Leshy: The Slavic Lord of the Forest | Monstrum

Forests tend to be naturally spooky places. They are dense with trees letting in little
light, and offering plenty of spots for predatory animals to hide while stalking their prey—prey
that sometimes include humans. But life also thrives there. For the Slavic people, there’s one spirit
that rules it all, a lord of the woods—the Leshy. The leshy. The leshy is a shape-shifting creature that
may appear human but also takes on the form of the animals and plants he protects. He was once believed to lead travelers to
their deaths but could also insure a successful hunt. He kidnapped young women but kept cattle from
getting lost in the woods. He was feared, but also revered. The leshy isn’t just some high level boss
in a video game but an important, mischievous, powerful spirit that can trace its history
back to ancient religious and cultural beliefs. [Monstrum intro.] If you’ve ever been in the woods, you know
how scary they can be and how easy it can be to get lost. In one 19thcentury text the leshy is directly
connected to the dangers of the forest. It reads, “In olden days, when forests were
larger and denser than they are now, the Leshy used to be constantly deluding travelers,
and making them lose their way.” And no forest was safe. While Slavic folklore claimed each forest
had its own leshy, there could be more than one. Territorial disputes between leshy were said
to be the cause of harsh storms, boulders falling, or crashing trees—supernatural
explanations for real events. Most often a leshy appears in its imposingly
tall human guise with long claws and shaggy hair, sometimes with horns and cloven feet. He can grow higher than the tree-tops or small
enough to hide behind a blade of grass. The leshy’s appearance is often inspired
by the vegetation of the forest, with bark-like skin and a green beard or hair. Which makes sense given that his name comes
from the Russian word meaning forest. Leshy translates to “wood spirit” or “wood
demon.” I had the opportunity to talk to one of my
favorite authors, Katherine Arden, whose done a ton of research about Slavic folklore for
her Winternight trilogy. He most often appears as a Russian peasant,
but with some slight slight oddities. He doesn’t wear a belt. The left in Russian is associated with the
demonic so he crosses his caftan left over right. He also inverts his shoes so he wears his
shoes in the wrong feet. He doesn’t cast a shadow and he carries a
cudgel or an ax like a weapon that sort of symbolizes his authority over the forest. A Leshy may take on a human from, and even
disguise itself as someone its victim knows. But it can inadvertently reveal its true nature
through small mistakes in their transformation And since he can take the shape of anything
in his domain, a leshy may appear as anything from bears and wolves to domestic cattle,
birds, a tree, even a whirlwind of leaves. A leshy can also alter its voice. He might call out to his victims in a voice
they recognize, or whistle like the wind blowing through the trees. Animal sounds, the rustle of leaves, and laughter
are also part of his verbal repertoire, which he would then use to confuse and tempt victims. He was feared because he possessed the ability
to lead people and animals astray, forcing them to die from exhaustion trying to find
their way home or misleading them to fall into a ravine or swamp. Leshii were said to be great gamblers, playing
cards against one another and other spirit demons frequently, betting the resources of
their particular woods. When huge populations of squirrels suddenly
migrated across the Ural Mountains in the 19th century, some people attributed it to
a Siberian leshy driving its losses to their “European kin.” The leshy received sacrifices and offerings
from the people in order to secure his favor and aid in their survival. As the master and guardian of the forest,
a huntsman’s success or a woodcutter’s bounty was believed to be dependent on the
will of the leshy. Even herdsmen relied on this creature. Because of this relationship the herdsmen
were seen as intermediaries between the human world and the world of the leshy—the spirit
world. You could avoid offending the leshy by respecting
the forest, not only in terms of taking resources, but in general modes of deference like not
whistling or swearing, and not intentionally harming plants. Hunting on certain festival days was also
forbidden to avoid the leshy’s wrath. Laying out the traditional meal for greeting
important guests, bread with salt, on a tree stump might keep you safe from the leshy. This seems pretty minor but it was, and in
some Slavic countries still is, a very important gesture. Bread was synonymous with food. If a household didn’t have it, they didn’t
have the resources to eat. And salt was a rare commodity so sharing it
expressed hospitality. Other protections against leshy included making
