Last week we looked at the Vodyanoi; Russia’s water-dwelling folk monsters. This week, we’ll start by looking at another potential supernatural hazard: the Leshy.
As with the Vodyanoi, Leshy epitomise a common rural danger, particularly in ancient times: that of being lost in the forest. It was quite possible that a person could disappear without trace in a massive wilderness populated by bears, tigers, wolverines, snakes, wild boar, lynx and wolves, though the catch-all: Leshy were to blame.
With limited navigation and medical aids, the prospect of wandering into trouble and being unable to extricate yourself was very real. A broken leg in the wilderness or being caught, ill-prepared in the Russian winter could easily result in a person’s demise, with the body devoured and dispersed by the wildlife. The complete absence of any remains could easily lend a supernatural aspect to the mystery. Even today; hundreds of people still disappear in Russia on a daily basis, and in spite of modern technology and the emergency services; some will still never be found.
Leshy are described as a wood-dwelling hybrids of nature and trickster spirits: tall, humanoid with pale skin, vivid green eyes and possessing beards formed of grass and vines. More animalistic depictions give their true forms animal-like fur, horns, tails and hooves, though they are capable of changing shape to resemble any living animal or plant, and in size from a grass blade to a massive forest tree. They are the rulers of their domain and carry wooden clubs as a staff of office. Animals of the wood and forest are their subjects and companions in equal measure.
They delight in pranks against unwary human travellers en-route through their kingdom, with the aim of confusing such interlopers so that they may lose their way. Their shape-shifting abilities allow them to manifest in the guise of a peasant or a wanderer’s relative, or to mimic calls of loved ones to deceive their targets. In each case luring him or her deeper into the forest – or into caves where they tickle their victims to death(?). It is said that the illusory being will have shining, animal-like eyes, hair that is unnaturally long, and inexplicably, wear black shoes back-to-front and a bright red waistband or hat – almost literally a red flag to signify the danger posed by the creature.
Curiously, they seem to have a mixed relationship with humans; their pranks and confusing antics are often simply entertainment and an end in themselves. They can even enjoy human company, and especially human tobacco, if it is offered. They will even go one step further, shifting into the form of a villager so that they can join a celebration, and get supernaturally drunk and rowdy (unless spotted and driven away). If not, the pounding of their inebriated dance will send supernatural shockwaves throughout the vicinity, causing the village and its inhabitants to descend into chaos and disorder.
Paradoxically, both prayers and obscenities can be used to dispel them, as can the apparent confusion of wearing your clothes inside-out or swapping left/right shoes. Oddly, simple counter-measures seem to be the most effective.
It’s probably no surprise that instructions to avoid angering the Leshy on their own turf (the woods or forest) correspond almost exactly to advice given to avoid wild dangers of a more prosaic nature. Don’t go into the woods alone, don’t go at night, don’t sleep on the path (in full view of anyone/anything?), don’t blithely charge around disturbing the denizens or overlooking pitfalls etc. Just the usual, natural/supernatural precautions, really!