Even during the busy carnival season, if you walk alone through Ptuj you can find some quiet stone street and think you’re the only person in town. But then you’ll hear it: the not-so-distant clanging of bells around the corner. Cowbells, to be exact. Hanging not from the neck of an animal, but from the belt of a masked man dressed head-to-toe in sheepskin.
This sound echoes down alleyways and across bridges during Pust, or Carnival, a ten-day celebration of springtime and fertility ending the day before Ash Wednesday. Slovenian Pust is not unlike carnivals across Europe — an indulgent experience marked by elaborate parades, colorful costumes, and drinking in the streets. But in this country, it is the distinctive masks and local rituals that most excite the senses.
Remember those bells? Well, they’re worn by Kurenti, figures of early Slavic culture after which Slovenian Pust gets it’s name: Kurentovanje. The Kurent (or Korent) is a mythical god from Slovenian folklore known for his debauchery. Symbolically, the Kurent represents fertility in several realms: agricultural, animal, and human, and is therefore the perfect figure to ring in springtime.
In the mid-20th Century, traditional village carnival customs were quickly disappearing from the Slovenian landscape. To keep these practices alive, the modern festival was created in Ptuj. It received its name, Kurentovanje, in 1960. At this time, things were a bit different. Only unmarried men were allowed to dress up as Kurenti. The would travel from house to house, shaking the bells on their waist to chase away evil spirits (and, of course, cold weather). Starting in the 1990s, this changed. Today, married men, women, and children join these bachelors in putting on the Kurent mask and shaking off the winter as they please.
One of the special things about Kurentovanje is that each village and town has its own traditions. Kurenti from Markovci are recognized by their feathers, while those from Haloze are known for their horns. Most are made of sheepskin, though some use rabbit fur, and typically have masks with long red tongues. All carry wooden sticks. A group of Kurenti moves with a devil (usually in red), who helps them along the way, and also does a great job of scaring nearby children.
Other groups dress as fairies, bears, flamenco dancers, and gypsies with colorful floats leading the way. There are brass bands and whip crackers making plenty of noise to, you guessed it, chase away winter. But none of these characters are quite as remarkable or steeped in mythology as the Kurent.
You can see the diversity in costumes if you attend the celebration in Ptuj on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. On this day, groups come from across Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, and elsewhere to participate in the parade. You will see locals and tourists mingling in the massive crowds along the route, and witness the fabled Kurent from a short distance.
Though the carnival in Ptuj is the most famous and boasts the largest attendance, it is often the least rambunctious. Smaller parades in nearby villages maintain the intimacy and spontaneity of years past.
In Markovci, a small municipality just southeast of Ptuj, there are no fences to separate onlookers from the festivities, so parade participants and attendees mix together throughout the town. Best of all, neighbors still stand in front of their homes to hand out spritzers and krofi (Slovenian donuts) to all the rowdy revelers. And these revelers do get surprisingly rowdy. In a nation that is notably more reserved than its former-Yugoslav counterparts (due in no small part to the cultural influence of previous Austro-Hungarian rule), it is refreshing to witness the wildness of this homegrown Kurentovanje.
As light shines down on the joyous bacchanal, it is easy to feel at once inspired by the cultural richness of the immediate surroundings and transported to an entirely different time and place. This is the sublime power and beauty of Kurentovanje, and the experience that thousands seek each February on otherwise tranquil Slovenian streets.
Christiana Botic is a documentary photographer and filmmaker as well as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. She is spending 9 months in Serbia and Croatia exploring the complex relationship between geography and identity in the region through still and moving images. Follow along @christianabotic on Instagram or sign up for her Mapping Identity newsletter.