Those familiar with Slavic mythology know very well that stories and characters are often pretty unconventional when compared to Western standards.
The Slavic belief system is often based on hundreds of years old magical and at times bizarre explanations for misfortunate and natural events (such as death or sickness).
One such creature is Likho, the embodiment of evil fate and misfortune in Slavic mythology.
Depictions of Likho can vary: from an evil male goblin to a skinny old woman in black to a giant taller than trees. The only things these three most prominent illustrations of Likho have in common are bad luck (that it brings) and having only one eye.
Want to find out more about the Slavic cyclop? I hope you’re not reading this as a bedtime story, as things are about to get pretty scary.
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Likho: Not to Be Messed With
While the literal translation of the word Likho is “Damn”, Poles use it whenever they don’t want to pronounce words such as the devil or satan .
In ancient, pre-Christian times, Likho was considered as the servant of Death. People would build a one-eye feminine idol and set it on fire as a symbolical dispelling of sickness and death.
It was only later that people gave up this literal depiction of Likho and started viewing it in a more abstract, spiritual way: as the embodiment of evil and misfortune (in Slavic mythology).
In a number of Slavic fairy tales, Likho would murder people by incidental drowning. It would jump on the victim’s neck, riding on their backs.
In their struggle to set themselves free from Likho, the victims would wade into a nearby body of water, hoping to drown Likho, but accidentally would drown themselves.
Unlike Rusalka and Vodyanoy whose main goal is to drown the victim, Likho’s attack always leads to accidental drowning. Nevertheless, people used to believe that mysterious deaths by drowning were a result of one of these three creature’s attacks.
A Tale of a Blacksmith and a Tailor
There’s a variety of old Slavic tales depicting Likho, but the one about the blacksmith and a tailor is probably the most well-known.
The Quest for Evil
One time two good men, a blacksmith and a tailor decide to go on a quest to seek out evil in a form they have never previously encountered. Although warned not to do so, their curiosity got the better of them.
After several days of traveling on foot, they came across an old hut, and sought shelter from a one-eyed old woman. They didn’t know that she was actually Likho.
Depicted as an old woman, Likho first slaughtered and cooked the tailor on her stove. She devoured his boiled flesh in front of the blacksmith’s eyes. When she finished it was his turn.
He, however, revealed to her his profession and offered to make anything she wanted if she’d spare him from death.
After giving some thought to the idea, she agreed and asked the blacksmith for a new eye. He agreed to make one for her, but only on the condition that she remains tied to a chair, so he could work safely.
Now, you might think the story has a chance of a happy ending here, due to its strange resemblance with Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclop, in which witty Odysseus manages to escape and survive.
Slavic people apparently didn’t give much damn (pun intended) about happy endings. The story has several versions of the ending, only one of them resembling Odysseus’ resolution.
Likho agreed to the blacksmith’s condition, but once she was safely tied, he tricked her by poking her in the eye with a burning hot stick and escaped.
This is Odysseus’ version of the end.
(The second ending is the continuation of the story, as the man doesn’t manage to escape.)
Before the blacksmith managed to escape, Likho untied herself from the chair, and barred the hut’s exit, so the blacksmith had to spend the night there.
In the morning, blind Likho opened the hut door to take her sheep into the pastures. To ensure that the man doesn’t escape with sheep, she touched each one as they passed her by.
The blacksmith was lucky to have had a sheepskin coat, so he just inverted the garment and passed through Likho’s hands as a sheep.
He ran into the woods only to find a golden ax stuck in a log. He tried to remove it, but it wouldn’t move a millimeter. What was much worse was the realization that his hand was stuck on the ax.
Likho was approaching, so in order to escape, he amputated his arm and ran away.
He didn’t amputate the arm, Likho came, and murdered him on the spot.
This ending is how most Likho-involving tales ended.
Likho cheated the blacksmith first, jumped on his back, tried to drown it by jumping in the nearby river, but accidentally drowned himself. Likho floated out to chase other people to eat them.
The Story’s Moral?
Don’t mess with Likho, don’t seek evil, or as a Russian proverb says: Don’t wake Likho up when it is quiet.
Russian folk tales and legends also describe the Likhoradka or tryasavitsa, a female spirit allegedly stealing other people’s bodies and making them ill. This term has later been appropriated by the modern Russian language, and stands for “fever”.
Certain Russian tales consider Likhoradka as Chernobog’s creation, but most tales and stories related it to Chuma, the common Slavic embodiment of plague. She would appear as a tall pale woman in white whose kiss or touch would make people ill.
Weirdly enough, Serbs called these spirits Milosnice , literally translated as alms or mercy, as people were expected to propitiate them. Milosnice could show up alone or in a group and bring illness to a certain region.
Slavs believed that pronouncing certain deities ’ or demon’s names would invoke them, so Serbs would never mention the word Milosnice. Instead, they flattered them by calling them good mothers or aunts.
If it were to be discovered that an epidemic has started in a nearby city, people from the cities and villages nearby would light fires to chase off Milosnice.
The Bottom Line
While they can sound a bit crazy, as they’re often grounded in magical thinking and obscure traditions, Slavic folk tales and mythology always bear a strong point.
If you read between the lines, the legend of Likho, the spirit of evil fate and misfortune, and its fairy tale characterization are still applicable today. Why seek to look evil in the eyes? Why wake up Likho, if it’s sleeping and you can enjoy your life as it is?