Leshii - The Horned One and The Devil

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Horned One and The Devil

Leshii means “Forest Lord.” They are male Russian woodland spirits and protectors of the forest. They weep when trees are cut down.

Leshii are a category of spirits: there is more than one Leshii under the dominion of Musail, the Forest Tsar. (Leshii is both singular and plural.) Different Leshii have dominion over different parts of the forest; each has his own territory so to speak. This explains the migrations of forest animals, especially unexpected ones: the Leshii gamble at cards with each other, wagering with animals as their stake. When one Leshii loses to another, animals are transferred from one part of the forest to another.

The Leshii are mischievous, sometimes dangerous trickster spirits. Woodcutters, in particular, earn their ire: the Leshii hide their axes or cause “accidents.” The Leshii get people lost in the woods by using ventriloquism or mimicking familiar voices or sounds to lure “intruders” deeper into the forest.

The Leshii is a shape-shifter, manifesting in various ways. Leshii sometimes masquerade in the form of familiar people: this is one way he lures people deep into the forest. One assumes that one is following a known person, only for them to eventually disappear, transform into another shape or be revealed as the Leshii.

The Leshii’s most frequent manifestations include pigs, rabbits, ravens, roosters, wolves, burning fir trees, and even mushrooms, especially Amanita muscaria with which he has powerful associations.

Leshii also commonly manifest in specific forms:

Image The Leshii often appears with goat’s horns and hooves, sometimes with black fur and wings.

Image The Leshii manifests as a man. The clue to his identity is that something is wrong with his appearance: he lacks a belt, or his clothes are on backwards or his shoes are on the wrong feet. He usually carries a club.

Image Sometimes the Leshii appears as a person whose size dizzyingly shifts from dramatically small to large.

The Leshii is usually found in the company of bears and wolves. His special companion is a huge white wolf. Wolves are his very favorite animals; in Slavic areas, wolves were once understood to be the rulers of the forest, the true local kings of beasts.

The Leshii, like Faunus, mediates between wolves and domestic herds. Like Faunus, the Leshii doesn’t “speak” or at least not like a human. He makes forest noises instead, echoing the sounds of animals, birds or the rustling of trees. Sometimes the Leshii is described as “singing” although never with human words. There are many accounts of people encountering the Leshii or witnessing them in the forest. Those actually encountering the Leshii were often struck mute.

One theory suggests that stories about the Leshii may reflect fugitives (vagabonds, escaped slaves, runaway soldiers) hiding in the forest. The many stories of Leshii approaching campgrounds and requesting food (with words) are used to bolster this theory.

People uttered protective spells when entering the forest hoping to avoid the Leshii or to be safe from him if they did encounter him. Sometimes the Leshii came out of the forest looking for people. The Leshii has a reputation for stealing children and (similar to fairy changelings), replacing them with less than brilliant Leshii children. (Presumably smart Leshii children aren’t traded in.)

The Leshii also allegedly carries off (and marries) women, although notably he prefers unattached women or those trapped in unhappy unions. Sometimes women are stolen to serve as midwives or nannies for his children.

Similar to Persephone’s saga, legends suggest that if those kidnapped by the Leshii refrain from eating his food, they can escape his domain. Those who escape are described as looking wild and distraught; some have lost powers of speech (others allegedly return having lost their minds). However still others exhibit new magical powers and knowledge, becoming exceptionally skilled shamans and magical practitioners.

Not all encounters with the Leshii are unhappy. Allegedly if you encounter him but get him to laugh, you’ll be safe. Sometimes the Leshii befriends people; allegedly they must then make a pact to never wear a cross or take communion. Whether this is because the Leshii is the devil or whether this is because he is an exclusively Pagan spirit who reserves his favor for fellow-travelers is subject to interpretation. The Leshii sometimes offers spirit-familiars (animal allies) to those he favors.

Offerings may be left for the Leshii in order to earn his protection, patronage, and alliance. He traditionally prefers simple offerings of food, such as blinis, bread with salt (significant as so many spirits dislike salt), the Russian national dish kasha (buckwheat porridge), cookies or candy. Tree stumps and fallen logs serve as the Leshii’s altar; leave offerings there or alternately, wrap the food in a clean cloth, tie it up with a red ribbon, and leave it at a forest crossroads.

The Leshii’s domain extends beyond the forest.

Image He presides over hedges

Image In meadows and fields, the Leshii plays a different mediation role: between people and rodents

Image The Leshii has been known to turn up in urban taverns. However, the further away from the forest the Leshii gets, the more likely he is to manifest characteristics attributed to the Christian devil.

Hunters allegedly make pacts with the Leshii that echo those that the Inquisition accused sorcerers of making with Satan. From the perspective of the Church, these are Satanic pacts; however from another perspective, the Leshii insists on allegiance to the Pagan world. Unlike spirits who don the masks of saints, the Leshii brooks no compromise. Allegedly hunters seeking his protection and gifts must remove their crosses, swear allegiance to the Leshii and no longer swallow the Communion Host but bring it to the Leshii as proof that it wasn’t consumed.

In Northern Siberia, hunters allegedly earned the Leshii’s alliance by offering him gifts of playing cards with the suit of clubs removed. Allegedly this is because clubs resemble crosses but it may be a reference to the club the Leshii always carries.

See The Devil, Faunus; ANIMALS: Pigs, Rabbits, Wolves and Werewolves; DIVINE WITCH: Simbi; HAG: Leshovikha.