracian history and culture, in order to investigate later the living re-enactments of fragments of the ancient past. The task, of course, is not to fully present authors’ views, even less to legitimise or to contest some of them. The idea is rather to draw attention to the “Thracian” version of a phenomenon that is gaining ever larger dimensions and which obviously provokes a strong sense of engagement in many Bulgarians. In times of immense information flows, “with the status of knowledge unbalanced and its speculative unity broken” (Lyotard, 1984: 35), when the past has been privatised and the boundaries between audiences and performers have been blurred (Ditchev, 2016: 50, 53), when the Internet “blows up the normative canon of the Bulgarian identity” (Lilova, 2008: 133) and allows for the history to be renegotiated (Deyanova, 2007; Lilova, 2008; Mineva, 2013), I will outline the popular image of the Thracians and the place ascribed to them in an edited past, such as it is made available by current technologies and forms of expression. The analysis draws upon research on knowledge production about the Thracians with a focus on its media and virtual aspects of networking, sharing and experiencing. Online observations are expanded with ethnography on public performances of seemingly ancient practices. These activities are additionally contextualised within the general political and scientific context that frames the field in question.

Ups and Downs: The Thracians Studies in Bulgaria

The status of the Thracians as a forming factor of the Bulgarian ethnogenesis has been subject to historiographical fluctuations over the years (Marinov, 2016: 137-179). It was in the 1960s when they were added as an autochthonous “substratum” to the official foundational narrative composed also by Slavs and the so-called Proto-Bulgarians (see Detchev 2009; 2013; Iliev, 1998). A clear sign of Thracians’ importance for the national mythology was the fact that in 1967 the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party and head of the government Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998) postulated that “we, the Slavs, the Bulgarians, are heirs of the Thracian culture” (CSA 88: 403-411). Subsequently, the state provided significant support for Thracian studies: the Thracology (Bulg. trakologia) was established as a specific discipline, and in 1972 a new institute at the Academy of Sciences was devoted to it, while universities included it in their curiccula. An ambitious international agenda was also institutionalised through joint archaeological excavations, international congresses of thracology, and glamorous exhibitions of the so-called “Thracian treasures” at world museums (Marinov, 2016: 165-173; Roumentchéva, 2014; Slavova, 2017: 405-408).

The official introduction of “the third component” in the national genealogy, however, has not necessarily guaranteed it a leading role and the competition between Thracians, Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians for a more significant place in the past of Bulgaria and of the European civilisation is still ongoing (Iliev, 1998). This specific rivalry takes place not only among professional scholars. It is also nurtured very actively by the efforts of many amateur historians who are increasingly determined to present their views. In this regard Roumen Daskalov (2011) has outlined, in an ironic tone, the parameters of a whole school of Old-Bulgaristica (Bulg. drevnobalgaristika), whose representatives comment on a wide range of problems – from Bulgarians’ origin and ancestry to their language and script (see also Nikolov, 2011; Njagulov, 2010: 425-426). Dilettantes’ struggle for a new reading of the past is supported by some “patriotic” academics (Kuzmanov, n.d.; Vachkova, n.d.), while the ideas they defend have been appropriated and further developed by nationalist movements (Goncharova, n.d.).

At the same time, over the last decade numerous medieval fortresses were restored and transformed into touristic attractions with support from the European Union Funds (see Valchev in this volume). They marked the territory of the whole country, materialising in that way the Bulgarian component of the nation. Together with the reconstructed Roman cities, these sites outweighed the Thracian ruins, which remained in the periphery of the funding schemes.[3] Besides, the “renovated” settlements periodically host medieval fairs, and become inhabited by living legionnaires and knights. In addition to these attractions, the Proto-Bulgarian element gains density thanks to the activities of a number of organisations whose leaders and members take care of the patriotic education of young Bulgarians and offer an alternative to the present in which, according to them, the Bulgarianness is threatened (Santulova, n.d.).

In this situation, Thracians’ legacy may look forgotten or contested within the grand narrative of the nation. This diagnosis is partly due to the changes in the socio-political environment after 1989 and the decrease in the public funding for archaeological and historical production. In the postsocialist period the study and the popularisation of the past are no longer a governmental priority as they were during the state socialism, when a monolithic and primordial view of the past was elaborated and maintained (see Sygkelos, 2011: 168-212). In addition, the Institute of Thracology was transformed into a more modest Centre, and as a result of a reform carried out within the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in 2010 it was included into the structure of the Institute of Balkan Studies. Moreover, the historian Bozhidar Dimitrov (2006), at that time director of the National History Museum and well-known public figure with his own TV show, proclaimed that the Thracian “contribution” in the national ethnogenesis was a myth and a “distortion of the scientific truth” which had resulted from the political support for the Thracian studies in the late 20th century (see also Georgieva, 2011). In the meantime, serious efforts have been invested in the exploration of the Proto-Bulgarian component. From 2008 to 2012, for example, “TANGRA TanNakRa” All-Bulgarian Foundation (Bulg. Obshtobalgarska fondatsia “TANGRA TanNakRa”) organised the expedition “The Bulgarians – Proto-Motherland” (Bulg. Balgarite – Prarodina), which aimed at investigating Bulgarians’ origin in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Crimea, Iran and Pakistan. This initiative was supported by a number of academic institutions and held under the patronage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was also one of the evidences that, as Yordan Lyutskanov (2011) has highlighted it, the Iranian legacy seemed to be “the current champion in gaining popularity” in the national ethnobiography. To quote him further, “the rise of the Iranian theory coincides with a (less visible) revival of the autochthonic one”. From the perspective of popular writings, I would reckon that the parallel development of interest, both within and outside academia, toward these two fields, the (Proto-)Bulgarian and the Thracian, serves to two different and yet complementary tasks. The first is to negate the problematic Turkic ancestry attached to Proto-Bulgarians (Lyutskanov, 2011), and the second – trough the imagined continuity of the autochthonous populations lasting to the present day – proves modern Bulgarians’ uninterrupted right of land ownership.[4]

Thus, the recent tendency to slightly ignore the indigenous legacy has provoked the famous writer of historical novels and academician Anton Donchev to ask “why the Bulgarian historical scholarship devotes such a tiny place to the Thracians even if it is going to occcur that 38-40% of the Bulgarian blood is Thracian” (emphasis added).[5] The lack of sustainable central support for the Thracian studies, as it was the case in the years of the late socialism, does not mean however that they have been interrupted. It should suffice to mention that in the period 1992-2005, the Thracological Expedition for Tumulus Investigation (Bulg. Trakolozhka ekspeditsia za mogilni prouchvania) led by the archaeologist Georgi Kitov (1943–2008) examined more than 300 mounds, eight of which are currently “waiting” at the Tentative List of UNESCO (2016). Thanks to various public and private sponsors, many intriguing findings (e.g. golden masks, pieces of jewellery and sculpture etc.) were discovered in ancient tombs and easily became mediatised sensations (cf. Brunwasser, 2005; Loulanski and Loulanski, 2017). The retreat of the state has led to the search for alternative approaches, including new sources of funding, which have preserved to a large extent the integrity of the symbolic thracological capital. This adaptation has helped to retain the perception according to which the Thracians are “the oldest ethnocultural community in Europe and the second largest, after the Indian one, in the world”, who had left “extremely rich cultural-historical heritage, whose abundance and style depict them as one of the highest civilisations in Antiquity”.[6]

One of the latest and most telling examples is that Anton Donchev together with the former president of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Stefan Vodenicharov have convinced a businessman, a person “with a national self-esteem”, to donate a serious amount of money specifically for a major project dedicated to the Thracian legacy.[7] Thanks to the accord between the patron and the powerful intermediaries (cf. Pielhoff, 2007: 29, as quoted in Bendix, 2015: 226), the reserach activities started in 2016. They were initiated and clearly inspired by Donchev’s ideas, among them “to explore the Thracians’ gene pool, to check what of this old civilisation has survived through the time and what can be found in the modern Bulgarian population”. These tasks were defined by scholars as “very important issues from a strategic point of view [...] both nationally and internationally” (see also Nikolov, 2017b: 7).[8] Entering into this specific framework, academics need to comply with sponsors, who have their own expectations, though; asking for quick results and unequivocal conclusions: “After all, in which way, to what extent we, the Bulgarians, are connected to the Thracians”.[9] This patronage as a powerful interventionist practice (Bendix, 2015) is a radical example of a tension that Lyotard (1984: 27-28) has named “the relationship of scientific knowledge to ‘popular’ knowledge, or what is left of it”. Because, when scientists “appear on television or are interviewed in the newspapers after making a ‘discovery’ […] [t]hey recount an epic of knowledge that is in fact wholly unepic. They play by the rules of the narrative game; its influence remains considerable not only on the users of the media, but also on the scientist’s sentiments”.

Although such sponsored projects have a popular dimension, the research remains largely closed within scientific institutes (see also Atanassov, 2011). What is more, there is a certain division within the expert milieu devoted to Antiquity. While subsidised activities are supposed to present a public report of their achievements, another part of the researchers seem to be encapsulated in their community and specialised endeavours. Here one can trace the distinction between thracology and Thracian archaeology, as claimed by some of the representatives of the two camps in this silent “conflict”. This general context forms a niche for action, and obviously a necessity for the searching, analysing and popularising the “true Bulgarian history” (Sparotok, 2013/2018) – the one “that we have not studied in school, for which there are no written textbooks, about which nobody yet talks officially, the archaeological evidences of which are being overlooked silently or just ignored as if they have never existed” (Delova, 2015).

There is Only One Truth: Thrace

Similar to the processes in the field of the Old-Bulgaristica, and largely as a response to them, many dilettantes have engaged with the study of the Thracian past. Despite their heterogeneity, these actors have composed quite a dense mixture of activist writings on that issue. Thus, a contemporary version of the Thracistics (Bulg. trakistika) has been constituted, suggested as a separate discipline already in the interwar period by the essayist Naiden Sheitanov (2006; cf. Hranova, 2011: 547; Marinov 2016: 156-157). He has also introduced the concept of Thracism (Bulg. trakizǎm) as a “cultural-renewal direction” for Bulgaria (Sheitanov, 2006: 544-545, 547), to which today’s non-professional historians refer explicitly. This is why throughout the text the term thracists will denote the popular authors who oppose academic thracologists, although there are some risks in this labelling since I have not achieved the necessary “ingenious attitude” (cf. Gaid and Gaidarski, 2010).[10]

The problematic treated by the self-organised researchers is unfathomable. Thanks to the Internet its volume continues to augment, and it is beyond the scope of this study to examine it. In fact, most of the representatives of the new school publish in many scientific fields – from archaeology and history to linguistics and astronomy, although they have rarely graduated in any of them.[11] A key point in this case is the love for the truth and the motherland, in the name of which they are demythologising dangerous for the nation concepts, according to authors’ opinion. By publishing secret sacred scriptures (e.g. the Chronicles of Habrozalmox, the Orpheic Covenant, the Nominalia of the Thracian Kings etc.) and making them available to the general public, the authors reconstruct the “spiritual biography” of the Bulgarian people. With this occupation, they aim at fulfilling the “mission and the vocation given by God” (ibid.).

