"The oldest mentioned masks"
Škoromati /ʃkoro'matɪ/ like all traditional masks have their origins in Pre-Christian, pagan times, which means their age is impossible to determine. What we know is that Škoromati are the successors of the masks that people who lived in this area used in their rituals that served for developing a close contact with nature and paying a tribute to their ancestors. Some masks have been preserved in their original form whereas the others have been, due to many influences, utterly changed through the course the area’s turbulent history. All masks have some significant meaning which is nowadays in a major part lost and thus not known even to the local people.
In written sources Škoromati were first mentioned already in the first half of the 14th century. The local council of Cividale del Friuli (a town in Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Northern Italy) banned Škoromati masks and outfit (habitu scaramatte) from the streets unless the bearer was able to provide an authorisation from the city council. 82 years later the masks were mentioned for the second time as sgaravatte. Due to these two documents Škoromati are nowadays known as the first and the oldest masks in Slovenia. Despite the fact that Brkini (a plateau surrounded by Karst, Istria and Kvarner Gulf) lie one hundred kilometres eastwards from Škoromati first mentioning, the tradition of Škoromati and the names of the masks have been kept alive for more than 700 years.
Škoromati were once a part of every Brkini village. The village of Hrušica is according to literature sources and also according to oral tradition known as the unofficial Škoromati birth town, especially because more recent written sources frequently mention Škoromati from Hrušica and state some names of masks that are only used in Hrušica. The first such mentioning is from the book Od morja do Triglava (meaning From the sea to Triglav) from 1953. In addition Škoromati were in 1962 described by an assistant working for the Slovene Ethnographic Museum. The most significant for the history of Škoromati is the work of Slovenian ethnologist Mr Niko Kuret and his book from 1984 Maske slovenskih pokrajin (meaning The masks in slovenian regions). Detailed descriptions of Škoromati masks are accompanied by photographs and some of the masks bear original names from Hrušica which were later accepted as their official names. The man behind these descriptions and names is Branko Mahne, a music teacher from Hrušica, who, following Mr Kuret’s instructions, in 1963 wrote down his personal view of Škoromati before the WW2.
The first major turning point for Škoromati followed in 1965 with their first public appearance outside Hrušica at the Ptuj carnival. Thanks to Mr Kuret some Škoromati masks were sold at that time, one was even bought by the International Carnival and Mask Museum in Binche in Belgium. Despite many scholars who visited Hrušica in the following years, no one helped the locals in preserving (or developing) the tradition which was until the early 1990s in decline. Luckily the tradition never really died out and in 1993 the locals established a contemporary ethnological group which started to preserve the ancient tradition in a systematic way.
The origins of the name
Škoromat – an ancient soldier and a night keeper
Despite the fact that the word škoromat served as a derivational basis for many words that are in use even nowadays, the word škoromat itself cannot be understood without an additional scientific explanation. Many scientists have tried to explain its meaning and origins, however, the true meaning remains a bit of a mystery.
The first who tried to find the origins and meaning of the name was the Italian folklorist of Istrian origin Giuseppe Vidossi (1878-1956). He offered two possible explanations. According to the first the word originates from the word scaraguaita deriving from Old German skarwahta, which means people guard. The Old German provides us with a stem scara which serves as a basis for Italian word squadra, French escadre and Modern German Schar. All these words signify an army unit. According to the second explanation škoromat originates from the word scaramancum which in the early Middle Ages stood for a broad black army coat or cloak. Both explanations gain some credibility only when we learn that in the early Middle Ages people guard soldiers indeed wore such broad cloaks which proved especially handy during the carnival season to hide one’s identity. Since the cloaks were also good to hide the arms the council was afraid of villains, rebels and other political outcasts who might use the cloak for their own ulterior motives, so the cloaks representing the mask scaramatta were altogether banned from public.
Niko Kuret (1906-1995) assumed that the Friulani word scaramatte was introduced to Brkini after 1228 at the time of The Patriarchate of Aquileia when Brkini were the border area between The Patriarchate and the Counts of Gorizia.
In this way the locals became acquainted with the character of scaramatta and took over its image as well as its name which started to be used for all the masks in the area. According to Kuret škoromat derives from the German word Scharwachter which means a night keeper. He claims that the only real Škoromat is nowadays Škopit’s /ʃko'pɪt / gear consists of a broad black cloak with a bell and lamp attached to his belt, all of which speaks in favour of his past warrior origin.
In the recent past the Slovene linguist Ms Metka Furlan (1955) suggested a far less complex theory of the word origin. The word scaramatta could, according to her, stand for a metathesis of the word mascaratta. If the first two letters in the word mascaratta are put before the last syllable of the word, we get the word scaramatta. The change could have been spontaneous or it might have also been deliberate: as a way to avoid the use of the possibly blasphemous or forbidden word mascaratta.
