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: 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: 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?

Mythical Monday: The Valley of Headless Men by Mae Clair

The Nahanni Valley is tucked in the MacKenzie Mountain region in Northwestern Canada, a beautiful place by all accounts, but steeped in in the dusty annals of folklore and myth. First settled nine to ten thousand years ago, the area has since been dubbed “the Valley of Headless Men” due to a series of unexplained beheadings.

Looking up from the ground at spooky trees in a twilight forestAccording to legend, most native tribes avoided the region, believing it to be haunted. Rumors spread of ghosts and devils, of strange creatures that lurked in the forests. The Naha people, an inherently violent tribe, settled there regardless. During frequent raids outside of the valley, they were known to claim the heads of their victims. Their blood-soaked legacy came to abrupt end when the entire tribe inexplicably disappeared. No trace was ever discovered what became of them.

Fast forward to the 18th Century. Prospectors and miners descended on the region, lured by rumors of gold. In 1908, like many before them, brothers Frank and Willie McLeod arrived to seek their fortune. The pair gathered their gear and headed into the wilderness, but never returned. A year later their bodies were found along a riverbank, minus the heads.

Another prospector, Martin Jorgeson, burned to death in his cabin in 1917. When his skeleton was found among the charred remains, his head was missing. In 1945, a miner from Ontario was discovered dead in his sleeping bag. Like the others, he had been decapitated. In all cases, the missing heads were never found.

Had the ghosts of Naha warriors returned to inflict retribution on those who ventured into their domain? Whoever—or whatever—the culprit, the legends of beheadings left a permanent mark on the valley. Macabre place names are common. Headless Creek, Funeral Range, Deadman Valley and Headless Range, all speak of the grisly tales from which they sprang.

But unexplained beheadings aren’t the only unsolved occurrences to plague Nahanni. Many people have simply vanished without a trace. Others fortunate enough to return speak of an unseen presence, constantly watching. Rumors of mysterious lights, Bigfoot sightings, and UFOs are common. Some whisper the Nahanni Valley is a thin spot—a rare location where dimensions are easily breached by crossing through a fragile veil. Others believe the region may harbor a secret entrance to the Hollow Earth.

Riddled with hot springs, caves and gorges, this rugged terrain is frequently shrouded in mist. Perhaps a warning to stay away. Despite the gorgeous scenery, the “Valley of Headless Men” certainly isn’t a name to encourage tourism.

Hmm…would you venture there and risk the wrath of the Naha warriors?

Mythical Monday: The Pukwudgie, by Mae Clair

Before I lope off into Mythical Monday land, I wanted to mention that Dane Carlisle and Ellie Sullivan of my romantic mystery, ECLIPSE LAKE, are doing a character interview today at Jennifer Lowery’s blog. If you’d like to stop by and say hello, you can check the interview out here.

Now, about the strange creature in the title…

Interesting name, Pukwudgie. For some reason it makes me think of gremlins, or gnarled forest imps. Actually, those descriptions aren’t too far off base.

The Pukwudgie can be found in the folklore and myths of the Wampanoag people, Native Americans who occupied southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island beginning in the 17th Century. Legends describe the Pukwudgie as human in appearance but with a large nose, fingers and ears. They stand about two to three feet high, and have bodies covered in thick hair. Their skin is ashen or bluish-gray, and they favor natural materials which lend to camouflage for clothing—items like grasses, moss, tree bark, and reeds.

Despite its diminutive size, the Pukwudgie is a powerful being able to conjure the forces of magic. It can vanish at will, summon fire, and shoot flashes of light from its body. It also has the ability to shapeshift, its most common form that of a porcupine which walks upright. It delights in mischief and will often snatch children from unsuspecting parents. It also favors arrows tipped with poison that quickly cause a victim to sicken and die. Worse, those who perish at its hands remain trapped in its control for eternity.

