Benandanti: The Dream-Walking Witch Hunters


The Salem Witch Trials are the best-known witch hunts, but they were prominent throughout Europe during the Catholic Revival. While most witch hunts were terrible tragedies involving the execution of innocent women and other vulnerable people, not all witch hunters did that. The Italian tradition of the Benandanti fought a different kind of witch: malignant spirits who threatened crops and communities via the dream realm. 

The Good Walkers

The Benandanti were the bane of European witch hunters who abused their power to maintain the status quo. Benandanti could be any gender, and it was said that they were born with a caul over their head. They truly had their communities’ best interests in heart and took it upon themselves to protect crops and livestock. 

Benandanti achieved this by allegedly transforming their spirits into animals (like wolves) while they slept and battled evil witches. They were also said to possess healing abilities in the waking world. The Benandanti honestly believed these experiences to be real, calling them “vision journeys”. 

In these vision journeys, the men would use fennel stalks to fight witches, who used sorghum (associated with witches’ brooms). These battles would determine the outcome of the crops in the coming year. While the men fought, the women learnt magic and divination at a magnificent feast surrounded by spirits, animals, and fairies. These women learned who in the community would die in the next year.

Connections to Witches

Because of their supernatural abilities and their battles in the dream world, the Benandanti become closely associated with witches. While they eventually came to be seen as “good” witches, this connection was enough for them to be persecuted in the 1500s. It didn’t matter that their journeys had nothing in common with “witches’ sabbath”; they used magic, and that was enough. 


Eventually the Benandanti became synonymous with witches, Satanists, and heathens. To be called one was an accusation of witchcraft or worse. The Roman inquisition began interrogating anyone claiming to have healing or divinatory powers, and it gave spiteful people a way to vilify anyone they didn’t like. Unfortunately, this also led to Bendandanti accusing each other of being witches, to save their own skins. It was a vicious cycle, and entirely unnecessary. 

This was such an interesting topic to read into. I really think the Benandanti should be a common feature of fantasy media, and I’m surprised they aren’t more popular. A group of benevolent, shape-shifting witch hunters who come to be seen as the very thing they fight against … doesn’t that sound just perfect for a young adult book series?

There’s so much more to learn about the Benandanti than I’ve covered here. If you want more information about their complex history, check out this article!

If you’re in an arty mood, have a look at my RedBubble store for prints like these!

The Story Behind The Little Mermaid


Hans Christen Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is a classic fairytale of magic, transformation, and forbidden love. Most people know the Disney version, where the prince falls in love with Ariel and they live happily ever after. The original version was much darker and bleaker, and likely came about because of an event in Anderson’s personal life. 

The original 1837 version includes a few gruesome details that would not have been good for Disney’s family-friendly image. Along with not being able to speak, the little mermaid’s every step felt as if she were walking on broken glass. An important detail of this version is that mermaids do not have souls, so if she dies she will turn into seafoam instead of going to heaven as humans do. 

The mermaids in Anderson’s version visit the surface when they turn 15, returning to tell their families about their experience. The youngest princess becomes enamoured with a human prince, and saves his life when his ship crashes. She watches from a distance as women from a nearby temple tend to him. The prince believes that one of these women saved him, not the little mermaid. 

She returns home and asks her grandmother how long humans live. When she learns that they have short lifespans, she longs for a soul so she can be with the prince. The little mermaid seeks out the sea witch, who gives her a potion to grow legs with the warning that if the prince marries another, she will die of a broken heart and dissolve on the waves. Each step will feel like she is walking on broken glass, and she will have to give up her voice. 

The prince finds her on the beach, and though she cannot speak, she becomes the prince’s constant companion. However, he shows no signs of loving her. 

His parents announce his engagement to the neighbouring princess, who happens to be the woman from the temple. They marry on a ship, and the little mermaid is in anguish. That night, her sisters catch her attention in the waves. They cut off all of their beautiful hair in exchange for a dagger from the sea witch. If the little mermaid kills the prince with the dagger, she can become a mermaid again. 

