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The voracious ala

An ala or hala (plural: ale or hali) is a demon of bad weather recorded in the folklore of Bulgarians, Macedonians, and Serbs.


Etymology

The name may instead stem from the Greek word for hail, χάλαζα (pronounced /'xalaza/; transliterated chalaza). According to Serbian scholar Marta Bjeletic, ala and hala stem from the noun *xala in Proto-South-Slavic, the dialect of Proto-Slavic from which South Slavic languages emerged (x in xala represents the voiceless velar fricative). That noun was derived from the Proto-Slavic root *xal-, denoting the fury of the elements.


Origin

The pre-Slavic Balkan source of the ala is related to the vlva, female demons of bad weather of the Vlachs of Serbia, who, like ale, led hail clouds over crops to ruin them, and uprooted trees. A Greek female demon Lamia might also have contributed in the development of the ala. Just like ale, she eats children, and is called gluttonous. In southern Serbia and Macedonia, lamnja, a word derived from lamia, is also a synonym for ala.


Description

The appearance of ale is quite diversely and often vaguely described in folkloric sources. A given ala may look like a black wind, a gigantic creature of indistinct form, a huge-mouthed, humanlike, or snakelike monster, a female dragon, a raven, etc. By certain descriptions, ale can in fact assume various human or animal shapes, and can even possess a person’s body. This diversity is probably because the ala is a synthesis of several different beliefs.

It was believed in the Gruža region of central Serbia that the ala is invisible, but that she can be heard — her powerful hissing resonated in front of the dark hail clouds.

In Bulgaria, the ala was seen either as a "bull with huge horns, a black cloud, dark fog or a snake-like monster with six wings and twelve tails". In Bulgarian tradition, thunderstorms and hail clouds were interpreted as a battle between the good dragon or eagle and the evil ala.

Serbs in Kosovo believed that the ala lowers her tail to the ground and hides her head in the clouds. Anyone who saw her head became instantly insane. In a high relief carved above a window of the Visoki Decani monastery’s church, an eagle clutches a snakelike ala while an eaglet looks on. According to a description from eastern Serbia, the ala is a very large creature with a snake’s body and a horse’s head. A very common opinion is that the ala is the sister of the dragon, and looks more or less like him. In a spell from eastern Serbia, the ala is described as a three-headed snake.

By a description recorded in the Boljevac region, the ala is a black and horrible creature in the form of wind. Similarly, in the Homolje region of eastern Serbia, the people imagine the ala as a black wind moving over the land. Wherever she goes, a whirlwind blows, turning like a drill, and those who get exposed to the whirlwind go mad.

A belief from the Leskovac region states the ala is a monster with an enormous mouth who holds in her hand a big wooden spoon, with which she grabs and devours everything that gets in her way. One story has it that a man kept such an ala in his barn; she drank thirty liters of milk every day. Another warns that ale in the form of twelve ravens used to take the crops from vineyards.

In folk tales with a humanlike ala, her personality is strikingly similar to that of the Russian Baba Yaga.


Place

The ala is thought to inhabit remote mountain areas or caves, in which she keeps bad weather. Ale are also said to live in the clouds, or in a lake, spring, or gigantic tree.


Powers

In eastern Serbia it was believed that ale who interact with people can metamorphose into humans or animals, after which their true selves can be seen only by so-called šestaci – men with six fingers on both hands and six toes on both feet – though human-looking ale cause houses to shake when they enter.

By a belief recorded in the Homolje region, ale that charge to the Moon also display shapeshifting abilities: they repeatedly shift from their basic shape of two-headed snakes to six-fingered men who hold iron pitchforks, black young bulls, big boars, or black wolves, and back. A tradition has it that an ala sneaked into St. Simeon, which made him voracious, but St. Sava took her out of him. In a tale recorded in eastern Serbia and Bulgaria, a farmer killed an ala who possessed a skinny man living in a distant village, because the ala destroyed his vineyard. In another story, an ala gets into a deceased princess and devours the soldiers on watch.

In folk spells of eastern Serbia, a particular ala could be addressed by a female personal name: Smiljana, Kalina, Magdalena, Dobrica, Dragija, Zagorka, etc. An expression for addressing an ala – Maate paletinke – is of uncertain meaning.