3d Digitally rendered illustration of a Will O' the Wisp carrying a lantern through a misty swamp with dead treesThe Wampanoag call these departed spirits “Tei-Pai-Wankas.” Spheres of light, they are similar to the will-o-wisp and are used by the Pukwudgie to lure unsuspecting humans to their deaths. Those who follow a Tei-Pai-Wanka are mesmerized by its glowing form, unable to turn away. Easily enticed into swamps riddled with quicksand or compelled to walk off sheer cliffs, they suffer a grisly fate. If all else fails, a Pukwudgie is also able to inflict harm on a person simply by staring at them.

So how do you protect yourself against these nasty troll-like beings? (Supposedly, there are still Pukwudgie sightings today).

The best defense is to ignore creature and pray it won’t trouble you further. If that doesn’t work, you can recite the Lord’s Prayer, spread salt, or arm yourself with iron. Much like European Faeries, the Pukwudgie is repelled by all three defenses. You’re most likely to encounter one in New England or the Great Lakes Region, so be wary when travelling.

And at the very least, you might want to think twice before following any spheres of glowing light!  ;-)

Mythical Monday: The Ghosts of the Drish House by Mae Clair

A federal style edifice located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Drish House was constructed in 1839 for Dr. John Drish. An affluent physician, Drish moved there with his second wife and his daughter, Katherine, from a previous marriage. Like many old homes, the Drish House is not without its share of legends, a few on the spookier side.  One of the home’s most striking features is a large central tower added in the early 1860s—a tower many claim becomes engulfed by flame in the middle of the night.

An image of the John Drish House By Alabama Department of Education (Alabama Department of Archives and History) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An image of the John Drish House By Alabama Department of Education (Alabama Department of Archives and History) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

According to legend, a runaway slave once hid in the tower. Eventually forced to reveal himself when thirst and starvation took their toll, he was turned over to his master. A viciously cruel man, the slave owner had him burned to death. To this day, fire plagues the tower as a reminder of his grisly execution. Perhaps it is his ghost sending a message to those who deemed his life of so little value.

Yet another tale involves a set of mysterious candles. Before Mrs. Drish died, she requested the same candles that had been burned at her husband’s funeral service be used at hers. Though many looked for them, they were not discovered until months later. Some believe it is Mrs. Drish’s spirit who lights the missing candles at night in order to illuminate the central tower.

Indeed, Drish family history is not without its share of bizarre and tragic incidents. The first involves Drish’s niece, Helen Whiting, who was a frequent visitor to her uncle’s home. Helen married a man named Fitch, a reportedly jealous sort with a fondness for drink. Employed as a carpenter, he was hired by her uncle to help build the massive staircase in Dr. Drish’s mansion. It was undoubtedly there that Helen first set eyes on the man who would become her husband–and eventually take her life. One day in a fit of rage, Fitch slit Helen’s throat, nearly severing her head from her body. He was later convicted, deemed insane, and locked in an asylum. Some tales say he remained there for the rest of his life, others that he was eventually deemed cured and released.

Around the same time, Katherine’s husband divorced her and sent her back to her family along with their two sons. He feared she, too, was going insane. As a young girl, Katherine had been subject to cruel treatment by her father. She made the mistake of falling for a man who did not meet Drish’s approval. In an effort to discourage the relationship, the doctor locked his daughter in her room for several weeks, allowing her only bread and water. Katherine’s love interest eventually left Tuscaloosa, coerced by her father, and she married a man named W.W. King. The marriage, however, was doomed from the start and with Katherine’s mental state rapidly deteriorating, King dumped her back on her father, and freed himself from the union.

With his niece dead, his daughter disgraced, and his fortune claimed by the hardships of the Civil War, Drish wasted away. He refused to eat and was kept alive through force feeding. He must have regretted his treatment of Katherine, for he made his wife promise she would never send his daughter to an asylum. Mrs. Drish kept the vow, but shuttered Katherine away in her bedroom, sealing the windows and ensuring the door was securely bolted at night. One afternoon, supposedly drunk, Drish leapt from his bed and ran for the staircase. In his stupor, he tripped and plummeted to his death.

