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The Mystical Origins of the Kukeri: Bulgaria’s Strangest Folk Festival

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A lot of European countries have them.

The Lithuanians celebrate the festival of Užgavėnės by burning a gruesome effigy, a female personification of Winter, before parading through the streets dressed as witches and goats and devils.

The 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. Performers dress as horned goats adorned with ivy, beads and, according to the myth, in the skins of sacrificed goats.

In Hungary, Busójárás is a blur of hellish masks and folk dancing. Some legends say it originated as a trick used to scare away the Ottoman invaders; other sources date it even older still.

The Bulgarians, meanwhile, have their Kukeri.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-17The 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.

In the earliest surviving accounts of the ritual – and in those towns and villages with the most loyally observed traditions – the kukeri will often start their work as early as dawn. They dance through village streets delivering health, happiness and a bountiful harvest year; they visit houses too, letting themselves into family homes in order to perform blessings older than any book can remember.

In some traditions, these home invasions took place in the morning; in other communities they were performed after dark, as the story goes, so that “the sun would not catch them on the road.” I’ve spoken to Bulgarians who clearly remember such episodes from their childhood – some of them describing a visit from the kukeri as a singularly terrifying experience. But then, that’s the point. Evil spirits take a lot to scare, and these performers often spend all year crafting intricate, disturbing and grotesque costumes for the festival.

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). In the east of Bulgaria, kuker festivals often take place around ‘Sirni Zagovezni,’ a day of purification and bonfire ceremonies held on the Sunday before Lent.

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. After all the stories I’d heard about these ancient rituals I was eager to head down there myself, in the dead of winter, and see it with my own eyes.

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Surva Festival of Masquerade Games, Pernik

Pernik is not the most beautiful town in Bulgaria. Some visitors have described it as a grim and grey affair of mock-Stalinist architecture and abandoned factories (as both of those things fascinate me however, I find it hard to be too critical). The town grew considerably under the communist government, when it became a powerhouse of heavy industry and coal mining – but the scars left in the wake of its industrialisation boom have not been kind to Pernik’s appearance.

It probably doesn’t help to see it first in January. The grey skies and bitter cold did little to welcome us as we arrived at Pernik train station; although the dense crowds of people packing the platform was an early indication that this was to be no ordinary day.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-4The Surva Festival of Masquerade Games at Pernik was started in 1966, then celebrated every other year until 2009; at which point it became an annual event.

As many as 5,000 performers appear in the festival each year, and since 1985 the event has been welcoming international entries too – with teams arriving from Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Albania and Greece. Some performers come from still further afield, including past entries from Palestine, Spain and even Indonesia.

During the last weekend in January, these teams of kukeri descend upon the grey streets of Pernik to enact rituals that have been handed down over thousands of years… and as we approached the town centre we were soon surrounded by all kinds of colourful, horned, furred and fearsome chaos.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-5Crowds of spectators wrapped in winter furs and leather coats mingled as one steaming mass down the closed streets, while around us, in every corner the performers were donning their costumes. Men stood in huge, padded suits made from the pelts of goats and sheep, strapping cowbell-laden belts around their waists. Small bottles of rakia were passed around before disappearing back into hidden pockets. The kukeri blew on their hands, rubbed them against the cold, then began to hop from one foot to the other; adjusting to the weight of those heavy chimes.

Here and there, performers were trying on their masks. Some had carved wooden features, beastly, snarling things, while others were made entirely from smooth fur broken only by narrow eye-slits. A kuker brushed past me in the crowd – his tall, conical hood swaying with every step and what appeared to be an actual goat’s head attached to the front where his face should have been. Some masks had snapping, hinged jaws; others were decorated in harlequin patterns of green and purple sequins.

I was struck by the variety of costumes on display; the materials ranging from thread and lace, ribbons and mirrors, to bones, horns and feathers. Each group represented a different town, and each of them brought to Surva their own local variations on the kukeri tradition. I’d later learn there are awards for the best-dressed teams – and these days, the audience can even cast their vote by text message.

