“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.”
Helmut Kohl, former chancellor of West Germany
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 coming out 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…
He 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… The Bicho-papão is also found lurking in other parts of the Iberian Peninsula, such in as Galicia, Catalonia and the Astúrias.
The Mano Peluda
This monstrous “hairy Hand” is said to belong to a man killed during the Inquisition or a dead Spanish traveler buried in a cemetery in India. His appendage came back to life to seek revenge on his enemies – a scary, hairy monster who will grab 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.
The Grand Méchant Loup
The “Big Bad Wolf” first appeared in several precautionary fables and fairy tales, including those by La Fontaine and Charles Perrault. The villainous predator has gained a particular significance in French folklore due 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, not only at full moon.
In Icelandic mythology, Grýla is a horrifying giantess living in the mountains of Iceland. She has a keen sense of hearing and – though she can detect misbehaving kids at any time of the year – is said to take them and eat them at Christmas Eve, making a stew from their wicked flesh. Her appetite is insatiable – but some say that there was never a shortage of food for her. Be assured though: the story is no more – the legend was brought to a halt when a 1746 public decree prohibited parents from traumatising their kids with the tale any longer.
He rides a black horse with flaming eyes, while carrying his own head under one arm. Whenever he stops riding, a human dies. 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 though, and even a single gold pin can drive a Dullahan away.
The Bogeyman has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from one household to another. He is however the embodiment of terror – the creature coming at night 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.
One thing is for sure: trolls are dangerous – do not approach them! They dwell on isolated mountains, on rocks, and in caves. They sometimes live in communities, but are rarely described as helpful or friendly. On the contrary, they have the nasty habit of bergtagning children (‘kidnapping’; literally “mountain-taking”) and overrunning farms or estates. Numerous tales describe them as being extremely old, very strong, but slow and dim-witted. Some say they are man-eaters and that sunlight turns them into stones.
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 that he can be seen during stormy nights at sea, drowning sailors and fishermen, and sinking their boats and ships. A man 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…
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. 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 who rides on people’s chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams. This terrifying creature is believed to “ride” horses, leaving them exhausted and covered in sweat by the morning. She can even ride trees, causing branches to get tangled up and entangle the hair of a sleeping man or a beast, resulting in “marelocks”.
The Zwarte Piet
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. Fortunately, Piet then relieved him of his more negative traits.
The Père Fouettard
The “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 is armed with either a whip, a large stick, or bundles of switches. He accompanies St. Nicholas on 6 December, dispensing lumps of coal and/or floggings to naughty children. 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.
This one seems to be a real odd creature. The 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… your toilets. Would you want to have to go to the bathroom and something like this is in the room with you?
The Schwarze Mann
The “black man” is the most famous children’s monster in Germany. Depending on the region and time, the Schwarze Mann is 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?).
The beast from Alpine folklore, Krampus, is thought to punish naughty children during the German Christmas season by capturing the worst offenders in his sack and carrying them away to his lair. The demonic creature 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. There is always an ongoing debate in Austrian society about whether Krampus is appropriate for children or not…
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 frightening children during carnival season. It is believed 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.
The Uomo Nero
The Italian “black man” is a demon that can appear as a man or a ghost without legs, often used by adults to scare children when they don’t want to go to bed. He is a prominent character in the children game “Avete paura dell’uomo nero?“. The origins of this monster is unknown. According to some sources, the Uomo Nero could be a remnant of the ancient fear of the Saracens from the 9th-10th century.
Between Czechia 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 mornings often depends on how much coffee we’ve had…
He 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. The Vodníci would store the souls of the drowned in porcelain lid-covered cups and keep them as valuable artefacts.
In Poland, children are frightened by a man with a sack or a scarecrow: the Bubak (also, bebok, babok, or bobok, meaning “bugbear”). He is known for hiding by riverbanks and making a sound like a lost baby, in order to lure the unwary visitor and take children and adults too. 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!
He 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 and turn living people into devils. 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.
The Damavik (Дамавiк)
The Damavik are small bearded elves covered in hairs with a grey beard, sometimes with tails or little horns. They take on the appearance of current or former owners of the house. 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 Damavik who shows up is actually a sign of praise to the creature and a proper way to address it.
The Baba Yaga
She is a supernatural being who appears as a deformed and ferocious-looking old, elderly woman. The 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 many fairytales she kidnaps and eats children by 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.
The Count Dracula
The legendary centuries-old vampire and Lord of the Undead was a noble Romanian knight during his normal life. He was known as Vlad The Impaler and suffered from the suicide of his pregnant wife. Dracula was popularised in the 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker. 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.
He is as an ogre who kidnaps children or young ladies (mostly princesses). 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. Some linguists believe that the word Căpcăun actually originates from the Turkish term kapkan (kaphan, kapgan) which used to be a high administrative rank.
The Rézfaszú Bagoly
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…
Pijavica literally translates to “drinker”. It is 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. The Pijavica can only be killed by fire while awake and by using the Rite of Exorcism if found in its grave during the day.
Croatia – Serbia – Bosnia and Herzegovina – Kosovo
In the Balkans, the old Babaroga scares children with her horns. How she proceeds varies from one household to another. In one household, the Babaroga would take children away, put them in a sack before going back to her cave and 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.
Bulgaria – North Macedonia
The Torbalan (Торбалан)
In Bulgaria, children are sometimes told that a dark scary monster-like person called the Torbalan will come and put them in his large sack if they misbehave. He is the exact opposite figure of Dyado Koleda (corresponding to Santa Claus). Usually, he is known to children as the husband of Baba Yaga although this is based on folklore analogy.
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
The Baboulas (Μπαμπούλας)
In Greece, children are afraid of Baboulas, which is the equivalent of the Bogeyman. Most of the times he hides under the bed, although parents talk about him in many different ways. Some say the Greek Baboulas originates from the Byzantine Vavoutsikos which had the form of an old man and was also used as a scarecrow for children.
In old times, Öcü used to be a helpful giant, named by Noah, who supported him in building his arch. But nowadays, young children in Turkey are usually scared of him. He is portrayed as an evil creature carrying a sack to capture and keep children.
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