I doubt that the evil spirits of the past, under which we in Europe have already suffered more than enough this century, have been banished for ever.
Beware, this is not an article about kind and harmless European creatures – this is about fierce European monsters! Naughty children across Europe face the same threat of terrifying beings that come at night to scare, kidnap or even eat them when they are asleep or if they misbehave. Let’s be honest: parents were not lacking of imagination when they dreamt up these frightening beasties. In Spain, a hairy hand may grab your feet at night, while in Luxembourg, a Kropemann may drown you in your bathroom or even your own toilet. And what about Rézfaszú bagoly in Hungary, the evil copper penis owl? There’s no doubt, these monsters are part of our common European heritage and should be celebrated as such. So read ahead – if you dare – to discover the Irish Dullahan, the Finnish Mörkö, the Austrian Krampus, the Czech Krakonoch, the Ukrainian Baba Yaga and the Turkish Öcü…
The Bicho-papão is an imaginary monster from Portuguese children’s mythology, also found lurking in other parts of the Iberian Peninsula, such in as Galicia, Catalonia and the Astúrias. The Bicho-papão is the embodiment of fear, a mutant creature which can take on multiple forms – of any living person, of a spirit or of a monstrous animal. Of all its prey, it finds naughty children particularly delicious. No wonder Bicho-papão is used by parents to frighten children and prevent them from disobeying – with the oft-heard refrain “behave! Otherwise the Bicho-papão will come”. Feeling alone and helpless, the children tend to obey… But the Bicho-papão is also the theme of an old Portuguese children’s song: “Go Bicho-papão, go away – above this roof – let the boy sleep – a restful nap.”
La Mano Peluda or “The Hairy Hand” is said to belong to a man killed during the Inquisition. His appendage is said to have come back to life to seek revenge on his enemies – a scary, hairy monster who grabs your feet at night when you’re sleeping. La Mano Peluda became a legend used to scare small children – particularly just after sunset if they refuse to come in for dinner and bedtime. A variation of the legend says that the hand belongs to a Spanish traveler buried in a cemetery in India.
Le Grand Méchant Loup
Le Grand Méchant Loup, or “Big Bad Wolf”, is a fictitious animal that appears in several precautionary fables and fairy tales, including those by La Fontaine and Charles Perrault. If versions of this character have appeared in numerous works across Europe, becoming a generic archetype of a menacing and villainous predator thanks to the writings of the Brothers Grimm, it has gained a particular significance in French folklore. This may be linked to the true story of the Beast of Gévaudan: between 1764 and 1770, peasants from a province in south-central France were terrorised by a man-eating wolf-like animal which killed between 60 to 100 adults and children. This dramatic episode gave birth to the French Loup Garou – like a werewolf, but able to turn into a wolf at will, rather than just at the full moon. Remember it next time you visit France!
The Dullahan means, roughly, “dark man.” He rides a black horse with flaming eyes, while carrying his own head under one arm. Whenever he stops riding, a human dies. The Dullahan’s eyes are small, black, and constantly dart about like flies, while the mouth is always in a hideous grin that touches both sides of the head. There is no way to bar the road to a Dullahan – all locks and gates open to him when he approaches. He does not appreciate being spied on while on his murderous errands. Those who try to do so risk having their eyes lashed out with a whip, or having a basin of blood thrown over then – often itself a sign that they are among the beast’s next victims. The monster is frightened of gold, and even a single gold pin can drive a Dullahan away. The Dullahan is a regular character in fantasy fiction and video games.
The Bogeyman is a mythical creature in many cultures. He is used by adults to force children into compliant behaviour. The Bogeyman has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community; in many cases, he has no set appearance in the mind of an adult or child, but is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror – the creature coming to get children who misbehave. The Bogeymen may target a specific mischief – for instance, relentless thumb-sucking – or general misbehaviour, depending on what pedagogical purpose needs to be fulfilled. The word bogey is derived from the Middle English bogge/bugge, from which the word “bug” also originates.
A troll is a supernatural being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. According to Old Norse sources, trolls are said to dwell on isolated mountains, on rocks, and in caves. They sometimes live together (usually as father-daughter or mother-son), but are rarely described as helpful or friendly. Numerous tales are told, but they are often described as being extremely old, very strong, but slow and dim-witted. It is sometimes said they are man-eaters and that sunlight turns them to stone; they also have a nasty a habit of bergtagning (‘kidnapping’; literally “mountain-taking”) and overrunning a farm or estate. One thing is for sure: trolls are dangerous, even if some specimens joined human societies.
