serbian mythology

Babaroga (which roughly means “old lady with horns”) is a Serbian bogey that is said to be an ugly old woman, not unlike a hag , who stalks the night seeking ill-mannered children by which to spirit away in frightening ways.

Babaroga may either snatch her victim and put them in a bag, dragging them to her cave to be devoured or she may reach out and snatch the child through cracks in the ceiling - regardless of how this terrible witch commits her deed the outcome is almost always seen as a grisly demise for her victim.

Like all bogeymen, Babaroga is mainly used as a tool to try and scare children into good behavior, such as ensuring they go to bed on time and respect their elders.

Talason

Talason is a spirit bound to a certain building (houses, schools, bridges) and serves as it’s protector. When an object is being built a person can offer themselves as a sacrifice in order to become a talason an protect the building or if there are problems with construction. However the person is not actually killed, but instead the workers measure their shadow with a string and then build in those measurements in the foundations of the building. It is believed that the person will then die within a year (or 40 days) and that their spirit will come to the building in which their shadow is trapped and remain there forever thus becoming a talason. Sometimes the builders can “steal” shadow of a passerby unnoticed, which is why it’s considered bad luck to go near construction sites. Talasons are generally benevolent creatures and only become hostile if someone approaches the building with bad intentions. They come out at night and walk around the houses or bridges but can never stray too far and are mostly invisible to people.

Illustrations by Vanja Todoric

Significance of Wolves

Wolves were often associated with warriors, because they were predators. In many cultures, the identification of the warrior with the wolf (totemism) gave rise to the notion of Lycanthropy, the mythical or ritual identification of man and wolf.

Wolves In Scandinavia 

Wolves were depicted as malevolent and destructive. The modern English word “wolf” is said to derive from the ancient Gothic term for “murderer,” which is “varg.”

Fenrir, in Norse mythology, a monstrous wolf who was a major threat to the gods until they found a way to chain him, using a magic fetter. The name Fenrir means “from the swamp.” At the end of time, When Ragnarök will occur, it will be ultimate destruction of the gods in a battle with evil, and Fenrir will come loose and murder the high god Odin.

Unlike fox and bear, the wolf has always been feared and hated in Finland. Wolves have always been hunted and killed mercilessly. The wolf has been represented as implacable and a malicious predator, killing more than it manages to eat.

Wolves In Slavic Europe

According to legend, the establishment of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius began when the grand duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling near the hill.

The wolf as a mythological creature is greatly linked to Balkan and Serbian mythology and cults.

It has an important part in Serbian mythology. In the Slavic, old Serbian religion and mythology, the wolf was used as a totem

In the Serbian Epic poetry, the wolf is a symbol of fearlessness. 

Vuk Karadžić ( 19th-century Serbian philologist and ethnographer) explained the traditional, apotropaic, use of the name Vuk (meaning “wolf” in Serbian : a woman who had lost several babies in succession, would name her newborn son Vuk, because it was believed that the witches, who “ate” the babies, were afraid to attack the wolves.

According to Veselin Čajkanović, the wolf is the mythical ancestor of the Serbian people. The belief that the wolf is their animalistic ancestor among Serbs manifests itself in many traditions and ceremonies. 

  • For instance, when a son is born, the announcement of his birth in the village goes like this: “Of the she-wolf a wolf is borne!”
  • The Serbian mother would inform her son of his lupine origins by singing him a lullaby that goes like this: “Sleep my son, my wolf and my beast, the she-wolf bare you in the mountains”.
  • Another custom shows that Serbs believed in their lupine origin, the newborn would be passed throw a wolf’s jaws, so as to grant it protection from evil, disease and malevolent demons. 
  • The use of countless lupine charms had the same purpose, as a result various parts of a wolf would often be used to fend of malicious forces. The best known ones were wolf’s teeth, jaws, eyes, the heart, claws and hairs; the hairs were believed to be powerful enough to drive away the devil himself

In Serbia, the winter holiday called Mratinci is dedicated to the wolf.

During the lupine holiday the wolf would be offered sacrifices in the form of food, and also some ceremonies to protect oneself from the wolves, who caused great damages to the peasants by attacking the livestock. For instance, on Christmas the Serbs would prepare “the wolf’s supper”, a sacrificial offering that was meant to appease the wolf and provide protection of the livestock. This “wolf’s supper” would be brought to a crossroads by a family member, usually a child, who would leave the offering and go straight home without looking back. 

