Mythical Monday: Lore of the Leshy by Mae Clair

The woods are beautiful this time of year in my part of the world. Everything is green and blooming, heady with the scents of dark earth and loamy soil. A stroll through the woods evokes a sense of pure enchantment, the natural terrain riddled with leafy ferns, toadstools, and velvety moss.

A forest dwelling Leshy lurking among the trees

Photo by Pavel Suprun (Superka) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 creative commons license via Wikimedia Commons

In the days of yore, a woodland creature known as the Leshy was charged with protecting the forest and its wild inhabitants. According to Slavic mythology, the Leshy is a male spirit who usually appears as a man but is able to alter his appearance, becoming as small as a blade of grass, or as tall as a tree. This forest-dwelling being also has the power to shape-shift into another creature, person or plant (Can you spot the Leshy in the picture above?). He normally strides about with his shoes on the wrong feet, and is occasionally reported to have wings and/or a tail. Some legends say he is covered in black fur. Others that his face is blue and his beard a tangle of living greenery. All agree he has a wife and children who reside with him in the forest.

The Leshy does not appear to be an inherently evil creature so much as a trickster, leading travelers along incorrect paths until they become hopelessly lost. He does this by mimicking voices of people they know, calling out to them from deeper within his woodsy realm. Eventually he will point the confused person in the right direction, but not until after a bit of laughter at his or her expense.

Illustration of the forest dwelling Leshy lurking among the trees.

By Magazine “Leshy” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; published before 1923 and public domain in the US

The Leshy casts no shadow, and because they are easily camouflaged by their surroundings, are difficult to spot. If you ever go wandering in a forest and become hopelessly lost, you can gain the Leshy’s respect and avoid torment by turning your clothes inside out and putting your shoes on the wrong feet. Perhaps this is a sign of surrender and the Leshy will leave you alone—even agreeably pointing the way back to civilization. Should the Leshy decide to take you back to his cave, however, it’s likely you’ll meet your end there. This mischievous spirit has a fondness for tickling his victims to death. (Don’t you wonder how some of these tales got started?).

I’ve seen a lot of strange and interesting things when I take hikes in the woods (admittedly, far less frequently these days than when I was younger) but I’ve been fortunate enough to elude the Leshy. Or perhaps he has been there all along, watching from a distance, and I merely managed to avoid his pranks by chance or a moment of whimsy on his part.

It makes you stop and wonder. Apparently, there are more beings lurking in the forest than we know…

Mythical Monday: Of Fey Folk and Faerie Dogs by Mae Clair

Whenever spring and summer roll around, I think of mushroom rings, twilight evenings perfumed by honeysuckle, and faeries. Tucked away in a drawer, I have of those Frankenstory WIPs that has been hanging around for decades. Every year I think “this is the year I’m going to pull it out and finish it.” And every year it never happens. :(

The story has been through multiple title changes (it’s presently without one), length modifications, character changes, plot thread rewrites, and just about everything in between. I should abandon the wretched thing, but I can’t seem to walk away from the Fey Folk.  Yes, faeries factor prominently into the plot. It’s part urban fantasy, part horror, and part magical realism. The last one is what draws me in, refusing to let me abandon it. Who knows….maybe the Fey have placed a glamour on it and that’s why it’s still wiggling around in the back of my mind.

One of these days…one of these days I will finish it. Given how odd the story is, I’m sure I’ll have to indie pub it, but that’s okay. It’s one of those books you want to see “out there” just because it resonates with you. Kind of like faeries do.

At least for me.

But did you know there are also tales of a Faerie Dog? This ghostly animal appears mostly as a herald to announce the imminent presence of the Fey. Perhaps the ancient faerie races were too lofty to soil themselves by interacting with humans, but they weren’t above using human tools for their purpose.

A spinning wheel in an old cottageAs an example, there is a brief account I found in The Vanishing People, Fairy Lore and Legends, a book by Katherine Briggs. It speaks of a family who were visited by a Faerie Dog. According to the tale, the family would gather on winter nights in the main room, the mother and daughters working at their spinning wheels. From nowhere, a white dog would appear in the room, a sign the family was about to be visited by the Fey Folk.

