The bells make their presence felt first. They are cowbells, heavy and loud, brass ones tied around the waist. They signal the coming of the kurent, that mythical masked figure who chases away winter and heralds the dawn of a good harvest and happiness. He dances from door to door every year, during the annual Shrovetide Carnival (3-13 February this year), dressed in sheepskin coats, a leather mask and black boots, and carrying a stick.
I learn about these legendary characters in Slovenia, in the picturesque town of Ptuj. At the tourist information centre, the woman at the counter tells me about the museums at the castle, the farmer’s market at a church, and Kurent House. “It’s a mythical creature that is much revered around here. We have a carnival dedicated to it.” Legends and myths? Count me in!
I expect nothing less from Slovenia’s oldest town. The cobblestoned streets and expansive squares hide a history that dates back to the Stone Age, when Ptuj was an important part of the ancient Roman empire. Today, it may be small but it’s a vibrant town—there’s a festival calendar for the year that includes poetry events, concerts, fairs, and markets. The highlight of the year is the 10-day spring carnival dedicated to kurent or kurentovanje, the mythical figure believed to drive away winter and welcome spring. It is a character so integral to the lives of locals that it is everywhere: on stamps, envelopes, postcards, calendars, badges, posters, cards, graffiti and the facades of houses. The Kurentovanje Carnival is the biggest celebration of the year in the town and surrounding villages.
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At Kurent House, the city’s newest museum, there are towering kurenti figures with their 50kg costumes, a docu-style short video giving an introduction to the kurenti, and paintings by the artist Boris Zohar. My guide is Simona Cvetko, who attempts to summarise this pagan tradition in a 40-minute tour. The costumes are made with rabbit skin, sheep skin and leather, and until 1949, only young unmarried men could dress up as kurenti but it is now open to all.
“The kurenti brings health, happiness and joy....The housekeeper breaks a bowl when they come...it means everything good will happen in the year. They enter the house backwards, shake hands with the master, and are given donations of eggs and sausages. They sometimes choose and dance with young girls in the house, who, if happy, give them an embroidered handkerchief,” she says with a smile. “But,” here her tone takes a serious note, “if the kurenti falls or rolls in the yard, it brings misfortune.”
The character is believed to have originated in pagan times but the first carnival was held in 1966 in a sports stadium. It’s not just kurenti that participates in it; there is an equally fascinating cast of supporting characters. “There is a fight between Rabolj, who represents winter, and Jürek, who represents spring. There are ‘bears’ that make people laugh,” she adds. In addition, there are travellers who tell people’s fortunes, boys who “ride” hens (a hen costume attached to a stick) and wear a costume which includes a white cape made from their mothers’ petticoats, and the whip crackers who announce the beginning of the carnival season. Even the devil has a role here— besides ensuring the kurenti procession is undisturbed, he also steals sausages from villagers. At the end of the tour, I get to click a photo with one of the kurent mannequins, marvelling at the weight of the bells, and feeling tiny in front of the towering creature.
On a weekday, Ptuj feels like an extremely quiet town. I follow part of the carnival route and make my way through little alleyways up to Ptuj Castle. There are wine shops to explore, ornate monasteries and well-tended gardens to admire, and a sweeping view of the town’s orange roofs. At the top, I find a museum with a collection of traditional carnival masks. Here, too, are the kurenti, standing tall with their intricate masks and heavy bells. I also find the costumes of the other carnival characters—the ivy-covered outfit of Jürek, the woolly bear, the all-white of the fairies, and the animal rusa.
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In a day, I get the best kind of insight into the kurent, into rituals that are shamanic but pay tribute to nature, into a festival that celebrates a good harvest and fertility, and into a role that isn’t just theatrical but has deeper meaning. I am mesmerised and know, if I ever meet a kurent, I would give him my handkerchief.
Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.