I first encountered the koukeri at the folk festival in Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria, during the summer of 1991. Here was this group of men wearing amazing costumes elaborate animal masks over women’s clothes, with huge bells around their waists. The cast of characters included a bride and groom, and two men dressed as oxen, with a yoke on their necks attached to a plow, who performed a plowing ritual led by the bride. Another, dressed as a bear, did a healing ritual involving stepping on and over the back of someone lying on the ground. I later found out that this healing is common in the Balkans, and the archetypal gypsy’s trained dancing bears (real bears I saw two at the festival) are often hired by people to do this healing ritual. I had seen the first of several Bulgarian ritual groups, called koukeri, that were at the festival. The koukeri groups did not usually perform on the stages like most of the singers, musicians and dancers, but, like guerilla performers, would run through the festival with their bells making a very loud racket and drawing all attention to themselves, to set up in some random corner of a field where they would perform.

Koukeri are groups of young men with costumes and masks who traditionally travel around performing rituals in villages of Southeastern Bulgaria, during the first week of Lent. They have preserved elements of the agricultural culture of the ancient Thracians, and show many survivals of pagan fertility rituals. The customs combine songs, dances, rituals and skits into what can be considered a form of non-literary or folk theater. There are several distinctions to be made between this folk theater and regular literary theater. The characters in the folk theater are archetypes, such as a king and queen, or a bride and groom, rather than specific persons. The person playing one of these roles is not being an actor so much as embodying the archetype being represented. There is also not the separation between audience and performers found in a real theater with a stage. The koukeri usually perform in the village square, interacting directly with the villagers, who may also participate actively in the rituals, or be drawn into the skits. Even those who just watch are in a sense participating in the overall ritual.

A typical group’s cast of characters always includes the leader, also called the "chief kouker", "the old kouker," or the "real kouker," who often carries a big wooden phallus painted red. There is usually a king and queen, and a bride and groom, sometimes with a retinue of ritual wedding personages. Frequently there is a grandmother (called "baba" or "babo," possibly related to the classical "Baubo," a character in the Eleusinian mysteries of Persephone), represented as a hunchbacked old woman, who carries a baby in a basket. These central characters are the ones who perform the principal rituals.

The baby is understood to have been born out of wedlock, and the mother does not know who the father is. Carrying the baby in a basket instead of a cradle is a common symbol of carrying a divine child, for example, Moses, or in this case, Dionysus. The word used for the basket, "likno," is a descendant of the classical term "liknon," with the same meaning, used in the worship of Dionysus. In the myth of Dionysus, his mother Semele does not know that the father is Zeus, and when he appears in his actual form as lightning, she is struck and killed.

Other characters of lesser importance may include a barber, a priest, two tax collectors, a bear trainer with a bear, a Turkish policeman, or other figures from the recent past or contemporary life. These characters are usually involved in the humorous skits, which often are based on real life situations.

Each different group has its own style of costumes, and traditionally each member prepared his own costume in secret. The costumes are usually some form of animal hide - oxen, bull, goat, ram, etc. In addition to the animal skins, they may also wear women’s clothes, which is seen as a connection to the fertility aspects of the cult. They always have bells, sometimes quite large, on their belts, and carry wooden phalli or swords. The masks are typically of oxen, bulls, goats, rams, bears, horses or other animals. The use of the mask of a bull has been seen by some scholars to indicate a connection with the ancient Thracian festivals in honor of Dionysus.

The actual customs have two main aspects. The first part starts with the koukeri gathering in the village square, ringing their bells, jesting with the villagers, and hitting them with their sticks, a ritual action designed to bring good luck and fertility, similar to the Lupercalia ritual. A special dance is performed in the square, and some scenes are acted out. A typical skit involves death and resurrection. The king is killed, the grandmother or the bride mourns him, sometimes with phallic humor, and he comes back to life. There are also other skits, often with bawdy and humorous aspects, dealing with marriage, healing, preparing seed for planting, etc. Each group has its own cast of characters and repertoire of stories, usually with a connection to fertility, or some reflection of the actual day to day life of the village. It should be mentioned that the phallic aspects are not seen as indecent. Because of the ritual character of the customs, and the fact that the performers are doing them as archetypal characters, the actions are not evaluated in the context of ordinary life, but are seen as symbols of the fertilizing principle.

After gathering in the square, the koukeri then travel around the village, visiting the houses. At each house they dance in front of the house, wish fertility to all who are there, and collect presents. They may also perform some of the skits. After visiting the houses, they return to the square in the evening to perform the central ritual, the plowing and sowing of the village square. The king, with a crown and a beard, is the central character here. He is brought into the square on a cart drawn by koukeri dressed as oxen. Several koukeri are placed in the yoke of the plow, and are led by the bride while the king follows, sowing the seed. As he swings his arm casting the seed, the other koukeri leap into the air, with their bells ringing loudly. Sympathetic magic is revealed in the belief that the higher they jumped, the taller the crops would be. After the sowing, the king dispenses blessings while the rest dance. Sometimes, after the sowing, the koukeri would attack the king and kill him, and the same skit of death and resurrection would be re-enacted. In another variant, the king is seized and thrown in the river, as a rain making charm.

