Lastovo Poklad: Costumes, Sword Dancing, and Explosions!

On the boat from Split to Lastovo I encountered the least D.A.R.E-friendly emergency instructions card that I have ever come across. In other news, the boat ride was lovely! The seas are beautiful, and we cruise by Korcula (a destination for a few months later on my trip) on my way to island. It takes several hours and by the time I arrive it is just starting to slide into evening. I arrive on the island without any idea where I am going, where I am sleeping that night, and without knowing anyone who actually lives on the island. There is only one website in English that provided useful information on the island (and as it turns out not much in croatian either!) and so I am armed only with the knowledge that tomorrow, the 21st of February, there will be a sword dance. And something about pirates. Don’t worry, I’ll explain! The only signs that I saw when we arrived were pointing Right” Lastovo 10km” and Left “Hotel 3km” I opted for the town, and paid 10 kuna to take a van to the top of the old stone town of Lastovo. First of all, the town is beautiful. It is nestled on the side of the mountain (facing inland, a strange feature) and is comprised of stone houses, winding cobble streets and steep narrow staircases stretching down to fields below the town.  I was standing there wondering what I should do, where I should sleep, and where anything might be happening, when a group of children in costumes dashed by me, holding baskets with eggs and laughing. The disappeared down the twisty streets faster than I could follow (still with backpack and banjo) and once again I was left looking over the town. Then, from the other side of the town, came the faint sound of men singing.  I started making my way in the direction of the sound, meeting several dead ends or streets that went a different way, but gradually the sound seem to get closer. I went around a corner and all of a sudden I found this!

The procession of singers was primarily men, led by a old man playing the lijerica, a three stringed instrument that is played on the island. The women and younger people followed behind, some of them also singing. I quickly dodged up a side street, unpacked my bags to grab out my video camera, and followed along, still with all my stuff on my back. The group goes to a small stone house about a hundred meters away and starts to sing different songs as they are welcomed in and given food and drink I ask one man (in English) if I can go in too, and he smiles and gestures me inside. Everyone is  a bit tipsy and singing and smiling! This was “Fat Monday,” the day before carnival, and everyone was collecting eggs (a common fertility symbol) and wearing scary/ugly masks. The next day the costumes will all be beautiful I record some of the songs before going back outside to figure out what to do with my stuff. I ask a nearby woman if she will watch it for a minute while I go back inside. She is understandably suprised that I speak English, and asks what I’m doing here. When I explain my project she laughs and says that she is also and ethnologist and is here with her colleges from Carnival Kings of Europe, an organization that I have checked out a lot in the past! We get talking and I learn that while she is from Croatia, there are also researchers from Italy who have come to film and document the carnival. We agreed to talk more, but at that moment the whole procession started back up again and we moved on to a small kavana in the center. A kavana is a sort of informal bar that might serve some food and have some music. In this case the owners had put out trays of cold cuts, bread, and other food and the whole group settled in for a little party.

I had just entered, carrying all my gear, when a woman about my age with a balloon on her head came up to me and said something in Croatian. When I replied that I only spoke English, she started laughing and asked where I was from. I answered, to more laughter. “But why are you here!?” I explained that I was studying sword dancing all over Europe.She introduced herself as Danica, and apoligized for laughing so much, “it’s just that most croatians have never heard of this carnival, and you came all the way from America…HOW did you find this?” She was from the mainland and was living on the island as a temporary worker in the olive fields. She told me that there was nowhere on the island I could stay for less than 50 euros a night, but that she and the other workers would smuggle me into their house, I just had to stay out of sight of the landlords. One of the guys who was also working took me to the house so I could ditch my stuff, and then we went back to the party, which had moved into Club Magic, the local “Nightclub.”

I hang out there for a little while (temporarily wearing a penguin hat?) and then go to meet with the CKOE researchers who had invited me for dinner back at the kavana. We had some really great conversations (and food) and I showed them many of my pictures from other carnivals. They were really excited about the Basque and Italian festivals and we talked about the possibility of some collaborative efforts in the future. I learned a lot about the Lastovo carnival from them, and felt much more prepared for the next day! After some yummy food and wine they all went to bed and I went back to the party. My group had gone to a house above Club Magic to sing more songs, so I followed along.

At one point I started singing along with the songs using the “only-use-vowel-sounds” technique, which impressed my new friends. I also got to see the last-minute preparations on some of the costumes that the girls were going to wear the next day. These beautiful costumes were the beautiful ones, and each girl had a partner wearing a matching outfit. At least one of the girls has to be born on the island (as opposed to all of the sword dancers) and they work for months preparing intricate costumes! We stayed for an hour and then wandered back to the house to sleep. I have to say, having a big bed after so long of sleeping in strange places was amazing!