Škoromatija the traditions of škoromati
"The duty of young men and the pride of the locals"
Generally speaking, the local people have always perceived Škoromatija (the tradition of Škoromati) as one of the most important festivity in the village. The duration of the festival is nowadays somewhat shorter as it was in the past so people can spend less time on preparations but despite that the festival has managed to keep an air of mystery and magic. Participants take the tradition as their solemn duty whereas the locals pride on it.
According to tradition Škoromatija starts a day after Christmas, on the 26th of December or St. Stephen’s Day. Boys and men gather to discuss the timetable for the upcoming event, give out the roles and assign the people who are going to prepare the robes for each mask. The group gathers once more before the first fitting. Afterwards the activities and events on which Škoromati are going to participate are discussed and decided upon.
The most important activity or event is Poberija (the gathering of gifts), which takes place on Carnival Saturday. In the past the masks toured the nearby villages and were away for more than a week before the Carnival. They only returned home on the Shrove Tuesday to gather the gifts in the home village. Due to our style of life this is nowadays virtually impossible and the events therefore take place at the weekends. Škoromati from Hrušica usually participate in one pre-Carnival event and take part in the Carnival on the Carnival Sunday. Some smaller groups sometimes attend events in some towns around Slovenia on Shrove Tuesday. Even nowadays the main event of Škoromatenje remains Poberija when Škoromati’s noise mixed with voices and laughter takes over the home village.
Škoromati from Hrušica perform the act of Poberija early on Carnival Saturday when they gather in the centre of the village from where the party tours the village and then heads towards the most distant houses in the village. From there Poberini break from the main party to gather the gifts from door to door. The modern times can be noticed even in the nature of the gifts: in the past locals mainly gave sausages, ham, lard, eggs and other food but nowadays people mainly give money. Poberini are different from other Škoromati since their faces are not covered so people are able to see who they are letting into their homes. Poberini receive gifts from a housekeeper, thank for them and wish for plentiful harvest, happiness and health in the upcoming year, and at the same time invite the family to a dinner at the end of Poberija. The rest of Škoromati in the meantime roams freely around the village and stop in local pubs or in front of the houses where they are greeted by tables full of food and drink. Škoromati sing, play, laugh and pull practical jokes, especially because the traditions of Škoromatija and the masks the boys and men are wearing give them a chance to relax and do some things they would not normally do without the masks on. In not so distant past Škoromati were the fear of local children and unmarried girls who were chased by Škopit and histongs, whereas Škoromati with bells smeared their faces with ash. The Carnival is a time of joy when Škoromati can fool around without the locals becoming mad at them.
Modern times are reflected also in nowadays Škoromatija, however, Škoromati from Hrušica try to give their best to preserve the traditions in their original form, as similar as possible to those they inherited from their parents or grandparents. With the arrival of tourists to the village Škoromati had to adopt their traditions and organize themselves in a procession and not to run freely around the village as they used to some twenty years ago. Such organised processions are nowadays well accepted by the locals as well. In addition to this invitations to various festivals at home and also abroad only add to Škoromati’s popularity and recognition, which helps in preserving the tradition for future generations. On the other hand the lack of young men has forced Škoromati to start accepting as members married men as well, a thing nearly impossible to imagine some 20 years ago. Despite the lack of members, Škoromati are probably the only group, who has never accepted women members. Throughout the history women have never been allowed to wear traditional masks and Škoromati stick to that rule. When faced with 21st century challenges Škoromati are mainly concerned with showing and preserving their tradition in its original form and beauty. The tradition was preserved and kept despite the oppression from the Church, various rulers who saw in Škoromati an act of national pride and the Communist regime after WW2 which proclaimed the tradition for an act of savages. Luckily the tradition keeps on remaining a part of our modern lives and it seems that it has helped establishing even stronger links among the locals who have been a part of it for centuries.
The custom of burying the carnival king
„Ash signifies rebirth“
All good things come to an end and Škoromatija (Škoromati tradition) is no exception. In an act of symbolism the Carnival King (a puppet) is on Ash Wednesday set on fire by local boys and men. The Carnival King puppet is made from straw and is on the first day of the carnival attached to a beam or a tree in the middle of the village. On the Ash Wednesday the puppet is carefully removed, put on a bier and carried around the village. Everybody appears to be very sad and children are told to cry after the Carnival whereas the elders secretly laugh to the uncanny procession.
The Carnival King is then carried out of the village to a sacred spot that has been in use for centuries where he is charged with all the mishaps that happened in the village during or even before the carnival. He is then sentenced to death at the stake. People set the puppet on fire and wait until there is nothing left of it but ashes.
The act of burying has a deep symbolic value of cleaning and removing evil from the society. Through the centuries the puppet has become a kind of scapegoat which granted people the ancient right to (at least once a year) publicly criticise the society and government. The ash that is left from the King foretells his return and signifies his rebirth.