Wolves In Native America

Wolves figure prominently in the mythology of nearly every Native American tribe. In most Native cultures, Wolf is considered a medicine being associated with courage, strength, loyalty, and success at hunting. Like bears, wolves are considered closely related to humans by many North American tribes, and the origin stories of some Northwest Coast tribes, such as the Quileute and the Kwakiutl, tell of their first ancestors being transformed from wolves into men.

In Shoshone mythology, Wolf plays the role of the noble Creator god, while in Anishinabe mythology a wolf character is the brother and true best friend of the culture hero. Among the Pueblo tribes, wolves are considered one of the six directional guardians, associated with the east and the color white. The Zunis carve stone wolf fetishes for protection, ascribing to them both healing and hunting powers. 

Wolves are also one of the most common clan animals in Native American cultures. Tribes with Wolf Clans include the Creek (whose Wolf Clan is named Yahalgi or Yvhvlke), the Cherokee (whose Wolf Clan name is Aniwahya or Aniwaya,) the Chippewa (whose Wolf Clan and its totem are called Ma'iingan,) Algonquian tribes like the Lenape, Shawnee and Menominee, the Huron and Iroquois tribes, Plains tribes like the Caddo and Osage, Southern tribes like the Chickasaw, the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, and Northwest Coast tribes like the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Kwakiutl. Wolf was an important clan crest on the Northwest Coast and can often be found carved on totem poles. The wolf is also the special tribal symbol of several tribes and bands, such as the Munsee Delaware, the Mohegans, and the Skidi Pawnee. Some eastern tribes, like the Lenape and Shawnee, have a Wolf Dance among their tribal dance traditions.

4

Koschei and Baš Čelik

Recently I’ve been reading about Koschei, creature known in Russian, Ukranian, Polish and Czech folklore and I’ve noticed similarities to creature from Serbian folklore called Baš Čelik. 

About Koschei (taken from Wikipedia):
Koschei cannot be killed by conventional means targeting his body. His soul (or death) is hidden separate from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest (sometimes the chest is crystal and/or gold), which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on the island of Buyan in the ocean.

Baš Čelik (my translation from the fairy tale):

“Far from here there is a tall mountain, and in the mountain there is a fox, in fox there is a heart, in heart there is a bird. In that bird lies my strength.”

Of course both can’t be easily killed, Baš Čelik’s fox will run away and take many other forms to hide outside of the mountain and in Koschei’s case If the chest is dug up and opened, the hare will bolt away, if it is killed, the duck will emerge and try to fly off.

Koschei’s name essentailly means bones, so he was probably made up of bones, had some sort of a boney look, while in Baš Čelik’s name čelik means steel, implying he’s made of metal. The beginnings of fairytales “Death of Koschei the Deathless” and “Baš Čelik” are quite similar. Both Koschei and Baš Čelik are locked in a dungeon and a prince, protagonist of the tale walks in even after being warned not to do so. In both stories, the magical creature begs prince for three buckets of water which regain it’s strength. They both kidnap princes’ wife and disappear. Stories then differ featuring different creatures from Slavic mythology - in Russian version Baba Yaga appears as a helper and in Serbian it’s dragon, azdaja (on wikipedia they translated it as slavic dragon, but that’s not quite correct) and an a giant falcon. In the end both Koschei and  Baš Čelik are killed.

Kallikantzaros

They are malevolent goblins in Southeastern European (Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian) and Anatolian folklore (Turkey). They dwell underground but come to the surface during the twelve days of Christmas, from 25th December to 6th January (from the winter solstice for a fortnight during which time the sun ceases its seasonal movement).

It is believed that Kallikantzaroi stay underground sawing the World tree, so that it will collapse, along with Earth. However, when they are about to saw the final part, Christmas dawns and they are able to come to the surface. They forget the Tree and come to bring trouble to mortals.

Finally, on the Epiphany (6th January), the sun starts moving again, and they must go underground again to continue their sawing. They see that during their absence the World tree has healed itself, so they must start working all over again. This happens every year.

Appearance

There is no standard appearance of Kallikantzaroi, there are regional differences on their appearance.

The Greeks describe them as:

  • Hairy bodies.
  • Horse legs.
  • Boar tusks (sometimes).
  • Tall.
  • Black.
  • Burning red eyes.
  • Goat’s or donkey’s ears.
  • Monkey’s arms.
  • Tongues that hang.
  • Huge heads.

Others see them as humans of small size smelling horribly, that are predominately male. However, different regions both have the similar description of them resembling a little, black devil.

They are, also, mostly blind, speak with a lisp and love to eat frogs, worms, and other small creatures.

