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The Ancient Origins of the Kukeri: Bulgaria’s Scariest Folk Festival

Another scary pagan tradition written in South Slavic DNA

Photo: Darmon Richter / thebohemianblog.com

Another scary pagan tradition written in South Slavic DNA comes live every year across Balkans. In fact lot of European countries have something like Kukeri, so it might not even have Indo-European roots but in fact more ancient aboriginal European roots. While burning winter effigy is obviously a Indo-European tradition because on example Lithuanians celebrate the festival of Užgavėnės by burning a gruesome effigy while 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.

This is a fusion of neolithic European Kukeri costumes and Indo-European burning rituals where performers dress as horned goats adorned with ivy, beads and, according to the myth, in the skins of sacrificed goats. Thanks to Darmon Richter whole event was photographed and explained in detail how Bulgarians perform it every year.

Even Hungarians have a similar tradition, it is called Busójárás, a hellish folk dance with demonic masks all around. Some historians believe this developed during the time of Ottoman wars, they tried to scare the Turkish invaders with such costumes, however truth is the tradition is much older predating even Indo-European migrations in Europe. The Bulgarians have their ‘Kukeri’, while Croats call them ‘Zvončari‘.

The word ‘kuker’ comes from Latin (‘cuculla,’ meaning a ‘hood’) and it denotes a folkloric ritual monster, a man dressed in an elaborate suit of fur and ribbons, feathers and beads. These kukeri wear carved wooden masks with the faces of beasts and birds; hanging heavy copper or bronze bells around their waists as they dance and jump in arcane rituals intended to dispel the evil spirits which might otherwise bring loshotiya, or ill fortune, to a community. ~ Darmon explains on his blog

Their dance is started early at dawn, in front of the small villages and towns. They would dance throught the village streets scaring away the evil spirits and delivering health, happiness and wealthy year to everyone who lets them visit their house.

Some remember kukeri as a terrifying experience, because after all it is a bunch of demonic looking creatures that come into your house, start ravaging and ringing their bells. It is no easy job to make evil spirits run away, you have to be scarier than them.

The costumes, traditions, performances and even the date of these festivities vary from one end of Bulgaria to the other. In the west, the kukeri arrive between Christmas and Epiphany (on 6th January).

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.

If you think it is easy to make this costume, let us just tell you: it takes over a year to carefully create these grotesque but mesmerizing fur demons. The participants prepare for the next year festival all year round.