Let us beware of common folk, of common sense, of sentiment, of inspiration, and of the obvious - Charles Baudelaire
Last Sunday was Rijeka’s carnival, one of the multiple celebrations preceding Lent around Europe, America, and Africa. This tradition has a religious background, but it is much more nowadays. When we think about carnivals, it often comes to mind street parades, extravagant outfits, and public celebrations. Participants of these enormous parties usually indulge themselves in the excessive consumption of alcohol and sometimes meat, which during Lent will need to be avoided. It is an anything-goes before we-need-to-be-holy.
I was introduced to the Rijeka carnival through Facebook; I love the Expat groups where it is easy to get information about all sorts of topics. So, I discovered that the carnival season had just started and that one of the biggest in Europe was happening in Rijeka. This industrial city is the west of Croatia, the largest port and the third largest city in the country. Rijeka is a place rich in history. Here are some interesting facts about the city -
- The first torpedo was designed here by Ivan Blaž Lupis Vukić in 1860.
- It was an independent state for several years (1920-1924).
- In 1919, American president Woodrow Wilson suggested it become the League of Nations headquarters.
Going back to the carnival. I was at the celebration, and I was just finding the usual: lots of alcohol, street parades, and partying around the city. Nevertheless, I knew this carnival had something unique, making it a bucket-list event: the Zvončari or the bellringers. This Slavic tradition has impressive costumes with sheep skin, a huge bell, and pointy horns.
Impressive costumes - Photo - Alejandra Gotoo
First, I saw them from a distance, a group dressed up and making lots of noise while walking. In front were some youngsters, male children around 8 to 11 years, with costumes their size and a bell smaller too. They preceded the adults, also all male, who walked with large open legs, making it seem like something was in between and creating a rhythm with their bells. The children started to walk in a counter-clockwise spiral and closed the circle they were forming. It took some minutes for this to completely closed, and when they were all together, back to the middle. Their faces to the public, they yelled, as in a warrior-like cry, and moved their bells with the same rhythm to create even more noise. There was a child that guided the movement. It seemed so logical and yet so eerie. The children broke the formation and moved to a line back to back, where they continued setting the harmonic rhythm.
The adults continued making the same counter-clockwise spiral to end up in a circle, which now looked like a defensive formation, and added the strong bell sound. Their pelvises moved rhythmically, and I could not help to think that it must be hard on the muscles. Those men were strong ones. Would this skill help them in their romantic lives? If it does not, indeed, it achieves its purpose. Zvončari do all this noise to ensure the evil spirits, some think the devil himself, hear them, and keep them at a distance. Zvončari are making a bold statement, this is our land, this is our time, and we are the ones in charge of our walking through earth.
A bucket-list event - Photo - Alejandra Gotoo
When the adult Zvončari were in the defensive formation, they put on their masks, impressive zoomorphic designs of large dimensions, some with tongues out, raised both arms, and yelled. Some of the Zvončari held a wooden žunta, a stylized mace, and others held an axe. They walked counter-clockwise to represent the return to ancient times. They ended up in the defensive formation because the men were ready to defend themselves, the land, and the community from the devil spirits. They were making war cries to invoke fertility and ensure a good spring.
Due to the richness of the performance, in 2009, UNESCO added it to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This folk tradition pays attention to the community and the social ties significance, and in 2023 is very much alive. It is definitely a bucket-list event. When in Croatia before Lent, search for the Zvončari and listen attentively to their harmonious rhythm.
This description does not pretend to be comprehensive. It is how I experienced this year’s Rijeka carnival. It is important to remark that each town has its adaptation and interpretation. While some Zvončari have a specific amount of participants, usually pairs; others have flowers instead of zoomorphic masks. The walks, the rhythms, and the costumes change, but the idea remains, keep away evil spirits, welcome spring and be masters of one’s destiny. This text is an invitation for you. Next carnival season, explore Rijeka’s carnival; you will not be disappointed! I know there is so much to do and just one life. Let the folklore of this tradition give you a lesson, be your own master, and with your walk, create your own path!
Alejandra Gotóo (1991, Mexico City), who studied English Literature and recently graduated with a Masters of Social Anthropology is now writing about her time in Croatia as a columnist in Dubrovnik Times. Her work has been published in Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. She has two published novels, Ruptura and Isadore or Absolute Love. Her topics of interest include nature, adventure, language, books, food, culture, animals, conservation, and women's rights. She also writes in her blog: Cardinal Humours.