From the cute and mischievous to the bloodsucking and creepy, these creatures have inspired centuries of folklore.
Europe, home to storybook castles and armies of enchanted fairy-tale creatures, is the perfect continent to visit for anyone who happens to be fascinated by the mythical denizens of the past. Forget bird-watching when there’s a chance to spot Finland’s pirouetting Keiju sprites, France’s cunning werewolves, or Scotland’s Sasquatch-like Fear Liath. Whether you believe in the magical world or not, here’s a list of incredible European destinations with mythical creatures lurking about. If you’re lucky (or unlucky, in the case of some of these creatures), you might catch a glimpse of one.
Top Picks for You
Selma Lake Monster
WHERE: Lake Seljord, Norway
A couple of hours southwest of Oslo, you’ll come across Norway’s pristine Lake Seljord. This long, slender lake is home to a mysterious serpentine-like monster that, not unlike the Loch Ness Monster, has been spotted (and even hunted) for centuries. Fuzzy, murky photos (and a few videos) of this shadowy creature abound, as do eye-witness accounts of something massive slithering across Seljord’s surface. In the late 1800s, a man and his mother reported running into Selma. They cut the beast in half and then watched as the surviving lower half of this wormy creature slipped back into the water in hasty retreat.
Am Fear Liath Mòr, or Fear Liath for short, is a Bigfoot-like animal prowling around the summit of Ben Macdui Mountain, Scotland’s second-highest peak. Also known as the Big Grey Man, this 10-foot-tall furry giant has only been seen by humans in fleeting glimpses, since Fear Liath tends to lurk in the shadows. Seemingly part yeti and part mountain wraith, this enigmatic beast has eluded capture, slaughter, or scientific taxonomy so far, yet still somehow manages to stalk the imaginations of those who’ve scaled Ben Macdui’s rugged slopes.
Deep in the forests of Finland, Tinkerbell-esque fairies dance and flit about without a care in the world. These timid-yet-playful sprites, known as Keijus, enjoy a wild pond-side festival on occasion, although they spook quite easily. And while they tend to shy away from humans in general, if they happen upon a particularly handsome young man, they might become infatuated with him and even fall in love. If you’re lucky enough to encounter one or more of these dancing forest sprites during your rambles through Finland’s green spaces, count yourself blessed indeed.
Austria’s Tatzelwurm is a big ol’ snake with a feline face. Typically, the Tatzelwurm has two legs with massive claws on both feet at the front of its long body, which allows it to drag its carcass around. Inhabiting the mountains of Austria and Germany, the Tatzelwurm can grow to the length of an adult human. They use their girth, sharp teeth, and claws to prey upon farm animals and—on occasion—humans. While expeditions have been mounted to track these slithering cat lizards, with the exception of a few (questionable) photos of the creature or its skeleton popping up over the years, no one has provided concrete evidence that this serpent actually exists. But for those who believe in legendary beasts, hope is eternal, and they’ll keep searching.
WHERE: Bavaria, Germany
In Bavaria, people used to buy stuffed Wolpertingers, which were made out of a concoction of different dead animals that do exist, sort of like the German equivalent of a Jackalope. These fantastical flying fanged rabbit/deer hybrids, with a few bird parts thrown in for good measure, purportedly live in the forests of Bavaria. Wolpertingers are attracted to beautiful young women and have been known to come out when the moon is full to meet the right lady, making the creatures vulnerable to capture. Skilled and even not-so-skilled taxidermists have cobbled together Wolpertingers from various animal parts over the years to dupe tourists or to hang on the walls of Bavarian taverns, thus fueling the legend of the Wolpertingers even more.
Before Bram Stoker created the vampires in his novel “Dracula,” the Romanians had been dealing with bloodsuckers for centuries. Strigoi number among the living, as well as the dead. They can transform themselves into other animals, and drain blood from livestock and human beings. There are a few ways you can become a Strigoi, including but not limited to: being born with red hair, being the seventh son of a family, dying by suicide, or dying before marriage or baptism. On top of all that, if you manage to avoid the Strigoi curse yourself, you still might in big trouble, as these vampiric creatures have a penchant for attacking loved ones. Uncle Fred might be dead, but that doesn’t mean he’s done with you just yet.
Loch Ness Monster
WHERE: Loch Ness, Scotland
The Loch Ness Monster is the diva of the fabled sea serpent community. Nessie has called Britain’s most voluminous body of freshwater, Loch Ness, home for more than a millennium. Serious searches and scientific inquiries (including DNA sampling and mini-submarine dives) have tried to verify the truth behind the Loch Ness legend, even in modern times. The first documented glimpse of Nessie took place in 565 AD. Since then, hazy photos and tales of this dinosaur-like monster have stimulated the imaginations of laypeople and the scientific community alike. Fingers crossed that Nessie might actually turn up someday in the scaly flesh … but hopefully, it won’t eat anyone, which would be a tragic turn of events for enthusiastic Nessie hunters.
WHERE: Prague, Czech Republic
During the 16th century, Prague’s Jewish community was having a rough go of it. Rabbi Judah Loew employed some serious Hebrew magic and created the Golem from the clay of the Vltava River. This giant clay monster, with the Hebrew term “emet” (truth) scrawled across its forehead, defended the inhabitants of Prague’s Jewish Ghetto. The Golem grew in strength, became harder to control, and also became a tad bit murderous. The authorities told Rabbi Loew that if he destroyed the Golem, the Jewish community would no longer be preyed upon. Loew agreed and killed his creation by changing the word “emet” to “met” (death)—although some continue to believe that this muddy giant’s remains can still be brought back to life, which means the Golem just might still be wandering around Prague.
INSIDER TIPThis is definitely not your “Lord of the Rings” Gollum. It sounds similar, but it’s spelled differently.
Külmking are unholy shape-shifting ghosts that protect the spirits of Estonia’s forest, even if that means they have to eat little boys or girls now and then to do so. They can change into cats or dogs, and to throw off any would-be Sherlock Holmes searching for them, they can transform into haystacks as well. If anyone troubles the woodland spirits, these frosty-looking ghosts will appear out of nowhere and kill or eat the offending humans outright, or else turn the bothersome men, women, or children into evil people by corrupting their souls. The lesson here kids is that when in doubt, leave the Estonian woodland spirits alone.
The Holder inhabit the forests of Norway and Sweden. And while the males are hideous, the females, called Huldra, are gorgeous siren-esque creatures that like to loiter about naked. Huldra can be differentiated from humans by their cow tails or foxtails. They often entice men wandering through the woods into carnal relations, which a man might think is a pretty nifty deal—but should that man fail to gratify a Huldra sexually, rather than kick him out of her bed, she murders him instead.
WHERE: East Anglia, England
In the 16th century, the Black Shuck brought fear and death to East Anglia, along England’s eastern shores. The Black Shuck, which might have served as the canine muse for Sherlock Holmes’ “Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is a massive, wild black dog with flaming red demonic eyes. The story goes that any unlucky soul who lays eyes upon Old Shuck will die a horrible death soon thereafter. Regardless if you believe in ghost dogs or not, it’s interesting to note that the skeleton of a massive dog was discovered at Leiston Abbey, in Suffolk, in 2014. Was this the final resting place of the mythical Black Shuck, or just a grave for a big old farm dog?
The Turul falcon is a giant mythological bird interwoven with the origin stories of the Hungarian people. Legend has it that the Magyars (Hungarians) were led to the Pannonian Basin and the Great Hungarian Plain—where they would establish their empire—by this oversized bird of prey. The Turul, which is the national symbol of Hungary today, came to Emese, the mythological Hungarian queen, to either watch over her yet-to-be-born child or to impregnate her (tales vary). Her child Álmos brought the Hungarian tribes together for the first time. While you won’t spot a living Turul, if you head to the city of Tatabanya, you can see an enormous bronze Turul statue perched on a hilltop that many claim is the largest bird statue in the world.
WHERE: Dinant, Belgium
The Bayard is a mystical size-shifting horse that has been a part of epic poetic traditions since the Medieval period. While this wild horse has had many adventures over the years, one of the Bayard’s most heroic feats came when it jumped across the Meuse (Maas) River in Dinant, Belgium, creating the towering Bayard Rock. The Bayard, with four riders mounted on its back, was fleeing Charlemagne, King of the Franks. When it leapt across the river to safety, one of its hooves knocked into a cliff, hewing it in two. If you doubt the veracity of this tale, head to Dinant and take a look at Bayard Rock for yourself (but try to ignore the fact that Louis XIV’s men were the ones who actually split the rock away from the cliff face).
The Habergeiß is a grain demon, which is sort of just what it sounds like: a demon that hangs out in fields of grain. When the wind blows, you’d best take care, as a three-legged goat/bird Habergeiß might pounce and take a chunk out of your hide, or else carry your children away in a large basket. These bird and goat amalgams, sometimes with horse hooves tossed in as well, always mean trouble. Hopefully, you won’t run into a real one when you’re in Salzburg, although you might run into someone dressed up as a Habergeiß during Salzburg’s Krampus and Perchten parades, which are held every December to scare away the malevolent spirits of winter.
While a Loup Garou has a lot in common with a classic werewolf, there are a few important distinctions. For starters, a Loup Garou speaks French and secondly, these wolf people don’t lose their ability to speak or reason like human beings after they’ve transformed. A Loup Garou—whose lore made its way to French-speaking communities in Canada and Louisiana as well—is created when someone skips Lent seven years in a row. Another important fact to consider is that their transformation isn’t tied to the cycles of the moon, which, combined with their intelligence, makes them hard to hunt—and perhaps even more dangerous than an American Werewolf wandering around Paris.
WHERE: Portugal and Galicia
Parents dealing with naughty children have scared their little ones into good behavior over the years by telling them that “El Coco,” a child-eating ghost originating in Portugal and Galicia, will come for them if they don’t change their unruly ways or go to bed on time. El Coco is a humanoid-shaped monster with a pumpkin head that has a taste for snacking on children. These disturbing bedtimes stories, which have spread to Latin America, are the perfect example of the brutal lengths parents will go to in order to get their kids to fall asleep. “If you don’t pipe down, a pumpkin-headed spirit will come and kidnap you, then devour you. Mommy and Daddy love you. Night night, sweetie pie.”
WHERE: France and Switzerland
If anyone offers to take you on a Dahu hunting trip in the Alps, you can be 98 percent sure they’re pulling your leg (we like to reserve 2 percent for the implausible). Dahu are fabled misshapen deer or goats populating the French and Swiss Alps. The legs on one side of a Dahu are shorter than on the other side, letting this nonexistent hoofed ruminant stand upright on alpine slopes. Laevogyrous Dahu trot around peaks counter-clockwise, as their shorter legs are on their left side, while Dextrogyre Dahu, with shorter right legs, skip around clockwise. Naive city folk have been tricked into searching for the elusive Dahu on occasion, but they always come up short—just like a pair of this animal’s uneven legs.
When walking near a river or pond in the landlocked countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, you might run into a Vodník waterman. In some Slavic tales, the watermen resemble men with froggy faces. But in the Czech and Slovak versions, Vodník look more like humans, but with gills, webbed fingers and toes, and a disheveled sense of style. And while many Slavic water spirits are friendly, Vodník tend toward the nastier side, drowning inexperienced swimmers in ponds or reservoirs, then collecting their drowned souls and storing them in slime-covered jars.
Aitvaras are small dragon-like roosters with tails made out of flickering flames. When these little guys venture outside, they turn into reptilian dragons. If an Aitvaras shows up at your house, this can be a sign of good fortune, or conversely, bad luck. Born from a rooster’s egg (yep, you read that right, a rooster’s egg, which shouldn’t be possible), Aitvaras are almost impossible to get rid of, so you’d better treat them right. Sometimes they show up at your doorstep unannounced, and presto, you have a new feathered roommate. If you’d like one of these diminutive thieving dragon-roosters for your own, but don’t want to wait for one to appear, all you have to do is sell your soul to the devil. Seems like a fair bargain, right?
If you happen to be strolling through the forests of Central Croatia, in Bjelovar-Bilogora County, don’t be surprised (well, actually, be very surprised) if you run into a shaggy, hair-covered giant bigger than a house. Vedi (singular: Ved) are Croatian goliaths that dwell in the woods, or else protect people’s homes and help with household chores. The Vedi of the woodlands love to sing, but if you rub them the wrong way, they might take you prisoner for a while and engage in a little recreational torture. A domesticated Ved would never dream of harming his hosts, although if the neighbors mess with his family, he’d have no problem knocking them about and teaching them their place.