Mythology

Slavic Folklore: Vilas, Witchcraft and Mythical Creatures

Baba Yaga riding a broom

Slavs have a rich culture whose imagery and mythological elements have created a world full of Vilas, witchcraft, and different mythical creatures.

The old religion of the Slavs and their worldview was pagan. Their paganism was constituted of a wide sphere of intangible and material, as the predominant motif in their culture were the so-called supernatural forces.

The Slavic pagan folklore was not distinguished from the beliefs of the tribes in the neighboring geographical regions, although it developed individually as a part of the Indo-European religion.

The slim evidence of the Slavic religion by the 6th century and the small number of witnessings from the 6th to the 9th century has prompted folklorists to further research and reconstruct stories and legends about vilas and other mythical creatures from Slavic folklore.

The folklore expert Liliana Damaschin writes that since there is a lack of proof for any kind of Slavic writing system prior to the process of the imposed Christianisation, the original religious beliefs and traditions were mainly learned through the oral transmissions of tales and stories.

Slavic Folklore: Vilas

The Vilas were in fact, fairies (in Southern Slavic mythology) that were portrayed as beautiful girls with supernatural powers. They were also eternally young.

Depending on the version of the story, Vila can have bird or butterfly wings, a white silk dress, and long golden hair (which stores all her magical power).

The Vilas lived in forests, near the lakes, on the mountains, or in the clouds. They could transform into many animals, usually falcons, swans or wolves.

The Maiden Who Was Faster than the Horse

Here’s how a Slavic vila was described in one Serbian tale:

Once upon a time there lived a maiden who was not born from mother and father but made by Vilas out of snow gathered from a bottomless pit under the light of St Ilija’s sun.

The wind breathed life into her, mountain dew suckled her, the forest dressed her in leaves and the meadow adorned her with flowers. She was whiter than snow, her cheeks rosier than a rose, she was more radiant than the sun; she was such as the world had never seen before nor shall it ever see again [1].

Good Omen

The Slavic paganism in Eastern and Southeastern Europe represented the vilas as nymph-like creatures that live in lakes, rivers, mountains and ponds, in caves or other hidden places.

They were benevolent (unless provoked) and they helped poor and misfortunate people.

The Achilles Heel of Slavic Vilas

People believed that both the strength and weakness of the Vilas can be found in their hair and that if a single hair was plucked from their head, they would die.

Some legends represented the Vila as a creature with wings and feathers. If a human stole feathers from her wings, she would be easy to control.

Mesmerizing Voice

The Vila had a beautiful yet dangerous voice. The pagan stories said that hearing the voice of Vila would mesmerize men to the point of madness.

The feminine charms of their voice made a man forget about sleeping, eating, and drinking water. In addition, Vila was a strong warrior that went to battle and destroyed her enemies.

Prophetic Powers

In some versions, the Vila is portrayed as a character with healing powers that is also a prophetess and a generous soul that provides help to people in trouble.

Vilas rode horses, were excellent deer riders, and were amazing bow-hunters.

People used to leave flowers, cakes, fresh fruit, and colorful ribbons in forests, wells, and caves as a form of offerings to the Villas.

Popular Vilas in Slavic Folklore

Slavic mythology has a great number of stories with vilas in them. Some of them became well-known and are a source of inspiration for many modern writers.

The most popular and well-known are Rusalka, Vodianoi and Bereginya.

Rusalka

Rusalka is a water fairy (in Slavic mythology stories) but was also regarded as a water vila in Slavic legends. Rusalka resembled a mermaid or a nymph from other mythologies.

In Slavic folklore, Rusalka is a female supernatural spirit that is connected to water and is often malicious towards people.

The exact features of this entity have been long debated by folklorists. They do agree on one thing – that Rusakla stems from pagan times where it was regarded as a benevolent spirit. 

The Rusalka occasionally appears in the modern culture of Slavic countries (as a mermaid or a nymph).

The Rusalka spirits were considered to be the souls of young women who drowned or were murdered in or near lakes. They were represented as ghosts with bodies made of water who sought to avenge their deaths or wandered around the haunted lakes.

Vodyanoy

Vodyanoy is a water creature from the Eastern and Western Slavic stories that was a spiritual embodiment of the souls of the people who drowned [2].

