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Who Is the Owner of the Bronze Key from Pliska*?

Ancho Kaloyanov


The Poet is the figure most enigmatic and of special significance in the picture of the world drawn by cultures ethnically defined; for they are masters of the Word shaping it into messages for the others. For us this is Boyan the Magus called "national poet" by Yuri Venelin who intuitively discovered him as far back as the beginning of last century. Several generations of poets used Boyan the Magus with a purpose, for self-recognition, before he was renounced and forgotten on the antiquated shelves of old literature. And then suddenly his sonorous name re-echoed in the very end (marked by apocalypse fear) of our century. He came back with his name, and songs, and even image. Fate had been cruel to his heritage so it was not by accident but in spite of it that we got him back: his heritage had penetrated Bulgarian life so deep that we could not lose all of it. And the best proof, we believe, that the man who knew the secrets of the Universe, enchanter and enchanted, existed is identification of his image.

More precise, our subject is a small archaeological find described as "a bronze key". A find, a key and a poet suffice to arouse curiosity and to give the plot of a research work. But since the key is never equivalent to the thing locked we set up a high objective at the beginning hoping to achieve it by as closely as possible adhering to the facts.

The research workers have never paid attention to this find. Although it remained in the list of Old Bulgarian records of the past it was known only as "a bronze key from Pliska", found in 1948 at regular excavation work led by Stamen Mihailov. The archaeologist published a text which we will cite verbatim for convenience of reference and for the really total approach which first impressions give (Journal of the Archeological Institute, XX, 1955, pp. 77-80):

"This is the statuette of a man standing on a profiled 32-mm high pedestal (fig. 1). On his head a slightly curved stiletto-like horn can be seen, 52 mm high. The figure without the horn is 75 mm high, dressed in a short garment, with feet in high boots and hands before him, holding a musical instrument, a cithern. The arms look like affixed to the body especially when viewed from behind. The legs stand apart. The head is oval-shaped and the face is flat with marked eyes, nose and mouth. The eyes are two circles with a dot in the middle. The nose is raised, a lengthened trapezium shape. A horizontal dash above which there are two more parallel and slightly curved up lines, obviously moustaches mark the mouth. The hairstyle is also interesting and typical with the hair gathered up in a sharp cone shape. The hair is not given in any detail but on top of it one can see a well preserved kallatos of classical type which at longitudinal section is heart shaped: the before mentioned horn starts exactly from its fore-part which is a little bit higher than the rear.


fig. 1

"It must be noted that the pedestal and the horn are aslant in respect to the statuette so that when looked at from the side it is arch-shaped. The garment is decorated with numerous circles with dots in the middle: a decoration which can be seen on the musical instrument as well. The circles, in a line, girdle the short garment at the waist. A broad band of circles goes straight down the garment, at the back and at the front, crosses the horizontal girdle and reaches the hem. The same decoration can be seen on the sleeves, the sides of the legs and the boots, reaching as far as the teeth of the pedestal. The small horn on the head gives out the practical application of the statuette. It could have been used as a stiletto. The three teeth of the pedestal must have gone into a specially provided for this purpose hole. But the fact that they are decorated as carefully as the rest of the statuette shows that the pedestal was not intended to stay constantly hidden from view. So it is most acceptable to presume that this object was used as a key. A suggestion confirmed by the fact that the statuette and the stand meet at an angle: this is unusual for statuettes which normally line up with their pedestals but it is quite convenient if the statuette is also a handle. Similar keys have been found in Pliska and they are characteristic of Old Roman dwellings. There are some typical features which point to antique bronze plastic arts while at the same time there are certain peculiarities not typical of antiquity.

"No doubt it is very difficult to date back such works of art for they have no marks typical of a particular epoch and it is easy to imitate them, the reason why they may appear much more antique than they are. However one question is more important to us than age: could this statuette be attributed to the Old Bulgarian art or Bulgarian art in general? The answer should be negative. Indeed there is not a single work of art to show that this kind of plastic arts existed at the time of the First Bulgarian Kingdom Our artisans satisfied far more humble needs due to the social and economic character of the society of those days.

"The music instrument held by the man is of great interest. It looks like a three stringed cithern. Similar music instruments have been depicted in some miniatures dated from VIII-IX century. One of them shows that the rebeck is held straight up and touches the knee when one plays: same as today. It seems that the Slavs were familiar with the rebeck as well as with the cithern early enough: archaeologists have found the rebeck in the XII century Poland. In our land these instruments must have been known from the time before the arrival of the Bulgarians: the epoch to which the statuette itself dates back."