Ivanichka Georgeieva comments on the koukeri - "In this carnival, heralding spring, there intertwined mystical and religious observances and beliefs of various epochs. They kept alive the ancient tradition and the link with Dionysus." What strikes me is the similarities with the calusari of Romania, as described in the book calus, by Gail Kligman, whose fascinating, scholarly study I have relied on for this description. The calusari are ritual groups of young men who worship the Goddess Diana as their patron, and tour their villages doing dances and rituals, also in the Spring. The Romanians consider themselves descendants of the Romans, and regard the calusari as originating in classical Roman times. Other scholars have traced it to ancient Greek or Thracian roots. Whatever their ultimate origins, these customs are described in historical records dating back to the thirteenth century, in a text from Demetrios Chomantianos, Archbishop of Ohrid in 1230.

The calusari also have many of the same characters and skits found in the koukeri. They do not have the masks and animal costumes, but instead resemble English Morris dancers in appearance, wearing bells on the ankles or lower legs, and holding staffs. In addition to the similarities to the koukeri, the calusari also share some of the same characters as the Morris dancers, including the fool or harlequin. The calusari dancing is especially famous for its vigor and complexity, and groups of dancers are often featured in staged productions. In marked contrast to the native folk dances, which are mostly circle or line dances, the calusari dances are done in a formation of solo dancers, again somewhat similar to the form of the Morris dances. The popularity of the dances has helped the groups survive into the present, as during the Communist era they, and other similar ritual groups throughout Eastern Europe, were encouraged as part of national folklore, although the religious and ritual elements were downplayed. Now that the repression has been lifted, and religion is coming back strongly among the people again, it will be interesting to see if the older pagan beliefs reappear along with the orthodox religions.

A calusari group is active for only a ritually defined period of time during the Spring, and begins with a ceremony called "raising the flag," which is performed secretly and includes the members swearing oaths to the group and its leader. During the period of calus, the members are bound by a taboo against any sexual contact with women, and married members must live apart from their wives. There is always an odd number of men in a group. In addition to the dancing, the group also does skits very much like the folk theater mentioned previously. But the most important part, at least to the native folk, of what they do is the ritual curing of delirium or paralysis caused by possession by wood or water nymphs, or fairies.

Before performing this ritual, one of the members draws a magic circle around the group with his sword. The space inside is considered sacred space, and no one else is permitted to enter except the person being cured. The leader would divine the specific taboo that had been violated by the victim, and pick the dance appropriate to it. After the dance, the cure culminated in the breaking of an earthenware jar next to the sick person, destroying the evil spirits. Sometimes one of the calusari would then become possessed as the victim recovers. He would then be revived by one of the many types of death and resurrection skits that are a large part of the folk theater. Again, many of these have humorous and bawdy aspects.

The leader of the group is the one responsible for choosing and training any new members, and is also the keeper of the mysteries, passing the secrets orally to his successor. Kligman relates how one retired leader would not reveal any of the secrets even though there was no longer a group in his village, but indicated that he still had to pass on the knowledge.

In addition to the ritual groups of men, there are also women’s groups. In Bulgaria, the Saturday a week before Easter is known as Lazaritza. The custom is of ancient origin, though it was later connected with the day of Saint Lazar’s resurrection. It is a rite of passage marking the transition of young girls from children to maidens, meaning that they are now considered young adults. It is the first time that they are dressed up in maiden’s costumes, which are quite elaborate and richly ornamented with embroidery and flowers. The girls learn the rituals, dances and songs from adults during the time before Lazaritza. The girls in a group are usually friends or neighbors, but the matching of their singing voices is also important.

Groups of six tour their village, and enter each house, where they perform for the health and fertility of people and animals. Upon entering a house they were greeted by the host and hostess, and would ask to whom they should sing. There are different songs for singing to the "master," the "mistress," a "lad" or a "lass." At houses with bee hives or sheep, they would sing to the bees or the lambs. When singing to a person, the leader would place a cloth on the shoulder of the person being sung to, and after finishing the song, it would be returned filled with money. If there is an unmarried man in the house, he is sung to first. If he likes one of the maidens, he refuses to give back the cloth. All the maidens ask for it one by one and finally, when asked for the second time, he gives it to the one he has chosen as a sign of engagement.

Very similar, and probably related, practices are found in nearby countries. In addition to customs found in the Lazaritza, the Laduvane rituals in Slavic Macedonia include a fortune-telling rite. People put rings in a bowl of water, and they are picked out one at a time by a blindfolded maiden, while the ritual song is sung. The verse being sung while a ring is picked becomes the oracle for the person whose ring it is. In Croatia, the Ladarke ritual also includes references to an ancient Slavonic deity called Lado, a river Goddess possibly related to the river known anciently as Ladon, and also referred to as the Slavonic Venus.