The next day I got up early to watch as the men of the town hiked up the mountain with the lijerica player and strung a rope all the way from the peak down to the center of the village, around 300 meters. We went about halfway up the mountain before teams of men started to carry it both down the slope and up the rocky hillside at the same time. Men in the middle stood and greased the fibers with soap to make it slippery.

I should explain a little bit about the festival at this point. It celebrates the town’s victory over some pirates from when it was part of the Republic of  Dubrovnik. The pirates had sent a messenger to the town, demanding olives, money, etc, in exchange for not being attacked. The villagers were non-plussed  and killed the messenger (setting him on fire, throwing off a cliff, etc.) and fought of the pirates. Then there were pirates. Anyway, the rope is important, so remember it later! It was quite a production getting the rope all soaped up and strung both up and down the steep hillside, but there were lots of people to help and the music kept playing the whole time.

There was a short pause in the events as the men went back home to get changed into their costumes and I went home for breakfast. The rest of the olive workers were up by now and we chatted and had breakfast together. After breakfast I gave a little banjo performance and told them about the morning’s events so far. Then it was time to head into the main square where the sword dancers were getting ready to do their first performance! Before they danced, there was some important business! The donkey!

They marched up to the top of the town with the lijerica player leading the way to collect the donkey, which would carry the Poklad (the doll representing the pirate messenger), through the town. The donkey was housed at the moment on the terrace of a house high up in the town. The pokladari (dancers) spent a half hour or so in the house, eating cheese, cold cuts, small pastries and wine while singing songs and playing music. One of the songs (which everyone liked to sing to me, of course) translated roughly to “I would trade 1000 Americas for sitting on my terrace (in croatia) drinking wine and watching the waves.” I see where they are coming from. It is astonishingly beautiful. Anyway, they got the donkey and led it to the center.

The younger boys led the animal, while the older dancers followed behind. When we arrived, the poklad puppet was brought out of the hall. The puppet had been made the morning before (which I had unfortunately not gotten to see) according to very precise measurements and tradition. Everything about it is dictated, from the materials used, to the weight of each limb, to the feet which are weighed down with soil from the town cemetery. The poklad really does have *both* feet in the grave! He was strapped onto the donkey with rope by some of the dancers, while the rest of them talked, took pictures and made final costume adjustments

The standard costume is black pants with a gold strip running down the outside, a gold belt, and red shirt. The black hat is adorned with flowers, feathers and beads according to the individual dancers and has a leather strap that drapes off the back. They wear beaded necklaces, some of which are hundreds of years old. Many dancers have taken to wearing modern necklaces and leaving the originals at home because of their age, value and fragility. Most of the dancers wear a black vest with gold baldrick crossing their chest, however the two leaders of the dancers, who stand at the ends of the lines, wear only the red shirt with gold buttons up the front.

Once preperations were complete, the dancers gathered inside for a short “talk through” of the dance. There had been much arguing throughout the celebrations last night amoung the older men as to the fine details of the dancing, but it appeared consenseus had been reached (or victory achieved). Then the leaders mustered the dancers into two lines and went down to the town hall.

I went down before to get a good spot and to to see some of the women preparing for their day. One of the most important traditions of the town is that once the dancing starts, the Pokladeri and the “Beautiful Masks” are not allowed to see each other. The women follow the men, going to the same houses, but about half an hour afterwards. To prevent accidental sightings, which bring bad luck to the crops in the village, both groups sing and play lijerica whenever they are walking, only stopping when they pass the town’s main church.

All of the women must have a partner who matches. They also all must have a mask, even though many take them off. Finally, at least one girl in each pair must have been born on the island to parents who were also from Lastovo. Finally, the dancers arrived for their first dance and stood in two lines facing the town hall. They apparently asked for permission to do their dancing and a short speech was made before the dancers began.

The music then struck up and the dancers began, starting by linking swords and circling around the very oblong square. The dance actually had to be slightly modified in this setting, as the space was not conducive to a few of the figures. The figures that were performed mostly involved various arches, both in the full group and with dropping swords and joining in pairs of dancers dropping swords and joining with each other to lead under the arch made by other pairs. The lijerica also played for the dance, and the changes in the music often cued different figures as the tune changed. 

After this was complete, the day began in earnest, as we processed around the village singing songs and going to the houses of important figures in the town. There are two groups in of the dancers and the song alternates antiphonally  between them. On Fat Monday, the main group of singers (there are many, with lots of kids groups) designates the houses that will be danced at the next day by going on the terrace and shouting “UUUUUU-OOOOHHHH” back and forth between two groups. This lets others know that there will be dancing there on the morrow.

