Chasingaway of evil forces and spirits is an ancient Bulgarian (and not only) custom that began more than 6000 years ago.
Experts can not say with accuracy since when the rituals ofbanishingthe evil forcesexist, but there is evidence that the first kukeri games were held in honor of the god Dionysius, the Greek god of merriment and wine. The worshipers of Dionysius were called satyrs and they were portrayed as ugly creatures with long beards,goat legs and animal ears. Experts are of the opinion that the appearance of the Kukeri costumes and masks originates precisely fromthe scary and repulsive appearance of satyrs.
Wearing and rattlingwith bells also comes from ancient times, or more precisely from the battle dance of the soldiers during the Crete wars, who danced and hit their shields when they wanted to scare their enemy.
The first recorded information about performed kukeri rituals on the Bulgarian lands dates back to the VI century, but the truth is that such rituals have been performed since ancient times.
According to experts, the kukeri games in the past had a ritual character that has been passed from the pagan times. In those ancient times, people believed that wearing scary costumes and masks and making loud noises with bellsand chanswould chase away evil forces from people’s homes and their village would be protected from bad things and famine.
Nowadays, the Kukeri games have become more of a carnival, but to this day, in many different regions of the country, most of the ancient rituals have been preserved and are very much appreciated by all participants in the Kukeri games.
In different regions of the country,the kukeri“chasing away” of the evil spirits and forcesis performed at different times. In Eastern Bulgaria, for example, the chase away of evil forces is usually performed between the second Sunday before Lent and the first Sunday before Lent, while in Western Bulgaria, kukeri games take place between Christmas and New Year.
There are regional differences not only in terms of the time during which the games take place, but also in the varieties in the name, costumes and ways in which the ceremony is conducted in the different areas of the country.
Each one of the Kukeri festivals that takes place in the country is unique with its own peculiarities, but over the last ten or even more years the kukeri games in the townof Bansko have been gaining popularity.
Traditional Kukeri carnival in the town of Bansko
Unlike other regions in the country, kukerior“babugeri”/as they are called in Bansko/, or“babudzhere” according to the typical dialect of Bansko, go out on the streets of the town not once, but twice.
On Christmas Day, the the babugeri go out on the streets without their traditional costumes. On their waist they wear a belt with a few heavy chans, with which they make noise as they walk around the town.
If you are in Bansko at Christmas and hear the sound of drums, ringing of bells, or someone speaks to you with the typical dialect in Bansko: “We jingle bells on Christmas” you should know that if you want to enjoy a great celebration you should immediately head to the center of the town.
The real Kukeri Carnival in Bansko starts in the first hours of the New Year. As soon as the clock strikes 12 and after the people leave the square, Bansko is quiet for a little while to prepare for one of its most anticipated holidays – the Kukeri carnival.
Since dawn, kukeri gather in three of the neighborhoods of the city – “Vionovo Blato”, “Ulevinitsa” and “Kostey Blata“.
The babugeri are traditionally only men, usually young or recently married. Participants in each group play different roles. It is a must for the babugeri to be led by a guide or the so-called “elder”. He is the only man of advanced age, with family and children. Other important characters are “The young bride”, “The young man” and the “Priest”.
It is typical for the babugeri in Banskoto wear leather costumes with fur on theoutside, and on their heads they wear up to 1 meter high leather masks (the so-called “surates”). On their waste, the Babugeri have several heavy and very loud chans, the sound of which “chases” evil forces.
The Kukeri groups participating in the carnival gather since dawn and start their walk from one house to another. Usually, when they enter a house, they go around and rattle it as loudly as possible with the chans, and finally the guidemakes a blessing on the family. At the end of the ritual, the homeowners give wine and food to the babugeri to show their gratitude that they have visited their home.
Going from house to house and banishing the evil forces by rattling as loudly as possible with the chans, each of the Kukeri groups “goes down” to the center or “square” of the town.
Kukeri walk through the central streets of Bansko running, jingling and frightening adults and children with their scary masks, followed by an orchestra, which further enriches the incredible procession.
The culmination of the Kukeri Carnival is at the center of the town, where in the afternoon, the Babugeri groups gather to perform their special ritual of “plowing and sowing.”
The beginning of the ritual starts, with all the babugeri running and rattling with the chans to chase away the evil from the town. Then, two of the kukeri harness a wooden plow to ritually plow the ground. They are followed by the guide who “sows” the grain in order for the land to be fertile next year.
After the elder sows the grain, he blesses the earth and the people. At the end of the ritual, one of the kukeri kills the guide and the other participants resurrect him and this marks the beginning of the new year.
In some regions of the country, apart from plowing the ground and sowing grain, a ritual wedding is performed, after which the young manimpregnates the girl and she gives birth (a symbol of a new beginning).
At the end of the day, the carnival continues with lots of music, fun, dancing and a wonderful meal at the center of the town.
- * In Bansko, the participants in Kukeri groups are preparing themselves all year long for this one and only day in which they will put on costumes and masks and “banish” evil spirits.
- *Entire families participate in the babugeri groups. The grandfathers pass their love for this festival to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all participate together in the carnival.
- *People in Banskomake their own masks and costumes, which makes them truly unique and without analogue in the country. The costumes are made of special long-haired goats, the wool of which must be collected for at least a year to make a real babugeri costume.
- Unlike the masks used in other regions of the country, the masks of kukeri in Banskoare almost entirely made of fur-covered leather, about a meter high and usually end with a ponytail.Apart from openings for the eyes and mouth, masks (“surates”) do not have much decoration, except for a red ribbon, which symbolizes fertility, a new beginning and, according to Bulgarian beliefs, it protects people against evil forces. Masks are traditionally scary and ugly so they can “scare” and banish the evil far away.
- Although in the past all Kukeri were only young men, today the traditional Kukeri festival in Bansko also involves girls and very small children.
- Every year, Kukeri groups from different regions of the country arrivein Banskoto participate in the carnival. Most interestingly, in recent years, more and more foreign Kukeri groups have been willing to participate.
- Bansko’s Kukeri take part in a number of festivals such as: the “Strachevata” international kukeri festival in the town of Razlog, the Pernik Festival, the Kukeri Festival in Yambol and others.
- Except in Bulgaria, Kukeri are also popular in other countries such as Italy, Romania, Serbia, Moldova, Greece, Northern Macedonia, Croatia, Spain and Slovenia. In all these countries, the Kukeri have different names, but the purpose of the ritual they perform is one – to chase evil forces away from the cities, towns and villages.