Bustling about, the humans ensured a fire burned brightly in the hearth, put out fresh water for their guests, then hurried to bed. Below, in their living quarters, they could hear the faeries moving about, but never saw them. Only the white dog was visible.

The same book tells of another family who neglected to leave water out for the faeries when they arrived to do baking. Since they had no water for their dough, the Fey Folk drew blood from the toe of a servant girl and used it to bake their cakes. The next day the servant girl fell ill and only recovered when she was given a bit of cake left under the thatch.

The faeries in my Frankenstory would probably follow either path. They’re focused on their own pleasures, even at the expense of mortals, but aren’t above helping humans if it suits their fancy.

When I was a kid, I thought of faeries as small, tiny creatures, frivolous and harmless. As I grew older and became familiar with the ancient legends, that opinion changed to reflect a race of majestic beings, sometimes heroic, sometimes selfish, living forever on the cusp of right and wrong.

In Cornwall, the faeries are called the Pagan Dead…not bad enough for Hell, but not good enough for Heaven. What’s your take on these magical beings?

Mythical Monday: Of Horses and Superstition by Mae Clair

Two days ago I do what I do every year when the first Saturday of May rolls around—I look forward to enjoying the Kentucky Derby. I have several friends online who know a great deal about horses (you know who you are :) ). I actually know very little, just that I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a kid. What little girl doesn’t dream of owning a pony? To this day, there is a tradition in my family when anyone has a birthday and is preparing to blow out the candles, we all say “Wish for a pony!” This comes from the number of people in my family who wanted ponies when they were kids (as it turns out, one of them ended up with several horses).

But I digress.

Back to the Derby.

Hubby and I had a quiet Derby Day at home this year. We grilled, enjoyed the beautiful weather and relaxed with mint juleps on our back porch. It was the first time we’ve made them. Probably the last, too, as neither of us liked the simple syrup that goes into the drink.

For the running of the roses, I chose American Pharaoh as my pick.

Now before you say I hopped on the popularity bandwgon, I always pick my horse based on its name. Yeah, I know…real scientific and all that. What can I say? I love names and had a reason for picking this one. I watched both Gods and Kings and The Ten Commandments over Easter, so I was focused on the Pharaoh thing.  Turns out American Pharaoh was the favorite coming in and ended up winning the Derby. YAY!

Casual photo of Mae Clair

Derby Day Fun

And although I didn’t have a fancy Derby Day hat to celebrate, I did wear a floppy spring hat in honor of the event. (Yep, that’s me at the right. Loved the hat; hated the Julep).

So why all this focus on the Kentucky Derby? Because one of the things that stands out for me as a kid was seeing Secretariat take all three races of the Triple Crown in 1973.  Do you realize no horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978? Quick math: that’s thirty-seven years!

I really want to see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime. Desperately. So every year I watch each race in the Crown event and hope it will happen. It’s kind of like seeing Haley’s Comet or something.

What does all of this have to do with myth? Nothing really, except that I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the superstitions associated with horses and racetracks. As an example, did you know that the color of a horse’s feet plays into superstition?  One white “sock” on a horse is considered good luck, but four is considered bad. There is even a short verse to that extent:

One white foot, buy him.
Two white feet, try him.
Three white feet, be on the sly.
Four white feet, pass him by.

