In folk beliefs the SAMODIVI or SAMOVILI are fascinatingly ethereal maidens with long loose hair, sometimes also with wings. They are dressed in a shirt and a gown, and have a green belt and a sleeveless jacket on. Their garments are decorated with feathers by means of which they can fly like birds.
These mysterious creatures are mistresses of the waters and can bring about drought. Supported by the imperial eagles, they are able to command the elements of winds and, therefore, their appearance is often accompanied by a whirlwind. Some of them (perhaps by no chance) look like the ancient Amazons - armed with bows and arrows, they ride gracefully gray deer using reins of intertwisted snakes.
The wood-nymphs dwell in the dark forests and wild mountain recesses. They live under huge old trees, in deserted huts, or in caves dark as hell. One can see them mainly in spring or summer. They go out only in the night and with the cockcrowing they hide themselves again. At twilight woodland fairies go near to the waters - lakes, pools, springs, wells - strip naked, bathe, wash their shadows (or clothes) and then hang them out to dry in the moon, keeping a vigilant eye on them, so as not to get stolen. As it will further become clear, their vigilance has something more than good reason behind it. After the bathing these gorgeous blondes come together on the green meadows where they sing, play music, romp about and dance their frantic horos. They love music, especially the melodies of the kaval (shepherd's pipe), therefore they often abduct shepherds to make them play to their dances. Nevertheless, these heathen beauties observe... the Christian festivals, especially Easter, and they carry away and blind or kill those who do not celebrate them.
Woodland fairies guard jealously their dwelling and hiding places and anyone who trespasses their lands, vanishes or falls incurably ill. That is why people did not venture to step in such places in the night time and dared not mow the grass of the "fairy" meadows even when they were part of their own estates. Nowadays in Bulgaria there are hundreds of place-names like Samodivska poliyana (Fairy Glade), Samodivsko kladenche (Fairy Well), Samodivsko horo (Fairy Horo), etc.
The magic power of the wood-nymph is hidden in her garments (or in her shadow). That is why, if anybody was lucky enough to be able to steal them, and the most appropriate moment to do this is during her bathing, she would become an ordinary woman and obey him. This woodland fairy can become wedded, give birth to children, but she is unable to make a good mother and housewife, and takes advantage of any opportunity to leave her home and flee to freedom. Sometimes, woodland fairies may part with their virginity at their own free will - seized by wild passions of heart, they fall madly in love with one strapping young man or another, gaining complete command over him and teasing him to death with their fiery whims. In other cases, cheated by some voluptuous impostor, wood-nymphs lose their chastity, giving birth to innocent babies and as suckling mothers they have breasts so huge in size that they have to sling them over their shoulders.
Woodland fairies are not inevitably hostile and dangerous to people. When somebody does them a good turn, they become his foster, sworn sisters, or his patrons, and even nurse his children, who grow up to become heroes of great renown. Frequently in the folklore such fairies are not anonymous, but rather individualized - Ghiurga, Dena, Stana, Mita, Magda, and their romantic silouhettes are overgrown with clusters of fairy-tales and songs.
However, no ethnographic descriptions could give a better representation of the people's perception of woodland fairies than the way this was done by the greatest Bulgarian poet Hristo Botev (1849-1876) in one of his poems. High in the Balkan mountain, the voivode Hadji Dimitar, wounded to death in a battle with the Turks, curses "the whole universe", tortured by the burning sun rays, while ...
Evening draws down, and the moon rises,
Stars bespangle the vault of the sky;
The forest rustles, a wind awakens,
The mountain is singing a haidouk song.
And woodland fairies, all clothed in white,
Lovely, wonderful, take up the tune.
Across the green grass softly stepping,
They come to the warrior, and there they kneel down.
One of them sprinkles his face with water,
Another binds his wounds with fresh herbs;
The third bends down and kisses him swiftly,
and he looks up at her, smiling and kind.
And they clap their hands, and clasp each other,
and with songs they flit up into the skies,
flying and singing till dawn overtakes them...*
The earliest written evidence of woodland fairies dates back to the 13th century. Presumably, their mythology developed on the basis of the Balkan tradition, but researchers find traces of the ancient Slav period in them as well. The words SAMODIVA and SAMOVILA take us back to some very old Indo-European roots with a meaning of "divinity", "demon", "rave", "rage".
Some woodland fairies are known as YUDI. In the Bulgarian folklore they are always old, ugly and frightful evil-doers. There are also many tales about other evil spirits: bugbears, goblins, ghouls, vampires. The Roumanian count Drakula, notorious around the world, is not a single case in the folklore of the Balkan nations.
*Verses are given as translated by Prof. Marko Minkoff in a 1980 edition of the poet's works.
You can learn more about wood nymphs or samodivi from the Bulgarian contributions to the Forest Myths in the 'Themes' section of the Learning About Forests website at http://www.learningaboutforests.org/
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