Draugen is the monstrous ghost of a man who died at sea. He is huge, covered in seaweed, and rows in half a boat. He emits a terrible scream when he appears, and legend has it he can be seen during stormy nights at sea, drowning sailors and fishermen, and sinking their boats and ships. There is a story of a man who once ran from Draugen into a churchyard, where he shouted for the spirits of the dead to protect him. The next day, all the graves were open, and the churchyard was covered in seaweed. Nowadays Draugen is commonly associated with anything dark and mystical about the sea.
The imaginary Mörkö strikes fear into the heart of many Finnish children. He appears as a ghost-like, hill-shaped body with two cold staring eyes and a wide row of white shiny teeth. Wherever he stands, the ground below him freezes and plants and grass die. Mörkö leaves a trace of ice and snow when he walks the earth, and can even freeze a campfire by sitting on it. He seeks friendship and warmth, but he is always rejected by everyone and everything, and must fester in his cold cavern on top of the Lonely Mountains. The most famous appearance of Mörkö these days is in the Moomins, originally written in Swedish, in which Groke is a similar terrifying creature.
Her name gave birth in English to the word “nightmare” – as well as “mardröm“ in Swedish, “mareritt” in Norwegian, “Mareridt“ in Danish and “martröð” in Icelandic. The Mare is an evil spirit in Germanic and Nordic folklore which rides on people’s chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams. Her existence is attested as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century, but the story itself is likely to be considerably older. This terrifying creature is believed to “ride” horses, leaving them exhausted and covered in sweat by the morning. The Mare can even ride trees, causing branches to get tangled up. She also has the power to entangle the hair of a sleeping man or a beast, resulting in “marelocks”.
Zwarte Piet, or “Black Peter”, is the companion of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of the Low Countries. Like Santa Claus, Zwarte Piet is a hybrid stock character of pagan origin. In its modern form, the character is commonly depicted in blackface make-up, and dressed in stylised colourful Renaissance attire. The appearance of the Zwarte Piet legend by and large coincided with a change in attitudes towards Santa Claus himself. Previously, the latter had himself been rather severe towards bad children; until he found his scandalous sidekick, even Saint Nick had himself been presented as something of a bogeyman. Fortunately, Piet then relieved him of his more negative traits.
Real odd creature this one seems to be. Kropermann is a horrible monster living in lakes and seas throughout Luxembourg. He is said to lurk in the water, spearing children who venture too close. The monster can also appear in bathrooms, bathtub and even toilets. Would you want to have to go to the bathroom and something like this is in the room with you?
The Père Fouettard, “whipping father”, is a popular character in Belgium and the eastern regions of France. This man with a sinister face dresses in dark robes with scraggly unkempt hair and a long beard. He accompanies St. Nicholas on 6 December, dispensing lumps of coal and/or floggings to naughty children. The Père Fouettard is armed with either a whip, a large stick, or bundles of switches. The origins of Père Fouettard dates back from the year 1150, when a butcher captured three wealthy-looking boys who were on their way to enrol in a religious boarding school. With the help of his wife, he killed the children to steal all their money.
The Schwarze Mann (black man) is the most famous children’s monster in Germany. Depending on the region and time, the Schwarze Mann was depicted with different features : a dark shadowy figure, a man with black clothes or a face blackened by ashes. But “Schwarz” does not really refer to the colour of his skin but to his preference for hiding in dark places: forests at night, the wardrobe, or even under the bed. There is also a game for little children called Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann (Who is afraid of the black man?) or an old traditional folk song Es tanzt ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann in unserm Haus herum (a Bi-Ba-Bogeyman dances around our house).
During the Sechseläuten, a traditional spring holiday in Zürich, Swiss people prepare the figure of a snowman, place it on top of a wooden pyre, fill it with explosives and burn it. This character is called a Böögg – originally a masked monster making mischief and frightening children during carnival season. Burnings of Böögg figures in spring are attested in various places of the city from the late 18th and early 19th century, without direct connection to the Sechseläuten. Popular tradition has it that the time between the lighting of the pyre and the explosion of the Böög’s head indicates the coming summer: a quick explosion promises a warm, sunny summer, a drawn-out burning a cold and rainy one.
