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Fairies of Naissus

In pre-Christian mythologies of the western and northern tribes and their pagan beliefs, female deities were not uncommon. Take for instance old Gaul's Matres or Valkyries of the old Norse mythology and of course all the goddesses from the history of all polytheistic religions around the globe. But perhaps the most interesting of them all are, you guessed, the fairies. They are not actually deities per se and rather belong to the spirit realm of the afterlife and dead, but still you can find them, in one form or another, in almost all religious legends and myths. The city where I was born, the valley it resides and the river that splits it in half are no different. The history of this area is, metaphorically speaking, very colorful and full of wonders, all the way to the beginning of the Neolithic era, and over the centuries this valley literally saw lots of different cultures and deities. One of them, originates way back to the Celtic Gauls and their tribe named Scordisci who lived in this neighborhood almost 24 centuries ago. They were the one who named the river and the first settlement as Naissa/Navissos, which pretty much means river and town of fairies. Whether or not this area in the BC was flooded with fairies or perhaps the geographic of it resembled to their beliefs, or even the very "Celtic Otherworld" was pictured and portrayed like our own neighborhood, the name survived for centuries and despite numerous conquerors and different cultures, the fairies staid in the name and the 'spirit' of the town all the way till today. Perhaps first document that 'officially' coined Celtic's name was published in Alexandria by the famous Claudius Ptolemy in his master piece 'Geography' (around AD 150) in which he mentioned Ναϊςςός (latin: Naissus) as 'first among four largest towns in Roman Dardania'*.

Kristine Opolais in Dvořák’s 'Rusalka' - The Met Opera***

When I said the town inherited not only the 'fairy tale' name, but also the spirit that it still living in legends and myths, what I really had in mind was one particular spot on the northern hill named 'Metoh' and outskirt of the town where almost entire millennium stands a ruin of an old temple built on that particular spot by one of Byzantine emperors in 11th century. The official name of the temple was 'Holy Trinity Church' but over time it earned prefix 'Rusalija' which pretty much originated from old Serbian folklore, and, no doubts, connects the church with Rusalkas, mythical water nymphs or a female spirits from old pagan Slavic mythology. In some of Slavic languages, Russian included, word 'rusalka' translated to English literally means 'mermaid'. This variation of immortal creatures from the spirit world are completely opposite from the 'Tinkerbell' kind of fairies - instead, they could be very malevolent and dangerous young undead girls who died in or near a river or a lake and spend eternity haunting the waterway. With their long red hair and beautiful appearance and singing, they lure young men into the depths to their death. In Serbian stories even hearing their song results in immediate deafness. They are the most deadly one entire week, 50 days after Easter, which comes in late May or early June every year. As it seems, legends say that they are only afraid by wormwood and garlic, so try to have them with you if you are true believer.

'Holy Trinity Rusalija' - abandoned temple from 11th century

Well, we didn't have any garlic in our pockets last November when we visited the church and I truly hated my curiosity when I read about Rusalkas before we drove there. Sometimes it is extremely wise to read about horror myths after you visit the spot where this malicious fairies live. Firstly, the site was eerie - the church is abandoned and to get to it you have to drive through the old graveyard people seem to visit only once a year, during 'Holy Trinity' week. Secondly, the weather was way to windy and spooky and I had to engage all my driving skills to enter the church yard - the car simply didn't want to enter due to poor quality of the stone entrance and kept rolling backwards. Thirdly, it was almost a sunset, part of the day usually identified with 'twilight hour'. When we finally got inside, my wife refused to get out of the car and in a couple of minutes of intense bravery only Viktor and I went out to take couple of photos. Needless to say, the feeling was truly cheerless and the only bright of the site was the view. The location was perfect and we glimpsed entire city with large orange sun on the horizon and I finally took one of the best sunsets in our collection along with great shots of the little temple itself. Confidentially speaking, if Viktor didn't bring his plastic gun-toy, we would probably stay less time listening that spooky Rusalka's song ... or heavy wind whistles... or whatever it was.. Although, I would be feeling much safer with couple of garlic cloves ... Ahem ...

