An International Survey of Spooks: From Baba Yaga to El Hombre del Saco

Not every country celebrates Halloween at the same time or in the same way as the USA. Most countries do, however, have a rich tradition of monster lore that reveals cultural norms, behavioral expectations, and methods for reducing wayward children into quivering heaps of terror. In the following selection, loosely categorized, you can see human similarities across cultures embodied in what we fear. (Perhaps, if you’re a bit more fun, you even see the similarities as evidence for the validity of spooks in the world!)

We present ALTA’s guide to evil creatures around the world, with handy references for how to spot them.

Witches

Witches around the world may have individual preferences for lodging and transport, but they are overwhelmingly portrayed as solitary, older women with a raging thirst for blood.

Soucouyant — the Caribbean

In Dominica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucian, and across the Caribbean as well as parts of Louisiana and Haiti, this witch pulls off her skin at night and flies through the sky as a fireball looking for victims. She can enter the home through any tiny crack or keyhole, and she will suck the victim’s blood while they sleep. Not all victims die. Some are simply left with blue marks, while others become Soucouyants in turn. To protect yourself, you must place bowls of rice around the house – the Soucouyant has to count every grain before she can enter. To destroy a Soucouyant, salt must be poured over the mortar where she stores her skin.

How to spot: While the original folk story described a reclusive old woman with a skin condition, over time this occupation has become less limited to the elderly. Today any female can be accused of being a Soucouyant.

Baba Yaga — Russia

Perhaps Russia’s most famous folk character, this witch lives deep in the woods in a hut that is always turning around on its huge chicken legs, surrounded by a fence made of human bones. It is to be noted that Baba Yaga never goes looking for victims unprovoked – they must knock on her door first. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because Baba Yaga is a powerful ally, and if you complete the tasks she sets you she always keeps her promises. Not to mention she has three servants – the Day, the Sun, and the Night – who are riders on enormous horses, white, red, and black. She is a figure of ambiguous intent, sometimes a maternal representative of justice, other times an evil villain with a huge appetite for cooking people in her enormous oven.

How to spot: A bony, ancient hag with iron teeth and a nose so long it touches the ceiling when she sleeps, catch her flying through the sky in a giant mortar and pestle or travelling around with death and eating the souls of his victims.

Jenny Greenteeth — Lancashire, England

This cruel hag is also known as Ginny, Jeannie, or Wicked Jenny, depending on which part of England you’re swimming in. While she is an equal-opportunity murderer and is liable to drown both young and old in the dark waters of her home, she prefers young children when selecting victims. Next time you enter murky, stagnant water and feel some river fronds brush your feet, it’s most likely Greenteeth’s hair ready to tangle you up and never let you go. Parents used this story to scare children away from playing in deep water.

How to spot: Jenny has a green complexion, hair made of water plants, and razor-sharp teeth.

Ghouls

Supernatural personifications of our fears and useful examples of what happens to the socially ostracized, ghouls around the world are busy keeping young and old on the straight and narrow.

La Llorona — Mexico

The legend of this “Weeping Woman” is popular throughout the southwestern US and Mexico. While there are many versions and her origins can be traced back over four hundred years, the most common story is that of a young peasant woman who married a wealthy man. Eventually, the woman’s husband lost interest in her. One day, while walking by the river with their two children, the woman spotted her husband riding by with a beautiful, younger woman. Overcome by rage, the woman flung her children into the river, drowning them. When she calmed down and realized what she’d done, she drowned herself as well, and now wanders along riversides for all eternity calling for her lost children. In some traditions, La Llorona is feared and used as a disciplinary figure liable to seize disorderly children to drown in place of her own. In another tradition, seeing La Llorona is a presentiment of one’s own death.

How to spot: A tall, thin woman dressed all in white, wailing for her children near running water.

Mörkö — Finland

This ghoul just wants to be friends. The embodiment of solitude and cold, he freezes the ground and kills the plants wherever he stands. As he wanders Finland in search of warmth and connection, ice and snow leave a trail behind him. Unsurprisingly, his friendly overtures are always rejected. Festering alone in his frozen cave in the Lonely Mountains, his example strikes fear into the hearts of disobedient Finnish children.

How to spot: A hill-shaped ghost with two cold staring eyes and many white, shiny teeth.

Abu Rigl Maslukha — Egypt

The Egyptian bogeyman, his name means “the Man with the Burnt Leg.” A monster who was burned because when he was a child he did not follow the directions of his parents, he is doomed to spend all eternity hunting down disobedient children to burn them alive and eat them.

How to spot: Preceded by the smell of burned flesh, he appears as a horrifically disfigured limping man.

Baubas — Lithuania

An evil spirit who is already inside your home – the Lithuanian equivalent of the boogeyman lives under carpets, in closets, and in dark corners, where he can hear everything children say and watch every misstep they make.

