Beware, this is not an article about nice, harmless European creatures – this is about fierce European monsters! Across Europe, naughty children face the threat of terrifying beings which come at night to scare, kidnap or even eat them when they are asleep or if they misbehave. Admit it: the parents weren’t short 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 the bathroom or even your 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.
Bicho-papão is a 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… in Portugal , the Bicho-papão is also the theme of an old 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, 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 in particular gained a significant place in French folklore. This may be linked to the true story of the Beast of Gévaudan : between 1764 and 1770, peasants from the 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 . So, when journeying in France at night, beware: even the sight of a half moon won’t protect you…
Grýla, in Icelandic mythology, is a horrifying giantess living in the mountains of Iceland. Most of the stories told about Grýla were to frighten children. She has a keen sense of hearing and – though she can detect misbehaving kids at any time of year – is said to take them and eat them at Christmas Eve, making a stew from their wicked flesh. Her appetite is insatiable – but, they say, there was never a shortage of food for her. In reality the story is no more – the legend was brought to a halt when a 1746 public decree prohibited parents from traumatising their kids any more with the tale. She is also the mother of the Yulemen, the Icelandic equivalents of Santa Claus.
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 against a Dullahan – all locks and gates open to them when they approach. They do not appreciate being spied on while on their 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. They are frightened of gold, and even a single gold pin can drive a dullahan away. The character is often portrayed in contemporary fantasy fiction and video games.
The Bogeyman is a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults to frighten children into compliant behaviour. The monster 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 thing that, parents warn their children, will come to get them if they misbehave. 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 comes.
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. Later, in Scandinavian folklore, trolls become defined as a particular type of being. Numerous tales are told, but they are often described as being extremely old, very strong, but slow and dim-witted. Sometimes, it’s 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 clear: trolls are dangerous, even if some specimens mix into human society.
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. In these days, Draugen is commonly associated with anything dark and mystical about the sea.
The imaginary Mörkö strikes fear into the heart of many a Finnish child. It appears as a ghost-like, hill-shaped body with two cold staring eyes and a wide row of white shiny teeth. Wherever it stands, the ground below freezes and plants and grass die. Mörkö leaves a trace of ice and snow when it walks the earth, and can even freeze a campfire by sitting on it. It seeks friendship and warmth, but it is rejected by everyone and everything, and must fester in its cold cavern on top of the Lonely Mountains. The most famous usage of Mörkö these days takes place in the Moomin stories, originally written in Swedish, in which the Groke is a similar terrifying creature.
Mare is an evil spirit in Germanic and Nordic folklore which rides on people’s chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams. The Mare is attested as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century,but the story itself is likely to be considerably older. The name appears in the English word “nightmare” – but also in the Nordic languages (Swedish “mardröm“, Norwegian “mareritt”, Danish “Mareridt“, and Icelandic “martröð”). The Mare was also believed to “ride” horses, which left them exhausted and covered in sweat by the morning. She could also entangle the hair of a sleeping man or beast, resulting in “marelocks”. Even trees could be ridden by the Mare, causing branches to get tangled up.
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.
Kropermann is a horrible monster living in the lakes and seas of Luxemburg. He is said to lurk in the water, spearing children who venture too close. The monster can also appear in bathrooms, bathtub and even the toilet.
What a horror!
Père Fouettard, “whipping father”, is a popular character in Belgium and the eastern regions of France. This man with a sinister face dressed in dark robes with scraggly unkempt hair and a long beard accompanies St. Nicholas in his rounds on 6 December, dispensing lumps of coal and/or floggings to naughty children. 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. He killed the children with the help of his wife, to steal 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).
A Böögg was originally a masked character making mischief and frightening children during carnival season. 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. 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. The combination of the Sechseläuten parade and the burning of an official Böögg was introduced in 1902. Popular tradition has it that the time between the lighting of the pyre and the explosion of the Böög’s head is indicative of 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 (meaning ‘the black man’) is a demon that can appear as black man or black ghost without legs, often used by adults for scaring their children when they don’t want to sleep. There is also a children game entitled “Avete paura dell’uomo nero?“. In different parts of the country it’s also known as “Babau”. The origins of this figure is not known. 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…
Between the Czech Republic and Poland, in the Giant Mountains, lives the Krakonoch, a capricious monster who uses 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 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, said to appear as a naked old man with a frog-like face, greenish beard, and long hair, with his body covered in muck and algae, usually covered in 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 their wealth and status among other vodníci.
In Poland, children are frightened by Bubak (also, bebok, babok, or bobok, meaning “bugbear”) or hastrman (“scarecrow”) who is portrayed as a man with a sack. 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. My advice : try to steer clear of him at night!
