Two girls, one basket full of food, and one Valentine’s date night spent at the ruins of a medieval castle on top of a hill, in the middle of nowhere—what could possibly go wrong? Plenty of things, including something ancient meddling in the affairs of love, something mythical that left its trace in pagan rituals. This is the story behind the story: or the inspiration behind sapphic folk horror story Harbingers of Spring.
I’m publishing this on Valentine’s Day 2023, when the story Harbingers of Spring was shared on the web page of Morina kutija, an online magazine for speculative fiction. The story was originally published in the fourth issue of Morina kutija (December, 2022), and now it’s on the web so you can go and read it without the need to download the whole issue.
What starts as a romantic story about a young woman who wanted to organize the perfect Valentine’s date for her girlfriend, who never got a chance to celebrate the day (but very much wanted to), soon turns into a nightmarish mythical play.
The story is set among the existing ruins of a medieval town called Ledenice (as is mentioned in the story, the translation would be The Ice Town), near the village of the same name. The only thing that was left of the town is a Frankopan (one of the Croatian royal families) castle (only in stone fragments) and the graveyard. It’s situated on the top of the hill and during the day there’s a view of Kvarner’s Bay. You can check out the ruins at this page: https://blagamisterije.com/stari-grad-ledenice-novi-vinodolski-povijest-frankopani/24547/. So, the perfect place if your date loves gothic stories with ruined castles and ghosts of the past haunting it. That’s what the protagonist of the story, Nika, thought too.
Now, during February, until Ash Wednesday, a lot of places in Kvarner’s Bay celebrate carnival season (in Croatian it’s called maškare, mesopust, poklade, and so on). Not only in Kvarner’s Bay, and not only in Croatia, but Ledenice is in Kvarner’s Bay, and I live in Rijeka, so that’s what’s important for this story. The way we celebrate is with multiple masquerade parties with the biggest being the closing Rijeka Carnival parade. Villages and municipalities around Rijeka also have effigies (called the Pust), hung on the poles, and on Ash Wednesday, they get burned. Some of the places have rich carnival traditions, like various bellmen—men under the coats of wool with a huge cattle bell strapped at the hip, walking around with wooden cudgels and either animal masks, bull skulls or flower crowns on their heads (depending on the place they’re from and the local mask). One of the bellmen masks is national folklore heritage protected by Unesco. They all have this performance slash dance they do during the carnival season, which has the symbolism of fighting against winter and calling forth spring.
I’m mentioning bellmen because they’re my favorite part of the folklore here where I live (and they were featured in the story Make a Toast to Spring, published in my folk horror collection Mistress of Geese), but they’re not the only carnival tradition of this region. For the story Harbingers of Spring, I learned about other traditions still held in the town of Novi Vinodolski (near Ledenice). Basically, Novi Vinodolski has a set of plays that they observe during carnival season. All of it, just like the bellmen, are, of course, what remained from the Slavic pagan rituals, only repackaged for modern times. For this story, the most important of these carnival plays (they’re called plays because there are certain fixed roles, costumes and story to the performance) is the one based on the Slavic myth of the divine marriage of Morana and Jarilo. It’s called Ženidba mlade Mesopustove (The Wedding of the Carnival Bride), and it’s a bit weird, as you can see in the YouTube video that I’ve linked. All of the roles are for men, people wear woolen clothes and cone-like hats, and there’s live music like cymbals and accordion. The weirdness is obligatory for carnival season, what can I say?
Like I mentioned, ‘the wedding of the carnival bride’ is directly connected to the myth of Morana and Jarilo, Morana being the Slavic goddess of winter and death, and Jarilo the god of spring and fertility. In the myth (or at least the iteration that shaped this particular pagan ritual turned carnival play) they get married, but then Morana brutally kills Jarilo, dismembering him limb by limb, and while she does that, she transforms from a beautiful young woman into a crone. And where she buries the parts of Jarilo’s body, the ground is especially fertile. And the next year it all happens again. Morana, beautiful and young, marries Jarilo, murders him by shredding him into pieces, the land gets its blood to be bountiful, and Morana turns into an old woman. And again, and again, so it goes, cyclically, from winter to spring. And each carnival season, people of Novi Vinodolski commemorate that divine murder-marriage with a ritual, except we don’t call them rituals anymore, but folk traditions of the carnival. It’s all about seasonal changes, just like the bellmen dance calling forth spring and the burning of effigies.
I didn’t know about this tradition before I started researching whether Novi Vinodolski has special carnival plays, and by complete accident I hit the jackpot. Because I knew I wanted to write a folk horror story set in Ledenice (just above Novi Vinodolski), during carnival season and Valentine’s Day. And then during research I find out that they’ve had this living tradition ever since pagan times, and it’s about a bloody marriage between gods of winter and spring? Amazing. I knew I needed to use this in my Valentine’s story, and that’s what inspired it.
To hint at the inspiration, the love interest is named Mara, which is a version of Morana. I couldn’t help myself, I know it’s on the nose, but whatever. I had a lot of fun writing this story, with Nika and Mara and their little Valentine’s Day date transformed into a horror story thanks to the old Slavic gods. It’s sweet and eerie, and a little bit gory, just like a Valentine’s story needs to be, if you ask me.