Fairies are one of the most prominent fantasy creatures in world folklore. They are found in all cultures and regions; in African, Asian and North American tales. Many of them are known by their names or abodes. We are introduced to fairies as early as in childhood, by listening to fairy tales, watching feature and animated movies and reading epic poetry. They appear on television, in magazines, on logos and packaging (one of the examples is the Starbucks’s logo that features one of the most well-known fairies of European folklore – Melusine ).
In this region, a common fairy is Vila Brodarica (Serbian variant of a water nymph), who usually dwells near rivers and lakes, but also in mountainous terrains. The most popular fairy in these parts is certainly Vila Ravijojla, living on the mountain Miroč and who is, like Greek Aphrodite or Roman Diana, armed with a bow and arrow. These details about her we learn from the ballad “Marko Kraljević and Vila”, depicting Marko and Ravijojla’s conflict. Here are the verses that illustrate the culmination of their encounter:
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.
This description of Marko’s violence against Ravijojla is not an isolated example of his aggression toward vilas in our epic poetry: a similar destiny befell Ravijojla’s cousin, Vila Brodarica, in the ballad “Marko Kraljević and Vila Brodarica”:
Then he drew his slender bludgeon,
and struck Vila Brodarica,
So mightily did he smite her
That he felled her to the black earth,
Then he left the mountain singing,
Whilst the Vila lay there ailing.
(Translated by K.M. for the purpose of this text)
The Ballads of Marko Kraljević are replete with rather dazzling examples of brutality against women — the most dazzling one being “Kraljević Marko and the Daughter of the Moorish King” ) — but, truth be told, it is never triggered by misogynous drives. Although bludgeoning of the vila might seem rather cruel, let’s not forget that she is not an ordinary woman, but a supernatural being. The contemporary perception of a fairy as an otherworldly entity amiable to humans — a fairy godmother — started developing during Romanticism, whose overall inclination to idealize the medieval times did the same with one of its most dangerous creatures. Such euphemistic presentation of the fairy is typical for Serbian Romanticism, which also portrays her as a being friendly to humans.
Despite the romantic presentation that survived to this day, it is an undeniable fact that the fairy originally emerged as a wicked monster and was presented as such throughout the Middle Age. The medieval fairy’s prototype comes from the ancient culture: the Latin name for fairy, fata, corresponds to the verb fatatus (to be fated), which clearly alludes to her ability to manipulate the course of human destiny — a feature that links her to Roman Parcae; her erotic traits are similar to those of Greek Nymph, along with her propensity for water, given that they usually reside near lakes, rivers or seas. Her feminine charms, seductiveness and beauty are means of deception and a weapon she uses to beguile her mortal victims. Kraljević Marko was also familiar with the vila’s demonic traits, so he wasn’t reluctant to beat her with a mace.
Her perfidious nature is portrayed in the earliest fairy tales of Gaelic culture, where she is held responsible for the disappearance of heroes in the realm beyond earthly life. Irish stories of journeys and adventures (immram and echtra), for example Immram Brain (The Voyage of Bran) and Echtra Condla (The Adventure of Conle), belong to a genre which describes a hero’s journey to the unearthly realm at a fairy’s invitation. Upon return, he realizes that the time he spent there was passing significantly slower than in the world of mortals and that everybody he has known died in the meantime. The story has two equally scary endings: one that involves the hero’s death and the other where the hero decides to go back to the realm of fairies and disappears for good.
Interestingly enough, after these Gaelic stories — believed to have been penned in 8th century — there are hardly any references to fairies up until 12th century, when we see a renewed interest in this mythological being that starts appearing in the collections about marvellous and supernatural phenomena by Walter Map, Geoffrey of Clairvaux and Gervase of Tilbury. In these stories, the fairy becomes the hero’s wife and decides to follow him to the world of mortals; the authors would use terms lamia or striga to portray the snake-like, demonic female who conceals her genuine form, and compared her to the monstrous females from Greek mythology, known for deceiving their victims by seduction.
What could cause her sudden comeback to the collective memory and why did the authors make her willing to visit our mortal world?