In Italy L’uomo nero (‘the black man’) is a demon that can appear as a black man or a black ghost without legs, often used by adults to scare children when they don’t want to sleep. It inspired the children game “Avete paura dell’uomo nero?“. In different parts of the country the monster is also known as “Babau”. The origins of this monster is unknown. According to some sources, the Babau could be a remnant of the ancient fear against the Saracens from the 9th-10th century. If so, the word “Babau” could derive from the name of the Baban people. The most widespread interpretation, however, suggests the name “Babau” is an onomatopoeia – suggesting the barking of the dog or another animal.
The beast from Alpine folklore, Krampus, is thought to punish naughty children during the German Christmas season. The demonic creature is said to capture the worst offenders in his sack and carry them away to his lair. Traditionally young men dress up as the Krampus in Austria, southern Bavaria and South Tyrol, during the first week of December and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Krampus is said to be hairy, usually brown or black, and has the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. His long pointed tongue lolls out. Throughout Austrian history, there has been public debate about whether Krampus is appropriate for children or not…
Between the Czech Republic and Poland, somewhere in the Giant Mountains, lives the Krakonoch, a very capricious monster who makes the best of the forces of nature. He is able to crush a group of climbers with an avalanche, or save a frozen child taken in the snow by sending him a breath of spring. His unpredictability is, perhaps, not unlike our own; how nice or nasty we are with colleagues on Monday morning often depends on how much coffee we’ve had…
A Vodník is a male water spirit who is said to appear as a naked old man with a frog-like face, greenish beard, long hair and a body covered in muck and algae, on top of black fish scales. He has webbed paws instead of hands, a fish’s tail, and eyes that burn like red-hot coals. Czech, Slovenian and Slovak tales have both evil and good vodníci who, respectively, do or don’t try to drown people who happen to swim in their territory. Vodníci would store the souls of the drowned in porcelain lid-covered cups. They consider their cups as valuable artefacts and like to show them off to keep their friends jealous; the more cups they have, the better is their wealth and status among other vodníci.
Bubak – Hastrman
In Poland, children are frightened by a man with a sack: the Bubak (also, bebok, babok, or bobok, meaning “bugbear”) or hastrman (“scarecrow”). He takes children and also adults, and is known for hiding by riverbanks and making a sound like a lost baby, in order to lure the unwary visitor. He weaves on nights when there is a full moon, making clothes for his stolen souls, and has a cart drawn by cats. Our advice: try to steer clear of him at night!
Baubas is an evil spirit with long lean arms, wrinkly fingers and red eyes. He harasses people, tears their hair or stifles them. Alternatively, he can also be described as a dark black creature living under the carpet or in some dark spot of the house. A good reason to tidy up! Just as the Bogeyman, a misbehaving child is often advised by his parents to “Behave, or Baubas will come and get you”.
Burvji, burtnieki or Raganas… Latvian beliefs about evil spirits and sorcerers are a direct product of witch hunts from the 16th and 17th centuries. Raganas in particular are witches who enjoy stealing milk either by themselves or by controling toads and snakes who suck milk out of a cow’s udder and then regurgitate on command. They have the support of the devil to turn humans into various beings or make them evil spirits to serve them. Some believe that Raganas are actually spirits of the dead who served the devil or became sorcerers.
Külmking means cold-shoe in Estonian. And it’s also the name of a well-known malevolent supernatural creature in the country. It is believed that Külmking is the restless spirit of an unholy dead, that eats children when they bother the forest. It is also said that, when the earth dies, he will come back and wander to cause lots of damage. The Külmking has different haunting places and moves from one public place to another. They are said to turn living people into devils.
Дамавiк – Damavik
The Slavic Domovye (Damavik in Belarus) are small bearded elves covered in hairs. According to some traditions, Domovye take on the appearance of current or former owners of the house and have a grey beard, sometimes with tails or little horns. There are tales of neighbours seeing the master of the house out in the yard while in fact the real master is asleep in bed. It is believed that saying the word “master” in front of a Domovoy who shows up is actually a sign of praise to the creature and a proper way to address it, the family head included.
