To the early Slavs, forests and swamps were omnipresent. Around farms and villages as well as on the mountains, the woods were inescapable. And in the shadows of those trees, spirits lurked.
Most spirits in Slavic mythology aren’t depicted in a positive light. Tales of demons in the shadows of the night spread all across the Slavic tribes and nations, and one of the most frightening tales told was that of Leshen.
Leshen/Leshy is an Eastern Slavic is a minor deity of the forests. He governs the whole woodland and all the hunting in his domain.
In Russian his name is леший, in arabic lʲeʂɨj; literally translated to English as “he from the forest”.
Here are also some of his other names in different countries. Main name variations:
Borovoi – Polish: Borowy – “he of the forest”
Gayevoi – Polish: Gajowy – “he of the grove”
Leshak – Serbo-Croatian: Lešak
The appearance of a leshy
In his human form he appears as an old man with long white hair and beard, glowing green eyes and a hairy body. Sometimes he is portrayed with short claws or even horns. He assumes his human form to lure wanderers into a false sense of security.The old man is usually dressed in a caftan with a red belt and carries an osier or a stick.
It’s hard to tell him apart from a regular old man, but there are some signs that can help you distinguish him from your grandad – he has no shadow and the buttons on the caftan are poorly done.
In his other, more monstrous, form, his skin is green and as thick as the tree bark, as is his hair. The height of the leshen in the forest is determined by the height of the trees, meaning he can be as tall as the tallest of the trees and as short as a blade of grass, when he ventures out of the forest and wanders through a field.
Leshy can also take on the form of various animals ranging from bears, wolves, rabbits to red cockerels.
Leshy doesn’t solely spend his time deep in the forest but is also known to venture into the meadows and is mostly active at night.
Mostly there is only one green man per forest but if there are more, there is one that governs the rest.
On one hand, some of the Leshys are lone wanderers living in caves and forest wastelands, on the other hand, they build spacious homes where they live with their many wives and children. His primary role is to keep the forests safe. The green man doesn’t tolerate thieves or whistling and shouting in his woodland. Annoying visitors of the woods are banished by Leshy’s roar or various pranks he plays on them. Once he passes a person disturbing the peace of the forest, said person loses their memory.
He doesn’t only keep a safe pair of hands over the forest but its inhabitants as well. The wolves and rabbits are considered his herds, and bears, his favourite type of animal, are often invited to feast in Leshy’s household.
His presence can be heard by the buzzing of the leaves and the trembling of the trees. The forest deity also has a rich variety of sounds he makes, ranging from animal calls, laughing, whistling to clapping. He is also able to make your voice echo, so when you hear the words you say twice, you better say your prayers, as you have stumbled upon a Leshy and are now at his mercy.
The malicious side of leshy and the precautions against him
Leshys are very fond of luring girls and children into the forests where they defile them and return them only after a long time, if ever. A serious threat to villagefolk or settlers living near the forests.
They also like to steal the children of humans and exchange them for one of their own. Their offspring is usually strong, but very dumb and gluttonous. Also, once they reach the age of twelve, the changeling flees back to the forest.
People who try to make their way through the woods and are unfortunate enough to bump into a grumpy Leshy will mostly like be led astray by the creature. Either into a swamp where the unfortunate traveler will drown or to a wasteland, where they will succumb to starvation.
One of the precautions one can take is to simply bribe the leshy by giving them various gifts and sacrifices, mostly bread with salt. There are also some charms that can make you overpower the Leshy and control it. One of the easiest safety measures against them is to wear ones clothes inside out or to swap the left boot with the right one.
This was the eight episode of Slavic Saturday. There are many other creatures I am ready to cover for you, my lovely fans. If you missed our previous episodes then you can find that here. I hope to see you all return next Saturday!