The Koukeri Custom of Bulgaria

chainik The Koukeri (mummers’) custom in the Bulgarian lands is about 8000 years old. Later, the Thracians celebrated it during the days of the Thracian God of fertility, wine and joy Dionisus. It is tightly linked to the ushering in of their agrarian New Year (just before Lent in the Christian calendar) when the fields were ploughed for the first time after the winter. It celebrates the passing of the barren season of winter and the beginning of the fertile agrarian season of spring / summer/ early autumn. In the various regions of Bulgaria, the koukeri tradition is celebrated at various times: on St. Basil’s Day, just before Lent, or in March. They are also called differently: babougeri, pesyatsi, mechkari, startsi, sirviskari, koukove. The koukeri wear a mixture of men’s and women’s clothes, scary masks, belts laden with bells; they carry wooden swords or sticks – all that to scare away the barren winter and the evil spirits, associated with it, and to let in spring and the fertile agrarian season.

The Koukeri tradition recreates the connection between Nature and Man: earth – woman; ploughing the soil – taking the woman; sowing – inseminating; grain – semen; passing of winter – killing of the Tsar; coming of spring – the Tsar’s resurrection. The Koukeri’s moves bear the signs of sacral code: The stabbings with the red-painted swords represent the phallic copulation moves; the hopping and jumping are to make the wheat grow tall; the body swaying – to make the wheat sway with heavy grain; the rolling on the ground – for Man to take from Earth’s strength; the bells noise – to scare and chase away the evil spirits.

The Koukeri custom was part of the game cycle that prepared the young men for their future roles of husbands and land workers. It was an important rite-of-passage, which gave them the opportunity to learn about and experience life after marriage. A lad, who had not participated in the Koleda, Sourva and Koukeri games, would be considered a “second rate” marriage candidate, and would be put in the same group with the non-healthy and widowed men. He could only marry a “second rate’ woman – non-healthy, widowed, or one left by her husband.

The main actors of the Koukeri group are: a Tsar (king), a newly wedded couple or an elderly couple, koukeri. They have a chariot or a cart, in which they drive the Tsar around; a plough, with which they ritually till the soil; a wooden pot, full of grain, which the Tsar sows; wooden swords and a club, perceived as phallic symbols; a doll. Despite the regional variances, in the past, the ritual comprised the following sequence of actions: The Koukeri, only young single men, led by the Tsar, a man of respectable age and social standing – prosperous, with a family and children, gathered in the centre of the village, from where, with the musicians in front, they would go to all houses, offering blessings for health, fertility and prosperity. The Bride tries to sweep and clean up the front yard, but does it so clumsily that only causes disorder. The Hosts give the Koukeri food, wine and/ or money, and thank them cordially for the blessings. In turn, the Bride kisses the Host’s hand. After the house rounds have been completed, the Koukeri group, followed by villagers, return to the village square, where they perform their ancient ritual. First, they engage in a battle with the evil spirits by running around, waving arms and swords wildly, and making noise with their bells, thus chasing the evil forces away. The Groom / Old Man use the scuffle to “make love to and inseminate” the Bride / Old Woman. The Koukeri return from the battle and give their Tsar three pieces of bread. Then three circles of ritual ploughing take place. The Tsar walks behind the plough and sows grain, followed by the main group, who are jumping and waving their swords in the air. Upon completion of the tilling, the Tsar blesses the congregation for good health and prosperity, and is then killed by a Kouker. All Koukeri gather above him and resurrect him. The Bride/ Old Woman gives birth to a child, and the Koukeri celebrate with hopping and dancing. During the enactment of the custom, the Koukeri exchange jokes with the spectators. At the end, the Koukeri gather for a dinner with the food and wine, given to them by the villagers. It’s a joyous and elevating event.

In our days, the Koukeri Day is just a festive reminder of times gone by, a merry holiday, whose main importance is to gather people for a joyful celebration of life.