The Greek historian Procopius testifies to the ancient Slavic worship of beings similar to the Greek nymphs, and he also tells us that the Slavs offered sacrifices to them.
The most common designation of these beings is “Fairy” – Vila in most Slavic languages, Samovila/Samodiva in Bulgarian – , and they are frequently mentioned in the ancient written traditions of the Russians, the Southern Slavs, and the Czechs, although their worship flourished most among the Southern Slavs, where they were made to unite many features of other fabled beings.
The signification of the word Vila (Bulgarian Samovila, Samodiva) has not yet been explained in a satisfactory manner, but it seems to come from the root vel (“perish”) and to be cognate with Lithuanian veles (“spirits of the deceased”).
Vily and Samodivi in Slavic cultures
According to popular tradition the fairies are souls of the departed, and Serbian legends declare that originally they were proud maidens who incurred the curse of God.
The Bulgarians believe that the Samovily are girls who have died unbaptized, and among the Slovaks there is a widespread story that the fairies are souls of brides who died after their betrothal, and finding no rest, are doomed to roam about at night.
The Poles think that the Wili are souls of beautiful young girls who are condemned to atone for their frivolous life by floating in the air midway between sky and earth; they do good to those who have favored them during their lifetime, but evil to those who have offended them.
Many kinds of offerings are still dedicated to the Vily. In Croatia young girls place fruits of the field, or flowers, or silk ribbons upon stones in caves as offerings to them; and in Bulgaria gay ribbons are hung on trees, or little cakes are placed near wells.
The Judy of Macedonia and of the Rhodope Mountains strongly resemble these Samovily. They are female beings with long tresses, snake-like and disgusting bodies, and vile natures, living in rivers and lakes.
If they see a man in the water, they will undo their hair, and throwing it around him, will drown him. They may be seen sitting on the banks, combing their hair, or dancing on meadows; and they destroy those whom they induce to dance with them.
Festivals and the connection with the dead
A close relationship is held to exist between the fairies and the souls of the deceased, as is evidenced by the belief that they may often be seen dancing by moonlight near the graves of those who have died a violent death.
The festivals for the Rusalky, which are meant to recall the memory of the souls of the deceased, are, at the same time, festivals of the Vily, in whose honor all sorts of ceremonies are performed; and young people of both sexes betake themselves to the meadows, picking flowers, making them into bouquets, and singing songs about the fairies.
Where Vila and Samodiva lived, purpose, powers & dissapearance
Samodiva and Vily are usually pictured as beautiful women, eternally young, with pale cheeks, and dressed in white.
Their long hair is usually fair or golden, and their life and strength are believed to depend upon it, so that if a fairy loses a single hair, she will die. The Slovenians, however, assert that a Vila will show herself in her true shape to any one who succeeds in cutting off her hair.
Their bodies are as slender as the stem of a pine, and as light as those of birds; and they are frequently provided with wings.
A man who robs a fairy of her pinions [the outer part of a bird’s wing including the flight feathers] will bind her to himself; but so soon as she has regained possession of them, she will disappear.
The eyes of the Vily flash like lightning, and their voices are so fine and sweet that to hear them once is to remember them forever. Men are often fascinated by their beauty; he who once chances to see a Vila, will yearn for her from the depths of his soul, and his longing will kill him at last.
Personality, temperament and habits
The fairies are fond of singing and dancing; and enticing young lads and shepherds or singers to dance with them, they distribute happiness or misfortune among them.
Places where the fairies have been dancing may be recognized from afar, being distinguished by thick, deep, green grass (fairy-rings); and if any one presumes to step inside, he must expect punishment.
Their voices are so wonderfully sweet that a man might listen to them for many days without eating or drinking; but no one knows what language they use in singing, and only those who enjoy their friendship can understand them.
They are remarkable for their strength and bravery; and when fighting with each other, as they often do, the forest resounds with din and clamour, while the ground shakes.
They have the power of foretelling the future and of curing diseases. When free, they give birth to children, but are apt to foist them upon mortal women; such offspring are remarkable for their excellent memory and wonderful cleverness.
On the other hand, they kidnap children, feeding them with honey and instructing them in all kinds of knowledge.
Though the fairies are, on the whole, good-natured and charitable beings, they may also do evil to people; and accordingly they may be classed as white (beneficent) or black (maleficent) fairies, the latter sending cruel maladies upon people, or wounding their feet, hands, or hearts with arrows.
Protectors of nature and wildlife
The fairies like to ride horses and stags, and they have the power of transforming themselves into horses, wolves, snakes, falcons, or swans.
Samovida and Vili live deep in the woods, where they guarded animals and plants; and clean streams of rubble and assured sufficient rainfall.
