With Thanksgiving behind us and December now upon us with Christmas on its way, I thought it would be fun to share a particular passion of mine! As many of you know, I'm super fascinated with mythical creatures of winter, ice and snow. (After all, my entire DA account is pretty much dedicated to ice dragons.) So, to celebrate the coming of winter, here are my personal top 10 mythical creatures of ice and the winter season!
Rules: Only creatures of folklore, folk legend, and myth will be included here. Modern 20th- and 21st-century creations known to be fictional won't end up on this. So no modern ice dragons, icy movie monsters, living snowmen, flying reindeer, Ice type Pokemon, ect. We're not looking at modern pop culture but only the icy mythologies of the world, both popular and obscure.
Warning: If you are prone to nightmares, this might be a post you want to skip or skim. You have been warned. But the #7 and #1-3 are fun and not nightmare-inducing, so maybe just skip to them. Up to you.
The Nuckelavee is a winter monster from the Orkney Islands, a creature that will surely send a chill up your bones! Said to be a type of demon, the Nuckelavee is trapped in the sea for most of the year by the Mither o' the Sea, a powerful female sea spirit. But during the winter, the Nuckelavee emerges from the watery depths. The beast has the appearance of a horse with the upper body of a man coming out of the middle of its back. The head of the man-like part is three times too big and rolls back and forth and its arms are too long and drag on the ground. The legs of the creature have fin-like appendages. The horse head has a gaping mouth and a single blood-red eye. The creature has no skin; all that can be seen on its surface is the powerful muscles and pale sinew, with black blood pulsating through yellow veins. The horse mouth breathes a smelly toxic vapor that causes crops to wilt and livestock and young folk to fall ill, and drought follows in its wake.
The Nuckelavee is so dangerous that, traditionally, its name was hardly ever spoken, whispered only in hushed tones that were quickly followed up by a prayer. If you see the creature, it will pursue you, and the only way to escape it is to cross a running body of freshwater. As a creature of the sea and of sickness, the Nuckelavee cannot stand freshwater.
The Nuckelavee was probably created for people to be able to explain plague and troubles with the harvest.
Our next monster is another demon, though the death this one brings about is a bit...sillier. Meet Mahaha. If you think that sounds like evil laughter, well, perhaps it is. The Mahaha is an Inuit myth. A thin but strong humanoid creature, it is ice-blue in color, cold to the touch, with hair that is long and frozen stiff. It is shirtless and barefoot, being unbothered by the cold. An unnerving smile is plastered on its face. But the dangerous part of this monster is its long, bony fingers with long, sharp fingernails. The ice-cold Mahaha will...tickle you to death. No, really. Its ice-cold victims are said to have died with their faces twisted in a frozen smile.
Luckily for its victims, Mahaha is quite foolish and easily tricked. If you encounter one, just ask it to have a drink with you at the water hole. When the Mahaha leans down to drink, push it into the water and watch it be swept away by the currents.
It's hard to say for sure, but based on the description of its victims, I think this myth emerged as an explanation for the contented-looking expressions seen on some victims who have frozen to death.
Our next myth comes from Japan, and this one is a deadly monster as well. Yuki-onna, translated as "snow woman," is said to be the spirit of a beautiful woman who perished in the snow. She is associated with winter. Her method of killing varies with the legend. Some say she leads travelers astray, leaving them to die of exposure in the cold. Others say she'll cause snowstorms to freeze travelers to death. Others say she appears with a child in her arms, known as Yukinko. This child often wears a yuki mino
, a conical straw snow cloak traditional in Japan. Yuki-onna will freeze anyone who tries to take the cloaked Yukinko from her. Sometimes she'll even invade people's homes, blowing the door open and freezing them in their sleep. And other times, she only kills men who she successfully seduces with freezing kisses. The reason for her killing is not known. Some say she does it just because, while others say she drinks the blood or "life force" of her victims.
There's no mention of a way to escape the Snow Woman, but there are legends that reveal she has a willingness to show mercy. She has been known to spare people. One legend even tells of her sparing a young man due to his youth and handsome appearance, and later he discovers that the woman he married is in fact Yuki-onna.
Yuki-onna appears to be a spirit made to personify the coldness of winter that leads people to freeze to death.
