Kurentovanje: Pust (Carnival) in Ptuj

All about Kurenti and their crazy Carnival celebrations, which made it on to the UNESCO list.

Like in many European countries, we also celebrate the tradition of Pust (Carnival, Shrovetide, Mardi Gras or Fasching) in my homeland, Slovenia. Pust is a time of silliness and merriment, meant to bring a fresh start in spring after the long, bleak winter. Although winters in Slovenia are getting progressively warmer and shorter, Pust is still just as fun as always.

I’ve previously written a post about what Pust is and how it’s celebrated in Slovenia, but in short: Pust is the time before Christian Lent when we dress up in costumes to scare winter away. The tradition dates quite far back and in a way Pust is the continental Europe’s version of Halloween, except it normally lasts longer than a day.

Even though Slovenia is super small, our traditional Pust masks and characters are very diverse and some of them are genuinely scary. Several regions have their own specific Pust characters and they are so serious about Pust that it’s often called the fifth season. Whole towns come together in preparation for Pust celebrations, which usually last for at least a week, and often start as early as Candlemas (2nd of February). The main Pust days are fat Sunday, Pust Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, the last day of festivities.

Kurenti

This year me and my friends visited Ptuj, the oldest town in Slovenia, which is one of the regions where the Pust cultural heritage is still well and truly alive. Their main Pust characters Kurenti are also one of the prime examples of scary Pust masks.

Kurenti, or Koranti as they are known in the countryside, are remnants from the Pagan times and represent demons or wild spirits, which chase away winter and everything bad, ushering in the spring and everything good. Their origin has been lost to the times, but various theories attribute it to early Slavic, Illyrian or even Roman customs, as similar traditional characters can be found in the other Balkan countries as well.

A typical Kurent is meant to look “as if he has just escaped from Hell and made friends with the Devil itself” and he is always accompanied by smaller, horned Devils dressed in black or red and wrapped in fishing nets with which they catch wandering souls. He wears a sheepskin outfit, black boots with red or green socks and a giant sheepskin and leather head-mask. The mask is unique for each Kurent and consists of tall, goose feather decorated horns, small red painted eye and mouth holes, twig whiskers, teeth made of white beans on a thread, a long red nose and an obscenely long red tongue. He also has 5 cow bells on a chain wrapped around the waist.

ptuj carnival
Kurenti at Ptuj Carnival.

Kurenti always appear in groups and make as much noise with their cows bells as possible, for good luck and a fertile season. Back in the days they would wander around the villages visiting their friends and chasing eligible girls, because only unmarried young men were allowed to wear the Kurent costume. They could only take off their head-masks indoors, which gave them an air of mystery and authenticity, and it was the greatest embarrassment for a Kurent to lose their head-mask. Naturally Kurents from different villages challenged each other and fought with their hedgehog sticks. Before WW2 such fights could even end in death, because people still carried around knives and pistols back then.

Nowadays Kurenti are one of the most popular Pust masks in Slovenia and represent an important part of our cultural heritage. In fact, in 2017 Kurenti became part of the intangible world heritage and were officially included on the UNESCO list. There are currently about 1000 registered Kurenti in Slovenia and the costume is now worn by women and children as well. Every year they converge in Ptuj and other Slovenian towns, jumping up and down with their cow bells and bringing with them a taste of simpler, more primitive and mystical times.

A single Kurent costume can weight up to 60 kg, so they’re really dedicated to preserving our heritage. However, the art of creating a Kurent outfit it slowly vanishing – it used to be made at home by locals with whatever they had to spare and passed on through generations, but today there are only two masters left who know how to make a proper Kurent. Obviously a real Kurent costume is quite expensive, but despite the price tags they’re quite in demand, which indicates that the people of Ptuj won’t surrender their Kurenti lightly.

Kurentovanje

As mentioned before, Kurenti are the main stars of Ptuj’s annual Carnival celebration, which lasts for almost the whole February. Starting with a Kurent jumping over the fire at midnight on Candlemas and ending with the burial of Pust the night before Ash Wednesday, Pust in Ptuj is even called Kurentovanje after the Kurent. During that time the Carnival Prince symbolically takes over the ruling of the town and presides at all major events.

In 2020 it was the 60th Ptuj Kurentovanje Carnival festival in a row, so they had over 70 events spread out across February. The festival culminates in the annual International Carnival Parade on fat Sunday, when groups of traditional masks from Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria etc. march down Ptuj streets, ending with various crazy parties allover the town. Kurentovanje attracts about 150.000 visitors every year and Lonely Planet classified it as one of the top 10 most interesting carnivals in the world, so it’s truly worth a visit and probably should be on your bucket list.

As you can imagine though, the main event is super crowded, so me and my friends opted for one of the smaller events happening a week before the parade. We went to one of the ethnographic presentations of the local Pust characters, where we got to see Pokači, Rusa and, of course, Kurenti.

Pokači

Pokači are one of the first Pust characters to appear. They are traditionally men and boy wielding long homemade whips woven from cannabis and raffia ropes. They crack their whips on the floor with a deafening boom, announcing the arrival of Pust far and wide across the land and driving luck and happiness before them. Pokači are also the ones who clear the road for Kurenti to appear.

Rusa

Rusa is another one of Ptuj’s stranger inventions. It is traditionally a two person crazy horse costume, which runs around causing mischief, biting and kicking at people and rolling on the ground. It is accompanied by the drover, who attempts to control it with a whip, and the picker carrying a basket for gifts given by everyone who is visited by the Rusa. Rusa is supposed to bring health to the farm animals, particularly horses, and ensure a good breeding stock.

Naturally the good people of Ptuj and its surrounding areas didn’t stop at just these three Pust characters and you can find the whole list here. Bringing them all together in one crazy parade certainly gives you a good show and I imagine winter flees with its skirt held high as soon as it hears them coming.

Some more impressions of Kurentovanje

So, I hope this gives you an impression of what Pust in Ptuj is like, but you really should come and see it in person. 🙂 All in all any of the Carnival celebrations in Europe are more than worth a visit, but Slovenia certainly has the highest ratio of crazy per square metre of all.

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