Here are some other superstitions related to horse racing and jockeys:

Peanuts are extremely bad luck and are banned in barns

Never name a horse after a family member

Don’t ship a broom from one track to another

A streak of gray in the tail is a sign of good luck

A black cat at a racetrack is a sure sign of bad luck

And some old superstitions related to horses in general:

A horse’s tail, if placed in water, will turn into a snake

If you lead a white horse through your house it will banish all evil

A horseshoe hung in the bedroom will prevent nightmares

Changing a horse’s name is bad luck

If a horse stands with its back to a hedge, it’s a sure sign of rain

If you see a white dog, you shouldn’t speak again until you see a white horse

Spotted horses are magical

Gray horses are unlucky

As with most things superstitious, I’m sure there are plenty more. Do you know any I missed? How about the Kentucky Derby? Were you cheering on American Pharaoh, too? Have you been lucky enough to see or remember a Triple Crown winner from the past? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Mythical Monday: Krampus, the Christmas Devil by Mae Clair

Although I am attending a tech conference today, it’s been far too long without a new Mythical Monday, so . . .

Who could forget the song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town? How about the lyrics “he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” Well, apparently, if your name is etched on Santa’s naughty list, there’s a chance you could end up with a lot worse than a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.

Recently, I discovered a tale from Germanic folklore in which good ole’ St. Nick has an enforcer named Krampus for his dirty work—a nasty looking fellow with horns, cloven feet, and a ginormous forked tongue. Half-goat, half-demon, it’s the job of this nightmarish creature to mete out discipline. He hulks about trailing bells and clanking chains, creating an ominous racket. Decked out with a bundle of birch sticks, he uses the switches for whipping naughty children. His victims are beaten, then stuffed into a basket and carted to the underworld where they are served up as dinner, or perish in flame.

Hardly what you think about around Christmas-time.

Lots of old legends have a grim twist to them, many focused on children who are eaten or worse, but I thought this one appalling. Maybe because it’s centered around Christmas, which is supposed to be a time of good will.

The legend of Krampus is centuries old and is still shared in many Alpine countries. Some places even host parades in which men dress up as Krampus and roam the streets.

Traditionally, Krampus appears on “Krampusnacht” also known as Krampus night. This is the evening before St. Nicholas Day, December 6—a time when you definitely want to ensure your name is on Santa’s “good” list.

dsI discovered this chilling legend through a book I read recently, THE DARK SERVANT, by Matt Manochio. The title showed up on one of my email subscription lists and I was intrigued enough by the blurb to give it a go. Part thriller, part horror story, part YA novel, THE DARK SERVANT has Krampus showing up in modern day New Jersey and snatching several high school kids with bad attitudes.

The protagonist of the book is the sheriff’s seventeen-year-old son. Billy begins to put the pieces together and soon realizes the abductions have been perpetrated by a hulking, hairy monster with a nasty talent for inflicting pain. Too bad for Krampus he’s snatched Billy’s brother because Billy isn’t about to let Krampus haul him to the underworld—even if the adults are clueless about the true danger.

This was a page-turner, and I do recommend checking it out if this type of read appeals to you. I loved it! Personally, I love almost anything with a creature on the loose, especially when said creature gets to rampage in a modern-day setting.

I can’t say, however, that I have any desire to meet Krampus in the flesh. Fiction and folklore is much more preferable.

What about you? Have you ever heard of this “Christmas Devil” before, or is he new to you, too?

Mythical Monday: Ravens, Rooks and Crows Revisited by Mae Clair

Good day, friends! I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to borrow from a post I ran in 2012 for today’s Mythical Monday. I have a rare day off work and hubby and I are taking a short trip to a neighboring town known for its eclectic shops and microbreweries. My normal writing time this weekend was gobbled up preparing A THOUSAND YESTERYEARS (my Mothman novel) for submission and clicking “send” (more on that in a later post, I hope).

So I’m cheating today and rerunning an old post that not many people saw. I’ve trimmed this down from the original and tweaked a bit. I no longer have the car mentioned toward the end (it didn’t do well in northern winters, so I traded it for an SUV), but I do recall the fun I had on Twitter tweeting about the events in this post. Mostly how my car was used in a murder.

Curious? Read on . . . :)

A crow perched on a tombstone at night in a spooky cemeteryHow do you feel about birds associated with folklore and superstition?