On the basis of such predestination, the concept of the transcendental thracology has been created, driven by “the historian-thracologist who believes... (not the sceptic!)” (Trakiiskite poslania, 2005: 4-6). Its founders are Tsvetan Gaid(arski) and his late brother, Stefan Gaid(arski, also Stephen Guide), who have founded Academia Orphica and the Institute of Transcendental Science with a Department of Thracology. Other analysts consolidate around specific topics like the Thracian runes (Dzhunova, Salahi and Ganev, 2016/2018), or work on individual projects, as the blogger Pavel Serafimov Sparotok (2009/2013, 2013/2018) does it. In addition to their independence, these researchers pay high attention to the “firsts-sources” – unpublished or proclaimed as misinterpreted texts and archaeological discoveries. They blame the “impotent” and “stuck in its obsolete and retrograde concepts” official thracology for silencing such facts (Gaidarski, 2007). That is why most of the efforts are focused on the study of authentic local testimonies, i.e. “sources for the Thracians written by the Thracians themselves in Thracian language” (Gaid and Gaidarski, 2010). Pursuing “hidden facts and silenced historical sources”, one will surely acquire the truth because, with Sparotok’s words (2012), “truth is never complicated”. The followers of the new ancestral paradigm begin their quest in prehistory and strive to introduce “definitional distinctions, time and diasporic boundaries, and reflexive interpretation frames” (Gaid, 2008). Thus, current gaps in the past not only of Bulgaria, but of the mankind in general, are also being answered, the authors affirm.

The foundations of the new Thracistics are based on the autochthonistic beliefs according to which Bulgarians’ ancestors have lived on the territory of modern Bulgaria since the oldest antiquity (Chilingirov, 2009). In particular, the Thracians have been the indigenous population of the Balkans since prehistory, and as such, they have never disappeared, but have simply lost their name, displaced in multiple directions, and returned to their Balkan fatherland. The history of the “Thracian-Bulgarian kings” is traced back to the era in which “Bulgarians are still called ‘Thracians’”, asserting that the Bulgarian statehood has existed “at least since the fourth millennium B.C.”. In simple terms, “Bulgarians are Thracians and Thracians are Bulgarians” (ibid., Sparotok, 2009c; 2013; Ziezi, 2010). The insistence that things in history must be denominated “with their real names” in a peculiar way simultaneously complicates and simplifies the historiographical narrative, narrowing it up to familiar references: “Slavs is Getae’s newer name, and Bulgarians [is] Moesi’s newer name” Sparotok, 2009b), hence “the so-called alliance between Slavs and Bulgarians is a factual union of the Thracian tribal groups of Getae and Moesi” (Sparotok, 2014). In this context, the Thracians appear as Slavic-speaking people (Sparotok, 2013).

The resistance to the migratory theory imposed by the old-bulgarists is objectified in several directions. The argument about the right of land ownership comes first, since modern Bulgarians would symbolically lose it if it turns out that their ancestors arrived on the Balkans as conquerors. The versions of the Asian origin, Sparotok (2010c) warns, are “an antechamber to Hell” because they “destroy our inherent right on the territory that we inhabit”. At the same time it is believed that the migration itself as an attitude of a particular group speaks for insufficient spiritual heights of the latter, and that would deprive Bulgarians of a glamorous past (Gaid and Gaidarski, 2010). The mere mention of such “pseudoscientific falsifications that associate us with every kind of eastern, steppe and decadent-mystic civilisations and cultures of Asian pseudo-spirituality” has already given its negative result, since it is namely through them that nihilism and Bulgarophobia have entered into Bulgarians’ national psychology (ibid.).

Last but not least, the theme of the contribution to the European history occurs. As is the case with the official scholarship, the main protagonist here is Ancient Greece, traditionally conceived as the cradle of European civilisation. In this context, the Thracians are elevated to the position of cultural donors to the Hellenes – much more civilised than them, even creators of the Greek alphabet. If we take Orphism as an example, while the Greeks practice it by “wild orgies, satisfaction of animal instincts and ignorant paganism”, the Thracian original version is close to Christianity and associated with “the lofty urges, the enthusiasm for beauty and the thorough spiritual concepts of the priests-kings of Thrace” (Gaid, 2006b). It is interesting to note that this is one of not many cases when professional historians’ role has been recognised. As Tsvetan Gaidarski (2007) underlines it, academics and especially the founder of the thracology Alexander Fol (1933–2006) “have managed to restore the right to consider Orphism in its original essence as a ‘Thracian phenomenon’”.

Although in most essays it is perceived as a threat to the national identity, the symbolic appeal to Europe is enduring: “In the distant past the notion of Europeans was valid exclusively for the Thracians“ (Sparotok, 2010c). The Europeanness of Bulgaria is legitimised retroactively through Orpheus’ descendants: “we, the Bulgarians, will occupy our proper and well-deserved place within the Pan-European home, being indigenous inhabitants of our Motherland, being progenitors and bearers of the Pan-European civilisation” (Gaidarski, 2007; see also Chilingirov, 2009: 45-49, 70). Another active agent in this field is Yordan Detev. Referring post mortem to the discoveries of the archaeologist and his father, Peter Detev (1900–1980), he localises the “central entrance” of the oldest human culture (generating from Central Africa) along the Maritsa river, from where the first European has originated, too (Detev, n.d.). On this account, he further builds the theory of Thracian Atlantis, located in the “mystical” Rhodope and Strandzha-Sakar mountains (Detev, 2009). In several of his short analysis, Sparotok (2009d, 2009e) also draws the attention to the authority that Thracians had in Western Europe, where the representatives of the eastern tribes have become “the noble class of the local population”.

Such expositions on the European context, however, are unsatisfactory because they diminish Thracians’ role, that is Bulgarians’, in the world history. Due to their sacred status (Gaid and Gaidarski, 2010) and the long-standing hegemony by sea and land, the Thracians have civilised different parts of the world and thus have a universal value. In a more balanced reading, Thracian culture and religion are interpreted as resulting from the influences of “the great world spiritual trends in ancient times” (Ivanov, 2009: 34, 36). This is however unlikely because, as Gaid (2006a, 2008) has emphasised, “we have all the traits of a world (cosmopolitan) civilisation, spread over several continents, with wide commercial and cultural exchanges, internal territories and external colonies with cultural and economic ties between them, a unified elite with their own language, their own religious and philosophical superstructure, and all other factors testifying for the superiority over their later derivative local cultures that originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia”. In addition to the fact that Thracian culture and script have “fertilised the Egyptian civilisation” (Gaidarski, 2007), Sparotok describes similar impacts in India (2010d) and China (2010e), among Iranian and Turkic peoples (2015a), whereas Buddha also emanates from the Thracians (2012c). One cannot but notice that these efforts of the amateur historians, although being dispersed – “the Thracian orphica is a global phenomenon” (Gaidarski, 2007), are yet concentrated in the region, considered as Bulgarians’ homeland. From this point of view, the task is to provide an explanation for the “Asian ties” already promulgated by institutionalised historiography. Denying the “Proto-Bulgarian invasion”, the thracists prove that “[n]ot the Asians have ennobled our gene pool, but our ancestors have left their genes among a number of Asian peoples” and even gave the name of Asia (Sparotok, 2016).

Fig. 2. The Votive Tablet from the village of Gradeshnitsa and its decodation by the Institute of Transcendent Science. Source: Institute of Transcendent Science.

 The validation of the Thracian origin requires the neutralisation of the other ethnic component. “The Slavic Sea” has been definitely counterbalanced by Chavdar Bonev (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010), who offers a new vision for the Slavic ethnogenesis and Thracians’ history. The professional historian rejects the previously proposed thesis that the Slavs originated in the Subcarpathian region and replaces it with the idea of their Balkan-Danubian provenance. According to him, the so-called Proto-Slavs have been a part of the autochthonous Thracian population that has left their homeland after the Roman conquest. Thus he identifies a “genetic connection” between the ancient Thracian culture and the early Slavonic archaeological evidences, as well as between the Thracian and the Slavonic vocabularies (Bonev, 2009: 9-26). The theory of the Proto-Slavs is reinforced by Petar Georgiev (2011), who also suggests that Bulgarians are the indigenous inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula. This certifies in another manner that Bulgarians are not low-cultured intruders in Europe (Ziezi, 2010), but Balkan refugees (Georgiev, 2009; 2011). As such, they have founded Magna Bulgaria in Asia, undertaken later a return and initiated the Migration Period (Georgiev, 2015: 62). Sparotok (2009f) shares similar view: “modern peoples defined as Slavs” are rooted in “our ancestors, the Thracian-Pelasgians”.

A growing body of thracist publications has examined the unambiguous sameness between (orthodox) Christianity and Orphism (Gaidarski, 2007). The former, according to Gaid and Gaidarski (2010), is “a unique and completely Thracian phenomenon”. The authors have reported on the “Thracian Christian faith” (Trakiiskite poslania, 2005), claiming that the Thracian Orphists have been worshiping God, known among them as Dion-Jesus, that is Dionysus (Gaidarski, 2007; cf. Hranova, 2011: 535). In fact, the existence of a pre-Christian church proves to be indispensable for the development of Christianity (Bonev, 2009: 118-158, Chilingirov, 2009: 196-199) and other religious movements within the Roman Empire (Georgiev, 2011: 61-173; 2014; 2015). Moreover, the discovery of Biblia Bessica, which had been mentioned by ancient authors, was announced. This has led some dilettantes to declare that “the contemporary Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet is a modernised version of the older and earlier Thracian Bohairic alphabet, which means that today Bulgarians still write with the same sacred Thracian alphabet of their ancestors”. Again, therefore, the general conclusion is that “THE BULGARIANS ARE THRACIANS” (sic), and that is detectable in the “direct religious-cultural connection” between the pre-Christian Balkan population and the inhabitants of today’s Bulgarian lands (Georgiev, 2014: 78). This issue is discussed also by Bonev (2009: 118-158), who sees the Proto-Slavonic (Dacian) church very much alike both to Christianity and Buddhism, and even the Essenes in Palestine.