Jacques le Goff, a historian and excellent interpreter of medieval culture, used to emphasize that the marvellous also had political function and dubbed this phenomenon as “the political marvellous”. In all early stories of supernatural wives, the mortal hero belonged to a higher class of military nobility. He was a real, historical personality, known by the first name and his geographical position/sobriquet/ physical features (from which a surname was derived). The union between a fairy and a mortal would always result in offspring whose quality was guaranteed due to their supernatural origin. Many great dynasties highlighted their supernatural origin – the court writers of the Plantagenets’ wrote about their demon foremother from 11th century, while the Lusignans and their relatives the Luxembourgs claimed to descend from a dragon-woman Melusine (short for Mere des Lusignan – the mother of the Lusignans). The story of marriage between a mortal man and a supernatural woman was invented in the early 12th century, and it was before the end of it, when due to its increasing popularity, many European noble houses insisted upon being direct descendants of this monstrous lady.
The story always begins with the protagonist who goes hunting for an enchanted animal – a wild boar or, most commonly, a white stag. The motif of the chase functions as a means of bringing the hero to the fairy; it is a topos – a common place in medieval stories about journeys to the fairies’ kingdom. He usually meets his future spouse near a body of water: a lake, river or sea, depending on the locality where the fable takes place. Spellbound by her looks, he immediately falls in love and the fairy accepts to go to the mortals’ world with him, yet under one specific condition; it is a prohibition she imposes on her husband (coming in a variety of requests: to refrain from watching her while she bathes, to promise never to touch her with iron – a euphemism for ‘never to beat her’, etc.). Their love in this world is long-lasting and fruitful, but the trust between the lovers is disrupted when the husband violates the agreement, after which the fairy leaves him.
A veto as the condition under which the fairy accepts to follow the hero is a key ingredient of the story, and a common place in folklore. It can be found in ancient myths of Cupid and Psyche, Zeus and Semele, Peleus and Tethis; they all illustrate the union between an otherworldly being and a mortal who is forsaken after perpetrating a treacherous deed: most commonly offending or watching the fairy. It is no different from the Serbian folklore, where in the story Vilina gora (Villa’s Mountain, title translated by M.K), a curious spectator who watched them dance gets punished by being deprived of his eyesight and speech. Vila Brodarica – the one whom Marko Kraljević “felled to the black earth“– also threatened to blind the hero after he visited her habitat and drank cold spring water without paying the peage. Marko and Ravijojla’s conflict emerges when she takes offense because her prohibition was breached. The poem opens with the description of friendship between Marko and Miloš, his pobratim (half-brother; when two men, not related, swear everlasting friendship, each becomes pobratim to the other), whom Ravijojla forbade to sing. Marko Kraljević asks his pobratim to sing and Miloš replies:
Ah, my brother, Kraljević 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.
After some persuading, Miloš starts singing and is soon shot through the neck and heart, which infuriates Kraljević Marko, leading to his brutal response mentioned at the beginning of this text that ended in Ravijojla’s pleading for mercy and bringing Miloš back to life. From the contemporary man’s point of view, this poem might seem peculiar and cruel, but its every detail was carefully thought out. Ravijojla’s affinity for vine serves to illustrate Miloš’s consorting with a supernatural being, an act which in itself highlights his heroic qualities and exclusiveness. Miloš and Raviojla are not portrayed as equal; he is actually better than her (at singing, to be precise), which provokes her jealousy and urge to impose the ban. The poem follows the basic pattern of western European fairy tales: a hero meets a fairy; she forbids something that he eventually disrespects; this leads to a consequence. Western European tales, however, do not have a hero like Kraljević Marko, at the ready to assault the fairy with a bludgeon! The poem’s objective is to glorify Marko’s heroism, whose vigour can tame even a supernatural force, capable of bringing people from the dead. Marko is quite aware that the fairy is actually a monster, because the author of the poem, who condemned them to combat, knows it as well: thanks to Marko’s courage reflected in his readiness to fight the monster, his pobratim gets his life back.
