Supernatural beings in Slavic religion

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Rusałki (1877), by Witold Pruszkowski

Other than the many gods and goddesses of the Slavs, the ancient Slavs believed in and revered many supernatural beings that existed in nature. These supernatural beings in Slavic religion come in various forms, and the same name of any single being can be spelled or transliterated differently according to language and transliteration system.


Serbian epic heroes Prince Marko and Miloš Obilić, and the vila Ravijojla

Vila (plural vile) is a South Slavic fairy similar to a nymph, female, beautiful and with long blonde hair. Serbo-Croatian: vila, Slovene: vila, Bulgarian: vila, diva, juda, samovila, samodiva, samojuda, Old East Slavic: vila, Slovak: víla.[1]

The vila is known among South Slavs and Slovaks only, quotes about her occurrence among Poles are wrong. Among Czechs, vila denotes a wood spirit (15th century), and ancient place names such as Vilice near Tábor, Vilov near Domažlice, and Vilín near Sedlčany seem to indicate that she was known there as well. In the Chronicle of Dalimil (3, 53) vila is "fool" (as in Old Polish). Czech: víla appears to be a loanword from South Slavic, because of the vocal length. In Russia, vile are mentioned in the 11th century, but there is doubt that they were truly a part of Russian folklore, and not just a literary tradition. There are common traits between the vile and the rusalki, and Schneeweis holds that they are identical.

The etymology is unclear. Possible explanations are from the verb viti "to wind" and Church Slavonic: vichъrь "whirlwind"; or from Sanskrit: vāyú- "air", Proto-Indo-European u̯ēi̯o- "wind".

Among South Slavs, vile are portrayed as beautiful women with long blonde hair. There are three kinds, those living on land and in forests (Serbo-Croatian: zagorkinje, pozemne vile), water nymphs (Serbo-Croatian: brodarice, povodne vile), and cloud or air nymphs (Serbo-Croatian: vile oblakinje, zračne vile). They appear as swans, falcons, horses, or wolves; cloud nymphs appear as a whirlwind. At night, they roam the clouds emitting a terrible noise of pipes and drums. Anyone who calls them becomes stiff and moves only with difficulty. He is stricken by disease and dies within a year or two.

Vile like to ride horses or stags, they go hunting (a parallell to the goddess Diana), dance in a circle dance (Serbo-Croatian: vilino kolo, Bulgarian: samodivski igriška) and seek the love of handsome strong men, assisting them against their enemies. Their fondness for fighting is reminiscent of the teutonic Valkyrie and is unique in Slavic mythology. They possess supernatural powers and are able in the art of healing. They build splendid castles at the edges of clouds. They confuse men's spirits with their arrows. They steal children and substitute them with changelings. In Slovakia, vile are the restless souls of deceased girls who lure young men into a deadly circle dance.

In Serbian epic poetry, every hero has a vila as an elective or blood sister (Serbo-Croatian: posestrima). The best known is Serbo-Croatian: Ravijojla, a name probably derived from Raphael. Girls can also have vile as blood sisters, and may ask them to improve one's beauty or to protect a distant lover.

Vile are usually friendly to people, but they can take horrible revenge on those who insult them, disregard their orders, or uninvitedly approach their circle dance. Their general amiability distinguishes them from the rusalki. The folk venerated them by placing flowers, food and drink before caves where they were believed to have lived.

Western European references[edit]

In a love song titled Vilja (Vilia), from The Merry Widow by Lehar and Ross, a hunter pines for Vilia, "the witch of the wood". 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.

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.


In Slavic mythology, Rusalka is a water nymph,[2] a female spirit who lives in rivers. In most versions, rusalka is an unquiet being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit (Nav) and dangerous. According to Dmitry 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.)

Vodianoi, Vodník[edit]

Vodyanoy by Ivan Bilibin, 1934

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.[3]


Bereginyas (Russian), Berehynias (Ukrainian) or Brzeginias (Polish) 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.[4] 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.

Modern fiction[edit]

The Winternight trilogy, by Katherine Arden, is inspired by Slavic mythology and includes many characters, such as the Domovoi, the Rusalka and other beings.

In Edward Fallon's 2nd book in his LINGER series of novels (Trail of the Beast), a Rusalka taunts a trio hunting a serial killer.

C. J. Cherryh has written three novels, Rusalka, Chernevog and Yvgenie, set in a world inspired by Russian folktales that feature, amongst others, rusalka, vodianoi, and leshyi.

In Changes, a novel in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, the fairy Toot-Toot, a Polevoi, is enraged when he is mistakenly called a Domovoi by Sanya, the Russian Knight of the Cross.

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.

Dorothy Dreyer's Reaper's Rite series depicts Vila as magical beings of half-faery, half-witch origin.

In J. K. Rowling's novel Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Veela are the mascots of the Bulgarian Quidditch Team at the World Cup. Fleur Delacour's grandmother was a Veela and Fleur's wand contains a strand of veela hair.

Piers Anthony's Xanth novels include a few Vily, as nature spirits bound to a tree (similar to a dryad) with powers of shapeshifting and cleansing or poisoning water, and extremely quick to anger.

Andrzej Sapkowski's Wiedźmin series as well as the Witcher video games based on it are set in a medieval Slavic fantasy world. Many of the monsters are taken directly from or inspired by Slavic mythology, such as the rusalka, the striga, and the vodyanoi.

Mythical characters, spirits, and creatures[edit]

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:[citation needed]

Tutelary deity
Spirits of Atmosphere
Spirits of the time of day
Spirits of the sky
Spirit of Fate
  • Drekavac (nav of the southern Slavs)
  • Kikimora (harmful domestic female spirit)
  • Mavka (evil spirits, rusalkas)
  • Rusalka (the harmful spirit that appears in the summer in the grass field, in the forest, near the water)
  • Samovila (a female spirit inhabiting the mountains and owning wells and lakes)
  • Upyr (vampire)
Devilry (evil power)
Ritual characters
  • Berehynia (East Slavic mythology female character)
  • Baba Marta (mythical female character in Bulgarian folklore, associated with the month of March. Martenitsa)
  • Božić (Christmas holiday near the southern Slavs)
  • Dodola (in the Balkan tradition, the spring-summer rite of causing rain, as well as the central character of this rite)
  • German (ritual doll and the name of the rite of calling out rain of the southern Slavs)
  • Jarilo (personification of one of the summer holidays in the Russian folk calendar)
  • Koliada (the personification of the New Year's cycle)
  • Kostroma (spring-summer ritual character in traditional Russian culture)
  • Kupala (folklore character of the Eastern Slavs, the personification of the holiday of Kupala Night)
  • Marzanna (the female mythological character associated with the seasonal rituals of dying and the resurrection of nature)
  • Maslenitsa (folklore character of the Eastern Slavs, the personification of the holiday of Maslenitsa)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Norbert Reiter (1973), "Mythologie der alten Slaven", in Hans Wilhelm Haussig, Wörterbuch der Mythologie, 2, pp. 163–208
  2. ^ Vladimir E. Alexandrov (1995). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Rutledge. p. 597. ISBN 0-8153-035-4-8.
  3. ^ Ivanits, Linda. Russian Folk Belief. M.E. Sharpe, Inc: New York, 1989.
  4. ^ Boris Rybakov. Ancient Slavic Paganism. Moscow, 1981.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.