Recently much work has been carried out in the sphere of linguistics, too. In contradiction to orthodox science, thracists have discovered and disclosed the existence of a Thracian script (Gaid, 2006a; 2006a; 2007; 2008; Sparotok, 2009a; Dzhunova, Salahi and Ganev, 2016/2018). They categorise it as the oldest in the world, existing before Egyptian and Sumerian ones, which is the reason for its dissemination throughout the planet (Chilingirov, 2009: VI, XI). The explanation of this fact is simple: the Thracian letter was “pictorial (figurative) and not phonetic (sound), meaning that any other people could borrow it from them no matter what language and dialect they spoke”, and it has probably served as a “Universal World Language” (Gaid, 2006a; sic). Furthermore, the Thracians have been proclaimed to be the creators of the Proto-Bulgarian runes (Sparotok, 2010b) and of the Glagolitic alphabet, which preceded the oldest Greek alphabet by a thousand years (Sparotok, 2010). Not only did the wise ancestors have a script, but also a “rich literary tradition” (Gaidarski, 2007). Their language has been preserved up to modern times and is currently known as the “Bohairic dialect of Northern Egypt, where the Thracian dynasties had the strongest influence in the rule of the Ancient Egyptian state”. On the other hand, this language is closely related to “the dialects of the contemporary Bulgarian language” (Gaid, 2007; Sparotok, 2011).

Beyond the extreme character of these conclusions, a large number of them account clearly for the presence of the myth about the abducted treasure, which is “the main theme of the Bulgarian national mythology from the time of its formation” (Aretov, n.d.). It is believed that the Thracians had created a magnificent cultural tradition, which however had been invaded. These conquests included book burning, destruction of temples, script stealing, Orpheus’ abduction, that is a complete misappropriation of the past by foreign peoples (Chilingirov, 2009: VII). Even worse, national academics were accused of “bribery pseudoscience and pseudoculture, serving foreign and hostile to our people interests” (Gaid, 2006b). Yet, as it has already been demonstrated, not everything is lost and certain communities claim that have kept a piece of the secret knowledge. Therefore, the efforts of contemporary thracists focus on the restoration of “at least a small part of our history” (Chilingirov, 2008: 3). They acquire testimonies of the assertion that modern Bulgarians are Thracians (Georgiev, 2015: 52) from the living religious tradition, from the preserved “in their integrality” national and religious self-consciousness of the Bulgarian people (Gaidarski, 2007). The rituals related to the cults of Sabazios and Dionysus have been rediscovered in folk customs and beliefs, especially as a fundament of the still living traditional rural masquerades (Georgiev, 2011: 100, 2014: 55; 2015: 64-65, Sparotok, 2012b).

Performing Alternativeness in History Writing

Examining the alternativeness of the new school of thought in regards to academia requires a closer look at the complex and multidimensional relationships between them. There is no doubt that a typical trait within the ideology of independent authors – no matter how different their concepts are – is their belonging to a common movement against “conventional science” (Gaid and Gaidarski, 2010). They all perceive historical knowledge produced by official academic institutions as “false science” and random “reconstructions based on memory”, which “often represent the most fantastic mixture of ‘superstition’, ‘compromises’ and ‘fictional inventions’” (Gaidarski, 2007). Driven by the conviction that “the Thracian question can no longer be silenced” (Trakiiskite poslania, 2005: 5), enthusiasts accept as their mission to refute the “dogmas” supported by “scientific administrators”, “narrow-minded specialists”, with the words of Stefan Gaid (2007), and “Bulgarian-haters” (Sparotok, 2010c). The reasons for such a scientific “despotism” the critics find in the pressure of foreign countries – Bulgarians are at the heart not only of the European but also of the human civilisation, according to Reneta Dzhunova and Mila Salahi, but the facts are unknown because the Great Powers distort history. It is thus revealed that the myth of the Bulgarians’ Turkic origin has been created by the historical schools in Vienna and Moscow, which felt threatened by the “disobedient Bulgarian revival spirit” (Ziezi, 2010). Moreover, an imprint on the purity of knowledge is traced to some researchers’ personal interests and the legacy of totalitarianism, which has caused the “taboos of Marxist science” (Chilingirov, 2009: 164-165).

In this situation, non-professional scholars see themselves as “progressive”, independent bearers of a needed change, and insist on the “opening of a debate on the future of Bulgarian science, about morality and ethics in it, and above all about the monopoly” over it (Gaid, 2007). The revolutionary feeling rises in their later publications, which is a response to the counter-attack on the part of professional scholars. This trend is becoming so predominant that it begins to occupy а more and more significant part of the articles and books themselves. In general, the structure of the studies follows a specific pattern. Most of them begin with lengthy and detailed prologues and introductions that seem to justify the very writing. A stinging review of certain postulates from existing official literature follows. As a rule, these thesis are stigmatised as irrelevant writings of “former Komsomol-dilettantes” (Gaid and Gaidarski, 2010). The essential section consists of re-reading of ancient sources, recycling of autochthonous theories and drawing of new conclusions. At the end, interestingly, along with the main findings, moralistic messages are also elaborated. Non-professionals usually call for national unification and thus re-actualise the duty to the ancestors and the nation (cf. Ditchev, 2001): as heirs of the first civilised people, Bulgarians have to behave nobly. This is why one can easily detect in these texts quotations from famous film actors or national heroes which supplement old evidences.

Fig. 3. The so-called “White Kuker” in the town of Malko Tarnovo, Strandzha Mountain, is perceived as a reminiscence of a Thracian ritual dedicated to Dionysus. Source: Travel Bulgaria News.

The link to the present is actually a key aspect of alternative historians’ production and they promote themselves as equally competent in contemporary issues of various nature. The thracists are familiar with Bulgarian roots, and – according to the naturalised primordialism and immanent syncretism – virtues and nobility occur to be genetically transmitted. Such a curious detail demonstrates that the starting point of these activities is the definite consciousness of an unstable and critical present where “the person vitally needs an identity, an authentic cultural milieu in which one could develop her/his intellect and circles of communication” (Gaidarski, 2007). There is a strong possibility that the exploitation of such insecurities – by providing people with “the true references” – is what really motivates some part of alternative scholars. They do realise that their work is positioned within “the sea of constant changes” (ibid.) which calls for stable milestones.

From this point of view, the activation of alternative research can be explained by the new needs in the society and the liberalised environment in which the concealment of the truth is no longer possible because it is sealed “in our genome, in our generational memory” (Gaid, 2006b). However, criticism of official science and Old-Bulgaristica seems to be overwhelming and somehow masks nationalist and religious motives: thracists contradict delusions and misinformation that “suppress our science and our consciousness” (Chilingirov, 2008: 19). It can be assumed that amateurs are aware that academics’ authority is no longer “so undisturbed and undeniable” (Gaid and Gaidarski, 2010), and that Internet provides an important advantage. They also understand perfectly that nowadays historical concepts change more quickly than ever (Gaid, 2006a). These specificities are undoubtedly applied in non-professionals’ tactics of action. In addition, this strategy is supported by a missionary rhetoric through which online thracists try to build a group of faithful followers.

By putting “social actors and relations between them that are mediated by a cultural object or practice” at the centre of heritage debates (Groth, 2015: 68), we can detect that initially non-professionals publish mainly in their virtual libraries (Goncharova, n.d.) and blogs, while maintaining self-advertising campaigns on social networks. When the platform allows for it, alternative researches are encouraged by many enthusiastic users who share their thoughts on the problematic, debate fiercely, and even denounce some of the conclusions. To a large extent, these users became co-authors in an emerging discipline, since their commentaries supply the narrative with new facts and sources, which supposedly give more evidence and soundness to the study. The process is really interactive – questions are being posed to the readers who are eagerly trying to unravel the next fact, “silenced” by the traditional science. It would suffice to mention that Sparotok has published a selection of articles from his blog under the monograph “The True Bulgarian History: The Birth of a New Theory” (Bulg. “Istinskata balgarska istoria. Razhdaneto na edna nova teoria”, Fabrika za knigi Publishing, 2013), which also reprinted part of the comments following each post. That is to say that it is operating an endless sharing of the original text and numerous secondary uses of it, which are being multiplied under the imperative “Spread without hesitation to all Bulgarians!!!”.[12] It is noticeable here what Mila Mineva (2013) describes as a “folklore-type of constructing collective identity, negotiating from below, poaching of existing forms by anonymous fellow-citizens”.

Gaining popularity and being institutionalised through the “technological potential of new media” (Lilova, 2008: 136), alternative researchers soon cease to be satisfied with only independent online channels of communication. Thus, revolutionary discoveries began to be presented and discussed in conventional media – not only in TV shows dealing with conspiracy theories, but also in morning programs, news reports, and magazines carrying popular science content. When in 2006 the Thracian script was declared decoded (see Fig. 2), this was announced at a special press conference held at the Bulgarian News Agency (Butsev, 2006a); the same approach was used two years later with the revelation of the Thracian Biblia Bessica. The claims for independence are being maintained through self-published books or non-academic publishers, special websites and personal blogs. Going further, more organised efforts can also be noticed – the magazine “Avi-tohol” that has inherited nationalist and racial traditions from the interwar period (Romanova, 2011), is a good example in this direction. Amateurs meet and promote their new theses during official events like fairs, conferences and festivals. Some of them are often conducted in cooperation with local governors and authorities, heritage institutions and academics.

Despite its publicity and the declared openness, the new Thracistics also remains hardly permeable to critical debates. Certainly, it can be said that there is a persistent quest of a single Truth, which in itself challenges the scientific character of the writings (Daskalov, 2010: 40-41; Romanova, 2011; Atanassov, 2011). First, self-proclaimed experts advocate for “the truth and democracy in science and creativity, against totalitarianism in science” (Gaid, 2007). Then, however, their conclusions embody an absolute certitude – for instance, the decoding of the scripts is “complete and final” (Gaid, 2006a). Even if dilettantes call often for an examination of their ideas, they interpret criticisms against them as attacks on the Motherland.

