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Wili, Vila, Rusalka, Mavka


Tom47
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Wili, Vila, Rusalka and Mavka are names that refer to female beings from Slavic mythology.  Of course Wilis are featured in the ballet Giselle, but Vilas may refer to the same beings.  Rusalkas live in lakes, but can come on land and Mavky live in forests, meadows and mountains and appear to be mainly from Ukrainian folklore.  Here are the two paragraphs that Heinrich Heine wrote about Wilis in his De l’Allemagne that when read by Theophile Gautler inspired the ballet Giselle:  

“There is a tradition of nocturnal dancing known in Slav countries under the name of Wili.  The Wilis are affianced maidens who have died before their wedding-day; those poor young creatures cannot rest peacefully in their graves.  In their hearts which have ceased to throb, in their dead feet, there still remains that passion for dancing which they could not satisfy during life; and at midnight they rise up and gather in bands on the highway and woe betide the young man who meets them, for he must dance until he drops dead.

“Attired in their bridal dresses, with garlands of flowers on their heads, and shining rings on their fingers, the Wilis dance in the moonlight like the Elves; their faces, although white as snow, are beautiful in their youthfulness.  They laugh with a deceptive joy, they lure you so seductively, their expressions offer such sweet prospects, that these lifeless Bacchantes are irresistible.”

This quote can be found here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40837168?seq=1.

While the description of the Wilis in the above two paragraphs is that they died before their wedding-day this death was not necessarily due to them being betrayed by the prospective groom, so they are not necessarily vengeful for that reason and that does not seem to be the reason why they cannot rest peacefully in their graves. Instead the Wilis rise up and gather on the highway because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing while alive.  That is not because of any betrayal.  In the entry on Giselle in the Marius Petipa website it is explained that because Giselle forgave Albrecht and protected him, she is “forever freed from their power [the Wilis] and returns to her grave to rest in peace.”  However, this does not necessarily follow if within her there still remains that passion for dancing which she could not satisfy during life.  

Tom,

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In the Marius Petipa website it is pointed out that Wilis “. . . are based on the Vila, a fairy maiden from Slavic mythology.”  Heinrich Heine was German having been born in Dusseldorf.  In German “W” is pronounced as an English “V.”  So, for that reason he may have written Vila as Wila.  Now, in looking up slavic mythology I’ve found some cases where the plural of names of female beings similar to the Wilis, is formed by an “i” or “y” at the end instead of an “s.”  So, the plural of Vila could then be Vili.  Combining these two ideas it is possible that Heine wrote Vili as Wili and at some point an “s” was added to make it plural and in this way we get Wilis from Vila.

I found a web page named “Beware the Wandering Wilas” written by Riley Winters.  (See here: https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/beware-wandering-wilas-002273)  The author is a graduate from Christopher Newport University with a degree in Classical Studies and an Art History and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor and she spells these mythical maidens as Wilas.  She writes that “The Wilas (pronounced viwa and also called Vili or Vilas) are fair-haired female creatures who have died but remain trapped between this world and the next.”  And that “they are the lost women who died unbaptized or the betrothed ones whose lives ended before marriage.”  This supports the idea that Vili is the plural of Vila, that Wila is the singular for Wili and also it is not claimed that these women died because of a betrayal.         

Riley Winters also writes that Wilas “occasionally become fierce beings known equally for forcing companionship and seeking vengeance.  They are known to dance human men to death for their amusement and enjoyment” and also “to participate in battles.”  Thus, some of the characteristics of these Wilas are like those of the Wilis from the ballet.  On the other hand she writes “Only sometimes do they choose to help or heal humans.”  Therefore, Wilas and possibly Wilis can have a beneficial side. 

