Stories are not merely entertainment but also narrate the history of people. They are a way to preserve the past and carry traditions forward. Myths embody the journey of people, wars, conquests and defeats and their cultural beliefs.
A brief look into Serbian culture
Serbian storytelling, myths and folklore are one of the oldest and richest traditions in Europe. During the period of the Migration of the Europeans in the 6th and 7th centuries, the Serbs settled in the Balkans. And with them, they brought their storytelling traditions, cultures, myths, legends, pagan beliefs and rituals. The supernatural also held a high place in the Serbs’ beliefs.
Like a lot of other societies at the time, the Serbs lived in an extremely symbolic world where no wall or boundary existed between magic and reality. If thunder is heard rumbling around in the sky, then it was Perun, the god of the sky, thunder and lightning communicating to them. When roaming in the mountains, they had to tread cautiously since they were in the kingdom of Vilas or forest nymphs. The Serbs believed that their watermills served as meeting places for beings like vampires. When they lit a fire and gazed into it, Svarog, the god of fire and smithing, was present in it.
Introduction of Christianity
The 9th century saw Christianity being introduced and adopted as the state religion. In an attempt to uproot it once and for all, pagan polytheism was forcibly pushed aside. But even then, the Serbs faithfully held on to their culture and old myths and folklore remained as strong as ever. The peasants, who accepted baptism and Christ, merely saw Christianity as an addition to rather than a replacement of their old beliefs. Hence, a particular type of Christianity was born out of the amalgamation of old rites and rituals, cults of old deities with the new saints and holidays.
It was at this intersection of old pagan beliefs and Christianity that Serbian fables, folktales and myths developed. As time passed, new themes and elements were incorporated into the existing ones. Migration played a wonderful role in the growth of Serbian myths and legends. From other nations came learned travellers and people, carrying the traditions of their native land.
The myths and folktales of Serbia abound with many of the core elements and characters that are commonly found in the tales of other nations. This isn’t surprising, due to the role played by migration. Stories of giants, witches, animal heroes, vampires and even ordinary people who, through some magical intervention, outsmart evil beings and rise to glory are popular in Serbian culture. Let’s explore them in detail here.
Zmaj and Aždaja
Dominating Serbian folklore are two mythical, dragon-like creatures known as Zmaj and Aždaja.
Zmaj has a dual character and can be either good or bad, a human’s friend or foe. He is generally considered a worthy opponent with extraordinary strength. Zmaj is a winged creature with one or more heads, whose whistling and howling reverberates throughout the land when he is flying across land. With fire spitting from his mouth and wings, Zmaj has another quality- he can shapeshift. The most common forms he takes when he does so are humans or animals, out of which, more often than not, is an eagle or snake.
The Serbs believe Zmaj to be half-human. Despite his ferocious form, he is often considered to be a tribal protector or reincarnation of a highly respected ancestor. And for this reason, Zmaj holds an almost godly place in the Serbs’ culture. And as said before, he can be either good or evil, depending on the circumstances. If angered, he will not hesitate to retaliate.
According to Serbian legend, the country gains a new Zmaj every year from the depths of a lake of a nearby village. A fiery ball would emerge from the lake, rise into the sky and then burst into several pieces at around midnight. One of the pieces would transform into Zmaj, while the other pieces would continue to fly and safeguard him until he developed his wings and found a place to settle. These would usually be mountains, where they are considered the protectors of the place.
Zmaj married a beautiful maiden and children were born out of this marriage, later growing up into great heroes. However, a smitten Zmaj often neglects his main duties, like protecting the crops by warding off bad weather and storms that often haunt the villages.
On the other hand, Aždaja is quite a different character altogether. He is nothing but pure evil. He is a creature who resembles a huge snake or lizard with bat-like wings, often having three or nine heads with four stumpy little legs. Inhabiting dark and hostile places where no man would tread, Aždaja spits blue fire and kicks up an infernal racket by shrieking. Voracious and ferocious, the Serbs believe that Aždaja was born when a snake kept devouring other snakes, hence growing wings and legs a century later.
Zmaj often features as the main figure in dozens of legends, folktales, songs and poems sung after Serbia was defeated by the Ottoman Empire in 1389, in the Battle of Kosovo. Due to this reason, Zmaj rose to be a symbol of strength and fighting against invaders. Great Serbian heroes are often represented as Zmaj, while Aždaja stands for the Ottoman invaders.
According to Serbian folklore, forest nymphs or Vilas reside in lakes, ponds, rivers, the sky, clouds, caves and mountains. Taking on the shape of other animals, they appear as falcons, horses, swans, wolves and such. But more often than not, these creatures take the shape of beautiful maidens with gorgeous locks. A Vila’s voice is beautiful and soothing and anyone who hears it is said to lose all thoughts of food, drink or sleep. These creatures are generally kind, compassionate, just and help the poor and needy. Anybody who spots a Vila is said to be blessed with good luck. That is unless they are provoked or angered. If so, then one vicious glance from a Vila is enough to kill you.
With all their charms and beauty, Vilas are fierce warriors too. It is said that when Vilas battle, the earth shakes. They are born with healing and prophetic abilities. Young men are often lured into dancing with Vilas, which could either be a good or bad thing depending on the mood of the Vila. Being the warriors they are, they ride on deer or horses while they hunt with their bows and arrows. Any individual who defies or breaks their word will be hunted and killed by Vilas. Fairy circles with thick, deep grass in the forests are where these forest nymphs dance. These circles are treated as sacred and hence should not be trodden on unless the person wants to be cursed.