The Vodyanoy had a long tail and claws and was covered in grass or moss. Some versions also depict it as an old man with long hair and a beard that was covered in algae and mud.

Kikimori

Kikimora is a female house spirit present mainly in the Eastern Slavic folklore traditions.

This creature is represented as a demonic spirit that comes from the swamp and possesses houses, living in the cellar or behind stoves, producing noises and leaving wet footprints.

Bereginya

This fairy was first mentioned in the 15th-century collection of ancient Hellenic sources, “The Lay of St. Gregory the Theologian of the Idols” which contained comments of a monk from Kyiv who wrote about Bereginyas (12th century).

Slavic Witchcraft

Magic was an integral part of the pagan traditions practiced by the Slavic ancestors. These people believed that misfortunes and negative energy could be healed and cast away through magical rites or witchcraft.

Sorcery and Witchcraft

Sorcery and witchcraft were considered means for intervention against the supernatural forces of nature that, according to the old Slavs, were controlled by divine entities like gods, spirits, and other deities.

In the Slavic folklore, the so-called old believers and practitioners of paganism relied on conjuring spells and magical rights to understand natural phenomena and protect their wellbeing and prosperity.

The Old Believers

On the territory of today’s Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the Balkans, lived the Old Believers or the Original Believers. They were members of a huge tribe that practiced the old pagan rituals and traditions.

These people worshiped the pagan gods from the pre-Christian period and offered them gifts during rituals in return for good harvests and prosperity.

All Kinds of Magic

Pagan Slavs used all kinds of magic- from spells and charms to Slavic black magic. The incantations for good luck in work and war were used to increase the chances of victory or to destroy the opponent. 

Slavic Spells

The spells of the Slavic folklore were made for the sake of wisdom, good health, prosperity in the home, requited romantic love, fertility, etc. Black magic was also present as protection from enemies and misfortune.

The Love Spell

Love rituals for good fortune in romance, fertility, and blessings were performed with chanting and addressing to the winds.

In the past, Slavs believed that one ought to address the winds in the north, east, and west (known as the Wafts) to make their beloved fall in love with them.

Herbs, Plants and Rituals

Ancient Slavs were interested in the natural world and also considered all things in nature as living beings – stones, fire, trees, thunder, etc (this concept is known as animist religion). Therefore, they believed that each element in nature has its purpose and power.

Understandably, herbs were dominant in their rituals and customs that were guided by the rhythm of nature and its cycles.

Here are some examples of these ‘magical’ herbs:

Basil

It was believed that the basil would bring peaceful dreams to those who had trouble sleeping.

Beetroot

Beet leaves were wrapped around eggs and boiled to provide them with the red color that symbolized beauty, prosperity, and was a symbol of the god of the Sun.

Purple Loosestrife

This plant was considered most powerful when gathered on the sacred holiday known as Kupalo (the Christian day known as the feast day of John the Baptist or John the Bather Day) [3].

Mugwort

It was believed that mugwort picked from 9 different fields was a powerful amulet against infertility. Also, girls would stare at the bonfire on Kupalo day through a wreath of mugwort to better their eyesight.

As protection against evil, mugwort was often carried or tucked into the eaves to protect the home from misfortunate spirits.

Wormwood

As a magical herb, the wormwood was found in Russian mythology where it was mentioned as a way of protection from the bad will of the rusalki.

According to the legend, a group of girls was returning from picking herbs in the forest when they met rusalki on their way home. The water fairies asked them “What do you have there?”

“Wormwood, yes, wormwood” they all answered except for one very young inexperienced girl who giggled and said “No, I picked meadowsweet!”. The rusalki caught her and no one ever saw her again.

Demons and Other Creatures

Apart from vilas, there is a wide array Slavic folklore creatures in Slavic mythology, whose characters and tale versions depend mainly on the culture from the country/region they originate from.

In general, the fairies were considered as obscure Slavic mythological creatures and folklorists and ethnologists agree that they are more often regarded as demonic creatures in Slavic folktales.

They looked surreal and supernatural and were able to shapeshift between the forms of humans and animals, so made Slavic ancient people associate them with both benevolent and demonic powers.

The most well-known demonic creatures are Poludnitsa, Baba Yaga and Azhdaya.

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is a witch popular in all of the Eastern Slavic countries.

Baba Yaga is depicted as an evil old woman that rides a mortar or a broom, wields a pestle, and loves chasing, scaring, and eating little children.