She enters the prince’s chamber, but seeing him asleep with his new wife, she can’t bring herself to kill him. She throws herself off the ship to become sea foam, rejoining the ocean and sparing the love of her life. But before she dissolved, she transforms into a spirit called a Daughter of the Air. Because of her good deeds in life, she now has the chance to gain her own soul.

This version of the story is certainly tragic, but I find it more poignant. Some people interpret it as a religious narrative, with the Daughter of Air being angels. The storybook that I had as a child cut off this ending, which makes it a tale of tragic, unrequited love without the cushioning of the mermaid’s redemption. I prefer this version – to me, it warns against being taken advantage of by people who will never truly care about you. It is also about self-sacrifice and learning to let go; instead of punishing the prince for loving someone else, she frees herself from the pain caused by pretending to be someone she is not. This fairy tale does not have a happy ending, but it is beautiful in its melancholy. 

As I mentioned before, The Little Mermaid may reflect some aspects of Hans Christian Anderson’s personal life. Theorists believe the story was a love letter dedicated to a man named Edvard Collin. Collin was engaged to a young woman, and around this time Anderson sent him a letter which said  “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” 

The parallels are clear. A person falls deeply in love with someone who is unable to reciprocate, despite changing everything about themselves. The story reflects Anderson’s pain in this unrequited love; the mermaid’s loss of her voice might represent Anderson’s inability to confess his feelings publicly. 

As a queer person myself, I loved learning that one of the most famous fairytale authors loved men, and it made me love the story even more. It’s a brilliant story impacted by the author’s own life, and it’s no wonder that we still tell it today.

Vampires from Around the World


The common perception of vampires comes from the European archetype of the pale, fanged, aristocratic monster. Count Dracula is usually the first vampire that people think of, but he’s not the original. 

Bram Stoker was influenced by John Polidori’s The Vampyre, a story developed at the same party of Lord Byron’s where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. 

But the concept of the vampire has a place in nearly every culture in the world. The idea of a blood-drinking monster that mostly resembles a human is a fear that has plagued humanity throughout history. One theory is that not being at the top of the food chain is a deeply-rooted fear, and that the biggest threats to our existence could be hiding in plain sight. 

While some of these vampire variants differ from the Stoker-esque version, they all inspire a similar sense of fear. 


The Yara-Ma-Yha-Who

Starting off with Australian Aboriginal mythology, we have the Yara-ma-yha-who. This is a small, red, frog-like man with suction cups on the ends of its fingers. Used as a bogeyman figure for misbehaving children, the yara-ma-yha-who has a very unusual and gruesome method of feeding. 

It hangs upside-down from fig trees, waiting for an unsuspecting traveller to pass underneath. Then, it drops down and drains its victim’s blood with its suckers before swallowing them whole. After this hearty meal, it takes a nap before regurgitating its victim back up. The victim is a little shorter, and their skin is a little more red. The yara-ma-yha-who repeats this process until the victim is turned into one of its own. 

While this strange little creature is a far cry from any vampire we see TV, it’s still a freaky yet fascinating part of Australian mythology which we hear so little about in the mainstream. 


The Rakshasa

Next up is the Rakshasa, a shapeshifter found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Known as “man-eaters”, these beasts can transform to any shape, size, or creature at will. It also has the ability to fly and vanish, traits that we also see in the modern vampire. The Rakshasa possess two massive fangs that protrude from their mouths, which they used alongside their sharp claws to track and kill humans.

 In Hindu epics they fight on the sides of good and evil, but most of the time they are villains. Many religions portray them as embodiments of hunger and desperate, with a never-ending desire for human flesh. 

Dungeons & Dragons features Rakshana as villainous monsters with the head of a tiger and backwards hands. They use their shapeshifting abilities to disguise themselves as other people in order to catch their prey. 


The Manananggal

This vampire comes from Phillipine mythology and is quite gruesome, so if you’re not a fan of gore feel free to skip this one. 

The manananggal is a humanoid creature, most often female, who has the ability to separate its upper and lower torso. The lower torso is left standing, while the upper body sprouts wings and flies off in search of prey. 

The manananggal favours pregnant women, and when they’re sleeping it will use its tongue to drink the blood or heart of the fetus. They also target newlyweds and grooms-to-be due to the belief that in life, the manananggal was left at the altar. 

