Illustration by: Ivan Gregov
Author: Ph.D. Luka Šešo
A short guide through traditional fairy beliefs
Out of all fantastic creatures known by our people, fairies have always been their favorites. They have been an object of desire, beauty and luck. It is said that our folk would give up on a belief in any creature, but never fairies.
But who or what are these creatures who can today be seen in cartoons, movies, fairytales and novels?
Kids today play with fairy figures, parents tell stories about them, but they surely don’t know that fairies, in their ancient Slavic history, had once been considered winter demons, witches, spirits of the woods, or guardians of the natural world, symbols of fertility, and rulers of the skies and storm clouds.
Their Slavic word ‘vila’ also tells us they live in clouds. It is connected to the words ‘air’, ‘wind’ and ‘to blow’, which undoubtedly indicates that fairies should be creatures of the air and skies. Nevertheless, according to a number of indicators, over the centuries they acquired many features from the Ancient Greek mythology, in which they are similar to nymphs and sirens. It therefore seems that original Slavic beliefs were somewhat changed in the period of great migrations and settling of new areas. Different religious and mythological philosophies of newcomers merged with those of the indigenous people. In the period between ancient times and the Middle Ages, a number of variants of beliefs in various supernatural beings were created. Slavs formed a new type of a fairy that lost a part of its former features and acquired some new ones.
How fairies look like
The old beliefs from Croatia say that every fairy is a fine woman, always young, white-faced, and dressed in white. She has long unbridled blond hair that hangs freely down her forehead and back all the way to the ground. If she was to lose just one hair, she would die of sadness. They say that her power and her life lie in her hair. Her body is thin as a fir-tree, light as a bird, and she sometimes has golden wings. Her eyes flash like a lightning, her voice so pleasant and sweet that those who once hear a fairy sing can never hear a human voice again, their hearts aching from sweetness.
Fairy has always and everywhere been described as a beautiful girl with an impeccable beauty. However, she has also been hiding an unpleasant secret regarding her looks. Beneath her fairy dresses, she is hiding donkey, goat or ox legs, that is, hoofs. She is especially ashamed of those and always tries to hide them from people. If someone would by any chance notice fairy’s ‘unusual’ legs and look astonished, the fairy would immediately punish them with one of her vicious spells. According to old tales, fairies deserved their hairy and unattractive legs because they kept bragging of their good looks, which they used to seduce boys, while they were jealous and arrogant towards pretty girls. God therefore decided to deform the fairies’ balance and beauty, turning their feet into hoofs. Out of shame, they escaped to thick woods, where they are still hiding today, ashamed of showing their legs when dancing with other girls. Nevertheless, God left them with their beauty and wisdom, so they kept living in woods, giving birth to their offspring.
How fairies are created
Some of the older beliefs in fairies consider them as souls of murdered or prematurely deceased girls or children. When a person died a violent, unnatural, death or died in sin, unbaptised, it was believed they could not go to the other world immediately, but first had to spend some time in limbo or at the frontier between this world and the afterlife. Fairies were one of such creatures. Just as storm demons, they spent their penance riding the hailstorm clouds. People especially feared dark clouds that carried hail, as they believed no prayers could help against those. They believed that crops destroyed by storms and ice from these clouds served as food for fairies. At the same time this was a punishment for the ruined village, which had allowed a girl to die ungracefully and turn into a fairy.
Another folk tale makes no mention of the horrid demons, but does say that fairies come from children.
People used to say that God felt pity after having banished Adam and Eve from Paradise. He wondered what became of them, so he went to Earth to see how they were doing. He found them healthy and happy, but also scared as they saw God. God asked them how many children they had, and they had twelve. They felt ashamed for having so many children, so they said ‘six’ to trick God, and brought six of them before Him. God only said: “Just as many visible, as there are invisible”. On that very moment, these concealed children became invisible. People therefore say these are now fairies and elves, and today there is as much invisible as there is visible world – because the invisible ones have been procreating and dying just as us visible people.
Apart from the tale of fairies as Adam’s children, there are also beliefs in which fairies are created when there is sunshine and rain at the same time. On such occasions, fairies are born from certain flowerless grasses that blossom across the meadows, with roots similar to red onion. In early morning when it rains these grasses have certain formations that give birth to fairies. Boys watched very carefully not to thread on such grass, not to cross the fairies. In some places, people believed that during the summer, a mother gave birth to a fairy on a beech branch and covered her in green leaves. On this branch, a small fairy washes in sun and drinks dew.
