Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/September 1890/Slavonian Fairies
IN my studies in South-Slavic folk-lore, I have frequently come in contact with the Vila superstition, but only recently under conditions in which I could make a full investigation of it. The native literature on the subject is immense, but so confused and indefinite that an adequate examination of it would constitute a very serious task. The only way to obtain a satisfactory degree of knowledge in the matter seemed to be to sojourn at places where the population was relatively pure, and become acquainted with the living beliefs of the people. This I have done, having resided at five places, and searched out their popular traditions as one would suck an orange. Especially with regard to the Vilas have I got enough to make a book; I shall here give only a short chapter from it, including a part of what I learned in the single village of Pleternica. This village lies at the foot of a mountain on the right bank of the Orliava River, about three hours from Brod on the Bosnian frontier. The present village is not more than one hundred and thirty years old. In it the estates lie scattered among the hills, each on an elevation by itself, and each a fortified post. The people are engaged in farming, herding, and robbery. The practice of robbery is an inheritance from Turkish times. A large part of the population, who had been Mohammedan, had embraced Roman Catholicism in order to keep their property. Some of the families still boast their Mohammedan extraction. Many Catholics have recently come into the place from Bosnia, and it has about fifteen hundred inhabitants. The people can all read and write, are neat, enterprising, industrious, and well off; but, notwithstanding their good schools, they stick to their old, pre-Christian superstitions.
The Vilas, which occupy the greatest space in the popular lore, are female beings of the same kind as the fairies or wood-nymphs of the Germanic nations. The etymology of the name is uncertain, but it is supposed to mean "rustic"; and the Vilas are therefore spirits of the wood. The belief in them controls all the incidents of the peasant's life. The spirits are supposed to appear rarely alone, but usually in companies of two, three, five, or seven. They are distinguished by an extraordinary, maidenly beauty, clear complexion, slender stature, and dark, wavy hair descending to the ankles. They move lightly and freely through the air, being winged, although their wings are usually invisible. They can also lay their wings aside. Their dress is simple, and includes a crown of pearls on the head inclasping the floating hair; a long white robe, such as is worn by the peasant women at their work, reaching to the ground, without any outer garment; and a girdle of red silk.
They enjoy everlasting youth, are acquainted with divination and healing, have access to all the treasures of the earth, and can at will produce love or hatred in the children of men. They are particularly friendly to deer, horses, sheep, and godly men. They can assume the form of the gray mountain wolf. Under some circumstances they are pettish, evil, and vengeful; they teach children to steal; but sometimes, out of pity, take forlorn orphans under their care. They prefer to live upon or in trees, especially favoring the linden and nut trees; travel in the clouds or in whirlwinds; dance on hillocks, in green fields at springs, on roofs, and under isolated trees, accompanying the exercise with songs, and are distinguished by a clear, penetrating cry.
Their ordinary occupations are milking does, combing their hair with golden combs, washing their robes, and bathing in clear streams under the shadows of the overhanging trees. If a person wants to see Vilas or enjoy their presence, he must, if he is not gifted with the second-sight, put on his clothes wrong-side out. Children born on Tuesday or Sunday have the second-sight; but the Vilas never show themselves to children born on Friday or to red-haired men. Really faithful and Vila-fearing men carefully avoid speaking their name. They say "she," "that one" or, in case of more than one—two, for example—"those two."
The Vilas are supposed to be voluptuous creatures, and to lead lives that would not be regarded, according to our views, as moral. They bear only female children, which take after the mother. Whoever has enjoyed their favors can never afterward love a mortal woman. But one can rarely count on the endurance of their love, or be happy with it, and at last the chosen one will try to escape them. They are also sometimes accustomed to take men into their society; but one who has once associated with them, willingly or unwillingly, can never get rid of them, and must at last pay for his mistake with his life. He is strangled or torn to pieces, or, if a lighter punishment is administered, he is made blind or lame. The Vilas are able to call back to life men that they have slain, and also to lift the disabilities they may have inflicted upon any one. If a man succeeds in robbing a Vila of her wings, he acquires full power over her. If she loses her crown and her robe, she only suffers a separation of some time from the society of her playmates.
