Under skies darkened by thick clouds, they pour out into the streets, clanging with the sound of giant bells. Soon they will enter the houses of the villagers – by force if they should so choose. Their faces are a terrifying mix of snapping jaws, twisted horns, and large, unblinking eyes. They are clad in animal skins and furs, or other thick materials, and the bells whose clanking din fills the air dangle from their belts. These monsters do not speak, but rather walk and dance their way through ancient rites while armed with various weapons. And the rituals stretch back millennia to a time when pagan gods were worshiped and evil spirits were considered serious menace.
Each year, on a day soon after New Years and before Lent, the festival of Kukeri is celebrated in Bulgaria. It is a tradition that may date back as far as 4,000 years to the ancient Thracians – and to Dionysus, the Thracian and Greek god associated with wine, fertility, and rebirth. The festival is replete with mystical symbolism, steeped as it is in a tradition representing the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
The costumes of the Kukeri (as the monstrous figures as known) are elaborate, customarily worn by the young men of the village, who are usually either single or newly married. Formerly made from sacrificial goat pelts, these days the participant's outfits are made from various materials – anything from cloth to carpets, depending on the local customs. The Kukeri also carry with them wooden clubs, swords, and scepters known as ‘thyrsus’ staffs – emblems of fertility that hark back to the cult of Dionysus from which the carnival derives.
The fearsome wooden masks (originally representing the goat) worn by the Kukeri often have hinged jaws that can be snapped open and shut, as well as horns which may be real or just wooden. Sometimes these masks have two sides, one representing good and the other evil, reflecting the balance of these forces in nature. The masks are believed to drive away malevolent spirits, and once donned cannot be removed for the rest of the day. Quite a challenge considering how heavy they must be!
The Kukeri also add various other symbolic articles to their horns such as tassels, ivy (which is sacred to Dionysus), basil (a herb which signifies love in some cultures) and feminine beads and ribbons. In the past, being a Kukeri was strictly for young men, bound up as it is with a coming-of-age ritual. In these more liberal days, however, women and men of all ages are allowed to participate – as long as they can manage wearing the sometimes-unwieldy costumes.
At the beginning of the festival, the participants assemble to pick out a leader who will play the most significant part in the ceremonies. This Kuker’s costume consists of the hides of seven animals, beasts from which he is believed to draw strength. Unlike his fellow Kukeri, he puts on black face paint instead of a mask, and the horns are stuck straight to his head. The wooden phallus hanging from his belt leaves no doubt as to the powerful underlying symbolism of this festival: fertility.
Once they are all dressed and ready, the Kukeri set out in a procession to the accompaniment of much music and cheering. They do not simply stroll along, but must walk in a particular rhythmic style, all the while ringing the bells that hang about their waists. Although a great deal of noise accompanies the parading Kukeri, they themselves are forbidden from speaking and revealing their identities behind the giant masks.
During the carnival, the head Kuker will be required to perform various rituals to impart health, fecundity and good fortune to the people of his village. This includes visiting their various homes, where he will be offered bread and wine, symbols of blood and flesh sacrifice even in pre-Christian times. The Kuker then performs several mimes, including rubbing himself on the homeowner’s floor. And as he and the other Kukeri make their way through the village, they will also mimic duels and other demonstrations of their masculinity – including sexual acts! Still, all of this serves to bless the villages with prosperity and, of course, the all-important fertility.
Following the reassembly of the community, the festival’s final piece of pantomime has a slightly darker tone. The head Kuker is strapped to a plow, an invention often credited to Dionysus, and pretends to die when the plow is pulled. The village women then sprinkle their leader with seeds, prompting him to leap up and ring his bells, the ancient god reborn. Once he has finished with the animal skins he has worn all day, they are buried in seven different fields to ensure the soil’s future fertility, and the phallus attached to his belt is presented to a man without children, for similar reasons.
The carnival of Kukeri as it is celebrated in Bulgaria is a remnant of a tradition that was once also popular in Northern Greece. These days, various versions of the festival also exist in Serbia, Romania, Spain and Italy, but this is the most well-known. In villages around the country, regional variations are added to the proceedings, but the basic meaning remains the same.
Banned by the Communists when they were in power in Bulgaria, the Kukeri festival nevertheless survived and continues to draw crowds to its performances. The most popular of these is called the ‘Surva International Festival of Masquerade Games’ and is held each year in the city of Pernik. People come from around the world to watch and participate, with different groups performing from around Bulgaria, Europe, and even Asia and Africa.
In a world where magic and mystical rituals are often dismissed, the tradition of Kukeri harks back to mankind's esoteric past. And despite the carnival-like atmosphere of the festivals these days, perhaps they also remind us that, deep down, our hopes and fears have not really changed that much after all.