We shuffled our way slowly though the crowd, towards the main square of Pernik. Every so often we’d have to dodge out the way of a chariot, or skirt around a troop of marching demons armed with staffs. The main boulevard was clear, fenced off and walled-in thick with bodies. A chorus of stamping and ringing approached from the distance, a noise like a herd of cows falling off a cliff, so we took our place amongst the spectators and prepared for the parade.

 

The Mummers’ Parade

Calling this Bulgaria’s ‘strangest’ folk festival is no small claim. Other popular festivities here include the Day of St. Tryfon, a decidedly bacchanalian spring festival during which a ‘Vine King’ is crowned and then generously doused with wine. On St. Jordan’s Day in January, half-naked Bulgarians splash through freezing rivers chasing a cross tossed into the water by a priest. On St. Lazarus’ Day young girls are initiated to womanhood as they sing and bless the fields, while another tradition, ‘Hamkane,’ involves a boiled egg dangled from a string which family members must try and catch with their mouths.

But watching a man in archaic folk costume pretend to impregnate another man – him dressed as a woman, in wig and burlap dress – using a colossal wooden phallus… well, that certainly takes some beating.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-24As the parade rolled past and around us, a whole pantheon of Jungian archetypes swaggered by; there were bears and demons, men in drag, witches, brides and pantomime priests.

Two wool-clad figures in owl masks staggered by and veered into the crowds, stamping their staffs and prodding at passers-by.

An androgynous man in a neckerchief and girls’ short shorts began gyrating his hips at us in some grotesque mating display: his face was blacked up, and when he grinned and flicked his tongue at us he had lipstick on his teeth. (I briefly pictured him sat in an office Monday to Friday, suit and tie, waiting for the weekend.)

Of course, much of the symbolism here was plain to see. The bawdy fertility rites, the spirits and demons, the micro-dramas enacted by allegorical characters… in fact, it reminded me a lot of something we have back home: the mummers.

The mumming traditions of Britain are ancient dramatic customs, held in the winter and forgotten by all but a few strange, bearded men. Some mummer organisations trace the history of these plays to 400 BC, with roots in the Roman Festival of Saturnalia: a tribute to Saturn, protector of crops, the god of time and death and new beginnings.

But Britain’s mummers also draw on Celtic tradition and the early midwinter ceremonies. Long ago, druids would perform rites on the winter solstice intended to resurrect the ailing sun. At Samhain, meanwhile, the Celts believed that the veil between worlds was at its thinnest and evil spirits could visit the living; so they dressed in terrifying costumes to protect themselves.

Kukeri-Surva 2015-19With folk traditions like these in mind, I felt I understood something of the visual language of the kukeri; the universal pantomime of fertilisation, death and rebirth. The players here were different though, their symbolism harder to deduce – while here and there, pop culture was mingling with ancient tradition.

A group from Macedonia waddled past us, dressed as cartoon characters; a butcher with cleaver in hand leered at us from behind a Guy Fawkes mask. One group marched in rags and wigs, their faces painted brown, bellies stuffed out with make-believe babies and a pram, pushed ahead of them, trailing a banner that read, ‘Syrian Refugees.’ The parade managed to be as topical as it was archaic.

But the main event was yet to come.

Weaving an erratic route through the crowds, past stilted green men and roaming gypsy bands, through market stalls of carved wood souvenirs and around beer gardens where wine was splashed and poured from oversized flagons, at last we reached the final arena. The parade spilled out into a square, and teams who had swaggered and danced and rolled though the streets of Pernik now suddenly fell into ordered rank and file. One by one they stepped forward, into the performance space, to deliver the ritual they’d been rehearsing all year long.

 

The Ancient Plays

Bulgaria’s kukeri perform not one piece of folk theatre, but two. There are two distinct plays that feature these characters, two annual observances, and virtually unlimited variations in between.

It wasn’t until we reached the performance ground that they began to make any sense; but now the teams assembled and kukeri who had roamed the crowd, chasing girls and playing pranks, were called back into formation. Blacked-up transvestites took their places alongside emperors and crones – one of each to each group just like chess pieces freshly set on the board – and the plays began.

