DESCRIPTION: Ephemeral, glowing, spellbinding, hysterical, melodious voice
ALIAS: Wiła, Vila, Wili, Veela
PROVENANCE: Polish and Slavic folklore
It is easy to fear a witch. The green skin, the warts, the potions, the cackling… But what if your captor were breathtakingly fair, with long flowing hair that sparkled about her head, and the voice of an angel? Here we encounter the obstacle faced by mortal men throughout the ages: The Vila. Hysterical and intoxicating, this classic femme fatale archetype wooes and delights, tortures and betrays, time and time again.
Eastern European mythology describes Vila (or Wila) as ephemeral female spirits likened to fairies. These beautiful maidens were said to straddle our world and the afterlife, often shapeshifting into snakes, swans, horses, or wolves. To become a Vila was a dubious fate, perhaps a punishment for frivolity. Some folklore said that Fairy Rings were left where Vila had danced.
Robbing men of their senses and supplanting them with pure and unmitigable desire for days on end, wielding prophetic and healing powers, deadly with bow and arrow: these women embody the most vibrant aspects of the sensual world with the immediacy of death lingering at their lovely fingertips. The bold duality of the Vila secures for them the universal awe reserved for the most powerful women in folklore.
Vilas are not the first rendition of this bittersweet female caricature. Take the Siren, similar in nature as illustrated by Homer’s Odyssey, still a dominant symbol of the femme fatale in pop culture. Sometimes synonymous with mermaids, sirens were originally portrayed as any combination of bird and female human features. According to Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus, sirens were fated to live only until the sailors who heard their songs were able to pass by them, perhaps dismissively suggesting that these creatures exist for the sole purpose of male attention, and once that is no longer given to them, they should disappear.
Aside from their severe beauty, the unifying trait across folklore is that they exist purely for the excitement of torturing mortal men, and would not serve any purpose where they could not entice, deceive, delight or otherwise manipulate them. Which brings us to the unique exception, the sweetest and most innocent Vila of all…
The heroine Giselle for which the classic ballet is named, served only a brief stint as a Wili (an alternate spelling of Vila). Inspired by a work of Romantic Era poet Heinrich Heine, this tale follows the plight of a young peasant girl, betrayed by her love and her own weak heart. Upon discovering her lover’s hidden identity, Giselle breaks into a fit of hysterics and collapses in the town square when her heart stops.
Wilis in this story are female ghosts who had suffered heartbreak and died before their wedding day, doomed to haunt the mortal world every night seeking revenge upon those who had jilted them. Following her untimely demise, Giselle unwittingly becomes one herself and is ordered by Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, to dance her lover to exhaustion, thus causing his death. She refuses to succumb to hatred, and wills her love prevail despite the heartbreak she suffered. This transcendence granted her lover safety and Giselle herself was then able to rest in peace, having been freed from being a Vila. She seems to be the only one who has done so, as far as we have found…until contemporary pop culture: The Veela of Harry Potter, or rather, one specific Veela witch.
THE WORLD OF HARRY POTTER:
J.K. Rowling introduces Veela in Book Four of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Scholastic, 2000). Reigning from Bulgaria, these stunning maidens possess a kind of magic that does not require a wand. Nearly every man in the presence of a Veela becomes entranced, unconsciously boasting and postering for their attention, slipping quickly to ridiculous. When angered, the Veela’s beauty transforms into the hideous severity of the harpy, with cruel beaks and scaly wings, displaying a nasty polarity. Arthur Weasley, upon witnessing this dangerous side of the Veela, quipped to his brood: “And that, boys, is why you should never go for looks alone”.
Though Veela hair is a powerful substance, wandmaker Garrick Ollivander does not recommend Veela in the core of a wand as it is very temperamental. Similarily, neither would Veela be considered ideal daughter-in-law material.
Fleur Delacour (pictured above, right, in blue from the movie, and at right as illustrated by Mary GrandPré for Book Six) is held in great suspect by her fiancée’s mother, partly because she is one-quarter Veela. But that meant she was mostly human, and despite being a powerful witch, Fleur did not have full Veela powers, and never transformed into the hideous creature that prompted Arthur Weasley’s warning (not that it did much, since Fleur’s intended is Arthur’s son Bill). Perhaps it was the dilution of her Veela blood, but Fleur doesn’t once toy with the men around her, and shows fierce loyalty.
Perhaps someday the feminine mystique will be demystified, the battle of the sexes will melt into a pool of pan-gendered equality and characters such as the Vila will seem an utterly preposterous concept. Until then, we will continue to be intrigued, teased and confused by these mythological women as they continue to be re-interpreted in modern pop culture. What could a Vila of the future hold? Our bet is her legacy will outlive us, and she may have more to do with that than we realize.