Where they live and how they are classified
Fairies live in various and unusual places. What they all have in common is that they are distant from people’s world. They usually look for places where no one can see, hear or hurt them. These are mostly steep cliffs, high mountains, inapproachable pits and large caves. Some fairies also live underground, underwater, while some dwell in clouds. Those who saw a fairy, say this happened at night in woods, a clearing in a forest, a glade, or by a lake, stream, or river. According to their habitat, people spoke of cloud fairies (Oblakinje), water fairies (Vodarkinje, dwelling in lakes, rivers, and wells), field fairies (Poljske), while the most common types were living in woods and hills (Zemne, Planinkinje or Podgorkinje). Habitat also determined their character, which fit the ancient mythological image of the world, in which good is in heavens, evil is underground, and the people’s world is a place of an eternal struggle between good and evil. Consequently, cloud-dwelling fairies were considered good, those living in water were evil, while the majority of fairies, those living in forests and mountains, were considered ambivalent – mostly good, but also with a capacity to hurt humans.
Evil water fairies would kill everyone drinking from their well, they used to pick a fight between two brothers just for kicks, making them kill each other, or they would mess with a pretty girl’s mind. They lured people to their wells in order to poison them, and even poisoned wells used by men. People believed that evil fairies could create a storm, wind or hail, and some spoke of seeing them jumping on waves after horrible ship wrecks. Good, air fairies, always loved to help people. They healed them from deadly wounds, gave them fertility, gold and wisdom, and in general protected them from evil water fairies. Earth fairies are almost always good, but can occasionally also become evil. In fact, earth fairies treat people the same way they treat them. They are very sensitive, vain and vengeful. They like giving gold to girls and handsome boys. They like good housewives, heroes and honest men, but if someone gets on their wrong side, they are even capable of killing them out of vengeance or hatred. People therefore highly respected and loved them, but at the same time feared encountering them.
What fairies do
It is nearly impossible to list all the things fairies are capable of. Perhaps the most widespread belief is that fairies steal the best, mostly white, horses from stables and ride them all through the night. Peasants used to find such horses in the morning all sweaty, tired and with braided manes. Braided manes were a sign that the horse spent the night with fairies and no one dared unbraid them. Apart from stealing horses, fairies were also known by their night dancing and singing. A fairy’s voice was an example of unconceivable beauty and it was believed that the one who hears a fairy sing will hear no other voice ever again. Many people testified of seeing fairies dance in the night, by creeks, ponds or at forest glades. However, fairies would disappear as soon as noticing them, and in some cases they would also abduct a man if he disturbed their dance. Peasants frequently found strange semicircular forms in rocks, and trodden or burned grass around them. In such cases, people believed that fairies left their hoof trails in rocks and trod the surrounded grass during their fairy dances. There are still many beliefs connected to fairies’ abilities and actions, such as them performing various arts. It was also believed they could turn into everything and shift shape, but mostly into a white snake. Fortune-telling and healing abilities were also attributed to fairies. They can forge weapons capable of cutting through iron and the hardest rock. On many occasions they gave such weapons to heroes, with whom they would often become blood sisters. They also awarded heroes with the best of horses, they built towns and ships people had never sailed in before. Sometimes it happened they seduced boys and had children with them, while there are also mentions of them stealing pretty children to teach them healing skills, deep in the woods. People in Croatia also used to believe it is very hard to see a fairy at all, because they are invisible, and can be seen only by those with a pure heart and without a sin.
Marriage with a fairy
It is a well known fact that fairies fall in love very easily. They love heroes, as well as smart, wise, tall and handsome boys. It is therefore not surprising there are numerous stories in Istria about a fairy falling in love with a boy and often having a baby with him. Unfortunately, rare are the stories of such marriages having a happy ending, probably because, according to old rules of mythology, an eternal happiness between a mortal and a supernatural being is impossible. There was a story in west Istria about a fairy falling in love with a man from Funtana and them deciding to officially marry. However, before the wedding, the fairy asked her fiancé to swear he would never call her a fairy! He of course promised it without thinking twice. They were happy in life and marriage, their children pretty and endearing like violets. But one day they started bickering and blinded by rage he shouted – ‘you fairy’! His wife disappeared immediately, to never show up again. People said they had seen her coming veiled by night to breastfeed her children and when the children learned to walk, they wondered off to the woods where fairies took them as their own and made them elves.
Another story tells of a young man falling in love with a fairy and wanting to marry her. However, in order to do that, he had to talk her into it somehow. One day he hid in bushes near the place where the fairy used to bathe. Before entering the pond to take a bath, she laid her wings down near him. The young man jumped out of the bushes and seized her fairy wings. The fairy pleaded him to give her wings back, but he refused. The fairy then asked him what she could do to get her wings back, and the young man said she had to marry him. The helpless fairy agreed and after a while gave birth to a child. Then she asked the boy again to give her wings back, but he tricked her and said she would never get them back, in order to prevent her from escaping. But one day there was a big celebration in the village, and all villagers were singing and dancing. The young man, wanting everyone to see him dancing with a fairy, went to get his wife, but she was all sad and refused to dance. The young man asked her what he could do to make her dance with him, and she told him to give back her wings. He gave her the wings and the fairy, regaining her freedom, flew away in an instance and disappeared. The next day she returned and told her husband to bring their child to the top of the hill so she could breastfeed it. He did that and never saw the fairy or the child again.