Hunters had to be wary of a beautiful woman who spoke the languages of animals, for the Vila was fiercely possessive of her wild herds.
Should an animal be injured or killed, the Vila mutilated the offender or danced him to death. Alternatively, the Vila might bury him in rocks by starting an avalanche or cause him to keel over with a heart attack.
Types of Vily and Samodivi
Depending on where they live, slavic fairies can be divided in three kinds: the ones that live in clouds, on forest-clad mountains, and in the waters.
The first kind sit among the clouds among the stars, sleeping, singing, and dancing. They may cause winds and storms, and have eagles for their helpers; now and then, transforming themselves into birds, they float down to the earth to prophesy the future and to protect mankind against disaster.
Born on a day of misty rain, cloud Samovida knew the secrets of healing and herb craft. Should a human wish to learn her skills, the applicant appeared in the woods before sunrise on a Sunday of the full moon.
Drawing a circle with a birch twig, she placed several horsehairs, a hoof, and some manure inside the circle, then stood with her right foot on the hoof calling the Vila. Should the spirit be greeted as a sister, the Vila would grant any wish.
The Vily of the forests dwell on high mountains, in caves, and in ravines, besides having magnificent castles for their abodes. Roaming about the woods on horseback or on stags, the fairies of the forests chase the deer with arrows; they kill men who defy them; and they like to perch on trees with which they are inseparably united. Mountain Vile assisted with the care of orphans and other needy children.
The Water-Vily live in rivers, lakes, springs, and wells, although for the most part they stay outside the water. When, on moonlit nights, they leave their abodes, the waters rise and foam; and the fairies, dancing on the banks, drown young men who happen to be bathing there.
If they perceive a man on the opposite bank, they grow in size so as to be able to step across the stream. Water Vile, who had power over free-flowing streams, could make water sweet or poisonous at will.
They bathe their children in the water, or throw things in to poison it; and whoever quenches his thirst there must die, just as they will punish any one who drinks of their springs without their permission.
Vila as helpers of agriculture
The Vily / Samodivi are believed to have lived originally in close contact and friendship with human beings.
In the happy days of yore, when the fields produced wheat and other sorts of cereals without the help of man, when people lived in peace and contentedness and mutual goodwill, the fairies helped them to garner their harvests, to mow their grass, to feed their cattle, and to build their houses; they taught them how to plough, to sow, to drain meadows, and even how to bury the dead.
In like manner the Slovenians believe that the fairies were kind and well disposed toward human beings, telling them what times were particularly suitable for ploughing, sowing, and harvesting.
They Samovili or Vili themselves also took good care of the crops, tearing out weeds and cockles; and in return for all this they asked for some food, which they ate during the night.
Vila marrying with men
The belief that a Vila may become a man’s sister also points to the existence of close relations between them and human beings; and it is a popular conviction that not only every young lad and, indeed, every honest man has a fairy for his sister who helps him in case of need, but even some animals, such as stags, roes, and chamois, for whom the Vily have a special liking, may possess such supernatural kindred.
The fairies will aid their brothers in danger, will bless their property, and will bestow all sorts of presents upon them. In numerous folk-tales Vily are married to young men.
They are dutiful wives and excellent housekeepers, but their husbands must not remind them of their descent, or they will disappear forever, though they still continue to keep secret watch over the welfare of their children.
One particular story concerning the vile involves Prince Marko, who saw a group of them singing and dancing. Marko released his falcon to capture the headdress and wings of their leader Nadanojla, who set off in hot pursuit of Marko as he rode away with the captured items.
Marko explained to all who saw him that the woman following him was a shepherdess who was to become his wife. Duly married, the couple lived for some time in peace and contentment, until one day Marko boasted that his wife was a vila, whereupon she put on her wings and flew away.
Only after she was recaptured by Marko did Nadanojla accept her role as Marko’s wife. Thereafter, she reacted only with laughter when her husband boasted of her supernatural origins.
Dissapearance of the Samovili
So long as their anger was not aroused, they would appear every summer; but when mankind commenced to lead a sinful life, and when whistling and shouting and cracking of whips began to increase in the fields, the Vily disappeared, never to return until a better day has dawned.
That is why only very few chance to see them dancing in the fields, or sitting upon a bare rock or a deserted cliff, weeping and singing melancholy songs.
As soon as men had departed from their old virtues, when the shepherds had thrown away their flutes and drums and songs, and had taken whips into their hands and commenced to crack them in their pastures, cursing and swearing, and when, finally, the first reports of guns were heard, and nations began to make war against each other, the Vily / Samovida left the country and went to foreign lands.
Marko Kraljevic and the Vila – A Serbian Folklore Story
Two pobratims [men swearing ritual brothership] rode on the way together,
Over fair Miroc mountain;
Kraljevic Marko was the one,
The other was Vojvoda Milos;
Both of them rode on noble steeds,
Both bore their battle-spears,
And each kissed the white face of other
For the love that is between two pobratims.
