Balkan Beasts



Way before Jon Snow’s outfits went viral and the thousands youngsters dressing up like the popular Game of Thrones hero in Halloween, animal fur, winter cloaks and leather accessories were introduced by ancient Greeks. Greek mythical societies were celebrating the arrival of spring dressed in animals’ skin, big metal bells and black paint. Today there are only few remote agrarian regions of eastern Macedonia in northern Greece that they still have this a special bond with nature and revive these ancient ceremonies. Most of their traditional celebrations are dedicated to the apotheosis of nature. In the mountainous villages of this region, a good year is synonymous with fertility and the regeneration of flora and fauna. Residents of this region celebrate the arrival of the new year a series of unique customs and traditions.

In reviving these traditions, the inhabitants of these regions commemorate the ancestors who bequeathed this cultural heritage. For Yiannis Pappoutsis, head of the cultural association of Monastiraki, there is a shift in these rituals from faith and worship to responsibility and continuity. “It’s like our dead are coming back and dancing with us,” he muses.

The influence of Greek mythology, Christianity and Paganism is palpable in these rituals. Concepts such as the elimination of the evil spirits and human and agrarian fertility dominate them.

The central figures in the celebration are the “Bell Wearers”. However, there are different variations of figures such as the brides and the grooms. The brides and the grooms are part of a satirical marriage performance. All roles are performed by men as it also used to be in the ancient Greek drama.

The Bell Wearers are dressed in black, longhaired cloaks, heavy bells, and elaborate masks. The bells are the main element of the costume as it is used to awaken the fertility of the earth. Some of them paint their faces black with ash. According to Laura Shannon, expert on circle dance, folk dance, and  ritual dances, fire is important in all Dionysian rituals. The hearthfire burns for twelve nights and days, producing holy ash which they will use to bless people for the coming year. The use of ash played an essential role in ancient times and especially in Dionysian ceremonies. Christos Zalios, researcher of traditional music and dances of Macedonia region, mentions that “the initiates of Dionysian rituals were painting their faces with the sediment of must, while the priests wore the mask of Dionysus. The worship of Dionysus was closely linked to the use of masks and face painting as he was the god of the popular masses, the patron of vine and wine, fertility, masquerade, the sacramental initiation and the feast.

The ritual starts early in the morning when the costumed men journey together around the village, dancing at the houses of the most important people of the community. Later, they visit the local cemetery where they swing their bells in order to express their respect to the dead.

Around 3 o’clock the whole village gathered in the main square and the ritual starts.The Bell Wearers are divided into two groups; the leaders of the two groups fight until one of them falls. The groups then gather around the vanquished in an incantation that ends with his resurrection. A peculiar dance follows. According to the tradition, the ritual evokes the killing of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, by the Titans and his resurrection by Zeus. The Bell Wearers also symbolize the arrival of spring after a winter’s hibernation.

Variations of the Bell Wearer appear all over Thrace and Eastern Macedonia regions.