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In a period of natural kukerchaos, when according to the folk beliefs the beyond barges into the world of the living, our centuries-old traditions come to our help. The older Bulgarians know a means of thwarting the evil, to chase it away ritualistically and to re-create the genesis of the world and also to impose an equilibrium in the world around us. During the days around New Year’s and Shrove Sunday, using one of the most attractive, noisiest and most impressive ritualistic moments from the Bulgarian culture, the transition from darkness to light follows the logic of transforming the chaos into cosmos. In a period of natural chaos, when according to the folk beliefs the beyond barges into the world of the living, our centuries-old traditions come to our help. The older Bulgarians know a means of thwarting the evil, to chase it away ritualistically and to re-create the genesis of the world and also to impose an equilibrium in the world around us. During the days around New Year’s and Shrove Sunday, using one of the most attractive, noisiest and most impressive ritualistic moments from the Bulgarian culture, the transition from darkness to light follows the logic of transforming the chaos into cosmos. Frightful masked characters called kukeri (in the south-eastern part where this takes place around Shrove Sunday, on Kukovden day) and survakari (in the western part around New Year’s or during the so-called Dirty Days that last from Christmas to Epiphany) ritualistically walk through the village in the darkness of the night and chase away the black forces that have come from the world alien to us. They purify the perilous non-human nature and bring in fertility. The tradition is rich in color and differences, all over our lands. Each region adds something local which contributes to the truthfulness and authenticity of the rite. What is common is that the main purpose of this rite is to provide for a rich harvest and good fortune and parts of it include fertilization, ploughing or sowing seeds. Bathing in clean running water after the rite is something else that participants everywhere perform to make sure that absolutely nothing of the evil stays with them. The idea of copulation leading to birth is easy to be seen during the entire ritual: in the movements, in the playacting, and in the kukeri’s behavior. People believe that if a kuker touches a childless woman with his staff, he will cast such a powerful spell on her that she will now be able to conceive. It is mostly young unmarried men who choose to dress up and for them the ritual carries the meaning of a rite of passage. Now that they have taken part in it, they can marry. The kukeri rite is similar to Christmas carolling also because women have no place in the ritual as participants. However, an important aspect of this tradition is men morphing into women. Some men from the kukeri group put on women’s clothes. This is a sacred moment because the recreated beings become androgynous, who are both men and women and who in this way go back to the beginning of the world, to its creation. Seen as a state of copulation, this carries the meaning of the demanded and searched fertility and hence of health and prosperity. The masked men play the role of representatives of the beyond and wear traits of the animalistic, the non-human, the alien. Monstrous masks and inside-out coats with no human speech but with animal growling or deadly silence, accompanied by the deafening din of metal cattle bells add a powerful dose of sorcery and evoke jolting emotions. Here most important is the mask. It is an unnatural combination of the animalistic and human and the result is scary but somehow familiar too. Skins, feathers, horns, bones or entire heads of domestic or wild animals and birds, furry and long-pile fabrics, gourds, small mirrors, beads, traditional wedding jewellery, strings of dried red peppers, garlic, beans and cobs of corn – the result can be the most stunning combination. The horns of an ox or a goat may grow from a bird’s head or the ram may get rooster wings. This makes the masks repulsive but that is their purpose. Naturally, new elements appear with the passage of time and they emphasize the comic aspect of the rite and make it looks somewhat like a theatrical show. But the deep meaning remains intact: The kukeri chase away the evil and darkness and engender well-being for people. 

Text and photo by: Aneliya Ovnarska - Milusheva