The song "Mi idemo ljeljo" by Kud Tena by Kud TenaCroatian National Tourist Board
In the eye of a Ljelja, closeupCroatian National Tourist Board
In the small town of Gorjani in Croatia’s northeastern Slavonia region, the spring procession of Ljelje/Kraljice takes place every year on Pentecost Sunday.
The town’s young women (ljelje) dress as either queens (kraljice) or kings (kraljevi) and form a procession accompanied by folksong and music.
A group of Ljelja posingCroatian National Tourist Board
The long history of the Ljelje/Kraljice tradition, its role in ensuring the passage of knowledge and memory from generation to generation, and that it is the sole remaining example of a practice once widespread in Slavonia contributed to the event being added in 2009 to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Ljelje from the backCroatian National Tourist Board
Prior to the Ljelje / Kraljice procession, young women of the village — usually those in their teens — are selected to serve as either kraljice or kraljevi. There are typically about 10-12 kings and about half that many queens. The kraljevi, or kings, are dressed in elaborate, highly decorative folk costumes.
Female costume from GorjaniCroatian National Tourist Board
Their hair is intricately braided; they don tall hats covered in flowers and beaded brooches, and they carry antique sabers. The kraljice, or queens, are dressed in similarly elaborate costumes but wear white, crown-like garlands on their heads like a bride might wear.
Bećarac Steps In
Traditional bećarac singers may join them as well. The dance involves the kraljevi/kings crossing their sabers in the middle of the circle, while the kraljice provide a sort of singing critique of the dance.
Man pouring wine into a glassCroatian National Tourist Board
After the dance, the procession of kings, queens and musicians, with spectators in tow, walk to the houses of townspeople who have requested they visit. Outside of each home, they perform a repeat of the dancing and singing, after which the host provides them with refreshments.
Ljelja drinking from a bottleCroatian National Tourist Board
They then continue to the next house and repeat the ritual. The next day (Pentecost Monday or Whit Monday), the procession may walk to a neighboring town to perform, then return to Gorjani for a feast at the home of one of the participants.
Ljelje sitting and talking before the danceCroatian National Tourist Board
The history of the spring procession of Ljelje is not clear. One version holds that at some point during the Croatian - Ottoman wars, which lasted intermittently over more than 300 years, Ottoman forces captured all the men from Gorjani.
Ljelja looking in the distance by Davor RostuharCroatian National Tourist Board
The women of the village dressed up in colorful clothing, donned men’s hats covered with flowers and, bearing scythes and sickles, marched to where their men were being held. Thinking the women were ghosts, the frightened Ottomans fled, and the men of Gorjani were liberated.
Ljelja hands on purple dress by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board
Ljelja singingCroatian National Tourist Board
According to legend, every year since on the Pentecost, the young women of the town have been dressing up in the same garb to commemorate their bravery against the Ottomans. The only modification is that they now brandish sabers instead of heavier weapons.
Ljelje procession (2016) by Tomo KrbavacCroatian National Tourist Board
Group of Ljelja singingCroatian National Tourist Board
Ethnologists contend that the tradition was more likely a means of presenting young girls of marrying age to potential grooms, especially since similar ritual events were once widespread in the region. While the practice died out elsewhere by the 19th century, in Gorjani, the custom was practiced continuously until the middle of the 20th century. It was discontinued in the 1950s but revived in 2005.
Ljelja group singing and posingCroatian National Tourist Board
The UNESCO designation recognizes the importance of the spring procession of Ljelje in uniting the community, preserving a centuries-old tradition, and transmitting a piece of the town’s cultural history from old to young.