It is hard to think of a crueller treatment than that of Marko, but we do possess rich lyrical-epic tradition. While in western literature the fairy decides to marry the man, whom she chooses because of his qualities that make him worth her attention and progeny, in our region, she is the one who is chosen. The fairy of the western European folk lore shows herself to the man she lures by an enchanted animal, while versions with violent taking of the fairy for a wife are rather rare. These scarce examples of fairy abductions in Europe are found primarily among German peoples and in the Balkans, of course. Examples of forced marriage in our poetry are poems Kako je Novaku utekla vila ljubovca (How Novak’s Vila Wife Escaped from Him, title translated by M.K )and Ženidba Banović Strahinje sa vilom (Marriage of Banović Sekula with the Vila, title translated by M.K). Both poems are very similar to Germanic tales of swan-women, where protagonists forcefully take fairies for their wives after they steal their animal coverings. Novak and Sekula, in the same fashion, hide wings and plumage from their wives and Sekula’s Mountain Vila even gets baptised before the forced wedding. While the western European fairies chose their husbands and specified conditions of marriage, the Balkan ones had two options: to accept their wooer or die. The description of Sekula’s “proposal” from one of the extant adaptation is quite picturesque:
Three times he fastened her with his belt,
And the fourth time with his sabre belt,
He spake softly to her saying:
„Have no fear, Vila of the Mountain
No harm will befall thee
I shall make thee my wife
With me forever thou shall stay
and we shall both be pleased.
(Translated by K.M. for the purposes of this text)
And pleased he was, enjoying the vila so much that she bore him nine sons; how she felt about it becomes clear when we learn that, just like Novak’s vila, she ran away from her husband as soon as the opportunity arose. Prior to the vila’s cunning escape, Sekula’s sons mysteriously vanish, making him desperate. What happened was that his sons also married vilas and went to their kingdom. Stories of vilas are closely associated with progeny, that is, the offspring’s quality. The motif of the fairy taking her children with her was rarely employed in western European tradition, and even when it was, it almost always included female descendants. There are two reasons for that: the first one lies in the belief that daughters are similar in nature to their mothers, and second in the fact that, alas, medieval mentality devalued female children. The sudden departure of Sekula’s male descendants serves to emphasize his ill fate, brought upon by his marriage with the treacherous vila. Even though the union between a mortal and an otherworldly woman stems from the ancient literature, such matrimony in classical antiquity was common and even desired, whereas in medieval literature it was designed to shock. Depictions of fairy’s transformation in medieval literature must have been so ghastly that it is difficult to compare it with anything known to modern people, given how accustomed they are to shocking twists and spectacles and generally proved to be far less sensitive. For a Balkan poem listener, the sudden loss of his healthy male offspring would have been the worst case scenario. At the end of this variant of the poem, Sekula is left alone, without his wife and sons: an epilogue that serves him right, at least from today’s perspective.
In our tradition, Vila’s fertility is often associated with construction work, which is illustrated in poems where a vila builds a town with her own hands: Vilin čudesni grad (Vila’s Marvelous Town, the title translated by M.K.) and Vila zida grad (Vila Builds a Town, the title translated by M.K). Vila’s penchant for masonry can be found in West Europe as well, more precisely in the most popular medieval romance about vila: Roman de Mélusine, from 14th century. This prose novel is the most well-known medieval work about Melusine, composed for the purpose of the Lusignans’ political propaganda. Melusine is portrayed in quite untypical fashion for a medieval lady – as a financer and supervisor of many construction endeavours such as towns, castles, fortresses, churches. Just like Sekula’s spouse, Melusine also had an army of male offspring – ten sons. However, while supernatural traits of Sekula’s sons are reflected in their journey to the great beyond, Melusine’s scions, despite their heroic accomplishments in the Crusades, have conspicuous physical deformities that silently suggest their monstrous origin.
Vila’s involvement in construction work is also recognized in the poem The Building of Skadar , where her monstrous nature is emphasized in the motif of Vila Rušiteljka (Vila the Destroyer, translation by M.K):
… What the masons set up in the day,
The vila wrecked at night.