Sleep drew nigh to Marko as he sat on Sharatz,
And to his pobratim he said :
“Ah, my brother, Vojvoda Milos!
Sleep sits heavy on mine eyelids.
Sing to me, brother, and refresh me.”
But Vojvoda Milos made answer:
“Ah, my brother, Kraljevic Marko,
Fain would I sing to thee, brother,
But last night I drank much wine
With Vila Ravijojla on the mountain,
And the Vila laid threat upon me,
If she should hear me sing,
She will shoot me with arrows,
Through throat and living heart.”
But Kraljevic Marko answered:
“Sing, brother! fear not thou the Vila,
Since I, Marko Kraljevic, am beside thee,
With my wonder-horse Sharatz
And my golden mace.”
Then Milos began to sing,
He began a beautiful song,
About all our best and oldest
Who held the kingdom,
And in Macedonia the fortunate
Raised pious edifices.
The song pleased Marko,
He leaned back on the pommel of the saddle,
He fell on sleep, but Milos ceased not from singing.
The Vila Ravijojla heard him.
And began to join in the singing;
Milos sang, the Vila sang against him.
But more beautiful is the voice of Milos
More beautiful than the voice of the Vila;
Therefore the Vila Ravijojla was moved to anger,
She leapt down on the Miroc mountain,
She bended her bow and loosed two white arrows;
One arrow smote Milos in the throat,
The other pierced his heroic heart.
Milos cried: “Woe is me, my mother!
Ah me, Marko, brother-in-God !
Ah me, brother, the Vila has pierced me with arrows!
Did not I tell thee
That I might not sing on Mirod mountain?”
Marko roused himself from slumber,
And sprang from his piebald steed.
He pulled tight the girths of good Sharatz,
He embraced his horse Sharatz and kissed him:
“Alas, Sharatz, thou my right wing!
If thou overtake the Vila Ravijojla,
I shall shoe thee with pure silver,
With pure silver and with beaten gold;
I shall cover thee with silk to the knees,
And tassels shall hang from thy knees to thy hoofs;
I shall mingle thy mane with gold,
And shall adorn thee with little pearls;
But if thou overtake not the Vila,
I shall put out thy two eyes.
And break all thy four legs,
And thus I shall leave thee
To drag thyself from pine to pine,
Like me, Marko, without my brother.”
He leapt upon the back of Sharatz,
And dashed over Miroc mountain;
The Vila flew to the summit,
Sharatz galloped on the mountain slopes,
Nowhere saw he the Vila nor heard her.
But when at last he espied her.
He bounded into the air three spear-lengths,
Three spear-lengths high and four good spear-lengths forward,
And quickly Sharatz overtook the Vila.
When the Vila perceived her straits,
She flew upwards to the clouds in her distress,
But Marko drew his mace,
And hurled it strong and ruthless,
He smote the white Vila between the shoulders,
And felled her to the black earth.
Then he began to smite her with the mace,
He turned her to the right and to the left
And beat her with the golden mace.
“Wherefore, Vila—may God smite thee!—
Wherefore didst thou pierce my brother with arrows?
Give healing herbs to this worshipful knight,
Else dost thou lose thy head!”
The Vila began to call him brother-in-God:
“Brother-in-God, Kraljevic Marko!
Brother-in-God-the-Highest, and in Saint John !
Let me go forth alive into the mountain,
That I may pluck herbs on Miroc,
Wherewith to heal the hero’s wounds.”
And Marko was merciful for God’s sake,
His heroic heart was compassionate,
He suffered the Vila to go forth alive into the mountain,
And the Vila gathered simples for Milos;
The Vila gathered them, and ever and oft she called:
“I am coming, brother-in-God!”
The Vila gathered simples on Miroc
And healed the wounds of the hero.
More beautiful was now the voice of Milos,
More beautiful than it had ever been.
And the heart of the knight
Was sounder than ever tofore.
The Vila hied her to the Miroc mountain,
Marko and his pobratim gat them on their way.
They journeyed even unto Porec.
They forded Timok river,
They came to Bregovo — the great village,
And fared onwards to Widdin.
And thus the Vila spake to her sister Vilas:
“Hearken unto me, ye Vilas,
Loose not your arrows against knights in the mountain.
If ye hear aught of Marko Kraljevic,
Or of his magic horse Sharatz,
Or of his golden mace.
What did not I suffer at his hands!
And hardly might I save myself alive! “
Dixon-Kennedy, Mike – Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend
Machal, Jan – The Mythology of all races, Volume III, Slavic Section
Monaghan, Patricia – Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines