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Russian Fairy Tales


 Lyeshy make the forest [Lyes] his home. He is supposed by some critics to be one of the spirits who belong to the realm of cloudland and storm, and they hold that their hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that he can assume different shapes, and alter his stature at will, at one time making himself taller than the trees of the forest, and at another shorter than the grass of the field. He often appears as a peasant dressed in a sheepskin, but ungirdled,--as is always the case with evil spirits,--and with the left
skirt crossed over the right. One of his peculiarities is, that he never has any eyebrows or eyelashes. Sometimes, like a Cyclops, he has but one eye. When he appears in his own shape, and without clothes, be greatly resembles the mediaeval pictures of the devil. From his forehead spring horns, his feet are like those of a goat, his head and body are covered with shaggy hair, which is sometimes as green as that of the Rusalkas, his fingers are tipped with long claws. In the Governments of Kief and Chernigof the peasants divide the Lyeshies into two classes, belonging respectively to the woods and to the cornfields. The one consists of giants of an ashy hue; the other of beings who, before the harvest, are of the, same height as the growing corn, and, after it, dwindle away till they are no higher than the stubble.

The Lyeshy is malicious, and to those who do not conciliate him be often does much mischief. One of his tricks is to suck their milk from the cows. In the Olonetsk Government it is believed that a herdsman ought to give a cow every summer to the Lyeshy: if he fail to do so, the revengeful spirit will destroy the whole herd. In the Government of Archangel it is held that if the herdsmen succeed in pleasing the Lyeshy, he will see to the pasturing of the village cattle. In Little-Russia, on the other hand, he is supposed to be the protector of the wolves.

These wood-demons frequently quarrel among themselves, using as their weapons huge trees and masses of rock. The devastations, usually attributed
to hurricanes, are in reality, the peasants say, due to these mighty combatants of the forest world. In the Archangel Government a story is told of a Lyeshy who quarrelled with two others of his race about some forest rights. A battle ensued, in which they overcame him, tied his bands so tightly together that he could not move, and then left him to his fate. A travelling merchant chanced to come that way, and released the captive demon, who was so grateful that he sent his benefactor home in a whirlwind, and did much for him afterwards. When the Lyeshy goes round to inspect his domains, the forest roars around him and the trees shake. By night he sleeps in some hut in the depths of the woods, and if by chance he finds that a belated traveller or sportsman has taken up his quarters in the refuge he had intended for himself, he strives hard to turn out the intruder, sweeping over the hut in the form of a whirlwind which makes the door rattle and the roof heave, while all around the trees bend and writhe, and a terrible howling goes through the forest. If, in spite of all these hints, the uninvited guest will not retire, he runs the risk of being lost next day in the woods, or swallowed up in a swamp.

All the birds and beasts which inhabit the forest are under the protection of the Lyeshy. His favourite is the bear, his only servant, who watches over him when he has taken too much of the strong drink he loves so well, and guards him from the assaults of the water-sprites. When the squirrels, field-mice, and some other animals go forth in troops upon their
periodical migrations, the peasants explain the fact by saying that the Lyeshies are driving their flocks from one forest to another. In 1843 a great number of migrating squirrels appeared in certain districts of Russia, and the neighbouring peasants said that it was because a Lyeshy in the Vyatka Government had gambled away all his squirrels to a brother demon in that of Vologda, and the lost property was on its way to its new master. Similar gambling transactions are frequent among the water-sprites. Fishermen know at once why it is that certain fish suddenly desert particular spots. They have been staked and lost by the local Vodyany. But neither the Lyeshy nor the Vodyany will use a pack of cards in which any clubs occur. Any thing like the sign of the cross [or Perun's hammer-mace] is distasteful to demons.

A sportsman's success in the woods depends, to a great extent, on his treatment of the Lyeshy. In order to please that wayward spirit, he makes an offering of a piece of bread, or a pancake, sprinkled with salt, and lays it on the stump of a tree. The Perm peasants offer up prayers once a year to the Lyeshy, presenting him with a packet of leaf-tobacco, of which he is very fond. In some districts the hunters make an offering to the Lyeshy of whatever animal they first bag, leaving it for him in, an oak forest. One of the incantations intended to be used by a hunter calls upon the "Devils and Lyeshies" to drive the hares into his power, and its magic force is supposed to be so great that the wood-demons must obey.

