Part of your world: terror in the depths of Lake Baikal

I’ve always loved marine biology. Aquatic creatures and plants are so distinct from what we experience normally that they often border on the fantastic. Deep water life is a special treat: it remains a poorly-known frontier, and so excites wonderful, terrible possibilities. We humans have felt the weight of those possibilities for some time, which is why I think there are so many monster stories that come from the water. This month, let’s visit a few in a Siberia.

olkhon_island_and_lake_baikal
Lake Baikal, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

To call Lake Baikal a mere “lake” might be doing it a disservice. Formed by the slowly yawning gap between two tectonic plates, it is the largest, deepest, and most ancient freshwater body on Earth. To be specific, Lake Baikal has more water than all of the U.S. Great Lakes combined, and reaches a depth of 1,642 meters (or, for us Americans, a little over a mile). At 25 million years old, it has been around more than 4 times longer than the human race.

That’s not the only way Baikal is impressive. The lake is also considered one of the world’s clearest–one source says that you can see as far into it as 130 feet. Surrounded by Siberian mountains, it is teeming with rich biodiversity: over 80% of the life in and around Baikal is made up of creatures that can be found nowhere else on earth.  In short, the lake is an extraordinary place. It’s no wonder people have attributed magic to it.

Let’s start with the happier stuff. If you take a dip in Baikal’s waters, rumor has it that you’ll live a longer, healthier life–provided you don’t suffer hypothermia (in the winter, the ice can get to be over 6 feet thick). The lake is also associated with a couple of historical celebrities: Genghis Kahn was born on one of its islands, and Jesus himself supposedly once visited, as well. Looking out over the waters, he raised his hand, and proclaimed with satisfaction that “beyond this, there is nothing.” (This was said to account for the problems 19th-century Duaria (the land beyond the lake) had with growing corn.)

Frozen Lake Baikal
A frozen Lake Baikal, © Sergey Pesterev via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond that, Lake Baikal has proved to be a bit of a deathtrap. Earthquakes strike every few years. You can walk over the lake when it freezes, but woe to the man who goes unprepared. In 1920, the retreating White Russian Army attempted the cross, only to find themselves buffeted by freezing winds over the open expanse of ice. Many died of frostbite and hypothermia. Their corpses had to be left behind, frozen to the surface until they sunk with the spring thaw.

Locals living around the lake have reported ghosts boats that appear and disappear without warning, as well as boats (and crew) of their own that disappear. As recently as 2011, 4 experienced men piloting the Yamaha vanished near an area of the lake known as the Devil’s Crater. There, whirlpools are said to suck ships down like toys in a bathtub train. At the bottom of the pools, some whisper, lies Hell.

But out of all the delights that Lake Baikal has to offer, my favorites are the extraterrestrial ones. According to UFO enthusiasts, those deep waters are not going unused.

I’m not well-versed in UFO lore, and so was surprised to learn that it’s common to see crafts around–or in–bodies of water (though “in” would make them Unidentified Submerged or Unidentified Underwater Objects). Lake Baikal is no exception: not only mysterious in its own right, it is one of the biggest UFO hotspots in Russia. The surrounding villages have witnessed hovering lights in various colors and formations, as well as silent discs that have floated low in the sky for so long people threw rocks at them from sheer boredom.

On more than one occasion, these UFOs have dove into the lake to escape human pursuit. For a long time, Baikal was too deep and dangerous for anyone to go after them, or indeed to explore very deep under the surface at all. Thanks to modern technology, that is no longer the not the case.

Underwater cave with diver
Some say that the many tight, poorly explored caves under Lake Baikal might be a good extraterrestrial hiding place.

The first reported underwater anomaly came in 1977. A pair of scientists took a submersible some 3900 feet below the surface and turned off their lights to study how far sunlight could penetrate. After a few seconds of darkness, they were blinded by two spotlights shining at them above and at their side. Before the men could figure out where they had come from, the lights went out, leaving them alone in the dark once more.

The second incident happened in 1982, this time with military divers using Lake Baikal as a training ground. In the middle of their drill, a few strange underwater vehicles zipped past them, going much faster than anything the Soviet navy was capable of at the time. The ships were gone long before the soldiers could follow.

Then there was the third–and probably most famous–incident. Just a few days after seeing the strange vehicles, the same navy divers swam right into a group of 3 other, unexpected divers. These were almost 10 feet tall, decked out in silver suits and helmets, but with no other signs of scuba gear.

