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Tracking The Leshy

slavic nature spiritMythology: When you think of it, what immediately comes to mind? If you’re like most people, it’s something Mediterranean: Greek, Roman or perhaps Egyptian. There have been, however, many more mythologies than those – more than will ever be counted. Mythologies are manifestations of human imagination, and as such, their scope is without limit.

I want to peek just a bit outside the realm of Mediterranean mythology today, heading a bit north and in the direction of the rising sun. Here we find the legends of the Slavs, the Poles, and the Russians, all of which tell of a strange spirit called the Leshy.

The Leshy, also known as the Leshovik, is generally agreed to be a nature spirit. The precise nature of the Leshy’s embodiment of nature seems to be subjectively determined, representing the attitude toward nature the storyteller adopts.

Perhaps the Leshy performs a sizing up of the people it deals with as well. There are tales of the Leshy working with shepherds to protect herd animals, if the proper arrangement can be struck. On the other hand, the Leshy was also known for causing travelers to lose their bearings in the wilderness. Whether this disorientation was intended to be malicious or helpful is not clear.

By some accounts, the Leshy could be deadly. As a trickster, it could lure into the back of the cave where it made its home, to be killed. But then, the character of this murder would show an odd mixture of aggression and humor. The Leshy was said to tickle its victims to death.

Christian church leaders spread tales of the Leshy that depicted it as an evil demon, a servant of Satan prowling the dark woods in search of human prey. These Christian depictions of the Leshy, however, seem like negative propaganda against a divine competitor of the Levantine God. As a competitor, the Leshy must have had its own attractive qualities, symbolizing a compelling, if different approach to mythic vision.

Indeed, Christian warnings about the Leshy seem simply not to understand the humor of the spirit. As its tickle attack suggests, the Leshy is a fine joke teller, exposing the ridiculous self-seriousness of human civilization, from a wild perspective. The Leshy exists outside the frame of human morality, but its irreverence doesn’t necessarily make it immoral.

The Leshy, when it appears in relatively human form, does so as a caricature, with its feet pointing backwards, as if the path it walks is forward and backwards and the same time. In this reconciliation of opposites, the Leshy exemplifies the classic trickster mode. The Leshy also mixes gender roles, appearing at times as male and at other times as female. It even crosses the phyla of life, manifesting as a wild animal, an anthropomorphic tree, or even a gigantic talking mushroom. None of these is its true form, for the Leshy cannot be confined by simple human notions of truth.

polish tree divinityIn order to escape the tricks of the Leshy, a human must become like the Leshy and adopt a trickster pose, wearing clothes inside-out and putting shoes on the wrong feet.

There are no non-fiction books devoted solely to the legend of the Leshy. The following are among the online sources available to us, each mostly using information derived from other online sources, in the slippery way of legend.

– There is, of course, a Wikipedia entry about the Leshy. That entry refers back to one old print source, the Dictionnaire Infernal, compiled by Louis Breton in the 19th century. Wikipedia also includes a list of depictions of the Leshy in popular media, including an episode of the TV series Supernatural.

– The Encyclopedia Brittanica provides the clue that, when appearing in human-like form, the Leshy can be identified by a missing right ear, as well as the absence of eyelashes and eyebrows.

Dutchie puts the Leshy into the same category as the Scandinavian elves, and points out that there may be multiple leshies, rather than just one Leshy who manifests in all forests. The alternative forms Leszi, Leshii, Lychie, and Laskowice are also given. Dutchie notes that the Leshy is known for the ability to drastically change in size, shifting from the size of a blade of grass to the height of the tallest trees. Additional identifying information for Leshy is provided: They have blue skin, green hair, and cloven hooves in the place of ordinary feet.

Fantasy writer T.F. Walsh characterizes the Leshy as the perpetrator of kidnappings, though its victims are always returned, if in a dazed and confused state.

– According to Iwan Groeneveld, the Leshy has eyes that are so big they pop out of their sockets.

Cryptoforest links the Leshy with the kind of moving-tree, path-shifting, woods-as-labyrinth experience that Frodo and his hobbit friends experienced in the Lord of The Rings.

Travel Creepster relates stories that the Leshy was originally a human being, and asserts that it kills by hugging, rather than by tickling.

Thinkquest says that the Leshy has no shadow, though it does have a stylish red scarf.

– The Arcana Wiki says that the Leshy may be willing to teach human beings how to do magic, but then also suggests that the Leshy may be a form of sasquatch… though the Leshy are on the other side of the world from Seattle’s Best Coffee.

– Role playing games tend to fiddle around with the characterization of the Leshy, as a description developed for AD&D says that the Leshy is a comical appearing elf-like being that wears red and green clothes… delivering double damage when attacking with a club.

Journeying Into The Goddess identifies Leshachikha as the wife of the Leshy. Together, they are said to die in the autumn and to be reborn in the springtime.

Monopteryx depicts the Leshy as a gangly sort of morph between a sickly crane and a goblin.

Mythical Beast Wars held a kind of contest in which people submitted quick sketches showing what they thought the Leshy might look like.

– The Leshy is spotted in Bosnia and the Isle of Wight in this series of photographs taken by the Cargo Collective.

Carol Bernhard provides more illustrations of the Leshy.

– A Leshy spotting may have been documented by Pavel Suprun… or maybe not.

– A translation of a short story about the Leshy is provided by Read Book Online.

– At UCLA, Dennis Rosenfeld and Mickey Goese have developed the Leshy into a video game character who grows trees in order to traverse a mechanical landscape.

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