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.
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.
Variations: Olgoi khorkhoi, Olgoj chorchoj, Allergorhai-horhai, Allergorhai horhai, Allghoi khorkhoi, Temen-Sul-Khorkhoi, Temeen Suul (Mongolian name of Tartar sand boa), Intestine Worm, Mongolian Death Worm, Tartar Sand Boa, Eryx tataricus
It has forever been in human nature to exaggerate the lethality of animals, regardless of whether or not the animal is actually deadly or even poisonous. Salamanders become fiery creatures whose breath slays, water shrews are accused of poisoning and killing cattle, geckos are so virulent they cause leprosy, viper venom causes the human body to melt… the list is endless.
One of the victims of this demonization is the creature known in Mongolia as the Olgoi-khorkhoi or “intestine worm”, also known in English by the even more sensationalistic name of “Mongolian death worm”.
Mongolian folklore is ambivalent on snakes. They are associated with dragons and the water world, and thus are worthy of respect and should not be killed; on the other hand, they are symbols of malice, antagonists to the forces of good, and hostile beings that should be destroyed. Saying the word mogoi (“snake”) is not recommended, with euphemisms like urt khorkhoi (“long worm”) or khairkhan (“holy” or “merciful”) used instead.
The olgoi-khorkhoi is a serpent that looks like a sausage, two feet (0.6 meters) long, and lacks a head and legs. Its color is a white brocade. It is so poisonous that looking at it is dangerous and anyone who touches it dies instantly. It lives in the sandiest, driest areas of the Western Gobi desert. If it shows up in a yurt, the inhabitants move out. It comes out after the rains when the ground has become damp.
Paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews was informed of the olgoi-khorkhoi’s existence by the Mongolian Premier, and went on to hear much about it. Usually people had not seen one themselves, but knew others who had, and every time they went to a play where the olgoi-khorkhoi was said to be abundant, the inhabitants told them the creature could be found a few miles away. The scientist was optimistic about his chances of capturing one thanks to the neutralizing powers of dark glasses and steel forceps. No specimen was ever seen or captured, however.
The existence of the olgoi-khorkhoi was popularized by Andrews and fellow paleontologist and science-fiction author I. A. Efremov, and much has been posited since about its appearance, habits, and true nature.
However, the real identity of the olgoi-khorkhoi is far more prosaic: it is the Tartar sand boa, a desert-dwelling, nonvenomous snake. This was confirmed by Gorelov, who showed a specimen of the boa to people in the Gobi. They asserted that it was indeed an olgoi-khorkhoi and that they were afraid of it. Gorelov also reported an individual olgoi-khorkhoi preserved in a jar and exhibited in Dalaanzadgad Town during a holiday.
Andrews, R. C. (1926) On the Trail of Ancient Man. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.
Andrews, R. C. (1932) The New Conquest of Central Asia. The American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Kuzmin, S. L.; Dunayev, E. A.; Munkhbayar, K.; Munkhbataar, M.; Oyuunchimeg, J.; and Terbish, K. (2017) The Amphibians of Mongolia. KMK Scientific Press, Moscow.
Shuker, K. P. N. (2003) The Beasts that Hide From Man. Paraview Press, London.
The Lidérc or Ludvérc is a polymorphic and polyvalent entity from Hungary. In its various guises, it appears as a will-o’-the-wisp, an astral phenomenon, a sexual vampire, a sleep nightmare, a sorcerer’s familiar, and a household spirit.
The origin of the term lidérc is unknown. It may or may not be of Slavic origin. In current Hungarian it usually refers to a flickering light or a marsh flame. It is also part of the compound words lidércfény, “will-o’-the-wisp”, and lidércnyomás, literally “lidérc pressure”, referring to nightmares and mental depression.
In its most spectacular form the lidérc is a shooting star or flame that travels through the air. In Zala County it appears as a fiery rod that excretes fire. A lidérc in Zselicség appeared as a staddle that caused outbreaks of fire and burned down pig-pens. Elsewhere a lidérc might be a marsh flame, a star, or a fiery person. It can breathe fire and make flames break out wherever it wishes.
A lidérc picks unhappy lovers as victims – widows, widowers, wives or those betrothed to soldiers, all are fair game to the lidérc. It flies into their house and takes the form of their loved one, whether male or female. It seduces them, giving them their heart’s desire while slowly draining them of their life and vitality. The victims waste away until they are literally loved to death, whereupon the lidérc becomes a star again and sets off in search of new prey.
While accomplished and silver-tongued mimics, a lidérc cannot change at least one of its legs, which is a bony, scaly leg of a goose or chicken, or even the iron shod foot of a horse. Scattering ashes at the doorstep will reveal that one foot wears a boot, while the other is that of a goose, and expose the lidérc. A lidérc can also be prevented from entering a house in the usual ways – garlic, trouser-cord, and other repellents will keep a lidérc at bay.
One such lidérc was reported from Gajcsána, as told by Jószef Jankó of Baranya County and collected by Mária Vámos in 1961. The village bell-ringer’s daughter wished to sleep in the barn, and her father set a bed for her there according to her wishes. She slept there throughout the summer. She seemed happy enough with the arrangement, but the bell-ringer and his wife couldn’t help but notice that she was losing weight and seemed constantly dizzy.
One night, the bell-ringer chanced to see a shooting star coming to Earth above his barn. Determined to understand what was going on, he confronted his daughter, asking if she had been seeing anyone recently, and she finally confessed to being in love with a handsome young man who visited her every evening. Sure enough, that night the watchful father saw the star land outside the barn, transform into a handsome lad, and walk in.
The next day, the bell-ringer decided to switch places with his daughter, despite her protests. He had her stay in the house, while he wore her clothes and ducked under the blankets in the barn. It wasn’t long before the lidérc arrived and lay in bed next to him. The father carefully ran his hand down the suitor’s leg – it was the scaly leg of a goose. Now aware of what he was up against, the bell-ringer ran out of the barn with the lidérc on his tail, and managed to enter the house and lock the door in time.
After that incident, the daughter remained safely at home, and the bed in the barn became host to a straw dummy smeared with excrement and waste. The lidérc was furious, spitting fire and throwing sparks all over the barn, but to no avail. After several more nights, the lidérc gave up and was never seen again.
The term lidérc also refers to a household spirit, one which is hatched from the first-laid egg of a black pullet that has been incubated under the armpit. The lidérc-chicken that hatches is featherless and latches onto the man who cared for it. It is intelligent and can talk. It will fetch treasure and do its master’s bidding, and subsist on butter, but in reality it is the master that has to fear the lidérc. The lidérc will constantly need new tasks to accomplish, and if its master does not provide it with such distractions, it will pester him from dawn to dusk. Eventually it will kill such an uncooperative master.
To rid oneself of a domestic lidérc, one must give it a task that is patently impossible, so impossible that the creature will be forced to quit or die of frustration. Traditional examples include fetching sand in a sieve, or squeezing themselves through a tiny hole in a tree-trunk, while one modern example is to making a telephone out of sand. Such tasks should be beyond even the most creative lidérc.
Dégh, L. (trans. Halász, J.) (1965) Folktales of Hungary. The University of Chicago Press.
Dömötor, T. (1982) Hungarian Folk Beliefs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.