Today is the 205th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish master of fairy tales and author of my most favorite children’s story, The Little Mermaid. Among his other works, which have kindled the imagination of children all over the world, are Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princes and the Pea, The Snow Queen, and The Wild Swans.
Andersen’s anniversary and the beginning of spring are a good occasion to tell you more about my favorite Bulgarian folk tale.
As a child, I thought that the two most enchanting mythological creatures of all were Andersen’s mermaids and the Bulgarian samodivi.
In the Slavic tradition, the samodivi are forest spirits that take the form of beautiful young women. They are forever young, with long fair hair, long white robes, and bewitching eyes that can sweep a man off their feet and even kill him. All samodivi are sisters. During nights in the spring, when the moon rises, they get together in open glades deep in the forests of Rila and Pirin mountain and dance the horo barefooted. Nothing is more beautiful than the song and dance of a samodiva.
The samodivi are in fact invisible. Only exceptional people can see them: those who were born on Christmas Eve or in the Saturday before the Bulgarian Orthodox Easter.
Sometimes a samodiva would kidnap a young shepherd and make him play his kaval (a wooden flute) while her sisters dance the horo. She might kill him, but if he does her a favor, she might also become “his sister”: become his protector and even give birth to his child. One of our greatest legendary heroes, Krali Marko (King Marko) was nursed by one samodiva and had another one as a sister-protector.
Thus the samodivi, like the mermaids, are beautiful but treacherous. They take merciless revenge on any man who wrongs them or on any woman they envy and send them a deadly disease.
A samodiva is in the human world from early spring (March 25th) to the late summer (August 29th). She spends the cold months in the secret village Zmeikovo together with the zmeiove (zmei – a Slavic dragon), rusalki (rusalka – a Slavic mermaid), and vili (vila or samovila – another Slavic female forest spirit).
Listen to Samodiva by Balkandji. Their music is “metal with folk motives.” The lyrics speak of a “wild” samodiva who goes out at night when the forest is dark and men start singing songs. She is beautiful but the look of her eyes is as poisonous as a snake.