November 16, 2014
If you’re in Bulgaria on New Year’s or on Sirni Zagovezni, the first Sunday before Lent, you will be in for a fascinating parade and series of skits as the kukeri make their appearance. These are men who dress in furry costumes that cover most of their bodies, and they wear colorful wooden masks with scary faces of rams, goats, or bulls. The hand-carved masks display snapping jaws, twisted horns, and frightening eyes. Some masks even portray two faces—one evil and one good—to symbolize the duality of nature.
The men often attach to the masks shiny objects, such as mirrors, ivy (sacred to Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and rebirth), basil (for love), and multi-colored threads and fabrics. Red symbolizes the sun’s fire. Black is the embodiment of the earth itself. And white signifies water and light. All three elements were essential for restoring the fertility of the land after a long winter. (photo credit: kafene.bg)
Like many of the Bulgarian traditions, this one also has Thracian origins. During the time of the winter solstice, ancient people believed that the heavens and earth were at their closest points and became one, allowing evil spirits to enter the realm of mankind. These spirits sought to bring chaos to the world by preventing the return of light, that is, the rebirth of the Sun God. Without the Sun’s return, the earth could not be fertilized. Therefore, Thracian warriors would don animal skins, which allowed them to contact the spirit world, enabling them to battle against the evil spirits. The celebrations that began with the Sun’s rebirth continued into ancient Dionysian rites symbolizing life, death, and rebirth, performed in the spring before the sowing of the harvest.
Stopping at houses along the route, the men perform various skits pantomiming plowing and sowing of seeds, rocking back and forth indicating heavy ears of corn weighing them down, jumping into the air to portray tall crops, rolling on the ground to draw on its strength, fighting evil spirits, as well as the conception and birth of infants. In return, they are given food (bread and wine, symbolic of the flesh and blood of pagan sacrifices) and money, which will later be sold and the money given to charities or to help offset the cost of the celebration.
While the kukeri dance and jump along the streets, large copper or bronze bells surrounding their waists clang loudly. (A single bell can be as large as a foot in diameter and weighing twenty pounds.) The noise from the bells, the frightful masks, and the mirrors on the masks are meant to chase away evil spirits. It is also done to ensure a plentiful harvest, good health, and happiness.