the sign of the cross, saying a prayer or spell, wearing clothes backwards or inside
out,  retracing your steps out of the forest, or making the leshy laugh, So although Slavic folklore describes them
as antagonistic towards humans by nature, you can win one over with a little respect. They can actually seem pretty reasonable in
a lot of ways. Unfortunately, we can’t know the exact origins
of the legend since there is no record of any Slavic mythology, which was honestly a
shock to me. Many scholars agree that nothing about the
original Slavic gods, creation myths, or stories of their afterlife has survived history. The earliest records of the Slavs dates back
to only the 6th century. Around that time, the Slavs migrated into
other territories and developed into different cultures. But one of the things they kept in common
is their folklore – including stories of the leshy. It’s likely oral tradition played a huge
role in this story’s early creation. In fact, “Slavs” comes from the proto-Slavic
slovo [слово; English:“word”], meaning that the people called themselves “those
who speak with words.” However, it’s speculated that the Leshy
was later heavily influenced by Christianity. As Christianity spread it sort of mingled
with paganism and local folklore. And there’s also sort of a Christian explanation
which says that the Leshy and other forest household spirits were angels, that were thrown
from heaven after the war between angels. They fell to earth and became forest spirits. Or the other one is that spirits like the
Leshy are the children of Adam and Eve, born after the fall of man but they went away – because
they were ashamed and were shamed, and they became spirits of the forest. What was once simply a guardian of the forest
became a more devilish figure. This explains some leshy traits like the cloven
hooves, which are often associated with evil deities in Christian stories. And even in some variations of the monster,
a leshy is created from the marriage of the Devil and a witch or they can be descendants
of Satan’s army. A hunter or herdsmen could secure safety and
success by creating a pact with the creature, an act that required renouncing Christianity. In some stories, leshiis were said to appear
in military uniform, which may have been inspired by real fugitive soldiers hiding in the woods. In other cases the leshy is said to approach
humans around a campfire, asking for food. The forest did historically serve as a place
of shelter for outliers of society. Perhaps the leshy asking for food is an exaggeration
of such individuals looking for assistance. Most of what we can study about Slavic spirits
now comes from materials recorded in the nineteenth century when urbanization and advances in
science and education made belief in the supernatural tenuous. Nevertheless, an 1850’s Russian study found
that “many” peasants claimed to have encountered a leshy personally. The power of Slavic folklore lasted a long
time, and it can tell us a lot about how the Slavs saw the world around them. The leshy has become less popular over time,
perhaps because the lessons he teaches are no longer as relevant, as the forests have
been cleared and rural Slavic life became less common. While the rituals associated with this guardian
and demon of the forest dwindle, the idea of him does appear in popular culture now
and again Despite what they may tell you, the leshy
is both a guardian and an avenger. Since I know you’ve spent some time over in Russia and you’ve done a lot of work with some of these native language texts Do you still think, or have you encountered people who still believe in the leshy? We’ve definitely had a resurgence within
the last 20 or 30 years, which is a way of people I think to get in touch with their
own country, their own history, their own landscape. Definitely there’s tons of superstition
in Russia. It’s probably the country that loves superstition
the most of any place I’ve travelled. That can mean unmarried women can’t sit
at the corner of the table, walking under ladders, cats, giving bread to your household
guardians. As far as someone who believes specifically
in a Leshy, I haven’t met somebody like that. But I think, I think more people are willing
to believe in the power of nature. So I think believing that the forest has a
presence and a life and a divinity, I think is certainly real and alive in present Russia. Neither good nor evil, this forest-dwelling
shapeshifter was scary because it could be lurking around every corner. The leshy represents a deep respect for the
forest and acknowledges the danger humans encountered there, especially when it was
largely untamed. It was something that could only be avoided
with caution, awareness, and a sincere appreciation of your surroundings. The moral of the story? Be nice to nature. You never know when a giant forest spirit
will come for you.

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