Baubas, an evil spirit with long lean arms, wrinkly fingers, and red eyes. He harasses people and tears their hair or stifles them. Just as with the bogeyman, a misbehaving child could be told by his parents: “Behave, or Baubas will come and get you”. It could 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!
Called burvji, burtnieki (wizards) or raganas (witches), Latvian beliefs about evil spirits and sorcerers are likely to be a direct product of witch hunts in 16th and 17th centuries. With the help of the devil, they could turn into various beings or have evil spirits serve them. It was suggested that spirits of the dead might serve the devil or be used by him to appear to humans and become sorcerers. The witches often steal milk either by themselves or using toads and snakes, who suck it out of a cow’s udder and then regurgitate on command.
Külmking (meaning cold-shoe) is a well-known malevolent supernatural creature in Estonia. It is believed that Külmking is restless spirit of an unholy dead, that eats children when they bother the forest spirits. It’s said that, when the earth dies, he will wander and cause lots of damage. The Külmking has different haunting places and moves from one public place to another. It is also believed that Külmking can make a living person evil.
The Slavic Domovye (Damavik in Belarus) are masculine, typically small, bearded, and sometimes covered in hair all over. 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 itself to the person is a sign of praise to the creature and a proper way to address it, even for the family head.
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. Her nose in some tales 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 a hero (e.g., promises to eat him), but helps him if he is courageous.
A Căpcăun is a creature in Moldavian and Romanian folklore, depicted as an ogre who kidnaps children or young ladies (mostly princesses). It represents evil, as do its counterparts Zmeu and the Balaur. The Romanian word appears to have meant “Dog-head”. According to Romanian folkloric phantasy, the căpcăun has dog head, occasionally with four eyes, with eyes in the nape, or with four legs, but whose key characteristic is anthropophagy. The term căpcăun also means “Tatar chieftain” or “Turk chieftain”, as well “pagan”. Some linguists believe to be the echo of Turkish term kapkan (kaphan, kapgan), that in some Turkic peoples in the age of migrations was a high noble or administrative rank.
Count Dracula is a legendary centuries-old Vampire and The Lord of The Undead. In his Human life he was a noble Romanian knight born in the middle ages known as Vlad The Impaler (Tepes). He had a wife who commited suicide while she was pregnant with their daughter, Eva. Dracula means “Son of The Devil” and he earned this title because his father gained the title Dracul which means “The Devil”. According to tradition, 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. The vampire must return to the grave at dawn. In Eastern Europe, vampires are believed to be afraid of garlic. Farm animals can be rubbed with garlic to protect them, while garlic often hangs from doors and windows to keep vampires out. 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 Hungarian monster terrifying children, the mumus, is known as Zsákos ember, literally “person with a sack”, in which he takes away children. It is often mentioned together with the Rézfaszú bagoly – the “copper penis owl”. The expression is often used to frighten kids when they do something wrong or just to make them afraid of something. Usually the threat is that “the copper penis owl will take you away”.
In Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, a type of vampire called Pijavica, which literally translates to “drinker”, is used to describe a vampire who has led an evil and sinful life as a human and in turn, becomes a powerfully strong, cold-blooded killer. Incest, especially between mother and son, is one of the ways in which a pijavica can be created, and the it usually comes back to victimize its former family, who can only protect their homes by placing mashed garlic and wine at their windows and thresholds to keep it from entering. It 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 common monster scarying children is called Babaroga, baba meaning old lady and rogovi meaning horns. Literally meaning old lady with horns. The details vary from one household to another. In one household, Babaroga takes children, puts them in a sack and then, when it comes to its cave, eats them. In another household, it takes 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 tool to try and scare children into good behavior, such as ensuring they go to bed on time and 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 kidnap them with his large sack if they misbehave. He can be seen as the antipode of the Christmas figure Dyado Koleda (Bulgarian: Дядо Коледа; corresponding to Father Christmas). Usually, he is known to children as the family partner of Baba Yaga although this is based on folklore analogy.
There are two similar creatures that are used to frighten children. In the South (Vlore area) there is Katallani, that means “the Catalan.” This is a collective memory of the Catalan occupation many centuries ago. The Katallani monster is known to be quite primitive, and is depicted as a blacksmith with a wild look, who eats people. Then in the whole country there is Gogoli, that indeed 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 it is said to be hiding under the bed, although it is used by the parents in a variety of ways.
Small children are used to be scared by Öcü the fictional monster. Less often called Böcü, it is a scary creature carrying a sack to capture and keep children. In the old sources, Öcü was a giant, and named by Noah, who has been helpful in shipbuilding.
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