The post is a bit different to our usual deep-dives into individual culture’s myths. Instead, I’ve asked a bunch of bloggers to write about the local folktales they grew up with.
It’s so interesting to see how many similarities our stories have all over the world. Ghosts and gods, heroes and monsters have always been humanity’s way of making sense of the world and have some level of control over it. It’s also really fun to tell stories!
Why is it best to look at local folklore? Because modern countries are made up of borders and communities that are somewhat arbitrary, especially when we look back two to five hundred years. Before modern countries existed, small city-states and kingdoms ruled, and the myths that prevailed in these communities were local ones. Lore based on the nearby mountain or the town river that floods or dries up.
So, with that in mind, let’s get into these seventeen local folktales from different cultures around the world.
Van Hunks smoking with the Devil | South Africa
By Katja Mamacos of Wander Cape Town (my other site!)
This is an old folktale that’s taught to every child in my home city, Cape Town. It’s a go-to to explain the heavy cloud that usually blankets Devil’s Peak and forms a fluffy tablecloth on Table Mountain.
The story goes that an old pirate named Van Hunks used to trek up the mountain and smoke his pipe there under a tree. He did it so often and was so good at puffing away that eventually, the Devil grew curious.
So, one day when Van Hunks reached his favourite smoking spot, he found a youth sitting there, who asked him for a light. Van Hunks obliged and was soon challenged to a smoking competition. He was confident of his skill and he had the time, so the old pirate said sure, why not!
The pair sat puffing and puffing until a thick smoke shrouded the whole mountain. And finally, after hours of hard smoking, Van Hunks won! The stranger conceded defeat, coughing and sputtering and generally feeling both exhausted and way above lung capacity. And as he left, Van Hunks caught a glimpse of a barbed red tail, and realised he’d spent his day smoking with the devil. And while the devil is one to hold a grudge, he does like a good bit of competition.
And so, whenever the clouds cover our mountains, we say that Van Hunks and the devil are at it again, smoking up a storm.
The Phaya Naga of Vientiane | Laos
By Marie Moncrieff of A Life Without Borders
Reflecting the country’s ancient Buddhist culture, Laos’ rich history of fascinating folktales and mythical legends usually involves supernatural spirits, giants, deities and wise men. Passed down from generation to generation, one of the most deeply ingrained tales is the legend of the Phaya Naga.
The Phaya Naga, or Naga for short, is a mythical water serpent dwelling in the depths of the Mekong and its tributaries in Laos. Whilst Naga can be found right throughout the country, one of the most powerful serpents is believed to reside in the capital of Vientiane.
Living in a cavern deep beneath That Dam (the Black Stupa), the seven-headed naga of Vientiane is an avid protector of the city and its people. Lying dormant, the serpent lies in wait, ready to appear in a time of crisis to defend the capital.
According to legend, the naga was last seen during the Siamese invasion of 1827, where it appeared to assist the city’s residents with the bloodshed and violence that occurred during this struggle. Here, the naga rose up and bravely fought its attackers, however was overpowered by the sheer number of invaders.
Vientiane city unfortunately endured much looting and destruction, and the naga was forced to retreat to its cavern. The naga did not give up, however, and has since joined forces with an army of water serpents, ready and waiting, in order to rise up once again if needed.
To this day, if you visit That Dam in Vientiane capital, you’ll spot the daily offerings of flowers, fruit and sticks of incense, left to thank the naga for protecting Vientiane – and for being ready to reappear if the need should arise.
The Legend of Lady Sermonde | Roussillon, France
By Leyla Alyanak of Offbeat France
The golden hills of Roussillon, in deepest Provence, are part golden, part deep rust, but there’s a story behind that; one of many legends of the Luberon.
The chateau of Roussillon was once occupied by a certain Lady Sermonde and her husband, Lord Raymond, who spent his days hunting rather than with his wife. She twiddled her thumbs in boredom until one day, a man named Guillaume was hired into the household and… well, things happened and soon they were lovers.