The men were ordered to capture the swimmers (referred to by the commander as Ihtiander, a shark-boy from modern Russian mythology) . The soldiers tried, but the silver suits evaded them. Each human found himself blasted to the surface of the late, riddled with decompression sickness. 4 of them managed to get in a decompression chamber in time to save themselves. The other 3 died shortly thereafter.

All this came out a few years ago, when (allegedly) military documents describing the event were declassified. The Russian government, of course, claims that nothing of the sort ever happened.

Lake Baikal circles in ice
One of the circles in question. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons and the ISS Crew Earth Observations Experiment

Regardless, interest in the lake and its possible extraterrestrial inhabits persists. In 2009, strange circles in Lake Baikal’s ice led to arguments over what might have created them: global warming or underwater spacecrafts. There’s a lot of stuff to explore, and a lot of people passionate about it. Ex-navy officer and UFO researcher Vladimir Azhazha says it best:

“I think about underwater bases and say: Why not? Nothing should be discarded, skepticism is the easiest way: believe nothing, do nothing. People rarely visit great depths. So it’s very important to analyze what they encountered there.”

 

What horrors have you found at the bottom of the pool? Share your story in the comments below.

Advertisements

Thrill of the chase: The Wild Hunt

Ah, winter. Darkness. Wind that cuts through to your bones. Creaking houses and falling shards of ice. There’s no better time of the year. My boyfriend has been attempting to get me into The Witcher franchise recently, and his demonstrations of their latest PC game reminded me that I’ve wanted to talk about the Wild Hunt. This month seemed as good of a time as any.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for awhile might remember the Sluagh, a host of flying fairies who like to steal children and drop their lifeless bodies off a few miles from home. The Wild Hunt is related to these, but with a different flavor and broader reach. Known variously as the Wild Hunt, Raging Host, Furious Army, Gabriel’s Hounds and more, it is a phenomenon that started in Northern Europe, then spread to infect the entire continent.

It’s an old story, beginning in early, pre-Christian times. A winter storm would blast through the forested countryside, bringing howling winds and blotting out the sun. In Scandinavia, the fun began with nothing more than a few, faint sounds: two dogs baying after the rest of the world had gone silent, one dog always louder than the other. In other places–Germany and Britain, for example–lone travellers would look up into the trees, or into the thunderclouds overhead, and feel their stomachs plummet.

An eight-legged horse emerged from the cold, driven forward by a shadowy, furious rider. These were shortly followed by a hungry cavalcade of around thirty others, hounds streaking between their horse’s legs. The sound must have been incredible: hooves pounding, dogs barking, riders jeering, the blaring of horns. Sometimes the Hunt would be chasing a boar, wild horse, or some poor woman. Other stories have it searching for the souls of the dead, and later–post Christianity–for sinners and the unbaptized.

oskorei-bild
Turns out there a buttload of classical paintings for the Wild Hunt. This one is by Franz von Stuck, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the Hunt rode through a town, it would take food and drink with it. If a house (or any other kind of human structure) was built in its path, it would burn it down. As awe-inspiring as the sight of the riders might be, few actually went out in search of it, for fear of being kidnapped, killed, or accepting the omen of plague or war. If caught outside, people could throw themselves onto the ground with the hope that the Hunt would pass without harming them. Those foolish enough to interact with the riders often got more than they bargained for: death if they attempted to mock them, and if they helped them, an enchanted leg of meat (animal, or, occasionally, human) that they could not be rid of without the help of a seriously skilled priest.

The leader of the Hunt varied with time and culture. Originally it was Odin (or Woden), the ancient one-eyed god associated with creativity, knowledge, and death (among other things). The eight legged steed–Sleipnir–was his, as were the storms brought with the Hunt ( it was said the storm winds wafted away the souls of the dead, so that Odin might collect them). Sometimes Odin’s wife led the hunt, or other gods, goddesses, or great warriors. Other times the Hunt was comprised of fairies (as we saw with the Sluagh): enchanting and magical, but also kidnap- and murder-y. Later, when Christianity came in to condemn the old, “heathen” ways, the hunt became not a party of gods and souls but a procession of the damned and demons, led by Cain or even Lucifer himself.

cordeswildejagd
All images in this post are going to be large and in charge, because the details are awesome (looking at you, lower right corner). Johann Wilhelm Cordes, Wikimedia Commons

The legend spread, and things got crazier. King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and even Sir Francis Drake started to lead the Hunt.  One tale tells of King Herla, who paid a visit to his neighbor Fairy King. The fairy warned Herla as he was leaving not to step down from his horse until his dog did; centuries later, Herla and his men are still riding, waiting for the dog to step down. Another tells of Hans von Hackelnburg, a semi-historical figure who loved the chase, on his deathbed due to a boar tusk injury somewhere between 1521 and 1581. “God,” he said, “Instead of going to heaven, just let me hunt.” Cursed or blessed, his wish was granted, and another Wild Hunt leader was born.

