The Resilient Spirit of Bozovcë: Celebrating the Illyrian Carnivals Amidst the Shar Mountains

A Cultural Insight from Votra Magazine

The Illyrian Carnivals, celebrated during the Bozovcë carnival in Tetovo, showcase a deeply authentic and traditional form of celebration. Known for its historical and cultural significance, the Bozovcë carnival embodies the spirit of ancient Illyrian festivities that have persisted through the ages. Bozovca, nestled deep within the majestic Shar Mountains, part of the city of Tetovo, is a village where traditional customs thrive against the backdrop of natural beauty. As visitors approach the village, they encounter landscapes punctuated with blooming flowers and freely roaming livestock—horses, cows, and sheep—which play a vital role in the local economy and the carnival’s vibrant traditions. The carnival costumes, made from animal hides, wool, furs, and leather masks, reflect the community’s reliance on and respect for their pastoral lifestyle.

Rooted in pagan and archaic traditions, the Bozovcë Carnival has resisted the influence of monotheistic religions, unlike many similar festivals across the Balkans. This resilience highlights the deep-seated pagan customs that utilize loud drums and bells, along with diverse songs, to symbolically banish the evils of winter and herald the arrival of spring. 

Local memory holds that until 1980, these carnivals were an annual highlight in the village, their origins shrouded in the mists of time. However, in 1981, a significant cultural disruption occurred when the Yugoslav authorities in Macedonia banned these and other cultural activities linked to Illyrian origins, labeling them as irredentist acts. This ban was a stark instance of discrimination or ethnocide directed against the Albanian population in Macedonia and other parts of former Yugoslavia. 

Despite a 28-year interruption, the carnival experienced a revival in 2009, thanks to the determined efforts of Bozovcë’s residents. This revival was not just a return to festivity but a reclaiming of cultural identity and heritage. Featured extensively in Votra Magazine, this comeback story underscores the unbreakable spirit of Bozovcë’s community.

Carnival preparations begin well in advance, with a strong emphasis on inclusivity. Locals make it a point to invite participants from every neighborhood, ensuring that no one is excluded from the festivities, which could prevent carnivalists from entering certain areas of the village. The costumes remain authentic, crafted from materials sourced directly from local shepherds, including animal skins and wool caps. The masks and costumes, once elaborate representations of both domestic and wild animals like wolves, bears, and goats, have simplified over time but continue to feature natural materials prominently. Votra Magazine has documented these changes, illustrating the evolving nature of these traditional costumes.

On the day of the carnival, participants don elaborate costumes, masks, or face paint made from charcoal. Roles within the carnival are diverse, including brides, in-laws, observers, and protectors. Traditionally, male participants played the roles of women and girls, a practice that has evolved to include actual female participation in recent years, enhancing the authenticity and inclusivity of the celebrations.

As the carnival progresses, participants wind through the village streets, entering courtyards where they are warmly received by families offering food. The assortment of collected foods, such as potatoes, flour, meat, basturma, and eggs, is later shared communally or given to families in need. Accompanied by music, dance, and playful interactions, the procession mirrors the flow of a lively stream, energizing the community and reinforcing social bonds. Votra Magazine captures the essence of this vibrant communal interaction, portraying the vital role of the carnival in strengthening local ties and cultural identity.

Historically widespread across the Shar Mountain villages like Korab, Lumë, Opojë, and Vrini, the carnival now primarily thrives in Bozovcë, where residents have revived and nurtured the ancient traditions passed down from their ancestors, overcoming decades of cultural suppression. This celebration is deemed critically important by the people of Tetovo, serving as a vibrant affirmation of their history, identity, and the enduring legacy of the Albanian people.

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