Since no good secret goes untold, it soon reached Lord Raymond’s ear. He promptly invited Guillaume on a hunt and asked him point blank, to which Guillaume, in a forgivable white lie, told him he was in love – but with Lady Sermonde’s sister. Agnes played along but Sermonde wanted their love to burst out into public, so she insisted that he let Raymond know. Raymond, of course, was furious and sought vengeance. He attacked Guillaume and ripped out his heart.
Back at the chateau, he told his cook to prepare the heart in a stew, which was then served to Sermonde – who found it delicious.
Once she had wiped off her plate, Raymond revealed the awful truth, upon which she ran out of the castle and threw herself off the hills. Her blood ran through the earth, turning it into the dark red colour it has to this day.
Banshee of Ireland
By Cath Jordan of Travel Around Ireland
An Irish folklore tale that terrifies children across the Emerald Isle is the Banshee. Pronounced “ban-she”, this Irish mythological creature is also referred to as the woman of the fairy mound. She is often likened to a witch who wails at night outside windows and is a harbinger of death.
Stemming from the Síde, a supernatural race in mythical Ireland, the Banshee is depicted as an old woman or hag with long streaming grey hair, wearing a grey cloak over a green dress. Other depictions suggest she has red hair and is dressed in white.
What makes the Banshee terrifying is not her appearance. It is her wailing, screaming, and keening late at night, outside windows. A keening woman in Ireland (and Scotland) is a traditional part of mourning and is a lamenting wail. The wailing and keening of a Banshee, if you are unlucky enough to hear it, predicts the death of a family member, whether they have just died or are about to die. It is this fear of death in the family that makes her folklore tale one of nightmares, especially for children.
There is a legend that says she only appears to those whose surnames begin with O’ or Mac, so you can imagine how terrifying she is if your surname is O’Brien or MacDonald. There are also some tales of the Banshee that say her keening and screaming shatters glass, or that if you hear her yourself, it is your own imminent death she is predicting.
Either way, the Banshee is a well-known Irish folklore tale that many an Irish child has heard and feared.
The lake created by a spinning horse’s head | Northern Germany
By Christin of Christin has Fernweh
It would have been hundreds of years ago now. There was a small village in a dry and plain region of Germany; its people were farmers with few joys in their lives. But on the edge of their village, they had planted some oak trees that they enjoyed sitting under on summer evenings.
Even though the villagers were poor, frequently bands of gypsies came through their village begging for money. They couldn’t give much, some couldn’t give anything, yet at times the gypsies tried violently to get into their homes.
One such group, not a very strong one, came through the village and found all the doors locked and nobody willing to give them money. They got very angry and discussed how to retaliate against the people of the village. In the end, they decided to take away their beautiful oak tree grove, the joy of the locals.
They beheaded a horse and filled its head with mercury, then placed it in the middle of the trees. The curse they put on it, made it spin so hard and quick that it created a crater in the ground and pulled down all the soil and roots around it and even the tall standing oak trees. The rain filled the crater with water and made it a lake. To this day you can find that at the bottom of the Probst Jesar lake there are oak trees.
For some ideas of things to do here in modern times, check out the post on Linden trees, bike tours and Spring feelings.
The tale of Beddgelert | Wales
Submitted by Shireen from The Happy Days Travels
In Wales, we grew up learning the legends and folklore of our Celtic ancestors. And given that our language is over 3000 years old, the tales have a long history that has been passed through the generations.
Beddgelert tells the story of the bravest hound in the land because of his fatal loyalty to his master, Prince Llewelyn of Wales. Llewelyn loved the dog, named Gelert, and was heartbroken when he came home to find two things: Gelert covered in blood and his newborn son’s crib overturned, also covered in blood. In grief and anger, Llewelyn killed his favourite dog. But right after his bloody retribution, Llewelyn heard his baby cry among the blankets and next to the baby was a dead wolf which Gelert had slain to protect the baby.
Devastated, Llewelyn buried Gelert in a sacred place in the valley of mountains for all to see and is said to never have smiled again. See directions here for visiting the village and the grave in Snowdonia, North Wales. Translated from Welsh to English, ‘Beddgelert’ means the grave of Gelert and is subsequently what the village is still called today.
