Slavic Daemons: Fearsome & Formidable Females
Some of the biggest menaces among Old Poland’s daemons of Slavic origin were female. The Murrain Maiden brought about death just by waving a handkerchief, while the undead Strzyga attacked the living for their blood, and the beautiful Latawica seduced men only to take their souls. The second part of our Slavic Daemons series puts a spotlight on formidable females of the supernatural.
An undead being, imagined as a rotting corpse with red fingernails, the Strzyga preys on the living, drinking their blood and devouring their flesh. In many a folk tale, the deadly Strzyga is an enchanted princess buried in a church crypt who returns to life in the form of a beautiful girl thanks to religious rituals, such as drawing symbols with sanctified chalk and saying prayers. But any woman, regardless of social status, could become a Strzyga. Some were even believed to be doomed to it – for example, those born with two rows of teeth. A person attacked by the daemon would often die or at least feel very weakened as a result. The being’s fierceness is probably what prompted Andrzej Sapkowski to choose it as the main nemesis in the very first story about Geralt of Rivia, the 1986 The Witcher.
Though similar to the water being described above, this being inhabits the woods rather than lakeshores and riverbanks. But, much like its aquatic counterpart, it takes the form of a fair young woman. Scantily clad and wearing a flower wreath, the forest Rusałka uses her looks and singing to lure young men into the wilderness, where she takes their life by leading them of a cliff or by… tickling them to death. In some regions, stories were told that only the front of the daemon was beautiful, while its back was an open cadaver with its bowels visible. The Rusałka was said to avoid wormwood, so carrying a little with you through the forest was a way of protecting yourself.
Even though ethnographers classify Wiedźma, the Slavic witch, as only half-daemon, no proper overview of Old Polish daemons can leave her out. She’s a crucial mythological figure, as evidenced by the countless legends and literary works that mention her. Her name echoes the Polish words for ‘arcane knowledge’ (wiedza) which corresponds with the ancient perception of her as a wise woman, skilled in attending to births and curing diseases.
After the region’s Christianisation, the Wiedźma started to adopt the familiar, negative traits of witches and as a result became exclusively evil. Old, wrinkled, toothless, red-eyed and mean, the half demon could use magic to throw a curse, bring about illness, cause a storm or fire and was sometimes even accused of cannibalism. In the 18th century ode Babia Góra by Franciszek Kniaźnin (which revolves around the real-life Polish mountain in the story’s title that was said to have been the site of black sabbaths), the author writes that a Wiedźma has the power to turn men into ‘serpents, toads and magpies’.
The Murrain Maiden
When the Murrain Maiden appeared in your town or village, it meant trouble. Depending on the story, it either resembled a thin young woman dressed in white or an ugly hag, but it always carried pestilence wherever it went. In the era before widespread vaccination, when diseases could easily wipe out entire communities, the threat represented by this personification of the plague was so great that in some places this being was identified with death itself. In the 19th century folk tale Morowa Dziewica by Lucjan Siemieński, the phantom spreads a deadly disease in a Lithuanian settlement by simply waving a red handkerchief. The text reads that after the coming of the Murrain Maiden ‘everybody awaited their death’.
This wind daemon could take on the stunning form of a falling star but also that of a spectacular beauty. A rather dangerous beauty, it should be added: the aim of the Latawica was to seduce and destroy. A man bewildered by the daemon’s appearance and sexual prowess found himself heading for a fall. He would lose interest in anything but her night visits and eventually wither and die. The Latawica would then take possession of his soul. However, there was hope for someone unlucky enough to have fallen under the daemon’s influence. A drink made of marigold and other herbs could break the evil spell and save him. Also, carrying garlic with you was said to discourage any approaches by this foul being.
Author: Marek Kępa, Feb 2017