Leshy

Course #1 / Mythological Creatures

The Leshy Painting by Angus McBride

One of the most popular creatures in Slavic mythology; stories about leshy have been carried throughout centuries around the various countries in Eastern Europe. Here is a closer look at this Slavic folk tale figure.

Appearance & character

Leshy has a very complex character and it might actually be one of the most diversely described mythological creatures. It literally has an immeasurable amount of its portrayals since the 17th century when leshy was first mentioned in the literary works. A large number of the allegedly true human encounter with leshy descriptions and different regions where the Slavic mythology was apparent can explain such diversity.

Roots of leshy come from the old beliefs that he is a creature that came from the people, who got cursed. In addition, there are versions based on Christian beliefs that these creatures come directly from the evil – them being fallen angels or creations of the Devil.

Visual characteristics of leshy vary. He is directly associated and often personified with forest – as its guardian or even a king. Therefore, leshy can appear as an element of the forest or not appear at all and be invisible to the human’s eye spirit. He can change himself into an animal, a tree or a mushroom, as well as be a mix of a human and animal or plant. His size varies from a tiny old man to a tall and strong giant. Some tales describe his ability to change the height and create an illusion. When he is wandering in the forest, leshy can look gigantic, but on an empty field, he can shrink to the size of grass to make himself unnoticed. It is also possible that no one sees him as leshy wonders through the forest like a wind, making different noises and confusing the visitors of the forest.

His character is described as a polarizing one. Since Leshy is a protector of the forest, he needs to take care of its inhabitants. He looks after animals, protects them from the hunters and the forest – from the fire. Folk tales often describe him as an old bearded man, who interestingly can give up his animals by losing them in the card games to other leshy’s. That is why a festive and fun-loving spirit is also one of his attributes. He might live alone in a cave or a small forest hut and it is possible that leshy has a wife and children.

Relationship with humans

Since the life of a peasant was always closely related to a forest, folk tales have many stories that involve leshy. Forest fed peasant and his family, but it was never under his control. That is why the forest always was surrounded by a touch of mysticism. To avoid problems with leshy, humans had to show respect to him. Examples include; before entering the forest, ask for permission, or do not cut trees or hunt without permission of leshy. In addition, it was not a good idea to be noisy or whistle in a forest. Such disrespect could lead to serious problems – leshy could scare the poor human being, sent bad luck to him or even kill in the worst case. It was also dangerous to enter the forest if before that its relative cursed a person that enters it. Leshy believed that a person who is cursed belongs to him.

Shepherds had the opportunity to make a deal with leshy to get the protection of its animals. After shepherd agreed to an invisible contract, leshy took care of his herd and grazed them. However, there was a bunch of rules to be fulfilled, like staying away out of the forest or doing any harm to other animals or plants, as well as seeing newborns or deceased ones. Leshy could take away all herd from the shepherd and hide the animals in the forest, so nobody can ever find them. Careless attitude always led to troubles and punishments.

Leshy and blud

Some folk tales describe a direct connection between leshy and blud – an evil deity from the Slavic mythology that tried to do harm to humans by causing an astray and make them wander around well-known places without finding the way out. It is believed that leshy can falsify the usual signs on the path or appear himself as a person to guide the wanderer the wrong way and then simply vanish away and leave the person in confusion.

There are also stories when leshy tempts and kidnaps those lost people. Motives could be different. He could take away to the forest people, who were cursed by their relatives, in particular, by parents. Sometimes the motive was to kidnap a young girl and marry her. Then he would treat her good and take care of his wife. In some cases, the situation was the opposite – leshy could turn a human into his personal slave. However, there was a way out for the kidnapped ones, such as Christian (cross sign, a prayer) and paganism customs or various gifts to leshy – pies, cereals or a piece of lard.

After a human returned from leshy, it was believed that he was a different person that had problems to find himself in the community. Mental state changed, human acted unusually and had to learn how to speak again. He was kind of an anti-social being that felt tempted of the thought of returning to the forest. Encounters with leshy also led to obtaining some magical abilities, such as foresee the future or communicate with spirits.

Leshy in the literary works

The image of leshy has been popular in literary works. Famous writers, like Alexander Pushkin, Nikolay Nekrasov, Aleksey Remizov and others have mentions of leshy in their stories and poems. The influence of the folklore on the literary works is remarkable; however, some writers added their own vision and characteristics of leshy that does not always fit the ones described in the folk tales. For example, in Vladimir Nabokov’s story «The Wood-Sprite» (1921), leshy even has to emigrate from Russia and this decision haunts him. Leshy cannot live outside his homeland, it makes him sorrowful and eventually, he dies.

It is also worth to mention that leshy has been used as a character for paintings; it is widely portrayed in theatre, opera, and cinematic works. Some of them convert the mythological creature into a modern day character. Iconic Soviet singer and poet Vladimir Vysotsky completely changed the image and characteristics of leshy in his song «Lukomorye» (1967). It is a reference to Pushkin’s Lukomorye, but Vysotsky describes leshy entirely differently – like an alcoholic that spends all his money on drinking and is abusive against his wife.

Sources | Сергей Максимов. Нечистая, неведомая и крестная сила (1903) | Людмила Виноградова. Народная демонология и мифо-ритуальная традиция славян (2000) | Никита Ильич Толстой. Славянские древности: Этнолингвистический словарь (2004) | Марина Власова. Энциклопедия русских суеверий (2008) | Александр Герцик. Литературные реминисценции и аллюзии в авторских песнях В. Высоцкого (2013)

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