In December of 2019, I decided to travel to Bulgaria. I went there to expand my ongoing photography project about the personal journeys of young individuals who will ultimately become the ‘torch carriers’ of ancient cultures and traditions.
What caught my attention in Bulgaria was an ancient tradition known as Kukeri. An ancient ritual that many consider being one of the only remaining practiced pagan rituals in Europe today.
Kukeri: A Ritual to Ward Off Evil Spirits
During the Kukeri rituals, villagers cover their bodies with furs, handcrafted masks , and paint in order to transform their appearance into intimidating monsters. Then, with their monstrous appearance, the villagers will band together and chase away all the evil spirits from their villages and crop fields.
This druidic-oriented ritual was practiced initially during the shortest day of the year, as it was considered to be the birth of the following year. However, in modern times, the dates of the Kukeri ritual shifted, mainly around the time of the Christian new year or the beginning of the harvest season. Furthermore, every village has developed its own unique version of Kukeri and monster costumes, which locals often takes great pride in.
After teaming up with a local guide, we spent weeks scouting different villages across west Bulgaria, constantly on the lookout for a unique story of succession among the young practitioners of Kukeri… until one foggy morning, we met Ivana.
Ivana and her family live in a small village named Razlog. They were some of the nicest people I ever met during my travels around the world. But, what really ‘sold’ me on choosing Ivana to be the focus of this particular photography project was that, on top of her gentle and childish approach, Ivana was a total badass.
Breaking Traditional Norms
Like many ancient traditions, Kukeri was also primarily practiced by the village’s men. Traditionally women were forbidden from joining this ancient ritual. However, in recent years, with the modernization of even Europe’s most remote villages, more and more young girls like Ivana started showing interest in breaking social norms and actively joining their communities in the Kukeri rituals. This has created a new unique cultural shift that has been widely celebrated in recent years.
Ivana is an only child and the center of her parent’s world (Radoslav and Elena). During our many conversations, I learned that Ivana admires her father. With a big smile, he proudly told me that as soon as she could walk, she was unstoppable.
Ivana would follow her father all around the village, be it during his workdays at the family farm, the milk drop-off route, and of course… the legendary Kukeri ceremonies. Therefore it was no surprise that Ivana regularly joined her father at the village’s yearly Kukeri rituals, eventually even having her own little monsteress costumes to show off.
During our time together, Ivana’s original monster costume became too small and had to be readjusted to fit her size. Ivana and her dad spent countless hours working together in the family’s musky old storage space. Diligently taking apart the different layers of leather palates and white hair and sewing them back together in order to “elegantly” cover the newly added stitchings. Decorating each with a series of small bells to fit around Ivana’s belt and shoulders.
The sound and rhythm of these uniquely shaped bells are an iconic feature of Razlog village’s version of the Kukeri. Therefore, it requires a high level of accuracy and experience to correctly place the bells on Ivana’s body so they will produce that unique, distinctive sound.
A few weeks later, Ivana’s new monster costume was ready and the time of Kukeri arrived in the village. As a cultural photographer, I was very excited and looked forward to witnessing the animistic and pagan relics that the Kukeri ritual preserved.
Witnessing the Full-Day Pagan Ritual
The Kukeri celebration lasted almost a full day. Dressed up as gigantic white-haired monsters, bands of friends paraded together through the village’s streets, taking turns circling the main square. Elders stood on their porches, greeting and saluting the passing groups of monsters. Friends met and greeted each other, forming bigger and bigger bands of monsters as they continued scouring the streets together.
By mid-day, the village’s main square was packed with crowds of friends and strangers sharing food and Rakia (the local moonshine). The celebration of Kukeri brought families and neighbors to celebrate all together — a beautiful reunion of one big happy family of scary monsters.
As celebrations unfolded in the village, I began to realize that the Kukeri rituals weren’t really about ancient druidic beliefs and the villager’s war against evil spirits… This highly celebrated cultural event, which survived for thousands of years, was about something a lot older and much purer than mere tradition — it was all about community, family, and strengthening of bonds of friendships.
As Ivana and her father walked the streets of their village, wearing their monster costumes, they were greeted by everyone who crossed their paths. Over the years, Ivana has become a local celebrity with her adorable monsteress demeanor and mighty passion for joining her father in Kukeri. While she wasn’t the first girl in her village to do so, her actions and the enthusiastic support of her parents, have encouraged many other families to craft little monster costumes for their own daughters, inspiring them to join the celebrations of their local culture .
A Practice That Brings a Village Together
Before spending time with Ivana and her family, I was sure that my experience of learning about the world of Kukeri would be one of heavy mysticism and of an unbroken ancient culture. A hidden relic of the old world left unspoiled for thousands of years and practiced only in rare remote villages. However, during my time there, I came to discover a beautiful, unique, and humble culture.
It’s a culture that has endured for thousands of years, not because of its authentic purity or animistic symbolism, but because of its cherished function in strengthening the village’s community values.
Like many other powerful and unique traditions from all over the world, at the very core of the Kukeri stands the importance of bringing friends and families together within a community. Alongside allowing young individuals like Ivana to express themselves in a unique way outwards to the world and be celebrated for their spirits.
Ivana’s story shows us all how precious, unique and beautiful each child really is. While some girls might wish to become princesses just like in books or on TV, others might prefer to follow in their father’s footsteps and become monsters! Regardless, we should all celebrate and encourage them to choose their own paths as they shine.
These kinds of beautiful stories of successions are what inspired and led me to fall in love with the world of photography, travel, and storytelling. Stories like this should be a constant reminder for us all that… there is still magic in this world.
About the author: Asher Svidensky is a freelance photographer specializing in art and documentary photography with a strong passion for mixing the two with storytelling. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Svidensky’s work has been published by international outlets including the BBC, National Geographic, The Guardian, and many more. You can find more of Svidensky’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.