Croatian Folklore – Ancient Mythological Figures & Popular Legends

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Croatian folklore is very much tied in with the Slavic tradition. This means that some myths and mythical creatures are Slavic, while others are found only in certain Croatian communities.

 

These myths have been passed on through generations and millennia through stories. Can you even imagine, a tradition so strong it didn’t even need to be written down to be spread across a whole country?

 

We’ve put together a list of Croatian folk creatures, along with some of the most popular and widespread Croatian legends.

 

Figures from Croatian mythology

Slavic, Istrian and Croatian mythology is full of mystical creatures, both evil and good. Mostly evil. While the literature is sparse on many of their figures, we’ve found some really fascinating creatures we didn’t expect.

 

Vila (Fairy)

Fairies are a favourite of Croatian mythology. They’re similar to the global idea of fairies in a lot of ways – beautiful young women, who dance and sing wonderfully and live in forests and mountains. But there are some really unique elements to their mythology as well.

 

Croatian fairies will die if you pull a hair from their heads – either from sadness or fragility, depending on who you ask. They fly among the clouds, and can transform into clouds themselves, as well as birds and flowers. Their name, vila, is associated with clouds and in some myths they bring storms to destroy crops. Perhaps most strikingly though, these fairies have animal legs hiding beneath their white dresses.

 

The vila are mostly benevolent but can be quick to anger. In many myths, they’re very ashamed of their animal legs, the result of a curse for being too proud of their beauty.

 

There are also a number of myths around Croatia about how fairies come to be, since they’re all young women. The most popular is that fairies are the souls of deceased girls, spending time in limbo between this world and the afterlife, because of a violent or sinful death.

 

Mora/mara (nightmare/succubus)

Moras are malicious spirits, who in traditional succubus fashion suck the life out of their victims and torture them with desire. They come into your room through the keyhole as a fly, before transforming into a beautiful woman.

 

Most myths have mora sitting on their victims, strangling them to death. They’re the offspring of witches, and can also take on the form of a black cat (poor black cats, they’ve had a rough image through much of history).

 

Krsnik (vampire hunter)

Croatian vampire hunters are one of the few mythological figures that are born, not made. At birth, krsnik are identified by their white placenta – as vampires are identified by black or red placenta. They grow up as normal boys, but in most tales keep their placenta with them. In some, it’s even sewn onto their skin as babies!

 

When the krsnik come of age (this age varies), they go through an initiation ceremony with older krsnik, and gain their full powers. They then spend their lives fighting vampires and demons, and healing those cursed by magical creatures. Krsnik, too, have the ability to turn into a fly, and seek out their enemies in that form.

 

Striga (witch)

Striga are magical women who are either old and ugly or extremely beautiful. They’re malicious and vindictive, and can curse people in any number of ways, causing death, barrenness and disease in humans and their animals.

 

Striga can transform into a number of animals, including frogs and cats. But the most common is transforming into a fly and leaving their bodies through their mouths. Clearly the Croatian people had a thing with flies.

 

The witches would be most active at night, gathering in forests, on mountaintops, and at crossroads. In some stories, they are living women, while in others they are wicked people returned from the dead.

 

Vukodlak (werewolf)

Werewolves, like in much of Europe, are considered the male equivalent of the witch. A werewolf is usually a wicked man come back to life, or someone who’s body was jumped over by a cat or chicken (just bad luck).

 

Werewolves would do general evil, and only in some Croatian myths would they turn into wolves. The meaning of vukodlak, however, means ‘wolf’s hair’. Interestingly, wolves were very much associated with demonic forces, and Croats often referred to the devil as ‘wolf’. So the werewolf doesn’t actually have to turn into a wolf, but rather be demonic.

 

Orko (Fairy Horse)

As lovely as ‘fairy horse’ sounds, an orko is a malicious creature. It flies between the legs of weary travellers at night, picking him up and whisking him off in the wrong direction, dropping him off in strange lands. Sometimes, the orko would be lighthearted and fun, but usually, it was a creature to be feared.

 

Vedi & Divovi (giants)

Both vedi and divovi refer to giant beings in Slavic and Croatian mythology. These creatures are massive and hairy, living on mountains and in forests – but in many stories, they’re as big as a mountain themselves, so the physics of this is a bit difficult to pull off.

 

Often benevolent and kind-hearted, giants can also be cruel, stealing humans they come across and keeping them captive.

 

Other mythological figures

Croatian and Slavic history is filled with mythological figures. From green sprites at the bottom of the river, to serpentine dragons and men who cannot die so they kill old people. There are simply so many! The figures above are the most popular and well-known that I could find.

 

5 Famous Croatian legends

Croatia has some wonderfully unique legends from mythological pre-history times to as recent as the 16th century. While the country naturally has dozens, if not hundreds, of legends and folktales, I’ve put together five of their most famous tales.

 

Nera and Antonio

A love story that connects the world of men with gods, Nera and Antonio is a popular Croatian legend. Antonio was a beautiful man – so beautiful that every woman around him would fall in love with him, but he paid them no mind. He worked hard ploughing in his fields, and lived simply.