The sunset from the 'Holy Trinity' church (Metoh hill)

However, besides city and river names, history of this area in BC is not very well documented, archaeologically speaking and even though there are plenty of evidence and finds, before Ptolemy reference, nothing is certain. But the names are always interesting and as they survive millenniums there are many speculations of their origin. Celtic 'Navissos' is no doubt related to fairies, I mean even the word 'fairy' is coined by ancient Gauls, in nowadays France, and the root is in the Old French word 'faerie' which means 'enchantment' or 'under the spell'. However, even before Celtic invasion of Balkans in 3rd century BC, this land was populated with various forms of societies and civilization. It lays on the cross roads between north and south and west and east and as I described in post Constantine & Naissus, it was always under siege or some sort of raid. Due to this geographic misfortune, one tribe never managed to rule this area for, relatively speaking, long period of time. Before Celtic tribe of Scordisci who staid here after Celtics retreated from invasion of Greece, the land was occupied with people of Dardani, who originated either from estranged Illyrian tribe or, how some scholars suggest, directly from ancient city of Dardania, located next to the city of Troy, as described in Homer's Illiad, who moved to the Balkans millenniums before AD. Even before Dardani's rule, at some point in 4th century this area was raid and occupied with Triballi tribes and if you add Greeks and Romans and constant threats from Gothics and Huns from the north and far east you'd get the picture of how unwise was to settle around here in ancient times. Anyhow, the point is that almost everybody managed to spend some time here and to contribute a little in those violent times. Or to be precise, to contribute in everything but changing the original name that staid the same from the very beginning.

Niš downtown by the old fortress and Nišava river

So lets try to summarize the names from all those conquerors over time: Navissos, Ναϊσσός, Naissus, Nais, Niş, Niš, all of them related to fairies in different languages. Perhaps the most interesting connection with the name is during Greek ruling, especially from the golden prosperity times of Macedonian expansion in some point of centuries before Christ. In Greek mythology exists famous mountain of Nysa, which was the traditional place where the rain nymphs (Hyades), raised the semi-god Dionysus, who was one of those bad guys from the Olympus - the god of wine, ritual madness and religious ecstasy and to quote Wikipedia, Dionysus represents everything which is chaotic, dangerous and unexpected, everything which escapes human reason and which can only be attributed to the unforeseeable action of the gods. I guess, there is no need to add that one hypotheses of the location of Nysa (which is still unknown if it's not made up) is within ancient Tribalia or .. pretty much .. this neighborhood again. Tribalia and triballian tribes were located entirely in nowadays Eastern Serbia which borders with Niš valley and it's northern-eastern mountains. By the myth, and just like their half-sisters, sea-nymphs Pleiades, rain-nymphs Hyades were transformed into a cluster of stars that was afterwards associated with rain. So if you look up in a bright starry night and see The Hyades in the constellation of ‎Taurus, which is the nearest open star cluster to the Solar System, remember that their five brightest stars might have been living just around within my north neighboring mountains in their ... fairy existence.

Ivan Kramskoi, Русалки (Rusalki), 1871

Of course, Greek mythology doesn't end this story about origin of the name of my birth town with fairies. Even in the Scandinavian mythology there is a 'Nis', dwarfed male fairy in Danish Jutland (Nisse god-dreng - Nisse good lad**) who offers his help to run household and help people if, of course he is pleased by treat (groute) every evening. In the end, I am sure that Niš, or old Naissus, if you will, is one of the rarest cities on the planet with real fairy-tale in it's name origin and I would really like to see a tribute to fairies, even to the evil Rusalkas in form of some sort of street art or museum or something that could show modest traveler, tourist or web surfer not only the history of one town's name but also a hint of how once our ancestors pictured spirit world and their interaction with people. If this happens anytime in the future, this post will definitely get it's sequel with hopefully great photos and more stories.

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