The ancestors of the Poles were already present in what is now Poland since the earliest Roman records of the area, in the early centuries AD. They lived here first as West Slavic, Lechitic tribes, and later as a swiftly Christianized kingdom (formed by a tribe known as the Polans, hence Poland). This means that while myths are kept alive mostly through oral tradition, many of these stories have been told for unbroken centuries, right where they’re told now.
This post is a bit darker than most of mine, simply because Polish folklore is darker than most, with few good-natured creatures or kind gods. You’ll find monsters and demons who have inspired fear in the human imagination for many centuries, as well as legends of great heroism.
This was a wonderful post to write; I hope it’s particularly interesting to read!
Polish monsters and mythology
Slavic and Polish creatures have been the inspiration behind many modern monsters, including the famous Baba Yaga and fearful Strzyga. There are so many creatures who have faded in time, but many remain. I’ve put together a list of monsters who are still well known in Poland, among both historians and storytellers.
Wąpierz is a phantom or vampire, who, like most vampires, sucks on people’s blood. But interestingly, the Wąpierz preys on people it knew while it was a living person; both family and neighbours.
There were certain signs that a living person may become a vampire after death – certainly not everyone would. But it was not hard to tick the boxes. Redheads, left-handed people, people with unibrows, and the more uncommon defect of being born with teeth could all indicate vampirism after death.
In order to protect themselves from the rising dead, many Poles would bury these risky characters with a head of garlic or a bunch of hawthorns. Or, in more extreme cases, leave a large rock in their mouths, a wooden stake pierced through their hearts, or even a sickle at their throats. It’s quite a way to be buried!
These practices also clearly indicate that Wąpierz were more than just a children’s tale, but a legitimate fear among the people, that vampires existed among them. When bitten, you’d feel increasingly weak and pale, and experience nightmares.
While this creature has changed character a bit over the centuries, its most popular (and possibly earliest) form is as the demon soul of a child lost at or before birth. Latawiec is the more common male demon, while Latawica is the female.
Why children’s souls would be demons, I’m not sure. But perhaps it’s due to a fury and resentment at being brought into the world and then unable to live. And you’ll find that most demons in Slavic mythology originate from incomplete or immoral lives, or unnatural deaths regardless of the life you led.
The Latawiec often appears as a dark bird, but like many Polish mythical creatures, it’s a shapeshifter. They will sometimes be seen as a bird with the face of a child (spooky) or as a human with bird’s wings.
Despite its demonic nature (which meant quite different things to modern Christian-influenced understanding), Latawiec were neutral characters. They could bring great destruction with the wind, but they could also be bribed to bring good, helpful winds and even be kept as house spirits.
Both a monster and a god, Czernobog is the king of monsters and bad fate, and the epitome of evil. He moves around at night, stealing and devouring souls. And he brings misfortune everywhere he goes.
Czernobog translates to ‘black god’. He is the accursed brother of Bielobog, the ‘white god’ of goodness and his clear opposite.
Interestingly, because Slavic and Polish mythology has so few primary sources, there’s no proof that either of these god creatures actually existed in Polish thought historically. It may have been made up by the contemporary historians who documented their cult. But, the horrifying Czernobog is now ingrained in ideas of Polish monsters, so he’s here to stay!
A beautiful depiction of Licho by Marek Hapon, 2015
Licho is particularly evil Polish monster. Often portrayed as an unnaturally skinny woman with one large eye in the middle of her forehead, she brings misfortune and calamity. She cannot be appeased or defended against – you just have to wait out your punishment, and you may live through it.
Licho goes in search of happy people and brings illness and disease, fire, hunger and poverty to them.
There are, of course, a number of local folktales that include Licho. In one, she cheats a man and rides on his neck. To get rid of the clinging monster, he jumps in a river to drown her. But instead, he himself is drowned, and she floats comfortably to the top.
In another story, someone tries to cheat Licho. When they run away and she takes chase, they stop, drawn to a valuable object. When they pick it up, displaying greed, it sticks to their hand, and they’re forced to cut it off.
Bebok/Bubak is a boogeyman-figure used to scare children into behaving. Usually, he is thought to be small and child-sized, but hairy and ugly and very mischievous. In some stories, Beboks are the unfortunate souls of children who didn’t listen to their parents (classic obedience stunt). They’ll cause havoc and then when they grow bored, they’ll take other disobedient children with them.
In other stories, Bebok is a scarecrow-like monster who hides along the riverbank and mewls like a baby to attract his victims. He then kidnaps them in a cloth sack, and weaves their soles into clothing.
Strzyga and Strzygoń
Strzyga are similar to vampires, but super ramped up in intensity. While their names are very similar to Striga, a Croatian myth, they’re actually quite different!
When people were thought to be Strzyga (identified through double-rowed teeth, sleepwalking, and hairless underarms, among others) they were chased out of their village while still young. When these unfortunate people died, it was believed one soul would ascend to the afterlife, while a second would remain on earth and undergo a transformation.
In many stories, this transformation starts with bluish skin, and they can pass for a while as human. But as they live longer, they grow pointed ears, vicious claws and owl-like features.
