The Floitenthal, near the Ziller Valley in the Tyrol, has two great mountains, the Floitenthurm and the Teufelseck. The latter, the “Devil’s Corner”, is so name because the devil himself is said to descend from it in the form of a great fiery dragon glowing like an electric fire. The dragon flies a narrow hole, the Bleiarzkar, towards the Zillertal. This demonic dragon is known as the Alber, and it brings with it plague, war, and famine.
One time, during a night as black as pitch, two men climbed a cherry tree by the Mission Cross of Algund, near Meran. These men were Hanser, a tailor and a notorious ne’er-do-well, and old Loaserer Sepp, an honest villager.
To be fair to Sepp, he did not mean to participate in any unseeming behavior. Hanser had made a bet with some equally debauched friends to pick cherries from the tree near the cross, but, being an abject coward, he could not do it on his own, so he roped Sepp into accompanying him.
Both men climbed the tree, but Hanser filled his hat by the handful while Sepp could not find a single cherry no matter where he looked. Sepp was beginning to feel uncomfortable when, all of a sudden, the Alber flew by, throwing its burning light upon the scene.
Hanser was so scared he almost fell off the tree, but Sepp held the other man and prevented him from falling. “Are you so far gone, Hanser, that the devil gives you his blessing and lights your way?” said Sepp. “Then may God preserve you!” The honest man then turned to the fiery dragon. “Hi there! Wait a little until I find some cherries too!” The Alber left at once.
Sepp was a good, honest man, and the evil one had no power over him. His bravery was lauded long afterwards.
von Günther, A. (1874) Tales and Legends of the Tyrol. Chapman and Hall, London.
The Namungumi or Nalumgumi, usually translated to “whale”, features in the initiation ceremonies of the Yao people of Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania.
Despite the “whale” designation, the namungumi pictured in the inyago ceremonies has four limbs. There is a stylized and ornamental webbing drawn between the limbs, and there are two knobs marking the juncture of the neck with the forelimbs and tail with the hindlimbs respectively. It has prominent tusks around its head. The entire body is crisscrossed with a complex grid pattern.
The namungumi lives in Lake Malawi. It would surface near a village, and the people could come and carve off chunks of meat from its vast body. This action was painless and the wounds healed immediately. The meat itself tasted different depending on where it came from – some areas on the namungumi’s body produced choice cuts, while others were practically inedible.
As an initiatory figure the namungumi represents water and kinship.
A similar creature, the Liporo of the Anyanja, is not as large. Its habits include killing hippos and tipping canoes. It is believed to be extinct. The Napolo is a similar flood-related water serpent.
Morris, B. (2000) Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography. Berg Publishers, Oxford.
Stannus, H. (1919) The Wayao of Nyasaland. Harvard African Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Nakshatra Meenu means “sea star” or “brittle star” in the Kannada language of Karnataka, India.
In the 16th century, an army of giant brittle stars came out of the sea to invade the land. The biggest among them had arms that were 4 meters long; they killed people by coiling an arm around the neck, another arm around the feet, and tearing them in half. The brittle stars could also separate their arms from their main bodies, sending the disembodied arms into human buildings where they strangled anyone they encountered. The detached arms would later regenerate.
They faced the armies of the Vijayanagara Empire, who fought the echinoderm invaders fiercely. The brittle stars were finally sent into retreat in 1514, under a barrage of flaming arrows.
It has been suggested that the gentle Yam Bhaya Akhoot of Chittorgarh is actually the ghost of the leader of the brittle stars.
Bhairav, J. F. and Khanna, R. (2020) Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India. Blaft Publications, Chennai.
Variations: Grand’Gueule, Grande Goule, Grande Gueule; Bonne Sainte Vermine (Good Holy Vermin)
The Grand’Goule (corrupted from grande gueule, “great gullet” or more simply “big mouth”) is one of many French dragons associated with cities and their patron saints. In this case, it is linked with Poitiers. The current and best-known effigy, created by one Gargot, dates to 1677. The tradition itself goes back at least to 1466, where “the dragon” is mentioned in a list of banners and insignia carried during a rogation day procession.