 

Antonio would often bathe in the sea. One day, the sea goddess Nera saw him bathing, and the two fell in love at once. Clearly, Antonio was meant for more than the mortal coil. But Nera was betrothed to the sea god, and her family insisted that she return to the waters. Arranged marriages extend beyond mankind, evidently.

 

Nera would not give up on her love, and vowed to give up her immortality and divinity to be with Antonio. But her family would not have it, and her father said he would turn them both to stone before he allowed her to leave.

 

To save the life of her true love, Nera slipped back into the water and returned to her family, never seeing him again. Eventually, Antonio died of old age, but Nera has never stopped loving him.

 

Legend of the rooster

A rooster much like the one that saved the people of Đurđevac

 

This is one of Croatia’s most famous legends, and one that’s cause for celebration every year, the annual Picokijada. It’s also not the only rooster legend we’ve found!

 

The fortified town of Đurđevac was under attack by the Turkish army in the 16th century. Ulma-beg led the Turks, believing that this town would be an easy target to defeat and move on. Surprisingly, the townspeople resisted. And so instead of a quick surrender, the Turks turned to starving them out, cutting all supplies.

 

Eventually, the last bit of food that remained in Đurđevac was a skinny little rooster. A wise old woman approached the commander, and suggested he launch the rooster from a cannon at their enemy. Since no other ideas were forthcoming, the commander accepted her strange suggestion, and launched the rooster.

 

Surprised by this curious attack, Ulma-beg concluded that they must have much more food than they had thought – enough to go pelting their enemy with it. He ended the siege that had gone on far longer than planned, and they left the battlefield. Before leaving, he cursed the people, calling them picoki (roosters), feathered heroes who fought their battles with roosters.

 

While he said it as an insult, the people of Đurđevac have kept this nickname with pride. Even today, you’ll find them proudly declaring themselves picoki, and the rooster is their town symbol.

 

The Cave of Pazin & the Giant

The historic town of Pazin

 

This is one of my favourite Croatian legends! Once upon a time, giants and mythical creatures shared the land with men. In southern Istria (Croatia), there lived a giant as big as a mountain, Ban Dragonja. He was kindhearted and happy to help the tiny humans who lived near his home.

 

And so one day, when they asked him to help irrigate their lands by ploughing rivers into the ground, he agreed. He ploughed a furrow from the lake to the ocean, and named it Dragonja. Then he dug another river and named it Mirna, after his beloved wife.

 

Ban Dragonja was ploughing a third river in the most difficult part of the terrain, near the city walls. The commander or his wife (depending on who you ask) started to berate him on his shallow ploughing, insisting that he was doing a shoddy job. The hardworking giant was very offended, and abandoned his work.

 

Since the furrow was running from the river, water gushed through it and began to flood the Pazin valley. It’s inhabitants freaked out, quickly realising that they would drown if Ban Dragonja didn’t return, and begging him to save them. He took pity, and rushed back to help them.

 

The giant stomped his massive foot down beside the castle, and a huge cave opened up, swallowing all the water. Nowadays, you can explore the underground Pazin cave, where the water still runs. While you’re there, be sure to visit Pazin Castle, one of our favourite castles in Croatia.

 

The Curse of King Zvonimir

Portrait of King Zvonimir by an unknown artist

 

King Zvonimir was a real Croatian king, ruling in the early 11th century. He is, in fact, the last king to rule his native land before a period of anarchy, and eventually a union with Hungary.

 

The king’s death, however, is all legend, and cannot be proven or disproven. One day, the Byzantine emperor and the Pope sent a letter asking for the good Croatian king’s help. They asked him to gather his commanders and his people, and lead a campaign to save the Christian people and save the places where Christ had suffered for his people.

 

King Zvonimir agreed, and gathered his population. But when they heard of an overseas war, the unfaithful Croats refused and grew angry, insisting that they would not leave their families and land behind them. They revolted, and violently attacked their king.

 

As he died, Zvonimir cursed his people, saying that never again would they have a king of their own blood. And for 900 years, the curse stood.

 

The Legend of Mila Gojsalić

Another legend that stands halfway between reality and myth is the story of Mila Gojsalić. The events took place in the 16th century, when the Ottoman army was invading the Republic of Poljica.

 

Ahmed Pasha was preparing his large army to deliver their final blow to the people, when the incredibly beautiful Mila walked into his camp. She was so beautiful that he put off his attack, spending the night with her instead. She sacrificed her chastity, and when he fell asleep, she slipped out.

 

The girl stole through the camp, and took a torch to the camp’s gunpowder stores. The resulting explosion killed Ahmed Pasha and much of his troops, along with herself.

 

The Croatian people recognised her sacrifice, and gathered the last of their forces to beat back the remaining Ottomans. Today, you’ll find a lovely statue of Mila Gojsalić standing on a mountain above the town of Omiš, keeping watch over her people.

 

Last Thoughts on Croatian Folk Tales & Myths

These Croatian myths and legends are a terrific opportunity to understand the culture and traditions that make this Balkan country unique. They stretch far back into Croatia’s murky and mythical past, when monsters roamed. All the way to recent history, where they’re combined with real historical events.

 

Did we miss one of your favorite Croatian myths or legends? Let me know, and I’ll be more than happy to add it.

 

Interested in more myth content? Read about Hungarian Mythology and Portuguese Mythology

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