 

The Survakari

Kukeri-Surva 2015-31That day in Pernik, the rituals were all over the place. Different groups interpreted different traditions and it was only later, when I came to reading more about the kukeri, that I was able to discern one story from another.

The first ritual in the calendar is that of the ‘Survakari’; held between 25th December and January 6th, and serving to chase out the evil spirits of the dark months. In the towns and villages where it’s observed, the Survakars traditionally visit every house to perform their blessings.

The cast list represents a wedding party: with a bride and groom, gypsies and musicians, a priest, a dancing bear and its trainer; mothers- and fathers-in law, and an army of wedding guests. This group is led by a chieftain known as the ‘Byulyukbashiya’; a term that comes from Turkish, and was likely adopted into the games during the centuries of Ottoman occupation. All parts in this ensemble are traditionally played by men – even the bride.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-30In each home they enter the priest conducts a wedding ceremony; and in the process, blessing everyone and everything beneath the roof. Meanwhile the zvanchari (‘bell-ringers’) jump and roll making a tremendous racket, as the residents serve up treats of bread, wine or rakia. The symbolism of bread and wine here comes from the same place as the Catholic communion; ancient pagan tokens symbolic of flesh and blood. Sometimes coins are offered too, which are usually considered as a donation towards the next year’s costumes.

After the home visits, the kukeri take to the streets to perform their main ritual; a public wedding ceremony that gives way to drinking, dancing and widespread festivities. In some versions of the ceremony fires are lit, and participants leap through the flames in order to purify themselves, body and soul.

 

Kukerovden

The second appearance of the kukeri is on Kukerovden (simply, ‘Day of the Kukers’). It is a performance piece, a mystery play of sorts in which each player bears a strong, symbolic connection to some archetypal aspect of nature. As such, the ritual is designed to bind the microcosm and macrocosm by telling a human story that echoes the greater, universal drama.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-11The Kukerovden ritual includes a tsar and a human couple – sometimes old, sometimes young – along with a team of attendant kukers. In an act of bawdy pantomime, the groom (or grandfather) impregnates his bride (or elderly female companion). Meanwhile the kukeri charge and dance; armed with swords and red-tipped, phallic staffs, maces and weaving tools. The performers interact with the crowd, jabbing, thrusting, and chasing girls with their long, red poles.

Two of the kukeri are then yoked to a wooden plough, and goaded by a ploughman as they dig / draw a ritual circle in three concentric rings. The tsar follows behind in a chariot, scattering grain seeds to symbolically sow the fields while more kukeri dance in his wake. In a heated climax of the ceremony, the tsar is struck down by a kuker with a weaving spindle. He dies, to represent the waning mid-winter sun; and then the kukeri gather about and raise him from his grave to symbolise the arrival of the spring.

By now the bride (or crone) is ready to give birth, her (his) dress bulging comically large. When the child pops out – usually represented with a rag doll or puppet – the ceremony is complete.

In this ritual, every movement the kukeri make has some part to play in the telling of the story. They roll on the earth to absorb its strength; they jump and reach to encourage the corn to grow tall; they sway with the weight of imaginary sheaves and all the while, those bells keep ringing to ward off evil spirits.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-25On Kukerovden, and in the celebrations held toward the eastern end of Bulgaria, the masks of the performers typically take on a more colourful aspect. They are sometimes sewn with sequins, beads and shards of mirror, the colours themselves invoking the forces of nature: red for sun-fire and fertility; black as mother earth; and white for the pure, life-giving energies of light and water.

Moreover, the ritual seems to have served as an initiation of sorts for the young kuker; historically these players would be men, young bachelors, and through the course of the ceremony – the phallic thrusting and sowing of seeds – the older men would teach these younglings the ways of the world. In some communities this kuker initiation even became a prerequisite for marriage: young men who had never entered the games would be considered a second-class choice for a husband, and often were married off to unhealthy, widowed, or otherwise undesirable brides.