Versions of the Wild Hunt have appeared in Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Wales, Canada, and across Scandinavia and the Netherlands. That’s a conservative list, but a long one. Non-supernaturally-inclined people might ask: why is this so prevalent? Is it a human tendency to see things in the clouds? A leftover memory from when bands of (human) troublemakers really did ride barrel out of the woods and wreak havoc?

Hard to say. But when a legend becomes as popular as this one, you have to wonder if there might be something to it.

 

Who is your favorite Wild Hunt leader? Who might make a good one next? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

You’re as Cold as Ice: The Ijirait

Hello, 2017! It was exceptionally chilly earlier this week, which got me thinking about icicles, snowstorms, hypothermia, and all the other fun winter-themed things that can kill you. Monster Meet has yet to feature an honest-to-goodness snow monster, so I figured now was a great time to visit one. Let’s put bad weather in perspective:

horns
Some ambiance-building bones for your viewing pleasure.

Way up above Canada, in the highest part of the world, where the sun moves strangely and a single mistake might cost you your life, the Inuit test the bounds of human awesomeness. These badass people face things that most of us would find unimaginable, and on a day to day basis. What sort of thing might scare them? Answer: the Ijirait (Ijiraq being the singular form), beings with one foot in this world and the other in the spirit realm. Watching, robbing, and daring any human to cross them, these shape-shifting monsters wander the most desolate parts of the arctic.

Inuit elders in the South Baffin region whisper that long ago, a group of hunters went too far north and got trapped in the expanse between the living and the dead. Thus the Ijirait were born. Now when other hunters enter that region, they see strange, moving mirages; hear eerily human whistling; and catch glimpses of shadows standing the corner of their eye. No matter how fast they turn, or how far they look, they’ll almost never see what haunts them. They usually never see their families again, either…once a human steps into the territory of an Ijiraq, even if said human is an excellent navigator with great survival skills, even if the human’s camp is within sight of where they stand, the spirit (for lack of a better world) will confound and confuse them so that they will wander, terrified, until they collapse and die in the cold.

bird
Any number of arctic animals, including birds like this one!

Shaman visions have indicated that in their natural form, the Ijirait might look almost human, but with mouths and eyes that open sideways. Other stories have them appear–when they do appear–as hideous human-caribou hybrids, or simply as caribou with slightly unusual antlers (note: woe to the hunter who mistakes an Ijiraq for her prey). Most agree, however, that the spirits can shape-shift into any number of arctic animals, possibly with the one unifying feature of red eyes.

The Ijirait might even disguise themselves as humans, hunting caribou and passing through markets terribly, horribly close to people’s homes. This might be because beyond confusing travelers and generally making people feel uneasy, the spirits delight in kidnapping and then abandoning human children. The only youngsters not doomed to die in the snow are the ones with whom the Ijiraq happens to pass by a certain type of cairn–an inuksuqaq. Upon seeing an inuksuqaq, the monster will change its mind and return the child…but if it doesn’t see one, well. That kid’s pretty much screwed.

landscape
Fig 3: territory to bypass.

From what I can tell, the Ijirait can’t be fought, and they can’t be hidden from. The only way to avoid an altercation with them is to a) have a woman giving childbirth near you at all times (it’s said that the Ijirait fear said women intensely, though to be fair anyone should probably be afraid of someone pushing a miniature version of herself out of her body) or b) to simply bypass their territory altogether.*

Ijirait survivors are encouraged to record their stories immediately, because amnesia hits hard not long after an encounter. People who aren’t monster enthusiasts suggest that this might be because the pockets of sour gas present in the arctic ground–which could cause victims to see things and get disoriented in the first place–might have lasting cognitive effect. Who knows. Me, I like to think that the amnesia is just the human brain protecting itself after a harrowing, awe-inspiring encounter.

Some things we just weren’t meant to see.

What sort of bone-chilling things do you see on the winter sidewalk? Do you think you can draw an effective caribou-human minotaur? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Some Inuit elders argue that the Ijirait are not so much evil as they are misunderstood, and that much of their animosity comes from resentment of people encroaching on their land. In this version of the legend, the spirits are sometimes even helpful, bringing travelers messages in a way that is sure to get their attention.

