Kurent

Traditional Slovenian Carnival character on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage

The wandering kurent figures rank among the more visible traditional Shrovetide Carnival customs in Slovenia, and the kurent is the most recognisable Carnival character, with records of his appearance dating back to 1880. The kurent is also one of the symbols of the Slovenian identity.

The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage decided in its annual meeting in South Korea to enter the roving kurents in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The committee noted in its explanation that the kurents bring together various cultural expressions of social practices, performance art, knowledge of nature and traditional crafts. The transfer of traditions and knowledge associated with this practice takes place between generations within families and societies, and includes museums, schools and other educational institutions. The annual preparations for the appearance of the wandering kurents help strengthen interpersonal, regional and local identities.

The entry of the kurent tradition on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage marks an exceptional recognition for Slovenia, and especially for all those who work to preserve this unique tradition. The kurents are now the second aspect of Slovenia’s intangible cultural heritage to be placed on this list, with the Škofja Loka passion plays achieving this recognition last year.

Carnival kurents in Ptuj

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

This year Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest town, will host the 58th Kurent Festival, one of the biggest ethnographic festivals in Europe. The Grand Carnival Ball and the International Carnival Procession draws costumed figures from all over the continent, and more than 50,000 visitors flock to join the merry-making.

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

With the loud shaking of their bells the kurents drive away winter and evil from the land, and invite in spring and a good 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 was created the story of the living myth, the kurent. At one time they also honoured deceased relatives, and reverence was offered to the spirits. This fairy-tale hero, who is linked symbolically to grapevines, is also known as a god of merriment and wine in Slavic mythology. He is an ethnographic character that can only appear in the time of the year from Candlemas to Ash Wednesday.

Photo: Etnographic society Kurent

Fearful Carnival figure

The kurent, 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 their handkerchiefs from girls, and those with more handkerchiefs on their belts enjoy greater prestige.

Traditionally the young kurent lads would also get their 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 people also started adorning their headgear with feathers from domestic fowl, mainly turkeys or geese, and in the past some kurents even used crow feathers. The eyes and mouth are ringed in red, while the nose is shaped as a leather snout. White beans, representing teeth, are attached to the mouth by a thread. 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. 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 fearful appearance is further enhanced by his club, which is sheathed in hedgehog skin.

Photo: Daniel Novakovič/STA

Little and big kurents

At one time the kurents were just young, unmarried men, but  nowadays women and children also dress up as kurents. Ivančič of the Kurent Ethnographic Society explains that the ritual changed into a mass “veneration of the Carnival time,” and the development of the costume gave rise to a period of mass participation, with kurent societies springing up at the beginning of the 20th century. Greater participation led to a break with the traditional rule that only bachelors could wear the costume, and today you can encounter people of all ages and genders in kurent gear. Indeed, the Kurent Ethnographic Society currently has 15 children under 16 years old. “The children are what drives us,” notes Ivančič, “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.”

The mass involvement seen today is a guarantee that the figure and rituals will certainly not fall into oblivion. The Kurent Ethnographic Society is now entered in the register of intangible cultural heritage, and it cooperates with various institutions at home and abroad. The society is aware of the importance of intergenerational cooperation in transferring cultural heritage, and thus its members are working to hand down the tradition to younger people, and they have their own book and photo collection which these young members have to be familiar with.

The mysterious kurent

Ivančič recalls that one of the many stories about kurents say that one of them tied Death to a tree with thread, and that during that time no one died. Another says that he was a handsome young man whom women simply adored and would not leave in peace. He took off to a desert and there asked God to give him an ugly face. God heard him and he grew horns. He returned home and the women left him in peace. However, in memory of the once beautiful young man, women started celebrating Shrove Tuesday with riotous merry-making.

The kurent figure has a hint of the mysterious, and the sensations when you dress up as one and give yourself up to the Carnival festivities are quite special. “The costume gives you power and energy, so you can drive away the bad and bring in the good,” explains the president of the Kurent Ethnographic Society. “I could even say that for a moment I know what the gods felt like! You simply can’t describe the experience in words”.

Text by Danila Golob

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