Countless daemons of Slavic origin used to hide in the woods, lakes and fields of Old Poland – or at least in the imagination of its people. Whether malicious or friendly, these creatures are no longer considered a viable force any more, but they’re certainly curious aspects of a past long gone.
Although people don’t believe in these supernatural entities anymore, they are still making an unexpected impact. Creatures such as the Topielec that drowns its victims, the prankster Boruta and the friendly Skrzaty dwarfs are all cultural phenomena that today appear in books, video games and other media.
The evolution of a monster
According to expert demonologists (ethnographers, not occult followers…) little is known for sure about ancient Slavic daemons from before Christianisation. From all the stories, legends and writings about supernatural beings in Old Poland, it’s hard to distil a demon that hasn’t been somehow affected by Christianity. The Leshy can serve as good example here. This forest demon is certainly an Old Slavic invention, but over the years it has gained many different names, such as Borowy and Boruta, and evolved drastically from a guardian of nature into an evil devil.
The Slavs of old described him a as man with a snow-white face. He could make you lose your way through the woods if you treated him unfairly or, contrarily, guide you on your journey if you showed proper respect. After the introduction of Christianity, however, efforts were made to root out such beliefs or at least to incorporate them into the new religious system. That’s why the Leszy was rebranded as a devil – something that’s not only bad, but also bad in a Christian way. The demon lost any positive traits it had and became the outright mean-spirited prankster Boruta. Under this new name, it could make a hole in your money sack, or conceal something you’re looking for with its tail –a tail it now had, along with hoofs and other familiar attributes, to better match its new identity.
In most parts of historical Poland, the Boruta did at least retain some connection to its protoplast since it was said to reside in forests. But one of its most popular variants came from Łęczyca, a town in central Poland, where it was said to be a castle daemon. That’s how it’s portrayed, for instance, by the noted 19th century writer and folklorist Kazimierz Władysław Wóycicki – in his fairy tale Boruta, the daemon is actually in the form of an owl. Yes, an owl in a castle – an almost unrecognisable form compared to the original Leszy.
Perhaps a riddle will set you free?
Other Slavic fairytale creatures that eventually became devils were Bies and Czart. Though these were malicious to start with, so at least they didn’t turn evil in the process. The first was, again, a forest being, the other possibly a wind daemon. Not all daemons however fell into the ‘devil’ category and many retained much of their original character. For instance, the Topielec, looking like a thin man with slimy green skin, dwelled near lakes and rivers, usually in places where it had drowned as a human. Sometimes described as wearing fine clothes, the Topielec would lure its victims into the water and drown them, but, in the unlucky event of encountering one, there was an unexpected method of escape. You were supposed to ask it a riddle and… run away while the Topielec was trying to come up with an answer.
Another deadly aquatic being was the Rusałka. Typically imagined as a beautiful young woman with golden or black hair, clad in a light, sweeping garment, this daemon was the bane of young men. You could encounter one, or a group, near fresh water bodies where they liked to dance and sing in the moonlight. Those who fell for their charm were in for an unpleasant surprise: they’d be drowned or killed amidst a circle of dancing daemons. A Rusałka could be an incarnation of a tragically deceased young woman, for instance one who never married. In some regions, however, this daemon was described as an ugly and aged Water Hag, animated by the spirit of a woman that had died of alcohol abuse.
Gremlins in kitchens, fields & marshes
Most of the above-mentioned supernatural beings resemble the human figure in shape. But, as you can imagine, not all Slavic daemons are like that. For instance, the vampiric Upiór, in one of its early variants, was bird-like and had a cruel, elongated beak used to suck out blood. Elsewhere, the Licho was in some places imagined as a hairy critter of modest size, always fixing to cause more trouble, like breaking the kitchen plates or throwing some ashes into your food. The ruthless Południca, a field daemon capable of murder, would haunt farm workers around noon, taking the form of a greyish haze. Meanwhile, the souls of people who had lived their lives heartlessly were said to become stranded in the bogs and marshes where they’d appear as Ogniki, little lights seen at night, seeking to lead travellers astray.
But, as already mentioned before, Old Polish daemons weren’t exclusively malicious. For instance Skrzaty, dwarves living in the nooks of cottages, were friendly toward their housemates. They were intent on providing prosperity, which included looking after household equipment. In return, people would take care of them by offering them food.
Originally Skrzaty and similar domestic daemons of a good-natured character like Rody and Ubożęta, were linked to the souls of past ancestors, but that changed after the arrival of Christianity. Household daemons became pagan wherefore they started to turn into devils, similarly to the aforementioned Leszy. Curiously enough, however, they managed to retain their positive traits, which is why eventually you had house devils, but friendly ones. These would help out much like their progenitors and would also be given food, such as groats. A kind devil was also the Pasiecznik, a being living in old hives that guarded the bees of wealthy farmers.
Explaining the everyday
Of course, the majority of these fantastical daemons only arose because our forefathers were trying to explain away ‘suspicious’ phenomena. Why do people sometimes die in lakes? It was a Topielec! Why do people pass out working in the high sun? It must be a Południca! Making supernatural beings the culprits was simply the result of an active imagination and not understanding or accepting concepts such as sunstroke and the need to learn to swim.
Today, no longer considered a viable force by anybody in their right mind, Slavic daemons have become a vibrant element of contemporary culture, whose popularity is linked to the ongoing trend of people connecting with their roots and heritage. They appear in books, like the 2014 Slavic Bestiary by Paweł Zych and Witold Vargas, and video games including the smash-hit Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Musicians are even still making songs about them, such as Kazik’s W Południe about how the Południca strikes down workers in the fields. It seems that despite people’s beliefs moving on, we continue to find inspiration in the things that haunted our ancestors’ imaginations.
Read part two of our series – Slavic Daemons: Fearsome & Formidale Females.
Author: Marek Kępa, Feb 2017