His wife lived her remaining years in poverty, eventually perishing in 1884. Shortly before Mrs. Drish died, Katherine’s grown sons returned to the house and removed their mother. Her mental state had grown increasingly fragile over time. I can’t help wondering if her fate might have been different had she been allowed to marry the man of her choice.

Such a sad history. Especially when you consider Dr. Drish and his family weren’t characters in a book, but people who experienced these grim realities. There is no question he left a signature behind. The Drish House has inspired all manner of paranormal research and articles, and was even featured in the first of a series of books by Kathryn Tucker Windham called “13 Alabama Ghosts.”

Worth a shiver, wouldn’t you say?

Mythical Monday: The Burnt Swamp Monster by Mae Clair

Swamps just naturally seem to attract legends of monsters, and the Great Cypress Swamp of the Delmarva Peninsula is no exception. Locals tell countless tales of bizarre events associated with the swamp, dating as far back as the 1920s. According to folklore, two coon hunters were out with their dogs when they heard a horrible inhuman scream. The sound terrified them so much, they ran rather than fire, and were pursued by a large, lumbering creature. They never actually saw the beast, but heard its heavy tread as it gave pursuit, snapping off tree branches behind them.

Fog over a night time swamp

The tale grew over time, with the monster blamed for everything from mutilated chickens (they always get eaten, don’t they?), to missing pets, and even odd blood splatters found in the swamp. Most people avoided venturing into the dank area, but Prohibition was still going strong, making the site a favored hideaway for bootleggers.

In the early 1930s, Delmarva was plagued by extreme draught, the temperature climbing to a sweltering 110 degrees by July. It was during that exceptionally hot, dry summer that a massive fire took place. Most believe it started when a moonshiner’s still exploded. Fed by underground peat deposits, and the dried out “knees” of cypress trees that had been exposed by the draught, the blaze burned for eight months. Eight! Firefighters simply couldn’t combat it, and eventually it burnt itself out. From that time forward, the Great Cypress Swamp became known locally as the Burnt Swamp.

It’s rumored that a shingle-maker who lost his life in the fire still haunts the edges of the swamp. There are also references to the mysterious phantom of a young girl. Reportedly, a motorist who was driving across State Line Route 54 between Maryland and Delaware (a drive I have made many times) claimed to see a girl dressed in a flowing white gown. The girl ran across the road and vanished into the woods on the opposite side. The motorist was understandably shaken. Not only was the hour after midnight, but the girl carried her head in her hands.

As for the swamp monster, its preferred hunting time is thought to be late night or just after midnight. Descriptions from those who claim to have glimpsed the monster, range from a ghostly figure, to a hairy creature, to a two-legged, half-man animal. Is it possible this dark, perilous area is home to more than one supernatural being?

Others have reported hearing strange sounds and moans coming from the swamp and surrounding woods. On April 23, 1964, the Delmarva News ran a story on the swamp monster. Their reporter had spent nights in the swamp, tirelessly searching for the creature until he was finally able to capture it on film. A photo of the beast ran along with the story, and swamp fever was born. As it turns out, the story and photo were a hoax, a clever ruse and a bit of fun, undertaken by a local resident and the paper’s editor at the time. But it didn’t stop tales of the Swamp Monster from flourishing.

For years, teens flocked to the area, especially on Halloween night, daring each other to brave the haunted swamp as a rite of passage. Riddled with sinkholes and dangerous wildlife, it isn’t just the Burnt Swamp Monster those brave enough to try had to fear.

Swamps and bogeyman-like creatures are always entertaining tales for a late night campfire. Although I have visited Delmarva many times, and have never encountered the Burnt Swamp Monster, it’s interesting to note the legend lingers today. As a proper legend should.

Have you ever ventured into a swamp? Would you?