Teya Z. Dancer
‘The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our [senses] to grow sharper.’ Eden Phillpotts, ‘A Shadow Passes’
I have always been fascinated by pagan myths and legends of the Balkans. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t wait for bedtime. I didn’t want to stay up and play games or watch TV with the grownups. All I wanted was another tale of magic from those mountains right outside my window. I would snuggle up in bed and wait for my parents who would dim the lights, and, depending on which of them was the narrator that night, I would either sing along to magical folk songs, or listen with bated breath to tales of mystical adventures.
Almost every night I listened to those songs and stories of old that revealed magical worlds with strange creatures and deities, all of them living deep within our ancient mountains, in forests where we can find some of the world’s oldest trees, in caves that go so deep within the earth that no one who has ever ventured to find what’s at their bottom has come back, and in springs and lakes with waters so pure that they would heal your mind and ease your soul with a mere sip … if only you could find them.
What a blessed childhood it was, and how grateful I am that I was sung all those songs and told all those tales, so that now, I can tell them to you. Well, not all of them, not now anyway. I don’t want to run the risk of overwhelming you, so that you might end up leaving without ever knowing of the Balkan Samodivi, or the babi-healers, or the ghosts that live immured within ancient stone-made bridges. No. But please, stay. If you have a moment or two, I will tell you a little bit about them.
The Samodivi (sing. Samodiva) are my favourite characters of Bulgarian mythology. They exist everywhere on the Balkans and are known by different names throughout Slavic Folklore. In Bulgaria alone, they are also known as Samovili, Vihri and Vili (both words mean ‘whirlwinds’), Yudi and White-reds. In the stories I was told about them, though, they were always called Samodivi, which is why I tend to use this word in my own writing about them.
In a nutshell, the Samodivi are woodland female ‘fairies’ in Slavic folklore, similar in many ways to ‘nymphs’, or ‘goddesses’ in English. But a nutshell is nowhere near enough to describe them. Ivanichka Georgieva, who wrote Bulgarska Narodna Mitologia (1984), explains that the Samodivi walk the earth ‘from spring to autumn’, to be found high up in the mountains, meadows, near lakes and on tall trees’ (Georgieva, 1984: 155).
The Samodivi are known to guard man-made fountains in the mountains and bless the spring water that seeps through them. Travellers are welcome to stop for a rest and fill their flasks. If they do, though, they should always leave something for the guardians.
The Samodivi can be kind, and they often help people in the forests, but they can also be cruel and vengeful if one should disturb their peace or disrespect them. People who drink from their fountains, bathe in their lakes or stop under their trees should leave something for them before they continue their path. This can be anything from a red thread pulled off of a passenger’s clothing, to a small loaf of bread. They love music and if the travellers can sing them a song or play them a tune on their flute, they might even bestow further blessings upon them. The traveller should be wary of dancing for them, though. The Samodivi are amazing dancers and are known to join people dancing in the woods, and start the ‘Samodivian Horo’, a dance which is usually fatal for humans because it can last for a whole day and a whole night – or even longer if the Samodivi so wish – and people can rarely keep up with them, so they are compelled to dance until they collapse.
Do not pick flowers or leave meat as an offering for the Samodivi! They protect nature and its balance, and their souls are tightly linked to those of their woodland’s plants and creatures. If you want to find out more about Samodivi, I recommend Ivanichka Georgieva’s Bulgarian Mythology, where you will find a dedicated chapter on Samodivi in the Balkans and their habits, although this is a very concise and incomplete translation of the original book written in Bulgarian.
Meaning and importance of magic in folklore and creative writing
My own creative writing has been largely influenced by the folktales I was told as a child. The short stories I wrote for my undergraduate dissertation include myths of Samodivi, elements about the babi-healers, as well as the legend of the Immured wife and how human and deviant coexist. The texts deal with loss, growth and transformation, and offer an insight into how the Slavic people have dealt with these processes for centuries. A lot of these traditions, like the performance of a lament, are still practised today. If you would like to read more about Slavic folklore, Natalie Kononenko’s Slavic Folklore: A Handbook would be a great place to start.
Sadly, Slavic traditions and folklore remain largely unfamiliar in the rest of the world. Adult fiction based on these myths and folklore is extremely rare or remains untranslated into other languages, making it internationally inaccessible.
But more importantly, I think that there’s a message we need to take from these myths and legends so tightly intertwined with nature, from all tales of magic from all around the world – a world which is rapidly changing and losing its forests and its wildlife quicker than ever before. And this message is that we are all connected, and the more we sever that connection, the further we’ll stray from our ancestors, from our roots. We need to protect our forests and mountains because without nature, there’s no life. There’s no us. And there’s no magic.
Teya Z. Dancer is a second-year part-time student on the MA Creative Writing, and a graduate of the NTU English programme, for which she wrote a creative writing dissertation.