There was a story once about fairies dwelling in a cave full of dripstones. A traveler wondering in would never get out. People told that in this cave there was a garden full of various types of flowers and plants, so beautiful and magnificent like it was the Garden of Eden. There was also a small house, built of crystals, the floor was laid with pearls and violets, and the table in the house was always full of the best dishes in golden bowls. But as soon as a human entered the cave, everything turned to plain stone. All the gold, shining in the sun, would immediately turn to a hard rock. Once a man enters, he has to go further and deeper, wondering the cave until he dies in the darkness from sorrow and misery. People say that this cave was seen many centuries ago by a wise and virtuous man, who managed to get out with God’s help. However, no young man is wise and good enough to dare enter the cave.
There are also fairy caves, the people used to say, in which no one can enter but fairies. The doors to these caves are in fact small holes through which only a fairy can enter transformed into a snake. As soon as they enter the cave, they immediately turn back into beautiful girls and walk around their wonderfully decorated halls. Only sometimes fairies make bigger doors to these caves to receive virtuous people and teach them many things. Once upon a time, they received a peasant who they taught how to heal, handing him the fairy book. This book contained descriptions of medicines that could cure all the earthly diseases. This peasant was known all over the country as a good man. Although fairies forbade him to marry, in his old age he got crazy and got married anyway. From that day, he could not heal people anymore and eight days later he was killed by fairies.
Disappearance of fairies
Although you can still find an old granny or grandpa in Croatia who can tell a nice story of fairies, or even testify of seeing them dancing in nearby forests in the times before great wars, in the end they will also agree there are no more fairies today. It seems they have simply disappeared, vanished into thin air, or moved to some other areas. But what are the reasons for their disappearance, their escape from people ? Some older writers in Croatia say that fairies started to disappear after the Pope cursed them at the Trident Council (16th century). It was then claimed that the Christian youths had become too debauched hanging out with the fairies.
Yet, it seems that the main reason why fairies are gone is the fact that people have changed themselves. The village has changed, the country has changed, and most of all, the relation towards fairies has changed, so stories and dreams about them became less and less frequent. The world turned towards some other values and customs, in which there was no longer room for fairies.
“Ever since men betrayed their old virtues; since shepherds cast away their flutes, mandolins and songs, replacing them with whips and starting to crack them, agitate and curse; since guns started firing and nations being persecuted; since then fairies disappeared from Croatian fields and went to some distant land. Only an occasional man, especially in grace of the fairies, sees them sometimes, dancing in the field or sitting and weeping at a desolate cliff and a naked rock.” (Ivan Kukuljević)
Illustration by: Esad Ribić
Author: Ph.D. Tomislav Pletenac
No matter how hard we try, we cannot tell our personal history, or history of a community, word by word, exactly how it happened. To start telling about events inescapably means to miss out on some details that do not belong to a general order of linear storytelling. Hence, a text is nothing but an economy of events. Fairies play a special role here, as they have often been the main excuse for someone’s good or bad luck, a cover for not telling some unpleasant details from one’s life. The fact they live far away from people, in nature or in caves, makes them a symbol for events that remain out of reach of a structured speech, i.e., a part of nature. “One who would see a fairy, without uttering the word ‘fairy’, could speak to her.” Such a sentence, found in an old Istria’s tale, unmistakably indicates the plausibility of the above thesis. This way, name taboos, pretty widespread in the Slavic world (so much that even today a bear is called by a descriptive name ‘med-vjed’ – he who knows where honey is), in fact respect what cannot be said. If one passes the test, does not utter a word, repeat specific phrases or keep to moral commandments, the fairies are willing to grant them an immense power they possess. This can also be seen in the legend about fairies building the Pula Arena. Had the rooster not stopped them, the Arena would also have had a roof, the legend says. The rooster who crows with the break of down does not only represent the morning, a new day. Its key role is to wake people up, mark the coming into a conscious state in which the narrative order is reconfirmed. There is no more room for fairies in such a conscious narrative order, they have to hide from view. The fairy theory of building the Pula Arena is an excellent example of specific symbolic systems being transferred from one medium to another, in this case from nature to architecture. Today’s science is nothing but an attempt at classifying random events into known and legitimized models.