The Propaganda War against Folk Healers in the Balkans

Max DashĂș

A Bulgarian vrachka (medicine woman) gives a herbal decoction to a sick person in a propagandistic mural at Rila cathedral. The painter depicted devils pooping into the medicine, in an attempt to convince the people that their healers worked with demonic powers.

This is one of several polemical 18th century murals in Bulgarian and Macedonian churches and monasteries that targeted women folk healers. It follows the Christian European convention of portraying devils as black.

Although these murals reflect the clergy's persecution of female healers, the Orthodox Church in the Balkans did not commit witch-burnings. What is striking about their campaign is how recent it is, showing that this female sphere of power persisted into modern times.

woman adminstering medicine while black devils hover around


full view of the mural, with more patients arriving in an oxcart

Full view of the mural panel, showing sick people coming long distances by wagon and horseback to be treated by the vrachka. This title means literally "female doctor," but it was understood that such folk healers used incantations and rituals as well as herbal medicine to cure people. They were also described as baiatchki, "charmers."

The same theme of folk healers working with devils,
in a mural (tentatively identified as) from the Bogoroditsa Church in Krainintsy, Bulgaria.


A devil, again portrayed as black, defecating into
the mortar where the medicine woman is preparing herbs
to treat a sick boy. Macedonian church mural.


Another misogynist scene from Rila cathedral shows a woman (or a fate goddess?) spinning while seated on the back of a chimeric beast. Black devils are pulling other women down into the fires of hell.

woman spinning while seated on strange animal with human arm reaching out of its mouth. devils are throwing people into hell at left.


Such polemical wars against Bulgarian folk healers undoubtedly had an impact, but they were unsuccessful in totally uprooting women's ancient healing traditions. In the more remote areas, such as the Pirin mountains (shown at right) shamanic healers continued to flourish. They underwent initiatory ordeals and spirit selection by the samodivy (faery women) and worked with natural powers, using herbs, massage, and ceremony to cure.

folk healer chanting and sprinkling medicine on a crouching woman


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