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Wild men: the ancient pagan ritual that still thrives in rural Bulgaria

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Kukeri are men who take part in an ancient Bulgarian pagan tradition to scare away the evil spirits of winter. They gather to chant and dance, wearing home-made wooden masks, animal furs, horns and sequins, strapping on heavy belts with bells on that can weigh up to 70kg. The ritual has continued undisturbed through the centuries, even through Communist times when it was tolerated by the state. 

The higher on the social scale a kuker is, the more financial support he gives to the group. The money might go on collecting hundreds of bells (a set of 20 costs €1000) or finding the best goat fur for the long-haired costumes.

As contradictory as it sounds given the anti-Roma sentiment that often prevails in Bulgaria, in one region the ritual is preserved by a Gypsy tribe and its leader, who lends all his kukeri belongings to the younger boys.

We met kukeri from every corner of the country — mayors, solid working-class men, adolescents, boys and even two-years-olds — everyone takes part in this tradition. It’s a ritual so deeply carved in their hearts, it seems to be a core reason to stay in Bulgaria and not leave for Western Europe as so many people do. “Once you hear the sound of the bells, nothing can stop you — no matter how ill, poor or heavy-hearted you are”, said Liudmil, a kuker and third generation craftsman.

Kukeri have one thing in common — once they put the masks on, they seem to live a new life. In protecting their folklore and being proud to be born Bulgarian, kukeri are integrity personified.

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