Supernatural beings in Slavic folklore
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Supernatural beings in Slavic folklore come in several forms and their names are spelled differently based on the specific language.
As is common in folklore, there is no standard set of characteristics, or names, and spirits or magical creatures are referred to by many names, often identifying their function or the place or environment of their activity. Such descriptive terms include:
- khovanets (as domovoi),
- dolia (fate),
- polyovyk or polevoi (field spirit),
- perelesnyk (spirit of seduction),
- lesovyk or leshyi (woodland spirit),
- blud (wanderer),
- mara (specter, spirit of confusion),
- chuhaister (forest giant),
- mavka or niavka (forest nymphs),
- potoplenytsia (drowned maiden, wife of vodianyk),
- vodianyk or vodyanoy (water spirit, aka potoplenyk),
- bolotianyk (swamp spirit),
- bisytsia (she-devil),
- potercha (spirit of dead, unbaptized child),
- nichnytsia (night spirit),
- mamuna (demoness),
- nechysta syla (evil power),
- scheznyk (vanisher),
- didko, antypko, antsybolot, aridnyk (other names for evil spirits)
The Vila are the Slavic versions of nymphs, who have power over wind, which they delight in causing storms of high winds. They live around hills, mountains, and high mounds. (cf. Leimakids, Limnades, Oceanids, Dryads, Nephele). They can appear as a ghost-like figure with a long billowing cloak wrapped around them.
In Polish mythology, the Wiła (pronounced [ˈviwa]), and in South-Slavic mythology the Vila (Serbian pronunciation: [ʋǐːla]), are believed to be female fairy-like spirits who live in the wilderness and sometimes in the clouds. They were believed to be the spirits of women who had been frivolous in their lifetimes and now floated between here and the afterlife. They usually appear as beautiful maidens, naked or dressed in sparkling beautiful white dresses, green skirts of leaves, and special fabulous blue robes.
It is said that if even one of their hairs is plucked, the Vila will die, or be forced to change back to her true shape. A human may gain the control of a vila by stealing a piece of the vila's skin. Once burned, though, she will disappear.
The voices of the Vilas are as beautiful as the rest of them, and can form large gusts of winds that can lift houses into the air. Despite their feminine charms, however, the Vila are fierce warriors. The earth is said to shake when they do battle. They have healing and prophetic powers and are sometimes willing to help human beings. At other times, they lure young men to dance with them, which according to their mood can be a very good or very bad thing for the man. They will kill any man who defies them or breaks his word. Vila rings of deep thick grass are left where they have danced; these should never be trodden upon, as this brings bad luck.
Offerings for Vila consist of round cakes, ribbons, fresh fruits, and vegetables or flowers left at sacred sites (a certain mound, a ring of trees in the mountains, or even a hill that lightning strikes multiple times).
In modern times, it is not uncommon to use the term for any female supernatural entity.
In Croatian folklore, the Velebit mountain range is famous for mythical fairies, the most celebrated called Velebitska Vila or Vila Velebita ("The Fairy of Velebit"). The Vila is described as being quiet spirits, and is the patron of the Velebit mountain range, whose significance in Croatian culture has led to tales and songs of the Vila, the most popular one created in the 19th century titled Vila Velebita, which is still popular today.
Named vilas in the Serbian mythology are: Andresila, Andjelija, Angelina, Djurdja, Janja, Janjojka, Jelka, Jerina, Jerisavlja, Jovanka, Katarina, Kosa, Mandalina, Nadanojla and Ravijojla. Ravijojla is the best known of them, connected to Prince Marko, while Jerisavlja is considered to be their leader.
Western European references
In a love song titled Vilia, from "The Merry Widow" by Lehar and Ross, a hunter pines for Vilia, "the witch of the wood". Judika Illes also mentions the Vilia in her book, The Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells. In some tales, the reason for abandoning their loves is a sad one. The Vila are cursed never to find their true love. If they do, that love will die a terrible death.
Among the Slavic creatures of folklore, for the English-speaking world the wilis are indelibly connected with the Romantic ballet Giselle, first danced in Paris in 1841, with its spectral wilis, young girls who have died before their wedding days, who almost snatch away the hero's life-breath, but must disappear at the break of dawn.
These wilis have been adapted from a poem of Heinrich Heine, who claimed to be using a Slavic legend. Meyer's Konversationslexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who die before their wedding night. According to Heine, wilis are unable to rest in their graves because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing naked, especially in town squares. They also gather on the highway at midnight to lure young men and dance them to their death. In Serbia, they were maidens cursed by God; in Bulgaria, they were known as samodiva, girls who died before they were baptized; and in Poland, they are beautiful young girls floating in the air atoning for frivolous past lives.
