To the early Slavs, the forests and the swamps within them were everywhere. Around farms and villages as well as upon mountains, the woods were inescapable. And in the shadows of those trees, spirits lurked.
Most spirits in Slavic mythology aren’t the friendliest creatures. Tales of demons in the night’s shadows spread all across the Slavic tribes and nations, and one of the most frightening tales told was that of Dryads.
Dryads in Greek mythology are portrayed as nypmhs, goddesses or demigoddesses. Their counterpart in Slavic mythology are “vily”(the plural form of vila).
Vila, or víla, rusalka, diva, samojuda or samodiva is a Slavic fairy – a supernatural, beautiful female.
The Slavic term “vila” allegedly comes from the word viliti meaning being possessed, crazy. The name “rusalka” either came from the Czech term rusovlasá, meaning women with ginger hair or the word rusa, meaning river.
Some of the historic accounts claim that vily are souls of girls that died too soon, not by a natural cause, especially the souls of the girls that committed suicide or drowned.
They are similar to creatures named “Navky”, beings that came to life from unbaptized children that were drowned by their own mothers. They either have the form of small children or beautiful half-naked women, who hurt people.
The types of dryads in Slavic mythology
In the Balkan countries there were the mountain dryads (vile planinkinje, samovile samogorske), that lived in caves and could shapeshift to snakes. Their counterpart in the Czech mythology could be Runa, the wife of Lord of the underground Kovlad. She is the Queen of the Permonics as well.
Once again in the Balkan countries, there were air dryads (samovile oblankinje). These were flying through the air and could affect the weather – especially in making the sky cloudy and making thunderstorms. Allegedly they used lightnings as arrows.
The forest dryads are called žínky or žienky, in Czechia and Slovakia. They live in the trees and are described as beautiful translucent ladies in soft dresses with golden or ginger hair. Their hair was supposed to be the source of their power, making them able to shapeshift into various kinds of animals such as horses, wolves, falcons or swans. They were also very good at healing and fortune telling.
Supposedly, they used to go hunting on deer- or horsebacks, danced & sang in the forests and only showed up when the dew was falling or when there was a rainbow.
The water dryads are called rusalky, living near the springs, rivers and lakes and they were close to watermen.
Their hair must be wet at any given moment because if it’s not, the rusalka perishes & when they are combing their hair, they can cause a flooding.
There are also dryads/fairies called judy or jezinky – being incredibly beautiful and living in the water or forests, but they were truly vile and were trying to drown people and lead travellers off the paths.
The relationship with humans
The water dryads like to drown people (similar to the watermen) and are very mad when people use their wells. They get especially dangerous during Letnice (Pentecost, the festival when Christians celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, celebrated on the Sunday 50 days after Easter), when they not only drown and tickle travellers to death, who don’t manage to solve their riddles, but they flip over ships, break bridges, water damns and tear fishing nets.
The forest dryads try to lure you to their dancing circle so they could dance you to your death.
Fairies/dryads are also allegedly responsible for stealing children from the cradles and changing them for their own ugly, mentally and physically disfigured children (notice the similarities with Mammuna). In Latvia they say that dryads cannot even have their own children so the thing that they leave in the cradle is just a magical soulless creation.
The child was most vulnerable to be stolen during the first two days after being born so in that period the mother couldn’t leave the child alone. If the child was stolen, mother should beat the changeling so the fairy pities it, comes for it and changes it back. Notice the similarity with Mammuna once again, could even mean Mammuna was some sort of a dryad/fairy.
Dryads don’t need to be portrayed as vile and vengeful even if they often are, but their terrible deeds can be attributed to their carelessness and recklessness. When dryads are actually vengeful it’s mostly when you kill animals, cut down trees and disrupt their peace.
When one wants to protect himself against the wrongdoings of the fairies he should use mint, silver sagebrush or lovage.
Dryads are not only a negative creature but also a very kind one. Sometimes they don’t hurt young man but are keeping them safe and give them gifts (in Serbia the dryads are called “posestriny”, imaginary sisters and guardians).
It’s even possible to wed a dryad (voluntarily or by forcing them to (by stealing their belonging without which she cannot leave her husband). But when the marriage is voluntary it usually has a condition which when is broken, the fairy leaves the husband and takes the kids. In most of the stories the husband usually breaks the condition (never confront her about her origins of being a dryad, cut her hair or try to find out what she is doing in a locked room at night), but if he doesn’t and the dryad stays with the husband, she is helping him with her knowledge or magic and the husband is prosperous. The kids that they have together are extraordinarily smart and have a great memory.
This was the fourth episode of Slavic Saturday. There are many other creatures I am ready to cover for you, my lovely fans. If you missed episode three then you can find that here. I hope to see you all return next Saturday!