The Mystical Kukeri: Bulgaria’s Guardians

Need to get rid of some evil spirits? Bulgarians have an ancient and mystical tradition which helps them keeping these bad fellas away. Every last weekend of January, people gather in various parts of the country to perform a magical ritual that dates back millennia.

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This is known as the Surva Festival, most characteristic of the city of Pernik, where people dress in sheepskin and wooden masks, as the Kukeri, to drive back to the forest all illnesses. The name kuker has been derived from Latin cuculla meaning “hood, cowl” or cucurum, “quiver” (i.e. in the sense of a container; an abbreviation of koukouros geros).

The Origins Of The Bulgarian Kukeri

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The custom in Bulgarian lands has a long and rich history, it dates back to the times when the Thracians ruled these lands, where it was celebrated during the days of the Thracian god of merriment Dionysius. It was mostly a celebration of the agricultural new year, associated with plowing the fields.

The Surva Festival celebrates the passing of winter and the onset of summer fertility. And what better way to do it than wearing scary masks and huge costumes to scare away any ill-intended spirit trying to ruin your crop.

Most Kukeri masks have a wooden frame, multiple threads, pieces of multicolored fabrics, mirrors, shiny sequins and many other elements. They have to make it uglier and scarier to scare away evil.

The most ancient are the masks representing the species of ram, goat and bull. Their obligatory presence in the Surva Festival proves the thesis that the festival itself is originally related to the ancient worshipers of Dionysius

The Bulgarian Kukeri Mythology

Although the Surva Festival has its roots in Dionysian rituals, it adopted a more Bulgarian face with the passing of time. It started involving other Bulgarian mythological creatures apart from the Kukeri, as well as a narrative to teach morals to the young.

Legend says that hundreds of years ago, the land was plagued with evil spirits, which tormented people undisturbed. These demons were led by the most terrible of all creatures: Chuma, the plague.

Living was a constant state of despair, and no one knew how to solve the issue. But one day, mythical creatures known as the Samodivi water nymphs felt too sorry for us humans and decided to help… in their own way. The animation The Golden Apple explains it in a lovely way.

The Kuker’s Magical Bells

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Not only it is visually appealing, but most of the attractiveness of the festival also comes from the sounds it creates. Since the legend states that the Kukers magic bells drive the evil spirits into the woods, to this day the same bells are used and can be heard all over the city.

The bells come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each different frequency created by these bells is said to scare away a particular type of evil spirit. If you wish to one day experience this first person, prepare youself for the amazing sound!

The Pernik’s Surva Festival

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The Surva Feestival is not only the biggest festival of Bulgaria, but also of the entire Balkan peninsula. Every year, it counts with close to 6.000 participants divided into around 100 groups from every folklore region of Bulgaria. Also important to notice is that it also involves participants from other European countries, as well as Asian and African.

The city of Pernik has been hosting the Surva festival since 1966. In 1985 the festival gained international-event status. In June 2009, Pernik was proclaimed as the European capital of Surva’s and Mummers.

And don’t get things wrong, the contestants come here to win! The awards for the three first places are the mystical gold, silver and bronze Kuker masks. The categories of the competition are the following:

  • Maintenance of the Local Tradition
  • Group Attractiveness
  • Masks and Costumes
  • Training in Tradition
  • Comprehensive Presentation
  • Best Mask (Child and Adult)

A Living Bulgarian Tradition

The Surva Festival is still alive after centuries, surviving many wars, occupations and the Christianization of Bulgaria. It is the pure expression of the culture of a people who suffered greatly throughout history, but managed to keep their sense of identity. Definitely worth seeing with your own eyes.

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