Slavic folklore is fascinating. It is enigmatic, and rich in horror elements. Most Slavic superstitions and traditions are reminders of times before the Dark Ages. Paganism in Europe has existed well before recorded history.
Slavic culture boasts one of the most amazing tales, ghost stories, and legends about witches. Some of them are literary works like Viy, a horror story by Nikolai Gogol, a chilling short fiction that deals with witchcraft and demons. Three young men, students from Kiev, get lost in an unknown forest at dusk, at last they find a couple of forlorn houses in the middle of nowhere, and they meet an old woman who lets them stay at her place for the night. In the midnight hours, she lurks into one of the students’ room, and the young man notices there is something frightening about her. She pounces on him and makes him carry her across the wilderness, riding on his back – this is a distinctive element of Slavic folklore, witches riding men –, however, he tells prayers to overpower her, then rides her and beats her up with a piece of wood.
To his horror, the crone turns into a handsome young lady. The next day, the students get back to Kiev. Soon they learn that a rich cossack’s daughter was found near her home, dying, her last wish is to have one of the students read psalms over her dead body for three nights. The dean of the university forces him to do so – and he has to face terrifying things in a desecrated, desolate temple.
The story, forceful and eerie, could make Stephen King jealous. It would not be out of place in a modern-day horror story collection.
Slavic folklore has plenty of similar stories about witches. According to the tradition, witches were able to heal people with herbs and magic, however, most of them were dangerous and malignant. Witches could be young women or old hags – like the phases of the moon, new moon, waning and waxing moon, and full moon; like the three archetypes of women: the young woman, the mature woman, and the crone. It is interesting to see how people of the Dark Ages feared the power of womanhood and female sexuality. We have this fear in modern day horror films, and they still work with the same symbolism. Think about Fatal Attraction.
Slavic witches, in general, had a bad reputation. They were haunting the wilderness at night, and lost travelers could see them dancing in the air in hailstorms. Witches were wandering in marshlands and moors, and they had some distinctive, strange, shimmering glow around them; these lights lured lost men – wood-cutters or hunters – right into the marsh, where, at last, the witch could drown them. The souls of these men have never found rest; they were lost forever. Witches could be seen near crossroads at midnight. They were able to bring down hailstorms in order to damage their enemies’ property. They were associated with black cats and toads.
Lady Bathory – the witch of Cachtice
We must mention Lady Bathory, the witch of Cachtice. She lived sometime in the early 1600’s and was the most notorious witch of Eastern Europe, probably that of the world. There existed an infamous trial against her; she, along with a couple of her maids, was accused of torturing and murdering young Slovak girls. Contrary to popular belief, during the original law process, nobody mentioned her taking bath in the blood of girls, this was added to her legend much later. According to the witnesses, none of her servants was allowed to enter her secret chambers, except for four of her maids. Witnesses could hear chains clattering from those rooms. Once, one of the witnesses stepped in the secret chamber, and, to her horror, she could see the Lady tormenting young girls, cutting them, burning them with red-hot iron, and beating them. There was so much blood spilled that they were walking in blood up to the ankles, and the Lady needed to change her gown.
Lady Bathory was also accused of witchcraft and blasphemy, supposedly she wanted to harm her enemies by black magic. The Lady was never convicted officially; she was ordered not to leave her castle in Cachtice ever again. One of her maids had died by the time the trial occurred, the other three – Ilona, Dorottya, and Katalin – were tormented and executed by inquisitors; their nails were ripped off by iron tools, after that, their fingers, too, their bodies crushed, so, naturally, they were ready to testify against the Lady. Some of the Lady’s biographers say she was a sadistic psychopath; if the world had heard about her earlier, the word sadism would be bathorism today. However, other historians say that she, coming from a very rich and powerful noble family, had influential enemies who wanted her properties for themselves.
Ghosts are an important part of Slavic tradition. There are plenty of Slavic superstitions dealing with ghosts. When someone could see a spot of steam on a glassy surface at night, it meant that there was an unseen – dead – person in the room, and the steam was left by its breathing. When the air cools in a room suddenly, or people can hear footsteps and noises that they cannot explain, then they knew their place was haunted. Haunting occurred in places where someone had died violently. Meeting a dead person usually meant nearing misery, supposedly the one who has seen the ghost would die in a short while.
Slavic – Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian – tradition also deals with werewolves and vampires. Werewolves were people who could turn into wolves and attack people. Vampires had glowing red eyes, one could not see their reflection in a mirror, they cast no shadows. Their victims were mostly women.