Beings of Croatian folklore

Legends, myths and stories are full of amazing creatures that were once a reality for the ancient people. Nowadays, the collective memory of these beliefs is preserved in the ancient texts and oral traditions.

On the surface, it seems as if the mysterious, shadowy beings from folk beliefs are forgotten, but interest in them is not subsiding even in the era of digital technology. On the contrary, more than ever we want to hear stories about them, draw their shapes and let our imagination run wild… This maybe be so because, in a way, they are symbols of ourselves, symbols of our consciousness and subconsciousness. They represent light and dark layers of our being and they are symbols of the eternal battle between good and evil in the stories that can never disappear.

A Krsnik, a Witch, a Nightmare (or Incubus), a Dragon, a Fairy, a Malik, a Giant, a Vampire… read what our acclaimed Croatian ethnologists have to say about them. Find out more about these beings from folk tales of Istria and Dalmatia, and then come to LegendFest to meet them…

Mòra (Nightmare or Incubus)

Photo by: Iva Lulić

Author: Ph.D. Luka Šešo

People believe that mora is an unwedded young woman who becomes a witch once she gets married. The stories about moras occur in Croatia all along the coast, from Istria to Konavle and in the Dalmatian hinterland, and it is often mentioned that people are the most certain that mora truly exists. The most widespread belief is that moras are daughters of witches, whose female children inherit their sinister characteristics.

It is also believed that moras are born in a red, blue or black placenta, which is a sign that a being with fantastic powers and omens is born. Her main feature is that she comes to young people, usually handsome young men, while they sleep, sits on their chest, strangles them and sucks on their nipples. In such condition, as people say, they cannot move or breathe until the morning and some die under mora’s pressure. Transformed into a fly, mora enters through keyholes, holes in doors and windows, and mora’s entrance to a room is usually marked by something breaking or falling down. Mora also presents herself in the form of a black cat, jumping to the bed and attacking her victim.

Many people talked about encountering a mora at sea, or getting attacked by one from the sea while sleeping. Those who managed to see her say they were unable to resist her. It is believed that when mora is encountered in the form of a fly, one should muster strength to capture her in the hand and shout: “You whore, you shall come to me to borrow something”. This was the story of a peasant in Kanfanar. After that night, a young woman came to his door and asked to borrow a kilo of salt. The peasant then knew this was the mora from last night, who came to borrow something, so he beat her to death.

Vila (Fairy)

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.

Fairy caves

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.

Krsnik (Vampire Hunter)

Illustration by: Nenad Pantić

Author: Ph.D. Luka Šešo

The people in Istria used to say that all of them would have died a long time ago if there wasn’t for their krsniks.

Krsniks were the ones who kept them safe from vicious štrigas, from droughts, hailstorms, illness and death. And who were these krsniks? A krsnik is born in a white placenta, or, as some people used to call it, a white cap. Unlike them, štrigas are born in a red or black placenta.

A baby born with such a mark is told to be a krsnik, the guardian from štrigas, illness and other misfortunes. During such a birth, a midwife, if she’s good, has to put the placenta aside, so the baby could have it throughout their life. Sometimes a part of the placenta was sawn under the newborn’s armpit, so it would remain a part of him forever, as it was believed that the placenta was in fact the main source of all the powers the krsnik will have throughout his life and use for protecting people from evil.

Until the age of 7, 17, or 27 krsniks live like ordinary people in a village and are by no means different from any other villager. However, after a certain age, other, older krsniks come for such children and young men and run them through certain initiation ceremonies. Only then a young krsnik gets his final powers. After that moment, a krsnik becomes true fighter against štrigas and evil, sworn to help people.

People tell different tales about krsniks, speaking of them flying into black clouds to fight štrigas and udavci, so they wouldn’t throw down ice on a village. The people believed that krsniks had the power to heal people and domestic animals cursed by štrigas and other demons. They used to say that krsniks also, just like štrigas, could leave their bodies while sleeping, in the form of a fly, and this way go to distant lands to fight štrigas and werewolves. However, the most common belief is that krsnik fights štrigas taking an animal form. Most often krsnik turns into an ox, cat, or a white dog, while štrigas and werewolves take forms of black animals.

A villager told about a man coming over to him and telling him that the day after, when he will be passing through the forest, he would meet two dogs. A white one and a black one. These two dogs will start to fight and he should throw a rock on the black one. The day after, when the villager was walking through the forest, he saw a black and a white dog fighting and, following the man’s instructions, he threw a rock at the black dog, which ran away immediately. The next day he again met the same man, who told him: “Stand on my foot and look over your left shoulder”. When the villager did that, the man asked: “What can you hear?“ The villager replied he heard bells ringing in the other village. The man then said: “The bells are ringing for that other black dog which was a štriga and wanted to kill you, and I was the white dog who protected you.”