In general, thracists rarely refer openly to the publications of the official thracology. As mentioned above, they mainly evoke diverse sources. Written from this position, their narrative resembles very much the “new discourse” on Bulgarian history from the early 1960s, which tended to present itself as expert and non-ideological while searching for the “historical truth” (Elenkov and Koleva, 2007) Similarly, the pursuit of “scientific emancipation of the intellectual and patriotic circles” (Gaid, 2007) does not guarantee amateurs’ objectivity or value-freedom. On the contrary, the interpretation of the sources is directly related to scholars’ national responsibility and functions (cf. Mishkova, 2006: 12).

Enthusiasts’ attitude towards institutionalised thracology is actually ambiguous. When academia can be used as a guarantee of their findings, the representatives of the new school obviously borrow legitimacy by quoting “world-renowned scholars” (see e.g. Gaidarski, 2007; Sparotok, 2015a). On the other hand, dilettantes’ opinion about the founders of the Thracian autochthonistic thesis of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century is quite monolithic. Today’s thracists often rely on, rehabilitate, popularise and even re-publish the essays of the prominent ideologues of autochthonism as Tsani Ginchev (1835–1894), Gancho Tsenov (Gantscho Tzenoff, 1870–1949), Naiden Sheitanov (1890–1970), and later Nikola Gigov (1937–2016), which are situated between “academic nationalism and quasi-scientific autochthonism” (Stanchev, 2011). Furthermore, amateurs nowadays even strengthen their predecessors’ positions by identifying themselves with those authors whose concepts, they think, are denounced as a manifestation of chauvinism, and who have been criminalised for their Bulgarian character and rejected “not because of scientific but because of political motives” (Tsenov, 2004: 5-6, 9, 146 et pass.; cf. Zlatarski, 1914; Simeonova, 2010). Having become part of the “curriculum”, pioneering thracists are currently being cited alongside Herodotus and his superlative observation that the Thracians were the most numerous in the world after the Indians, which is almost sine qua non for official thracology, too (Marinov, 2016: 11).

Nevertheless, most of the suggested independent views are implicitly based on the achievements of academics. It is precisely thanks to the exhaustive reading of the tracological analyses that alternative scholars realise that there are a number of unresolved problems; that Thracian archeology has prioritised for a long period more representative discoveries at the expense of findings testifying about ordinary population’s life (Bonev, 2007: 19); that there are such gaps in the knowledge such as Biblia Bessica, the Thracian script and any influence in Egypt and Ancient Greece (Chilingirov, 2009: 36); that archaic “survivals” can be traced in folk customs etc. In this regard, the conception of the phenomenon in question is specifically founded both on the initial Thracism and the ideology of the state socialism, although seemingly it opposes the latter (cf. Hranova, 2011: 547-564).

Clash of Schools?

It must be noted that contemporary thracists are not just researchers, but sometimes they are also followers of certain cults. In some cases this positionality is discussed comprehensively in their publications, which aims at avoiding any contradiction between scientific and religious activities. This position is often provoked by a transcendental predestination or a practice of an inherited familial knowledge, which have been enriched with personal experience in different spiritual societies and denominations. Therefore, the scientific quests are also “experimental investigations”, which can be characterised as “adventures” and “spiritual journey[s]” (Gaid, 2006a). However, dilettantes share the view that only those who possess the secret knowledge could fully explore some problematics (see also Lazova, 2016: 283). At the same time, their nationally-responsible stance is explicitly introduced, and nationalism is deprived from its negative features and recycled as equal to patriotism (see e.g. Georgiev, 2009: 251; Sparotok, 2009a, 2015b). Actually, the hybridity of the ideology of the modern Thracism and its references to the New Age movement make it very similar to “counter” nationalist associations that instrumentalise and promote Old-Bulgarian origins. According to Galina Goncharova (n.d.), some of the latter function as religious organisations and could be identified as sects.

The biggest problem of today’s Thracism, if we refer to its texts, is the lack of recognition on behalf of academia. Not only do professional scholars not mention amateurs’ writings (Chilingirov, 2008: 4), but generally they do not even bother to rebut their conclusions. The latter is perceived as a stigmatisation “without scientific argumentation” (Gaid, 2006a; 2007; Detev, 2009). In their occasional public remarks academics declare that the disseminated alternative assumptions are “commercial inventions and/or dangerous fantasies” (Chobanov, 2015: 35), which “are not even subject to criticism” (Germanova, 2015). There is, however, a relative proportionality in this indirect communication between the two “camps”. When the Thracian script was announced as decoded, professional thracologists and egyptologists, organised a counter press conference and proclaimed the discovery a mystification (Butsev, 2006b; Hristova, 2006). Such activities lead us to the question “what is the adequate response to this challenge and what are the efforts needed to remain in the sphere of realism?” (Yanakieva, 2017). It seems there is no useful step for professionals, because the act of denial could endorse amateurs’ authority since it would reaffirm the conspirational premises of the latter. Their texts allude to some attacks on the authors who “have infuriated many people” because of the revealed Truth. It appears that independent researchers have made so significant and politically uncomfortable discoveries that they are being discriminated and purged by official censorship. In other words, nationalism (together with personal motives) is again represented as dissidence (cf. Mishkova, 2006: 12).

Nonetheless, some scholars address directly dilettantes’ inconsistencies even if such efforts are rather limited. For instance, the classical philologist Svetlana Yanakieva, professor at the Centre of Thracology, is preoccupied with contemporary myth-making and “especially in view of the snowball effect of the growing information in the Internet space nowadays” (Yanakieva, 2017). Her opposition to these trends provides a judgment that is not based on a priori convictions, but on a thorough examination of alternative theories. In so doing, Yanakieva (2010) has denounced the speculations coined around Biblia Bessica. She has also reviewed an article in which the blogger Sparotok and the history graduate Aleksandar Moshev had claimed that the ethnonym “Blǎgii”, that is “Bulgarians”, is “extremely ancient” and appeared in the Balkans around 3400 ago as a name of a Thracian tribe (Sparotok and Moshev, 2016). The critique was prepared precisely for a popular science magazine and stated clearly that the hypothesis lacks of any argumentation, and is a product of a pseudoscience and a “blurry fantasy” (Yanakieva, 2016). Along similar lines, the historian of the medieval period Tsvetelin Stepanov (2017) has recently scrutinised the main historiographical approaches towards pagan Bulgars’ religions in the Early Middle Ages, and he has also commented on the non-professional authors at length. Besides other influential theories existing in Bulgaria, Stepanov has dedicated a chapter of his book to the Thracian paradigm of interpretation discussed in this paper and enlightened some of the speculations and controversies found in it (ibid.: 125-169).

To sum up, it seems that academics remain resilient to non-professional historians’ discoveries (Njagulov, 2010: 426). This is, however, an obvious antagonism which involves two, presumably, separate and stable groups of agents. Their difficult and often impossible dialogue is inscribed within the wider postmodern crisis of science and the affirmation that “scientific knowledge does not represent the totality of knowledge”, especially if we consider its “exteriorization with respect to the ‘knower’ and an alienation from its user even greater than has previously been the case” (Lyotard, 1984: 7). It was in 1976 when the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (today’s Committee for Sceptical Inquiry) was founded in New York because scholars had been anxious about the “enormous increase in public interest in psychic phenomena, the occult and pseudoscience” (Frazier, 1976: 346). Both on a global and on a Balkan level, this situation has been accompanied with striking misuse and misinterpretation of historical data and archaeological record (Feder, 2014; Hamilakis, 2000; Marinov, 2016; Nikolov, 2011: 45-48; Shnirelman, 1996; Popa, 2016). Therefore, the hostility that arises between professionals and amateurs in the field of Thracian studies is nothing new nor surprising, although it is deemed that alternative ethnogenealogical theories have become more numerous and popular after 1989.

We should turn now to the more important question of the interaction between apparent adversaries. Despite few cited disagreements, the scientific community does not tend to react publicly to self-proclaimed experts. Some of its representatives even recognise dilettantes’ activities – by consulting them, by contributing to their publications or by participating in their events and conferences (see also Marinov, 2016: 75-84, 196-202). Moreover, several regional museums in the country have collaborated and hosted presentations of the decoded Thracian script. It is worth mentioning here Ilija Iliev’s hypothesis about the legitimising function of silence on behalf of professionals regarding seemingly alternative “popular historiography” (Mishkova, 2006: 11). But when can this silence be considered as unspoken support and when it refers to “corporate arrogance”, as Diana Mishkova (ibid.: 14) suggests; a “way of thinking, frozen in the posture of its pompous majesty”, in Dimitar Atanassov’s words (2011)?

The discussion is even more complex because – unlike the moderate refutation of self-organised Thracism – it seems that so far professional thracologists have not responded to the critiques originating from other academic disciplines. It should be mentioned that Bulgarian archaeologists have expressed opposite views and revealed some discrepancies in the theories developped by the national thracological school (Rabadjiev, 2002; 2015). Few scholars have initiated a debate over the various sociopolitical implications of thracology as a specific part of the historical production in the country (Dumanov, 2012; Lazova, 2016; Marinov, 2012: 13-21; 2016; Valtchinova, 2005: 109-117). Foreign academics have also revisited the methodological, conceptual and ideological fundamentals of the discipline (Archibald, 1999; 2015: 389-393; Graninger, 2017: 127). Moreover, some of their studies take into account the broader context of neighbouring Romanian (Dana, 2014: 526-538; 2015: 243; 2016: 1) and Greek (Baralis 2010; 2014) historiographies, which is crucial for the understanding of the logic of these processes. Similar approach has been undertaken and expanded by Tchavdar Marinov (2016: 203-211) who has concluded that the development of Thracian studies in the Balkans represents a (rather ambigious) “success story” of collaboration.[13] In their recent overview, Ivan Marinov and Nicolas Zorzin (2017: 103) have claimed that “by tracing back the cultural, spiritual, and even genetic characteristics of the modern Bulgarian nation and people to the most ancient, most autochthonous of European civilizations – that of the Thracians, Bulgarian thracology of the twenty-first century subscribes directly to the Bulgarian nationalist continuum of the nineteenth and twentieth century”.

But probably more significant in this critical direction was the 13th International Congress of Thracology, held in the Bulgarian town of Kazanlak in September 2017 under the general heading “Ancient Thrace: Myth and Reality”. During the opening plenary session Peter Delev (2017), professor in Ancient History and president of the Organising Committee, has elucidated “some delusions and disillusions, […] state involvement and disinvolvement”. Such an evaluation has a particular symbolic power namely because it has been pronounced at the thracological congress, the history of which goes back to 1972 and is undoubtedly related to the scholarship’s internationalising efforts. Thus, admitting publicly and in front of foreign colleagues that the discipline “has also often been prone to pretention and exaggeration; the balance between thracologia and thracomania has been (and still is) a difficult one” (ibid., emphasis in original; see also Marinov, 2016: 196-202), is an indication of some internal tensions within Bulgarian academia.

