My first article for National Geographic was on Pust traditions in Western Slovenia, and starred the brilliant photos of Ciril Jazbec.
The final edit of the article was very different, and much shorter, than my first draft version. Below, you'll find the "director's cut" text for the article, and you can check out the published version on the Nat Geo site here, along with Jazbec's wonderful photographs.
Slovenia’s Shrovetide Demons
By Noah Charney
Western Slovenia, where the Julian Alps meet the Italian border, is difficult to access. On a map, the region does not look so remote, but the only roads leading there are corkscrewed, sidewinding through dark Grimm forests and mountain passes. This is where the young boys are chased by monsters.
Liški Pust in Kanal and the villages around Lig
The emerald Soča River cuts through the hills around the town of Kanal and a cluster of villages around Lig. As if on cue, mist hugs the shores and provides a cinematic backdrop for the parade of demons. Branko Žnidarčič and his son, Dejan, are the proud organizers of what is called Liški Pust, a special, local version of the Shrovetide monster mash that takes place elsewhere in Slovenia, most famously at the more commercial Kurentovanje celebration in the eastern town of Ptuj. What is consistent in the varied customs is easier to codify than the discrepancies. The pagan traditions, versions of which can be found throughout the belt of mountains that stretch across Europe, from the Pyrenean Basque country through the Swiss Alps and beyond, date back to ancient times. They are likely of Celtic origin, but were adapted to the Christian calendar, and dubbed a Lentin tradition, though the Church periodically sought to stamp out these remnants of paganism. Socialism was harsher on the rituals, and many faded away, but some have returned to this region that was once part of Yugoslavia. Locals dress in surreal, fearsome, grotesque homemade costumes, with several key characters divided into two groups: The Beautiful Ones and the Ugly Ones.
The Beautiful Ones, including costumes for a pair of pasty-faced newlyweds and a doctor with a horn for a nose, resembling the plague doctor masks of Venetian Carnevale, enter the homes of the locals to greet them and to dance. The Ugly Ones play pranks and make mischief, dressed as a devil and a woman who carries her husband around in a basket, to name a few. The most iconic of the Ugly Ones are the Pustje, who wear suits made of strips of colored fabric and bear-like helmets made of sheepskin, blackened faces and black horns, while wielding wooden pincers with which they playfully grab at children.
Liški Pust includes a special type of mask not found even in neighboring townships, called bakreni, which give the demons a distinctive look of copper-like skin. Originally made of beaten copper, the tradition here ended with the scarcity of metal during the First World War, coupled with the scarcity of unmarried men who formed their ranks, so many of whom died in the fighting, with the infamous Isonzo Front (made famous in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms) nearby. After the Second World War, locals discovered a lost treasure: a 19th century mask of a carnival character hidden inside the wall of a home that was being renovated. This discovery reawakened interest in this nearly forgotten local tradition. A painter, Pavel Medvešček, studied 19th century drawings, which helped local Branko Žnidarčič to reconstruct some of the archaic masks. You can find over 200 different masks in Žnidarčič’s cellar, where he has a mask-making workshop and small museum. As is so often the case with the salvation of near-lost traditions, it was down to the passion and drive of one man to resurrect the Liški Pust, which is now enthusiastically celebrated every February.
But it is not the only Shrovetide proto-pagan ritual in the region. 50 km north, in the shadow of Krn Mountain, are a pair of linked traditions.
Drežniski Pust in Drežnica
Do not confuse Drežniski Pust and Ravenski Pustovi. Blaž Rakušček, the president of the Ravenski Pustovi organization, wants to make it clear that, although the two villages are just 2 kilometers apart (and 50 km from Lig), both in the shadow of Krn Mountain, one clearly visible from the other, the two traditions have distinctive characteristics.