The Three Sisters | Australia
By Linda Stacy of Muy Linda Travels
The story of the Three Sisters comes from the dreaming of the Gundungurra people, the local Aboriginal tribe of the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney, Australia. It’s a creation myth that describes how the beautiful rock formation in the cliffs at Katoomba came to be.
The story begins at a large gathering of the clans where three beautiful sisters Meenhi, Wimlah and Gunnedoo, met three brothers from another tribe. During the celebrations they fell in love with the handsome brothers but strict tribal laws forbade them from marrying. The three brothers became very upset and concocted a plan to steal the girls away so they could marry anyway. Fearing for the safety of the three beautiful sisters, an elderly medicine man cast a spell, turning the girls to stone. A bloody battle broke out between the tribes and the medicine man was killed in the conflict, so the three sisters remain forever cast in stone watching over their home in the Jamieson Valley.
As a child I would stand at Echo Point in Katoomba looking out over the Three Sisters, awestruck by the majestic cliffs and the sweeping views of the Jamieson Valley. You can visit the Three Sisters and other scenic lookout points in the Blue Mountains on a day trip from Sydney.
The Wizard of Alderley Edge | England
By Nat Took of NatPacker
Just outside of the village of Alderley Edge in Cheshire is a local legend that everyone from the area knows – the Wizard of the Edge. There are a few versions of the legend of the wizard, as the legend has been around for centuries, but the main points stay the same in each telling.
The story goes that a farmer wanted to sell his milk-white mare, so he set off to the market. The route took him past Alderley Edge; but when he reached the Edge, the horse refused to move. Suddenly, a peculiar old man appeared with a staff and offered to buy the horse. The farmer refused the offer, thinking he would get a better price at the market. However, the wizard told him that he would not find a buyer, and he would come back and sell the horse to him.
At the market, many praised the beautiful mare, but the old man’s words were true. No one bought her. On the way home the farmer was met by the old man at the Edge. This time the farmer agreed to sell the mare to him.
The old man led the farmer and the horse into the forest. In front of a large rock, they stopped. Taking out a wand he touched the rock, which slid open to reveal iron gates that swung open. The farmer followed the old man down into a huge cavern. Inside the cavern were over a hundred sleeping knights in silver armour. Next to each knight was a white horse – except for one knight, who was horseless. The farmer’s horse went next to this knight and slept.
The farmer asked what the purpose of the sleeping knights and their horses were, and the old man told him that during the last battle of the world, these knights and horses would rise and descend onto the plain. These knights will decide the fate of the world.
(This is similar to the Polish legend of King Boleslaw and his sleeping knights!)
At Alderley Edge you can find the spot where the cave and its knights are said to be. There is a Wizards Well, and above it, a carving of a wizard’s face and some ruins. The spring above the well is sometimes no more than a trickle, but the well is always full.
The hidden people of Iceland
By Paula from Paula pins the planet
During my road trip in Iceland I came across the best Folktale of all my travel experiences – The Hidden people. It is amazing to learn that half of the population in Iceland have some belief in the existence of the hidden people. I have to confess that I also questioned myself multiples times during my visit in Iceland, if they in fact exist.
Icelandic culture is inspired by a curious mixture of paganism, Irish lore, and Christian religion – so this combination along with the phenomenal landscape in Iceland, makes for a perfect folk tale with mysticism. The tales tell that the hidden people are very protective of their homes and prefer to stay invisible to humans, only showing themselves when they feel like it. When they do reveal themselves, descriptions of their appearance vary from looking almost identical to humans to usually being quite small in size.
The signs of the hidden people are everywhere in Iceland. For example, when I was hiking in the Icelandic countryside, I saw tiny elf houses in several places, including a cave with little clothes and belongings, plus a sign explaining in deep detail about that family of hidden people that lived there. Well, I had to stop for a few seconds to really think about “is it for real?” – Just in case, I took some pictures and left in respect, in case the hidden people were taking a nap and didn’t want to be disturbed!