Lore

The Kallikantzaroi are said to be the creatures of the night. There were many ways people could protect themselves during the days when the Kallikantzaroi were loose. They could leave a colander on their doorstep to trick the visiting Kallikantzaros. Since they could not count above 2 (3 is a holy number and by pronouncing it he would kill himself) the Kalikantzaros would sit at the doorstep counting, 1, 2… 1, 2… each hole of the colander, all night, until the sun rose and he were forced to hide.

Another method of protection was to leave the fire burning in the fireplace, all night, so that they cannot enter through there. In some areas, they would burn the Yule log, a large piece of wood, for the duration of the twelve days. And in other areas, people would throw smelly shoes in the fire, the stink repulsing the Kallikantzaroi and forcing them to stay away. Yet other ways to keep them away were to mark the door with a black cross on Christmas Eve and burn incense.

Legend has it that any child born during the twelve days of Christmas was in danger of transforming to a Kallikantzaros for each Christmas season, starting with adulthood. The antidote: Binding the baby in tresses of garlic or straw, or singeing the child’s toenails. In another legend, anyone born on a Saturday can see and talk with the Kallikantzaroi.

(According to a source) on the eve of Epiphany in Cyprus, villagers scatter pancakes on the roof to give the Kallikantzaroi something sweet to eat as they prepare to head out of town.

In Serbian Folklore

In Serbian Christmas traditions, the Twelve Days of Christmas used to be called the “unbaptised days” and were considered a time when demonic forces of all kinds were believed to be more than usually active and dangerous. People were cautious not to attract their attention, and did not go out late at night. The latter precaution was especially because of the demons called karakondžula, imagined as heavy, squat, and ugly creatures.

According to tradition, when a karakondžula found someone outdoors during the night of an unbaptised day, it would jump on the person’s back and demand to be carried wherever it wanted. This torture would end only when roosters announced the dawn; at that moment the creature would release its victim and run away.

In Anatolian Folklore

The karankoncolos is a malevolent creature in Northeast Anatolian Turkish folklore. According to late Ottoman Turkish myth, they appear on the first ten days of Zemheri, “the dreadful cold”, when they stand on murky corners, and ask seemingly ordinary questions to the passers-by. In order to escape harm, one should answer each question, using the word kara” (the Turkish word for “black”), or risk being struck dead by the creature. It was also said in Turkish folklore that the karakoncolos could call people out during the cold Zemheri nights, by imitating voices of loved ones. The karakoncolos’ victim risked freezing to death if he or she could not awake from the charm. 

6

Hair in Slavic mythology and tradition

Hair was much appreciated in the ancient times within all cultures and nations, and hairstyles are often a part of national represantation and identity. All cultures also have some sort of beliefs about hair. It’s common for many that hair is connected to strenght, and it is the same in Slavic myths. It is said that the strenght of a man is in his hair.
In Serbian mythology, for instance, it is said that the life force of a vila (fairy) is in her hair. In folk tales, there is often a moment when vila’s hair gets tangled in the bushes or trees of the forest. If vila loses a single hair, she will die, therefore she must wait for someone to help her. 
Long hair,while still a symbol of strenght and health, was primarily a symbol of beauty and femininity. Howevery, hair was mostly braided and unbraided hair and it’s combing was considered something very intimate.
Most common hairstyle in Serbia was braid wreath (in the last picture). In order to make those, you had to have long, strong hair, Now, here is the custom that I find really beautiful and what made me write this post. If a woman loses someone, she shows her grief by cutting of her hair and she can no longer make the wreath. This is often mentioned in folk songs and tales.
In Russia it was forbbiden for pregnant women to cut ther hair, as well as to cut hair of children under one year of age.
In some Slavic traditions, the first hair cut from the child is kept and later used as an amulet or a medicine during illness.
As mentioned before, the most common, pan-Slavic harstlye are braids, from simple to very complicated.
Also, Slavs did not cover their hair until the christianization.
I will end this post with the lines of The Mountain Wreath that made me think about the importance of hair in tradition, but I must warn you that they sound really weird in English, and nowhere near as beautifull as in original text. Still I put the translation in, in case someone is interested.