These monsters are able to survive on animal blood for a time, but soon turn to eating humans. Strzyga will begin with those who have wronged them (makes you wonder why people would be so enthusiastic to chase them away), sucking their blood before eating their insides.
Strzygas aren’t always identified and chased out, so when you believe you’re burying one, you have options. Burn them, hammer nails into the body, slap it with your left hand or even leave small objects in the coffin for it to count.
The monsters also resemble vampires in their need to avoid sunlight, and return to their graves during the daytime. This allows humans hunting them to find and kill them, so that at least, while they’re extremely dangerous, they do have a weakness!
Morowa Dziewica, or plague maiden, is a monster who brings epidemics to communities. She flies through the sky in the form of a skeletal woman or a bloody sheet. Or she walks through the village, covered in scabs and signs of decay and accompanied by many rats.
This terrifying demon woman can drive people to madness, causing them to murder and burn. Or, she’ll simply bring slow, horrible death in the form of, you guessed it, a plague.
More Polish folklore creatures
Of course, the scary creatures don’t stop there! Similar to the monsters above, but with more ambiguous and less pure-evil folklore surrounding them, these creatures are also rather dark, but truly fascinating. Many of them are pagan Slavic myths, so you’ll find similar creatures across the Slavic nations, including parts of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Baba Yaga and the bird-maidens by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, 1909. Spot her house’s chicken feet!
One of the most popular Polish creatures is the hag – Baba Yaga. She is old and very ugly, a truly traditional image of a witch. More uncommonly though, in many Polish tales, Baba Yaga lives in a house in the forest which moves on chicken legs. And the house’s keyhole is a mouth of sharp teeth! And while most witches fly around on a broomstick, the Polish hag flies in a mortar and pestle, with the pestle acting as a rudder.
Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic old woman who likes to eat young children – usually after spicing and cooking them in a big pot or baking them in the oven. She is said to age a year for every question she’s asked, so she’s not known to be a very helpful person.
However, there are certainly stories of her aiding people, so she’s not simply evil. In fact, she’s not to be simplified into any one story – while the hag image has become the most common, she has long since been a super multi-faceted character with a toe in everything.
Południca, or Lady Midday/Lady Rye/ the Noon Witch, is a female demon who torments men working the fields during harvest time. If any man works during the heat of noon, he risks encountering the sickle-wielding woman.
According to some, Południca is a beautiful woman who causes men to lose control of themselves, particularly affecting the tired and drunk. Others insist she is a hideous old woman, emaciated and deathly pale. Usually, she wears flowing white robes.
Lady Midday is the soul of a woman who’s died at the time of her own wedding, or of a girl who died young. She causes heat stroke and exhaustion, and even madness. An interesting way to understand the dangers of working during the hottest time of the day!
A depiction of Rusałki by Ivan Kramskoi, 1871
A Rusałka is very similar to the water and forest sprite/succubus image you’ll find in much of pagan Europe. These are beautiful young women who frolic along the lakes and swamps, and in the forest, dancing together, laughing loudly, and playing in the trees. Just generally having a good time, until humans come around to remind them that they’re undead.
Rusałki are the spirits of girls murdered on their wedding night, or who have died in the water. In some stories, they’re specifically women who have committed suicide or been murdered by male lovers or relatives, explaining their malevolence towards men.
Any man who sees one will be immediately drawn to her beauty, and when he follows her into the water, drowned in her long tangling hair, or by tickling!
These murderous females have long, golden or red hair, which turns green when they attack. The forest Rusałki have dark hair, and both types are very pale. In some parts of Poland and surrounding areas, they wear white flowing dresses, while in others they’re nubile and naked.
Holding some similarities with the beautiful Rusałka, a Wodnik is the spirit of a man or boy who died unbaptised or through suicide. Unfortunately, they’re not quite so frolicking, and a lot uglier.
Wodniki are male water spirits who also enjoy drowning people in their lakes and marshes. Either appearing as an ugly old man or as an ugly old man covered in scales and slime (quite the pair of options), they can also transform into fish to take their prey by surprise.
In some areas, Wodniki are considered to be protectors of their lake. They’re mostly malevolent but are known to fill fishermen’s’ nets with fish when they’re pleased with them. So, not all bad.
Known by these two names, a Dziwożona is a malicious demon woman known for switching children with her own offspring. She’s depicted as an old woman with long, sagging breasts, and often lives in the bogs and swamps.
Dziwożona is a woman who died during or before childbirth, or as an unmarried mother or old maid (basically, be sure to get married and try not to die, post-death demonhood is very risky).
They kidnap babies right after birth and replace them with their changelings. These can be identified by their disproportionate head, large abdomen, and sometimes a hump. As it grows older, it’ll be noisy and spiteful, eating a great deal and reluctant to sleep. They seldom grow past childhood. In order to protect their newborns from Dziwożona, women would tie a red ribbon around its hand or put a red hat on it, and be very careful to watch that no spooky woman comes to grab it.
