7 strange folklore characters from around the world

Everyone loves a good story, particularly when an intriguing character comes into play. Natasha Singh tracks down some of the most bizarre storytime figures from cultures all over the world

3 mins

1. Māui (Hawaii)

The namesake of the island, Māui is the legendary chief who brought Hawaii into existence. He did this with the help of his magic fishing hook; he took his brothers out fishing and pretended to have caught a big fish, then urged them to paddle as hard as possible whilst he hooked the sea's floor. Due to their effort, they pulled up the seabed behind them, and so the islands rose from the sea.

2. Avalokiteśvara (Tibet, Japan and Vietnam)

In Buddhist mythology, Avalokiteśvara vowed to help all beings achieve nirvana. During meditation, he realised how many beings there still were to be saved, and he felt so overwhelmed by this that his head split into eleven pieces and his arms into hundreds of fragments. A celestial Buddha came to his aid, and transformed each fragment into a new body part. Thus, Avalokiteśvara has eleven heads and a thousand arms.

3. Mahaha (Arctic region)

Mahaha is an emaciated-looking demon with stringy hair, cold blue skin, and elongated fingers ending in pointed claws. He has a permanent grin stretched across his face, and kills his prey (humans) by tickling them to death – if the Inuit found someone dead with a twisted smile on their face, it was assumed to be the work of Mahaha. He is apparently easily fooled by being pushed into a water-hole as he leans over to take a drink...

4. Baba Yaga (Eastern Europe)

A well-known witch featuring prominently in Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga tends to appear as a deformed old woman. She uses a mortar and pestle as her prime form of transportation, and dwells in the deepest part of the forest in a round hut that spins on chicken feet. Those who seek her out have an equal chance of being either helped or hindered on their path. Her pet peeve is the 'Russian smell' of her visitors; she also has a penchant for eating small children.

5. Pan Twardowski (Poland)

Kraków-based Twardowski bartered his soul to Satan in return for magical powers and knowledge, planning to outsmart the devil by stating that his soul could only be taken when he was in Rome (which he never planned to visit). Rising to power with his new gifts, the devil eventually caught up with him when he visited an inn named Rzym ('Rome' in Polish), dragging him off to hell. Twardowski then prayed to the Virgin Mary, which caused the devil to drop him. He landed on the moon, where he lives to this day.

6. Eglė, Queen of Serpents (Lithuania)

Legend has it that a young girl, Eglė, discovered a snake in her clothes while bathing with her two sisters. The creature spoke in a human voice and carried her off to the bottom of the sea, where she met the handsome Serpent Prince, bearing him four children. Later on in the story, the sea sends her foaming waves of blood to tell her that the Prince has been killed by her brothers. In her sorrow, Eglė turns herself into a spruce – hence in Lithuanian, the word Eglė refers to a spruce tree.

7. Anansi (West Africa, Jamaica)

Half man, half spider, Anansi was a devious trickster who saw that his people were bored one day, so he went to the sky god Nyame asking for stories to entertain them. Nyame agreed to give him stories in return for: Onini the Python who can swallow a goat, Osebo the Leopard with teeth as sharp as spears, the Mmoboro Hornets whose sting is like red hot needles, and Mmoatia the bad-tempered fairy who no one can see. Using his wit and web-spinning abilities, he captured them all and delivers them to Nyame, who made Anansi the god of stories.

Main image: Mother and children (Shutterstock)

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