Ala is a mythical creature that became a part of the Southern Slav tradition under the influence of Turkey and Greece. It is believed however that, even before these cultures made an impact on the mythology of the Southern Slavs, there was in it a creature that possessed the characteristics of Ala. There is a strong connection between Alas and other creatures, especially the roles of these creatures and the role of Ala, that probably is not the consequence of the impact made by other cultures, but was present even before that, and only the creature’s name was changed afterwards. Ala was known only in the areas influenced by the Greeks and the Turks, therefore only to the Southern Slavs, and not to all of them either.
Ala stands for a demon of stormy weather. It brought hail, thus destroying the crops, and was consequently hated among the people. It was opposed by the dragon. The dragon was a good demon that chased Ala away from the place it lived and protected the crops. According to some beliefs, Ala could also be driven away by a “Vetrovnjak”, “Zduhac”, or a “Dragon man”. It was believed that Ala brought storms that uprooted trees. Actually, Ala was considered to have rooted up the trees itself. Ala was believed to be strong. There is a common comparison – “as strong as Ala” – that is used for extremely strong people. Ala could bewitch a man, and such a man was referred to as “Ala-possessed”.
In Serbian tales, the form Ala takes is not specifically defined and it varies from one geographical area to another. In Gruza for example, people believed that Ala was an invisible being that lived in the air, whirlpools and lakes. It could only be heard - storm sounds announced its coming. If it was heard, the clouds were shot at in order to kill Ala. In areas around Leskovac Ala was believed to have a horse’s head and a serpent’s body. It was thought to be quite big, hiding its head in the clouds and uprooting the trees with its tail. People believed that a man who saw its head would go mad. There was a perception of Ala as a monster with a big mouth holding a spoon it eats with in its hand. For that reason people who ate excessively were called “Alas”. Also, in some parts of Serbia people thought that an eagle that could be seen before the storm was in fact an Ala heading the storm clouds. There was another belief which said that the eagle is a friend of men, fighting Ala and drawing the storm clouds away from its region. Therefore in some parts of Serbia people were encouraged by the sight of an eagle because they thought it would defend their lands from hail and other unwelcome precipitation. In eastern Serbia the eagle was thought to be fighting with Ala and leading rain and storm clouds away from its lands to protect its nestlings from the storm. It was therefore thought that those areas where eagle built its nest would be dry. In Macedonia and Skopje Montenegro a mythical creature with Ala’s characteristics was called “Adzer” or “Lamnja” and it was believed to be a woman who drank grain or grapes in bloom. It was also chased by the dragons, but then it was the most dangerous and could hide in the grain. Upon conversion to Christianity St. Elias took over the role of Ala fighter and killer. In Bulgaria this creature was called “Hala”, and was imagined as a thick black cloud from whose tail hail came down. Bulgarians also knew of a similar creature called “Lamja” that was pictured as a woman with sharp nails, having a dog’s head with sharp teeth, her body covered in yellow scales.
Other Slavic tribes had another demon of stormy weather – Baba Jaga, who was pictured as a woman of huge physical stature, with a big nose and a protruding chin. She was thought to be eating children and her presence brought storms and cold weather. She was supposed to be living in the forest, in a house standing on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence made of human bones and skulls. It is probable that, when it comes to the Southern Slavs, this demon merged with a foreign one. The fact that “Lamja” or “Lamnja” was considered to be a woman supports this claim.
The term “ala” itself is of Greek origin and its primary meaning was “hail”. “Lamnja” also comes from the Greek language. In Greek mythology Lamia was not a stormy weather demon, but Zeus’s lover with whom he had several children, but jealous Hera killed them all. For that reason Lamia destroys other people’s children, and people added the attribute “gluttonous” to her name. This attribute was used to refer to Ala as well. Ala was also called “the insatiable”.
In some areas two names denoting this creature were conjoined. Thus “Ala” combined with “Lemnja” gave “Alamunja”. She stood for a strong wind that carried off hay and sheaves, and bent trees to the ground. She was a creature possessing extraordinary physical strength, so a proverbial comparison used to describe a hard-working man was – “He toils like Alamunja”.
by Nikola Milosevic
translation by Snježana Todorović