The story behind the Baths of Aphrodite | Cyprus
Cristina Reina of My Little World of Travelling
When I was visiting Paphos a few years ago, I discovered a 4×4 tour through the Akamas Peninsula National Park, and I couldn’t resist booking it. I had always heard of how special this place was.
On the day of the trip, we travelled with a local guide to the main spots and had some time to explore as well as to take pictures. We went to Lara Beach, well-known for being home to many turtles, Latchi, a beautiful small village, and finally to the incredible Blue Lagoon.
It’s in this area where you will find the Baths of Aphrodite, a unique place known for its mythology. It’s believed that Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, used to bathe in the pools of this natural cave surrounded by nature. One day Adonis saw Aphrodite, drank from the waters of this natural cave, and fell in love with her.
Nowadays, some locals believe that if you touch the water, you will be more fertile. However, others think that if you touch the water, you will fall in love with the person next to you or achieve eternal youth.
Not only is it a special place I would recommend anyone visiting, but the area is also great for anyone who loves snorkelling on crystal clear waters, enjoys a beautiful landscape, or simply wants to relax at the beach.
Munaciello, the ghostly monk who roams the tunnels | Naples, Italy
By Danila Caputo of Traveling Dany
Naples is a lovely city in Southern Italy, which lies next to the sea. Most of the world identifies Napoli with the delicious Neapolitan pizza, but us locals know that our city hides a lot of ghosts and legends.
One of the best things to do in Naples (Italy) is to visit “Napoli Sotterranea” (Naples Underground). Under the city we all know, in fact, there are many tunnels, and a huge Greek-Roman aqueduct.
Inside Napoli Sotterranea, a lot of people swear they have seen or heard the “Munaciello”. Translated from Neapolitan dialect, it means “Small Monk”.
According to the tales, the ghostly figure of a young monk, horribly disfigured, who wears the traditional monk robes, roams around the tunnels and isn’t afraid of humans. The legend originated in 1445 when the Spanish ruled Naples.
It started with the love story between the rich Caterina Frezza and Stefano Mariconda, who came from a poor family. The two wanted to run away together, but one night Caterina’s family killed Stefano. Caterina was locked into a nunnery, where she gave birth to a disfigured child. Soon after the child died, the “Munaciello” started to walk around in the oldest parts of Naples, and underneath the modern city we all know.
Some people claim that Munaciello can be a positive ghost: he might help you to win a lot of money. Yet if you talk to someone about it, he’ll make sure you lose everything you have.
Hence why we have a local saying “O’ Munaciello: a chi arricchisce e a chi appezzentisce“. (Translated from Neapolitan dialect: “O’ Munaciello: some he makes rich, and some others he makes poor”).
Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest | England
By Kirsty Bartholomew of Lost In Landmarks
The tale of Robin Hood and his band of men was told in so many ways that I saw as a child. We had Disney versions and TV versions and film versions but really the story had been told for hundreds of years. The overarching theme was of a man doing good and making the world a more fair place.
Robin Hood was an Englishman who was an outlaw in the middle ages. Think about the age of castles, princesses and kings and you’re in the right place. It was a time when the common people were heavily taxed and when you were poor you were really poor. On the other side of the story was the rich and they often had way more than they needed.
This is where the legend of Robin Hood came in. He’d steal from the rich people, who didn’t need it all, and give those riches to the common and poor people. Because he was helping people out so much, when a bounty was on his head for his crimes, people didn’t turn him in.
In fact, he hid out in a giant forest, Sherwood Forest, and grew a group of followers around him to further his cause. His enemies were the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John who were trying to gain the throne while King Richard was off fighting in the crusades. Robin Hood always got the upper hand though. He was clever, had a group of friends to help him and knew he was doing it for the right reasons.
No-one knows how much of the legend of Robin Hood is true but there are some nuggets of truth to be found. The places of the legend are true and Sherwood Forest is still here. You can even see a really old tree, called the Major Oak, that is said to have been one Robin Hood hid out in. It’s over 1000 years old!
Yowies of the Outback | Australia
By Raksha Prasad of Solo Passport
One of Australia’s mysterious and intriguing folklores is the Outback’s Yowie. Yowie is a hairy creature that has been talked about for generations, especially in the aboriginal culture and history.