Ravens have a long-standing kinship with mysticism. In addition to being portrayed as a familiar to witches and wizards, they were also known to be extremely divining. Many Native American tribes regarded them as “Keeper of Secrets,” wise ones who safeguarded the teachings of magic.

Raven, a man with the head of a bird, brought light into the world and taught its inhabitants how to care for themselves. On the flip side, the raven was also a Trickster initiating change, not always pleasant. I find it interesting the term “rook” made it into our slang as a reference for being swindled. A rook is an old-world type of crow or raven. In reality, these intelligent birds are clever mimics that have been known to learn human words.

In the Bible, Noah sent a raven from the ark in search of ground, but it flew back and forth, unable to find a place to land in a world deluged with floodwaters. Later, he sent the dove which returned with an olive branch. Ravens were also commanded to feed the prophet Elijah and, in the gospel of Luke, we’re reminded that God feeds the ravens though they don’t sow, reap, or have storerooms or barns.

Would I know the difference between a crow and a raven if I saw them? Probably not. I know that ravens are larger and prefer less populated areas, while crows are more apt to hang around cities and urban spaces. Even cars.

A solitary crow on a post bows its head Case in point:  Two weeks ago while visiting my sister, I walked outside to find six or seven crows camped out on the roof and hood of my Chrysler 300. If I’d had a camera, I would have snapped a picture – large black birds on a solid black car. Turns out there must have been something snagged in the wiper blades. I never did find out what it was, but it had one handsome gent summoning his cronies to investigate. Before I knew it, my car had become the site of a “murder”.

Now I like birds, but not that much. There is something inherently creepy about seeing that many black birds rooted to your car. It’s not natural. By the time I shooed them away, they’d already turned my wiper blades into a gourmet snack.

And, of course, it was raining. That meant I was treated to a firsthand glimpse of the damage on the drive home—my wipers trialing long black strings that looked like ragged feathers. Trickster? Two new wiper blades later, I’d say it’s safe to tack that name onto crows, too.

So, despite having my car become the momentary snack of choice, I haven’t lost my appreciation for these the magical tricksters. How about you?

Mythical Monday: Morning Coffee with the Alp by Mae Clair

Saint Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, brimming with the luck of the Irish, pots of gold, and mischievous leprechauns. Given the playfulness of tomorrow’s holiday, I thought I’d focus on a different kind of imp for Mythical Monday—the Alp.

Did you ever have a really bad nightmare? If so, you can probably blame this nasty elf-like creature who has its roots in Germanic folklore. Alps delight in nothing better than filling the sleep of their victims with ghastly dreams. Some people believe Alps to be the spirits of recently deceased relatives, others that stillborn infants return as Alps. The majority of Alps are male, but their female counterparts are given the name “mare”….as in nightmare.

Photographic representation of painting "The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photographic representation of painting “The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Crafty beings, they are able to gain entry to a house through the tiniest of holes. Locking doors and windows does little to deter them once they have selected a victim for their nighttime visit. To protect yourself, plug any keyholes with rags and seal up cavities in walls.

Once arriving, the Alp makes itself comfortable by squatting on its victim’s chest and exerting “elf pressure,” as it grows heavier and heavier. Eventually, the density of its weight drags the victim awake. The person normally returns to consciousness disoriented, terrified, and out of breath. Many believe elf pressure was an early explanation for sleep apnea. But the Alp has more going for it than a single nighttime propensity.

Among its magical abilities, it is able to turn invisible, fly, and shapeshift into a dog, cat, pig or white butterfly. The source of its power comes from a hat it is never without. Whatever shape or ability the Alp elects to use, the hat is always visible. Should an Alp lose its hat, it will offer a great reward for the item’s return.

Those in the old country knew there were certain methods to protect themselves from the Alp through the use of wards. These include hanging an iron horseshoe from the bedpost, placing a mirror on a chest, or a broomstick under the pillow. Burning a light all night and having a cross handy will also protect against an Alp. And—as bizarre as it sounds—if you wake during the middle of the night with an Alp squatting on your chest, invite it to return in the morning for coffee.

