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…

21 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: Lore of the Leshy by Mae Clair

  1. The Leshy is one of my favorites. I admire how he can grow from tiny blade of grass to the tremendous size of a tree. As someone who perceives faces in every bush, I know the Leshy is everywhere! Thank you for sharing this lovely Slavic tale. It gives a warm feeling to know of nature spirits that protect the planet’s green growing things.

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    • His ability to transform size and shape is so intriguing. Our forests are as thick and primal as the used to be, but the old tales are still shared generation to generation!

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  2. That is so interesting. Where I live the forest is so large that people get lost on occasion. In many instances, they discard their clothes, and often laugh maniacally. Could these real world occurrences have influenced the legend about clothing and tickling?

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  3. You are absolutely right, Mae! Despite man’s cockiness, there are so many unknown creatures/beings/spirits/worlds above, on and under the ground we step on. And you know what they say – there’s no smoke without a fire. I’m pretty certain there must be something out there… but are we willing to accept it? Thank you for sharing Leshy’s story! It amuses me reading about turning your clothes inside out. This is used here when you can’t find something and they say the devil took it. So, clothes turned inside out, or a glass turned with its mouth down and after a while you will find he misplaced object.

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    • Ooh, love that little bit of folklore, Carmen! I’ve seen the clothes-turned-inside-out as a warding against evil in other folktales as well. In those cases, it was supposed to confuse the creature allowing the potential victim time to flee. In the case of the Leshy, perhaps it means he can no longer see the person who has strayed into his terrain.

      For some reason, the Leshy also made me think of Bigfoot tales.

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  4. I’ve not heard of the Leshy before. The backwards clothes thing is an oddity. I know here people say if you wear something inside out you shouldn’t change it as it will change your luck but that’s a bit different. Fascinating and as you say there is more to legend and lore than we might guess.

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    • I’d never heard that bit of superstition about clothing worn inside out, Daisy. Another one I will have to add to my collection! There are some superstitions I find myself adhering to, but I think if I walked outside with my shirt or skirt on inside out, I’ve have to trek right back inside and fix the offending item, LOL!

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  5. Pingback: Mythical Monday: Lore of the Leshy by Mae Clair...

    • I think I’d be happy observing him from a safe distance, too, Debbie. For some odd reason this tale reminds me of an episode of Night Gallery that has stuck in my head since I was a little girl. I think I’m going to need to look it up!

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  6. The Leshy in that first picture is ominous.
    What strange things have you seen on your hikes? I think there might be another story/novel there? 🙂

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    • I think the oddest thing my husband and I ever stumbled across were the foundation stones of an old house (at least that’s what we assumed it was). There were three crumbled tombstones nearby, just remnants of what should have been there. I think you’re right–that would make an interesting story *as my muse kicks into overdrive: 😀

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  7. I have to say he doesn’t look particularly attractive, but I guess after a life of nuts and berries with no razor I’d seem a little bit scruffy to the casual weekend picnicker too. Something of the legends of the Celts in this, isn’t there? When their land was invaded by the Saxons and those ropey old Jutes they were said to have hidden in the forests. They were quite benign, too. Stories of their emerging at night to do your gardening for you, so intense was their yearning for the land….I wish I had one of them hiding out near me.

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    • Imagine, how well they must have tended the land! With their magical touch, I bet all those gardens flourished. As some one who loves vegetables, my mouth is watering think of the harvests. You’re right, Frederick….maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have one hiding out nearby. As long as they had no desire to start tickling. Then I’d have to switch my shoes in a hurry!

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