Tom,

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The Encyclopedia Britannica states that a “Rusalka, plural Rusalki, in Slavic mythology, [is a] lake-dwelling soul of a child who died unbaptized or of a virgin who was drowned. . .”  Note here that the encyclopedia spells the plural of Rusalka by replacing the “a” at the end with an “i.”  It is also stated that around the Danube River Rusalka are called Vila, with the plural being Vile (connecting the being Rusalka with the being Vila) and that “All rusalki love to entice men - the vile to enchant them and the northern rusalki to torture them.”  Then at the beginning of the summer the Rusalki come out of the lakes to dance in the moonlight and that “Any person joining them must dance until he dies.”  (See here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/rusalka.) 

The opera “Rusalka” written by Antonin Dvorak premiered in 1901.  “Song to the Moon” is sung by the title character during the first act.  

Tom,

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Thank you volcano Hunter, for your comment.  I have found cases where the plural of names of female beings similar to the “Willis” is formed by an “i” or “y” at the end instead of an “s” and in the Encyclopedia Britannica article the plural of Vila is formed by an “e” at the end.  As there is no one plural ending for vila (vila/wila) it also seems that the characteristics of a Vila, Rusalka or Mavka varies across the Slavic Language area.  

Tom,

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As far as I know, no Slavic language forms a plural by tacking on an -s at the end of a noun, but that's true of many languages. I'm also not sure all that much about Giselle can be gleaned by studying folkloric sources. Ballet's wilis probably owe more to the imagination of Gautier, and I've learned not to expect anthropological accuracy in ballets.

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Again thank you for your comment Volcano Hunter.  I suspected that no Slavic language forms a plural by tacking on an “s” at the end of a noun, but I wasn’t sure of that, so I am glad you offered your opinion.  As to what can be gleaned about the ballet by studying folkloric sources maybe nothing.  I started this topic with the two paragraphs which inspired the ballet, then compared those paragraphs with a description from the Marius Petipa website and pointed out that  they do not agree.  As simple as that.  In addition the world premiere of the ballet was in Paris the year prior to the Saint Petersburg premiere.  It is possible that in the Paris premiere Giselle was not considered to be forever freed from the Wilis’ power and did not return to her grave to rest in peace.  Does anyone know about that?  In regard to the Slavic Mythological beings - Wili, Vila, Rusalka, Mavka - I find them and their possible connections very interesting and I wanted to hear what others thought of that.  

Tom, 

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Due out sometime this year (2021) is the animated film “Mavka, The Forest Song.”  According to the video to be found at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3Ne0swwtnc a Mavka (plural Mavky) is closely related to a Rusalka except that Mavky live on land - Forests, Meadows or Mountains.  (Thus connecting a Mavka with Rusalka and by extension with a Vila and a Wili.)  Also based on that video a Mavky can be similar to the Wilis from the ballet “Giselle” in that in some cases Mavky are  women who end their lives because of unrequited or tragic love and refuse to go to the underworld.  A difference is that after their death they forget their lives including the person “that broke their heart.”  Despite this a Mavka is sorrowful and longs for true love and  thus she will seduce a man, but instead of dancing him to death will tickle him to death so as to avenge her suffering before her own death.  It is possible that the man may save himself with kindness, empathy and by giving the Mavka a comb.  A woman might also become a Mavka if after being lost in a forest she meets up with a Mavka and in some cases a woman may seek out a Mavka in order to become one.  However, generally I’ve read that a Mavka is a child (girl) who died unbaptised.  Based on the video Mavky are not always harmful as they will “repay kindness with even greater kindness” and in any case will take care of plants and animals.  One characteristic that could distinguish a Mavka from the other female slavic mythological beings is that one can see through the back of the Mavka’s body.

The film “Mavka, The Forest Song” appears to have been inspired by a play entitled “The Forest Song” (1911) by the Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka.  In a footnote attached to the play’s script, it is explained that “a ‘Mavka’ is another sort of fairy being, whose origin is ascribed to a female infant which dies before receiving a Christian Baptism.”   In this story the Mavka is portrayed as a beneficial being; kind and helpful toward nature and she falls in love with a human male.  She is generous and loves the music the man plays on his pipe.  A Rusalka also figures into the plot.

