Since today is Kukerovden- the day of the Kukers, I think its perfect to tell you about the Bulgarian tradition of Kukeri. Kukeri is an ancient tradition that still lives on in today´s Bulgaria, and it takes place from New Years until Lent. It is a spring ritual and aims to scare away evil spirits as to provide a good harvest.
In 2013 I wrote a thesis in Ethnology about Kukeri and identity, so its a tradition that has a special place in my heart. So here goes, hope you will find it as exiting as me!
Thracians & Dionysus
So to understand the kukeri ritual, what it is, why and how we need to go back to the ancient times and to the Thracian’s. The Thracian’s were a people who lived in the north of Greece, southeast of Bulgaria and the European parts of Turkey around 2000 BC. We know very little about this people since they did not had any alphabet, but there are archaeological founding’s that let us know at least something about them. We know for an example that they worshiped gods and goddesses. One of them was the famous Dionysus. Dionysus was ancient god of vine, fertility and rebirth. It is believed that he was half human, half goat. In Greece and Bulgaria he goes under the name of Dionysus, in ancient Rome they listened to him by the name of Bacchus.
What is Kukeri?
The Thracian’s started the New Year a ritual to scare off the evil winter spirits, to welcome spring and bless the Earth for a good harvest to come during the year. By dressing up with masks to hide their face, horn, bells around their belly’s and covered their body with wool from sheep’s, they danced around making sounds to scare the winter away. They also did a ritual dance on the soil in order to give a good harvest.
The Roman Empire did not however liked celebration around the ritual of kukeri, they claimed that it caused too much drunkenness and orgies and not contributed to the Roman state, so they banned the celebrations, but the tradition of kukeri still managed to survive in Bulgaria.
Back in the days the kukeri performers would visit the people in the villages houses in the night so that “the sun would not catch them on the road”, after the visitation was over they would go to the square and dance.
They were hand made costumes and masks inspired by animals like goats, bulls, rams and chickens. Around their belly’s they carries big, heavy bells that are making lots of sounds as they are dancing around. There are many different masks depending on region, with lots of variation when it comes to decoration.
The word Кукер (Kuker) comes from the Latin Cuculla wich means “hood” or “cowl”.
The Symbolism of Kukeri
The most important symbolism is of course to scare away the evil winter spirits and welcoming the spring, but it also has other meanings.
Kukeri has a sexual symbolism, many times the man wear masks with horn, girded with large wooden phallus. The fertility is also a part of the ritual, there is an act where a symbolic wife makes the face and sound as she was about to give birth, it symbolize the labors that the fields will go through when the spring comes with all the fruit and vegetables.
Some of the masks are double-faced which represent the good and the bad that co-exist in our world. The colors marks important symbolism of their costumes, red stands for fertility and reviving the nature, the sun and the fire. The black color is a symbol for Mother Earth and the white is the color of light and water. It is believed that the costumes will protect against harmful influence of impure power.
Kukeri Trough the Times
Like I already mentioned, the Romans were not very fond about celebration of kukeri but yet it managed to survive. In the 1400 century Bulgaria fall under occupation of the Ottoman Empire, however they did not pay any attention to the kukeri as long as the Bulgarian paid their taxes and behaved.
During the socialist time in Bulgaria, kukeri was forbidden to practice. Why? Religion as well as old tradition was a threat to the socialist state. This was a very complex time since Bulgaria had just become an independent state, and new states usually needs religion, tradition, languages or believes to stay strong and united. However, the socialist government was sponsoring institutions for culture and here kukeri was managed to preserve. And even tho kukeri was forbidden, it still came to be a symbol for the eastern socialist Bulgaria, the opposite of what the western world stood for.
In the 1960´s the government started to support national festivals and folklore and kukeri got a place in the towns now (before that people in small villages had performed kukeri in secret). Around 1980 did the prime minister, Todor Zhikov, an investment of spreading cultural propaganda. He came to develop lots of cultural festivals, and one of the biggest festivals came to take place in Pernik. Specialized kukeri performers started to early make a visit to Pernik for a show.
A short period after 1990´s and the changing of socialism to democracy, kukeri faced a rough time. The socialism had financed cultural centers that kept the tradition of kukeri alive but it takes a long time to make traditions go away and kukeri of course made a come back.
What about Kukeri in the 21st century Bulgaria?
Neither The Roman Empire, nor the Orthodox Christianity, the occupation of the Ottoman Empire or the socialism have stopped the Bulgarians to celebrate ou this ancient tradition. And still it lives on in the Bulgarian culture.
Of course, today the tradition of kukeri looks very different and has probably lost the origin meaning of the ritual, but the focus is still on welcoming the spring. An important tradition that sill marks the changing of the year. The ritual used to be performed by man only, now days woman are also participating in the dancing tradition (this changing happened under the socialism). These days kukeri contains a lot of new games that are including man dressing up as an old woman/wife, bear, fighting with the horns as well as with swords. A lot of entertaining for the audience.
In December 2015 UNESCO put Surva, the festival of kukeri in Pernik, on the list of immaterial culture. The Surva festival attracts many carnival people from all over the world that wants to participate with their masks and costumes.
If you want a more traditional kukeri celebration you should visit a smaller village for example Shiroka Laka in the mountains of Rhodopi.
There are many ethnographic and historical museums all over Bulgaria where you can find exhibition about kukeri. Kukeri is incorporated in the Bulgarian culture and there are many songs about the celebration, the modern band Oratnitza use kukeri performers in their music video. And their is a wine called “Kukeri Wine”.
Kukeri are also being celebrated in Greece, Romania and Serbia.
Sources for this article:
My thesis: Kykeri- A symbol of Bulgarian identity and masculinity