Кад пред зору, и ноћ је мјесечна,  
ватра гори насред сјенокоса,  
а она ти од некуда дође;  
украј ватре сједе да се грије.  
Чује да свак спава у колибе.  
Тада она вијенац расплете,  
паде коса до ниже појаса;  
поче косу низ прса чешљати,  
а танкијем гласом нарицати,  
како славља са дубове гране.  
Тужи млада ђевера Андрију,  
мила сина Милоњића Бана,  
који му је ланих погинуо  
од Тураках у Дугу крваву.  
Па се снахи не дао острићи:  
жалије му снахин в'јенац било  
него главу свог сина Андрије.  
Тужи млада, за срце уједа,  
очи горе живје од пламена,  
чело јој је љепше од мјесеца,-  
и ја плачем ка мало дијете.  
Благо Андри ђе је погинуо-  
дивне га ли очи оплакаше,  
дивна ли га уста ожалише…

Just before dawn, the moon was still shining,
the fire burning on the freshly mown field,
from somewhere came that most beautiful girl
and sat down by the fire to catch the glow.
She heard that all in the huts were asleep.
Then she unwound her lovely wreath of hair,
and the tresses fell down below her waist.
She began to comb her hair on her breasts
and to lament in a high-pitched, clear voice,
like nightingale on a tall oak-tree branch.
The young woman mourned her husband’s brother,
Andrija, the son of Ban Milonjic,
who met his death about a year ago,
slain by the Turks in the bloody Duga.
But the Ban would not let her cut her hair,
He pitied more his daughter-in-law’s wreath
than the head of his own son Andrija.
The young woman’s lament tore at my heart.
Her burning eyes were brighter than the flame.
Her forehead was prettier than the moon -
and I, too, was weeping like an infant.
Andrija is lucky that he was slain.
What lovely eyes are weeping over him!
What lovely lips are mourning over him!

Vila

Vilas are supernatural fairy-like creatures in slavic folklore. They were believed to be the spirits of women who had been frivolous in their lifetimes and now floated between here and the afterlife. They prominently appear in the epic poetry of Serbia and Croatia.

In Croatian folklore, the Velebit mountain range is famous for mythical fairies, the most celebrated called Velebitska Vila or Vila Velebita (“The Fairy of Velebit”). The Vila is described as being quiet spirits, and is the patron of the Velebit mountain range, whose significance in Croatian culture has led to tales and songs of the Vila, the most popular one created in the 19th century titled Vila Velebita, which is still popular today.

Offerings for vilas consist of round cakes, ribbons, fresh fruits, and vegetables or flowers left at sacred sites (a certain mound, a ring of trees in the mountains, or even a hill that lightning strikes multiple times).

Description

They can appear as swans, snakes, horses, falcons, or wolves that they can shapeshift into, but usually they appear as beautiful maidens, naked or dressed in white (sometimes in gowns coloured green or blue) with long flowing hair.

The voices of the vilas are as beautiful as the rest of them, and one who hears them loses all thoughts of food, drink or sleep, sometimes for days.

In some sources, they can appear as a ghost-like figure with a long billowing cloak wrapped around them.

Powers

In the localisations of the traditions about the vila, it is noteworthy that their powers seem environmentally based; the magic they are capable of is appropriate to the environment in which they are found. They live either in the clouds, on wooded mountains, or in the waters

Despite their feminine charms, however, the vilas are fierce warriors. The earth is said to shake when they do battle. 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 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.

 Vila rings of deep thick grass are left where they have danced; these should never be trodden upon, as this brings bad luck.

  • The cloud-dwelling vila may cause winds and storms, and have eagles for helpers; at times, she will transform herself into a bird, floating earthwards to prophesy the future and to protect mankind against disaster. 
  • A mountain-dwelling vila also sees into the future, roams about on stags or horses, and chases deer with arrows; such a vila will kill the man who defies her. The mountain-dwelling vila may transform herself into a wolf, horse, deer, and in rare in­stances, a snake.
  • The water-vila lives in springs, rivers, or lakes, but, for the most part, will stay outside the water. Young men who happen to be bathing while the vilas are dancing on the banks of streams will drown. This vila may sometimes poison the water, and will punish anyone who  drinks of the spring without asking for permission. A water-vila most frequently transforms herself into a swan.

It is said that if even one of their hairs is plucked, the vila will die, or be forced to change back to her true shape. A human may gain the control of a vila by stealing a piece of the vila’s skin. Once burned, though, she will disappear.

Names

Named vilas in the Serbian mythology are:

  • Andresila
  • Andjelija
  • Angelina
  • Djurdja
  • Janja
  • Janjojka
  • Jelka
  • Jerina
  • Jerisavlja
  • Jovanka
  • Katarina
  • Kosa
  • Mandalina
  • Nadanojla
  • Ravijojla

Ravijojla is the best known of them, connected to Prince Marko, while Jerisavlja is considered to be their leader.