During times of drought in Bulgaria, the rain making ritual called vaidudule is performed in the spring. A young girl, usually an orphan, is chosen for the role of vaidudulitsa, the leader of the procession. In some regions, she is dressed in a white rag shirt, symbolic of the purity of the child, and her head and body are decorated with green twigs of ivy and willow. In other places, she is dressed in a garment of tobacco leaves. Another important magical condition is that she must be barefoot. The group of young girls, with the vaidudulitsa at the head of the procession, goes around the village from east to west. The vaidudulitsa moves with dancing steps and small capers, raising her arms and crossing them in front of her forehead, imitating a butterfly, while the group sings a special ritual song which is a prayer for rain. When the group passes a house, the mistress comes out and throws water over the vaidudulitsa, or on her feet, an act which has the purpose both of sympathetic magic and ritual purification. The term vaidudule comes from the words Vai dudule in the refrain of the ritual song. The terms dodola, dudula, dudule, and variants are common throughout many Balkan languages, and have been traced to an Indo-European root which refers to the shaking of the head or beard of the Thunder God, showing the connection with rain.

Another men’s ritual group takes place during the so-called nasty days, the period between Xmas and Epiphany (Jan. 6) when the old year was replaced the new. This is commonly regarded in Slavic countries as a period of return to chaos, i.e. to the time before the chaos was transformed into an orderly system. Many of the songs sung then are about the world tree, regarded as sanctioning the cosmic order, life, fertility, marriage, good fortune, and making an integral whole of the cosmic elements. In Southwestern Bulgaria, the babugeri dressed in furs with the hair on the outside, and wore bells around their waists. Carrying wooden swords, they had a mask of fur or an animals head covering the face. The survakari were typical of Western Bulgaria, and wore masks with a mixture of wild animal and bird elements, using bird feathers, wings and beaks, as well as ox or fox tails. They also carried swords or staffs. Some of their masks are huge, sometimes as much as six feet taller than the top of the wearer’s head.

In Southern Macedonia, similar groups called russalii performed ritual dances for the sake of fertility and good health. A major part of their ritual was the healing of people afflicted with delirium or paralysis, like the Romanian calusari mentioned before. This was also a characteristic part of the rituals of the kalushari of Northern Bulgaria who performed during Midsummer Week. According to the Bulgarian scholar M. Armaoudov, the customs know as russalii and kalushari had the same origin, and could be viewed as a legacy from ancient Thrace. Although the Bulgarian kalushari have died out, the Romanian calusari and the Bulgarian koukeri still survive. In Bulgaria, there is a gathering of koukeri groups from all over the country held in Pernik every other year.

This article is not a comprehensive survey, even of just the Balkans. There are more different types of groups I am aware of, and probably even more that I am not aware of. In the magazine Natural History, January 1993, there is an article on end-of-winter customs in Moldova and the Caucasus, which shows many similarities, and I have been told there are similar groups in the Baltic countries, so these types of ritual groups seem to span most of Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps some customs found in Western Europe at Carnival time (similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which is a modern day derivation) are also related.

And what about Morris dancing? This more familiar example of a ritual group originated in England and is also very popular in America. The similarities with the Eastern European groups are so striking that it is tempting to theorize that they are also descended from ancient pagan times, and I have seen some people claim this, usually saying that they came to the West via the Moors in Spain. However, this is still a unsettled issue in the academic world, and I have been told by a graduate student studying this issue that the latest evidence seems to indicate that Morris dancing was made up by English folklorists in recent times. (This does not include the authentic old English customs like the Padstow May Eve tradition and Abbots Bromley Horn dance, which have been documented as older.) If Morris dancing was indeed put together more recently, the creators must have known about the other older ritual groups to create something so similar, and they must have known what they were doing, because they created a successful tradition which has continued to grow and spread.

The ritual groups discussed in this article share certain characteristics; they exist only during certain well-defined times of the year, usually times that are somehow ritually important; their members are only of one sex, either all female or all male, though some of the men’s groups have cross-dressing to play female roles; their ritual purpose usually has something to do with fertility; they often go from house to house bringing blessings to the inhabitants; except for some groups now preserved in formal organizations (schools, youth groups, civic groups, etc.), their structure has similarities to a magical group, with elder members passing on the tradition by training the newer initiates, who may be ritually bound to the group by an oath; and members may also be subject to certain taboos during the group’s time of activity. Some of these groups have had their roots traced back to ancient pagan times by scholars, others are of unknown derivation. Their belief system and world-view are similar to, and compatible with, modern Neo-Paganism and Wicca. I recently met an American, of Croatian descent, who told me she considers herself Wiccan, and also still performs the Croatian Ladarke ritual every year. Perhaps a theory could be developed that the so-called Traditional or Hereditary Wiccan groups are actually part of this same tradition of ancient ritual groups which have survived into the present.

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