We disagree with the discoverer that the find does not belong to the Bulgarian cultural tradition. About the time he published his text there were enough bronze works of art found whose number had increased with the years: decoration ornaments, buckles and amulets show that bronze casting was familiar to the domestic tradition. But since these are portable objects which could easily be imported from Byzantium or from the North it is only their semantics which determines what ethnic group they belong to.

The chin, slightly protruded, and the head, bent backwards, gives out that the man is not only playing but also singing. And there is a sign that he is even dancing: not only because his legs stand apart but also because he visibly stands on tiptoes, although Stamen Mihailov does not mention this. So with the available technical means, including the arch shape of the whole statuette, a vertical take-off is depicted, achieved with the help of tune, song, and dance. This state of the singer playing an instrument could be called inspiration unless together with dancing it did not have an exact counterpart in shaman practice where it is precisely with tune, song and dance that shamans reach ecstasy and travel to the Other world.

The semantics of the statuette from Pliska could be interpreted much more adequately and in detail in view of the latest attempts to recognize shamanism as a self-contained phenomenon in ancient Bulgarian pagan cult practices. First of all attention must be paid to the wide open, "goggled", eyes since they are very much the same as the shamans' eyes in the graphite drawing in the so called Yurta from Devnya (a stone model of an enchantress) and the eyes of the amulets "a small horse ridden by a head". They are evidence in favor of the deep absorption in the bright celestial substance, called in Old Bulgarian "divo" (wonder) - wonderment at what the "traveler"' sees on his way. The poet stands on tiptoes or rather takes off from a profiled pedestal which hardly by chance is divided in three: for not only but mostly in shaman traditions the Universe is arranged in three along the vertical axis Sky, Earth, and Underworld.

The cover of the head, defined as kallatos, the short overcoat, and the high boots also acquire ritual functions if only we take the viewpoint of the shaman religious experience.

The head cover is the most important attribute of shamans. It ensures flying up the vertical axis and seeing the invisible for the non-initiated: even the naked shaman in the scene from the village of Karagui, Pleven region, officiates with a cover on the head beating his drum with a stick over a dressed person. There is also a story from the region of Botevgrad about someone called Gloginko who drove away vampires with the help of his hat. And in the answers of Pope Nicolaus we can read that after conversion to Christianity the Byzantine priests forbade the Bulgarians to go into church with a cover on their heads: an act of dishonesty which in the language of former religious experience is translated as possibility of entering the Sacred only with the help of a cover on the head.

The curved horn coming out the fore part of the kallatos also points to the religious functions of the latter. Horned crowns are among the most characteristic attributes of shamans and they give out the type of animal, real or mythic into which shamans turn on then travel to the Other world. This permits us to recognize in the curved horn the presence of the unicorn familiar from drawings on several Old Bulgarian records of the past three of which found in Pliska. Research workers assume that the unicorn stands for "speed, power and untamable nature": qualities of equal importance to shamans when on their way to the Other world. Probably the unicorn had protective meaning as well hinted by its image on a horn found again by Stamen Mihailov in Pliska to the West of the Inner city. And since there is no satisfactory explanation for the function of the antlers-made horns themselves probably some of them were attached to shamans' crowns.

The short overcoat is how Bulgarian tradition depicts most shamans with. If leather/fur made then the type of animal signifies (deer, bear, and wolf). But all the more important are the ornaments: circles with dots in the middle arranged in a horizontal and vertical lines which cross and divide the corpus. The circles are the same as the wide opened eyes but of a smaller size and maybe they imply that the traveler is all seeing, with many eyes; their number may also encode some calendar information. Obviously we refuse to interpret them only as imitation of already existing ornamentation or as "fear of empty space". For in the Middle Ages Sign Empire the ornaments are the least free from significance, which is beforehand stated and strictly determined. That is why even as ornaments the vertical and horizontal lines of circles have the function to protect the wholeness of the traveler's body while he changes into a unicorn.

The ritual function of the high boots can hardly be interpreted in relation to shamanism alone. As with the horns and the garment the type of animal leather they are made of gives out what their owners can transform into and hence what zones they visit: Sky or Underworld. But even their everyday use depicts the ''traveler" as a rider; and it is precisely riders that shamans become in the state of ecstasy. However Bulgarian folklore sources on shamanism point to a very special, fatal relationship between the boots and the music gift. In a ballad spread in the Southwest Bulgarian regions, the Snake which inhabited the left boot of Handsome Dimo bit him on the day he married Kata Katranitsa, the moment he mounted a horse with two snakes for a stirrup. Later the Snake resurrected Handsome Dimo in the grave where the bride had descended alive and where Dimo the piper demonstrated the newly acquired (through temporary death) skill to play while Kata Katranitsa was dancing. Here descent into grave (Hell) reminds us of another pair, Orpheus and Eurydice only with exchanged roles. We can only add that in some of the song variants the music instrument is stringed ("drankya").