ALL PHOTO CREDIT GOES TO: The Bone Collector II via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND. Thank you very kindly.

Dead baby jokes: Lamashtu

This month, let’s talk about old fear. Ancient Mesopotamian religion kicked off as much as 6 thousand years ago, but the spirits of its deities can still be recognized today: Tammuz, god of food and vegetation; Dagon, god of fertility; Enlil, god of breath. All were thought to be like humans, but immortal, shining so bright that they could not be looked at. They were not mystical beings, but masters that humanity should obey and fear.  Most of them were good, or at least chaotic-neutral. One of them was not.

Lamashtu was a deity that destroyed lives. She did it not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She was distinct in that way from her peers, who might be destructive, but were so under obligation, or with some purpose other than destruction for destruction’s sake. Lamashtu personified a fear as old as the human race: fear of losing a newborn. She took the already bloody, dangerous process of delivery and made it that much worse.

Known for her signature move of ripping babies from breasts to slurp their blood and gnaw on their bones, Lamashtu appeared as a mythological hybrid with a hairy body, a lioness’s head, donkey’s teeth and ears, a set of long fingers and fingernails, and sharp bird talon feet (what is it with female monsters and taloned feet, anyway?). She was often depicted standing on a donkey, simultaneously gripping snakes and nursing a pig and  a dog. When not terrorizing the living, she traversed the underworld in a boat. Her name meant “she who erases.”

lamashtu_name
Lamashtu’s name in cuneiform, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The style her name was written in signaled her power and deity status. 

Beyond kidnapping, Lamashtu’s rap sheet included (but was not limited to):

  • Killing children
  • Killing unborns
  • Killing infants
  • Torturing/attacking mothers and expectant mothers
  • Eating men and drinking their blood
  • Disturbing sleep
  • Bringing nightmares
  • Killing foliage
  • Infesting rivers and lakes
  • Bringing a lot of disease/sickness
  • Bringing death
lamashtu_plaque_9161
The plaque in question, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Lamashtu appears at the bottom center. Pazuzu is the dude to her left, as well as the guy grinning over the whole scene like a Disney villain over the front of a 90’s VHS tape.

Understandably, the Mesopotamians were terrified of Lamashtu and did everything they could to discourage her visits. Expectant mothers wore amulets with the sign of Pazuzu, Lamashtu’s husband/rival who was not super great in his own right (he tended to bring famine and drought), but was the only person who might get her to stop. Amulets are hardly the only protective artifacts we’ve found, however. Especially in the first millennium, anti-Lamashtu paraphernalia was everywhere. Fun tip: there is (or was recently) an actual Lamashtu exorcism plaque on display at the Louvre (field trip, anyone?). It depicts the exorcism scene with Pazuzu watching. The patient reaches out in pain; priests in the fishskins of the god Ea crowd around him. Lamashtu appears large and terrible at the bottom, barely held back by Pazuzu. The inscription describes her as furious and cruel, a dazzling goddess; she is a she-wolf; she snatches the young man on the path, the girl at play, the child from the arms of his nurse.”

I’ll leave you today with an ancient Mesopotamian ritual and incantation against Lamashtu-induced illness. Those of you who fear for your family’s safety–or who see long, strange fingers peeking around your doorframe when you’re lying sick in bed–perhaps will find the information useful. The ritual goes as follows:

  1. Procure a Lamashtu figurine. (This is stumbling block #1. Good luck.)
  2. Place a sacrifice of bread before the figurine, and pour water over it.
  3. Put the figurine on the back of a black dog.
  4. Have the black dog carry the figurine to be placed at the head of the sick person for three days.
  5. Stuff a piglet’s heart in the figurine’s mouth, and leave it there for the duration of those three days.
  6. Offer further food sacrifices, and recite your incantation thrice daily:

Great is the daughter of Heaven who tortures babies

Her hand is a net, her embrace is death

She is cruel, raging, angry, predatory

A runner, a thief is the daughter of Heaven

She touches the bellies of women in labor

She pulls out the pregnant women’s baby

The daughter of Heaven is one of the Gods, her brothers

With no child of her own.

Her head is a lion’s head

Her body is a donkey’s body

She roars like a lion

She constantly howls like a demon-dog.

7. At dusk on the third day, take the figurine outside and bury it near the wall.

Easy-peasy, right? At least the stakes aren’t life or dea–oh, wait. Yes they are.

I’ll leave you to it.

How many dead houseplants and brutal sinus infections can you blame on Lamashtu? Share your story in the comments below.