We should however underline that, despite such statements, the importance of thracology and its input in drawing “the attention of a more broadly international scholarly audience to problems of Thracian research” (Graninger 2017: 127) are also acknowledged. Even further, “[w]ith all its follies and deficiencies however, Bulgarian thracology has contributed to a considerable advance of scientific knowledge” (Delev, 2017). On the other hand, the critical assesments quoted above come rarely from the thracological field itself, since theoretical reconsiderations and self-reflexivity – even if new voices have been rising – are not quite common in orthodox history writing in Bulgaria (Elenkov and Koleva, 2007; Todorova, 1992: 1108-1117). As Tsvete Lazova (2016) has demonstrated, this observation is also true for Thracian studies which, with few exceptions, remain at a safe distance from any epistemological debates. Hence, one cannot but notice that the sporadically emerging alternative views within academia have not been answered, while extreme dilettante concepts are somehow addressed (cf. Mishkova, 2006: 14).

At the same time, the alternativeness of the amateurs’ writings is doubtful and unsteady because their Truth does not create an “alternative Bulgaria” (cf. Lilova, 2008), it does not develop new scientific way of thinking, different from the conventional one (Romanova, 2011). On the contrary, it matches the field drafted by the normative canon, and yet exceeds it by radicalising its theses. The “independent” narrative is based on the official one – it domesticates certain of the canonised elements (cf. Detchev, 2010), which had been initially imposed by science (Ditchev, 2016: 61), and develops them further (Marinov, 2012: 22). The result of the new school is summed up in what would provoke the anonymous Internet user to exclaim: “Here’s something that must be written in history textbooks!”.[14] Hence, the criticism of academia from a patriotic stance remains without scientific influence. In the popular sphere, however, dilletantes are quoted along with some of the most prominent thracologists, and that guarantees that the “right” version of the past is being maintained. Even though the foundations of the nation-state are uncertain and the authority of the historical science (together with its disciplinary functions) is severely undermined, the authorised Bulgarian heritage discourse (Smith, 2006) remains almost intact. Probably because – as Michael Herzfeld (2005: 32) reminds us – essentialising strategies can be undertaken both by state institutions and ordinary citizens in order to make sure that “all the outward signs of identity are as consistent as possible”. At a time of information boom and pluralism of opinions (Romanova, 2011), these tactics not only support the status quo but also “ameliorate” it according to their own tastes.

The reasons for the lost monopoly over knowledge are diverse and could hardly be discussed here. A reasonable explanation however may be that we are witnessing a democratic dispossession (Ferry, 2016: 96-99), in which the state’s weakness, or more accurately the scholars’ disregard and impossibility to react to pseudo- or parahistory becomes more and more evident. The liquidation of traditional values and authorities (ibid.: 100), combined with the new roles that national symbols have and the change within professional historians’ circles (Deyanova, 2007), is enhanced on the Internet, whose ideology permits for, and the Google search engine even encourages the rejection of institutional control (Lilova, 2008: 131-132). Without “a legitimate centralized control over the production of [...] identity” (Mineva, 2013), on the Net “Bulgarians are Thracians” 5640 times (the phrase “Thracians are Bulgarians” appears 5290 times).

Without denying these global-local tendencies, it should not be forgotten that part of archaeologists and historians tend to overemphasise their discoveries (Kuzmanov, n.d., Rabadjiev, 2008; Marinov, 2012: 23, Valchev, 2016: 380-386, Lazova, 2016: 257-272) and consequently feed media’s hunger for sensations (Stoyanova, 2013). To a certain degree, and especially in the context of competition for funding, this “recourse to narrative is inevitable, at least to the extent that the language game of science desires its statements to be true but does not have the resources to legitimate their truth on its own” (Lyotard, 1984: 28). Having said that, it is not easy to say where the boundary between professionals and amateurs actually lies. They both are tempted, for instance, to make appealing hypotheses about Thracians’ spirituality which mix mythology, ancient cultural and natural sites, and astronomy (Marinov, 2016: 197-200). Similar trend of merging between formal, natural and human sciences can be seen in the project of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences introduced earlier. Lately, first results have been reported in a luxury volume on Thracian history and heritage which was published in honorem of its sponsor (Nikolov, 2017a). The stress there was put on technological and genetic studies, which actually have been predominating in the whole project and its budget, ironically pushing in this way the very thracologists to the margins. In the same collection of texts one can find articles whose explicit goal was to “answer to the even nowadays too topical question about the continuity of the Thracian anthroponymy/toponymy in contemporary Bulgarian onymic system” (Choleva-Dimitrova, Vlahova-Angelova and Koilov, 2017: 192, emphasis in original).[15] Although it is far beyond my expertise to comment on the methodology of such a study, we can agree that the ideological premises of the latter do not really differ from dilletantes’ motives. Furthermore, media coverage of scientific activities dealing with genes, ancient “traces” and “survivals” is deployed and re-contextualised in multiple popular narratives, and thus amateurs perceive professional engagement with seemingly the same issues as a proof of their own “independent” theories’ rationality. Such an overlapping exists, of course, not only in Thracian studies, but – more importantly – it is a sign that, “[b]y maintaining, even reinvigorating the nationalist continuum both in theory and in practice, academic narratives in the Bulgarian humanities have slowly but surely acquired the traits of populist discourses” (Marinov and Zorzin, 2017: 104).

“Orphism for Advanced”

“Today the Thracians are still alive”, postulates Stefan Gaid (2008). If we try to “verify” this statement and follow Thracians’ traces, we can outline several of its basic “hypostases”. They could hardly be completely distinguished one from the other, but an improvised scheme would have the following dimensions: archaic and reconstructed folk practices that had been attributed with ancient origins, religious movements, comodified and politisised performances, and historical re-enactments.

Pursuing coincidences between academic and dilettante theories, it should be noted that such endless conceptual re-appropriations are persistant in the field of folklore. Thracology has authorised the assumption that contemporary masquerade rituals in Bulgaria are a reflection of the ancient cult of Dionysus (see Fig. 3).[16] The popular narrative radicalises this supposition and directly intreprets mummers as “the satires of Dionysus’ cheerful ensemble. They come through the centuries straight from the orgies of the ancient Thracians”.[17] Meanwhile, both heritage practitioners and local authorities have adopted and deployed the hypothesis of the masquerade’s prestigious origin (Marinov 2016: 158-160, 193-195, 201; Lazova, 2016: 225-232, 277-281). In the town of Yambol (situated in the region of Thrace, Southeastern Bulgaria) where rural masquerade is a living tradition, we will be told that local mummers (Bulg. kukeri) are a reminiscence of a Thracian ritual. A recent popular science film made with the participation of professionals and amateurs, re-enactors and researchers, introduces kukeri as a legacy of the interactions between Thracian priests and druids, “a continuation of an ancient magical tradition” which also includes “astronomical observations of ancient priests”. In their role of “true guardians of knowledge”, masked participants “with prayers and ritual dances […] magically awaken the Great Mother”.[18] Going to Smolyan, a town in the Rhodope Mountains – the mythological “cradle of Orpheus” (Buchanan, 2006: 276-313), we will hear that “the mummers of Shiroka Laka – this is Dionysus”.[19]

While what we observe in folklore represents a rather latent Thracianness that has been evoked by various social actors, this feeling becomes more evident and dense in spiritual cults. Generally, the emergence of such movements can be attributed to the post-socialist intensification of religious practice in (the public sphere of) Southeastern Europe (Troeva and Hristov, 2017). This revitalisation of religiousness – among many other reasons, such as a quest for social regeneration and fulfilment of spiritual needs – is often due to the transformation of sacred belonging “into an act of confirmation of cultural and ethnic affiliation” (ibid.: 2 et pass.). In Bulgaria, these processes have been characterised with an “internal segmentarisation” of official denominations (Goncharova and Karamelska, 2013); a difersified and de-institutionalised religious expertise with a specific appeal to miraculous objects, that is practiced across multiple older and newer pilgrimage centres (Karamihova, 2014; Troeva, 2017a). In addition, many of those places of worship have been constituted as such by New Age adherents. In her overview of various types of pilgrim destinations in the light of postmodern religiosity, Evgenia Troeva (2016) concludes that those centres have been established in connection with natural or cultural-historical sites, while most of them re-appropriate Proto-Bulgarians’ heritage and even more so Thracians’ “spirituality”. Thus – although it “bears the influence of features that are specific to the country and the general region” – the New Age movement in Bulgaria also share common traits with the growing group of diverse modern Paganisms and their interplay between nationalism and cosmopolitism (ibid.: 56 et pass.; cf. Rountree, 2017). It further deploys the concepts of sites of energy/power and of recharging that are well-known around the globe, mixing them up with local knowledge, traditions and contexts. What is of a particular importance here is that new occult practices successfully exploit the symbolic capital of places as ancient sanctuaries, which had already been aggregated by official scholarship. It is paramount therefore to examine if and how alternative religionists align with academic archaeologists’ concepts; to look for the “complex and ongoing dialogue [… that] has developed since the mid-twentieth century”, as Carole Cusack suggests (2010).

In this context, Stefan Gaid (2008) openly discusses modern “Thracian Orthodox Christians”, while according to Tsvetan Gaidarski (2007), nowadays there are “free Orphic societies”. The authors reach the conclusion that the practice of the “Orphic metamorphoses” has proved to be efficient, as six emperors, four popes and one of the most successful public figures of the 20th and 21st centuries have emerged from Christian Orphism. The findings of the two brothers are being applied in the ceremoniality of the Thracian Church (“the first and oldest Christian community in Europe”), which they have established and currently lead. Thus, they enter another role – that of cardinals or bishops of the denomination. From the texts it becomes clear that they identify themselves with a “modern movement in Christianity [...] of free, independent and unregulated spiritual communities” (ibid.). The bishops consolidate believers by organising activities such as “introductory courses to the beginning of the Bohairic and ancient speech” (Trakiiskite poslania, 2005: 163-169). The Thracian Church categorically rejects the accusations of sectarianism which it has been facing, with the argument that “it has never separated itself from the Orthodoxy”. Regardless of the declared free character, however, a specific hierarchical structure exists, which is legitimised with a reference to the past: “higher clergy of the contemporary Thracian Church which has restored its hierarchical structure directly from the branches of the Roman Catholicism and the World Orthodoxy” (Thracian Church, 2014).