Štriga (Witch)

Illustration by: Filip Burburan

Author: Ph.D. Luka Šešo

In the folk beliefs in Croatia (Dalmatia and Istria), people often mention štrigas, or witches. They are described as ordinary women or men with a special, either hereditary or acquired sinister powers. Štrigas were conceived or born on Christmas, Easter, or in the eves of big holidays. They are born in a red or black placenta and with a small tail. Štrigas are harmless until the age of 24, when that they become malicious towards people. If someone discovers a person who is a štriga and calls out its name, the štriga loses its power or never acquires it. Štrigas lead normal lives by day, just like any other people. At the moment they stop with everyday jobs, which usually happens late in the evening or at midnight, they turn into a frog, cat, dog, pig, ox, butterfly, or some other animal. In the dusk and during the night, especially during bad weather, they fly out to gather at special places, at crossroads, junkyards, mountain tops, or under walnut trees. They fight among themselves with torches, talk about who they hurt and plot where to find their next victims. Folk tales speak about them harming people in different ways, using various powers, and the most widespread belief is that they curse people and animals, making them ill. They take milk from cows and steal hearts from oxen, making them unfit for work and useless. It is believed they cast spell on small children who then get sick and die, they break up young couples, make people barren, cause a stroke or make someone drown.

Some people also say that štrigas have the power of leaving their bodies during sleep. Their spirit leaves through their mouth in the form of a black fly and goes far away, where it can turn into some other animal and harm people. Because of that, when old peasants would see a fly coming out of someone’s mouth while sleeping, they would place a rock over their mouth so the soul could not return to the štriga’s body. The štriga would soon die and the village would be free of this plague. They also believed that a person who was very wicked during life returns from the dead as a štriga. The same could happen if a cat or a chicken would jump over a dead man. Because of that, they placed a nail or some other sharp object in the mouths of such persons, to prevent them from ever returning to life, to do evil and bite people.

Zmaj (Dragon)

Illustration by: Zdenko Bašić

Istrian dinosaurs and dragons

80 to 140 million years ago, or in the Cretaceous period, dinosaurs were present in the region of Istria. Prints of these monumental animals were found in 1934 in Brijuni, and later on the peninsula Marlera near Medulin as well as on a small island Fenoliga and a small bay in Premantura. The greatest discovery happened in 1992 when on the seabed next to Bale, bones of a dozen species of dinosaurs were discovered. Among them are the bones of Brachiosaurus, one of the largest dinosaurs and land animals alike. Not only has this major discovery put Bale on the world map of paleontological sites, but the site near Bale is the only one of its kind in the Mediterranean.
Apart from putting Istria on the world paleontological map, dinosaurs are probably responsible for the existence of legends about dragons. Just like in China, where many dinosaur bones from the Gobi Desert contributed to the shaping of folk tales of huge beasts with long tails, claws and sharp teeth through which they spit fire, similar legends about dragons who devoured humans were occurring in Istria. Tradition says that once upon a time in Istria, a dragon similar to a large lizard devoured many people, but when he wanted to eat the king’s daughter, St. Juraj appeared and cut off his head. Another story refers to a dragon which was imprisoned in a steep cliff somewhere near Rovinjsko Selo, and even to these days some say that two dragons guard the entrances to the underworld below Pićan.


Illustration by: Manuel Šumberac

Dragon grooves and energy circles

Ten high hills about 100 meters high are located in the hinterland of Poreč. Archaeological research has shown that at the top of some hills there are ruins dating from the Bronze Age. The most impressive set of these hills is called Mordele, and it consists of three hills called the Grand Mordele, the Small St. Angel and the Grand St. Angel. At the top of the Grand St. Angel hill is a stone sarcophagus carved into the living rock which was probably used for the burial of some notables. On top of neighboring Small St. Angel hill is a series of very heavy stone blocks lined up in the shape of a horseshoe. Although the blocks eroded over time, and some of them broke off and fell to the foot of the hill, archaeologist Ante Šonje devoted his time during 1960s to research this mysterious place. The excavations found a stone groove and a ceramic vessel full of stone knives and bird bones, which led him to the conclusion that this place was the center of spiritual life of an unknown agrarian civilization 4,000 years ago. At the site of the megaliths allegedly sacrifices were offered and priests conducted magic and prophesied the future.

