Douglas has a passion for the mysterious and loves to share it.
Europe is an ancient place. Its history has many layers that have all left their mark on the land. Tales and legends have organically accumulated throughout the ages. And some places have acquired eerie and mysterious reputations.
Forests are among such places. Already in the middle ages, they were the favored stage for encounters with the atypical and cathartic life lessons. In both knightly tales and fairy tales, they represented the possibility of danger, as well as revelation and magic. It is no wonder that hermits often retreated into them, away from society, seeking suffering, but also the possibility of spiritual enlightenment.
Nowadays, Europe is more secular and urbanized. Many old forests have gone, like much of their mystery. But there are still some grand old woods that have stood the test of time, and that have managed to hold on to a sense of their possibility for wonder. Here are five European forests associated with myth and legend that can still be visited today.
The ancient forest of Brocéliande, famous from Arthurian legend, is, in the tales, located in little Brittany, also called the region of Bretagne in France. Once a big forest that spanned the whole of the Brittany peninsula, it still survives in pockets like the forest of Paimpont.
Legend is alive in Paimpont. There are many spots and sights that refer to legendary characters and mystical powers. For instance, Merlin’s tomb, the Vale of No Return, Ponthus’ beech and the House of Viviane, who’s also known as "The Lady of the Lake." Furthermore, there are imagination-stimulating castles, abbeys and forges throughout Paimpont that only add to an overall sense of strangeness with their own tales. For example, the Chateau de Trécesson. Associated with this castle is a gothic legend of a young bride murdered by her brothers for a crime of honor. Did she actually exist and what was her mysterious crime? Many still speculate about it to this day.
Ardennes (Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Germany)
The great forest of the Ardennes spans four countries (Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Germany) and is sparsely populated, though it is situated in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas of Europe, the triangle between Paris, Brussels and Cologne. Throughout history, it has been characterized as a dark, inhospitable place, a playground for uncouth creatures like white women, witches, gnomes and fairies. Even Petrarca, inventor of the sonnet form in poetry, used it in contrast with the strength and light of his love:
Amid the wild wood's lone and difficult ways,
Where travel at great risk e'en men in arms,
I pass secure--for only me alarms
That sun, which darts of living love the rays--
Singing fond thoughts in simple lays to her
Whom time and space so little hide from me;
E'en here her form, nor hers alone, I see,
But maids and matrons in each beech and fir:
Methinks I hear her when the bird's soft moan,
The sighing leaves I hear, or through the dell
Where its bright lapse some murmuring rill pursues.
Rarely of shadowing wood the silence lone,
The solitary horror pleased so well,
Except that of my sun too much I lose.
(Sonnet CXLIII, translation by Robert Guthrie Macgregor)
Its silent presence can be noted in tales from far in the past to stories from our recent history. It is one of the only forests in Europe of which an associated Celtic deity is known, more specifically the goddess Arduinna, huntress and protectress of wild boars. It plays the backdrop to a story of Christian revelation in the tale of Saint-Hubertus, hunter-saint, from whose legend the iconic image of the stag with the shining cross in between the antlers originates. And, more recently, it had been the stage for three battles of the World Wars: the Battle of the Ardennes, the Battle of France and the Battle of the Bulge.
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Another legendary eerie wood in Europe is the Odenwald. The Odenwald is a forested low mountain range in Germany and is the setting for many a folkloric tale. The most important story associated with the Odenwald is undoubtedly the Nibelungenlied, a large medieval saga about the hero Siegfried that was later reimagined by Richard Wagner in his most famous operatic cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungs. But there are many other tales as well that take the Odenwald as their setting, like the Rodenstein ghost story or the legends surrounding alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel and the Castle of Frankenstein, which very likely inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
In general, the Odenwald is thought by many to have always been a hotspot for pagan activity. Associations with witches, wild men and women and the devil are common. Nature spirits are also prevalent in the lore of the Odenwald, among which the most interesting might be the Lindwurm. The Lindwurm was a dragon-like creature that lived in the forest near Castle Frankenstein and terrorized villagers until it was killed by a brave knight.
The Forest of Dean (England)
One of the few surviving ancient woodlands of England, the Forest of Dean, has accumulated its own share of legends and mystery. Many mysterious creatures are said to live in the forest, among which the most popular is without a doubt the Beast of Dean, an abnormally sized boar able to destroy hedges, sighted at a time when boar were allegedly extinct in the region. Nobody has ever been able to capture it.
Another notable story associated with the Forest of Dean is the finding of a tablet in an ancient Roman temple ruin in the area, on which was written a curse relating to a lost ring: “Amongst all who bear the name of Senicianus, refuse thou to grant health to exist, until he bring back the ring to the Temple of Nodens." Remarkably, the ring referred to in the curse was later found and given a place in the Vyne Museum. According to theories, this story might have inspired Tolkien into writing The Lord of the Rings.
Other authors have also found inspiration in the grand forest of Dean. J. K. Rowling, for instance, grew up there and used it as a location in her Harry Potter series. Scholars have even pointed out the existence of a distinct Forest of Dean literature. What is certain is that the forest keeps providing mystery for further exploration.
The last mysterious woodland on this list is Pokaini forest, located near the small town of Dobele in Latvia. It earns a spot because of its strange accumulations of rocks around which many speculations circulate. Removing these rocks from the forest is considered bad luck, but at the same time, there are theories that ascribe healing power to them. Researchers speculate that they were once brought to the area for burial sites or as the foundation for a castle that was never built. Others say that pilgrims brought them to the forest and cast them off there as symbols of sins that they had overcome.
Aside from the mystery of the Pokaini forest rocks, the area is also notorious for its unexplainable supernatural activity. Watches and small equipment malfunction in the area and people have said that they were able to communicate with one another in the forest while being great distances apart. Moreover, the temperature recorded in the forest is reportedly higher than in its surroundings, especially when one approaches a certain pine tree. Other tales speak of a mysterious hidden object and strange lights as well as portals to parallel worlds. Many have been drawn to the forest and its high amount of strangeness, but nobody has yet been able to provide any decisive conclusions.
© 2021 Douglas Redant
Douglas Redant (author) from Europe on May 11, 2021:
Thank you for your kind comment, Linda.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 10, 2021:
Thank you for creating a very interesting article. I enjoyed reading about the forests and their mysteries.