Fig. 4. and 5. Thracian society “Threskeia”, 2017. Source: Threskeia.

The philosophy of another active agent in the field – the Thracian society “Threskeia” – is quite different. It does not insist on the existence of a single Truth or a direct continuity between ancient and modern times. Rather, it considers the folk traditions as “carriers of connections with nature and its worship, which were followed by the ancient Thracians”. While sharing the common cult of the Great Goddess and its Divine Son, the members of this informal polytheistic group retain their individualism. They are however united around several activities which can be classified in two main directions – sacred actions that are closed to outsiders, and public events where the sacrality still remains valid for the performers. The latter should be considered here because they have an explanatory and informative character, and once again “translate” the past into the language of the present. According to the calendar and in sites believed to be ancient sanctuaries, the society claims to reconstruct Thracian rituals. Likewise New Age pilgrimages (Ivakhiv, 2016; Troeva, 2016), nature is of great importance here– sacred “springs, rocks, caves and peaks” are perceived as “the Visible […] manifestation of the Invisible” (Threskeia, n.d.)

The re-enactments are performed while paying attention to data from existing sources (see Fig. 4-5). Its interpretation results not only from strong enthusiasm, but also from university education and professional experience in the field of archeology, thracology, and studies of traditional culture. To some extent, this knowledge complements intimate personal experiences, often a reflection of some breakthrough momentum, inherited family traditions or training in such, but also a specific inner need for spiritual adventure. That is why, among the postulates of society, it is declared that “through studying the traditional rituality, […] we can seek the divine appearance here and now, with its numerous manifestations and denominations” (ibid.). Last but not least, Threskeia mistrust cultural fundamentalism and nationalism expressed by other groups and dilletantes (cf. Rountree, 2017: 5), and rather refer to professional thracology and espouses cosmopolitan views.[20]

Equally important to the ritualistic mouvements for our “Thracian” community of practice are the economisations of ancient heritage, whose number is really considerable (Marinov, 2012: 21-24). Apart from their easily recognisable forms, we should bear in mind that many of them are promoted differently, imitate other types of events which interweave religious and touristic activities in the construction of their attractive profile. An example of such complex entanglements is Foundation “Videlei”, which capitalises on the Thracian “spirituality” and thus acts as a “travel agency” that organises constantly journeys to various places of energy. It has also established an annual gathering where its adherents discuss “Bulgarians’ ancient knowledge and power”. Among the lecturers of these conferences there are professional scholars who present their findings inbetween “bearers of sacred wisdom”, “the last descendants” of ancient clans, journalists, esoterics, healers, and writers, including Anton Donchev himself. Moreover, these fairs – which also consist of eclectic ritualistic practices (see Fig. 6-7) – are often supported by the mayors of towns that are famous for their historical sites.

Fig. 6. and 7. Rituals performed by Foundation “Videlei” in Veliki Preslav, 2014-2016. Source. Foundation “Videlei”.

The engagement of local authorities in such initiatives reveals multiple intersections between long-lasting tendencies and recent phenomena. The big majority of public celebrations throughout the country that are directed by bureaucrats make allusions to ancient mysteries and mobilise the dances of young girls, embodying the images of mutually complementary folkloric samodivas, mythological nymphs, ancient maenads and bacchantes (see Fig. 8). These performances and their rooting in the national past have been recently stimulated and commodified in connection with national and local governments’ aspirations towards cultural tourism, which is understood as a trigger for regional development. As reported earlier, numerous historical sites have been restored and therefore needed some living “attractions”. In this situation mayors have been hiring (semi-)professional ensembles which had already prepared performaces suitable for a festival devoted to Antiquity or Middle Ages. The appropriation of the prestigious Thracian civilisation in such artistic productions is actually a well-know approach. Donna Buchanan has demonstrated that it could be due both to national(istic) (2006: 276-313) and international goals (ibid.: 362-363). Today we can see that modern projects, for instance, make use of the label “Orpheus’ dauthers”, through which distinguished Bulgarian women’s folk choirs have been presenting themselves since the 1960s when they performed for Western audiences. This designation has actually been attributed to them by foreign reviewers but it has been successfully internalised (ibid.).

Fig. 8. The Nymphs’ Festival at the so-called sanctuary of the nymphs and Aphrodite near the village of Kasnakovo, Southern Bulgaria. Source: Trekking BG.

In this new festivity, however, Roman and Meddieval Bulgarian scenaria have been activated more broadly. Despite their predominance, a window for the presentation of the Thracians has also appeared. The organizers of such events now invite representatives of the “national” Antiquity, and sometimes this role is being assigned to the animators employed by the archaeological sites. Thracian crafts, horse riding, martial arts and armaments are being sought out in search for bigger attractiveness, while popular TV chefs demonstrate their versions of Thracian cuisine. In this way, while having a carnival character, the partial “reconstructions” of ancient imagery (Kalfina, 2015), become a good occasion for the public legitimation of various social and political actors, and also for the commercialisation of heritage. A tipical example of this somehow new for the national context constellation is the town of Kazanlak, situated in what is today known as the “Valley of Roses and Thracian Kings”. Using EU and other international funding, local authorities have been investing in the development of a new touristic destination under this slogan. After significant archaeological discoveries having been made, the concept of the “Celebrations in the Valley of the Thracian Kings” has also been established (see Fig. 1). This event, together with other recently invented on a project basis festivals in the country, have further resulted in the “arrival” of re-enactment associations as well as in the creation of entirely new professional performances, that are similar to what Donna Buchanan (2015: 17-18, 28-29) and Emilia Zankina have designated as entrepreneurial populism.[21]

These evidences suggest that the new “ancient” festivity relies heavily on the efforts of enthusiasts inspired by and loving the past. Accordingly, some re-enactors “jump” from one historical period to another and reorient their plays in relation to the calendar of events. For example, there is no contradiction in the fact that members of the Proto-Bulgarian School for Survival Skills “Bagatur” (Bulg. Prabalgarska shkola za otselyavane “Bagatur”) participate as Thracians when the case requires it. On the other hand, re-enactors, many of whom have a considerable knowledge in multiple disciplines (some of them have also graduated in history, archaeology or ethnology), and invest serious efforts and resources in their hobbies, adapt their activities in synchrony with business demands. With more or less attention to details and the peculiar pursuit of imaginary authenticity, they seek information about Thracians’ food, make copies of ancient clothing, and produce jewels branded as “ancestral amulets” that could be sold during thematic events.

Nevertheless, re-enactors dealing with Thracian past are very limited because the “scene” for them is restricted and still undeveloped. Some of the clubs with “ancient” profile, which are concerned with mostly Roman reconstructions, offer Thracian “services” as well, but this is rather an exception. In general, participants express their regret at the lack of enthusiasm and dedication in the field of Thracian re-enactment, that is visible in performed anachronisms, unreliability, and especially in costumes’ inconsistencies. In Yambol, for instance, the first fully Thracian re-enactment society “Thrace” (Bulg. “Trakia”) has been launched recently, but it has not accepted several invitations because of the common aspiration towards more representative look. Its leader has also affirmed that there was not much interest in the Thracians in Bulgaria, while it was hard to compete with Romanian “Dacians” who had a greater popularity abroad (interview with K. Zaikov, February 2017; see also Popa, 2016: 33-34).

Without delving into the complex problematics of re-enactors’ personal motivations, it should be noted that these amateur activities consist also of a critical focus on narrow professional tasks and the impermeability of the academic environment: “When the Institute of Thracology has been organised, it has started to work too scientifically, it digs, digs, digs. Some conferences, some closed circles, some things are discussed, some collections of texts which are printed in one hundred copies. One cannot access it for reading it.” (interview with K. Zaikov, February 2017). This view corresponds clearly to what Gaid (2006) had articulated:

“And what is the benefit of the contemporary discoveries of the Institute of Trachology and its international symposia and publications in English, German and French, […] if these discoveries do not reach the mass reader and do not serve to educate our children’s legitimate self-esteem and identity? [...] The children of the Thracians’ children have the right to know about their ancient ethnicity and their ancient script.”

The insistence on democratisation is particularly valid in relation to thracology which, since its inaguration in the 1970s, has been developed as a highly specialised scientific discipline and which, as noted by Marinov (2016: 172), has a relatively elitist character. It is also in this context that the necessity of a more direct affirmation of the history appears: “There is no one to disseminate the Thracian thesis. There are writings, but few are those who will have the patience to read both sides in order to build their opinion” (interview with K. Zaikov, February 2017). And here comes the specific enlightening mission of re-enactors who perceive themselves as practicing experimental archeology in the context of a liberalising academic milieu: “The very historical science must change. The historical concepts of the very pedagogical science must be replaced. Those who want to know should be given the opportunity to know” (ibid.).

Finally, to conclude with the overlapping complexities, attention should be given to enthusiasts’ – both re-enactors and amateur historians – ideology. To return to an earlier point, some of these contemporary groups draw upon and recycle not only old autochthonist conceptions. They mirror also the theological traditions and the “esoteric” nationalism that have been embraced during late socialism by Lyudmila Zhivkova (1942–1981) – state leader’s daughter and consequently a deputy-chairperson (1972–1975) and chairperson (1975–1981) of the Committee for Art and Culture (see Atanasova, 2015; Elenkov, 2008: 378-380 et pass.; 2009; Gruev, 2006). Here, one should take into account that it was with her support that the establishement of the thracology in Bulgaria and its expansion happened in a favorable environment. On the other hand, Galia Valtchinova (2005) has described that the authorisation of the canonic historical discourse elaborated during state socialism had not passed without reference to occultism and mysticism. Moreover, it was a time when the government has been supporting parapsychology and thus spiritualism has been infused into policies, as indicated by Veneta Ivanova (REEEC, 2015; see also Elenkov, 2009). To this situation we should add further complications – stimulated by backward socialist economy, cybernetics and computing have also been influencing Bulgarian society. According to Victor Petrov (2018), “engineers became caught up in the great cultural politics that swept the country in the late 1970s and early ‘80s”, and particularly in Zhivkova’s understanding of the “New Man” that was to be shaped. Therefore, the narrative about the Thracian spirituality has to be examined within this extensive sociopolitical and economic framework. In the specific context of the Cold War and late socialism which was more and more in need of a new legitimising discourse (Elenkov, 2008; Sygkelos, 2011) while trying to achieve both internal and international objectives (Stanoeva, 2017), the patrimonialisation of the Thracian legacy had an important role.