Liczyrzepa is a legendary mountain spirit living in the Karkonosze Mountains. Often seen as a giant or a gnome, with a long white beard and a staff, he walks so heavily that the ground trembles. In other stories, he shapeshifts into a deer with a devil’s tail, still carrying his long staff.
Liczyrzepa helps good passers-by, giving them presents and helping them find their way. But he is also known as a trickster, playing games with people and even killing them in mysterious ways. In some stories, it’s important to always carry a black rooster with you, as this is an offering known to appease him.
Polish legends & folk tales
Now, for some more recent and more positive tales from Poland! These legends follow kings and dragons, a Robin Hood-style highwayman, and a white eagle. All the elements, in other words, of a good story.
The legend of Jánošík, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor
A statue of Juraj Jánošík in Smetana Park, Hořice – Image courtesy of Ben Skála
This legend is so popular, that Jánošík is the main character in various novels and poems, and even a video game! Poems that present the highwayman as a symbol of resistance to oppression are even part of the school curriculum in Slovak and Czech high schools.
The legend follows Jánošík and his band of bandits as they steal from rich merchants and share the spoils with poor villagers. And while it’s been exaggerated over the many years, it is said to revolve around a real man. Juraj Jánošík, a Slovakian born in 1688.
Juraj fought with insurgents at the age of 15, before being recruited to the Habsburg army, serving as a prison guard, and finally becoming the leader of a highwayman group at just 23. The group was known to be uncommonly honorable, killing no one, and sharing their spoils with the poor.
According to the legend, the generous highwayman was caught when a treacherous old lady threw peas in his path, and he slipped and fell. The real man was sentenced to death in 1713. But it is legend that says that his form of execution was having a hook pierced through his side, hanging there to die slowly. In reality, there’s no way of knowing what form this execution took. But whatever the reality was, Juraj Jánošík has inspired many for centuries, a legendary figure.
King Boleslaw and his Knights
Painting of King Boleslaw by Jan Bogumił Jacobi, 1828
Bolesław the Brave is the first king of Poland, who united the country in 1025 and consolidated its autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire. So basically, he’s a key figure in Polish history!
The legend around the great king says that rather than dying, King Bolesław and his knights went to a mountain called Gievont. This mountain, if seen from the right angle, looks like the head of a sleeping knight. And that’s exactly what the men went to do. They made their way to a cavern deep within the mountain, and there they fell into a deep slumber.
According to the legend, Boleslaw and his Knights are mounted on their horses, and hold their bows, lances and swords, ready to fight if ever Poland is in danger. All you need to do is call to them, and they will ride out to save their beloved country. But once they do, they will disappear forever.
The same legend speaks of a family of blacksmiths, whose holy duty was to reshoe the knights’ horses in total silence once a year, being very careful not to wake the knights. The duty would be passed on generation to generation, ensuring the horses are ready to race out when needed.
The Wawel Dragon of Krakow
The Wawel Dragon monument at Wawel Castle – image courtesy of Lasitti
The legend has a few different versions with the same basic elements – this is the most popular version in Krakow itself. If you’ve read our post on Spanish myths, you’ll see close similarities with the legend of San Jorge.
Long ago, a terrible dragon was terrorising King Krak’s townspeople, swallowing the women and the sheep and striking everyone with fear whenever it rumbled in its cave in Wawel Hill. Eventually, the town was forced to sacrifice one woman every week, to keep the dragon from terrorising them constantly. These virginal young women were elected by lot every week, until one day, the king’s daughter’s lot was picked.
Devastated, the king once again offered a handsome reward to anyone who would kill the dragon. But after many men tried, failed, and died, he gave up and told them to stop shedding their blood uselessly.
On the day the young princess was set to die, a clever young shoemaker had a brilliant idea. He killed and stuffed a sheep with sulfur, before leaving it before the dragon’s den. The Wawel dragon leapt out and ate it without a thought. As its insides began to burn, it ran to drink from the Vistula River. But water doesn’t extinguish burning sulfur, and so the cruel dragon exploded.
The townspeople revelled and thanked their saviour. And in some stories, the shoemaker married the princess and became king!
The Myth of the Polish Eagle
Poland’s coat of arms is a white eagle on a red background. It turns out, this imagery is based on its founding legend.
Long, long ago three brothers, Lech, Czech and Rus decided that it was time to go out in search of new land, to establish their own tribes. So Rus went Eastward, Czech went westward, and Lech headed to the north.
After journeying long across the region, Lech came across a pure white eagle and its two eaglets sitting in their nest. When Lech approached, the magnificent eagle spread out its wings protectively, making a striking figure across the red of the setting sun.
Lech felt moved by the sight, and took it as a sign that this was where he should settle. He named his founding city Gniezo, which means ‘nest’, and he made the white eagle his symbol.
Last thoughts on Polish mythology & lore
So, there you have it! These unique Polish mythology creatures have been greatly impacted by the social, political and environmental conditions of their times, and present quite a scary picture. For example, epidemics caused some people to be buried alive, and when they rose from their graves, they must have scared the bejeesus out of people and led to some tall tales.
Do you know any other Polish myths or monsters I’ve missed in this post? Let me know!