In western Slovenia, two hours from Ljubljana, the Soča River cuts through the hills around a cluster of storybook villages. This lush region, where the Julian Alps meet the Italian border, has long been a hub for outdoor adventures, from whitewater rafting to hiking.
But on this late winter morning, with mist hugging the riverbanks, the natural scenery makes a perfect backdrop for a parade of monsters.
No, this isn’t a fever dream. It’s part of Pust (pronounced poost), Slovenia’s version of Carnival, tied to the Christian holiday of Shrovetide. It’s a millennia-old tradition that almost didn’t survive due to the efforts of disapproving church leaders and, in later years, a socialist regime.
Fortunately, Pust prevailed to become one of Slovenia’s biggest cultural events. It’s quite a spectacle: locals dress up in elaborate, handmade costumes and masks, some wearing a belt of cowbells that clatter as they walk and shimmy through town. All the better to scare away any vestiges of winter and clear the way for spring.
“Pust is one of the oldest [continuously observed] rituals,” says Janez Bogataj, a Slovenian ethnographer. “It goes back far before the Christian era.”
Depending on which town you’re in, the festival takes on different names and characteristics, which are fiercely championed in each hamlet. Kurentovanje Pust, in Ptuj, is probably the country’s most famous, with monsters (called kurenti here) attracting big crowds to the eastern city. The details may differ regionally, but one thing remains the same—the monsters are the stars.
Meet the monsters
Who are these fearsome creatures with the power to summon spring? They’re called the “Beautiful Ones” and the “Ugly Ones” (ta lepi and ta grdi, respectively, in the local dialect). And each group, along with all their related characters, plays important roles.
Like a springtime welcome wagon, the “Beautiful Ones” (depicted as newlyweds, doctors, and other characters) visit homes, offering gifts and indulging in shots of homemade schnapps. To homeowners, these visits promise good luck for the rest of the year.
The “Ugly Ones” (devils or women carrying their husbands in a basket) make all the mischief. Their job is to chase away winter and eventually “kill” Pust (aka Old Man Winter, depicted as a straw doll). “Pustje,” the most iconic, don colorful suits made of strips of fabric and horned helmets with demonic wooden faces. Their arms are covered in soot. In some villages, they wield wooden pincers.
Together, the motley crew makes its way to the edge of town, where Pust is set ablaze.
Preserving craft traditions
Locals take particular pride in how they interpret these age-old Pust traditions. In Kanal and the towns around Lig, villagers call their festival Liski Pust, and their claim to fame are bakreni, glimmering masks hammered out of sheet metal.
Once made of copper, the bakreni (and the festival) were forgotten after World War I, when metal supplies ran low. Then in the 1950s, locals uncovered a 19th-century copper mask from a house being renovated.
The artifact—preserved by a painter named Pavel Medvešček—inspired resident Branko Žnidarčič to rekindle the mask-making tradition and the festival in the 1980s. He now runs a workshop and a museum displaying more than 200 of his creations.
“I began to make reconstructions of old, nearly forgotten characters, with the help of Pavel Medvešček’s documents and sketches,” Žnidarčič explains. “Before they were lost to oblivion, he recorded many carnival figures, which he accurately described and drew.”
Masks are also important for the residents of Drežnica—and for good reason. Drežnica Pust is famous for its antique “ugly” mask, which some villagers believe is the oldest in town.
With a maniacal grin framed by oversized red lips, a battlement of white teeth, and a lolling red leather tongue, plus a huge mane of shaggy sheepskin and ram horns, the mask would frighten even the most stout-hearted of Shrovetide celebrants.
Costumes aren’t the only aspects of the tradition that differ from village to village. Some hamlets follow a different playbook, and that can lead to rivalries between neighboring towns over who does Pust right.
Unlike Drežnica Pust, Ravenski Pust villagers throw their party a week before Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and are sticklers for doing things the old-school way. After the day’s visits, when night descends, the monster parade takes on a solemn tone.
Demonic “Bearers” (characters unique to this event) drag a sled of branches carrying the strawman Pust outside of town. There, they set the whole thing on a bonfire, which blazes into the night.
In contrast, Drežnica Pust adds a trial and an “execution” by shotgun for good measure before Pust is burned. Such differences may seem insignificant to outsiders, but these are crucial details to locals.
Boys to men
There’s method to all this madness. These fun-loving festivities are steeped in age-old supernatural beliefs that go beyond the rite of spring. For many, Pust is also a rite of passage, where boys become men.
A big part of any Pust festival involves the Pustje characters chasing boys through town. Once caught, the monsters playfully “beat” the boys with stockings stuffed with ash, dramatically filling the air with clouds of smoke.
The “baptismal” dusting refers to the bonfire that brings Pust—winter, childhood, and all those things—to an end. With the coming of spring, the ash-covered boys are transformed into men. For some, that means taking on the roles of monsters at the next Pust, a year ahead, starting the cycle all over again.
For some villagers, Pust is more important than any other life event.
“I’ll explain it this way,” says Blaž Rakušček, the president of Ravenski Pust, “if my final exams at school fell on Pust, I’d rather engage in Pust and have to redo the academic year.”
Ciril Jazbec is a National Geographic photographer and explorer from and based in Slovenia. Follow him on Instagram.