In her analysis of the social lives of the “Star Wars” film trilogy and more broadly science-fiction in socialist Bulgaria (and Romania), the French historian and political scientist Nadège Ragaru (2013; Ragaru and Capelle-Pogăcean, 2015) has adopted a similar perspective. Namely, she has underlined the spatial-temporal entanglement between the mythological “depths of the earth” and the cosmic “Elsewhere”, which the regime has been exploiting since the 1970s in the face of decreasing ideological grounds: “For a more uncertain future, should be deeper foundations?” (Ragaru, 2015: 22). Such an antiquisation of the future has its concequences on the society as it occurs in the period when people’s “exhaustion of believing [in the bright communist tomorrow] and adherence to the incredible (supernatural or paranormal) reinforce each other” (Ragaru, 2013: 355). At the moment when the belief in the socialist ideal is progressively weakening, “science surrounds itself with mysteries”; “while the future withers, the past stretches to finally occupy the entire time horizon” (ibid.: 371). The effects of such developments are clearly visible in contemporary everyday natonalism where Thracians occupy an indispensable place. A curious detail here is that it was namely the thracologist Alexander Fol who, being also an important figure in the socialist government at that time, allowed the showing of “Star Wars” in Bulgaria.[22]

Conclusion: The Thracians Strike Back

Undoubtedly, many things have changed in the way we learn about and perceive heritage. Display cases in the museum and a guided tour are not enough anymore. Tourists want to have a Thracian tattoo, to sail with an ancient Thracian ship (see Fig. 9), to be involved in a secret ritual. From audiences looking for inspiring experiences, people have gradually transformed into direct participants in the authorisation of heritage. Some of them have already started producing gadgets needed to get closer to the ancestors’ past. “We are all Makers. We are born Makers”, Chris Anderson (2012: 13) states, and today we have the necessary tools to create, and the opportunity to share our passion with a “community of equally obsessed people” (ibid.: 15). In addition, others have decided that they have to “correct” the past (Ditchev, 2016: 61), and sometimes that process further implies a strong and emotional performativity. To borrow from Luc Ferry (2016: 17-18, 31-43), this urgency is probably driven by citizens’ willingness to free themselves from the imposed inherited legacy, to “shift from chance to choice, from the genetic lottery that “falls on” us to the freely chosen and actively sought manipulation/augmentation”. Once re-written, however, history becomes re-exploited equally by amateurs, some of whom have realised that they can successfully make a profit from their discoveries and popularity (cf. Anderson, 2012: 232). The thracists, therefore, not just liberate themselves from state control, but rather duplicate it consequently – either because of economic gain or because of the consolidation of new communities around them. In some cases it is no longer a question of domestication of natural limitations in order to be freer and happier, but of domination for sake of domination itself (Ferry, 2016: 98).

Fig. 9. A replica of a Thracian battle frigate: experimental sailing with students from the Bulgarian National Sport Academy, 2016. Source: Morski vestnik.

In view of all that has been mentioned so far, we can agree that there are multiple meaningful entanglements and communication channels between different manifestations of the Thracianness, while boundaries between them are too unstable. No matter what driving forces trigger each of them, amateur revisions of ancient heritage contribute to the popularity of the latter at a time when the Old-Bulgarism rises. Even if the past is used as a justification of activities that are not necessarily related to it (Waterton, Watson and Silverman, 2017: 3), the concept of the ancestors has been redesigned. Dehellenised and deturkified, this narrative assures that the grandeur and continuity of the nation and its “national consciousness” have remained unchanged over the centuries. Indeed, as Vyara Kalfina (2015: 222) observes, “[o]n a deep atavistic level every thesis confirming the power of ancient Thracians is accepted to support the national narrative, attributing significance to the modern heirs of ancient people”. Judging by the hundreds of emotional comments in forums and blogs, we can agree with Sparotok (2010c) that more and more people “proudly raise their heads and seek their rights”. On that account, modern Bulgarians have largely incorporated both their Thracianisation (to recast Popa’s Dacianisation, see Popa, 2015) and the conspirational accusations of academic scholarship.[23] The digital environment enhances such tendencies since it allows for a broader presence, it develops and reproduces the non-specialists’ inclusion not just as passive users, but also as equal and active participants, co-authors and co-performers. In this regard, the expert’s role is different and heritage turns out to be “‘taken’ not given, created not provided” (Fairclough, 2012: XIV).

The changed participatory paradigm in the making process of the national identity, introduced by the Internet (Lilova, 2008), and the deinstitutionalisation of festivity allow for the appearance not only of a more desirable “translation” of the past, but also enable the democratic articulation of the revolt against experts (Ditchev, 2016: 61). From that point of view, this could be seen as an attempt for some sort of civic action, which – in a situation of cultural dispossession (Creed, 2011) – is closer to participants’ own commitment. Additionally, it illustrates that – beyond the tangible consequences from the amalgamation between state support and specific academic discourses (Marinov and Zorzin, 2017: 104) – in an uncertain present, heritagisation from below can turn into a cultural practice of its own (cf. Bendix, 2009: 254). The latter further transforms into a new living cultural heritage (cf. Giaccardi, 2012), if we agree with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995: 269) that heritage is “a new form of cultural production of the present that takes recourse to the past”. This heritage, once again in a nationalistic key, provides Bulgarians “with a sense of continuity and security” (Marinov and Zorzin, 2017: 104). The affective energies emanating from the liberalisation of the national history canon should be taken into account here. Having a double charge, they – on the one hand – inform society that the essentialist national legacy is no longer self-evident. Thus, antagonistic theories (e.g. Turkic, Iranian, Thracian, Slavic) compete with each other, while they altogether oppose new unorthodox voices which have been silenced (e.g. Ottoman). On the other hand, the “Great Thracian” narrative presented in this article is a result of the same liberalisation. Therefore, it is also conditional and fragile, depending on the “capacity of people to organize; to do things; to act, react and re-enact; and to make itself meaningful in moments of encounter and engagement” (Waterton, Watson and Silverman, 2017: 4). If they do not, in the technological era, they are likely to be bypassed and removed (Ferry, 2016: 98) from the national narrative.

This is why I would dare to juxtapose and put together the heterogeneous agents who produce and consume various layers of Thracian past in present, naming them a community of practice. Given that, I do not underestimate their colourful backgrounds and working methods, nor overlook the fact that most of them will reject such a “generalisation”. Rather, by recalling that the notion of community accommodates also conflicts and contests (Creed, 2004), I am tempted to zoom in the effects of its members’ efforts on a meta-level, supposing that the biographies of the discoveries merge and constitute subsequently an ever-open and negotiable syncretic popular version of the Thracians. On the Internet, in the world of media convergence, to quote Jenkins’ influential perspective, officially sanctioned discourse(s) collides with alternative narratives. Together, they “interact in unpredictable ways” (Jenkins, 2006: 2), and this very paper is the proof of that. And although I agree with what Cătălin Popa (2015; 2016) reports on the Romanian case, suggestsing that “[t]he dominance of self-declared specialists and re-enactors in the Romanian public sphere contributes to a legitimization of their discourse and a delegitimization of archaeologists”, who themselves “rarely make an appearance in public media” (Popa, 2016: 35), in Bulgaria these two narratives are not so distinct. While both academics and enthusiasts insist on their immanent differences, they share a common ground, too. Here I refer to some scholars’ mediatised exaggerations due to the rush for funding. Tchavdar Marinov also argues that such a mixture is well-founded in the (international) history of Thracian studies, since it is “often difficult to distinguish between professional scholarship and charlatan myths” (Marinov, 2016: 79 et pass.). And yet, the virtual overlapping of ideas is happening regardless of community’s ambiguity, which after all remains hybrid and dissonant. Situated between the imagining and the practicing of the past, this community involves actors from different fields of dilettante and professional science, re-enactment groups and spiritual movements, whereas tensions arise even whithin these four seemingly unified “camps”. More importantly, this case reminds us of substantial issues that are intrinsic to the “essence” of cultural heritage. It reveals once again the inability to consolidate a palpable heritage community, the difficulty of defining a legitimate bearer of knowledge, and the unclear positionality of the “halfy” researcher-practitioner.

At the end, it is worthwhile to raise the question of whether the reasons for this upsurge of re-enactments and re-appropriations of the past are not also rooted in the gap between heritage institutions and ordinary people who are imagined as heirs. It is only in recent years that on a European political level it has been admitted that cultural heritage surpasses strict official frameworks and expert definitions (see e.g. Council of Europe, 2005; 2017; Council of the European Union, 2014). Thus, the importance of heritage for different individuals, specific communities and civil society has been highlighted. In this context, a number of international documents invite national governments to facilitate citizen participation and enable the engagement of all stakeholders with heritage identification, description, interpretation and protection. Of course, public authorities are not always willing to democratise this area to such an extent, as it has become clear in Bulgaria through many conflicts involving cultural sites in recent years.[24] Perhaps, if a path is laid for sustainable fruitful cooperation and equal dialogue in this really complex and problem-ridden situation, the need and urgency for excavating evidences that “we are the new Thracians” will somehow be overcome.[25]




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This is author’s translation and an updated version of the article “The Thracians Strike Back: Ancient Heritage and Participatory Culture” originally published in Bulgarian in 2017. Research for both papers has been conducted within the framework of the project “The New Festivity: Communities, Identities, and Policies in Bulgaria in the 21st century” supported by the Bulgarian National Science Fund (Agreement № ДН 05/07, 14.12.2016), which I gratefully acknowledge. I am indebted to Ivaylo Ditchev and Vyara Kalfina for their constructive comments and discussions. Thanks are also due to my Romanian colleagues in “CHS – Cross-border Studies in the Humanities” project at the University of Salento (2018) and those participating in the Doctoral Autumn School “Qu’est-ce qu’une discipline ?” organised by the University of Bucharest and the Francophone University Association (2017), who provided me with important insights on the popular perception of the Dacians in Romania. Last but not least, I thank Rossitsa Bolgurova for her precious help for the English editing.

[1] For a recent overview in English of ancient Thracian tribes and their culture see Valeva, Nankov and Graninger, 2015. See also Slavova, 2017.

[2] The framing of the academia within popular and even nationalistic terms is actually deeper and this can be seen in another campaign initiated by Standart Media Group. “The Scientific Wonders of Bulgaria” gives the opportunity for citizens to vote for “those achievements in the sphere of science that have made the world to speak with respect about Bulgaria” (Stoyanova, 2016).