Giving meaning to the special features of the statuette from the viewpoint of Bulgarian shamanism proves it to be a domestic record of the past. Another argument in favor is the musical instrument labeled as cithern because held horizontally at playing. Here we will refer to the research work of Yordan Ivanov "Bulgarian Folklore Songs" (1959). From old Slavic records we know of rebecs on which one plays without a bow but pulls the strings with fingers. Probably Prezviter Kozma (X-XI c.) referred to such rebecs when he mentioned "rebecs, plays and devilish songs": a word combination which had been rejected only because it signified direct continuation of pre-Christian religious experience and did not mean merry-making in the lower strata of society. The pandore was another stringed instrument, together with the drum, which was preferred by shamans because allowed for singing as well as for playing. It has been a favored folklore instrument until nowadays in the Rhodopi and Pirin mountains in Bulgaria where it is known by its onomatopoeic name "drankya" (from the verb meaning "jingle, jangle"). Other domestic names for the same instrument are "bulgarina'", "bulgaria", "bulgare" which come from "the name of the people where it was in great usage". And by the name "bugaristitsi" are known the heroic ballads from the Croatian seaside area. Two of the published "bugaristitsi" together with a song about our king Ivan Shishman (1371-1393) we find in an idyll by the Dalmatian poet Peter Hectorovich "Fishing" (1956) are based on Bulgarian sources: the first is a variant of our folklore ballad "Делба на двама братя" ("Partition between Two Brothers") which is a song based on shaman religious experience and in the second we find the names of the towns of Bdin and Turnu Severin. All the more curious is the fact that the poet Ivan Gundulits from Dubrovnik (1588-1636) in his poem "Osman" considers Orpheus a Bulgarian and the author of the so called "bugaristitsi": this implies that not only the name but the text of the epic ballads, sung at the accompaniment of "bulgarina", are Bulgarian. Probably this is the reason why the very act of performing them was indicated with the verb "bugariti". And although this report dates back later it states clearly and unequivocally that Bulgarian pagan tradition, stringed instrument accompaniment to the songs, was a specific phenomenon on the Balkans in the Middle Ages which imposed the use of an ethnic-derived word for its identification.

As a key, the bronze statuette is also a key to the secret of its semantics. The uniqueness of the statuette, which makes the research difficult, conforms to the special character of the place where it was found: in the grounds between the small Palace and the nearby pagan Temple which space is matchless for it is the very center of the ethnic land and consequently assimilated by the model of mythological and poetic tradition. At the same time in our reconstruction of religious experience of pre-Christian Bulgaria these grounds were shared by the Ruler and the Supreme Shaman. So we presume that the place where the find was discovered is the place where it was used as a key and that it was in possession of the Ruler or/and the Supreme Shaman.

What is it that the key locked or unlocked? Iron keys and locks have been found in Pliska at excavation work. Obviously they had practical application so we assume the bronze key was used in the Sacred sphere: for a casket with ritual attributes or for a temple gate where opening and closing had strictly determined meaning. To understand this meaning we will use folklore sources, which prove reliable on many occasions.

The first song we will use is a well-known and widespread Christmas song, a sort of "a program". It is addressed to the leader of the carol singers, called "king" or "stanenik", and it is the first song to be sung in his house, which is also their camp. The song describes a ceremony performed by horsemen at night by unlocked/ wide-open gates. The master of this ritual camp is called Dobri Dan in the East, Dane Bane in the West and Archangel Michael in the South of Bulgaria. In some variants of the song there is a spear fixed into the ground in the middle of the gates:

Why are your gates open?
Why is your courtyard swept?
In the middle - a spear,
Around the spear - swift horses.
With the horses - harmful young men,
With the young men - fast grey hounds

When they ask him does he go fighting or does he go hunting the master of the camp who is at the same time the leader to the ritual cavalry replies that he is on his way to the Other world, "lower field", or that he has been invited to stand a god-father.

Just because this is a program song it preserved the ideas of the New Year rites from the times before Christianity. The termination of the old year cycle motivated the establishment of passages (pillars, wells, bridges) between the three parts of the Universe through which specialized intermediaries of the respective communities had to go to Heaven or to the Underworld in order to get with the help of prayers or fights time for the new cycle. In this context the opening of the gates signifies a possibility to travel along the vertical axis with the help of "swift horses"': and into swift horses, it is believed, turn some of the shamans' attributes when they officiate.

