In pursuit of Baba Vanga

The blind seer of Petrich.

I’m back in Bulgaria for a few weeks this summer, and — because I’m thinking a lot about divination at the moment — I find my thoughts turning to the enigma that is Baba Vanga.

Vanga is Bulgaria’s most famous prophetess. And not just famous in Bulgaria: a few years ago in Myanmar, I saw a series of books about historically notable lives in a bookstore, all in Burmese. There were four books on display: Confucius, Elton John, Adolf Hitler and Baba Vanga. It was an bizarre conjunction of names. And Vanga’s inclusion was particularly striking.

So who was Vanga? Her full name was Vangeliya Pandeva Gushterova (Вангелия Пандева Гущерова), and she was born in 1911. As a teenager, the legend goes, she was swept up in a tornado and the swirl of dust and sand made her blind. But, as happens in all such stories, her loss of eyesight led to an uncanny insight. Her first prophecy was in 1941. And as the Second World War contiued, she developed and ever-growing reputation as a soothsayer. Her fame reached Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, who paid her a visit.

After the Second World War, with the coming of socialism, Vanga became increasingly popular. From her base in the town of Petrich, she gave advice to the members of the Bulgarian regime, and even — according to some accounts — to Leonid Brezhnev. Things get stranger still. In 1967, as Galia Valtchinova writes in her paper “Between Ordinary Pain and Extraordinary Knowledge: The Seer Vanga in the Everyday Life of Bulgarians during Socialism (1960s–1970s)” (Aspasia Volume 3, 2009: 106-130):

In 1967 she officially became an employee of the state, in two distinct but interconnected frameworks: the municipality of Petrić, and the Institute of Suggestology affiliated with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The former ensured the material support and received part of the income; the latter was concerned with the study of her ‘gift’ and ‘extraordinary knowledge’…

Access to Vanga was highly regulated by the state. Ljudmila Zhivkova, Communist Party’s General Secretary Todor Zhivkov’s daughter, became a huge admirer. But more than this, Vanga’s prophecies were subject to a vast, quirky, bureaucratic mechanism of verification. Here, Cold War paranoia collides bureaucracy, faith in science, and beliefs that forms of ESP, if proveable, might give adversaries the edge in the quest for supremacy. Here’s Valtchinova’s summary of the contents of the archive.

The body of the archives was constituted between 1967 and 1974, although files continued to be added until the end of the 1970s. This database comprises: (1) tape- recorded interviews with visitors taken immediately after their visits; (2) standardised questionnaire forms filled in by interviewers in the presence of the visitors; (3) stan- dardised inquiry cards sent at regular intervals to people who had consulted Vanga, filled in and returned by the visitors themselves; and (4) letters/demands ‘for predic- tion and advice’ classified according to national criteria. Put together by researchers from the Institute of Suggestology, the questionnaires and the inquiry cards – (2) and (3) above – are by far the most numerous, consisting of between 7,000 and 8,000 files of individual consultations with the seer.

Many of these consultations were about individual sufferings and misfortunes, in the belief that Vanga could see the sources of suffering, and thus help to remedy them. Her recommendations varied from advice to go to the hospital to more esoteric advice about sacrifices and offerings of feasts.

Valtchinova is brilliant on the ambivalent status of Vanga (even though state-sanctioned), and the difficulties and unease caused by consulting her. But also on Vanga’s important role in providing the kind of advice that, for example, medical practitioners were not well-placed to provide:

Her personal strategies, and the whole management of the practice of her gift, contributed to essentialise the latter, and more generally to cast an extraordinary knowledge as inherently female, instinctive, unarticulated and deeply related to the experience of pain and suffering. Vanga’s capacity of co-experiencing people’s pain and especially bereavement was a guarantee for her giving more than just cold medical advice: she remained successful where science and biomedicine often failed, that is, by maintaining hope.

Some time this year — possibly not this time around — I’m hoping to get down to Petrich and the Southwest of Bulgaria in pursuit of Vanga (who died in 1996), and her enduring influence here in Bulgaria.

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