[3] I have argued elsewhere that while the reconstructions of Thracian sites are limited in comparison to the interventions on monuments from more recent historical periods, the “Thracian” label is being used actively as a marketing tool on the territory of the whole country (Strahilov, 2018). For some of the local uses of the Thracian heritage see also: Lazova, 2011; 2016: 239-309; Marinov, 2012; Troeva, 2015.

[4] Proto-Bulgarians’ Turkicness, established as a scientific theory (Lyutskanov, 2011), is currently deemed highly problematic in the public discourse in the country. It refers also to the significant number of Turks and Muslims living in Bulgaria, and especially to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire which is generally perceived in a negative way among the dominant Christian population on the Balkans (see e.g. Aretov, 2008; Lory, 2015; Todorova, 1995; for an insight on more recent developments on this issue in Bulgaria, see Strahilov, Ivo and Slavka Karakusheva. 2018. “Performing Affection, Constructing Heritage? Civil and Political Mobilisations around the Ottoman Legacy in Bulgaria”. In: Smith, Laurajane, Margaret Wetherell and Gary Campbell (eds) Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present. London: Routledge, 179–194).

[5] An exceprt of Anton Donchev’s speech during the round table “Myths, stories, oral narratives and legends in Balkan literature” (Bulg. Mitove, predania, ustni razkazi i legendi v balkanskata literatura), Sofia, 4 October 2015 (accessed 10.05.2018). Marie Vrinat-Nikolov (2001) and Albena Hranova (2011) suggest a discussion on the importance that Donchev has for the social construction of some of the most significant historical concepts in Bulgarian culture (see also Marinov, 2016: 169).

[6] An excerpt of Corr. Member, Prof. D.Sci. Svetlana Kuyumdzieva’s presentation of the project “The Thracians – genesis and development of the ethnicity, cultural identities, civilisational interactions and heritage from Antiquity” (Bulg. “Trakite – genesis i razvitie na etnosa, kulturni identichnosti, tsivilizatsionni vzaimodeistvia i nasledstvo ot drevnostta”) during a press conference about the project (Sofia, 30 October 2016). Kuyumdzhieva acted as a coordinator of the first phase of “the first inter-academic project that brings together 27 research units” of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, “with the participation of universities and research centers from Canada, Italy, Germany, Japan and Switzerland” (accessed 10.05.2018).

[7] Later on, another significant donation has been made by a former reasearcher at the Institute of Electronics (accessed 10.05.2018).

[8] An excerpt of Corr. Member, Prof. D.Sci. Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva’s speech during the presentation of the project publication “Thracia”, vol. 21 (Sofia, 18 January 2017).

[9] An excerpt of Petar Mandzhukov’s speech during the presentation of the project publication “Thracia”, vol. 21 (Sofia, 18 January 2017). Mandzhukov is a Bulgarian entrepreneur and the main sponsor of the project in question.

[10] Similar to the term old-bulgarists that stands for the new alternative generation in the studies of Proto-Bulgarians.

[11] It should be noted that inbetween self-proclaimed scholars, in this paper I will refer also to authors who have graduated in various disciplines. This is not due to my intention to underestimate their education but is provoked by the fact that their writings are often promoted as independent and thus have become very popular on the Internet. Chavdar Bonev for instance is quoted here because of his “alternative point of view” and the online presence of his books, although they have been published by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences where he has also been employed. The situation is similar with the art historian Asen Chilingirov whose monographs have been (re-)published by independent publishers and multiple websites. In the case with the archaeologist Petar Detev, his son Yordan Detev’s activities are taken into account, since they (re-)disseminate and re-interprete archaeological evidences (accessed 10.05.2018). Furthurmore, since many of the so-called independent books are circulating freely on the Internet in various versions and with different or without any pagination, sometimes it is impossible to add the exact page next to the quotations used in this text.

[12] ΓΙΩΡΓΟΣ ΧΑΤΖΗΓΕΩΡΓΙΟΥ’s comment from January 25, 2016, after the article “Thracians and Bulgarians – one and same nation” (Bulg. Traki i balgari – edin i sasht narod) published in Aleksandra Delova’s blog (accessed 10.05.2018).

[13] See a shorter English version of Marinov’s study: Marinov, Tchavdar. 2015. “Ancient Thrace in the Modern Imagination: Ideological Aspects of the Construction of Thracian Studies in Southeast Europe (Romania, Greece, Bulgaria)”. In: Daskalov, Roumen, and Alexander Vezenkov (eds.). Entangled Histories of the Balkans, Vol. 3, Shared Pasts, Disputed Legacies. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 10–117.

[14] on4ebon4e’s commentary on the article “The contract for the Thraco-Bulgarian state is in front of us” (Bulg. Dogovorat za trako-balgarskata darzhava e pred ochite ni) published in dionisbul’s blog, 08.09.2012 (accessed 10.05.2018).

[15] It should be noted that the volume presents also a set of constructivist texts referring to contemporary phenomena (see e.g. Georgieva, 2017; Troeva, 2017b; Vaseva, 2017). According to my observations, however, this ethnological perspective has faced certain objections from the project coordinators at the central administration of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences who had expected that researchers would have focused rather on ancient survivals in Bulgarian folklore. Actually, some folklorists have undertaken such an approach in quest for Thracians’ intangible cultural heritage (see e.g. Dimitrova, 2017).

[16] The literature on this topic is significant. On the other hand, the studies on the contemporary meanings of masquerade are rare. For an extensive anthropological analysis of village mumming in postsocialist Bulgaria, see Creed, 2011.

[17] A quotation from an archival videotape of “Starchevata” New Year carnival parade in Razlog, n.d. (accessed 10.05.2018).

[18] From the film “Yambol – the Town of Living Magic” (Bulg. “Yambol – gradat na zhivata magia”), director: Stepan Polyakov, 2014 (accessed 10.05.2018).

[19] According to the writer Nikola Gigov, in the film “The Lost Orpheus” (Bulg. Izgubeniyat Orfei), Nebeto Eu ropa, 2013 (accessed 10.05.2018). For a similar internalisation of the relation between ancient cults and contemporary practices in Northern Greece, see Papakostas, 2016

[20] This is also visible in some of the activities of Threskeia’s founding members. For example, Georgi Mishev, a PhD and researcher dealing with ancient culture and religion, participates in practitioners’ symposia and has also published a monograph in English: Mishev, Georgi. 2013. Thracian Magic – Past & Present (forward by Veleria Fol; translated by Ekaterina Ilieva). London: Avalonia Books. The latter has been warmly received by some blogs, such as Medusa Coils, Pagan Paths, Mandrake Speaks, and Wiccan Rede (accessed 12.05.2018).

[21] See e.g. the spectacles “The Thracians” (Bulg. “Trakite”) and “The Legend for the Mystical Golden Mask” (Bulg. “Legenda za mistichnata zlatna maska”) of the professional ensemble “Chinary”; also the show “The New Thracians” (Bulg. Novite traki) produced by the Municipality of Kazanlak with the participation of the Proto-Bulgarian School for Survival Skills “Bagatur” (accessed 10.05.2018).

[22] This information was communicated by Valeria Fol, Aleksandǎr Fol’s wife and a prominent thracologist herself, during the event “Remembering the Impotant Ones” (Bulg. “Spomeni za golemite”) at Sofia University, 16 May 2017.

[23] There are, of course, some critical voices that appear among the general public and in the non-academic communication of professional historians. Some adversaries of the extreme interpretations of Thracian history refer to such theories with the derogatory concept of Thracedonism (Bulg. trakedonizăm). Thus they echo Bulgarians’ unacceptance of the Macedonian national identity, often stigmatised as Macedonism (Bulg. makedonizăm; see Marinov, 2013: 274 et pass.). In Romania for example the critical notion of Dacopathy (Rom. dacopatia) is known, and the joke “Za ducks come from za trucks” is widespread in the country. It has aroused after Romanian president Ion Iliescu’s speech (accessed 10.05.2018). While speaking in English, he said that “the Dacs come from the Tracs”, and thus mixed up English and Romanian words for Dacian (Rom. dac) and Thracian (Rom. trac).

[24] I will support this statement with two examples which show that heritage communities can be ignored or kept away even if they are formally constituted, especially when they contest specific political or economic interests. For instance, the Cultural Heritage Forum was founded in Bulgaria in 2015 as a reaction against the state-supported activities of brutal reconstruction of immovable cultural properties and lack of relevant national strategies, which altogether were damaging the authenticity of the monuments (see Valchev in this volume). Although this organisation had consolidated basically the vast majority of the professionals from all fields of heritage preservation, it has not been considered as a legitimate partner by the government in the policy-making process.

Another very significant example comes from the town of Plovdiv which has been entitled European Capital of Culture for 2019. In 2011 a massive civil protest aroused there against the intentions of the Municipality to demolish the local Cosmos Cinema (dating from the 1960s) and to replace it with a private car park (see more in Kosmos, n.d.). Thanks to protesters’ strong energy and efforts, the building has been preserved and even included as a good example in the Application Form for the European Capital of Culture competition (Municipal Foundation Plovdiv 2019, n.d.: 19). Strategically deployed as an evidence of a “civil society”, this case was one of the well-appreciated by the selection jury because it was deemed that the project for the future renovation of the cinema “derives from community activism and interleaves architectural heritage with community engagement and memory of socialist period”; it was a testimony that “the bid had engaged citizens from many backgrounds in the city. There was a strong commitment and participation of the social, economic and cultural fabric of the city in a well-balanced top-down and bottom-up process which are crucial to the city and citizens dimension” (Selection…, 2014). Back then this was all true since some of the most active individuals from the demonstrations and the former Civil Initiative Committee had organised themselves in the Cinema Cosmos Collective which successfully executed and proposed further projects for the development of a cultural centre. In 2017 however, due to impossible collaboration, the Collective declared the withdrawal of its trust from the Municipality of Plovdiv and thus refused to participate in any forthcoming activities (accessed 10.05.2018). It further stated that the “Municipality acts in a centralized and non-transparent way, and in a deliberate, premeditated succession against the interests of the city and its community; [...] isolates its active citizens, the established professional and cultural organizations and initiatives; [b]y neglecting and impeding civic initiatives, the Municipality of Plovdiv is actively fighting for civic apathy and inertness”.

[25] A final saying from the spectacle “The New Thracians” (Bulg. Novite traki) produced by the Municipality of Kazanlak, 2013 (accessed 10.05.2018).

Biographical note

Ivo Strahilov is a PhD candidate in Heritage Studies at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. His main interests focus on contemporary uses of heritage, minorities’ heritage, and intangible cultural heritage with an emphasis on masquerades and carnivals.