Behavior

Ale primarily destroy crops in fields, vineyards, and orchards by leading hail storm clouds overhead, usually during the first half of the summer when grain crops ripen. Ale are also believed to “drink the crops”, or seize the crops of a village and transport them to another place in their huge ears, thereby making some villages poor, and others rich. This was held as the reason why the Aleksandrovac region in central Serbia was so fruitful: it was where ale transported their loot. The people of Kopaonik mountain believed the local ala defended the crops of the area where she lived from other ale. If hail destroyed the crops, it was thought that an ala from another area had defeated the local ala and “drunk the crops”. Ale can also spread themselves over fields and thwart the ripening of the crops, or worse, consume the field’s fertility, and drink the milk from sheep, especially when it thunders. Ale also possess great strength; when a storm uprooted trees, the people believed that an ala had done it.

According to a widely spread tradition, ale used to seize children and devour them in her dwelling, which was full of children’s bones and spilt blood. Less often, they attacked and ate adults; they were able to find a hidden human by smell.

People in eastern and southern Serbia believed that ale, in their voracity, attacked the Sun and the Moon. They gradually ate more and more of those celestial bodies, thereby causing an eclipse.

When people encounter an ala, their mental or physical health, or even life, are in peril; in eastern Serbia there is a special term for such a man: alosan. When people encountered an ala on a road or field, they could get dangerous diseases from her. However, her favor can be gained by approaching her with respect and trust. Being in a good relationship with an ala is very beneficial: she makes her favorites rich and saves their lives in times of trouble.

Traversing a crossroads at night was considered dangerous because it was the place and time of the ala’s supper; the unfortunate person who stepped on an “ala’s table” could become blind, deaf, or lame. Ale gather at night on the eves of greater holidays, divert men from their ways into gullies, and torture them there by riding them like horses.


Enemies

Ale have several adversaries, including dragons, zmajeviti (dragon-like) men, eagles, St. Elijah, and St. Sava. The principal enemy of the ala is the dragon; he is able to defeat her and eliminate her harmful effects. Dragons are thus seen as guardians of the fields and harvest, and as protectors against bad weather. When an ala threatens by bringing hail clouds, a dragon comes out to fight with her and drive her away. His main weapon is lightning; thunder represents a fight between ale and dragons (during which ale hide in tall trees). An instance of a more abundant crop at a particular point is explained in the Pcinja region as a result of a dragon having struck an ala with lightning just over that place, making her drop the looted grains she had been carrying in her huge ears. If an ala finds a dragon in a hollow tree, however, she can destroy him by burning the tree.

An eagle’s appearance in the sky when thunderclouds threatened was greeted with joy and hope by people who trusted in their power to defeat an ala; after defeating the ala, the eagle led the clouds away from the fields. An explanation for this, recorded in eastern Serbia, is that the eagles which nest in the vicinity of a village want thunderstorms and hail as far as possible from their nestlings, so coincidentally protect the village’s fields as well. The role of eagles, however, was controversial, because in the same region there was a belief that an eagle flying in front of thunderstorm clouds was a manifestation of an ala, leading the clouds toward the crops, rather than driving them away.


References

  • Bandić, Dušan (2004). Народна религија Срба у 100 појмова (2 ed.). Belgrade: Nolit. ISBN 86-19-02328-4 (Serbian)
  • Kulišić, Špiro; Petrović, Petar Ž.; Pantelić, Nikola (1970). Српски митолошки речник. Belgrade: Nolit (Serbian)
  • Radenković, Ljubinko. "Митска бића српског народа: (Х)АЛА". http://www.rastko.org.rs/antropologija/ljradenkovic/ljradenkovic-ala_c.html. Retrieved 2007-06-21 . First appeared in the academic journal Liceum, issue no. 2 (1996, Kragujevac, Serbia), pages 11–16; the online version published by Project Rastko. (Serbian)
  • Zečević, Slobodan (1981). Митска бића српских предања. Belgrade: "Vuk Karadžić" : Etnografski muzej (Serbian)