Annual Carnival Bell Ringers’ Pageant from the Kastav Area

Annual Carnival Bell Ringers’ Pageant from the Kastav Area

With an abundance of noise, bell-ringing and dancing that almost resembles a magical ritual, a group of masked people wearing large animal masks and draped in sheepskins, wielding axes and clubs, tour neighbouring villages for days, keeping everyone on their feet. The scene would be fitting for a horror film, if that weren’t the description of the annual pageant of the Kastav bell ringers (or zvončari) and their traditional carnival celebration. In ancient times, part of this folklore performance was used for ritualistic purposes to conjure up the fertility gods during the winter months, ward off evil spirits, and protect farm animals from curses. Today it is a celebration of customs and songs, not only for the performers, the bell ringers, but for the entire area surrounding the town of Kastav and its people, who are extremely proud of their tradition.

 

 The first record of organised bell ringers dates back to the 19th century, but the roots of this tradition can be traced even further back in history when it comes to the elements of the custom and the specific costumes, which point to fertility cult rituals. These characteristics are precisely what set apart the bell ringers from the western and eastern areas around Kastav in the last century. While the former don’t hide their faces and wear hats with decorations made of paper, the latter wear unique horned masks, and a large bell on their backs. Once the zvončari reach the centre of village, led by their chief, the komandant, they gather in a circle and begin dancing. After the sound of the komandant’s whistle marks the end of the dance, they become completely quiet and disperse together with the musicians, in order to be hosted by the locals. Bell ringing isn’t the only element to this annual Carnival procession; there is a whole host of customs, dances, and special dishes and beverages involved. The bell ringers are carefully selected from the local Kastav communities, as not everyone has the strength and courage – or better yet, a touch of madness – needed to take part in the kilometres-long pageants, banging on heavy bells while wearing a sheepskin costume. Those that have these traits ring their bells continuously until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of carnival season, when the effigy or Pust is burned in a large bonfire, thus ending the carnival festivities. Bells are then put away until next season, when the bell ringers will once again emerge from the winter darkness to ward off the spirits and announce the coming of better days, but mostly to bring joy to the gathered crowds.