KUKEROVDEN

KUKEROVDEN

Fri, 02/01/2008 - 12:31

Carnival in Bulgaria is plenty of more fun - and happens more frequently than Rio and Venice

kuker 2.jpg
Bulgarian mummers

At the carnival in Rio you'll go Ah!, that's certain, while in Venice you'll go Uhm! when you meet the mysterious ladies behind Neo-Baroque masks.

Instead of Ipanema chicks, however, at the masquerade in Bulgaria you'll be confronted by wild, prancing kukeri, or mummers, with cowbells tied to their belts and horns on their heads. However, the sexual charge of the mummers' games is stronger than in Rio or Venice – because it is much more overt.

All over the world, pre-industrial societies performed raunchy rituals to ensure nature's rebirth and the fertility of their fields, livestock and, quite politically incorrectly, women. St Valentine's Day was no exception, despite its present-day face-lift. For their part, Bulgarians have kukeri, a tradition that can be traced back to the Thracians.

It was so deeply rooted that attempts by the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 to ban it failed ignominiously. The church had to keep its hands off the pagan ritual and leave the laymen to enjoy the mummers' festivities on Sirni zagovezni, the day before the strict Lenten fast began.

When you find yourself among mummers, who parade through the streets and barge into people's courtyards, you may think it is the perfect definition of “chaos”. The clatter of bells that accompanies the event only reconfirms your opinion.

Despite appearances, however, the kukeri are a strictly hierarchical group – even the laziest observers can easily pick out the leader. Wearing a mask of fur, chicken wings, horns and sporting dried beans for teeth, this important if undignified figure is in fact the only one who has the right to be called a kuker. The kuker uses the red, metre-long wooden phallus hanging from his waist to chase and poke women in the street – supposedly curing infertility. The other mummers spoof personages who Bulgarians think deserve to be ridiculed. The cross-dressing “granny,” for example, is the kuker's (rather ugly!) wife. The parody of the couple having sex is a magic ritual for fertility.

Bulgarian mummer



The ancient Egyptians used to have a similar rite: every year they acted out Isis's conception of Horus from the dead Osiris. The “granny,” who “gives birth to a child” at some point in the masquerade, is just the tip of the carnival iceberg, again not very politically correct. The kadi, or judge, a relic from Ottoman rule, passes judgments on people, while the hrachars, or tax collectors, demand payment from anybody who comes their way. The “Gypsy woman” and the “Gypsy man” try to steal things; the “bear keeper makes his “bear” dance; the “Orthodox priest” and the “imam” wed unsuspecting passers-by; the “barber” shaves them; and the “camels” fight with one another.

The motley group also includes the “king” with his retinue. When the carnival is over, he invites all mummers to a large table laid with food, blesses them and the whole community, and finally puts them all in a harness and begins “ploughing the fields”. This is, of course, another fertility ritual.

Twenty-first Century mummers are hardly the lecherous revellers of yore. Like the Venice carnival, which is now prettified and sanitised of the promiscuity of Casanova's day, it has changed. Urbanisation and the establishment of organised folk groups since the 1950s have turned it into a staged – and expensive – version of erstwhile bacchanalia. Some of the masks cost several thousand leva to make.Nevertheless, joining a crowd of kukeri at one of Bulgaria's numerous regional and local fairs remains a memorable if ear-splitting experience. The sexual element is reduced to a PG level, but the mockery is as biting as ever. Alongside the traditional bear keepers, kings and camels, you can now see some contemporary bogeymen. Two years ago, for example, one of the festivals featured personages such as “terrorists” and the “bird flu”.

Admittedly, it's nothing like the celebrations in Venice or Rio. But Bulgarian carnival does have one advantage, however: it is not limited to the days around Sirni zagovezni. In the west and southwest of Bulgaria, the kukeri hold their festival in December, and in the east and south you can spot them in January and February.

Kukeri and where to find them

The games have long become a merely decorative event, so most Bulgarians do not even suspect that their predecessors had dozens of synonyms for kukeri, such as kukuvtsi, babugeri, babushari, dzhamali, dzhamalari, startsi, dervishi, arapi, kalugeri, eshkinari, drakusi, survaskari and kamila.If you want to see them for yourself, you need to do a bit of planning. On Sirni zagovezni, which falls on 9 March in 2008, there are mummers' games in Pavel Banya. On the next day, Pesi ponedelnik, they are held in Shiroka Laka. The biggest mummer festivals are in Pernik at the end of January and in Yambol in February. There are also kukeri in Razlog, Bansko, Lesnovo near Elin Pelin, Rakovski, Brezhantsi near Blagoevgrad, and in the villages of Popintsi near Panagyurishte, Parvenets near Plovdiv and Yasna Polyana near Burgas. In fact, if you schedule it right, you can spend over a month travelling around Bulgaria and taking part in the mummers' games.

Issue 17 Bulgarian traditions

Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

0 comments

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

boyan the magus
WHO WERE THE BOGOMILS?
What do you do when the events of the day overwhelm you? When you feel that you have lost control of your own life? You might overeat, rant on social media or buy stuff you do not need. You might call your shrink.

Monument to Hristo Botev in his native Kalofer
WHO WAS HRISTO BOTEV?
Every 2 June, at exactly noon, the civil defence systems all over Bulgaria are switched on. The sirens wail for a minute. A minute when many people stop whatever they are doing and stand still.

st george day bulgaria
DAY OF ST GEORGE BULGARIAN STYLE
Bulgarians celebrate St George's Day, or Gergyovden, with enormous enthusiasm, both officially and in private.

Shopska salad is the ultimate rakiya companion
HOW TO ENJOY RAKIYA
The easiest way for a foreigner to raise a Bulgarian brow concerns a sacrosanct pillar of national identity: rakiya, the spirit that Bulgarians drink at weddings, funerals, for lunch, at protracted dinners; because they are sad or joyful, and somet

151020-28446.jpg
SOFIA'S PARTY HOUSE
"Where is the parliament?" A couple of months ago anyone asking this question in Sofia would have been pointed to a butter-yellow neoclassical building at one end of the Yellow Brick Road.

Boyko Borisov_0.jpg
BLAST FROM THE PAST*
Bulgaria's courts have been given the chance to write legal history as former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is suing Yordan Tsonev, the MP for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, over Tsonev's referral to him as a mutra.

bulgaria underworld.jpg
WHAT IS A MUTRA?
Mutra is one of those short and easy-to-pronounce Bulgarian words that is also relatively easy to translate.

Magdalina Stancheva.jpg
WHO WAS MAGDALINA STANCHEVA?
Walking around Central Sofia is like walking nowhere else, notwithstanding the incredibly uneven pavements.

SCHOLARS AND RADICALS
When a Bulgarian TV crew came to our village in northeastern Bulgaria to shoot a beer advert they wanted British people in the film, so we appeared as ourselves.
Lt John Dudley Crouchley, 1944.jpg
LONG ROAD HOME FOR LT CROUCHLEY
During most of the Second World War, Bulgaria and the United States were enemies. In 1943-1944 Allied aircrafts bombed major Bulgarian cities.

WHAT'S YOUR AUNT TO YOUR NEPHEW ANYWAY?
Happy families may be alike, unhappy families may be unhappy in their own way, but in Bulgaria all these come with a twist: a plethora of hard-to-pronounce names for every maternal and paternal aunt, uncle and in-law that can possibly exist.
french soldiers monument svishtov.jpg
FRANCE IN BULGARIA
Sofia is awash with English signs and logos, but here and there a French name pops up: a central street is called Léandre le Gay, schools are named Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, a metro station is known as Frédéric Joliot-Curie.