According to the legend, Yowies were first mentioned in 1875 among the Kamilaroi people – they believed that Yowie is a spirit that roams over the Earth at night. Yowies are believed to bear a resemblance to apes but with a height ranging between 2 and 3.5 metres. It is also believed that Yowies have bigger feet than that of humans, to match their giant size.
The native Australian flower, the Banksia flower, is sometimes referred to as a Yowie because of its texture. These flowers have spikes that look hairy and resemble the description of a Yowie. I was lucky to have heard the story of Yowie while learning about the Banksia flower, during an aboriginal cultural walk.
There have been multiple reports across Australia where people have claimed to have sighted Yowies. Most contemporary sightings have been along the highways by truck drivers. And some who have spotted Yowies have claimed that they are shy creatures whereas others say they are aggressive. Even though there have been reported sightings, there is no proper evidence of Yowies’ existence and it remains as legends and traditional stories.
Island of Witches | Philippines
By Katherine Cortes of Tara Let’s Anywhere
In the Philippines, there is an island province called Siquijor which is believed to be home to witches. For this reason, it’s also called “Mystic Island.” When I was a kid, I would often hear stories about the witchcraft in Siquijor. One of my friends visited there and told me she had made a list of precautions to be safe, including staying at her hotel after sundown and not accepting food or drink from other people. Such were our beliefs about the island.
As local tourism boomed in the country, these stories were slowly forgotten. Instead, Siquijor became known for its white-sand beaches, hidden waterfalls, and laid-back resorts. The local government also made efforts to improve its image. It holds the Healing Festival every year, to celebrate the folk healers in Siquijor, instead of the black magic it was previously known for.
Although not part of traditional tours, it is possible to meet these folk healers in the mountains. Just ask the local drivers and they will know where to go. The healers perform specific healing rituals and may also prescribe potions. I’ve been told that there are also locals who can tell you your fortune.
The Tale Of The Poppykettle People | Geelong Australia
By Audrey Chalmers of See Geelong
The children of my hometown Geelong in Australia grow up listening to tales of the Poppykettle People who sailed the high seas in search of a new home.
The delightful fairy tale was inspired by the discovery of a mysterious set of iron keys found embedded in the earth of the Geelong foreshore. Dating back hundreds of years the keys are thought to have been dropped by Portuguese explorers. However, others believe it was the “Poppykettle People” who left them there!
Legend has it that in ancient Peru there was a village full of miniature people who enjoyed a peaceful life of fishing and sailing. When they were forced out of their homes by terrible invaders they transformed a kettle they used for brewing poppy tea into a ship. A large set of keys was made into a ballast and they set out to find the land beyond the horizon.
For four years they battled wild oceans, crashed onto reefs and dodged ferocious iguanas before coming to rest in a strange new land they can call home – Geelong.
This magical story is so popular it’s been made into a children’s book, there’s a Poppykettle Playground on the waterfront and an annual Poppykettle Festival to celebrate the mythical landing.
Fairy Folklore & Hawthorne Trees | Ireland
By Isabelle Hoyne of Issy’s Escapades
One of the most common superstitions that is unique to Ireland is that you should never cause harm to a hawthorn tree, particularly if it stands alone. The reason for this is that in Ireland, hawthorn trees are also known as “fairy trees” and mark the spot where fairies gather together after dark, as well as being their portal in and out of the underworld.
If you drive through the Irish countryside you’ll often see a lone hawthorn tree on a hilltop, in the middle of a field (sometimes fenced off), or in an ancient ring fort, and there’s a reason for that – they’ve been left that way on purpose lest the little people be disturbed. Some take it so seriously that in 1990, a proposed bypass at Ennis, Co. Clare had to be rerouted away from a sacred hawthorn, where legend claims that the fairies of Munster used to rally prior to their battles with their enemy, the fairies of Connacht!
The reason for this caution and care of hawthorns lies not in peoples’ concern for the fairies’ wellbeing, but more for their own. While modern-day fairies conjure up all sorts of romantic and ethereal connotations, fairies in Ireland have never been held in this regard. For scores of centuries have been regarded with the utmost caution and respect, as if you meddle in their affairs, your own life could take a turn for the worst.