On the day of dancing, this shout is repeated as part of the dancing that takes place on the terrace of each house. The dance shrinks or expands to fit the space, with as little as 6 dancers, or almost the full group (which I think reached it’s maximum at night with 84 adult dancers. Occasionally the two groups will dance separately. The owner of the house (if he is a dancer) will always dance, while those who are not dancing will eat, drink and sing.

Unfortunately, it was a rather rainy day, and we had to deal with sporadic rain showers. About halfway through the day we got to the center of town where the rope had been strung from the top of the mountain. The doll was taken up to the top of the peak and attached on rollers to the rope, with homemade bombs strapped to the bottom. The groups at the top and bottom call back and forth and then the contraption is released. It rockets down the greased rope, bombs exploding, while one dancer at the bottom jumps around with raised sword threateningly. As it approaches the bottom it is brought to a stop by a adjoining rope and explodes a final time, deafening everyone. After this, the whole mob of dancers encircles it and sings a song in celebration. Because it was raining, they set up a little tent at the bottom, and people were reluctant to leave it, so many of them told me it was less riotous than usual. The poklad is then taken back up to the top and sent down with the same ritual for a total of three times. Tradition says that it is bad luck if the poklad flips over and spins around the rope, which is one of the reasons for such specific instructions for making it. Luckily, this year it stayed upright and everyone was happy! 

There was more dancing at different houses, but I decided to go and look what the women were doing. The women had amazing costumes and were accompanied by some of the men who were not sword dancers (either by choice or because they were not from the island). They had their own lijerica player and even did a very similar dance with cords instead of the wooden swords! The dance was modified to take out some of the figures that involved spinning and clashing, but was otherwise the same. Very cool! By now the singing had gotten louder and drunker! In the evening, just as it was getting dark, came the big finale to the day. (I’m sorry that I only include my camera footage in these posts, it’s just a lot easier/faster to transfer then the HD from video camera, thanks for understanding!) In the large lot in between the school, town hall, and largest church the male dancers performed the full dance with all of the adult dancers (boys younger than about 15 or so didn’t dance, but walked with the adults). A boy carrying the Croatian flag skipped in circles around the whole group. The Poklad was stripped of its clothes and held aloft by one of the dancers. Upon finishing, they exited just as the women entered singing. The women proceeded to do the dance with loops of cord. While the lijerica player stayed the same, they had a separate flag carrier who danced around in a white military suit. They excited again and the men came back on. Finally the women joined them and they intermeshed the two groups into one huge dance, interacting with each other for the first time since the beginning! This meant there were around 150 people all dancing around the poklad in the semi-dark. They then did the only logical thing, and set the puppet on fire! It was one of the most amazing dance spectacles I have ever seen and was added to by everyone cheering, yelling, and dancing on the sides! The musician occasionally added a percussive tap to the music, at which everyone always cheered wildly. The church bells started ringing and we had reached the end of the carnival. I had dinner again with the Carnival Kings group, and arranged to meet with one of them who worked at the Ethnographic Museum when I went to Zagreb. Later that evening we all partied more, both in the town and at the olive-pickers’ house. We ended the evening with a wild jam session on banjo and kitchen stuff that resulted in far to much broken things. I’ll leave you with these two pictures, just because I really wanted to use them, but didn’t know where to fit them in. 

Next time I’ll finish up my Croatian adventures.

Thanks for reading!

Jeremy

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About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
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10 Responses to Lastovo Poklad: Costumes, Sword Dancing, and Explosions!

  1. Filip says:

    Just a minor correction, Dubrovnik was a republic, not a kingdom. Aristocratic one, but a republic. Otherwise, nice post.

  2. gorlitski says:

    Amazing post! Love you, Papa

  3. Amazing and soooo cool, Jeremy. I can’t wait to hear about it in person someday. You are so lucky to have come upon something so archaic and spectacular and alive. Beautiful!
    Mary Cay

  4. Oier A. says:

    Really exciting Jeremy! One more for my To-Do list: visit Lastovo on Carnival!

  5. Pingback: International Sword Spectacular In Germany | Chasing the Star of Swords: Sword Dancing on a Watson Fellowship

  6. Pingback: International Sword Spectacular In Germany

  7. Steve Armitage says:

    Greetings from England. Great blog Jeremy. I was lucky enough to see the Lostovo dancers in Antwerp at the Half-Lent event a few years ago – impressive.
    Steve

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