The Lyeshy is very fond of diverting himself in the woods, springing from bough to bough, and rocking himself among the branches as if in a cradle, whence in some places he is called Zuibochnik, [Zuibka = a cradle]. At such times he makes all manner of noises, clapping his hands, shrieking with laughter, imitating the neighing of horses, the lowing of cows, the barking of' dogs. So loud is his laughter, say the peasants, that it may be heard for versts around. In their opinion, when the winds make the woods resound, the voice of the Lyeshy may be heard in what ignorant people might think was the creaking of branches or the crashing of stems; the sounds, also, which are erroneously attributed to an echo are in reality the calls of demons, who wish to allure an unwary sportsman or woodcutter on to dangerous ground, with the intention of tickling him to death if they can get hold of him. For in this respect the Lyeshies resemble their sisters the Rusalkas.
In olden days, when forests were larger and denser than they are now, the Lyeshy used to be constantly deluding travellers, and making them lose their way. Sometimes he would alter the landmarks, or would assume the likeness of some tree by which the neighbours were accustomed to steer. Sometimes he would himself take the form of a traveller, and engage a passer-by in conversation. His victim would chat away unconcernedly, till, all of a sudden, he found himself in a swamp or ravine. Then a loud laugh would be heard, and, looking round, he would see the Lyeshy at a little distance grinning
at him. Sometimes by night a forest-keeper would hear the wailing of a child, or groans apparently proceeding from some one in the agonies of death. His only safe course under such circumstances was to go straight onwards, without paying any attention to those noises. If he followed them he would probably fall into a foaming stream, which rushed along where no stream had ever been seen before.
Wherever the Lyeshy goes, he always tries to leave no track behind, covering the traces of his footsteps with sand, or leaves, or snow. If by any chance a passer-by strikes upon the Lyeshy's recent trail, he becomes bewildered, and does not easily find his way again. His best plan is to take off his shoes and reverse their linings, and it may be as well also to turn his shirt or pelisse inside out. Besides making travellers lose their way, the Lyeshy amuses himself in many ways at their expense, blowing dust into their eyes and their caps off their heads, freezing their sledges tight to the ground, and so forth, so that a popular saying conveys this advice, "Don't go into the forest; the Lyeshy plays tricks there!" Worse than that, he often brings illness upon them, so that when any one falls ill after returning from the woods, his friends say, "He has crossed the Lyeshy's track." In order to get cured he takes bread and salt, wraps them in a clean rag, and carries them to the forest. On his arrival there he utters a prayer over his offering, leaves it as a sacrifice to the Lyeshy, and returns home with the firm conviction that he has left his illness behind him.

Sometimes the Lyeshy is described as leading a solitary life. Sometimes he has a wife and children. The Lisunki, or forest girls and women, are merely female Lyeshies, hairy and hideous. A Little-Russian story, closely resembling one told in Germany of a Holzweibchen, tells how a woman one day found a baby Lyeshy lying--naked on the ground and crying bitterly. So she covered it up warm with her cloak, and after a time came her mother, a Lisunka, and rewarded the woman with a potful of burning coals, which afterwards turned into bright golden ducats.
If any one wishes to invoke a Lyeshy he should cut down a number of young birch-trees, and place them in a circle with their tops in the middle. Then he must take. off his cross, and, standing within the circle, call out loudly, "Dyedushka!" "Grandfather!" and the Lyeshy will appear immediately. Or he should go into the forest on St. John's Eve, and fell an aspen, taking care that it falls towards the East. Then he must stand upon the stump, with his face turned eastward, bend downwards, and say, looking between his feet, "Uncle Lyeshy! appear not as a grey wolf, nor as a black raven, nor as a fir for burning: appear just like me!" Then the leaves of the aspen will begin to whisper as if a light breeze were blowing over them, and the Lyeshy will appear in the form of a man. On such occasions he is ready to make a bargain with his invoker, giving all kinds of assistance in return for the other's soul.
Sometimes the Lyeshies carry off mortal maidens, and make them their wives. But whether they
intermarry or no, their weddings are always attended by noisy revels and by violent storms. If the wedding procession traverses a village, many of the cottages will be injured: if a forest, a number of its trees will fall. A peasant will rarely dare to lie down to sleep in a forest path, for he would be afraid of a wood-demon's bridal procession coming that way and crushing him in his slumbers. In the Government of Archangel a whirlwind is set down to the wild dancing of a Lyeshy with his bride. On the second day after his marriage the Lyeshy, according to the custom prevalent in Russia, goes to the bath with his young wife, and if any mortal passes by at the time, the newly-married couple splash water over him, and drench him from head to foot.