Kurent - Traditional Slovenian Carnival character

Kurents. Photo: Tamino Petelinšek

The Shrovetide Carnival of Pust is fast approaching, and in some strongly traditional Slovenian towns preparations are already under way to drive out the winter.

They say that a masked costume allows a person to show their true face, and their deepest desires, ideals, inspirations and values. In a costume, you have the confidence to become anything you want. 

This year Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest town, will host the 57th Kurent Festival, one of the biggest ethnographic festivals in Europe. The Grand Carnival Ball and the International Carnival Procession draw costumed figures from all over the continent, and more than 50,000 visitors flock to join the merry-making in this colourful event.

There is no doubt that the kurent, or korant, a unique Carnival character from Ptuj, Dravsko Polje and the surrounding area, is an important tradition in Slovenia. The effort put into the kurent, and the celebrations surrounding his appearance, is a process that helps build genuine cultural and interpersonal relations, which are so important in our everyday lives and work throughout the year. 

With their loud bells the kurents drive away winter and evil from the land, and welcome spring and a bountiful year. Aleš Ivančič, president of the Kurent Ethnographic Society  of Ptuj, explains that young bachelors have honoured this ancient fertility rite since time immemorial, and thus created the story of a living myth, the kurent. At one time they honoured the deceased, and reverence was offered to the spirits. The kurent is also a kind of fairy-tale hero, one linked symbolically to grapevines, and thus known as a god of merriment and wine in Slavic mythology, while also being an ethnographic character that can only appear in the time between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday. 

Fearful Carnival figure

During Shrovetide Carnival the kurents perform their rituals. According to tradition, with their leaping about and the noise of their bells these figures drive winter and evil from the land, welcoming spring and a good year. Photo: Kurent Ethnographic Society archives

This Carnival character, who resembles a demon, is clothed in sheepskin, and around his belt hang large cowbells and beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs. He wears a mask on his head and gaiters on his legs. Kurents collect the handkerchiefs from girls, and those with more handkerchiefs on their belts enjoy greater prestige. Traditionally, the young bachelor kurents would also get colourful wool socks from their girlfriends. The kurent’s headgear is made of tanned or sometimes even dyed leather, with openings for the eyes, nose and mouth. Over time they also started decorating their headgear with feathers from domestic fowl, mainly turkeys or geese, although some even used crow feathers. The eyes and mouth are ringed in red, while the nose is transformed into a leather snout. Under the nose are two sprigs of dry garden mint in the place of a moustache, while a long, red finely embroidered tongue dangles from the kurent’s mouth. White beans, representing teeth, are attached to the mouth by a thread. Jutting from the headpiece are two cow horns or two thin sticks adorned with bunches of feathers tied together and interwoven with ribbons of coloured paper. A kurent’s appearance is further enhanced by his club, which is sheathed in hedgehog skin. 

At one time the kurents were only bachelors, but nowadays married men, women and children can all dress up as kurents. Photo: Kurent Ethnographic Society archives

Aleš Ivančič of the Kurent Ethnographic Society explains that the ritual has changed into a mass “veneration of the Carnival time,” and noted that it was the development of the costume which gave rise to the phenomenon of mass participation, with kurent societies springing up at the beginning of the 20th century. This greater participation led to a break with the tradition that only bachelors could wear the costume, and today you can encounter both children and women in kurent gear. Indeed, the Kurent Ethnographic Society currently has 15 children under 16 years old.

“The children are what drives us,” notes Ivančič, “and the society is principally intended for them. We want to make it possible for them to recognise the character and ritual as part of the Slovenian cultural identity, and to present it with pride around the world.”  He adds that he is especially proud that the society has enabled one of its younger members – a 10-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis – to appear this year as a kurent abroad, in Germany. “The mystic power of the character has taken hold of him to such an extent that he’s now represented a kurent to an audience of several million.”

This mass involvement in the tradition seems to guarantee that the figure and related rituals will not fall into obscurity and vanish. The Kurent Ethnographic Society has been entered in the register of non-material cultural heritage in Slovenia. It cooperates with various institutions at home and abroad. The society is aware of the importance of intergenerational cooperation in transferring cultural heritage. Its members are thus working to hand down the tradition to the next generation, and they have their own book and photo collection which young members need to be familiar with. In the past decade members of the society have travelled around Europe and the world. For their trips the children prepare seminars which they present along the way, and so strengthen their general knowledge of the countries and cities where they perform, thereby developing their public-speaking abilities and self-confidence. 

Text by Danila Golob