The widely known Grobnik bell-ringers have an interesting story to tell about every item that they use, from their costumes and equipment to the way they move. Although they are part of folklore today, they have long played a key role in the survival and protection of villages from enemies, whether in the form of barbarians or wild beasts.
Take a peek into their marvellous world full of symbolism and tradition, and if you like it, become a bell-ringer!
The beginnings of bell-ringing
Grobnik has been a livestock area, especially sheep breeding, since the beginnings of being settled. Nature has offered lowland and mountain pastures here, so our ancients drove their animals to pastures in the early spring. The cattle remained in the mountain until late autumn. In order to protect it from wild beasts that descended into the settlements during the winter, wealthier herd owners hired men to patrol the pastures and, by making noise, drive predators deep into the forest. However, they not only denied the wild beasts as well poachers prey.
According to the oldest local people, we learnt that they used bells, rattles, and other handy tools. They covered themselves with sheepskins, wore the skulls of bulls or rams on their heads, and blackened their faces with soot. In their hands, they carried a stick, a root, an axe, a bone or a polenta spoon.
Although they seemed frightening in appearance, the sound of a bell was crucial to their work. Accordingly, they were called bell-ringers (“dondolaši“). As they had most of their work in the early spring, which is also the time of the masquerade celebrations and carnival, they often visited their villages in such a masked fashion. With development and industrialisation, sheep breeding slowly stagnated and declined, nevertheless, the custom of bell-ringing during the masquerade seasonhas remained.
The Grobnik legend
In 1242, during an invasion of the Tatars led by Batu Khan, the grandson of the famous Genghis Khan, a battle crucial for the survival of the Croats in the region took place on Grobnik Field.
Legend has it that at the crucial moments of this bloody showdown, brave peasants came to the aid of the army of Croatian knights. Wearing horrible masks on their heads and large bells on their backs, they drove fear into the bones of the accursed conquerors, thus contributing to the great and important victory.
The bell-ringers’ choreography
Today, in their walk, the bell-ringers (“dondolaši”) walk in pairs because in life you must have a friend you can rely on. The parade follows a banner, which is usually carried by one of the oldest members of the association. The order and formation is watched over by the Master and, if necessary, he may have one or more assistants, to whom the bell-ringersin the procession listen unconditionally. At each stop, the bell-ringers form a circle, moving in a anticlockwise direction, symbolising a return to ancient times, i.e. a return to their roots.
The circle or wheel that they form is a natural defensive formation in the open space. In the middle of the circle is a flag that symbolises the original values of the Croatian people: family, home and the homeland. With their uniform bell-ringing in the circle, they strive for a harmonious and safe life, and with their raised hands, they show determination to defend their entrusted values.
After a kind of culmination in the form of the circle, it opens up, the masks are removed to reveal the radiant faces of the bell-ringers and they are able to take drink and toast their hosts. After drinks, the bell-ringersretake the initial formation and continue on their way to the next stop.
Today, the Grobnik Dondolaši Association has about one hundred members, including fifteen children between the ages of two and twelve.