The tsar meanwhile, their tutor and master, was always played by an older man. By tradition he should have a wife and children, and own land or material property in the village… and all of this combined, begins to sound quite a lot like another traditional mystery play.

A man of wisdom, struck down by his apprentices using trade tools only to be later resurrected; the Kukerovden ritual follows more or less the exact same narrative as the central myth of freemasonry.

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The Kukers & The Freemasons

Freemasonry describes itself as: “A beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory, illustrated by signs and symbols.” Much the same could be claimed for Bulgaria’s kukeri ritual.

In the masonic lore, Hiram Abiff was the chief architect of King Solomon’s Temple. He designed the building according to principles of sacred geometry, which he taught to his apprentices. Three of those apprentices were impatient though, and demanded their master revealed to them all of the secrets at once. One after another they set upon him with their working tools, and on the third strike the master architect was killed.

In the ritual reconstruction of this fable, the candidate plays the role of Hiram Abiff; and on being raised from the symbolic grave he is reborn as a Master Mason.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-34It’s certainly tempting to draw parallels between the rituals of the kukers and the freemasons. Further west, links between mummery and freemasonry have been hypothesised… there’s even a theory that all mummers are freemasons, whether they know it or not. In this case though drawing any kind of connection between the two is problematic.

For a long time the only freemasons in Bulgaria were Turks. The Ottomans adopted the craft from the French and British, and particularly during the Crimean War there was a huge transfer of traditions by way of military lodges.

Bulgaria was a part of the Ottoman Empire at the time… but the Bulgarians themselves were usually forbidden from joining Ottoman lodges.

During those dark centuries of occupation the Bulgarians were treated very poorly. They were second-class citizens in their own country, living under an Islamic caliphate whose Sharia law was enforced by brutal Ottoman militias. Their population was spread across largely agricultural settlements the length of the country, with poorly-developed systems for communication between them; conditions that allowed for almost endless regional interpretations of the kukeri ritual.

It’s curious to think that these two ritual practices once existed side by side; freemasonry as a system of allegorical plays for the ruling class, while the equally esoteric Kuker Games were handed down through the native population. The kukeri ritual has even shown signs of evolving over the years, adopting some Turkish elements along the way; there’s the ‘Byulyukbashiya’ for a start, and in certain regional traditions from the south of Bulgaria the part of the priest is replaced with an imam. But given the spread of these communities, the distance between them, it seems impossible that such influence could have happened on anything but a local scale.

Whatever the Kuker Games have in common with freemasonry then, comes not from a transfer of tradition but rather as the result of sharing a similar source; with both of these ritualistic systems displaying the archetypal hallmarks of the solar deity myth, that originated in the empires of antiquity.

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It’s the same resurrection story told by every mystery school, from the followers of Osiris to those of Jesus Christ. And then of course, there’s the cult of Mithras: a Roman secret society whose theatrical rituals saw men dressed in bulls’ heads acting out scenes of death and rebirth.

But it’s just possible that Bulgaria’s kukeri predate even these; surviving, largely intact, from their own truly ancient source material. Such is the belief of some Bulgarian archeologists, who date the games to almost 8,000 years old… and the fertility rituals of the Bronze Age Thracian tribes.

 

The Rites of Dionysus

As the festival began to wind down, the crowds spilled over the barriers and into the streets. The kukeri dispersed… some of them changing immediately out of costume, but others, perhaps even most, remaining resolutely in character. By now the groups were well and truly mixed. Musicians formed bands on street corners, while men in fur suits ran through the crowds and knocked back beers.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-13There were women, too – female kukers – a sign that the ritual was evolving once again. Those men in dresses, the stubbly brides and bearded crones, appeared in this context not as a casting necessity, but rather a comic touch.

Generally there seemed to be a tidal shift in the direction of the bars. Wooden shacks had been constructed for the festival, hung with good luck charms of feather and felt… and by this stage in the day, their beer gardens were heaving with bodies.

But drinking has always been a part of the Kuker Games.

