May 10, 2013

Location #6: Poveglia Island

This is a place I've been eager to do since I started this site. Known by several names, including The Venetian Island of the Dead and The Plague Island, it is better known as Poveglia.

This island is most infamous for being the dump site of victims of the black plague as it swept through Italy, but that is not the first misfortune to take place there.

The earliest recording of Poveglia comes from 421 AD, when people from Padua and Este fled there to escape barbaric invasions. In the 9th century the island gained residents, and prospered until it was governed by a dedicated Podestà. This led to many wars on Poveglia, as many barbarians still wanted the people who fled there. The Poveglians won most of these wars, but in 1379 Venice came under attack from the Genoan fleet; the people of Poveglia were moved to the Giudecca, and the Venetian government built on the island a permanent defensive building called "the Octagon," still visible today. The island remained uninhabited otherwise in the following centuries


In 1777 the island came under the jurisdiction of the Magistrato alla Sanità (Public Health Office), and became a check point for all goods and people coming to and going from Venice by ship. In 1793, there were several cases of the black plague on two ships, and as a result the island was transformed into a temporary confinement station for the ill; this role became permanent in 1805.

In the 20th century the island was again used as a quarantine station, but in 1922, the existing buildings were converted into an hospital for mentally ill and long-term care. This went on until 1968, when the hospital was closed, and the island, after being shortly used for agriculture, was completely abandoned. As of today, the island is entirely abandoned, and is closed to tourists and the public.

Legends have arisen about the island throughout many years, and it's difficult to figure out how much is fact and how much is fiction, as very few people are allowed on the land and locals avoid it at all costs. One legend, which can be heavily collaborated with facts, says that during Roman times it was used to isolate thousands of plague victims, and during the three occasions when the Black Death spread through Europe, the island was effectively used as a lazaretto and plague pit – it was considered an efficient way of keeping the infected people separated from the healthy. According to this, over 160,000 people died on the island throughout its history. It is said that the ground covering the island is 50% human ash, and rose over five feet in height. Recently, mass graves have been found on the nearby islands of Lazaretto Nuovo and Lazzaretto Vecchio containing the remains of thousands of plague victims. Poveglia has yet to be fully investigated.

Another tale surrounds a building raised in 1922 on the island, which was used for various purposes, including a mental hospital. The legend states that a particular mental health doctor tortured and butchered many of the patients, before going "mad" and jumping to his death from the bell tower. According to that same legend, he survived the fall, but was 'strangled by a mist that came up from the ground'. Its ruins remain to this day.

In the daylight, Poveglia looks like a beautiful, lost city, overgrown with trees and flowers as nature quickly takes back one of its islands. However, as night falls, the beauty fades and the unsettling chill creeps in, and makes it a bit harder to simply dismiss the legends surrounding this famous island.

May 5, 2013

Baba Yaga

This is a post I've been eager to do for a while now! One of Russia's most well known figures of folklore, the witch Baba Yaga!

Baba Yaga is very popular is Eastern European folklore, and there are several different names for her. She’s called Jezibaba in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Ukranian children know her as Baba Jaha, while in Slovenia she goes by the name of Yaga Baba. She is not a conventional witch. She does not wear a hat, and has never been seen on a broomstick. She instead travels perched in a large mortar, and pushes herself along with a pestle. Whenever she appears, a wild wind begins to blow, the trees groan creak, and leaves crackle and whip through the air. A group of tortured souls and spirits are said to follow her around, howling and shrieking in constant pain, and yet, despite all this noise and commotion, not a trace of her is ever found, as her silver birch broom sweeps it all away. Sometimes it is said that rather being one witch, Baba Yaga is actually a trio of sisters all with the same name, an intent used to confuse any visitors.

The old witch Baba Yaga is a deformed hag with a mouthful of iron teeth. Her back is so bent over from age that she touches the ground with her head. Her nose is so long that it reaches the ceiling of her hut when she is sleeping. She sleeps stretched out on her ancient brick oven, which she also uses to cook her meals (including unfortunate visitors she catches, particularly naughty children).

Baba Yaga is said to live in a hut deep in the woods, set on massive chicken legs that stand and move about at will, and the windows are said to be eyes that the hut watches its surroundings with. A fence made of bones she eagerly collects from those unfortunate to stumble upon her surrounds the hut at whichever location it chooses to settle down at. The hut spins at an unsettling rate when it is standing on the tall legs, or standing idle with its back to the traveler, and can only be lowered and turned to face the visitor to allow entry by a visitor if said visitor utters the proper incantation: "Hut, hut, turn your back to the forest and your front to me."

Baba Yaga is never painted as purely either a villain or a helper, as she seems to decide on a whim depending on the visitor whether or not she will help or hinder. It helps if the visitor has a 'pure heart and soul' but that is not always a guarantee. One version says that she asks you to try and satisfy a number of wishes she has, and if you fail, she devours you. It's also said that she sometimes gives advice and magical gifts to heroes with pure hearts. Baba Yaga is often a warning tale many parents in Russia would tell the children to convince them to behave, as she delights in devouring naughty children.

Her faithful servants are the White Horseman, the Red Horseman and the Black Horseman. When Vasilissa the Beautiful (sometimes called Vasilisa the Wise, a heroine from Russian folklore) asks her who these mysterious horsemen are she replies: "My Bright Dawn, my Red Sun and my Dark Midnight." Among her other servants that she calls "my soul friends", whom she is reluctant to discuss with visitors, are the three bodiless pairs of hands, which appear out of thin air to do her bidding. Baba Yaga is said to be the goddess of Wisdom and Death, and the embodiment of the wild forest itself, which can also be enlightening but deadly.

Tales say that those pure of heart have a much higher chance of escaping the old crone unscathed, but one has to wonder... is exploring those dark, unmapped parts of the woods really worth it?

And as always, if any of you have tales or experiences of your own involving any of these beasties, please post said stories on the monsters' respective pages!!