Meet the Wilis

In the ballet Giselle there is a fantasy creature that I have never encountered outside of the ballet world, so I decided to go on a search. This creature is the elusive Wili. In Giselle, the Wilis are the spirits of betrothed women who were betrayed and died before their wedding day. At night they rise from their graves and lure men into their haunted forest where they proceed to dance them to death. The catch is, the Wilis can only come out at night, so if the man can make it to daybreak he survives to tell the tale. Nice revenge, but I’m not sure how this sits in the feminist camps.

I’ve seen Giselle a million times, and these Wili characters have always held a fascination with me. But I must admit, I have not researched these creatures outside of the ballet until now.

Turns out there are Wilis in Slavic folklore. They are a female vampire of sorts, and like Giselle, they are the spirits of girls who died before their wedding day. In a poem by Heinrich Heine that was allegedly based on Slavic legend, he describes the Wilis as being unable to rest in their graves because they had to satisfy their passion for dancing naked, in particular, dancing naked in the town square. Now I’m not sure how dying before your wedding day causes you to yearn to dance naked in the town square, but who am I to question folklore. Also according to Heine’s poem, the Wilis like to gather on the road at midnight with the purpose of luring in young men so they can dance them to death.

And yes, Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges did use this poem as inspiration for the Giselle libretto.

Among the Slavic cultures the Wili appears in a few different varieties. In Serbia they are unfortunate maidens cursed by God, in Bulgaria they are girls who died before being baptized, and in Poland they are beautiful female spirits in atonement for frivolous past lives.

One of my personal favorites and best known are the Rusalki from Russian lore. The Rusalki are fish women who live at the bottom of rivers and lakes. These spirits come out of the water sometime around midnight and dance in the meadow. If a handsome man happens to pass by the meadow at this time the Rusalki will mesmerize him with their dancing and lure him to the river to drown.

Interesting…. I think I feel a dance piece coming on…

So there you go- the Wilis, betrayed maidens forever doomed to haunt the forest looking for young men to dance to death. A happy tale.  And yes, these spirits are behind the phrase, “it gives me the wilis.”

I love when these lesser know mythical creatures appear in ballets, and they appear somewhat frequently, especially in the Romantic period. It’s interesting to me that choreographers and librettists used these myths and tales to create ballets. This demonstrates to me that these creators were more in touch with their Pagan roots than they may have cared to admit.


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