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  • Masquerade and Postsocialism: Ritual and Cultural Dispossession in Bulgaria by Gerald W. Creed
  • Fatme Myuhtar-May
Masquerade and Postsocialism: Ritual and Cultural Dispossession in Bulgaria. By Gerald W. Creed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. Pp. 217, notes, works cited, index.)

In Masquerade and Postsocialism: Ritual and Cultural Dispossession in Bulgaria, Gerald W. Creed analyzes such vital social issues as gender, sexuality, civil society, democracy, community, ethnicity, and nationalism through the prism of ritual mumming in Bulgaria during the two decades of post-socialism. In resonance with Clifford Geertz's model of symbolic anthropology as a window to social relations, Creed examines the symbolism of mumming as a meaningful source of information about life in post-socialist Bulgaria.

Every winter the Bulgarian countryside becomes an arena of ritual mumming, locally known as kukeri or survakari. During the performance, masked figures, menacingly dressed in animal skins and dangling bells that produce deafening noise, go from house to house to deliver invocations of abundance, to scare away evil, and to receive food, drink, and money in return. During his research in the 1990s and [End Page 231] 2000s, Creed observed a growing popularity of this ritual, which made him ponder fundamental questions: How could these Bulgarian villagers, so steeped in post-communist secularism, still believe in ritual "superstition"? How was it that they continued to invest their limited resources into expensive mumming masks as well as victuals and monetary handouts for the kukeri? As Creed effectively argues, the very existence of such apparent contradictions highlights the importance of mumming for people and its potential to provide vital clues about life in post-socialist Bulgaria. The combination of factors like "the visual attraction of the masks, the hypnotic sounds of the bells, the intoxicating taste of . . . brandy, [and] the bracing smell of animal-skin costumes" (p. 2) both stimulates the senses and helps explain the public's pervasive engagement with the kukeri performance.

The mumming tradition reveals a notion of community where conflict loses its disruptive power. Instead, mumming becomes constructive by generating public entertainment and aborting the offensive undertones of mock fighting, sexual innuendo, and racial bias. Thus, the ritual wrestling that may spontaneously occur between a mummer and a male host, as well as among mummers, is staged for pure entertainment. No umbrage must be taken on either side even if there is physical pain, sexual teasing, or ritual money extortion involved. Moreover, an integral part of many kukeri performances is the overt ethnic stereotyping, as mummers costume themselves in stained, unkempt, and ill-fitting clothes with soot-blackened faces, dancing to chalga music, often pregnant, with a baby, or surrounded by a cohort of small children. This is a clear reference to Roma/Gypsy in Bulgaria, whom ethnic Bulgarians place at the bottom of the social hierarchy and view as thievish, dirty, lazy, and fecund. Yet, despite this prevalent viewpoint, members of the Romani community opt not to take offence at the clearly derogatory presentation, either dismissing it as a harmless "joke" or being more concerned about the larger problem of social discrimination Roma face, which Creed discusses in chapter 5.

Prejudice notwithstanding, the presence of Gypsy personages is nearly universal in Bulgarian mumming. However, while Roma often represent themselves in these performances, their actual participation is almost always marginal: mostly as musicians accompanying the kukeri or as members of the public enjoying the spectacle. Whereas Roma may be regularly underrepresented in these ritual performances, particularly in predominantly ethnic Bulgarian villages, women remain largely excluded. Even though female characters are highly visible in the overwhelming majority of kukeri groups— the kukeri bride being a central figure—Creed shows that women only rarely are actual participants in the ritual. Since Bulgarian mumming has traditionally been an all-male phenomenon, the bride and most other female personages are usually men in drag. This reflects the traditionally patriarchal gender roles in Bulgarian (rural) society, which render it inappropriate for men to engage in mock wrestling with or sexual teasing of female fellow kukeri. Yet, the shifting economic roles of women have affected the status quo. Because they now are often the primary breadwinners of the household, changes in post-socialist Bulgaria have...


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