There is a way to destroy this vampire: find the vulnerable lower half of its body and sprinkle salt, garlic or ash on top. This prevents the upper body from reattaches, and by sunrise the manananggal will be destroyed. 

In a similar vein, the Malaysian penanggalan is a female vampiric creature who severs her head with her internal organs still attached. 


The Strzyga

Coming from Slavic mythology, the Strzyga is a type of undead demon. The common belief is that Strzyga are born with two souls, and you can identify one by a variety of traits; having two hearts, no armpit hair, or a second set of teeth is a giveaway. When a Strzyga dies, only one of its souls ascends to the afterlife. The other would remain and bring the body back to life and fill it with a hunger for human flesh. 

Stryzga transform into owls at night and attack wanderers, draining them of blood. Animal blood would tide them over for a while, but not forever. 

This vampire is also an omen of death; like a banshee, their presence indicates that someone is going to die soon. 

This is by no means an exclusive list of vampiric creatures; Wikipedia has a great list that has already sent me down a rabbit hole multiple times. Though the romantic vampire was established by European authors like Stoker and Polidori, it is clear that Dracula did not invent the concept of blood-sucking monsters. 

The American “Fearsome Critters” and Other Tall Tales


I’m an Australian, and playing some good-natured pranks on tourists is a time-honoured tradition. Our most famous of these pranks is probably the Drop Bear, an aggressive relative of the koala that drops from trees onto unsuspecting prey. I was delighted to discover that we are not the only country that does this! It’s a tradition in some places to prank people as part of a “hazing” ritual on hunts for creatures that don’t exist. 

These creatures could fall under the “cryptid” umbrella, but in my mind they’re a little different. These “fearsome critters”, as they’re known in North America, are like a mass inside joke: nearly everyone knows they’re entirely made up (except for Drop Bears, which are 100% real). 

“Snipe hunt” is another term for this sort of creature-related prank. I’d only heard it before from the movie Up, but apparently, in America, it’s a real thing. Snipes are actual birds, but the “snipe hunt” really just involves sending the hapless victim off in the woods until the joke’s over. This is often done as a sort of initiation ritual as a bit of good-natured teasing. The description of the “snipe” isn’t even consistent; sometimes it’s a bird with the neck of a snake, sometimes it’s taller than a human, and so on.

In a similar vein is the French Dahu. They are mountain-dwelling, goat-like creatures where the legs on one side are longer than on the other. This, apparently, allows the dahu to run around the mountain faster, but only in one direction. There are two different sub-species of this creature; one with shorter legs on the left, and the other on the right. A more elaborate version of this prank involves two people; one to hold the bag and catch it, and the other to hide and imitate the noise of the dahu. The dahu will turn at the sudden noise, and tumble down the mountain. 

The Fearsome Critters of North America stem from tall tales around the Great Lakes region. Often these critters are so ridiculous that they’re spoken of with the understanding that they don’t exist, while at the same time being presented as fact. I find this kind of storytelling very charming; there’s no trickery involved, just a fun way to bond around a campfire. We listen, not with the expectation that what we’re hearing is true, but because the sheer act of sharing a story is entertaining.

Some of these fearsome critters include the squonk, which dissolves into tears if anyone sees its ugliness; the spiny cactus cat which gets drunk off of cactus juice; the hoop snake, a snake that bites the end of its tail and rolls down a hill to catch prey; and of course the jackalope, the rabbit with antlers like a deer. There’s usually not a lot of depth to these creatures, so anyone can make up a tall tale about a sighting. Unlike most cryptids, fearsome critters aren’t malevolent; their mere existence is enough of a story.

I really recommend going through the list on the wiki page for fearsome critters! There are some brilliant ones out there, and I’ve just cherry-picked a few of my favourites. Some of them are just simply absurd, like the fur-bearing trout, and some of them are silly explanations for things going missing in the woods (see the axehandle hound that eats unattended axes). I love the fact that even though we know more about the natural world than ever, we continue inventing strange creatures just for the love of imagination. I hope we never stop telling these kinds of stories.

Exit mobile version