Due to lots of similarities with the famous stone blocks from England, France, Ireland and Scotland, the Istrian megalith is called the Croatian Stonehenge, and also represents the most eastern stone circle (horseshoe) in Europe.

The mystery of hills Mordele also extends to a nearby set of three hills called Picugi. Studies of these hills have been made during Austro-Hungarian Empire when they discovered the remains of a fort from the Iron Age. On Picugi were excavated more than 500 graves from the period from the 11th to the 1st century BC, and even to this day it is uncertain to which nation these graves belonged. However, it was only when Slovenian researcher Marko Pogačnik presented his thesis on the dragons grooves – energy flows – which intertwine the whole Istria and whose nodes are located exactly in the Mordele and Picugi, that the hills became of a wider interest. According to Pogačnik, and other supporters of this idea, the people who settled in Mordele and Picugi during the Bronze Age were responsible for the construction of other megaliths in Europe. The nation was aware of the energy flows in the region and have known how to channel and use these forces through megalithic structures.

Encouraged by such a discovery some people even today on Picugi arrange small pieces of stones in a spiral form according to the Fibonacci sequence – a matrix that is woven into the whole natural world. In these places a man can be “recharged” with good energy, food spoils more slowly, and some are deepening their inner senses so they can see and communicate with the spirits. Throughout history, these places have evoked worship and admiration in Istrian people, and their imagination has created many legends about these places.

Malik (Dwarf)

Illustration by: Milivoj Ćeran

Author: Ph.D. Luka Šešo

Malik the dwarf

On the Croatian coast people often believed in malik or macić, who usually appears as a small child with a red cap on his head. In some tales, these creatures represented hill, forest or field demons, or souls of non-baptized, aborted, killed children, sometimes even small devils.

According to the folk belief, malik is an ambivalent creature. It does both good and evil. It is believed that maliks are to be thanked for good catch in fishing and that they bring treasure to those who manage to steal their red caps. On the other hand, malik is also responsible for a series of bad things that happen to people. It is believed that a malik steals and hides cattle, just to return it in a few days, but cows can no longer give milk. It bites and beats people, makes children ill, and messes with children’s diapers to make them cry. Over night it tears down buildings under construction, runs and dances around houses and doesn’t let people sleep. However, people don’t consider it a big nuisance, but often say that a malik, turned into an animal, helped them on their way home.

Sheep farmer Andre tells that while he was herding sheep he got sick and could not walk anymore, so he sat under a tree and started calling for help. After a while, he heard someone calling back and this voice was getting closer and closer. A few moments later he saw before him a small donkey who said: “Climb up“. Andre was first confused, but he still climbed on the donkey, which quickly brought him home. When Andre dismounted, he turned to thank the little donkey, but it was already gone, turned into a small dwarf with a red cap, running back towards the forest. The villagers who saw him shouted: “There he is, malik, running along the path wearing a small red cap.”

This was how malik turned into a little donkey and helped sheep farmer Andre, who later told everyone: “Malik is the best!”

Illustration by: Igor Kordej

Author: Ph.D. Tomislav Pletenac


Malik can usually be found in forests and mines. On one hand, they are there to help travelers and shepherds, on the other, similar to fairies, they award miners for their moral behavior. This seems to be a case of a dual tradition they originated in, and they owe the common name to their looks. In one tradition, this is the ghost of the woods, while in the other it is a subterranean creature that possesses the secrets of the blacksmith and mining trades. The latter was brought to Istria during miners’ migrations, by miners coming to work to Istria and by Istrian miners working in mines across Europe. Either way, both of them are parts of a wider European tradition. We can recognize the ghost of the woods in features of the world famous Irish folklore trademark, the leprechaun, while the miners’ guardian and helper can be seen in the fairytale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. As with other fantastic creatures, they belong to the borderline area between two worlds. However, they tend to cross this line more often than other creatures. This is pretty obvious in the fairy tale of Snow White. Her problem is the lack of a wish to change her social role. Snow White is old enough to become a woman, but is reluctant to leaving her girlhood (it is this liminal situation that makes her so beautiful). She finds shelter with the dwarves, creatures from the borderline of the worlds who have never grown up. She managed to hide under their protection until the step mother performed her duty and tricked her into adult world, destroying her symbolic girl’s body.

In Istria, Malik acquired a similar role when he stepped away from the woods into the mines.
Mining, one of the first major industrial branches in Istria, started to fundamentally change the economy, as well as the entire life in Istria. On the frontier between the old life and the new one there had to be a mysterious helper able to bring together the best of both worlds. This is where Malik comes in. In the old tales he had already been known not only as helper, but also the one who knows where the buried treasure lies (a very frequent motif in the legends of Istria). And much more than that. If you had been alert enough and took his hat off or caught him, he would be giving you gold coins every day. Today, Malik is mostly replaced with self-help literature and various life coaches with just a fragment of his powers.

