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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.