As seen in its carved effigy at the abbey of Saint-Croix, the Grand’Goule is a monstrous bat-winged dragon with a gaping mouth. It is armed with hooked claws and a forked scorpion’s stinger. It is bronze green in color with a red collar around its neck.
The dragon terrorized Poitiers until it was slain. One account says that Saint Radégonde of Poitiers killed it through a fervent prayer – a prayer which literally flew like a projectile and hit the dragon like a crossbow bolt. Another tale says that a condemned criminal volunteered to slay the dragon, but he perished from its poisonous breath in his moment of triumph.
Scotsman John Lauder reported seeing the remains of a “hideous crocodile” with a huge mouth chained to a wall in a palais in Poitiers. The relic was believed to be centuries old and though to have been spontaneously generated from rotting matter in the prison, although Lauder expressed his doubt on the last matter. It killed several prisoners before being shot by a condemned man, who won his life by doing so.
Traditionally the Grand’Goule was brought out on rogation days, paraded along with the relic of the True Cross. It was decorated with ribbons and banderoles and treated with respect, with cherries, tarts, and pastries – golden-brown casse-museaux, literally “snout-breakers” – tossed into its mouth. It is affectionately referred to as the Bonne Sainte Vermine, the “Good Holy Vermin”.
de Chergé, C. (1872) Guide du Voyageur à Poitiers et aux Environs. Librairie Létang, Poitiers.
Clouzot, H. (1897) Spectacles Populaires en Poitou. La Tradition en Poitou et Charentes, pp. 305-317.
Clouzot, H. (1901) L’Ancien Théatre en Poitou. Bulletin et Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires de l’Ouest, XXIV(2), pp. 153-521.
Foucart, E. V. (1841) Poitiers et ses Monuments. A. Pichot, Poitiers.
Lauder, J.; Crawford, D. ed. (1900) Journals of Sir John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall. University Press, Edinburgh.
de la Marsonnière, J. L. (1883) Un Drame au Logis de la Lycorne. H. Oudin, Poitiers.
de Plancy, J. C. (1863) Dictionnaire Infernal. Henri Plon, Paris.
Moskittos are a cautionary tale about the perils of introducing invasive species. They originated with the Chippewa River mosquitos, which were large enough to straddle a stream, pick lumberjacks off logs as they floated by, and drain them dry. They were so big, in fact, that if caught in such a straddle, they could be tied up and used for bridges.
To combat this menace, Paul Bunyan introduced deadly fighting bumblebees from Texas. These pugnacious bees quickly set about battling the mosquitos and gave the lumberjacks a respite.
Alas, it was not to last. The mosquitos and bumblebees eventually made peace and hybridized. Their offspring had stingers at both ends.
Fortunately for humanity, the “moskittos” had inherited the bees’ love of sugar. They flew out to feed on a shipment of sugar on Lake Superior, and gorged themselves until they were too heavy to fly and drowned.
Brown, C. E. (1935) Paul Bunyan Natural History. Madison, Wisconsin.
Laughead, W. B. (1922) The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan. Red River Lumber Company, Minneapolis.
Thakáne and her two brothers were the children of a Basotho chief. In some versions there is only one brother, Masilo; in some retellings the siblings are orphans, in others their parents are merely distant figures. Either way Thakáne was like a mother to her brothers. She cared for them, made their food, and filled their water jugs. When they had to go to school, it was Thakáne who took them there. When they were circumcised in the traditional grass huts, the mophato, it was Thakáne who took them there and waited on them until the ritual was over and they had rested. It was their sister who brought them the clothes they would wear as men.
But Thakáne’s brothers did not accept her choice of clothing. Only items made from the skin of a Nanabolele would do. They wanted shields of nanabolele hide, and shoes of nanabolele leather, and clothing of nanabolele skin, and hats cut from nanabolele, and spears tied up with strips of nanabolele. They refused to leave the mophato until their request was fulfilled.