How to spot: He has long skinny arms, wrinkled fingers, and burning red eyes.

Bogeymen (or Bogeywomen)

While most spooks in our compendium wouldn’t turn down a youthful snack, given how many are inspired by storytellers with a fervor to keep children on their best behavior, these baddies practice child-snatching as a profession. These spooks typically have an impeccable awareness of the time and healthy respect for the importance of a good night’s rest.

El Hombre del Saco — Latin America, Spain, Brazil, and Portugal

The legend of a man carrying a large sack into which he puts disobedient children is common in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries around the world. His appearance is your basic hulking presence on the street with a bag over his shoulder, ready to snatch children who are out on the streets at night – and what more is really needed to scare anyone?

How to spot: If it’s Christmas you’re probably in the clear – sorry for the mix-up, Santa – but otherwise, be weary of large men wielding even larger bags.

Cuca — Brazil

Originally a Portuguese dragon legend, the Cuca was brought to Brazil in colonial times in the form of a terrifying lullaby. She is an ugly old woman who takes the form of a crocodile and steals disobedient children. She only sleeps once every seven years, allowing her to maintain near-constant vigilance on the sleep patterns of all children. What more soothing melody to fall asleep to than “sleep, little one/the Cuca’s going to get you?”

How to spot: Whether it’s the Cuca or just an actual crocodile, beware hazardous reptiles around small children.

Bonhomme Sept-Heures — Quebec

The French-Canadian boogeyman is very punctual -his name literally means the “man of seven o’clock.” Another man with a big coat and a big sack filled with children, this one enters the bedroom of a child who is supposed to be sleeping to check if they are still awake. All children who made it into the sack were said to be beaten and never returned to their families.

There is another origin story for his name, dating back to French-Canadian communities in the 1800s. Most people did not receive more than an eighth grade education and finding quality medical care was difficult. Where educated doctors were not available, folk healers were consulted. One such figure is the bone setter, who would reset out-of-place bones to help them heal properly. This was painful work before the invention of anesthetics. Children could hear the screaming of victim-patients and fear the visits of this man. Parents used this to their sadistic advantage, threatening a visit from the bone setter if they did not sleep when they were supposed to. It is possible that the French translation of the word “bone-setter” could have turned into the phrase “bonhomme sept-heures,” which sounds similar but has a different meaning in French.

How to spot: An old man with a huge coat and hat, carrying a sack large enough to accommodate children who have stayed up past their bedtime.

Troublemakers and Tricksters

Typically, this category of creature is not purely evil, but more of a sporting sort of evil. A personification of nature, if you will, able to fight back and give as good as it gets.

Tata Duende — Belize

The guardian angel of all animals and people of the forest, he is a kind creature by nature and often feeds and protects people hurt or lost there. A friend to animals, he does punish those who kill more game than they need.

How to spot: Often sighted when it rains and during Lent, most sightings also occur at night. A whistling sound signals his approach, and because he is a trickster, you should really be worried when the whistle sounds distant, because that means he is close by.

Cluricaun — Ireland

This is the debauched cousin of the leprechaun, a sprite-sized old man known for being in a perpetual state of drunkenness and love of playing practical jokes. W.B. Yeats described them as “slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms.”

How to spot: just look for a very, very merry leprechaun.

Leshy — Eastern Europe/Russia

In Slavic mythology, the Leshy is the forest spirit. They enjoy playing tricks on people, though when angered can be terrifying and murderous. Rarely sighted, their laughter and whistling resonate through the forest, where they are as tall as the trees. As soon as they step outside of their native forest, they shrink to the height of a blade of grass. They have the ability to imitate the voices of a traveler’s loved ones and will cry out to get their victims to wander deeper into thickets or caves. Stories also exist of accidentally murderous Leshy who didn’t know when enough fun was enough and tickled victims to death. If you’re ever lost in a Russian wood, sit under a tree and put your clothes on backwards, including your left shoe on your right foot. The Leshy will be deeply impressed and stop playing tricks on you.

How to spot: the Leshy looks like a man, though with a very pointy head and without eyebrows, eyelashes, or a right ear.

Aquatic Creatures

If deep, dark waters aren’t scary enough to dissuade you from jumping in, stories of these terrifying creatures are sure to do the trick.

Chesma iyesi — Turkey

These female monsters inhabit a particular well, fountain, or spring. They take multiple forms to entice young people into the water and drown them. However, if you can avoid the creature, the water from their wells is also believed to have lucky and curative properties.