The semantics of the opening (unlocking) is much more clearly stated in a second Christmas song. The known variants come from dwellings close to old shaman cult centers. In the variant from the village of Lokorsko. Sofia region, two doves break off a twig from the world tree (a walnut one) which twig:

They took to the goldsmith
To hammer out a key for them
To open wide the Sky and the Earth
To set free small kids
To glorify our Young God

The second variant from the village of Kolina deserves to be quoted in full:

Good Hero, Bilne, boasted
In a forest, Bilne, in a green forest.
That he had a spirited horse.
That he pranced his swift horse.
And chased after a gold-horned lamb
To get its horns and take them
Over there to Lower Village.
To Lower Village, to goldsmiths.
To hammer out a golden key.
To unlock the Sky and the Earth
To set free three hundred lads.
Three hundred lads, carol singers.
To you we sing Good Hero!
To you we sing. God we praise

The magic hunting is already known from another song where Good Hero chases a grey deer for its gold horns but here the deer is transformed into a lamb and the keys made from the lamb's gold horns provide the unlocking of the gates between the zones of the Universe. Not necessarily but possibly such metamorphosis of a horn into a key was inspired by the New Year pre-Christian rites which also motivated the manufacture of the bronze key from Pliska as a one-horn-crowned figure.

While in the first two songs under consideration the opening and the unlocking of the gates signifies transition, bridging of Time to the Universe and Society, the third one will focus on a situation in the very camp of the singers. Of the three variants known we will refer to the one recorded in 1914 in the village of Asparuhovo, Varna region, 50 km away to the South of Pliska, in the Northern part of one of the Balkan (Old Mountain) passages:

Slava cried out: Get out of New Town
Be you glorified. Our Young Lord
! (this line is a refrain repeated every second line)
And to his quick servants
Quick servants, light as feather slaves
Hey, you, quick servants
quick servants and light as feather slaves:
Run out, fly away
To get the key of New Town
To unlock the gates of New Town
To see what God has given
God has given the bread

Three times they sing "God has given" and "bread" is substituted by "wine" and then by "ram". This song is also known as "a table song" for it is the last in this cycle and as such it is performed in the house of the "stanenik", the carol singers' leader, at a special ritual dinner prepared after sacrifice of a ram bought with the money which the singers had collected while singing. The bread, wine and ram mentioned together constitute the sacrifice and correspond to the three rivers of fertility: wheat, wine and milk rivers which started to run when the Dragon Fighter struck down the Dragon of the Underworld; meaning they were received as a result of the effective functioning of the basic myth which was put to "test" by the participants in the most important rites of all, New Year. In the other two variants of this song the name of the sovereign, Slava, is kept but the aim of unlocking New Town is not only to find out what is on the table but also to find what the bedding of the stanenik is. The bed turns out to be a Dragon which is as unusual as the way the servants move about in the camp, by flying. Actually in the village of Asparuhovo the name "servants" designates the singers led by the stanenik while obviously the name "New Town" encodes the newly acquired time cycle with the help of "New Town key". Since time and space are organized by models with isomorphous characteristics New Town is equivalent to the camp itself that is. to the house w here the rite takes place and in there the table is equivalent to the sacrifice and the bed of the Dragon. So the house is the place where the world axis goes through and the camp becomes the Center of the world and on the level of dwellings it is a variant of the real center of the ethnic land, the capital (Pliska), more precisely the grounds of the Palace and the Temple. The carol describes the organization, objects and people in the ritual in one of the centers which by analogy applies to the other center, the capital.

The songs we use as arguments may sound unconvincing because they have been treated mostly as poetry inspired by Christmas Eve mood. But before they were evaluated by the modern man as a receptacle of ancient metaphors they were first of all living faith and their texts were considered sacred and immune, reproducing on the level of plot religious experience.

In particular we are interested in two important characters from the songs that are well known and recorded all over the ethnic lands. These are the leader and his son ("boy king") whose counterparts in pre-Christian New Year rites in the capital of Pliska were the Supreme Shaman and the Ruler in power. Their basic responsibility was to secure a new cycle of time for the whole of the ethnic community called "the many Bulgarians" in an inscription by the arhont Persian from the town of Phihpi (837), and to that purpose they needed the attribute key as well. The unlocking of the new time cycle which is the ritual officiated jointly by the Ruler and the Supreme Shaman could have been performed on ritual level by unlocking the gates of the Temple in the center of Pliska and/or duplicated by unlocking the chest with the attributes for this rite.

