Probably the most poetic beings in Slavic mythology are the vilas, creatures that lived away from people, in forests or near rivers. Immortal, always young, always females, vilas were known for their beauty, grace and magical powers. River vilas, forest vilas, mountain vilas, even cloud vilas, they were all imagined as slim and tall, with long golden or reddish hair, in which lay their strength. Dressed in translucent white gowns, they had wings and were armed with a bow and arrows. It was believed that they were born out of flower dew, or when a rainbow appeared in the sky. They built their magnificent castles in the clouds.
Young and beautiful, they would often fall in love with young, strong and handsome men. They had shape-shifting abilities, and they would often turn into swans, horses or wolves.
Mostly they were friendly towards people, but there were things they didn’t like. Being caught naked, for example, while they bathed, or played in water, which they did a lot. Or when their clothes or wings were stolen. If someone stole her wings, a vila would become an ordinary woman, until she found them, and she always would. And then… the thief had better run as fast and far as he could, for vilas were vindictive – they didn’t easily forgive an insult.
On the other hand, young girls could ask vilas to grant them beauty and protection. Vilas were skilled healers and often would tend men injured in wars. Sometimes, their long hair got tangled in the forest bushes and low branches. Since they couldn’t free themselves, they would generously reward those who would untangle their hair. It wasn’t rare that they would become “sisters” to those rescuers. Or godmothers to poor, unloved step-daughters in many fairy tales. Worthy allies to the brave young men sent to accomplish impossible quests…
Vilas liked to gather in secluded spaces, such as forest meadows, small mountain lakes and river springs, where they played, sang and danced. A man who had a relationship with a vila would become a vilenjak. He would still be mortal but would gain some of his vila’s powers. It was believed that a child breastfed by a vila would become a great hero.
While most South Slavic vilas are similar to Western European fairies (wings, singing, dancing, connections with flowers and plants, their temperament… except that they were not diminutive) and elves (beauty and strength, the powers they posses, the habitats), Russian vilas – rusalkas – are quite different. They’re thought to be young girls, or even female children, who’d drowned. After that, they would become rusalkas. In some parts of Russia they were imagined ugly and naked, ready to drag into the river anyone who came too close, in some other places they were similar to sirens sans the fish tail – they enchanted passersby with their beauty and songs to kill them.
South Slavic vilas, those vain and capricious but also benevolent and compassionate eternal adolescents, are still best known for their beauty. There is an expression in my mother tongue – “as beautiful as vila”.