Ah, love is in the air! Amidst the brisk commercial trade in chocolate, roses, heart-shaped cards, teddy bears, and jewelry that signifies Valentine’s Day has once again creeped up on us, those of you who have found Mr. or Mrs. Right (or at least “Right Now”) have cause to celebrate your good fortune. For those unfortunates who are facing the grim prospect of a decidedly loveless day, be of good cheer, since it is never truly over until last call. But while you make that last minute search for a true love or attractive playmate, beware, for in love there be monsters. No, seriously. You can’t swing a bat without hitting a mythological caveat about creatures that superficially appear as beautiful and seductive, thereby luring you away to your doom, and only once you’ve been trapped, show you their true monstrous natures. Come to think of it, a lot of people would call that marriage, but rest assured there are far more terrible fates that may await the unwary soul out there. The Moroccan Aisa Qandisa, Norwegian Huldra, Salvadoran Sihuanaba, Dakotan Deer Woman, and the North Indian and Pakistani Churel are but a sampling of the fearsome speed daters that can be found in virtually every culture that enforce the platitude that beauty is only skin deep, and ugly goes clear to the bone.
The Arabic-speaking people of Northern Morocco believe in a jenniya called ‘Aisa Qandisa. She appears as a grown-up woman with a beautiful face, but she has also been seen with the legs of a goat or an ass, or with the legs of a woman and the body of a she-goat with long pendant breasts. She is very libidinous and tries to seduce handsome young men. I was told of a man in Tangier who once in the middle of the night met her in the street, although he took her for a woman. She said to him, “O man, O man, come!” He did not answer but proceeded to his room in another street, shut the door, went to bed, and extinguished the light. When he put his hand on the pillow he, to his amazement, touched the breast of a woman. Now he understood that the individual he had met was a jenniya and that it was she who was in his bed. He got a fright, rushed up from his bed and out from the room, and went to his parents’ house, where he knocked at the door. His mother and brother came out, and when he told them his adventure they accompanied him to his room; but they found nobody there. On the next day he spoke about it to an old man, who said that ‘Aisa Qandisa every night at a certain hour appears in the shape of a woman in the place where he met her, trying to induce men to go with her; and that he who does so will be maddened by her (Westermarck, 1920, p121).
The lesson of course is that you are not so charming that the ladies will be throwing themselves at you in the street, and if they do there is probably an ulterior and no doubt supernatural motive. Scholars have tenuously posited that there may be a connection to the ancient pan-Babylonian idea of the “sacred prostitute”, which would be qadistu in Akkadian (and various Semetic language use related terms meaning anything from “holy one” to “harlot”), passing along through the Phoenicians to Carthaginian colonies, and from there to Morocco, where with the emergence of Islam, downgraded the Qandisa to one of the many frightening Djinn (effectively a set of morally ambiguous Islamic spirits that can be good or evil). This is an excellent example of the nearly ubiquitous mythological theme that horny monsters exist that can appear as ravishingly beautiful women or stunningly handsome men, but hide some spectacularly hideous indicator of an underlying monstrosity. The ever-popular cloven-hooves are associated with the true form of the Qandisa. This is not necessarily a deal breaker for a lot of guys, but please, think of the children. The tradition is carried on with the Norwegian Huldra and her hidden cow’s tail.
The huldra also is an inhabitant of the heights. She is a witch who takes the form of a lovely woman, and meeting humans in the woods she lures them to follow her. Her dwelling is in the mountains, which she opens with a magic word. Inside is a gorgeous palace, filled with immense riches, and having dining-rooms containing splendidly decorated tables laden with all the food a Norwegian enjoys most, served on golden dishes. He who eats of these things is thenceforth in the power of the huldra. Occasionally he wins free; but never afterwards is he as he was. In the country the folks speak of idiots and madmen as being “mountain-taken,” believing that these are victims of the huldra’s wiles. If, however, the involuntary guest refuses to partake of the magic dishes in the mountain passes, he sees before his eyes the dishes of exquisite food turning to pine cones and slabs of earth, while the huldra loses her fascination, and can no longer hide from him the cow’s tail by which she is to be known, nor can she keep him prisoner any longer. Without knowing how, he finds himself back in the woods on the mountain-side; and he cannot discover the entrance to the fairy palace (Jungman, 1905, p77-78).
At least the Huldra serves you a nice Norwegian meal on her finest dishes. Hope you like gravlak (“buried salmon”) and rakfisk (“fermented trout”). In some variations of the paranormal temptress oeuvre, the lady is a straight up shapeshifting animal, which again is not necessarily a turn off depending on how you swing, but invariably true colors are shown and odds are there won’t be a second date, interspecies relations being a tough sell to the parents. Such is the case with Ojibewa, Dakotan, and Pacific Northwest Native American folklore surrounding the Deer Woman.
