In 2010 I traveled with composer and folk musician Maciej Richły to the Rodopi Mountains of Bulgaria in search of the origins of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the ancient music and rituals alive in this region. The Rhodope Mountains were the land of the ancient Thracians, the ancient Romans and the proto-Bulgarians.
photo Julianna Bloodgood
Many Thracian sanctuaries, mounds, and rock-hewn tombs can be found to this day, as well as Roman villas and cities. The Rhodopes are rich in caves and rock phenomena. And the villages throughout the mountains still rich in yearly rituals with their roots in antiquity. The Devil’s Throat Cave is the place where according to the legend Orpheus entered the Underworld. Here you can see the highest cave waterfall in Bulgaria inside, at 42 m. The Yagodina Cave is a 10-km maze of tunnels, which you reach after driving through the Buynovsko and Trigrad Gorges. These places laden with a feeling of the occult awaken a sense of mystery and reverence. Along with these excursions we journeyed to the valley of tombs where kings of another era are entombed in ancient underground structures simply covered by mounds of dirt, some accessible and some not.
photo Julianna Bloodgood
We went to Siroka Laka, a village surrounded by forests and gorges, March during the annual gathering for the traditional Kukeri festival “Pesponedelnik”. Men and boys dress up in furs and animal skins, put scary masks on their faces, and jump with huge bells tied around their waists. It is believed that the Kukeri monsters are so ugly that any real monster would run away screaming.
People come from all over Bulgaria to perform and witness these rituals. The Kukeri groups act out mini-plays. Every member of the group is assigned a specific role in a story – the king, the granny, the horse, the bear, etc. Everything in the play is grotesque and supposed to make the spectators laugh. Symbolically, the Kukeri actors often act out a wedding, sowing, harvesting, and other rituals meant to preserve the natural order.
As the tradition requires, every member of the Kukeri group must have a costume of his or her own. A costume is either inherited or sewn by its owner. The same goes for the bells, usually handed down over the generations. Some of the bells weigh no less than 100 kg, and the art of dancing with this burden around your waist is a thing to admire. The masks are usually constructed from wood and covered in colorful yarn threads, fur, animal teeth, beads, and horns.
In old times, the Kukeri monsters used to go from door to door and perform their magical dances in front of their hosts. Nowadays this tradition is gradually disappearing, and the Kukeri monsters perform at big festivals and specially organized events.