Yes, coffee. Can you imagine that conversation?

“Uh…if you could just see your way clear to stop squatting on my chest, Mr, Alp, I’ve got some nice French roast I’ll brew up in the morning.  How does sevenish sound?”

Provide a polite invitation, and the Alp will immediately dash off and leave you in peace. But you’d better have your Keurig ready in the morning as promised, because the Alp will be back, eager for its caffeine treat.

So the next time you have a bad dream, stock up on fresh coffee. Maybe you can convince your particular Alp to leave you alone over a cup of Vermont Country Blend or Keurig Dark Magic.

I’m curious…what kind of coffee would you offer an Alp?

Mythical Monday: Pennsylvania’s Werewolf Tale, by Mae Clair

Wolf in silhouette howling at full moonFor today’s Mythical Monday, I’m sharing a legend from my home state of Pennsylvania. Some of you who have followed my blog for a long time know I have a fondness for werewolf folklore. I used it in my first novel, WEATHERING ROCK, and never tire of the many twists and turns this legend has undergone through the centuries. Pennsylvania doesn’t seem like prime territory for werewolves, but there’s no arguing wolves in general once roamed the state.

In the 1800s wolves plagued the German settlers of Northumberland County, raiding local farms and carrying off chickens, sheep, and goats.

May Paul was just a child at the time, but she tended her family’s sheep, taking them to graze among the surrounding fields. One day, while going about the chore, she encountered a gray-haired man with a grizzled beard. People in the community routinely gossiped about a hermit who lived in the woods, and had a strange way about him. Her parents had instructed her to avoid the man if she ever encountered him, but May saw nothing wrong in befriending him.

The man didn’t talk much, but he seemed gentle and kind. Over time, it became habit that whenever May took her sheep out to graze, the hermit would appear and watch over her from a distance. Sometimes she spied wolves on the perimeter of the grazing field, but never had to fend them off. While her neighbors’ sheep suffered grisly attacks, any pack that roamed near May’s flock retreated abruptly, as if frightened away by something.

wooden fence in the grass on the hillside near the village at night in moon lightOne night, a farmer heard a commotion in his barn. Fearing a wolf attack, he grabbed his rifle and hurried outside. A grizzled grey wolf raced past, so close, he was able to shoot it cleanly. The great beast loped off into the night, but left a blood trail behind. Wanting to finish the job, the farmer followed the trail a short distance before deciding against the folly of chasing a wounded animal in the dark. The wolf was injured and couldn’t roam far.

Confident he could bag the animal in the morning, he returned to his house, picking up the trail again after daybreak. He followed the blood to the cabin of the old hermit, venturing cautiously inside when he received no answer to his shouts. He found the old man dead in a pool of blood, a gunshot wound to his chest.

When the community got wind of what had happened, locals immediately branded the hermit a werewolf. Hadn’t he always been strange and secretive, living alone, and keeping to himself? They buried his body in the dirt floor of his cabin, christening the spot Die Woolf Man’s Grob, which translated means “The Wolfman’s Grave.”

When May heard the news, she was devastated by the loss of her friend. Turning a deaf ear to the gossip, she steadfastly refused to believe the old man had been a werewolf. But thereafter, whenever she tended her sheep, an old grey wolf would watch from the distance—much in the same way her hermit friend had watched over her.

Wolves continued to raid local farms, but never ventured near the farm owned by May’s family. The old grey wolf stood guard in the distance, driving the rogue packs away whenever they drew near. As decades passed, the attacks eventually dwindled. Wolves were killed or driven off. As for the old grey wolf, it made a final appearance around the time of May’s death.

As I look back over this tale, what strikes me most about it is the bond between May and the hermit/werewolf. Usually werewolves are depicted as killers, but in this case, the creature protected not only May, but her family, and her family’s farm as well. Of all those in the community, May was the only one to show the old man friendship, and he returned it a hundredfold by keeping the packs of rogue wolves at bay.

Are you a fan of werewolf tales?