The early Thracians held rituals to resurrect the sun – their warriors dressed up in animal skins and did battle with the evil spirits that sought to prevent the light’s return. These games survived, and later would be dedicated to Dionysus: the Thracian god of wine, fertility and rebirth. This was their New Year, an agricultural festival celebrated around the time of Lent and heralded by the tilling of fields, the sowing of crops. The Dionysian Mysteries soon became associated with the event, a system of wine-fuelled allegorical plays that bore more than a passing resemblance to Bulgaria’s contemporary kukeri traditions.

According to the historian Peter Hoyle; “Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood … they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly … and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine power.”

I could see a lot of that divine power around me now: Dionysus himself was in the eyes of every reveller as they laughed, swaggered, danced, belched, groped, gobbled and sang into the sunset.

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Kukeri-Surva 2015-33It had grown excruciatingly cold, but there were stalls popping up like mushrooms to ladle out cups of steaming mulled wine; and pretty soon everyone had consumed enough of the stuff that they were on their feet and dancing.

Spontaneous horos were breaking out all over the place, a Bulgarian folk dance that picked up speed as more people were pulled into the line. Two men, homeless by the look of it, had been lurking in a corner with a bottle; but now they joined the dance as well, linking arms and leading the serpentine procession around the pavements to the sound of pipes and manic accordions.

Many Bulgarians will tell you that the kukeri rituals are something like 4,000 years old. Some of them put it at 8,000 years, and even that’s not strictly impossible. Dionysus was worshipped from as early as 1,500 BC, but the Thracians had been around since the dawn of recorded history: some 10,000 years ago.

Of course, proving any of this is another problem altogether. I’ve heard countless dates and theories thrown about, but as yet I’ve seen no conclusive evidence to prove a continuity between what those Thracian cults were up to then, and what happens on the streets of Pernik today.

But perhaps that’s not important. Since then the kukeri have survived 500 years of Ottoman cultural oppression; and half a century of Soviet friendship, during which time the games only remained in favour owing to the unconventionally nationalist character of Bulgarian socialism.

The Kukeri Games, as a symbol of Bulgarian identity, have proven themselves remarkably resilient throughout recent, documented history… and I for one am happy to believe they’re as old as history itself.

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  1. These are from SHAMANIC Cultures lineages, which you did not mention at all where they came from. Its not a mystery or mystical, since the core of the animal skins is not connected to free masons nor Dionysus. The Dionysus / Apollo cults actually destroyed the shamanic cultures which led to the religious sides of the pagans, not the previous shamanic and dreaming cultures. These were Grandmother and matriarchal shamanic culture lineages.

    • Thank you for this comment. You’re right – this article contains a lot of dead-ends. Mostly I was working through available resources, and looking for correlations. This included the Dionysian rites and also comparisons to freemasonry, which I believe are both valid comparisons to make. They’re also practical, easy comparisons to draw, due to the relative wealth of texts available on these ‘mystical’ subjects.

      Although I never mentioned shamanism directly, I feel I pointed in that direction when I suggested that the practice predated all of these other traditions; my conclusion, after all, was that this ceremony most likely has its origins with the Thracians, who practiced it possibly before even the dawn of recorded history.

      I feel as though the study you outline should be the logical next step. I’ve shown similarities and differences between the Kukeri and the historical worlds they have inhabited; perhaps a future article could engage rather with the festival’s ancient, pre-historic roots in shamanism. If you know any good resources on this subject, please, feel free to share them.

  2. A beautifully written article, with great photos to it, you have understand and grasped the essence of the ritual. I am from Pernik and I’m glad you liked our ancient traditions and rituals. Even just now on this day is the opening of the festival for 2016. I myself rarely go to see it although I live just minutes away from the town’s square. I guess I take it for granted. But I am truly happy that you a person from a different country enjoyed it.

    • Hi Andrey, thank you so much for the comment. It means a lot to me, to hear this feedback from someone local to the area!

      I think it’s very easy to take traditions like these for granted, when you’ve known them all your life – but for me, as a foreigner visiting Pernik, I found it all incredibly interesting. It’s a really amazing tradition to have preserved all these years, and I’ve really enjoyed researching and experiencing it.

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