It was a tall order. The nanaboleles, they who shine in the night, were horrid, reptilian creatures that live underwater and underground. They glow in the darkness, giving off light like the moon and stars do. They were deadly predators. Surely there was some mistake! “Why do you ask the impossible?” asked Thakáne. “Where am I supposed to find nanabolele skin? Where? Ná?” But her brothers would not be swayed, declaring that it became them, as the sons of a chief, to wear nanabolele skins.
So Thakáne set out, knowing that if their father was around, he would have done the same. It fell upon her to accomplish the task in his stead. She set off with oxen, beer calabashes, sweetcorn balls, and a large retinue in search of the nanaboleles. She sang as she went:
My brothers won’t leave the mophato, nanabolele!
They want shields of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And shoes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And clothes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And hats they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And spears they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!”
When Thakáne sang, the waters of the nearby stream parted, and a little frog hopped out. “Kuruu! Keep going!” it told her. Thakáne kept going from river to river, following the directions given by frog after frog, until at last she came upon the widest and deepest river yet. She sang her song, but nothing responded. Then she tossed some meat in, followed by an entire pack ox, but nothing happened.
Finally, the waters stirred, and an old woman stepped out, greeting Thakáne and inviting her to come in with her. Thakáne followed the old woman into the river, followed by her company. To her surprise, there was an entire river under the water, dry and breathable. But there was nobody there. It was empty and silent as the grave.
“Where are all the people, Grandmother?” said Thakáne to her guide. “Alas”, said the old woman. “The nanaboleles have eaten them, adults, children, cattle, sheep, dogs, chickens, everything! Only I was allowed to live, I am too old and tough to eat, so they make me do their work for them”. “Yo wheh!” said Thakáne. “We are truly in danger then”. But the old woman bade them hide, leading them into a deep hole which she covered with reeds.
It wasn’t long after Thakáne and her friends had hidden that the nanabolele returned to the village, sounding like a huge herd of oxen. The creatures glowed, shining like the moon and the stars, but they did not sleep, instead sniffing around intently. “We smell people!” they snarled. But they found nothing, and eventually tired and went to sleep.
That was the opportunity Thakáne had been waiting for. She and her companions emerged from hiding and, singling out the biggest nanabolele, quickly slaughtered it before it could wake up the others. Then they flayed it in silence and prepared to leave.
Before they left, the old woman gave Thakáne a pebble. “The nanabolele will follow you. When you see a red dust cloud against the sky, that will be them on your trail. This pebble will save you from them…”
Sure enough, dawn had barely broken when Thakáne saw the cloud of red dust. The nanaboleles were in pursuit! Thakáne quickly dropped the pebble on the ground, and it grew, becoming an enormous mountain that she and her friends climbed. They took refuge at the top, while the nanaboleles exhausted themselves trying to climb it. Then, as the reptiles lay catching their breath, the mountain shrank, Thakáne picked up the pebble, and the chase continued.
Thus it went on for several days, with the nanaboleles catching up only to be worn out by the pebble-mountain. But when Thakáne reached her home, she called upon all the dogs of the village to attack the nanaboleles. The creatures, terrified, turned tail and ran back to their abandoned village under the river.
There was only one thing left to do. The nanabolele skin which gives off light in the dark was cut and prepared into items of clothing and armor and weapons, and Thakáne herself took them to her brothers in the mophato.
Nobody else had seen such wondrous items, and Thakáne’s brothers rewarded her handsomely, giving her a hundred head of cattle.
Dorson, R. M. (1972) African Folklore. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, New York.
Jacottet, E. (1908) The Treasury of Ba-Suto Lore. Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.