The first opera completed by Giacomo Puccini, Le Villi, makes free use of the same thematic material. It had its debut in May 1884 at the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan, and was revised for a more successful reception at the Royal Theater, Turin, that December. Vilas are said to be able to bring upon storms and other weather.
In Slavic mythology, a Rusalka was a female ghost, water nymph, succubus, or mermaid-like demon that dwelled in a lake. She was considered a being of evil force. The ghostly version is the soul of a young woman who had died in or near a lake (many of these rusalki had been murdered by lovers) and came to haunt that lake; this undead Rusalka is not invariably malevolent, and will be allowed to rest in peace if her death is avenged. In most versions, the Rusalka is an unquiet spirit. According to Zelenin, people who die violently and before their time, such as young women who commit suicide because they have been jilted by their lovers, or unmarried women who are pregnant out of wedlock, must live out their designated time on earth as a spirit. Another theory is that rusalki are the female spirits of the unclean dead; this includes suicides, unbaptised babies, and those who die without last rites. (Under this theory, male unclean dead were said to become vodianoi).
The vodianoi is a male water spirit of Slavic origin. The Czech and Slovak equivalent is called a vodník, Polish is a wodnik, while Russian is vodianoy. A South Slavic equivalent is vodenjak. He is viewed to be particularly malevolent, existing almost exclusively to drown swimmers who have angered him by their boldness. Reports of his appearance vary; some tales define him as a naked old man, bloated and hairy, covered in slime, covered in scales, or simply as an old peasant with a red shirt and beard. He is also reported to have the ability to transform into a fish.
The vodianoi lives in deep pools, often by a mill, and is said to be the spirit of unclean male dead (this definition includes those who have committed suicide, unbaptized children, and those who die without last rites). As previously stated, the vodianoi would drown those who angered him with boasts or insults. However, there was no certain protection, as the spirit was particularly capricious. Peasants feared the vodianoi and would often attempt to get rid of the spirit or, failing that, appease him.
The only people who were generally safe from the vodianoi's anger were millers and fishermen. Millers in particular were viewed to be so close to the vodianoi that they often became seen as sorcerous figures. This may be influenced by the belief that millers yearly drown a drunk passerby as an offering to the vodianoi. Fishermen were somewhat less suspect, offering only the first of their catch with an incantation. If a vodianoi favored a fisherman, he would herd fish into the nets.
Bereginyas or Berehynias are obscure fairies mentioned in "The Lay of St. Gregory the Theologian of the Idols", which has been preserved in a 15th-century Novgorod manuscript. "The Lay" is a compilation of translations from Greek sources studded with comments by a 12th-century Kievan monk. The text, which seems to have been considerably revised by later scribes, does mention "vampires and bereginyas" as the earliest creatures worshipped by the Slavs, even before the cult of Perun was introduced in their lands. No detail about "bereginyas" are given, affording a large field for speculations of every kind.
Boris Rybakov connects the term with the Slavic word for "riverbank" and reasons that the term referred to Slavic mermaids, although, unlike rusalkas, they were benevolent in nature. The scholar identifies the worship of vampires and bereginyas as a form of "dualistic animism" practiced by the Slavs in the most ancient period of their history. According to him, the term was replaced by "rusalka" in most areas, surviving into the 20th century only in the Russian North. After the publication of Rybakov's research, the "bereginya" has become a popular concept with Slavic neo-pagans who conceive of it as a powerful pagan goddess rather than a mere water sprite.
The videogame Quest For Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness, set in the Slavic countryside of a fictional east-European valley, features several Slavic fairies, including the Rusalka, Domovoi, and Leshy.
Catherynne Valente's novel "Deathless" is set in a fantasy version of Stalinist Russia and features vila, rusalka, leshy, and other Slavic fairies.
- Š. Kulišić; P. Ž. Petrović, N. Pantelić (1970). "Вила". Српски митолошки речник (in Serbian). Belgrade: Nolit. p. 68.
- Š. Kulišić; P. Ž. Petrović, N. Pantelić (1970). "Равијојла". Српски митолошки речник (in Serbian). Belgrade: Nolit. p. 250.
- Š. Kulišić; P. Ž. Petrović, N. Pantelić (1970). "Јерисавља". Српски митолошки речник (in Serbian). Belgrade: Nolit. p. 161.
- Ivanits, Linda. Russian Folk Belief. M.E. Sharpe, Inc: New York, 1989.
- Boris Rybakov. Ancient Slavic Paganism. Moscow, 1981.
- Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief. Armonk, N.Y. and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1989.
- Власова, М. Новая абевега русских суеверий. Иллюстрированный словарь. Санкт Петербург: Северо-Запад. 1995
- Wilkinson, Philip Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology (1998)
- Зеленин, Дмитрий Константинович. Очерки русской мифологии: Умершие неестественною смертью и русалки. Москва: Индрик. 1995.