In Slavic mythology, there is a type of nymph, which can only be described as somewhere between a ghost and a fairy. Said to float between the living world and the afterlife, the wandering wilas have taken on attributes of both fairies and elves, due to their ethereal beauty and their mischievously fatal temperament.
Who Are the Wandering Wilas?
Similar to the sirens of Greek mythology , the wandering wilas have gone by many names. Known as a wiła in Polish, vila in Slavic, wili or even veela, according to Ronel the Mythmaker they have been “seriously misunderstood.” The mythological wilas are young and mysterious fair-haired beings, revered for their beauty. Envied by human women and admired by mortal men, some legends claim that they are the “spirits of women who lived frivolous lives,” at least that is the description used by Lucy Cooper in her The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies .
These are spirit-creatures which abide in the in-between, lost women who were unbaptized or engaged at death. The wandering wilas have inspired modern-day versions, such as the ballet Giselle, which tells the story of a young woman who died of a broken heart having been betrayed by her lover and was ordered by the queen of the wilas (or wilis), the spirits of women who died after being double-crossed by their lovers, to take revenge by dancing him to death.
The wandering wilas as depicted by Giuliano Bartolomeo.(Fondazione Cariplo / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Shapeshifting Wilas and the Power of the Wind
The knowledge of wilas mostly stems from close readings of Polish and Slavic literature more than direct factual anecdotes. Wilas are mentioned in various poems and short stories, mostly as warnings to oblivious or unsuspecting men. Found in the forests, rivers, caves, hill tops, or even in the center of a ring of trees, the wandering wilas have most often been depicted as lonely, ghost-like beings, dressed in cloaks that billow with the air, covered in leaves, or sometimes naked in order to entice the opposite sex.
These solitary creatures have often been described as shapeshifters, appearing sometimes as beautiful female nymphs, while at others they appearing as swans or even horses. The mythical wilas are unlike European fairies since they were not born as spirits of nature, but became them with death, obtaining power over the winds in lieu of the lives they would have led. Able to blend into the wind as incorporeal, translucent and intangible shapes, or they can become solid, able to touch and be touched by the natural world around them.
Illustration of the ethereal wandering wilas from Slavic mythology. (Fair Use)
Don’t Cross a Wandering Wila
What most differentiates wilas from fairies is their ferocity. Fairies are known to be playful tricksters, taking easy pleasure from “borrowing” items and returning them in odd places. Wilas, on the other hand, are said to occasionally become fierce beings known equally for forcing companionship and seeking vengeance. They are known to dance human men to death for their amusement and enjoyment. They are also known to participate in battles not unlike those of the Valkyries from Norse mythology .
While stories describe them as shy creatures who avoid humans, their voices are described as a force to be reckoned with, so powerful that a few notes can keep the men dancing against their wills. They can even summon the most dangerous winds and storms to wipe out their enemies, causing the earth to shake from the very force of their magic. Only sometimes do they choose to help or heal humans, in war or in moments of compassion, but if the wilas are angered, it is not uncommon for them to kill the humans without a second thought. In fact, in the past, people roaming the mountains were warned to take care in the realm of the wandering wilas known for their unpredictable tempers.
Mounted heroes from a Serbian epic poem, and vila Ravijojla from Serbian mythology, in a painting by Paja Jovanović inspied by the epic poem “Marko Kraljević and the Vila.” ( Public domain )
Ways to Appease a Wandering Wila
Undoubtedly because of the range of magic the wilas possess, stories travelled very quickly throughout the Slavic region, describing ways in which to stop or gain control over a wila. One such tale claimed that if a man were to pluck a hair from a wila’s head, she would either die at once or be forced to transform from her incorporeal shape to a solid state, allowing the man to capture and contain her.
Stealing a piece of her skin was another way to dominate a wila and be able to give her commands which she would have no choice but to follow. Men would go armed into the woods at night with knowledge such as this, their only form of protection against the will and wiles of the wilas. A good thing too, for when a wila is angered, she is three times as dangerous as when she is merely being playful.
According to legend, wilas enjoyed spending time in similar locations as the fairies, and they could also be appeased if distressed, or summoned by the curious with treats. Said to prefer light fares such as fresh fruit and round cakes, they are also thought to appreciate decorative items like ribbons and flowers, which they weave into their hair. In this way, the mythology of the wilas and fairies are interchangeable, thus implying that the wilas are either literally or literarily cousins of the fairy folk .
Nevertheless, though the wilas are said to be a beautiful race of female souls, they are not to be ignored or insulted. Their power is much greater and their vengeance much swifter than that of the fairy folk . Long believed to be found wandering the forests forlorn and seeking companionship, it is best to be wary of the fatal friendship wandering wilas offer to mortals, who will likely get trapped under their spells and caught in their storms.
Top image: A beautiful wandering wilas. Source: angel_nt / Adobe Stock
By Riley Winters
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