Three stories that were told me give some insight into the customs of the Vilas. As the peasant Adam Odvorcie was driving along, he came to a hill where seven Vilas were dancing. As he drove by, they came down and frightened the horses so that they ran away, leaving him in the road. He waited till the Vilas went away. A little farther along he saw seven of them washing their clothes. Reza Barjanovie relates that, in the summer of 1887, as she was sitting under a nut-tree in the yard with her mother-inlaw, they heard dancing and singing on the hill back of the house. All at once there arose a whirlwind and drove through the yard, striking them forcibly. They were much frightened, and, while trying to consult as to what had best be done, the mother-in-law, accidentally looking up at the roof, exclaimed: "Look! there are Vilas up there!" She said again to Theresa: "Look, daughter! the Vilas are dancing on our roof!" At that moment the Vilas disappeared. Both women have the second-sight. They often go to the woods in the morning and have opportunities to see much that is uncanny.
Koprivce Vic, an octogenarian of Pleternica, wrote me on the 25th of April, 1887, in his own handwriting, of the following adventure he had had with the Vilas: "Several years ago, in the old times, I was going into the mountains with my grandfather. It was late in the fall, and I was helping him drive the oxen through the plum orchard to the pasture. We perceived them away off, stamping with stamps, washing their robes. The nearer we came to them the more distinct grew the stamping. We were about to turn back, but took heart and went to within a few yards of them. Two of them were washing robes. We saluted them in the name of God. The two rose, threw their stamps over their backs, and let their hair fall to the ground. When we had gone a little farther, one said to the other, 'What shall we do to them?' Said the other, 'Nothing, for they saluted us in the name of God, and we shall have to let them go.' Upon this we returned to the orchard and lay down under a plum-tree. Grandfather fell into a sleep, and it took him by the hair and began to beat his head against the tree. We jumped up forthwith and ran into the cellar."
The truest and firmest friendships for mutual help in peace or suffering are concluded among the South-Slavic peasantry by the confirmation of an elect brotherhood or sisterhood. Obviously a connection of that kind with such powerful beings as the Vilas must be considered exceedingly precious. In the sagas and heroic songs of the people every great champion has a sworn sister among them. How such privileges are obtained was as unknown to me as to every other writer on the subject, for the people, if they know, will not willingly give up such a secret to every questioner; but Mother Eve, of Pleternica, who keeps all these traditions of the past living in her mind down to the present day, told it all to me. The fact that it is so fresh in her recollection is evidence that the cult still exists. The time of the telling was February 28, 1888.
If a person wishes to contract this relationship, he must take a horse's hoof, a piece of skin cut from under the hoof, and two or three hairs from the mane, the tail, and the head of the horse. He must also take a new broom that has never been swept with, and the price of which he has not beaten down in buying, and must provide himself with some horse-dung. Then, on the first Sunday in the new moon, he must go into the yard, sweep a circle around himself, and in the middle of the circle put the hoof and the other things he has taken from the horse, and, standing with the right foot on the hoof, with both hands brought together by the palms, call three times between the hands, three times turn around with the hoof, and utter the formula: "Sister Vila! I seek you over nine fields, nine meadows, nine brooks, nine woods, nine hills, nine mountain-peaks, nine ruined towers! Come to me and let me swear brotherhood with you!"
When the Vila appears, the person performing the conjuration says: "Sister Vila! I have found you now, and am your chosen brother!"
The conjuring person again blows three times through his closed hands and continues: "Sister Vila! give me your help whenever I call upon you, and help those whom I would help."
He must next name the person whom he holds dearest in life: if a man, the maiden of his choice; if a woman, the man. After which he adds: "Sister Vila! I conjure you by the living God and the sister Vilas that I may have what is mine from the beginning of the world." The rising sun is meant by "the living God."
By contracting this relationship one may assure himself of the assistance of the Vilas, and may also become more or less of their kind and acquire various arts from them. Men thus sometimes obtain the mystic power of changing themselves at pleasure into an animal, as a horse or a wolf, and of doing much mischief. Wizards and medical practitioners, men and women, boast of their relationship and ascribe their skill to it. A dwarfish herdsman, about forty years old, living in a cave in Odvorci, is distinguished as a cheiromancist, and can tell from the lines of the hand what herbs are good for a patient. He asserts that the Vilas had him under instruction for seven years. A Bracara lives at Petersdorf, to whom suffering Mohammedans come from Bosnia and pay two golden ducats for a cure. He gets such prices because he professes to be able in serious cases to hold consultations with the Vilas.
