Stories not only entertain but they record the history of a group of people. The journey of these people across land, through victory and defeat and through the modernisation of their culture.
While traditions are usually steeped in a long history, it is also important that they evolve with the culture to ensure that the history is not lost.
In this series, we explore the importance of traditional storytelling across various cultures.
Serbian storytelling is among the oldest and richest traditions in Europe. Settling in the Balkans in the 6th and 7th century during the period of the Great Migration of the European peoples, Serbs brought with them their pagan gods, rituals and beliefs from the East.
Like any other society at the time, they lived in a highly symbolic world, with no wall separating the magic from the ‘reality’—if they heard thunder, it was God speaking to them (Perun); when they roamed the mountains, they had to tread carefully for they were in the realm of Vilas (forest nymphs); their watermills were meeting places of vampires; when they looked to the fire, a deity was there, too (Svarog, or Svarožić).
Although the introduction and adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the 9th century saw the pagan polytheism pushed aside forcibly in an attempt to have it uprooted for good, old myths remained strong. While the peasants accepted baptism and Christ, they saw Christianity as an addition to old Slavic mythology, rather than a replacement of it. A specific type of Christianity arose, where old rites and cults of old deities blended with new holidays and saints.
Serbian folk tales, fables and fairy tales developed at this intersection of old pagan polytheistic mythology and Christianity. Sometimes arising from myth, at other times being woven into the body of a myth and adapted to it. Over time, new elements and themes were added; sometimes from other nations and traditions, brought by travellers and learned people, at other times as a reflection on the development or a particular state of the Serbian society itself.
Serbian folk and fairy tales abound with many of the core elements, motifs and characters that can be found in the folklore of many other nations. Animal heroes, witches, giants or even ordinary folk who, either through some magical intervention or, often, through ‘outsmarting’ overcome evil adversaries and rising to glory are very popular. However, at the very top of the Serbian mythological pantheon sit two very Serbian royalties: His Majesty The Zmaj, and Her Majesty The Vila.
His Majesty The Zmaj
In Serbian and South Slavic mythology, there is a differentiation between the two types of dragon-like creatures: Zmaj and Aždaja. Whilst Zmaj can be good or bad, a man’s ally or foe, and is generally respected as a creature of extraordinary strength and a worthy opponent, Aždaja is a being of pure evil. It is a mythical creature resembling a huge winged snake or a lizard, often with three or nine heads, four stumpy legs and bat-like wings. It lives in hostile and dark places, spits blue fire and creates an infernal racket with its terrible shrieks; it is voracious and ferocious. It is believed that an Aždaja comes into being when a snake keeps devouring other snakes and then grows wings and legs one hundred years later.
While Aždaja is simply an evil monster, Zmaj’s attributes are very different. Zmaj is a mythical winged creature of extraordinary strength, sometimes similar to Aždaja in elements of appearance, with one or more heads. Whistling and howling resound through the land when he flies across the sky, his mouth and wings spitting fire. He has the ability to shape-shift into an eagle, snake, other animals or into a human. He is believed to be half-human. Often seen as a tribal protector and/or an incarnation of the soul of a highly respected ancestor, Zmaj has a special place in the Serbian mythological pantheon. He can be either good or evil in relation to humans, depending on his personality and the specific set of circumstances (i.e. if angered, he will retaliate).
Legend has it that Serbia gained a new Zmaj once a year, from a lake near a certain village; a fiery ball would rise into the sky and burst to pieces around midnight—one of these pieces would become a Zmaj, and the others would fly behind him in the night sky until his wings were fully developed and he had found a place to settle in. Zmajs were considered to be the protectors of the places (usually mountains) they settled in.
A Zmaj was forever keen on marrying a beautiful maiden, and from this kind of marriage great heroes, Zmaj-children were born. A smitten Zmaj, however, might forget and neglect his main duties—looking after the crops of his protectorate by warding off storms and bad weather, which then inevitably plague the villages under his protection. Women, on the other hand, cannot easily handle great love of a Zmaj—they begin to lose strength, to wilt and wither and must free themselves if they are to survive.
Zmaj is featured as a main character in a number of folktales, legends, songs and poems, particularly following the Serbia’s defeat by the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. From this point onwards, Zmajs became a symbol of the fight against the occupiers and represent great Serbian heroes, whilst Aždajas represent the Ottoman foes. According to folklore, Despot Stefan Lazarević was born from the union of the Zmaj of the Mountain Jastrebac and Princess Milica, and this marks the beginning of the Zmaj-hero genealogy.
Her Majesty the Vila
According to Serbian folklore, Vilas (forest nymphs) dwell in rivers, lakes and ponds, sky and clouds, mountains, caves and other clandestine places. They sometimes appear as swans, horses, falcons, wolves or other animals that they can shape-shift into but usually they appear as beautiful maidens with long flowing hair. Generally, they are benevolent unless provoked, they are just, they help the poor and the disadvantaged, and are a good omen. However, if you anger them, they can kill you with a glance.
It is said that if even one of her hairs is plucked (by a human), a Vila will die, or be forced to change back to her true shape. A human may gain the control of a Vila by stealing feathers from her wings. Once she gets them back, however, she will disappear.
A Vila’s voice is as beautiful as the rest of her, and one who hears it loses all thought of food, drink or sleep, at times, for days. Despite their feminine charms, however, Vilas are fierce warriors. When they battle, the earth is said to shake. They have healing and prophetic powers and are sometimes willing to help human beings. At other times they lure young men to dance with them, which according to their mood can be a very good or a very bad thing for the man. They ride on horses or deer when they hunt with their bows and arrows and will kill any man who defies them or breaks his word. Fairy circles of deep thick grass are left where they have danced; these should never be trodden upon, as this brings bad luck.
The most striking attribute of Serbian Vilas, however, is their freedom. They are free from two of the great inevitabilities: that of death (for humans) and that of eternal life (for Gods). Vilas decide when they shall die and when they shall be born again—a freedom that no other creature has.
How very appropriate, then, that they should symbolise the great power of pagan beliefs stubbornly refusing to surrender and disappear under the onslaught of Christianity, as seen in The Vila’s Mountain, or The Maiden Who Was Faster Than a Horse.
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