According to Serbian beliefs, Vilas have one special attribute. Vilas are free from life’s two greatest inevitabilities- of death (for humans) and of immortality (Gods). They have the ability to decide when they shall die and when they’ll be born again.
According to legend, the only way a human can gain control of a Vila is by either plucking one of her hair strands or stealing feathers from her wings.
Good and Evil Spirits
Serbian people believe that each house has a guardian spirit, whom they call syenovik or syen. Syen aren’t just guardian spirits. They have the ability to possess the body of a dog, snake, hen or man.
Just as syens guard homes, each forest, mountain and lake has its own syens, known by the word djinn. Djinn safeguard their areas, and if a passer-by does so much as just to gather a branch or a leaf, they are surrounded or chased by a dense fog. The passer-by also sees terrifying visions in the fog too. Similar are the beliefs of the Albanians, who didn’t even dare to touch the fallen branches of firs.
There are evil spirits too, known as byess, demons, devils known as dyavo, and other bad spirits who can possess either dead or living bodies of people. The last-mentioned spirits are called vookodlaks or Vlkodlaks. According to local belief, these spirits are responsible for solar and lunar eclipses. This belief has its roots in the old Norse belief that the sun and moon were always chased by hungry wolves. Even to this day, Serbian peasants believe that eclipses are caused when the sun or the moon are chased by hungry dragons.
In other parts of Serbia, people generally attribute dragons to be females. They are mischievous creatures who are blamed for the destruction of vineyards and cornfields. This is because they are responsible for clouds that bring hail. When a partial eclipse of a hailstorm is about to occur, the peasants gather in the village to bang pots and pan together. Moreover, pistols are fired and bells are rung to scare away the dragon.
Serbian folklore claims that the soul of a sleeping man is taken and drifted off by strong winds to mountain peaks. When souls are accumulated in this manner, they are transformed into fierce giants who uproot trees to be used as clubs and throw boulders at each other. Their groaning and hissing can be especially heard during the spring and autumn nights.
In Serbian folklore, female evil spirits are supposed to be ancient women possessed by evil spirits. They are irreconcilable and hostile towards all humans, be it men, women or children. The Serbian idea of such women corresponds more or less with those of witches.
When old women fall asleep, their souls leave their bodies and wander around until they possess the body of a hen, or more frequently, a black moth. After possession, they keep wandering around until they come across houses with several children, for it is said that their favourite food is an infant’s heart.
Serbian witches meet from time to time in the branches of a tree. It is believed that old women who have traits similar to those of witches attend such meetings after following the rules prescribed by the witches themselves. There are also certain phrases that are to be chanted.
Peasants often lead hunts to find such creatures, and if they do, a jury is formed to sentence the witch to death. One of the ways to determine whether an old woman is indeed a witch or not is to throw her into water. If she simply floats instead of struggling or swimming around, then she is deemed to be a witch. She is then burnt to death. Such methods weren’t unknown in England either.
The belief in vampires exists not just in Serbia but also throughout the Balkans. According to many, this belief is linked to that of the Orthodox Church. It claims that the corpses of those who have died while being excommunicated by the Church are corruptible. Evil spirits take hold of these bodies and then appear before men in secluded places to murder them.
In Montenegro, vampires are known by the names lampirs or tenatz. They feed on the blood of sleeping men, cattle and other animals. They return to their graves after their nightly excursions by turning into mice. To discover these nightly creatures’ graves, the Montenegrins take a black horse and lead it into the cemetery. Suspected corpses are dug up, pierced with stakes and then burnt. While the authorities are against such practices, villagers hold on to their beliefs firmly. When authorities have tried to discourage such actions, communities have threatened to abandon their homes and leave whole villages deserted unless they are allowed to continue with their ways.
One of the rulers to condemn such practices was Emperor Stefan Dušan. Any village where bodies have been exhumed and burnt would be treated as if it was murder. Villagers would be severely punished and given the same sentence as for committing a murder, while the priest who approved such acts would be anathematized.
Many Serbian poems and folktales celebrate pagan worship. Stars, sun, earth, moon, sky, animals- almost every natural element is placed on a pedestal. It is believed that each individual has their own star, which appears in the sky when they are born and then is extinguished when they die.
According to pagan belief, the earth rests on water, while water reposes on a fire which itself rests on another fire, called Zmayevska Vatra or the Fire of the Dragons.
The Serbians hold animals in high esteem too. According to their beliefs, the bear was actually a man who was punished and transformed into an animal. This belief stems from the fact that a bear can walk upright just like a human does. The jackal is considered to be half-human since it howls at night like a wailing child. In some parts of Serbia, it is no less than a sin to kill a bee, snake or fox.
Myths aren’t mere stories. They are stories that stem from the traditions of a particular culture. Serbian myths and legends are an amalgamation of their own culture, Christianity and the different cultures that arrived in the country during the Migration. While some myths may have factual origins, others are fictional. In both ancient and modern cultures, myths have a profound purpose. They are tales that narrate man’s experiences, the world and its phenomena. The subjects of these legends reflect universal concerns since the advent of time: birth and death, afterlife, creation of the world, the origin of humans, good and evil.