Tom, 

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9 hours ago, Tom47 said:

I am glad you offered your opinion. 

It's not exactly my opinion. It's true that I know very little about minority Slavic languages, such as Kashubian, Upper Sorbian or Lower Sorbian. But I can assure you that there are no -s plurals in Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovakian, Slovenian or Ukrainian.

-S plurals are the norm in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, but not in Italian or Romanian, and not in most Germanic languages either.

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Volcano Hunter, I only wrote “your opinion” because you wrote “As far as I know” at the beginning of your comment.  I appreciate you sharing your knowledge in this area in that I have learned from you and I wish that others would also share their knowledge on this topic. 

Tom,  

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Due out sometime this year (2021) is the animated film “Mavka, The Forest Song.”  According to the video to be found at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3Ne0swwtnc a Mavka (plural Mavky) is closely related to a Rusalka except that Mavky live on land - Forests, Meadows or Mountains.  (Thus connecting a Mavka with Rusalka and by extension with a Vila and a Wili.)  Also based on that video a Mavky can be similar to the Wilis from the ballet “Giselle” in that in some cases Mavky are  women who end their lives because of unrequited or tragic love and refuse to go to the underworld.  A difference is that after their death they forget their lives including the person “that broke their heart.”  Despite this a Mavka is sorrowful and longs for true love and  thus she will seduce a man, but instead of dancing him to death will tickle him to death so as to avenge her suffering before her own death.  It is possible that the man may save himself with kindness, empathy and by giving the Mavka a comb.  A woman might also become a Mavka if after being lost in a forest she meets up with a Mavka and in some cases a woman may seek out a Mavka in order to become one.  However, generally I’ve read that a Mavka is a child (girl) who died unbaptised.  Based on the video Mavky are not always harmful as they will “repay kindness with even greater kindness” and in any case will take care of plants and animals.  One characteristic that could distinguish a Mavka from the other female slavic mythological beings is that one can see through the back of the Mavka’s body.

The film “Mavka, The Forest Song” appears to have been inspired by a play entitled “The Forest Song” (1911) by the Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka.  In a footnote attached to the play’s script, it is explained that “a ‘Mavka’ is another sort of fairy being, whose origin is ascribed to a female infant which dies before receiving a Christian Baptism.”   In this story the Mavka is portrayed as a beneficial being; kind and helpful toward nature and she falls in love with a human male.  She is generous and loves the music the man plays on his pipe.  A Rusalka also figures into the plot.

While listening to the Marka video I thought that the name “Mavka” sounded like the name “Martha” from the ballet and I began to wonder if there was a connection there.  Does anyone know where the names of the characters of the ballet came from?

Tom, 

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So, what does all this mean?  First, there seems no reason from slavic mythology and in particular from the two paragraphs that Heinrich Heine wrote, for Giselle to be forever freed from the power of the Wilis and to return to her grave to rest in peace, since she is not forced to become a Wilis, but becomes one because in her heart there still remains that passion for dancing which she could not satisfy during life.  Second, it appears that the word Wilis is correctly pronounced with a “V” sound at the beginning and not a “W” sound.  Also, the “s” at the end appears to be redundant, as the letter “i” at the end could, in some slavic languages, signify a plural.  Considering this it would make sense for the English spelling, for the plural, to be either Vilas or just Vili.  In that case the “Wilis” from the ballet are Vili or Vilas or maybe Vily from slavic mythology.  Further, a Mavka or a Rusalka are similar to a Vila and thus to the beings in the ballet and these cousins to the Vila and the beings from the ballet are not all bad and have a beneficial side to their natures.  Even the nature of the Vili seems to have both a benevolent as well as a vindictive side.    

Some may think I am being picky in this and I guess I am, but I find the ending as described in the Petipa website unsatisfying.  I don’t feel Giselle wants to rest peacefully - she wants to dance.  Then on top of that I find all this information about mythical beings interesting.  I did not know very much about slavic mythology before and I enjoyed learning about it.

Tom,

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