The role of the 'kurent', a mythical masked figure, is not only theatrical, but has a deeper meaning
The bells are the first to make their presence felt. They are cowbells, heavy and loud, brass bells tied around the waist. They signal the arrival 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 Shrove Tuesday Carnival (February 3-13 this year), wearing 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 center the woman at the counter tells about the museums in the castle, the farmer's market at a church and Kurent House. 'It is a mythical creature that is much venerated here. We dedicated a carnival to it.” Legends and myths? I participate!
I expect nothing less from Slovenia's oldest city. The cobbled streets and expansive squares hide a history dating back to the Stone Age, when Ptuj was an important part of the ancient Roman Empire. Today it may be small, but it is a vibrant city; there is a year-round festival calendar with 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 the local population that it appears 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 city and surrounding villages.
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Kurent House, the city's newest museum, features towering kurenti figures with their 50kg costumes, a short docu-style video introducing the kurenti, and paintings by the artist Boris Zohar. My guide is Simona Cvetko, who tries to summarize this pagan tradition in a 40-minute tour. The costumes are made of rabbit skin, sheep skin and leather, and until 1949 only young, unmarried men could dress up as kurenti, but now it is open to everyone.
“The kurenti brings health, happiness and joy… The housekeeper breaks a bowl when they come… it means that all good things will happen in the year. They enter the house backwards, shake hands with the master and receive donations in the form of eggs and sausages. Sometimes they choose and dance with young girls in the house, who, if they are happy, give them an embroidered handkerchief,” she says, smiling. “But,” here her tone sounds serious, “if the kurenti falls or rolls into the garden, it will bring bad luck.”
It is believed that the character has its origins in pagan times, but the first carnival was held in 1966 in a sports stadium. It's not just Kurenti who's taking part; there's an equally fascinating cast of supporting characters. “There is a battle going on between Rabolj, who represents winter, and Jürek, who represents spring. There are 'bears' that make people laugh,” she adds. In addition, there are travelers who predict the fate of people, boys who 'ride' chickens (a chicken costume attached to a stick) and wear a costume that includes a white cape made from their mothers' petticoats, and the whip crackers who announce start. of the carnival season. Even the devil plays a role here: he not only ensures that the kurenti procession goes undisturbed, but also steals sausages from villagers. At the end of the tour, I get to click a photo with one of the Kurent mannequins, marveling at the weight of the bells and feeling small in front of the towering creature.
On a weekday, Ptuj feels like an extremely quiet town. I follow part of the carnival route and walk through small alleys up to Ptuj Castle. There are wine shops to explore, ornate monasteries and well-tended gardens to admire, and stunning views of the city's orange rooftops. At the top I find a museum with a collection of traditional carnival masks. Here too are the kurenti, standing upright with their elaborate masks and heavy bells. I also like the costumes of the other carnival characters: Jürek's ivy-covered outfit, the woolly bear, the all-white one of the fairies and the animal Rusa.
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One day I will gain the best 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 is not only theatrical, but also deeper aspects has. meaning. I am mesmerized and know that if I ever meet a Kurent, I would give him my handkerchief.
Joanna Lobo is a journalist from Goa.