Each year, on a day soon after New Years and before Lent, the festival of Kukeri is celebrated in Bulgaria. It is a tradition that may date back as far as 4,000 years to the ancient Thracians – and to Dionysus, the Thracian and Greek god associated with wine, fertility, and rebirth. The festival is replete with mystical symbolism, steeped as it is in a tradition representing the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
At the beginning of the festival, the participants assemble to pick out a leader who will play the most significant part in the ceremonies. This Kuker’s costume consists of the hides of seven animals, beasts from which he is believed to draw strength. Unlike his fellow Kukeri, he puts on black face paint instead of a mask, and the horns are stuck straight to his head. The wooden phallus hanging from his belt leaves no doubt as to the powerful underlying symbolism of this festival: fertility.
During the carnival, the head Kuker will be required to perform various rituals to impart health, fecundity and good fortune to the people of his village. This includes visiting their various homes, where he will be offered bread and wine, symbols of blood and flesh sacrifice even in pre-Christian times. The Kuker then performs several mimes, including rubbing himself on the homeowner’s floor. And as he and the other Kukeri make their way through the village, they will also mimic duels and other demonstrations of their masculinity – including sexual acts. Still, all of this serves to bless the villages with prosperity and, of course, the all-important fertility.
From: The Kukeri Ritual: Bulgaria's Sinister Day of Monsters
By North Utsire