Divovi (Giants)

Illustration by: Ivan Gregov

Auhor: Ph.D. Tomislav Pletenac


Apart from people’s small helpers, Istria’s legends and folk tales also speak about giants. Similar to fairies, they also resorted to building several towers, or even whole towns, such as Motovun. The Motovun Forest, the River Mirna and Motovun seem to have a special place in the legends of giants, since most legends refer to this area. Along with towns and churches, the thing that differs giants from fairies the most is their responsibility towards the landscape.

For example, the River Mirna was created thanks to the plowing of one of the giants. When working on building towns, they would throw hammers from one hill to another. It seems the giants’ work ethics, one of their key qualities, was an inspiration to story writer Vladimir Nazor, who was the first one to bring them back to public memory. Kind-hearted towards people and hard-working, giants served to Nazor as a metaphor for the peasants of Istria, while the ancient time in which they lived became a paradise lost.

These are also characteristics of the post-colonial writings that are an attempt at creating identity, but also a threat to colonizers that the time of the giants could return. This is supported by a frequent motif in legends of the giants, and Istria is not alone here. This is the motif of an object cast into a river or the sea, which will one day resurface and bring luck to people. In the Istrian version: “And he chucked a cep mushroom into the river, saying that once the cep reemerges, everything will be fine.”

Vampir (Vampire)

Illustration by: Esad Ribić

The vampire – according to the folk belief, the vampire is a dead man who rises from his grave at night to suck people’s blood, and has magical and supernatural powers. To become a vampire one either has to be an evil person or has to have their blood sucked by a vampire. Almost all cultures and civilizations have some sort of myth about the undead, blood sucking creatures or vampires. But the very concept of a vampire comes from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where the myths about vampires were common and from where they were spread to Western Europe during the 18th century.

The first documented use of the word vampire is for a person by the name of Arnold Paola (probably: Arnaut Paul?) from the village of Medveđe near Kruševac in Serbia in 1725 in the report of the local doctor from Vienna at a time when Serbia is ruled by Austria (1717 – 1739). In nature there are animals and organisms that feed by sucking fluids of other animals, one of which is blood, so the term vampirism or blood sucking is used in zoology for animals such as leeches, mosquitoes and some bat species.

In a popular culture, the term vampirism or blood sucking is also used as a derogatory term for amoral and boundless exploitation of individuals or society. Also term vampirism is used to demonize individuals or groups because the vampires, according to some popular beliefs, are considered as demons and the personification of evil equal to Satan.

Myths about bloodthirsty creatures like vampires existed even in ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Peru, India and China, according to the myths and deities who had vampire characteristics. In Europe the myth of vampires is the most widespread among the Slavic people and their close neighbors (Albania, Greece, Lithuania). It is believed that the formation of the vampire legend is associated with Slavic animistic cults.

According to historical records, Jure Grando (1579 – 1656), a villager from Kringe, a small town in Istria, was the first European vampire.

The legend tells that, for 16 years after his death, Jure would arise from his grave by night and terrorise the village. The village priest, Giorgio, who had buried Jure sixteen years previously discovered that at night somebody would knock on the doors around the village, and on whichever door he knocked, someone from that house would die within the next few days.

Jure also appeared to his terrified widow in her bedroom, who described the corpse as looking as though he was smiling and gasping for breath, and would then sexually assault her. When Father Giorgio eventually came face to face with the vampire, he held out a cross in front of him and yelled “Behold Jesus Christ, you vampire! Stop tormenting us!”

The bravest of the villagers led by the prefect Miho Radetić chased and tried to kill the vampire by piercing his heart with a hawthorn stick, but failed because the stick just bounced off of his chest. One night later, nine people went to the graveyard, carrying a cross, lamps and a hawthorn stick. They dug up Jure’s coffin, and found a perfectly preserved corpse with a smile on its face. Father Giorgio said: “Look, štrigon, there is Jesus Christ who saved us from hell and died for us. And you, štrigon, you cannot have peace!” They then tried to pierce its heart again, but the stick could not penetrate its flesh.

After some exorcism prayers, Stipan Milašić (one of the villagers), took a saw and sawed the head off the corpse. As soon as the saw tore his skin, the vampire screamed and blood started to flow from the cut. According to folklore, peace finally returned to the region after Jure’s decapitation.

