The Balkan Peninsula is situated at the joining of Europe and Asia and with Africa “a stone toss away”. A lot of people have lived on these lands throughout the centuries and great empires have come and gone, from the wise Greeks and Romans of ancient times to the later Byzantine Empire and more recent Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans. Not to mention all barbarian migrations that took place, sweeping back and forth, leaving their mark a small piece at a time. Truly a “melting pot” of many varied cultures and traditions that we can still catch glimpses of here and there, especially in local folklore and the Balkan mythological creatures.
Fairy tales, myths and legends have always played a big part in these peoples existence. Life before the invention of electricity was very different from what you or I know today. Just imagine living in a wooden shack during the long winter nights. Forests as far as the eye can see, no street lights to shine on one’s path and hidden perils waiting at every corner have made people believe that supernatural forces have a much bigger influence in everyday life. Modern technology may have answered most of these mysteries but we can still sometimes feel their presence when out at night without our cellphones or even a simple flashlight to cling us to “reality”. Good or evil, these Balkan mythological creatures could still be roaming the forests and villages of the surrounding Mountains or at least they continue existing in our thoughts and imagination.
The term Moroi has its roots in the ancient Dacian language, predating the arrival of Slavs in the area. These creatures are believed to be the souls of stillborn or murdered children that have not been baptized. If a baby was conceived out of wedlock and its mother killed it to hide her shame from the townsfolk, its soul will rise from the grave 7 years later and haunt her relentlessly. They will inflict plagues and other misfortunes not only on her but the entire village. The legends have it that these women will still find no peace after death because, once dead, they will be hung by the tongue near the gates of hell and their murdered children, transformed into snakes, will bite them continuously until the end of time.
This creature is more commonly known as the vampire. Popularized by Bram Stocker in his “Dracula” novel, the strigoi are night dwellers that haunt people and pray on livestock. There are a couple of ways that people can become vampires. Either they are born this way because their mothers have been drinking water “touched by the devil”, animals will jump over them once they’re dead or were cursed by black magic.
They scare the living, make fields and cattle barren, suck the life force of former friends and family, and in case of female strigoi, called vidme, have sexual intercourse in order to steal their victim’s soul. To recognize a vampire one must keep in mind that they absolutely hate the smell of onions, garlic and incense. Also people born on a Saturday can stand watch in cemeteries at night and whiteness them rising from their graves and only return after their deeds are done. Shape shifting is one more of their abilities, being able to transform in a number of “impure” animals such as a cat, moth, wolf, owl or rat.
If someone was suspected of being a strigoi, the townsfolk would gather at his grave, dig him up, run a wooden stake through his heart and then burn it to ensure he will never return. As gruesome and brutal as this sounds, people in villages around Romania still, on occasion, practice this ritual.
The Lesovik are woodland spirits that protect the forest and its animals. They are depicted as men with green beards and shaggy hair who cast no shadow and wear their boots on the wrong feet. During winter they stay hidden from sight but come spring and they come out and fight amongst themselves in the hopes that autumn will come soon. They are also known to lead travelers astray through the wilderness. Acting as a guide, the Lesovik will take their unaware victims into the darkest depths of the forest and leave them there to despair, never to be seen again. To avoid suffering such a fate one must give the “old man” bread as a token of one’s kindness or wear their clothes inside out.
7. Blajini (The Kind Ones)
One Romanian ancient belief was that the Earth is flat and has two sides. We live on one side and the Blajini live on the other, as a sort of parallel universe to ours. Small in stature and with a face resembling a rat, these mythological creatures have great respect for God and live a life without sin. Because they don’t have any idea when Easter is celebrated, Romanians and Moldavians throw Easter-egg shells in rivers and streams. Flowing downriver these offerings will eventually reach them giving thanks for their sinless life in the eyes of God. Some believe that these tiny creatures are the descendants of Adam and Eve’s son Seth but other say that the Blajini once lived among men until the great exodus led by Moses. Once his people were safely across, Moses poured the waters back on these tiny companions, sending them to their present “residence”.
