Posts Tagged 'Russia & Eastern Europe'

MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Poludnica

Poludnica

One of the more unsettling spirits I’ve read about is the poludnica, also known as Lady Midday or the Harvester of Souls. You find her all across Eastern Europe, under a variety of names. Usually it’s poludnica or poludnitsa or something similar. Most folktales describe her as looking like a tall young woman (though some describe her as an old crone or a child), thin and stately as a stalk of barley.

You see, the poludnica is a harvest spirit. One doesn’t generally think of Russia for its summers, but the heat in the fields can be as dangerous as the fiercest blizzard. During the height of harvest season, in many Eastern European regions, farmers and peasants used to stay out of the fields during the hottest parts of the day, because sunstroke was a very serious risk. The poludnica embodies that danger.

If a person were to go out into the fields during the forbidden hours, they would find her drifting through the grain, dressed in white, sometimes carrying a scythe, sickle, or shears. She seems beautiful and serene, but if she catches you in the fields one of several things (depending on the story) might happen. Often she says nothing. Sometimes she’ll pose you a riddle, or ask a strange and difficult question. If you can’t answer the question or riddle you’ll be in trouble, but if she says nothing you’ll be in trouble regardless. The poludnica can cause insanity and illness in anyone she meets, but more dangerous still is her strength. Though she looks frail as a twig, she is strong enough to twist a man’s head right off his neck, or break every bone in his body with her dainty hands. Afterward, she’ll disappear back into the wheat field.

The poludnica doesn’t appear in fiction that often, though there is a piece of classical music by Dvorak based on her, called The Noon Witch:

In your own writing you could use the poludnica as nothing more than a superstition, convenient for reminding the fieldworkers not to risk the noonday sun and scaring children away from important crops. You could use her as a sphinx, with her blocking a character’s path if they don’t answer her bizarre queries. Or perhaps she’s just a fearsome monster, haunting the fields to punish those who trespass during the sun’s zenith. It might also be interesting to go into who she is or where she comes from; female spirits in Slavic folklore, even the monstrous ones, are often the ghosts of women who died prematurely. The fact that she appears as a child, a woman, and a crone is also reminiscent of many triple goddess figures throughout the mythologies of the world.

Though perhaps it’s best not to delve too deeply into her background. The poludnica is an intriguingly mysterious being, and half the fun is in wondering.

LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy

Profanation de l'hostie lors d'une messe noire

The idea of a fantastical school where people are taught magic is an old cliché in fantasy literature, and with good reason. A writer could hardly ask for a better setting. You can humorously juxtapose the mundanity of schoolwork with the wonders of magic, or write a parable about the responsibilities of power, or just tell a rollicking adventure story as people learn (or fail) to tame the supernatural. These days the most famous example is the Harry Potter series, but the concept goes back a long way—a very long way, in fact.

The earliest example I know of is from medieval Spain, in the city of Salamanca. The city is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134. According to legend, though, there was another school nearby, of a considerably different nature, that certain students sought out. This school was inside of the Church of Saint Cyprian, or rather in a cave beneath the church. This cave, the Cueva de Salamanca, was a school of dark sorcery, taught by a mysterious headmaster who would answer any question imaginable regarding witchcraft, necromancy, summoning demons, or any other black arts. Only seven students could attend his dark academy at a time, for a period of seven years. At the end of this period all the students could leave save one; his soul was a sacrifice to the headmaster, who was truly Satan. Continue reading ‘LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy’

DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests

Art of a medieval German mine

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot Men of the Mountains

PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Last week I talked about how in certain parts of Europe, the belief in dwarves introduced by the Vikings blended with pre-existing local beliefs in fairies, but that was hardly an isolated incident. Europe is host to many, many spirit-beings that are similar to dwarves. In some cases, a Norse influence is clear. In the first article of this series I mentioned a British dwarf called a duergar, a hostile being generally regarded as some sort of fairy or goblin, whose name is linguistically derived from the Norse term for a dwarf. In other cases, though, there’s no relation. The ancient Greeks believed in beings called dactyls, little men created by the titan Rhea, who lived under the mountains and taught humanity the art of metalworking. They sound very similar to dwarves, but there’s no evidence whatsoever of them being culturally related. Two different cultures just happened to come up with similar ideas.