The Building of Skadar reveals the vila’s demonic nature, because she insists upon human sacrifice, in the form of twins bearing the same name – Stoja and Stojana – to allow the construction. The masons do not succeed in finding such twins, so the vila gets a substitute –Gojko Mrnjavčević’s wife who, instead, finds herself built into the town’s foundation. The sacrifice of young Gojko’s wife is one of the saddest and most tragic moments of folk poetry. The heart-breaking descriptions of her sacrifice had impact on Andrić, whose homage to The Building of Skadar in his novel The Bridge on the Drina is even more epic than the epic poem itself, his version consisting yet more tragic and crueller portrayal of the sacrifice to the vila:
At last the guards found such twins, still at the breast, in a distant village and the Vezir’s men took them away by force; but when they were taking away, their mother would not be parted from them and, weeping and wailing, insensible to blows and curses, stumbled after them as far as Višegrad itself, where she succeeded in forcing her way to Rade the Mason.
The children were walled into the pier, for it could not be otherwise, but Rade, they say, had pity on them and left openings in the pier through which the unhappy mother could feed her sacrificed children. Those are finely carved window, narrow as loopholes in which the wild doves now nest. In memory of that, the mother’s milk has flowed from those walls for hundreds of years. That is the thin white stream which, at certain times of year, from that faultless masonry and leaves an indelible mark on the stone.
Romanticism would finally tame vila’s tempestuous nature, now making her amiable to people. In Serbian Romanticism, they are used to help in forming the cult of the poet Barnko Radičević, which started developing shortly after he died and his bones were transferred from Vienna to Stražilovo in 1883. Thus the pictorial composition “Branko and the Vila” was created to support shaping the idea around the Serbian national poet. During the late 19th and early 20th century, it gained the status of a patriotic icon, and a myriad of replicas could be found on the walls of houses across Vojvodina. Stemming from the idea that only the chosen ones could befriend fairies, the Romantic vilas’ choice of a companion worth their company, instead of a hero armed with a mace, fell on a hero armed with intellect.
LIST OF USED LITERATURE:
Alberto Varvaro, Apparizioni fantastiche- tradizioni folcloriche e letteratura nel Medioevo, Il Mulino, bologna, 1994, pp. 69-91.
Gervasio di Tilbury, Otia imperialia -libro III le meraviglie del mondo, a cura di Fortunata Latella, Carocci editore, 2010., pp. 197-201; 245-257.
Gillian M. E. Alban, Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s ’Possession’ and in Mythology, Lexington Books, 2003, p. 197.
Žak le Gof, Srednjevekovno imaginarno, Izdavačka knjižarnica Zorana Stojanovića, Sremski Karlovci, 1999, str. 43.
Jacques Le Goff, Melusina materna e dissodatrice, Tempo della Chiesa e tempo del mercante, Einaudi editore, Torino, 1977, pp. 287-312.
Laurence Harf-Lancner, Morgana e Melusina: la nascita delle fate nel Medioevo, Einaudi, Torino 1989, pp. 9-41; 176-309.
Kako je Novaku utekla vila ljubovca, Epske narodne pesme- Bugarštice, Narodna knjiga, Beograd, 1965, str. 75-76.
Kraljević Marko i vila, Epske narodne pesme- Kraljević Marko, Narodna knjiga, Beograd, 1965, str. 10-13.
Miroslav Timotijević , Guslar kao simbolična figura srpskog nacionalnog pevača, u Zbornik Narodnog muzeja – istorija umetnosti XVII/2, Beograd 2004, str. 256-257.
Dejan Ajdačić, O vilama u narodnim baladama (online tekst)
Ivo Andrić, Na Drini ćuprija, 1945. (pdf download)
Jasmina Trajkov, Branko i vila – vizuelna kultura i kult nacionalnog heroja, u Kultura, br. 131, 2011, str. 123-133. (pdf download)
Slavica Lukić, Sižejni model „Sekula i vila“ u dijahronijskoj i sinhronijskoj perspektivi, u Folkloristika, 1/1, 2016., str. 59-77. (pdf download)