The original versions of fairy tales are usually creepier than the sanitized iterations we were taught as kids. However, Eastern European folklore can put even the grimmest of Grimms to shame. Since my Polish mother raised me on the story of Baba Yaga, giving me nightmares for weeks, I thought I’d pass on the legend and share some of my fave fairy tales.
The story of Baba Yaga has been keeping Eastern European children up at night for centuries. Her name literally means “gross old witch”, so that should clue you in as to what she’s like. She appears all throughout Eastern European folklore across multiple countries, but most famously in Russia’s answer to Hansel and Gretel, where Yaga is depicted as living in a house made of human bones and eating children on the regs. Leave it to the Russians to make a story about a witch getting burned alive somehow even more dark and disturbing.
In Polish folklore, the Wale Dragon is also known as the Dragon of Wawel Hill because his lair is at the bottom of Wawel Hill in Krakow. The Wawel Dragon is dead now, and his bones are on display at the entrance to the Wawel Cathedral. It’s rumored that the world will end when his bones fall to the ground, however we’re all fine for now because they’re safely hanging from a chain.
In medieval times, the dragon terrorized Krakow, demanding weekly offerings of cattle. If cattle were not available, he’d devour a human instead. Two brothers, Krakus II and Lech, were called upon to defeat the dragon. They fed him a calf skin stuffed with sulfur, and it totally worked. The story could end there, but it’s an Eastern European story so it has to get dark. The brothers fought over who should get credit for slaying the dragon, then Lech killed Krakus and told everyone the dragon did it. Lech became king, but when his secret was discovered he was expelled from all of Poland and they named the town Krakow to honor the dragon-slayer.
Slavic folklore depicts supernatural spirits known as Rusalki (AKA lake spirits AKA drowned maidens) who appear in the form of young women. Sometimes they’re depicted as spirits of unbaptized or unmarried women. Sometimes they’re just women who drowned themselves in a lake because of the agony brought about by unrequited love or an unhappy marriage. They emerge from the lake to sing and dance… and to lure young men to their deaths. The Rusalki enchant men with their voices and looks before bringing them back to the lake. There, the men are entangled in the Rusalki’s long, red hair and submerged in the murky depths. They’re kind of like Sirens in Greek mythology, but with a way darker back story. In some stories they cannot leave the water, however some stories amp up the creepy factor by suggesting they can climb trees.
In Slavic folklore, there’s a giant firebird that can see the future. Seeing the firebird can either be a blessing or a sign of doom. His feathers glow with yellow, red, and orange light, and if you remove one of them, it keeps on glowing. In The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa, a king’s archer stumbles upon one of the firebird’s feathers. His (apparently talking) horse warns him that bad things will happen if he touches it. Since it’s a fairy tale, the archer obviously ignores the advice and uses the feather to capture the bird for the king. The king then goes on a power trip and demands the archer bring him Princess Vasilisa so that they may marry.
After she’s captured, Princess Vasilisa refuses to marry the king until the archer is dipped in boiling water. The king, of course agrees to sacrifice a human life for this girl. However, the archer’s horse puts a spell on the archer and he comes out of the water not only alive, but more handsome than before. Seeing this, the king jumps into the water but just gets boiled alive. The archer and the princess marry and, knowing that they have blood on their hands, still live happily ever after.
The Enchanted Tsarevich
This creepy folktale is Russia’s version of Beauty and the Beast, only waaaay creepier than the Disney classic you grew up with. In this story, the prince is a three-headed winged snake. The story starts the same — a poor merchant is caught trespassing on the snake’s property and the merchant sells out his daughter by sending her to live with the snake (it should go without saying that she hates this). The snake finally lets the maiden visit her family with the warning that if she’s not back by nightfall, he’ll kill himself. Her sisters convince her to stay out past curfew, and the snake follows through on his word. The maiden, for some unexplained reason, returns to the snake’s layer. Finding the snake dead, she kisses one of his three heads and he turns into a handsome prince who is alive. They, presumably, also live happily ever after now that he’s not some weird snake creature.
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