How to spot: This is a shape shifter, who will appear either as a cat, a fairy, or mermaid-like creature. More tricky ones will take the appearance of an attractive human woman, but the hem of her skirt will always be wet

Nyaminyami — Zimbabwe

A river god believed to live in the Kariba Gorge in the Zambezi valley, where he works as a protector of the Tonga people. His presence asserted itself in 1956, when colonialists began work on a hydroelectric dam that would force relocation of the Tonga people and destroy their idyllic valley. The Nyaminyami sent two unprecedented, 1,000-year floods back to back in 1957 and 1958, the first of which caused devastation to the project and cost the lives of many dam workers. Although the dam was eventually completed, it is believed that Nyaminyami was separated from his wife by the construction and to this day tremors felt in the area are due to the god trying to reach his wife. The Tonga have hope that he will one day destroy the dam to reunite with her.

How to spot: This creature has the head of a fish and the body of a snake or dragon and is surrounded by whirlpools.

Vodyanoy — Russia

An evil and vindictive water spirit whose favorite activities are playing cards, smoking a pipe, and dragging victims to watery deaths. While they have no powers on land, they’re pretty much invincible in water, and have a particular preference for swamps and rivers with strong currents. Besides drowning human victims, they are known to destroy dams and watermills and drown animals if angered. Historically, fishermen, millers, and other villagers would make sacrifices to the local Vodyanoy to appease him. They are also known to place alluring items like ribbons and mirrors near the banks of their rivers to entice unsuspecting people to get a closer look.

Note: the Czech, Slovenian, and Slovak variety of Vodyanoy comes in two varieties – a good and an evil. Their main aim is to trap the souls of drowned humans in porcelain cups with lids. These cups with entrapped souls are a form of currency, the number of cups representing the Vodyanoy’s status to others.

How to avoid: anyone bathing after sunset, on a holy day, or without having first made the sign of the cross is at particular risk of being attacked.

The Uncategorizable, or Things that Typically Live in Bogs

Will-o’-the-wisp — bogs around the world

Known by a variety of names in English folklore (including friar’s lantern, hinkypunk, and fairy fire), this ghostly light is seen at night in bogs, swamps, or marshes, and misleads lone travelers off the path. After the traveler follows the light long enough, it is extinguished, leaving them hopelessly lost. Varieties of this tale appear all over the world, from Texas to Thailand, and while some insist that there are atmospheric/barometric and soberly scientific explanations for the phenomenon, many others claim to have experienced a directed intelligent maliciousness when following these ghost lights.

How to spot: if you do find yourself wandering in a bog, assume that any mysterious lights you see are not benevolent strangers leading you to safety!

H’awouahoua — Algeria

A monstrous creature made of different animal parts with flaming eyes, this is known for eating children alive. While it isn’t attractive enough to lure children to their deaths, it makes up for it with good old-fashioned agility. Algerian parents warn children not to walk alone at night or risk being scooped up and gulped down.

How to spot: The H’awouahoua has the tail of a scorpion, one leg from a donkey and another from a panther, the claw of a lobster as a right hand, the hand of a monkey for the left, the chest of a turtle, the horns of a mountain goat, the face of an ape, and eyes of… flaming spit. Its hair is poisonous snakes waiting to strike anyone in range, and it wears a coat of patched together scraps of clothing from children it has devoured. If you’ve had time to note all of this, you’re probably already inside the H’awouahoua.

Abhartach — Ireland

This is a vampire wizard dwarf, an erstwhile warlord with the power to rise from the grave and wreak havoc. In some versions of this myth, the creature drinks the blood of his victims, leading some academics to believe that it was this monster who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The only way to fight back is to kill him with a sword made from yew wood, bury him upside down, surround the grave with thorns, and place a large stone slab on top of it.

How to spot: look for a short, undead Irish warlord with dark magical powers and a serious Napoleon complex.


Sources:

https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/baba-yaga-confounding-crone-slavic-folklore-002836

https://allthatsinteresting.com/la-llorona

https://arcanebeastsandcritters.wordpress.com

https://www.zeus.aegee.org/magazine/2016/10/31/top-10-scariest-creatures-in-european-folklore/

https://prezi.com/8ipfcf_fhjvc/the-myth-the-boogeyman/

https://blogs.transparent.com/portuguese/the-legend-of-the-cuca/

https://mythicalmonstersandcreaturez.blogspot.com/2018/04/mythical-creatures-in-peoples.html

https://listverse.com/2013/07/07/ten-witches-you-do-not-want-to-mess-with/

https://www.britannica.com/

https://inthedarkair.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/malicious-myths-the-vodyanoy

https://www.historicmysteries.com

https://danijelmatanic.com/slavic-myths/

https://pantheon.org/articles/k/kludde.html

http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=16282

http://www.strangenewengland.com/2015/07/18/7-oclock-man-bogeyman-maine/

https://europeisnotdead.com/european-monsters/

https://www.oyektm.com/single-post/mythical-creatures-in-nepal

http://emeraldisle.ie/abhartach-the-dwarf-king


Maria Diment was born in Russia and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works in the Translations Department at ALTA Language Services.

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