Viljem Bizjak believes he owns the oldest mask in Drežnica. It consists of a flat, blackened wooden face with oversized, ripe red lips, a battlement of square white teeth, a red lolling leather tongue, rounded eye holes, a sheepskin mane and it is topped by a pair of real ram horns. This is the iconic Ugly One of Drežnica. The grotesque face and maniacal smile will stand above a vest of sheepskin. The young, unmarried men of the village will cover their bare arms in soot and wear incongruously happy trousers covered in strips of mismatching, bright fabrics.
The series of events are carefully choreographed, as with all true rituals. During the day, as in Liški Pust, the Beautiful Ones go from house to house in the village (and often sharing a welcome shot of homemade schnapps). The main event is a hunt in which the Ugly Ones chase the young boys through the center of town, trying to catch them and beat them (gently) with stockings stuffed with soot and ashes. The result is dramatic, and a passing tourist might grow concerned, what with these horrific monsters grabbing young boys and whipping them with socks through explosions of dust and ash-smoked air. But the young boys take it all in stride, looking forward to being hunted. They wear hoodies to keep the ash from their hair but smile as they dodge and weave down side streets.
Ravenski Pust in Drežniske Ravne, Magozd and Jezerca
A casual bystander would have a hard time separating the two neighboring traditions. Both include costumes based on stock characters. As in Liški Pusti, there are Beautiful Ones and Ugly Ones, but the details of the costumes differ. There are also those with specific tasks to carry out during the celebration, including a policeman, a burglar, a hunter and the carrier of the one made of straw. The burning of Pust marks the end of the celebration. Winter has been chased away, at least until next year. The benevolent demons are on the side of the villagers and, thanks to them, spring will come.
This is a rite of passage, a shift into adulthood, and it is taken very seriously. In these parts, Pust is considered more important than Christmas. Blaz Rakušček underscores this when he says, “I’ll explain it this way. If my final exams at school fell on Pust, I’d rather engage in Pust and have to redo the academic year.” It is a true part of the DNA of the locals, and they wouldn’t miss the celebration for the world.
The key differences between the traditions in Drežnica and Drežniske Ravne are in the date, the characters featured and the climactic event. comes when night falls. In Drežnica, the tradition falls on Pustna Sobota, the Saturday after Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. In Drežniske Ravne, the main event takes place a week earlier, and the locals have a passionate focus on following the historical forms of the authentic tradition as best they can, without any modernizations. The climax in Drežnica involves a mock trial and execution of Pust, embodied by a straw doll, with it being first shot and then burned. Ravenski Pustovi ends as night descends, and a solemn procession moves from the condemnation ceremony in the town center on foot into a field outside of the town, where special characters called Bearers drag the Pust in a sled made of branches to burn it on a bonfire. And the monstrous characters vary slightly in each township. For instance, the Bearers exist only in Drežniske Ravne.
These traditions are relics of a past that predates the arrival of the proto-ancestors of the entire population of the region. This is evident from the fact that parallel traditions can be found across the mountains of Europe, everywhere the Celts settled, but nowhere they did not. Slovenia is almost entirely Slavic in ethnic origin, but when the Slavs arrived from northern Europe in the 6th century AD, rituals like these were already ancient and embedded in these mountains. It is as if the European settlers of North America had adopted and passionately maintained archaic Native American traditions. These are rituals intimately tied to this part of the planet and have been upheld for millennia by whoever happens to have settled here.
The celebrants see themselves as torchbearers (sometimes literally) of ancient traditions and defenders of them for the future. Rakušček continues, “We are very aware of the traditions of our ancestors and the value of the cultural heritage that is in our hands. It’s important for us and for our descendants. It’s a big part of the year, as our tradition runs from December through February. For our boys, this is an important part of their lives and a valued part of growing.”
The locals are zealous protectors of the cultural heritage of their land. Every year, without fail, come February they transform into this cast of demonic characters to chase away the winter. And maybe there’s something to it: every year winter slinks off into hiding after the burning of Pust, and spring appears.
Perhaps we have Slovenian demons to thank?