A man went hunting and shot two deer. He carefully cut up the meat and caused his horse to carry it; and now, when the sun was low, he was coming home. He sat down to rest on the edge of a cliff when a woman approached, walking along the cliff. She arrived and stood beside the man, but he sat without speaking. So at last she sat down by him and said, “Don’t you recognize me? Why are you so quiet?” And she also settled down, and let her feet hang over the bank. But the man was sad in his heart. “How does it happen that this girl, usually so well guarded that it is impossible to get near her, is out in these wild parts by herself? Stealthily he looked at her from the corner of his eye and saw that she wore many rings on her fingers, several on each finger; then he glanced at the shadow she cast, and it was not a woman’s outline, but a deer’s, with the long ears in constant motion. So he thought, “Ah! This is no woman. This is one of those things which they say can trick and mislead men. All right! But try and fool me!” he thought as he quietly felt for his gun. The deer knew it at once, and sprang up and ran like something hurled forth, and disappeared in the woods; and its form was that of a deer. It entered the wood causing the leaves to rustle, and almost at once, it looked out at him and called, “I give those rings to you!” So the man looked where the deer-woman had sat, and there, shaped like rings, lay a pile of tendrils from the grape-vine (Deloria, 1932, p165-166).
In El Salvador lurks La Sihuanaba, often characterized as a beautiful woman cursed to wander the earth as a horrific monster (often depicted with a horses’ head), temporarily hiding her equine features in order to tempt young and stupid men to follow her into the jungle, whereupon she reveals her actual visage. Luckily, her end goal appears to be pranking rather than murdering or getting lucky, so in the grand scheme of things, no harm no foul.
A Salvadoran legend about a woman with long and tangled hair covering her face, slim body and long nails, with enormous breasts that hung up almost touching the ground, she appears in the roads, rivers and ravines especially to single and drunken men wandering late at night. Originally called “Sihuehuet” (beautiful woman), she had a romance with the son of god Tlaloc, the god “Lucero de la Mañana” (Bright Star); and ended pregnant, betraying the sun god. Sihuehuet was a bad mother, she left her son to satisfy her lover. When Tlaloc discovered what was happening, cursed Sihuehuet calling her “Sihuanaba” (ugly woman). From that moment, she would be beautiful at first sight, but when men approach to her she would become a horrifying woman. According to some villagers, Sihuanaba has been seen at night near the rivers of our country, washing clothes and always looking for her son “Cipitío”, which was granted the eternal youth by the god Tlaloc as suffering. According to the legend, every wandering man is a potential victim for Sihuanaba, however, she usually pursues conceited and seducer men. Sihuanaba appears to them in any water tank late at night, taking a shower or comb herself. Some mention that Sihuanaba shows herself as a young beautiful woman to captivate her victims but once she have gained his confidence, she transforms herself into an ugly and grotesque woman, giving their victims the scare of their lives and making them running while she was keeps laughing large loud and beating her breasts in the stones of rivers, all this in the darkness of night (Juarez, 2014).
North Indian and Pakistani legends mention the Churel, and much like the Huldra, the temptation of a beautiful lady inviting you back to her place for a lovely home-cooked meal often proves to be too much. Only two problems with this relationship (1) her feet are on backwards (always look at the feet) which means you’ll be spending extraordinary amounts of money on custom shoes, and (2) she’s undead.
Still more perilous is the churel. In origin the name seems to have denoted the ghosts of some low caste people, whose spirits are always especially malignant, and whose bodies — like those of suicides in England in former times — are buried face downward to hinder the easy escape of the evil spirit. The modern acceptance of the churel, however, is that it is the ghost of a woman who dies while pregnant or in child-birth or before the period of ceremonial impurity has elapsed. Such a ghost may appear beautiful, but it can be recognized by the fact that its feet are turned round. She is apt to captivate handsome young men and take them to her abode, where, if they eat the food she offers, they fall under her power and will not be dismissed until they are grey-haired old men. All sorts of spells are adopted to prevent the ghost of a dead woman from becoming a churel and to avert the spirits which threaten evil to children and to mothers (Werner, McCulloch, & Gray, 1916, p248-249).
So team, let’s be careful out there this Valentine’s Day. You may be lonely today, but that beats a lifetime as a love slave to a half-goat. Unless, of course, you’re into that sort of thing. Go in with your eyes open, watch the feet, and keep Alberto Moravia’s warning in mind that “love is a glass which makes even a monster appear fascinating.”
Deloria, Ella Cara. Dakota Texts. New York: G. E. Stechert & co., agents, 1932.
Jungman, Beatrix. Norway. London: A. & C. Black, 1905.
Westermarck, Edward, 1862-1939. The Belief In Spirits In Morocco. Åbo: Åbo Akademi, 1920.
Juarez, Mauricio. “Stories and Legends of El Salvador”. http://www.elsalvadordestinos.com/ Retrieved on 2/14/2014.
Werner, Alice, 1859-1935, J. A. 1868-1950 MacCulloch, George Foot Moore, and Louis H. 1875-1955 Gray. The Mythology of All Races … Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1916