Mateusz Supłat has been racing with Jukace for 12 years. “The first time I [ran] I was 13, “he said.” I still remember the feeling after 14 hours of racing; I could barely get home, but I was really happy. Gody Żywieckie is celebrated in the cities of the Beskids for centuries, honoring the region’s traditional pagan roots with intricate folkloric pantomimes and characters representative of nature’s animals and spirits. The Jukaces, however, are only seen in Żywiec. The town’s unique interpretation by Gody Żywieckie mixes elements of paganism with strong local pride, and the Jukaces are reminiscent of a myth that has persisted in the city since the 17th century. Legend has it that in 1655, during the invasion of the Swedish Empire, King Jan II Kazimierz Waza of Poland took refuge in Żywiec. As the Swedish army advanced on the town, the quick-witted shepherds of Zabłocie donned high hats and masks and charged the soldiers, whips cracking like shots e rapid fire. The soldiers, frightened by the monstrous-looking shepherds, withdrew and the king was able to escape. In return, says Supłat,[the shepherds] were supposed to get a very expensive piece of red cloth. This is why the [Kasjer, leader of the Jukace] is still dressed in red.
Whether the legend is true or not has done little to curb the heroism of the Jukace. As it is customary that only singles from Zabłocie are allowed to participate, youth is the lifeblood of Jukace. This turned out to be Gody Żywieckie from Żywiec’s greatest strength. As similar traditions fade in other parts of the region as the aging populations that support them are passed on, the Jukaces receive new recruits every year, with boys as young as eight years old making the mark. queue to begin their training. Becoming a Jukac is a great honor that demands strict discipline on the part of its participants.
“Someone who wants to be a Jukac has to be strong and tough because you have to run a lot, and you have to do it with heavy clothes and heavy bells,” Supłat explains. “He can’t be shy either.” Training begins each year in October. In addition to physical endurance, the role requires participants to memorize and recite a plethora of “wishes” – blessings, mostly written in rhyme, which have been passed down through generations of Jukacs. “We’re testing all the new guys,” Supłat explains. “Sometimes it’s really stressful. We’re testing someone and if they can’t make a wish, they can’t crack the whip, they can’t run. The Jukaces operate as an organization, governed by a strict set of rules and a complex number ranking system. About fifty men run each year; of this number, about half are first and second year novices who must move up the ranks of the Jukace hierarchy.