Baba Yaga lives deep in the forest, in a hut that is built upon chicken legs (with horse hooves on the door).

Although she is mainly known as the “enemy of children”, some tales represent her as someone who provides advice to people in need.

Poludnitsa

She is a demon that is usually portrayed as a young woman dressed in white. She wanders the fields and assaults villagers and workers that work at noon, causing heat strokes and neck aches, or even madness.

She would land on the ground as a woman who would engage villagers by asking them riddles that were too difficult to answer and eventually lead to their demise.

Azhdaya

This creature is a version of the mythological dragon known as Zmay or Zmey. The pagan folklore interpreted it as a polysephalous demonic serpent that lived for several hundred years, spat fire, ate humans, and performed evil deeds [4].

The so-called household spirits were, in general, portrayed as male spirits.

Domovoi

Domovoi was considered a creature that was responsible for the prosperity and tranquility in the home.

When people built a new house, they used to perform the following ritual: the owner took a piece of bread and put it in the kitchen before he would put the stove as it was believed that the domovoi would hide behind it.

If the owner moved, he would take coals from the stove to their new home and then formally invite Domovoi to come along with their family in order to ensure his presence.

Another ritual included bread with salt in a clean white cloth that should be put at night in the kitchen as an invitation to join the family at the table. In addition, one custom included hanging the old shoes in the yard to elevate the mood of Domovoi.

Dvorovoi

Dvorovois are male yard spirits. Their name originates from “dvor”, meaning “yard”. Just like the domovoi, they are in charge of taking care of the household and its members.

The Dvorovoi was considered happy and appeased when someone would place a shiny object, a slice of bread or sheep’s wool in the stables, saying:

Master Dvorovik, I offer you this gift in gratitude. Please look after the cattle and feed them well.”

Eretik

The creature known as Eretik was also a male spirit, but, an evil one. Eretik was considered responsible for the brutality and hysteria against heretics in medieval Russia.

It was believed that the eretik usually returns from his grave to devour people and can lure living people into graves.

Forest Spirits

Forest spirits were also a common theme in Slavic mythology and these were represented in various forms and as a multitude of characters:

Lugovik

He was the spirit of the meadow.

Musail

Musail was the forest tsar who was the king of the forest spirits. He was associated with the Rowan tree.

Lesovikha

A female forest spirit that was sometimes represented as an ugly woman with large breasts, and sometimes as a naked young girl – or a woman in white as tall as the trees.

Polewik

Polewik appears as a dwarf who has grass for hair and two differently colored eyes.

He usually dressed either completely in white or in black and appeared at noon or sunset.

He leads people who wander in the fields astray and if they fell asleep, he would give them diseases or ride over them on his horse.

It was believed that if a person falls asleep drunk (while on the job), the Polewik might kill them.

Dodola

Dodola was a South Slavic female deity of rain and clouds. Slavs considered the rain as a form of heavenly milk, and the name of Dodola actually comes from the word “doit”, which means “to give milk”, “to breastfeed”.

Clouds and cows were considered equal to women, i.e. divine entities who gave life.

In times of drought, a young girl, called Dodola, would be dressed in white, wearing a flowery wreath on her head. She danced with her fellow tribe members singing songs for the rain.

Also Read: Sudjaje: Slavic Spirits

Traditions and Archetypes

The mythologization of historical traditions has resulted in tales and songs of legendary heroes, such as the stories of Lech, Czech, and Rus, however, certain mythological elements and archetypes turned into fairy-tale characters that are popular even today. 

Christianity and Slavic Paganism

The old Slavic religion was not replaced by the imposed Christianity but instead, it was altered. The old Slavic religion gained new elements and interpretations.

The cults of old deities were intertwined with the worship of new Christian saints, and old rituals were unified with the newly introduced Christian practices and holidays.

The rural medieval Slavic population was rather fond of the old mythology that was rooted in the lives of the ordinary people who worshiped the old Slavic gods.

Sources
  1. https://folklorethursday.com/regional-folklore/serbian-folklore-his-majesty-the-zmaj-and-her-majesty-the-vila/
  2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/vodyanoy
  3. http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CK%5CU%5CKupalofestival.htm
  4. https://archive.org/stream/slavic-pagan-world/slavic-pagan-world_djvu.txt

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