Samodiva: The Life-Sucking Temptress and Wood Nymph of Bulgarian Folklore
The samodiva (known also as samovila or vila; samodivi or samodivas in plural) is a creature found in Balkan, specifically Bulgarian, folklore. In general, these beings are forest spirits or wood nymphs who appear as beautiful young women. But things should not be taken by first appearances sometimes. Samodivi appear in many stories, in which they are harmful, or at least mischievous, creatures.
Wild and Divine Beings of Slavic Mythology
The name ‘samodiva’ is formed by combining two separate words, ‘samo’ and ‘diva’. The former means ‘alone’, whilst the latter ‘wild’, or ‘divine’, hence the name literally means ‘wild alone’. The first part of the creature’s name signifies its avoidance of human beings, whereas the second indicates her wild or divine nature.
Samodivas dancing. (VoVatia)
There are several variations regarding the origins of the samodivi. One of these, for instance, suggests that they are the daughters of Bendis, the Thracian goddess of the moon and hunt, who bears strong resemblance to the Greek goddess Artemis. This origin myth accounts for both meanings of the ‘diva’ part of the creature’s name.
Others believe that the samodivi are children of the lamia, an evil dragon-like creature in Bulgarian folklore. Yet others claim that they are the spirits of wicked women stuck between heaven and hell, or of girls who died as virgins.
‘The Knight and the Mermaid’ or ‘The Kiss of the Enchantress’, watercolor painting. Inspired by the poem "Lamia" by John Keats. (Public Domain)
Regardless of their origins, the samodivi are always described as extremely beautiful women who never age. They have long, blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Their attire consists of a long white gown made of moon beams and either a rainbow-colored or green belt. Additionally, the samodivi adorn their heads with wreaths of wild flowers.
Typical Elements in a Samodiva Story
The samodivi dwell in mountainous areas and their favorite haunts include the Pirin, Vitosha, Rila, and Stara Planina Mountains. They enjoy riding on deer and use twisted snakes as reins. They are extremely protective of their mounts and would cast a spell on anyone who killed their deer, even if it was by accident. The spell would result in the person’s death.
Stories about the samodivi often portray them as being harmful towards human beings. Although these creatures enjoy dancing, especially when accompanied by the music of a kaval or shepherd’s pipe, they often either seduce or kidnap a shepherd to obtain that music. If an unfortunate human stumbles on the samodivi whilst they are dancing, he would be enticed to join them. The human, not being able to keep up with their pace, would die of exhaustion.
Samodivas dancing in ‘Le Villi’ (1906) by Bartolomeo Giuliano. (Fondazione Cariplo/CC BY SA 3.0)
In some tales, however, a human gets the better of a samodiva, albeit temporarily. The samodivi’s magical powers lie in their clothing, so they are particularly vulnerable when they are bathing. At such times, they need to guard their clothing carefully, lest it is stolen, rendering them powerless. In one tale, a shepherd by the name of Ivalyo steals the clothes of a samodiva by the name of Marika, thus taking away her source of power. The shepherd marries the samodiva, and they have a child three years later.
When the couple throws a party to celebrate the birth of their son, the child’s godfather requests Marika dance. Although the samodiva dances, the godfather remarks that she is not dancing as well as a samodiva should. Marika replies that without her gown, she is not able to do so. The godfather asks Ivalyo to give the samodiva her gown (which he had kept hidden). Once Marika puts on her gown, she regains her powers, and disappears from Ivalyo and their son forever.
The Bulgarian Samodiva Lives On
Even today, people, especially those living in the remote villages of Bulgaria, still believe in the existence of samodivas. Due to their powers and the harm they are capable of inflicting on humans, they are both feared and respected.
Although the samodiva has its roots in pagan times, it is interesting to note that the coming of Christianity added to the myth. For instance, the samodivi are said to observe Christian holidays, especially Easter, and punish anyone who does not observe these holidays. It is probable that the myths surrounding the samodivi will continue to develop in modern times, so long as there are those who believe in their existence.
‘Nymphs’. (Public Domain)
Top Image: The samodiva is a type of Bulgarian forest nymph. Source: Atelier Sommerland /Adobe Stock
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