There’s a lot of grey area between these two extremes. When a belief is introduced to a new culture, it can become almost unrecognizable as it fuses with other beliefs or gets spun off into unprecedented variants. Without direct linguistic or historical evidence, it’s hard to say which dwarf-like beings in European folklore evolved from dwarves, and which ones, like the dactyls, were created independently. Still, in Northern Europe, where the Norse influence was strongest, we can reasonably assume that similar traditions are probably related. Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests’

SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds

The magic circle, by John William Waterhouse

If you’re writing a story about supernatural dangers, you don’t want things ending in the first few pages, so the characters may need some reliable ways to defend themselves. Folklore and legend are chock full of various ways to do this, so per a reader request, I’ve spent the last week digging up some good ones for your use.

These remedies and protections can be played in a lot of different ways in a story. Sure, you could use them as described, but you could also just make them a point of cultural interest, or use their symbolism in a story otherwise devoid of magic. You could undermine them as well, foreshadowing the one crucial defense against a monster, only for the hero to find out it’s all a lot of hot air at the worst possible time. Plus, if you want to create some original otherwordly threat for your story, these might be a good jumping off point for creating your own defenses against it.

Continue reading ‘SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds’

VAMPIRES, PART VII: The Bones of the Vampire (The End Already, Goddamn)

Émile_Bernard_La_Mort

PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

PART V: Buckets of Blood

PART VI: Wolves and Witches

Over the course of this series, I’ve tried to showcase the great variety of Slavic vampire beliefs and traditions, despite the many competing or contradictory ideas therein. We’ve had vampires that are walking corpses and vampires that are more like ghosts. We’ve had vampires that drink blood, vampires who eat flesh, and vampires who steal your breath. We’ve even had owl-monsters and vampire watermelons. At this point a reasonable person might well be wondering, well, just what is a vampire?

Continue reading ‘VAMPIRES, PART VII: The Bones of the Vampire (The End Already, Goddamn)’

VAMPIRES, PART VI: Wolves and Witches

GermanWoodcut1722

PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

PART V: Buckets of Blood

Before the word “vampire” became more popular, the most common word in 19th century literature for a dead man who preyed upon the living to prolong his un-life was initially the Romanian word “strigoi.” Now, strigoi is a bit of a vague word. It can mean a vampire and a witch. It’s related to the Italian word “strega” which means a witch as well.

They all come from “Strix.” The Strix is actually a completely different mythical creature from Roman folklore, a vaguely described sort of anthropomorphic screech owl.  The Strix was alive and wasn’t human, but it drank the blood of babies and disemboweled people to eat their livers and other internal organs. This might explain why the Romanian strigoi also tends to eat the heart of its victim as well as drinking the blood. It also might explain why one of the animals vampires are supposed to frequently transform into is the owl, as opposed to the bat. There’s actually no Slavic tradition of vampires turning into bats. That was made up by Bram Stoker. In his time, the “vampire bat” had recently been discovered in South America, and so it seemed a natural addition for “Dracula.”

Continue reading ‘VAMPIRES, PART VI: Wolves and Witches’

VAMPIRES, PART V: Buckets of Blood

Varneythevampire

PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

Now, one interesting thing you might have wondered about. In Part I of this series, I mentioned that in traditional lore vampires don’t have fangs. So you might be wondering how they drank blood.

The truth is that they often didn’t. When they did, though, it was often unexplained. When it was, it was gruesome. The Romanian strigoi bit into the chest just above the heart to drink blood, and then sometimes chewing his way down and eating the heart itself. In Croatia, they did something similar, but instead of eating your heart they just gnawed on your innards a little. The Russian/Polish/Ukranian vampire, the upir, ate flesh, but also drank blood.

Continue reading ‘VAMPIRES, PART V: Buckets of Blood’