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Kukeri: the ancient Bulgarian tradition that keeps evil spirits at bay

5 min read

The Lithuanians celebrate the festival of Užgavėnės by burning a creepy effigy as a female personification of Winter, before parading through the streets dressed as witches and goats and devils.
The Romanian Capra festival is similarly symbolic of the New Year, a Dionysiac celebration of death and rebirth that was practiced as early as 1,600 BC. Performers dress as horned goats adorned with ivy, beads and, according to local folklore, in the skins of sacrificed goats.
In Hungary, Busójárás is a festival of hellish masks and folk dancing. Some legends say it originated as a trick used to scare away the Ottoman invaders, despite other sources date it even older still.
And the Bulgarians have Kukeri.

Kukeri, кукери in Bulgarian, are elaborately costumed Bulgarian men who perform traditional rituals intended to scare away evil spirits and, closely related traditions are found throughout the entire Balkan peninsula and Greece .
This tradition is generally thought to be related to the Thracian Dionysos cult in the wider area of Thracia.
The costumes cover most of the body and include decorated wooden masks of animals, sometimes double-faced, and large bells attached to the belt.

Around New Year and before Lent, the Кukeri walk and dance through villages to scare away evil spirits which might otherwise bring loshotiya, or ill fortune, to a community, with their costumes and the sound of their bells.
They dance through village streets delivering health, happiness and a bountiful harvest year, and they visit houses too, letting themselves into family homes in order to perform blessings older than any book can remember.
In some traditions, they traditionally visit peoples’ houses in the morning while, in other communities, after dark, as the story goes, so that “the sun would not catch them on the road.”
After parading around the village they usually gather at the village square to dance wildly and amuse the people.
Kukeri rituals vary by region, from one end of Bulgaria to the other, but remain largely the same in essence.
In the west, the kukeri arrive between Christmas and Epiphany, on 6th January while, in the east of Bulgaria, kuker festivals often take place around ‘Sirni Zagovezni,’ a day of purification and bonfire ceremonies held on the Sunday before Lent.

But there’s one place in particular, where the whole spectrum of Bulgaria’s kukeri are brought together into one great big festival of masquerade games: the annual Surva Festival in Pernik.
Pernik is not the most beautiful town in Bulgaria, and some tourists have described it as a grim and grey affair of mock-Stalinist architecture and abandoned factories (despite they fascinate me).
The town grew considerably under the communist government, when it became a powerhouse of heavy industry and coal mining – but the scars left in the wake of its industrialisation boom are still visible in its appearance.
As many as 5,000 performers appear in the festival each year, and since 1985 the event has been welcoming international entries too – with teams arriving from Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Albania and Greece, with some performers that come from still further afield, including Palestine, Spain and even Indonesia.
During the last weekend in January, these teams of kukeri descend upon the grey streets of Pernik to enact rituals that have been handed down over thousands of years.

The term could be derived from Proto-Slavic kuka (“evil spirit”) with the agentive suffix -ařь, literally meaning a “chaser of evil spirits”, or from a pre-Slavic divinity named Kuk.
Another theory suggests the name kuker derived from Latin cuculla meaning “hood, cowl” or cucurum, “quiver”, in the sense of a container; an abbreviation of koukouros geros, though the practice pre-dates Roman rule by several centuries.
The corresponding figure in Greek-speaking Thrace is known as Kalogeros, or “rod-carrier”, in former Yugoslavia known as didi, while in North Macedonia it is known as babari or mechkari.

Either way, Kukeri is a divinity personifying fecundity. In Bulgaria, a ritual spectacle of spring, basically a sort of carnival, takes place after a scenario of folk theatre, in which Kuker’s role is interpreted by a man attired in a sheep- or goat-pelt, wearing a horned mask and girded with a large wooden phallus.
During the ritual, various physiological acts are interpreted, including the sexual act, as a symbol of the god’s sacred marriage, while the symbolical wife, appearing pregnant, mimes the pains of giving birth, in a ritual that inaugurates the labors of the fields, ploughing and sowing.
It is carried out with the participation of numerous allegorical characters, among which is the Emperor and his entourage.

Traditionally a head piece was worn as a crown to symbolize the spiritual divine realm while fur, feathers and other external body-parts of an animal attached to represent the natural world, as well as the fact that nature has good and evil, and that humans are the intermediary between spirit and nature.
Some cultures even imbibed in human flesh to satiate the gods thirst for blood, as an act of solidarity for the gods themselves.
But, despite some traditions belong to the past Kukeri, as a symbol of Bulgarian identity, have proven themselves remarkably resilient throughout recent, documented history, and probably they’re as old as history itself.

Images from web – Google Research