The Vila, Wila, Wili, or Veela are the Slavic versions of nymphs, who have power over storms, which they delight in sending down on lonely travelers. They live in meadows, ponds, oceans, trees, and clouds (cf. Leimakids, Limnades, Oceanids, Dryads, Nephele). They can appear as swans, horses, wolves, or beautiful women.
In Polish mythology, the Wiła (pronounced), and in South-Slavic mythology the Vila, 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 sometimes appear as swans, snakes, horses, falcons, or wolves that they can shapeshift into, but usually they appear as beautiful maidens, naked or dressed in white with long flowing hair.
It is said that if even one of their hairs is plucked, the Wila will die, or be forced to change back to her true shape. A human may gain the control of a Wila by stealing feathers from her wings. Once she gets them back, however, she will disappear. (Compare Swan maiden and Selkie.)
The voices of the Wilas are as beautiful as the rest of them, and one who hears them loses all thoughts of food, drink or sleep, sometimes for days. Despite their feminine charms, however, the Wila 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 ride on horses or deer when they hunt with their bows and arrows and will kill any man who defies them or breaks his word. Fairy rings of deep thick grass are left where they have danced; these should never be trodden upon, as this brings bad luck.
Offerings for Wila consist of round cakes, ribbons, fresh fruits and vegetables or flowers left at sacred trees and wells and at fairy caves.
In Croatian folklore, the mythical Velebit mountain range is famous for its fairies; the most celebrated called Velebitska Vila or Vila Velebita ("The Fairy of Velebit"). The Vila is described as being a good spirit, 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 Vilya 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 the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the Veela are beautiful women with white-gold hair, whose dancing causes men to act in a less-than-sane manner. One member of the Weasley family marries a quarter-Veela.
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 die in peace if her death is avenged. In most versions, the Rusalka is an unquiet dead being. 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 while Polish is a wodnik. 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.
In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the Veela are stunningly beautiful and magically captivating women who put men into a trance when singing or dancing and can turn into hideous bird-like creatures capable of throwing balls of fire when angered. They first appear in book 4 of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which they accompany the Bulgarian Quidditch team to the Quidditch World Cup. It is unclear if any male counterparts of these veela exist, or if they are rather a kind of nymph, but they can and do interbreed with human men, from which often come daughters and granddaughters who are stunningly beautiful blondes. In the series, four of these part-veela in person are introduced: Fleur Delacour, who is a Triwizard Tournament champion from France's elite magic school, Beauxbatons; and her younger sister, Gabrielle, both of whom inherited veela blood from their half-veela mother, Apolline Delacour, who is introduced in the last book along with Victoire Weasley (Fleur's daughter mentioned in the Epilogue, snogging Teddy Lupin). This would suggest that the Delacour line migrated from areas adjacent to Bulgaria into France.
C. J. Cherryh has written several novels set in a world inspired by Russian folktales, called Rusalka, Chernevog and Yvgenie.
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.
In Tim Burton's Corpse Bride the woman can be considered a Wili, given that she died the day before her wedding and can't therefore rest in peace.
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.
In Mercedes Lackey's Fortune's Fool there are mentions of wilis, bereginais, rusalkas, and many other Russian folktale entities.
- 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.