6. Muma Padurii
She is present in many folk tales, often times depicted as an ugly old woman with evil intent. Muma Padurii means “mother of the forest” in old Romanian and is a protective spirit of her realm. Having skin resembling tree bark and hair intertwined with twigs and leafs, she can also transform in many other creatures or people. Besides trying to stop the protagonist (Fat Frumos) in fairytales from achieving his goal she also kidnaps children or more often “steal their sleep” so she can give it to her own, that are not so “well behaved”. In general she is not so bad, she protects her trees and animals, harming only those who will trespass her lands. Her appearance in fact is what most people fear because even today people will compare someone who is not so good looking with Muma Padurii.
This is one of the most notorious of antagonists in Balkan folklore. He is sometimes described as a dragon but he is actually an anthropomorphic creature with a body of a man, wings, scaly hide, a long tail and sometimes can spit fire. Manifested as a representation of greed and selfishness, the Zmeu resides in “The Other Land” and kidnaps young maidens with the purpose of marrying them. He can transform into a man when in the presence of his bride but usually he stays in his natural form. Nobody can defeat this creature with the exception of Fat Frumos (the protagonist), and not even he can achieve this very easily often times resorting to powerful magic to do so. The word “zmeu” has its origins in either the Slavic or Dacian languages. In present day Romanian it refers to a kite, or dragon in German, Bulgarian, Russian, Norwegian and Swedish languages.
This is not simply another mythical creature of Slavic heritage, this is a God. This is the Black God of the dead. Ruler of the underworld and everything evil, he was revered as much as the other Gods of the Slavic pantheon. He is responsible for winter, famine and bad luck and unlike most other evil deities around the world he has his own holyday called the Korochun, celebrated during the winter solstice. The Slavs considered his role to be necessary so they respected him as much as the other Gods. The belief is that he and Belobog (God of light) have created the Earth together but during creation they came into conflict and that is how the present world came to be. Nobody should take Crnobog lightly because he is the essence of all evil and nothing that was or is can stand up to him, not even Fat Frumos or any other knight in shining armor.
The Iele are fairies that live in the forests around the Carpathian Mountains. They are very beautiful and playful immortal girls but if angered they can be very cruel and extremely dangerous. When they meet, they engage in a frenzied dance but if anyone stumbles upon them, they risk losing their minds or worse. Also the grass under their feet will be burnt and will never grow back. Midsummer’s Eve is the time when the Iele are the strongest and when people are able to hear animals talking among themselves. It is also when one can gather powerful plants like fern flowers which bring life-long luck or the Iarba Fiarelor that can help open any lock.
Pafa is an old hag all dressed in black with horns on her head, sharp tusks, a long black tail, claws, a long crocked nose, big swollen eyes and a pipe in her mouth. She came out of the earth, straight out of Hell and along with her sons draci (devils) she laid the seeds of Iarba dracului (devil’s weed). This plant we come to know today as tobacco. With the invention of the pipe, also made by these draci, people started smoking this plant and in doing so have also started worshiping Pafa, thus doing the devil’s work.
According to legend she is an evil spirit that shows herself as a naked woman with very long black hair, breasts that touch the ground, small bright eyes, iron hands and a flaming tongue. She visits small children and inflicts diseases upon them often times resulting in death. She even appears when women are giving birth so she can kill both the mother and the baby. The Samca even tried to kill baby Jesus but was stopped by the Archangel Michael. If someone is “touched” by her they have to perform a series of rituals lasting for a period of a couple of months and involve strong alcohol, broom straws and a needle that is neither bought nor borrowed but found. To avoid encountering her altogether one must write all of her 19 names around the house but even this doesn’t always work because she can change her appearance. The Samca can be linked with another German mythical creature called Frau Brechta mit dem Klumpfuß or Pesta in the Swedish folklore.