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Elements of Slavic Folklore
The mysterious forests of Eastern Europe have inspired tales of terrifying monsters, tormented souls, and mischievous spirits. This was a land that endured dark and cold winters, and we see that reflected in the mythology created by its inhabitants.
But we also see a respect for the natural world, which hid many dangers while also bestowing many blessings. Anyone who desecrated nature here would suffer the consequences.
Vengeance is another strong theme running throughout Slavic folklore. The people of these lands knew well that injustice in the world deserved to be punished but often wasn't.
And, of course, religion was an influential factor, as many tales emphasise the importance of observing sacred rituals.
Here are 7 creatures of Slavic folklore; some benign, some malevolent, and some that will tolerate the presence of humans so long as they behave themselves.
7 Creatures From Slavic Folklore
- Baba Yaga
- The Rusalka
- The Leshy
- The Alkonost
- The Bannik
- The Vodyanoy
- The Vampire
1. Baba Yaga
This monstrous old hag is an iconic creation of Slavic folklore, as is the chicken-legged hut she dwells in, surrounded by a fence topped with impaled human skulls. She has been depicted riding the sky in a flying mortar and pestle, the very mortar and pestle she uses to grind the bones of her victims (usually children) before she cooks and eats them.
In the story, Baba Yaga’s Black Geese, two siblings named Olga and Sergei are warned by their mother not to venture outside while the black geese are flying, as the geese are agents of Baba Yaga sent to kidnap children. The two troublemakers ignore their mother’s warning and venture out into the forest. Sergei is snatched by the geese and brought to Baba Yaga’s hut to be eaten. Thankfully, Olga is able to rescue him with magical assistance.
Baba Yaga doesn’t always feature as an antagonist. In some stories, she is a trickster or even a reluctant helper. In Vasilisa the Beautiful, Vasilisa seeks Baba Yaga’s aid in dealing with a tyrannical stepmother. The witch asks Vasilisa to perform several tasks for her and, in exchange, provides a skull containing a fire that our heroine uses to burn her stepmother to ashes.
In many tales, Baba Yaga is depicted as a guardian of the underworld, whose hut lies on the boundary between the land of the living and the realm of the dead.
2. The Rusalka
A seemingly harmless water nymph with murderous intentions, the rusalka lures young men into the water and drowns them.
But she is not a mindless killer, and there is a tragic element to the character. Rusalki were believed to be the souls of women who had been drowned by men (in many cases, their lovers). A rusalka could be released from the curse if her death was avenged.
In the 1993 adventure game Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness, the player-character encounters a rusalka and helps free her from her eternal undeath by completing a sequence of tasks:
- To learn her real name and remind her of who she was in life.
- To find and confront the spirit of the man who murdered her.
- To kiss her, demonstrating the compassion that her lover denied her in life.
3. The Leshy
The leshy is a woodland spirit that takes the form of a giant with tangled green hair and bark-like skin. He guards the forest, unleashing his rage upon any who defile it.
The leshy is rarely spotted by humans, although the sound of him whistling or laughing can be heard. He is happy to leave people alone unless they anger him, and the bond between him and the land is so strong that he feels pain when a tree is cut down. In some stories, he plays a benevolent role, taking care of lost children or bestowing gifts on people who care for the forest.
The leshy is depicted somewhat differently in the role-playing game The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, where he appears as an antagonist and takes the form of a living tree with antlers.
4. The Alkonost
A benign version of the siren from Greek mythology, the Alkonost possesses the body of a bird and the head of a woman. Her beautiful song brings joy to any who hears it, unlike her counterpart, the Sirin (Slavic version of the siren), whose song lures people to their deaths.
The Alkonost dwells in the underworld but enters the world of the living to lay eggs on the beach, which she then rolls into the sea. The hatching of these eggs brings about raging thunderstorms that have been the death of many a sailor.
It's said that on Apple Feast of the Saviour day (the Slavic name for the Feast of the Transfiguration), the crying of the Sirin can be heard in apple orchards in the morning but is replaced by the joyous laughter of the Alkonost by evening.
5. The Bannik
The banya (Russian sauna) was highly valued in Eastern Europe, such that it was said to be inhabited by a spirit known as the Bannik. This creature takes the form of a gnome with a long beard and lives behind the stove or the benches where people sit. He ensures that proper bathhouse etiquette is observed.
He mostly keeps to himself but will attack with sharp claws or even burn the structure down if angered, and he has a particular dislike for drunkards who disrupt the peace of the bathhouse. On the upside, Bannik has the ability to tell the future and will bestow the gift of foresight on those who earn it.
It's said that you should never approach the banya more than three times, as the fourth steaming is reserved for the Bannik.
6. The Vodyanoy
A malevolent water-dwelling spirit that enjoys dragging people into the river and drowning them. The Vodyanoy emerges from the souls of wicked people who are denied entry to heaven.
It dwells beneath the water by day but at night may be seen on the river's shores. Anyone who approaches the water's edge after dark risks being dragged into the icy cold waters. Victims of the Vodyanoy could end up serving the demon in death, as was the case with the farmer's son Ivan, whose ghost still tills the riverbeds at the behest of the Vodyanoy.
Bathing on a holy day also draws the attention of the Vodyanoy. Wearing a crucifix and making the sign of the cross before approaching a body of water could bestow some degree of protection.
Damage to riverside buildings, such as water mills or dams, is believed to be the work of the Vodyanoy, who hates humanity and all its works.
7. The Vampire
It's believed that vampires originated in Slavic folklore, although they took a very different form from the reclusive aristocrats and sophisticated socialites so familiar to modern audiences.
The wampierz (Polish) or vampir (Serbo-Croat) of Slavic Folklore were vicious demons, roaming the forests at night and hunting their prey like animals. Unlike Count Dracula, they did not seductively drink the blood of their prey but rather ripped their throats out and mutilated their bodies.
Nor were they created through the will of higher vampires, but rather by an unnatural death (such as suicide) or by sacrilegious acts, such as leaping over a grave or performing incorrect burial procedures. An individual who had been excommunicated might rise from death as a vampire.
One thing these early vampires have in common with those of today is that the primary method of destroying them was a stake through the heart or head.
Of course, the bestial vampire of Slavic folklore would evolve to become one of the most iconic contributions made by any mythology to popular culture.
Further Info on the Bannik
Joshua J. Mark. 2021, 7 October. Baba Yaga. https://www.worldhistory.org/Baba_Yaga/
Kaleb Horton. 202, 28 October. The Proud, Demanding Vodyanoy Rules Russia’s Rivers and Lakes. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/monster-mythology-vodyanoy
Mikołaj Gliński. 2015, 30 July. Polish Vampires: Bloody Truth behind Dark Myth. https://culture.pl/en/article/polish-vampires-bloody-truth-behind-dark-myth
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.