In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being who appears as a deformed and ferocious-looking old, elderly woman. Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells deep in the forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs, her fence is usually decorated with human skulls. In some tales, her nose may stick into the ceiling. Particular emphasis may be placed by some narrators on the repulsiveness of her nose, breasts or buttocks. In many fairytales she kidnaps and eats children by usually roasting them in an oven. Sometimes she frightens the hero of the story (for instance, by promising to eat him), but eventually helps him if he is courageous enough.
A Căpcăun is a creature from the Moldovan and Romanian folklore, depicted as an ogre who kidnaps children or young ladies (mostly princesses). He represents evil, as do his counterparts Zmeu and the Balaur. According to Romanian folkloric phantasy, the Căpcăun has a dog head, occasionally with four eyes, some in the nape, or four legs, but whose key characteristic is anthropophagy. The term Căpcăun also means “Tatar chieftain” or “Turk chieftain”, as well “pagan”. Some linguists believe that the word Căpcăun actually originates from the Turkish term kapkan (kaphan, kapgan) which used to be a high administrative rank.
Count Dracula is a legendary centuries-old vampire and the Lord of the Undead. During his human life, he was a noble Romanian knight known as Vlad The Impaler (Tepes) who suffered from the suicide of his pregnant wife. Dracula means “Son of The Devil” – a title he earned from his father who was called Dracul which means “The Devil”. According to the legend, a vampire is a person who does not die, an “un-dead,” whose corpse rises from the grave at night and seeks to suck the blood of the living. In Eastern Europe, vampires are believed to be afraid of garlic. This explains anyone who does not like garlic can be suspected of being a vampire. Dracula was popularized in the 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker.
The Copper-Penis Owl, apparently, is the Hungarian equivalent of the Bogeyman or the Big Bad Wolf. Little Marta doesn’t eat her peas? Janos Junior refuses to get to bed by seven? The Rézfaszú bagoly, or in English, the Copper-Penis Owl will get them! If you were a Hungarian child, your nightmares wouldn’t have featured toothy monsters and savage criminals. Instead, they would have been haunted by a nocturnal bird with a metal dong…
In Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, there is a type of vampire called Pijavica, which literally translates to “drinker”. It describes a type of vampire who has led an evil and sinful life as a human being and in turn, became a powerfully strong, cold-blooded killer. Incest, especially between mother and son, is one of the ways in which a Pijavica can be created. He usually comes back at night to scare his family, who can only protect themselves by placing mashed garlic and wine at their windows. Pijavica can only be killed by fire while awake and by using the Rite of Exorcism if found in its grave during the day.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Croatia – Serbia – Macedonia
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia the old Babaroga scares children with her horns. How she proceeds varies from one household to another. In one household, Babaroga would take children away, put them in a sack before going back to her cave to eat them. In another household, she would take children and pulls them up through tiny holes in the ceiling. The outcome is almost always seen as a grisly demise for her victim. Like all bogeymen, Babaroga is mainly used as a trick to scare children into good behaviour, such as making sure they go to bed or respect their elders.
In Bulgaria, children are sometimes told that a dark scary monster-like person called Torbalan (Bulgarian: “Торбалан”, which comes from “торба”, meaning a sack, so his name means “Man with a sack”) will come and put them in his large sack if they misbehave. He is the exact opposite figure of Dyado Koleda (Bulgarian: Дядо Коледа; corresponding to Santa Claus). Usually, he is known to children as the husband of Baba Yaga although this is based on folklore analogy.
Katallani and Gogoli
There are two similar creatures used to scare Albanian children. In the South (Vlore area) there is the Katallani which means “the Catalan” – a devil-like monster reminiscent of the memory of the Catalan occupation centuries ago. The Katallani monster is known to be quite primitive, and is depicted as a blacksmith with a wild look. Then in the rest of the country there is also Gogoli – which means “the Mongol” and is a collective memory of the Golden horde.
Greece – Cyprus
In Greece, children are afraid of Baboulas, which is the equivalent of the Bogeyman (Μπαμπούλας). Most of the times he hides under the bed, although parents talk about him in many different ways.
Young children are usually scared in Turkey by Öcü – an evil creature carrying a sack to capture and keep children. In old stories, Öcü was a helpful giant, named by Noah, who supported him in building his arch.