The following legend described is most popularly told in Austria, although its origin is Slavic. It is the legend of the spectral dancers, known by the name of the Wilis. The Wilis are the spirits of young women who died before they could marry. These pitiful young creatures cannot rest in their graves, for their dead hearts, their dead feet continue to yearn for the joys they could not satisfy in life, and at midnight they swarm the main roads together. Beware any young man who puts himself in their sights! They throw themselves at him in a chaotic frenzy, and he becomes compelled to dance with them until he dies of exhaustion.
The Willis are often seen wearing their wedding dresses, their hair adorned with flowers and ribbons, their hands adorned with sparkling rings. They dance in the moonlight, similar to elves. Although their faces have a fair and youthful beauty, their laughter is edged with perverse joy, so dangerous and desirous, yet so enchanting that these undead Bacchantes cannot be refused.
When people look upon young brides who have passed on, they can never be convinced that such innocence and beauty could perish completely, and so created the belief that these brides go on to seek the joy owed to them even beyond the grave.
Heinrich Heine, “Elemental Spirits”
The above passage (well, a better translation of the above passage than I could do from Babelfish) inspired the 1841 ballet Giselle, ou La Wilis.
I would be remiss not to highlight the sexism of this legend, as vilifying or fetishizing young women’s sexual and romantic desires for men, and coasting on this cultural presumption that a lady’s main goal in life is marriage, to a man, heterosexually.
Still, I like Heine’s interpretation of it as simple empathy: Dearly departed should have had the life that she wanted. It just isn’t fair that hopeful people die young.
Why would this projected yearning manifest as a supernatural hazard to society, though? How does that even happen? I think the fantasy becomes a horror because it’s the nature of grief to figuratively tear people apart. Perhaps when societal conditioning forbids the grieving process in the men left behind, in particular, it takes the external form of a legend such as this. Grief doesn’t react well to gloss. The ink of its shadow will inevitably bleed through.
This legend could even have subversive elements in that it’s the men that are objectified (and overpowered.) It doesn’t matter which man it is. Then again… in the context of a gender-based power imbalance in society, this could be setting up the everyman to be identified with while vilifying the significance granted to women’s desires, othering and marginalizing women in the legend: it doesn’t matter which wila it is, either.
Or does it?
The plot of the ballet Giselle follows: Giselle is an ordinary village girl with a delicate health condition. She has two suitors, one being an ordinary village boy by the name of Hilarion, and the other being Duke Albrecht of Silesia disguised as an ordinary village boy.
Duke Albrecht is betrothed to Princess Bathilde, but he’s fallen in love with Giselle, but he hasn’t decided to break off his engagement, but he hasn’t decided to quit lying to Giselle as he flirts with her. What a cad.
Hilarion cultivates some enmity for Albrecht. Hilarion tries to warn Giselle that Albrecht is not being totally honest, but as Hilarion would have motivation to not be totally honest about Albrecht, of course Giselle ignores Hilarion’s warnings. Giselle’s mother, Berthe, is so concerned for her daughter’s health that she doesn’t want any love triangle drama, but what can a mother do?
Once that’s been established, who should come riding into town but Princess Bathilde herself! The princess had joined a hunting party with other nobles and they are all just looking for rest and refreshments. Princess Bathilde makes an acquaintance with Giselle that escalates quickly into friendship, and the princess gifts the village girl with a royal necklace.
Albrecht tries to hide from his fiancee and his girlfriend, but Hilarion seizes the opportunity to reveal his rival for the caddish lying cad that he is.
Giselle literally dies of a broken heart.
In the second act of the ballet, Hilarion and Albrecht visit Giselle’s grave, one at a time, to pay their respective respects. Unfortunately, the Wilis have begun swarming, led by their queen, Myrtha. They recruit Giselle into the swarm and begin attacking Hilarion and Albrecht.
Hilarion dies, which I don’t consider particularly justified even though he was pulling some “Nice Guy” manipulative tricks that so happened to kill Giselle because he respected neither Giselle’s decision-making nor Berthe’s cautions about Giselle’s health condition… okay, maybe he should die, if only to serve as evidence that Queen Myrtha is hard at the core.
Giselle, even as one of the Wilis, pleas for the life of Albrecht. When Queen Myrtha refuses to relent, Giselle uses the power of her love to free her beloved Albrecht of the dancing curse and break her own curse of being one of the Wilis.
Giselle’s power comes from a soul-deep wisdom, the secret of forgiveness. This, to me, can only be demonstrated rather than explained because right now I’m just a lot more interested in Queen Myrtha.
I see Queen Myrtha as the force that pulls in order to right itself, to right the balancing scales of justice. How many more of these innocents must become Wilis, must die, while these liars and manipulators live on to “learn” and “grow” and “try”? The harm done to others on anyone’s life journey is a privilege that the Queen is ever ready to revoke. Giselle died; a life for a life is only fair, and when the measure is balanced and the principle remains violated because “striking a balance” and “making amends” are two very different and necessary notions, Queen Myrtha’s ire turns to Albrecht.
In the folklore, any man can be victimized. In the ballet, only the men who had harmed Giselle were put through this supernatural trial. This individuation makes for a powerful story. It would be too easy to dismiss Queen Myrtha’s relentlessness as mere misandry: The Queen can’t possibly be doing this for Giselle’s sake, it stands to reason as Giselle herself does not want this “make Albrecht dead” thing to be done. You can’t do something “for” (someone)’s “sake” if it is the thing that the person does not want you to do. Myrtha is not Berthe.
Rather than a straw (or mist) misandrist, Queen Myrtha can be one aspect of an entire alchemical process made into a story. At least, I don’t see her as just the villain; the way this story goes, she is justified, she is Justice; she is not to be reckoned with because she is the reckoning.
So, I’d like to think that we all get into Myrtha Mode; and I must recognize that we all have the potential to make disastrous mistakes and sustain bad character as Albrecht and Hilarion have, or be as knowledgeable yet powerless as Berthe; mercifully, we all have a little Giselle potential in us too. Ideally, Giselle’s forgiveness would be empowering, not enabling; it would come from authenticity, virtue, and goodness, not from mere niceness. That is why it sets both Albrecht and herself free.
Now if only there were more of huntress Princess Bathilde both in this story, and in the world, and in our psyches, because I think she was awesome.