You have probably heard of the carnivals of Rio or Venice. If you do some research, you will undoubtedly encounter theories, attributing the origin of the carnival tradition to Roman and Greek pagan traditions. Some of them will mention a connection to Bacchus/Dionysus, a Thracian and Greek god of wine. However, what you may not know is that we also have a carnival of our own. It is dedicated to the exact same deity. We call it Kukeri and it’s one of the most ancient pagan traditions we still follow to date.
Every year in January and February (depending on the region) in towns and villages around the country Bulgarians and foreign guests gather to enjoy this special kind of festival. The kukeri, traditionally men only, are the protagonists in this ancient mystery. They form a procession through the streets and perform ritual dances dressed in their handmade costumes. The scarier the outfit, the better, as the goal of the whole rite is to chase away the evil spirits of winter.
The costumes consist of big masks made of fur, leather and wood, sometimes taking animalistic forms, or otherwise materializing monsters, born of the creator’s imagination. They come in different colors as well, with every one of them having its own meaning:
Each costume also has a leather belt worn around the waist with huge copper bells (chanove) attached to it.
I had heard a lot about the Kukeri festival but had never actually witnessed it myself. Until last year, when I finally managed to visit one. We went to the town of Pernik (a stone’s throw away from Sofia). That’s where we got the chance to join one of the most colorful, lively and noisy events in my life.
I wasn’t scared by the masks, proving I am not an evil spirit, but I was entertained in the best possible way ever. The ancient religious idea of scaring away the evil spirits and invoking good luck, fortune and health to the whole town and its residents is also mixed with an air of carpe diem. Onlookers take photos with the kukeri, dance traditional Bulgarian dances with them, eat some delicious national dishes and have the time of their lives.
Happen to be in Bulgaria at the end of January? Don’t hesitate to catch the train or bus to Pernik and see the Surva Festival, an international festival of masquerade games. Apart from Bulgarian participants, you’ll also see representatives from all over Europe, Asia and Africa. You’ll also be able to participate in a special workshop and learn how to make your own mask.
The Kuker festival is one of the few occasions in the 21st century, where you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of a still living ancient pagan tradition. It is also a great opportunity to experience what our ancestors did thousands of years ago.
You can find more information about the festival “Surva” in Pernik here.
Author: Viki Delcheva