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Slovenia’s Winter Carnivale Draws a Woolly, Colorful Crowd

Kurents Gather in Kongresni Trg
Kurents Gather in Kongresni Trg. Photo: Riley A Arthur

National Geographic grantee Riley Arthur is documenting the Erased of Slovenia- 25,000+ non-ethnic Slovenian residents were left without legal status after the country split from Yugoslavia in 1991. Over two decades later, the community is still fighting for documentation. These stories are about the Erased and the places they live. 

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February in Slovenia is a marked by a tradition that predates many of the historic buildings in its capital Ljubljana. It’s called Kurentovanje, the pagan folklore festival aimed to banish winter and welcome the spring. I was warned by my Slovene peers, who were so frightened by the spectacle as children, that they remain afraid as grown men. I wasn’t scared; I was thrilled to witness this tradition, at least until there was a pitchfork at my throat and a man dressed not unlike the devil screaming loudly in Slovene.

A blue eye looks out through his Kurent mask. Photo: Riley A Arthur
A blue eye looks out through his Kurent mask. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Young Kurent bat in hand lines up with the larger adults. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Young Kurent bat in hand lines up with the larger adults. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Man take a breath of fresh air and cools off before the parade. Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Man take a breath of fresh air and cools off before the parade. Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur
devil kurent
Kurent Demands my Scarf and steals a kiss. Photos: Patrick Felsenthal

The Kurentovanje festivities kicked off for me at the Dragon Carnival on Congress Square in downtown Ljubljana, where anyone from school children to bands paraded in colorful costumes. The parade ended with a procession of ringing Kurents. Kurents stand at least seven feet tall covered from head toe in sheep skin (black or white). Tied around their waists are barrel sized cowbells, and in their hands they hold clubs. Their brightly colored faces almost begin to look fowl-like. There are two main variations on mask design. One sports a wing of feathers protruding from each side of the head, and the other  is made with long sticks decorated by a row of ribbons. Each group of Kurents has one or two Kurent leaders who are dressed with sparse fur in a red suit and a mask with horns. They carry pitch forks leading their herd.

Large cowbells adorn the waists of Kurents and sound the end of Winter. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Large cowbells adorn the waists of Kurents and sound the end of Winter. Photo: Riley A Arthur

It was one of these Kurents that threatened me at pitchfork point, eagerly demanding my scarf. Kurents are a male dominated custom; there did not appear to be a female equivalent of this tradition. Kurents can demand scarves from women, who are required to oblige. Each scarf is then tied to their weapon. As the day goes on, more and more colorful scarves hang from their clubs or pitchforks. Insert fertility reference here. I reluctantly removed my scarf as the Kurent planted a big wet kiss on my cheek, just to show it was all in good fun. I was told later that it is good luck for women to bestow their scarves to Kurents, but standing there in the snow I didn’t feel lucky. I didn’t know what to think.

The  Kurents march and dance a hip shaking choreographed movement. Swinging the bells- large enough to fit a baby inside- around their waists, the noise echos and roars. These bells are meant to be loud enough to frighten winter away, and could be heard far and wide.

Kurents Dance and ring their bells. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Photo: Riley Arthur
Young Kurent looks out at the growing crowd gathering for the Dragon Carnival. Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo: Riley Arthur
Young Kurent looks out at the growing crowd gathering for the Dragon Carnival. Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo: Riley Arthur

Kurentovanje- the big Kurent festival- located in industrial Ptuj, is a month long event of ethnographic symposiums ending with a week of daily parades. The parade I attended had 40,000 masked participants, including hundreds of cowbell shaking Kurents. The participants who came from as far as Macedonia were judged on costume creativity and there was no shortage of it!

Woman in Genesis themed parade float marches one of the many annual Kurentovanje  parades. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Woman in Genesis themed parade float marches one of the many annual Kurentovanje parades. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Ants march in the Kurentovanje parade. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Ants march in the Kurentovanje parade. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur

At the castle of Ptuj there is small museum dedicated to the local folklore and the history of Kurents, with costumes originating from different regions showing the variation in style.

Varied Kurent costumes from different regions of Slovenia at the Ptuj Regional Museum. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Varied Kurent costumes from different regions of Slovenia at the Ptuj Regional Museum. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur

A local woman told me that there are only two women left in the whole country who make the costumes. Those Slovenes who own Kurent costumes store them in the attic, and are careful in storing them from the threat of bugs embedding themselves into the sheepskin. Preserving the costumes can be problematic as they are very heavy and difficult to clean. I image this is an issue, because the costumes are so thick that many of the Kurents I saw would pry off their masks periodically to welcome the fresh winter air on their wet drenched faces.

Ptuj, Slovenia decorated for Kurentovanje. Photo: Riley A Arthur
Ptuj, Slovenia decorated for Kurentovanje. Photo: Riley A Arthur
View from Ptuj Castle at sunset. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur
View from Ptuj Castle at sunset. Ptuj, Slovenia. Photo: Riley A Arthur

If you are interested in history, folklore, pagan traditions, parades, or a generally fun time, I strongly recommend Slovenia, particularly Ljubljana during its Dragon Carnival (Febrary 9th) and Ptuj during Kurentevanje (February 2nd– March 3rd). Bring a camera and, if female, an extra scarf.

Kurent Mask Variations. Photos: Riley A Arthur
Kurent Mask Variations. Photos: Riley A Arthur

NEXT: Festive Slovenia Welcomes the Holidays with Mulled Wine

Comments

  1. Denis Cheriyska
    Pernik,Bulgaria
    December 28, 2014, 5:23 am

    This is a BULGARIAN TRADITION! Come and see 🙂

  2. Ventsislav Venev
    Pernik
    December 27, 2014, 6:45 am

    Very nice fest! Typical for the balkans. What i can say is that my hometown in Bulgaria is the home of this kind of festivals. Nobody knows how many years ago this has started. Originally it has began as a tradition in the small villages and nowdays it is the biggest international mascarade festival in Europe http://www.surva.org/TheFestival_Eng.html . Highly recomend to come and see it alive. More than 3000 participants form all over the world European and Asian Countries. You’re Welcome!

  3. Ondřej H.
    Czech
    December 27, 2014, 4:21 am

    Those costumes look amazing, I love such pagan tradition relics in the modern world! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  4. Riley Arthur
    February 9, 2014, 6:30 pm

    Thanks for the note ChrissieElore, made the edit.

  5. ChrissieElore
    United States
    February 9, 2014, 9:33 am

    A very interesting article, but it needs some editing. Like the caption ” residents were not left without legal status ” if they were not left without legal status it’s a double negative and translates to they have legal status or “seven feet talk” – not sure how one talks seven feet- perhaps “seven feet tall”?