About a month ago at the Rijeka Carnival in Croatia, which now seems like a lifetime ago thanks to Covid-19, I was struck by some parade participants dressed in eery costumes that looked like they had come out of some psychedelic horror movie.
Men were covered the whole lengths of their bodies by long strands of ribbons in every color of the rainbow and donned straw hats decorated with multi-colored paper flowers. They looked like they were getting ready for some strange spring ritual and although I am a native of New Orleans and its famous Mardi Gras, where I have seen just about every costume known to man, I had never seen (or heard) anything like these guys.
Some of these marchers had long lengths of lace draped over their faces or long twisted strands of hay and carried large brass bells or dragged chains on their legs or weird and eery sounding noise-makers. Still other groups in the carnival had sheepskins on their backs and horned animal-like masks on their heads. Others were dressed like furry horned monsters and they carried big mace or “balta” and large weapons.
But what had first peeked my curiosity about the strange participants was the sonorous clanging sounds of hundreds of metallic bells approaching where we stood on the street. Think giant cow bells. The stark, rhythmic clanging was a little unnerving and had a menacing quality to it. As they walked, the marchers hit them forcefully on their thighs. It sounded almost like a death knell. The sounds were definitely intended to intimidate something or someone, and it did its job on me. What could this be? I looked over and questioned my husband with my eyes.
Besides remembering the colorful costumes and celebratory air of the carnival that weekend, I left the carnival thinking of these bell-ringers and groups of ribboned creatures. To say that made an impression on me was to put it mildly. I admit that I’m a little bit of a wimp and easily spooked. But with the coronavirus making its way around the world, aren’t we all?
But with the coronavirus making its way around the world, aren’t we all?
So I then did what I normally do when I want to learn more about Croatian traditions. I questioned a few people from our area and then delved into more detailed information online. I found a museum which focused on these bell-ringers or Zvončari as they are called. The museum was in Rukovac, a town in the Kvarner region about an hour or so away from my home, where most of the bell-ringers hail from, and I had intended on visiting when the virus struck and shut everything down. Including the museum.
However, by researching online, I found out all of these groups of foreboding creatures had one thing in common. They were all tied to a tradition which goes back to both pagan and prehistoric times. Their purpose as they roam the Croatian country-side, which they apparently do not just at the carnival in Rijeka but during the end of winter throughout Croatia, is to ward off the evil spirits of winter to bring back the new cycle of spring.
“They are also bound by the legend, the expulsion of the Tatars or Turks,” according to the Kvarner County Tourism Office website. “When the Tatars invaded our region, the shepherds then dressed themselves in sheepskins, put masks on their heads, threatened them with bells, and chased the enemy by roaring terribly. Hence in their equipment these weapon elements.” The conflict between the people living in the Croatian region and the Ottoman Empire and the Turks goes back to the 1400s, so these men have been spooking people for many, many years. However, they are thought to have been around since prehistoric times, so they’ve been scaring away enemies for much longer.
Nowadays the Zvončari or the Halubian Bell Ringers as they are called apparently get louder and more foreboding as they traipse across the Croatian countryside fueled by the wine and rakija (a strong brandy that can bring tears to your eyes) that the villagers appease them with. Their primary purpose in the present day is entertainment, of which they do an incredible job. Because of their historical heritage, the Halubian Bell Ringers are on UNESCO’s list of intangible Cultural Heritage.
I thought of the current situation in the world with the Covid-19 disease, the ugly new evil traveling the globe, and was reminded of the scene in Jaws where one guy tells the other, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” I thought of the “Zvončari,” and said to my husband, “We’re gonna need some bigger bells this year.”
Yeah, “we need more cowbell” and all that, Saturday Night Live fans.
As the death tolls go up around the world, including in my beloved hometown of New Orleans, we try to maintain our sense of humor and keep calm in the face of this pandemic.
Can we hire these guys to work overtime this year?
For those interested, here are some more articles and in-depth information on the famous Zvončari bell-ringers: