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By Noah Charney

Demon-Hunting Carnevale Traditions in the Julian Alps

Drežniški pust

Demon-Hunting Carnevale Traditions in the Julian Alps

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. It’s known as a great place for outdoor adventurers, rafting on the emerald Soča River or hiking this craggy corner of the Alps. But what few people know is that it is a harbor of millennia-old traditions. Come Shrovetide, this is where young boys are chased by monsters.

The Soča 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, offer gifts and 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, 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, with the masks 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 Žnidarčič reconstruct some of the archaic masks. You can find over 200 different masks in his 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 this is not the only Shrovetide proto-pagan ritual in the region. 50 km north, in the shadow of Krn Mountain, lurk a pair of linked traditions.

Do not confuse Drežniški 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), 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 of the Pust celebration are carefully choreographed, as with all true rituals. On Pust Saturday, as in Liški Pust, the Beautiful Ones go from house to house in the village (and often share a welcome shot of homemade schnapps). The main event is a hunt in which the Ugly Ones chase the young village 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 boys and whipping them with socks through explosions of dust and ash-smoked air. But the youths 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.

A casual bystander would have a hard time separating the two neighboring traditions. Both include costumes based on stock characters. Here 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 Bearers of Pust, the character and holiday’s namesake, who is represented as a straw doll, the burning of which marks the end of the celebration.

Dressing as demons is considered a rite of passage in these villages, a shift into adulthood, and it is taken very seriously. Here Pust is more important than Christmas. “I’ll explain it this way,” says Rakušček. “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 Drežniške Ravne are in the date, the characters featured and the climactic event. In Drežnica, the tradition falls on Pustna Sobota, the Saturday after Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). In Drežniške 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, 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 town, where the demonic Bearers, which exist only in this village’s ritual, drag the Pust in a sled made of branches to burn it on a bonfire.

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 rites can be found across the mountains of Europe, everywhere the Celts settled, but nowhere they did not. Slovenia is now 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 rites are 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.”

These three traditions are not meant for visitors to participate in but are rather deeply connected with a rite that is for the locals. That said, tourists are welcome to come and watch. Drežnica is the place most suited to tourists, with most of the events taking place in the town square on Pust Saturday (the Saturday after Mardi Gras) while the tradition in Drežniške Ravne takes place a week before. This region of Slovenia is easiest to access by flying into Ljubljana or Trieste and renting a car, as public transport is irregular and slow around these parts.

Pust has become a more general term for a costume party around this time of year, featuring a parade for children with a great deal of donuts consumed in many parts of Slovenia. But the oldest traditions in the Julian Alps remain these celebrations of benevolent demons, traditions so treasured that they are listed on the national Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage.  

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?

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