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Vile and Rusalki – part 2


Kralevic Marko and the Vila by Petar Meseldzija

In the 1st part of this article (, we have been focusing on the overall appearance and behaviour of Vile and Rusalki.
We have discussed the relationship of the Slavs and the water and the origin of the word Rusalka, Diva (Samodiva) and Vila (Samovila).
Now, let’s have a look on the Rusalki and Vile, as they have been seen in the different Slavic countries, beginning with the Serbia.

Serbian Samovila…

Samovile in the Serbian mythology are different and more fierce, than their ‘cousins’ in the western or the eastern Slavic countries. Some of the Vile in the Serbian folklore have wings and are able to fly.
They are skilled fighters, who mastered the art of archery and they can metamorphose into animals – such as swans, falcons, horses, or wolves; cloud nymphs appear as a whirlwind. They know how to heal wounds and diseases.

Different types of Samovile…

It should be noted, that Vile are environmentally based and their magic is connected to the element they are bonded with. Vile can be divided, according to Zora D. Zimmerman, PhD. ,as following: They live either in the clouds, on wooded mountains; or in the waters.

Vile Oblakinje, Zračne Vile (Cloud/Air Vile)

The cloud-dwelling vila may cause winds and storms; and have eagles as helpers; at times, she will transfer herself into a bird, floating earthwards to prophecy the future and to protect mankind against disaster. At night, they roam the clouds emitting a terrible noise of pipes and drums. Anyone who calls them becomes stiff and moves only with difficulty.

Zagorkinje, Pozemne Vile (Mountain/Woodland Vile)

A mountain-dwelling vila also sees in the future, roams about on stags and horses, and chases deer with arrows; such a vila will kill a man who defies her. Máchal notes that mountain-vila may perch on a tree with which she has been inseparably bonded. The mountain-dwelling vila may transform herself into a wolf, horse, deer, and in a rare instances, snake.

Brodarice, Povodne Vile (Water Vile)

The water-vila lives in springs, rivers, or lakes, but, for the most part, will stay outside of the water. Young man who happen to be bathing while while the nymphs 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.

Vile, the beautiful maidens…

Ivan Kramskoi, Rusalki, 1871

Always young, always beautiful; Serbian Vila keeps good care of her long golden hair. It is said that, if she would loose only one of her hair, she would perish.  They love to sing and dance and their soul possessing voice could make a man have only one desire – listen to the Vila for days, until he would waste away, eventually.

This is the main narrative of the Vila – a being so beautiful, so sensual and hypnotising that a mortal man would loose his sanity over her beauty.

Vile in Serbian poems and oral traditions are often in the contact with the mortals. A good, honest man could have had a Vila as a ‘posestrima’; a sister-like friend who would help him in the times of a great need.
In some stories (and this is a shared Vile aspect in several Slavic countries), Vila would even marry a mortal man, being a great wife and bringing luck and happiness to the marriage and the household.  But this was only under one condition – the husband was not allowed to ever speak about her true origin. If this rule was broken, she would disappear forever, coming back only to see her child – without the husband’s knowledge.

A little bit of the Serbian history…

We don’t know, if there has been any stories from the times of the Old Serbian kings in the Nemanjić dynasty (1168-1137) as no literature remains from these times.
The oldest Serbian epic ballads date to the middle of the 14th century, where Vila represents an important role in the plot and the true personification of beauty. (The Founding of Skadar)

In 1389, the Serbian army was massacred in the Battle of Kosovo by the Ottoman forces, which lead to the massive invasion into the Europe.

This invasion resulted in Turkish domination over the Serbia/Balkan for almost 500 years. As the Serbian nation was defeated, most of the oral tradition was focused on the description of the battle, its heroes, tragedies etc. ,eventually forming a cycle of historical ballads, about this tragical event, known as the Kosovo poems. During this period of time, Samovila disappeared from the oral traditions.

Nevertheless, the rule of the Turks gave birth to the new type of the narrative after some time, an epic ballads called the Hajduk poem – ‘A poem celebrating a rebellious anti-Turkish acts of outlaw heroes hid in the mountains.’ (Think of the Serbian Robin Hoods) 

And this leads us to the creation of the most popular poems of that era; poems, ballads and unbelievable stories about the King (Prince) Marko Markovic.
Prince Marko is the most popular hero of Serbian epic poetry and his life is entangled with the Vile.

Prince Marko…

(Serb Cyrillic: Краљевић Марко, Kraljević Marko) 

Prince Marko and the Dragon (Kralevic Marko i Zmaj) by Petar Meseldzija

Marko Mrnjavčević (Serbian Cyrillic: Марко Мрњавчевић) was the de jure Serbian king from 1371 to 1395) and a real historical figure.

Legends has it, that Kralevic Marko was extraordinarily strong. Shortly after Marko’s birth, King Vukašin (Marko’s father) threw him into a river, because he did not resemble him, but the boy was saved by a cowherd (who adopted him, and a vila breastfed him). 

In other accounts, Marko was a shepherd (or cowherd) who found a vila’s children lost in a mountain and shaded them against the sun (or gave them water). As a reward the vila suckled him three times, and he could lift and throw a large boulder. 

An Istrian version has Marko making a shade for two snakes, instead of the children. In a Bulgarian version, each of the three draughts of milk he suckled from the vila’s breast, became a snake.

Kralevic Marko also had a wonderful steed. The name of the horse was Šarac and Šarac was a very strong and an agile horse, loyal to the Marko on his adventures.
According to some legends, Marko’s horse was a gift from a vila.

A Serbian story says that Marko was looking for a horse which would be able to bear him, as Marko was very strong and heavy. To test a steed, he would grab him by the tail and sling him over his shoulder. Seeing a diseased piebald foal owned by some carters, Marko grabbed him by the tail but could not move him. He bought (and cured) the foal, naming him Šarac. He became an enormously powerful horse and Marko’s inseparable companion. Macedonian legend has it, that Marko, following a vila’s advice, captured a sick horse on a mountain and cured him. Crusted patches on the horse’s skin grew white hairs, and he became a piebald.

There are many stories about Marko’s life – his adventures, fights and deeds. For the purpose of this article, we are only interested in his encounters with Vile, but I encourage you to read about Marko in general, because he is an interesting figure which lived in the dangerous times.

One of the best known stories about this hero is his encounter with the vila who almost killed his friend, his pobratim Vojvoda Milos. Let’s read the famous Serbian ballad about Kralevic Marko nad Vila Ravijojla.


Thank you for reading,

Holyburton, David: The Ballads of Marko Kraljevic. Forgotten Books, 2018. ISBN 10:  1332615090

MÁCHAL, Jan: Bájesloví slovanské. Praha: Otto, 1907. ISBN978-80-907324-4-5

Zimmerman, Zora: The Changing Roles of the “Vila” in Serbian Traditional Literature. Journal of the Folklore Institute, 1979. 16(3), 167-175. doi:10.2307/3813822

PROFANTOVÁ, Naďa a Martin PROFANT: Encyklopedie slovanských bohů a mýtů. 2. vyd. Praha: Libri, 2004

VÁŇA, Zdeněk. Svět slovanských bohů a démonů. 1. vyd. Praha: Panorama, 1990.

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