Toma Miemkovic, of Pleternica, told me the following story of a woman changing into a wolf, vouching for its truth, because, as he pretended, he had himself seen the person in question. There lived a very rich man at Trapari, who possessed a great flock of sheep, over which he put two shepherds and six dogs. Every day a wolf appeared, ate up a sheep, and vanished, without any one being able to see it. The overseer raged, and the sheep kept disappearing till three fourths of them were gone. At last he became desperate, when he was told by some one that there was no real wolf, and was advised to get up early in the morning, put on all his clothes, from his shoes to his cap, wrong-side out, drive the sheep to the brook in the pasture, climb a tree and wait; by means of which he would be able to find out who the wolf was. He followed this counsel. About noon an old woman of the neighborhood came down with a pail on her head and drew water from the brook. Then she lay on the grass, turned three somersaults, changed into a wolf, seized the fattest wether—a four-year-old—and ate him, wool, entrails, hoofs, and all. The man was on the point of shooting her from the tree, but, as he knew her, thought it better to punish her well at home. After the wolf had eaten the sheep, it executed three more somersaults and turned back into the old woman. The overseer came down from the tree and chastised her well; and, when her sons heard what she had been doing, they cudgeled her so thoroughly that she could hardly bear to have anything touch her. From that time on she never changed into a wolf, or ate any more strange sheep.
The womanly nature of the Vilas appears in their insatiable revenge for scorn of their love. The following story corresponds with the legend of the youth who knew no fear. The outcome in the present case is the discomfiture of the rash man; for, instead of the usual ghost, Vilas appear as the spirits of revenge.
There was once a Magyar who was so handsome that one could hardly admire him enough. The Vilas took him away and taught him for twelve years to dance, but he would not and could not learn. On the first day of the thirteenth year, about eleven o'clock in the morning, he escaped from them, took refuge in a wood, and hid in a large, hollow oak-tree. About eleven o'clock at night the Vilas came up to him like clouds, and tried to get him away. They called to him: "Come, love, to us; don't be afraid." But he would not answer. At daybreak he started again on his road, and came to a pasture where some herdsmen were watching swine. He asked them to protect him. They gave him something to eat and drink. He lay down, and they posted themselves in a circle around him. The Vilas came again about midnight and asked him to go with them, but he refused. In the morning he paid the herdsmen well for their care, went on, came to an inn, and asked for a lodging. The landlord answered that he could not accommodate him, for he had only one chamber, which no one dared to sleep in, for whoever spent a night in it never lived to see another day. The Magyar replied: "I am not afraid; only give me enough smoking-tobacco, candles, a table, a chair, and a bundle of kindling-wood. You need not trouble yourself about me." He lit the candles, sat down, and went to smoking. The Vilas came about ten o'clock, alarming the whole house, and cried to him, "Ah, now we have caught you!" and they carried him off and made a male Vila of him.
The dances, to which persons allied by sworn brotherhood are admitted, take place in the night-time. The participants must not talk of the matter, under penalty of death. The Podborje Hill, at the baths of Daruvar, at the foot of which is a church of the old believers, was recognized some thirty years ago as a place where such dances were held.
A young woman of fifteen, in Drenovci, was accustomed to go out every night, as soon as her husband was asleep, and soar around with the Vilas. On one of these occasions the husband awoke, and, not finding his wife at his side, remained awake till she came back at dawn. In the morning he asked her if she had slept well. She said no, she had had a restless night. The next evening she went out again with the Vilas. The husband lay awake, and on her return at dawn asked her where she had been. She made no answer, but was found dead in the morning.
Whatever once comes into the possession of the Vilas is lost to men; and if a man gives an unsuitable thing to them, he will have to suffer for it. A peasant girl told my mother that, when her little Catherine was fretful and could not sleep, she took her in the evening, when the cattle were coming home, into the front yard, gave her a swing, and said, "God and the Virgin help us. The Vila marries their son and invites Catherine to the wedding. Catherine can not go, but sends her moaning there"; and the child would cease to fret.
The Vilas play a subordinate part in many other stories, and occasionally appear mixed up with religious ideas in such a way that a course of comparative studies would be necessary to make them clear.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.