Throughout the centuries fairies have been held as the cause of crops being destroyed, livestock maimed or killed, ill-fortune, sickness, impotency – you name it – so it’s best not to irk them. They’re even accused of being able to spirit away any human that takes their fancy, should you annoy them. So if you see that lone hawthorn tree when visiting Ireland – make sure to treat it with the respect it deserves.
The Manananggal of the Philippines
By Christine Rogador of Symbols Archive
The manananggal is a type of Aswang (an umbrella term for various evil creatures in Filipino folklore) described as a hideous woman with wild hair and big eyes. Its teeth can grow fangs and its fingers can grow vicious claws. The manananggal may detach its upper and lower torsos and develop huge bat-like wings to hunt its next victim. Manananggal is a Tagalog phrase that means “to remove” or “to separate.”
With an elongated proboscis-like tongue, the manananggal sucks the hearts of fetuses or the blood of a sleeping victim. It is said that this monster likes to prey on sleeping, pregnant women. It also follows newlyweds or couples in love. One of the manamaggal’s key targets is grooms-to-be, who are routinely left at the altar. When the Manananggal wants to prey on males, it can take on the appearance of a beautiful woman. It will entice the males to a secret spot where it will devour their stomachs, hearts, and livers.
The manananggal’s severed lower body is thought to be the more fragile of the two pieces. If somebody comes across this severed lower portion, sprinkling salt or smearing crushed garlic or ash on top of the standing torso will kill the creature. After that, the upper torso will be unable to reunite and will perish at dawn. The Manananggal avoids daggers, light, vinegar, and stingray tails in addition to salt and garlic.
There were no specifics about where the manananggals came from. In the Visayan regions of the Philippines, particularly in the western provinces of Capiz, Iloilo, Bohol, and Antique, the manananggal myth has long been popular.
One prevailing theory is that the qualities of the manananggal that folklorists and anthropologists have identified are really inversions established by the Spanish to undermine the babaylan’s power and influence. Babaylans are shamans who work with the dead and nature spirits in the Philippines. They were mostly women or feminized men. The Manananggal legend is supposed to have been linked and fabricated by the Spanish to vilify the Babaylans, who were then the Philippines’ most powerful women. It was a way of the Spanish to destabilize the women’s important role in the Philippines society back then – an Asian country with one of the least gender disparities even before the West colonized them.
Paul Bunyan & Babe the Blue Ox | Bemidji, United States
By Heather Cox of Wanderlust in Real Life
There are many tales of Paul Bunyan & his sidekick Babe the Blue Ox originating from different places in both American & Canadian folklore. The most famous of these is the story of how Paul Bunyan found his best friend Babe the Blue Ox.
Paul Bunyan, a superhumanly large lumberjack was delivered to his parents by the work of 5 storks. He grew so fast that after a week he was already wearing his father’s clothes. As a child, the lumberjack Paul Bunyan would play with an axe. Paul grew to be extremely tall (63 axe handles high!) and is America’s most famous lumberjack.
During the winter of the blue snow, Paul was out looking for firewood near his cabin when he saw some weird objects protruding from the snowbank. As he got closer he realized it was two ears. He dug into the snow and realized it was a baby ox. He put the small animal in his pocket and brought her back to his cabin to warm her up. Since the animal was a baby, he named her Babe. Even after Babe was warm, she still retained her blue colouring.
From that day forward Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox were inseparable as they travelled all over Minnesota their large tracks were filled with water and made up the landscape known as the 10,000 lakes. This larger than life duo is found along the shores of Lake Bemidji in Minnesota and is a popular roadside attraction.
Final thoughts on local folklore
These are just seventeen tales from among millions! Every historic community has dozens of them, to scare children, tame the passions of lovers (and their tendency to sneak out in search of quiet spots), explain natural phenomena, and frame the world in a way that makes some kind of sense.
What is your favourite tale? I’d love to hear them – and to thank the bloggers who contributed their stories to this post, it was so much fun putting them together!