YAMBOL'S MUMMERS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Kukerlandia

Bulgarian kukeri dance, prowl and revel in major festival

73bf53eb5428aa4b9a36e143f0ae9ef4_XL.jpg

Situated in the plains in southeastern Bulgaria Yambol is generally off any tourist map. Few Bulgarians would visit unless they have grandparents or friends living in one of the most depressed post-Communist cities in the country. Except for a weekend in late February/early May when the town host Kukerlandia, when a major festival of mummers attracts national and, increasingly, international interest and participation.

Many Bulgarians believe that their tradition of putting on scary masks and dancing to celebrate the "death" of old year, the arrival of spring and the revival of nature is unique in the world. Like so many beliefs concerning "uniqueness" in Bulgaria, it is not. Rites and traditions similar to those of Bulgarian kukeri, or mummers, exist all over Europe, including Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece, and across Asia all the way to Japan. These traditions share another similarity: they were an integral part of life in farming communities, but now they struggle to survive in a world defined by industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation. Obviously, they thrive in a culture of oversharing, social media and mass tourism that favours spectacle and likes-and-shares over substance and understanding.

Kukerlandia, Yambol

© Ekaterina Staromanova, winner of 2018 Kukerlandia photo competition

 

Before the forced industrialisation and urbanisation that followed the Communist coup of 1944 in Bulgaria, kukeri were ubiquitous in villages across the country. In different regions mummers would dance on different days in the period between Christmas and the beginning of Lent. They would also wear different costumes: fur, animal hides and birds' wings adorned traditional kukeri in western Bulgaria while colourful rags and sequins were preferred in the east. Kukeri from all over the Bulgarian lands had in common their scary appearance, the noise of the cow- and sheep-bells hung from their belts and the obscene antics they performed in front of the amused, and probably slightly terrified, local communities. The days of the kukeri dances were a time when ordinary husbands and farmers transformed into hairy monsters that would roam the streets, chase women and touch them with long phallic staffs painted in red, and perform frenzied pantomimes, including a mock wedding and the birth of a baby made of rags.

 Kukerlandia, Yambol

© Krasimir Matarov, 3rd place in 2018 Kukerlandia photo competition

 

This authentic ritual not only provided an outlet for human passions constrained for most of the year by the rigid rules of traditional society, but kukeri were also a latterday incarnation of the ancient Thracian priests who performed rituals dedicated to the rebirth of nature in late winter and early spring. Their behaviour might seem obscene to modern eyes, but it is fraught with symbolism. The phallic staffs, the mock wedding and everything else symbolised unbridled manly power inseminating Mother Nature and securing the arrival of the next spring, the next harvest, and the next generation. That is why only men were allowed to be kukeri, and becoming a mummer was an initiation into manhood.

Under Communism, this ancient belief was turned into a spectacle far removed from its original meaning, and it was not only urbanisation and the depopulation of villages that stifled the genuine kukeri tradition. Communist ideology, which viewed everything old as redundant, reactionary and pointless, discouraged mummer dances and other folk rites in villages. Then, something even more twisted followed – by the 1960s the government was eager to invent a new Bulgarian identity that was both nationalist and Communist. Kukeri, along with folk music, traditional costumes and crafts, were reinvented. Mummers became a modern festival, a spectacle for the eye emptied of its ancient spirit. The obscene antics disappeared and the dances were choreographed and sterilised. Kukeri were reduced to funny figures wearing impressive masks. They were promoted as bringers of health and good fortune to the guileless public, which was itself alienated from its own rural past and traditions.

Kukerlandia, Yambol

© Ivanka Yancheva, winner of 2019 Kukerlandia photo competition

 

Today, Communism may be out, but nationalism is very much a part of the Bulgarian identity. Kukeri have changed even further. Masked dancers can be seen everywhere and anytime when "Bulgarian identity" needs to be promoted. You can even hire a kukeri troupe to dance at your daughter's wedding. Women and children often put on masks, something that three generations ago would have been considered sacrilegious – not because of patriarchal oppression but because it is against the very essence of the rite.

Some communities managed to preserve the ritual as close as possible to its original content and form, like some of the villages around Yambol. That is why today this city in eastern Bulgaria is the centre of a major kukeri festival.

Kukerlandia appeared 20 years ago, in 2000. Held at the end of February and the beginning of March, it has gathered kukeri troupes from across the region and all of Bulgaria, plus some foreign guests. Kukerlandia completely transforms Yambol. Its streets reverberate with the cries and bells of dancing performers, there are concerts and cultural events, and a mummer-themed photo competition attracts participants from Bulgaria and abroad.

Bulgaria's English Magazine, Vagabond has been a co-sponsor of the Kukerlandia exhibition and has handed out its Vagabond prize, introducing its winners to our public since the competition's inception in the 2000s. If you are ready for some kukeri madness, visit Kukerlandia from 27 February-1 March.

Kukerlandia, Yambol

© Mehmet Ergin, participant in Kukerlandia photo competition in 2017

  • COMMENTING RULES

    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.

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

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.

CITY OF EAGLES
As the official symbol of Bulgaria, lions can be seen everywhere, from the national coat of arms to architectural ornaments to "patriotic" tattoos.

SOFIA'S STRANGE MONUMENTS
Some monuments impress with their size, artistic value or historical significance, and some have a hidden history to match.

KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES
From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles.

THE VELCHOVA ZAVERA HIKE
Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.