“If you ever saw [the kukeri], they’re just too amazing,” says Gerald Creed, an anthropology professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. “They monopolize the senses. You can’t look away.”
The ritual is a public one, profoundly ancient, full of spectacle and metaphor. Around early winter or midwinter, groups of kukeri (pronounced KOO-kuh-ree) don elaborate costumes—complete with fantastical masks and belts of massive metal bells—and accompany musicians throughout the village, dancing rhythmically to drive away evil and invite good.
He describes them as “multipurpose” rituals: The bells’ clanging and the costumes’ shocking faces divert the evil eye, but the mummers’ dancing path throughout the village also invoke the fertility of people, animals, and agriculture. Kukeri rituals have also served as coming-of-age ceremonies for young men.
“Their origins are too far back to really know,” Creed says, and while core elements of the ritual are found throughout the country, “they’re very variable according to location, region, dialect.”
For instance, in communities near the Macedonian border where animal husbandry is central, the ritual might go by the name survakari, occur around the new year when sheep and goats are giving birth, and involve costumes with animal-like masks over woolen garb. And kukeri, conducting the ritual around midwinter with more abstractly decorated costumes, might be more associated with the agrarian economies of the valleys south of the Balkan Mountains. [Visit an eerie, spaceship-like monument in the Balkan Mountains.]
Some survakari rituals even take on elements of a mock wedding, where a symbolic bride and groom go from house to house, accepting monetary gifts in exchange for bestowing blessings.
The variable practice has also seen broader change in the last half-century. Once solely a young man’s game, kukeri is now practiced by men and women of all ages. Evolving views on gender roles are certainly one factor, says Creed. But when Bulgaria’s population was decimated by communist agricultural practices in the 1960s and 70s—and again by a mass exodus of rural youth after 1989’s economic collapse—women, children, and the elderly became more involved in kukeri practice simply because they were the only ones left.
BEHIND THE LENS
Aron Klein didn’t intend to be a photographer. “I kind of fell in love with it through travel, I guess,” he says.
After several years of shooting an annual music festival in Bulgaria, Klein—who would stay in homes belonging to the “little old ladies in the village”—became interested in documenting his hosts’ rich folk traditions. And when he stumbled upon the kukeri ritual, the project took on a life of its own.
Klein and Elena Sergova, a Bulgarian photographer who acted as his translator and fixer, spent the last two days of January meeting different kukeri groups during Surva, the International Festival of Masquerade Games. Since 1966, the festival has seen increasing numbers of kukeri from all over Bulgaria travel to Pernik, a town just outside Sofia, to show off their costumes and dances. [See pictures of the Surva festival.]
“Then we chased them back to their villages, a kind of two-week road trip,” Klein says. “We were in this tiny little car zigzagging up and down the country.”
Once the pair established a good relationship with a particular kukeri group, Klein staged these portraits in the landscapes unique to each village. “The landscape changes completely, as does the interpretation of the ritual,” Klein explains. “So I wanted each kukeri to be shot in his or her natural environment.” [Watch these Sardinian men don monstrous masks for an ancient pagan ritual.]
Captivating and surreal, the resulting photos display the kukeris’ bold artistry against a backdrop of barren winter.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
From Sardinia to Portugal, pre-Christian winter masquerade rituals still have deep roots in Europe. After all, even in an age saturated with artificial light, there’s plenty of dark to ward against. For those in search of an experience that others might overlook, Bulgaria’s many regional differences set it apart from the crowd. [See pictures of Europe's other "wild men" masquerades.]
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“Bulgaria is very rural; it has a weird, quirky, post-Soviet charm,” Klein says. (Although socialist Bulgaria was a primary ally of the U.S.S.R., it was never a Soviet state itself.) “The people are incredibly friendly.”
Many villages where kukeri is practiced are dauntingly remote, especially for those without the time to forge personal connections. Kukeri festivals, like Surva or the midwinter festival in Yambol, are a good alternative: Though more performance than ritual, Creed says, they showcase the traditions’ regional diversity in a way a single village can’t. [Retrace the old Silk Road, where today's cultures still mix—and collide.]
And while the festival system first arose as a Communist attempt to dispel regional kukeri practices, Creed notes that the competition has only encouraged the preservation of village rituals. By the 1970s, Communist governments recognized the rituals could be used to encourage nationalism, and by the 1980s, local government officials were organizing the rituals themselves. [See haunting relics of a country that no longer exists.]
Today’s kukeri tradition is alive and well. And to make the most of travel in Bulgaria, Klein recommends renting a car, and staying at local motels and Airbnb’s as he did during this project.
Those planning to see Bulgaria’s kukeri for themselves should be mindful of their impact by supporting local economies and choosing local guides. Even among the friendliest villagers, tourists may be met with “interest juxtaposed with animosity,” Creed says.
“People want to come and look at the kukeri, but villagers don’t get anything out of it, because tourists stay in hotels—they come to the village and leave that day.”