With its rich folklore, deep woods filled with wild boars, wolves and massive bison, and dark 20th century history, Poland often feels haunted by monsters.
I first went to Poland when I was eighteen and among the places I visited was the fairy-tale city of Kraków. Although I traveled extensively afterwards, I found myself returning to Kraków again and again in my imagination.
Why? Because I once heard of the defeat of the dragon that supposedly dwelled beneath the Wawel Castle described in the same breath as the cruelty of the Nazi governor Hans Frank, who lived in the Wawel during the German occupation. Because in Kraków, and perhaps in all of Poland, history and legend seem to blend together to create a single story where both real and mythological monsters are linked.
My interest in exploring this idea in Polish folklore eventually led to my debut novel, The Dollmaker of Kraków, in which I blended very real history with folktales. It was the only way I could make sense of the past myself.
After all, what says more about a culture than its monsters?
Południca (“Lady Midday”) or the Noon Witch/Noon Wraith is a demon who preys on agricultural workers. She haunts fields and farms, appearing to torment laborers at the hottest part of the day. She typically takes the form of a beautiful woman wearing a white dress, but can also appear as a great dust cloud. Południca’s touch brings exhaustion, heat stroke, an aching neck, and even insanity to her victims. She is a force of nature, the embodiment of summer heat that can sometimes be deadly.
Południca appears not only in Polish folklore, but across the Slavic world and even in Germanic cultures, where she is called Mittagsfrau.
Rusałki have gone through many evolutions over time. They may have originally been connected to the Slavic pagan pantheon, but are now water spirits who haunt lakes, rivers, and swamps. (Poland, you see, has a great many of all three.) They’re often equated with mermaids or sirens, drowning male victims who they lure to them using their beauty. Why? Because a rusałka is not born; she is made. A woman becomes a rusałka after committing suicide or being murdered by male relatives or lovers near water. Her evil may in fact be revenge for the evils done to her in the past. In other words, tragedy brings more tragedy.
Rusałki endure to this day. In the opera of the same name by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, a rusałka falls in love with a human man and gives up her immortality to be with him, much like the mermaid in Han Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale. Rusałki also appear in modern works such as the Witcher series Andrzej Sapkowski, which has been made into three popular video games, and the fiction of Catherynne M. Valente.
A wodnik is a male water spirit who is extremely wicked, spitefully drowning swimmers and keeping their souls trapped in his teapot forever.
Like a rusałka, a wodnik is made rather than born. Unbaptized boys and men who commit suicide near a river, stream or lake are all susceptible to becoming one of these fearsome creatures. But unlike the rusałki, wodniki are not beautiful; they either appear as an ordinary peasant or an old man covered in slime and scales. Wodniki are also rumored to be able to transform themselves into fish–you may not know you have encountered a wodnik until it is too late! But a wodnik may not be entirely heartless. Fisherman who please them are said to have found their nets overflowing with fish.
Those across the Slavic world and even German-speaking peoples are aware of the wodnik. He is known as a vodník in the Czech Republic, vodyanoi in Russia, and Wassermann in Germany.
Some of the oldest vampire stories originated in the Slavic world and Polish vampires—wąpierz—are some of the most famous of all.
Being born with teeth, having an animal jump over one’s grave shortly after the burial, having kyphosis (a curvature of the spine), or not being baptized could all be signs that a person will become a wąpierz after their death. These monsters stalk their own relatives after rising from the dead and suck their blood. Rather than having fangs however, a wąpierz has a barb on the underside of its tongue.
Because Poles once believed that vampires were a common problem, they developed a number of methods for dealing with them. Stones were piled on top of graves and shoved into the mouths of corpses to prevent them from biting anyone if they came back as an undead creature. People were buried face down with their hands and feet bound, or with a sickle across their necks in the hopes that if they rose, they would be decapitated when they sat up. Wooden stakes made from linden or hawthorn were even driven through the hearts of corpses!
Vampires frequently appear as characters in Polish Romantic literature. One is even a protagonist Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), a patriotic, romantic drama that is required reading for Polish students.
Czernobog (literally “black god”) has cast a shadow over the Slavic world for centuries but strangely enough, not much is known about him. The first written record we have of Czernobog comes from Chronica Slavorum (Chronicle of the Slavs), written by a priest named Helmold in the 12th century. When Helmold entered a Slavic pagan community in the hopes of converting them to Christianity, he was told that all evil in the world was caused by the “black god” or Czernobog. This monstrous deity was seen as a wolf or dragon.
The most famous depiction of Czernobog is in the “Night on Bald Mountain” montage of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, where he is a Satan-like figure who controls demons and ghosts. This is unsurprising, since many creatures and deities in Polish folklore were “rebranded” as Christianized figures after the country became largely Catholic. Czernobog is also a character in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
I return to Poland every summer to help restore Jewish cemeteries. And in the bright fields and dense forests where these overgrown and largely desecrated graveyards sit, echoes of monsters—human and otherwise—still feel as if they linger.
Win a copy of The Dollmaker of Kraków by R. M. Romero
The fabulous folks over at Walker Books have kindly offered a copy of R. M. Romero’s excellent novel,
The Dollmaker of Kraków, for a lucky #FolkloreThursday reader this April,
with another going to a #FolkloreThursday Patreon sponsor!*
‘A timeless fantasy set in the Second World War that weaves together magic, folklore and history, perfect for fans of The Book Thief, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Goodnight Mister Tom.
One night a little doll named Karolina comes to life in a toyshop in Kraków, Poland, in 1939 and changes the life of the gruff, broken-hearted Dollmaker. And when the darkness of the Nazi occupation sweeps over the city, Karolina and the Dollmaker must bravely use their magic to save their Jewish friends from a terrible danger, no matter what the risks. This powerful story is about finding friendship in the darkest of places and the importance of love in times of great pain..’
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*Or sign up as a #FolkloreThursday supporter on Patreon to become eligible to receive folklore gifts.
Buy the book here.
Recommended Books from #FolkloreThursday
- Asala, Joanne. Polish Folklore and Myth. Penfield Press, 2001.
- Knab, Sophie Hodorowicz. Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore. Hippocrene Books, 1996.
- Kushnir, Dmitriy. The Slavic Way. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.
- Philips, Charles, and Kerrigan, Michael, eds. Forests of the Vampires: Slavic Myth. Time Life Education, 1999.
- Pilkington, Ace, and Pilkington, Olga, eds. Fairy Tales of the Russians and Other Slavs. Forest Tsar Press, 2009.