Vukodlak (Werewolf)

Straw sculpture by: Nikola Faller

Author: Ph.D. Luka Šešo 


The belief in werewolves, or people coming back from the dead to do evil, is very widespread inour lands, including Istria. According to the tales of old folk, a werewolf is very similar to a štriga. It is believed that, just like with štrigas, people who lead wicked lives or dead men jumped over by a chicken or a cat would become werewolves.

People sometime described a werewolf as a male witch, but they are most often referred to as undead, a goatskin full of blood walking in the dark, across forests, attacking men on crossroads not protected by a crucifix, at the eves of big holidays, and doing evil. Werewolf’s arrival is always accompanied by strong wind on which he floats, which makes him difficult to catch. The people believe a werewolf possesses enormous strength, he scares people and casts spells on them, especially the relatives that got on the wrong side of him or those with whom he has a score to settle.

In order to prevent dead people rising from their graves, when suspecting someone could turn into a werewolf, the people would cut their tendons behind the knee, or hammer nails into their heels. This way, if a dead man would wake up, he wouldn’t be able to walk and do evil. In case someone turns into a werewolf after all, the most common way of destroying them was to find their grave and hammer in a hawthorn stick into their heart. Such a method of killing a werewolf was usually done by priests at dawn or in daylight, when it is believed werewolves return to their graves to sleep.

The old writings about folk life often mention there are no peasants who don’t believe in werewolves and that all of the older folk who spoke about them claimed to have seen a werewolf with their own eyes.

In Peroj, outside Pula, people witnessed the creation and killing of a werewolf. It happened, according to folk stories, at the moment a black cat jumped over the body of a girl just as she was about to be buried. Several days later, a great wind came, killing women who were doing laundry at sea. They would often find people who were walking by the graveyard dead and bloody.

At that point, the people of Peroj decided to make a horse walk across the graveyard to see what happens. The horse passed across the graveyard easily until stopping by the grave of the girl whose body had been jumped over by a cat before the burial. The horse stopped and wouldn’t move any further. People quickly called for the priest and started unearthing the grave. To their great surprise, the girl was sitting in the grave combing her hair, all covered in blood. One of the peasants quickly raised his pick to hit her, but she only laughed tauntingly. Then they tried to kill her with a knife, but she kept laughing. One of the peasants then charged at her with a hawthorn stick and she started to shriek and fight. After a short struggle, the peasant managed to run the stick through her. At that moment, a great wind came, leaving some of the people at the graveyard dead, but the werewolf was gone and it never attacked the people of Peroj again.

Orko (Fairy Horse)

Illustration by: Igor Kordej

Author: Ph.D. Luka Šešo 

Fairy horse Orko

The people say that orco is a kind of a spirit cursed by God, which appears as a fairy horse and can be transformed into other animals as well, such as a dog, kid, mouse, and sheep. It is believed that orko is hatched from chicken droppings untouched for seven years. When a man, especially a weary traveler, walks during night, it gets between his legs and starts to fly through the dark with him on the back. It flies the traveler over to the wrong side and kicks him off in some unknown land, a desert, or leaves him hanging on a branch. The tale goes that it is most dangerous to fly on an orko just before the dawn, because once the rooster crows orko disappears and the unfortunate rider plummets down to the ground and gets killed. Orko can only be reined with a lamb wool thread or a rosary, and the man who succeeds in it becomes fairy-like himself. He can control orko and ride it across the sky wherever he wants, but only until the dawn, when the magic is gone.

Author: Ph.D. Tomislav Pletenac


Orko is yet another famous snatcher lurking from night in Dalmatia. He often comes in animal shape and it is even dangerous to step on the trail he leaves in the woods. Whether an unfortunate traveler runs into him or steps on his trail, Orko would hurl them into the air and throw them miles away from their destination. Such ill-fated features gave Orko a number of possible uses in people’s beliefs. At one moment he could serve as an excellent excuse for husbands who would stay in the town or the tavern for too long, and in the next he would become a guardian of the village line, making each night trip outside the village dangerous. Although he is seemingly friendly and prone to joking with an occasional traveler, aren’t all of us today a little like aimless riders on Orko’s back? We fall to different empty ideological promises about this or that system of living being the best if we want a happy life, while relying the least on our own strengths and a firm step forward. Perhaps it would be the best to apply the old Istrian recipe for fighting Orko – turn your shirt inside out or swap your left shoe with the right one. In other words, maybe ideological promises are not the best of foundations for building one’s own identity and life, even if they pretend to be post-ideological (invisible hand of the market). Instead, we could try to dodge an ideological interpretation through a reversed, twisted view.