The chest from Terachina could have stored the attributes of the Supreme Shaman and the Ruler (a pair given meaning to by the narrative about the two sons of King Simeon (893-927) - the elder Boyan the Magus and the smaller Peter). The Terachina chest is an Old Bulgarian religious record of the past where one can see an empty spot on its frontage: just above the medallion with a scene depicting a fight between a crowned eagle and a snake. It was left for the lock, which we suggest, was unlocked with the bronze statuette This suggestion is as open to criticism as the suggestion that the key opened a similar shaman chest because the latter would have had the same function and its woodcarvings would be variants of the same scenes. An argument in favor is the presence of the unicorn in one of the scenes of the Terachina chest.

In the second scene on the upper frieze to the left the unicorn is a Dragon Fighter like the eagle. This is one of the three scenes where we find a carved "rosette divided in four" which is a sign for division of space with the help of the four cardinal and four secondary points and the related to them one year cycle; the 18 scenes on the chest are also arranged in 8 pairs with the exception of the two central scenes. It is remarkable that the two dragons fighting scenes: eagle vs. snake and unicorn vs. snake are repeated on the lower frieze but with the unicorn as Dragon fighter replaced by the Bearded man. At the same time the Beardless is depicted on the lower frieze with a two horned shaman crown in a duel simultaneously with a snake, a lion, and a wolf (or dog): the scene is marked with a "rosette divided in four". One detail is much more significant for the purpose of our analysis: between the two horns of the crown there is a third one. No doubt it also gives out the presence of the unicorn as a metamorphosis of the Beardless. No comments have been made on the three-horn crowns in the domestic tradition: the plate from Shumen, the lead amulet from Preslav, and the graphite drawing on the West Pliska wall. Since early semantics pointed to the horns of the animals into which shamans transformed, probably that combination gave a tur plus a unicorn.

The key which is also a shaman singer together with the chest it unlocked with the 18 wood carved scenes constitute a unity which demands an interpretation where they are treated as one whole. So far the only possibility to do that, although it is not obvious, is through the relationship subject (singer) and object (creation). This decision is prompted by the fact that in shaman traditions the "traveler" also sings of his travel which in antique culture gives a Homer who is at the same time Ulysses. The suggestion is supported by the observation that the singer of the bronze statuette is also one of the two person-characters of the "text" on the carved scenes which signifies that the unity functions only when the key is in the lock. So the key did not only ensure access to the ritual attributes kept in the chest, it also unlocked or "sang" the narrative of the text carved in the scenes.

Much more unusual yet in the logic of the analysis is the suggestion that when put into the lock the bronze key from Pliska locked the empty space within the chest. When the ritual attributes of the Ruler and the Supreme Shaman were taken out and used to their purpose the unity of the statuette-singer and the 18 scenes became mystery in pictures in the language of myth.

The objects kept in the chest had a magic power of then own and consequently they should have been able to guard themselves. This is the reason why the bronze key was not an inseparable part from them. However after conversion the trust in their power was disclaimed and all the attributes of the Supreme Shaman together with the pagan symbols of the Ruler's power including the sward were delivered to Rome where they were divided between the Pope and the King; while at the same time the shaman-singer remained in Pliska. For the newly converted destruction of the statuette by melting or breaking it would have meant unpredictable consequences so they just "abandoned" it, like they did with the capital Pliska in 893. The bronze key was thrown or better buried in the grounds, which lawfully belonged to it.

We agree that this reconstruction of the historic life of the bronze key from Pliska implies meta-interpretation However it is imposed by the impossibility to explain its survival with mere loss by its owner: thrown out or left behind in some accident and that precisely on the grounds of the Palace and the Temple. Actually the very Temple was buried under tiles and not rebuilt into a church after the conversion to Christianity. Since we speak about a key to the Terachina chest or to a similar one from an earlier epoch its owner's contemporaries would treat such carelessness or accident as blasphemy. Because the rules governing the Universe order and the rhythm of Time encoded in the 18 carvings of the Terachina chest describe a society for which the loss of the key decoder would be equivalent to refuse access to knowledge and in short to give up your future. Probably it was not at all by accident that the newly converted Bulgarians gave as a trophy the attributes of the Ruler and the Supreme Shaman together with the chest itself and the wood carved mythology but refused to give the most important of their secret: the key to it.


* The capital of the First Bulgarian Kingdom (VII-IX c.). [up]



© Ancho Kaloyanov

© Daniela Ancheva, translated
© E-magazine LiterNet, 15.02.2007, № 2 (87)

Other publications:
VOX. Bulgarian Literary Magazine. Spring 1999. Soros Centre for the Arts - Sofia, 1999, p. 79-86.