Leshy, Slavic Spirit of the Forest

"The Leshy" by P. Dobrinin, 1906. Public Domain

In Slavic mythology, Leshy (Leshii or Ljeschi, plural Leshiye) is a demon-god, a tree spirit who protects and defends the animals of the forests and marshes. Mostly benevolent or neutral to humans, the Leshy has aspects of the trickster type god and has been known to lead unwary travelers astray. 

Key Takeaways: Leshy

  • Alternate Names: Lesovik, Leshiye, Leszy, Boruta, Borowy, Lesnik, Mezhsargs, Mishko Velnias
  • Equivalent: Satyr, Pan, Centaur (all Greek) 
  • Epithets: Old Man of the Forest
  • Culture/Country: Slavic mythology, central Europe
  • Realms and Powers: Wooded areas, marshes; trickster god
  • Family: Leschachikha (wife) and several children

Leshy in Slavic Mythology 

The Leshy (or lower case leshy) is the "Old Man of the Forest," and Russian peasants send their children to him to be taught. When he has the appearance of a man, his eyebrows, eyelashes, and right ear are missing. His head is somewhat pointed and he lacks a hat and a belt. 

He lives alone or with his family—a wife named Leschachikha who is a fallen or cursed human woman who left her village to reside with him. They have children, and some of them are theirs and others are children who have gone missing in the forest. 

Cult sites dedicated to the Leshy are known in sacred trees or groves; the Leshy feast day is celebrated on September 27. 

Appearance and Reputation 

When the Leshy resembles an old man, he is extremely wizened and covered from head to foot with long, tangled green hair or fur. As a giant, he has stars for eyes and as he walks he causes the wind to blow. His skin is as rough as the bark of a tree, and because his blood is blue, his skin is tinged with that color. He is seldom seen, but often heard whistling, laughing, or singing among the trees or marshes. 

Leshy. Illustration To The Poem Ruslan And Lyudmila By A. Pushkin
eshy. Illustration to the poem Ruslan and Lyudmila by A. Pushkin, 1921-1926. Private Collection. Artist Chekhonin, Sergei Vasilievich (1878-1936). Heritage Images / Getty Images

Some stories describe him with horns and cloven hooves; he wears his shoes on the wrong feet and doesn't cast a shadow. In some tales, he is as tall as a mountain when he is in the forest, but shrinks to the size of a blade of grass when he steps outside. In others, he is very tall when far away but reduces to the size of a mushroom when he is nearby. 

Role in Mythology

Leshy is also a shape-changer, who can take the shape of any animal, especially wolves or bears, who are the receivers of his special protection. People who are kind to Leshy when they meet are often recipients of gifts: in folk tales, cattle are tended for poor peasants, and princes are guided on quests and find their proper princesses. 

Leshy is also prone to abducting babies who have not been baptized, or children who entered the forest to pick berries or fish. He leads people astray in the forest, getting them hopelessly lost, and he has been known to drop into a wayside tavern for a visit, drink a bucket of vodka, then lead his pack of wolves back into the forest. 

People who find they have annoyed a leshy or find themselves lost in the woods are advised to make the leshy laugh. Taking off all your clothes, putting them on backward, and switching your shoes to the wrong feet generally does the trick. You can also drive them away by prayers alternating with curses, or apply salt to a fire. 

Leshy Lifestyles

In some stories, Leshy inhabits an enormous palace with comrade leshiye, as well as serpents and beasts of the forest.

The leshiye spend the winters in hibernation, and every spring, whole tribes of them run amok through the woods yelling and screaming and raping any women they find. In summer, they play tricks on humans but rarely harm them, and in autumn, they are more quarrelsome, wanting to fight and frighten off creatures and humans alike. At the end of the year when the leaves drop off the trees, the leshiye disappear again back into hibernation. 

Sources and Further Reading

  • Haney, Jack V. (ed.) "The Complete Russian Folktale: Russian Wondertales II: Tales of Magic and the Supernatural." Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Ralston, W.R.S. "The Songs of the Russian People, as Illustrative of Slavonic Mythology and Russian Social Life." London: Ellis & Green, 1872. Print.
  • Sherman, Josepha. "Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore." London, Routledge, 2015. 
  • Troshkova, Anna O., et al. "Folklorism of the Contemporary Youth’s Creative Work." Space and Culture, India 6 (2018). Print.