Fighting old Slavic religion, the main goal of the Church was elimination of the pagan deities. Demonic creatures which were part of the Slavic mythology were not considered to be too intimidating enemy, so they were left to exist and, in some cultures, even today, present part of the national folklore.
Demons can be divided into many different categories. One of them is according to their origin. Souls of the dead ancestors and spirits from the nature belong to this group. Further, we have division according to their place of living with categories such as: next to a fireplace, under a doorstep, on a crossroad, on a cemetery, in water and many others. Symbolically, fairies can be classified from the bottom of the underground circles to the top circles of heaven. According to the place of living they can be “spring fairies” which includes “najade” and “hydriade”, “ship fairies”, protectors of the ships, “hill fairies”, “hamadriade” who lived in the trees, “cloud fairies” , “plant fairies”, etc. The final categorization, that people use the most frequently, would be simply “good” and “bad”.
Most of the Literature and Ethnology scientists would agree that fairies belong to the demon group of creatures in the mythology of Southern Slavs. Their mythological existence had a great importance in the tradition and literature in those ancient times but they are also having it today as characters and symbols in lyrical and epical folklore poems.
Fairies can have different appearance; they can have human or any kind of surreal, unnatural shape. They are presented as creatures made of many different elements and functions. On the one hand, they belong to the cult of the ancestors and on the other to the cult of nature. Their significance is enormous because in their cult we can find symbolic representations of air, storm, water and spirits of the dead ancestors. It was believed that fairies are born in plants, living on the trees or around them. Some of them also lived under the ground and had a shape of the snake. When such fairies would come out on the surface they became girls.
Many authors find fairies connected to the Moon and moonlight and their demonic beings to have lunar character. They relay their theory on the fact that fairies appeared only in the middle of the night dancing and having orgy parties on the river banks. Having that in mind, it is not a surprise people were in the same time scared and enchanted by the beautiful fairies.
In the folk stories they were often described as magical creatures of the nature which appear as a group, without personal names, making any physical contact or communication with them impossible. Those groups usually numbered 3 fairies but, sometimes, 6 or 9 of them, as the folk lyric poems inform us. Some of these gorgeous demonic creatures could also be seen separated from the group, living alone. They were protectors of the springs, rivers, woods, mountains and meadows and unlike the dancing fairies these ones could be very dangerous. Fairy “Baždarica” lived in the mountain and her job was to protect springs and rivers which ran through the mountain’s woods. If a wandering person wanted to drink some water from a spring or cross a river, Baždarica fairy would allow it but a certain price had to be paid.
Ravijojla, a vila of the Serbian mythology, on a painting inspired by the Serbian epic poem Marko Kraljević and the Vila
In 18th and 19th century Slavic poetry fairies were individualized, named and characterized to look more like human beings. This innovation was introduced by poets who thought it was easier to write about fairies and their magical powers if those fairies had names. People always liked to listen about magical creatures, about their superpowers and prophesies, so the poets created names and personalities to set imagination of the listeners on fire. Some of the names are Ravijojla, Andesila, Jerisavlja, and Andjelija.
Stories about fairies show that they were very complex kind of demons in a half human shape. Physically fairies could be black or white. In old folk stories they were presented as very beautiful girls with goat or horse legs. Its basic function was to dance in a circle, holding each others hands. Such a dance was known as “Viljokolo”. Land or grass that was in the middle of the dancing circle was considered to belong to the fairies. People were scared to touch or walk over the circle. In the period when people prepared hay for the winter, such grass was avoided to be cut. Reason why people were scared is because fairies could become very angry and then punish people for disturbing their fun and rituals. For example, “field fairies” were concerned with protecting fields and giving them fertility and if it happened that somebody would remove their circle they would make that person “mad”. Such a person would be enchanted, angry all the time, confused, distressed and generally unable to find peace.
In the Southern Slavic folk literature, fairies were also described as prophets, especially when it comes to predicting future to the brave soldiers. When a soldier would ride alone in woods, or lay to rest under a tree, a fairy would address him and tell him his future. Having in mind that those stories were the usual plot of the epic poems, soldiers were prized and promised long and prosperous life, brilliant mind and physical strength which would make them undefeatable.
In some Slavic nations fairies symbolized marriage protectors. Young girls, ready to get married, made flower wreath and threw them into a river, lake or see. It was believed that the flower wreath was a gift enough for the young, cheerful hearts of the fairies so they would send handsome grooms for the girls. Those fairies continued to protect those girls through marriage and maternity. When a baby was born a fairy would continue to take care of it. It was believed that children protected by fairies were easily recognized by their personalities. They were strong, careless and self-confident.
Fairies represented female principle in nature. They protected everything that was able to be fertile or give birth. As a matter of fact, they were also able to fall in love and have their own children. Their partners were young dragons, symbols of the male principle in nature. They lived together far away in the darkest woods or highest mountains and had many children. Sometimes, fairies would fall in love with young mortal men. In that case, they would put a spell on them, fetch them and take them far away into the mountains and have, preferably, female children.
If we say that fairies are not popular in the societies of the Slavic offspring today that would not be completely true. Rituals have changed, people do not really believe that some mythical creatures would visit, reward or punish them, but even today there are certain customs that are respected just because “it is good to do so”. So, if someone wants to wash hands or drink some water from a spring it is a custom to leave something next to the spring, or on a tree, on a bush or anywhere near. That can be a coin, piece of cloth, a ribbon or handkerchief. Today we can see that custom when people throw coins into fountains. Reasons why people do so have been changed but the root of the custom lies in the old mythical tradition
Thank You for the informative article. Well writ. I learned some things from it.