Postma, M. (1974) Tales from the Basotho. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Boundary Pond in Maine, near the Canadian border, is the only spot where Billdads live. These creatures are beaver-sized with long kangaroo-like back legs and short forelegs. The paws are webbed and the beak is strong and hawk-like. The powerful tail is large and flattened, like a beaver’s.
The first hint that a billdad is about is a distinct sound, like a paddle hitting the water. This is caused by the billdad’s method of fishing, which consists of jumping above a surfacing fish and smacking it hard with its flat tail. Adult males can cover over sixty yards in a single leap. The stunned fish can then be collected and eaten at leisure.
The retiring billdads are usually heard and not seen. They are left alone by lumberjacks – and with good reason. The only man known to have eaten billdad meat, the late Bill Murphy, suffered odd symptoms after tasting it. He ran screaming out of the mess hall and leaped over the lake just like a billdad. Alas, he could not swim like one.
Billdad has been off the menu since.
Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.
Hello all, I’m going to be taking a quick break for this week and almost certainly next week as well. Recent times have not been good to me and a lot is going on this week, so I’m going to have to put things on hold for a moment. Rest assured I will be back soon.
The Skvader is a taxidermist’s chimera found in Sundsvall, in the Swedish province of Medelpad. It is a winged hare, combining the skins of a European hare and a capercaillie.
The original skvader was made by Rudolf Granberg in 1918, based on an illustration of a hunter’s tall tale from 1874. It was preserved in a museum in Sundsvall and has since then become an unofficial symbol of Medelpad.
Fraser, M. (1947) In Praise of Sweden. Methuen and Co. Ltd., London.
Panafieu, J. and Renversade, C. (2014) Créatures fantastiques Deyrolle. Plume De Carotte, Toulouse.
The lakes and waterways of Sweden are home to Trollgäddor, “troll pike”. These variable supernatural creatures take the form of a large pike, and cause problems ranging from being nuisances to attacking people.
Sometimes the pikes are associated with the Sjörå, the Mistress of the Lake; some may even be Sjörå themselves. More frequently they are the pets of the Sjörå. The water-spirit dresses them up with bells like cows, and the fish are called skällgäddor or “bell pikes”. Anglers who return those pikes upon capture are rewarded with success at fishing; those who kill them incur the Mistress’ wrath and find their livestock dying off.
The krongädda or “crown pike” is another of the Sjörå’s pets. It is a pike with a crown, and is regarded to be the Sjörå’s prized possession. The exact nature of the “crown” is unclear. It has been suggested that the crown is actually the remains of a bird’s talons embedded in the fish’s skull, left behind by an unfortunate osprey drowned by its “catch”.
Other times the trollgädda’s appears as a normal pike with no distinguishing characteristics. A pike captured in Lake Odensjön was large enough, but as the angler returned home it grew heavier and heavier. By the time he entered the house he had to drop it, and it started thrashing about as it grew big enough to destroy the house. Fortunately the angler had the presence of mind to let it out; the fish squirmed and flopped its way back into the water and disappeared.
Trollgädda tales vary by locale. The Kvittinge pike kills a human every year. In Lake Mjörn there is a huge, hairy, and bearded pike tied up with an iron chain. In Skåne there are pikes as big as wooden beams. The Dalsland pike has eyes as big as saucers and scales as big as roof tiles. It barely fits in the coves, and seeing it is a clear sign that fishing will be futile.
The pike of Lake Bolmen is as long as the lake is wide, and can barely move. It is so big that its back looks like a rocky island, and so old that a willow shrub grows on its head and neck. An enterprising angler tried to catch the pike using a rope for a fishing line and a dead foal for bait. When the trollgädda bit, the angler fastened the rope to a lakeside barn and went to get help. They returned to find the barn dragged out into the lake.
Gustavsson, P. (2008) Laskiga vidunder och sallsamma djur. Alfabeta, Stockholm.
Hansing, F. (pers. comm.)
Svanberg, I. (2000) Havsrattor, kuttluckor och rabboxar. Bokforlaget Arena, Falth & Hassler, Smedjebacken.