Now as I stated before, I love ice dragons, but for the most part, the ice dragon is a modern mythical creature, not really mentioned until 20th century and created only as a foil to the traditional fiery dragon. But there is one myth that may count as an actual ice dragon legend. Yet another myth from Japan, Kuraokami is a Shinto deity, and Shinto deities are Japanese dragons. With kura
meaning "dark" and okami
meaning "water dragon patron," this white dragon is one of the gods associated with the valleys (as opposed to the mountains, hence the "dark" in its name) and is the god of rain and snow. It is said that Kuraokami and his siblings, Takaokami and Kuramitsuha, were born of the blood that dripped from the hero Izanagi's sword after he slew Kagutsuchi, the dragon god of fire. However, temples to Kuraokami and Takaokami almost always show them together, indicating these two gods are either the same god or twin deities.
If prayed to, Kuraokami can cause rain or snow to fall to water crops and is generally seen as a benevolent spirit, though his wrath can be incurred. He was made to explain the cause of precipitation and give farmers a way to ask for it.
Also called the "Kiwakwa" or "Apotamkin" and bearing some similarity to the Algonquin Wendigo, the Chenoo comes to us from the Wabanaki tribes of the northeast U.S., and it is truly
Part of what makes it terrifying is that it was once a human being...a human being who committed cannibalism or refused to feed the starving. This caused the human's heart to freeze and turn to pure ice, taking the shape of a small human figure. Once this happens, the person changes into a Chenoo. Chenoos are giants compared to humans and described as being both man and beast. In appearance, the Chenoo is like a haggard, naked old man with wolfish eyes and may have chunks of flesh missing where it has eaten its own flesh. It will often cover its flesh in pine resin and roll in leaves and fallen branches to make a camouflage for itself in the forest. They live in the far, icy north and venture down to people of the forest when hungry in order to devour them.
Their human-figure-shaped heart is the key to turning a man into a Chenoo and turning a Chenoo back into a man...or just killing the Chenoo, whichever is easiest. A special medicine, known only to the tribes, can cause them to vomit up the heart of ice and the hearts of those they devoured and become a man once more. But generally, saving the human is not possible...and sometimes you might not want to. To kill the beast, one way is to chop it to pieces, but if you want something easier and a bit less graphic, just give it a bit of salt. The salt will melt that ice heart real quick.
The Chenoo myth was likely born during a time, or multiple times, when food was scarce in the winter and not sharing food could kill people and desperation could lead to cannibalism. It's hard to say whether the Chenoo was first created as a warning to people to share food and deter them from violent cannibalism or whether the Chenoo was first a real threat, a myth born of desperate starving people who turned to hunting and cannibalizing people of another group to survive. It may have even been both. Some also say that the Chenoo may have similar origins to the North American bigfoot, if such a creature is out there.
Now we move from cannibalism to torture! This is another Inuit monster that plays with its victims until they die, but its form of torture is so much more sinister and nightmare-inducing than tickling its victims to death. Its name gives you a clue as to what it does: "Ikuutayuq" means "The One Who Drills." Ikuutayuq and her unnamed brother capture victims and then take them to a ritual circle of pillars of ice, where the brother holds the victim down while Ikuutayuq drills holes into the victim's body until they die. The bodies are buried under pillars of ice.
This creature, despite being something out of a horror movie, is no threat now. In one of the Inuit legends, a hero managed to kill Ikuutayuq, and her brother fled in terror. No such creature haunts the Arctic Circle anymore.
Although I have seen no speculation on it, I think the Ikuutayuq may have been a way to explain frozen human corpses found in the ice of the arctic...perhaps corpses that were thousands of years old, much like the many woolly mammoth carcasses that are found in the ice. Sometimes the ice freezing and expanding and then melting again within the corpse will create holes in the body.
I promise, this is the last Inuit myth on this list, and while this one is actually the least deadly of all the Inuit monsters so far, it's the one that frightens me personally the most. I don't do dark shadowy humanoid figures with glowing eyes, and I don't do restless souls that never get rest, and I don't do things that trick your own senses, and this creature is all of those things. I'm sharing my kryptonite with the Internet. You're welcome.
You may have heard of the Ijiraq before if you have ever Googled Inuit mythology. And if you have, you may have heard it is a half-man, half-caribou child snatcher. This is false. That creature is the Tariaksuq, which has similar abilities as the Ijiraq but is not the same creature. The Ijiraq is said to be the spirit of someone who wandered too far into the cold north and frozen wastes and got caught between life and death. Some say it is a shape-shifter that can take any form, though it can never disguise its blood-red eyes. In its true form, it has the appearance of a person, perhaps with a "normal" appearance or perhaps as a dark shadow, with sideways eyes and a sideways mouth. It is said that you can only see them in their true form out of the corner of your eye, and if you look at them full-on, they disappear. They are said to target travelers and will bring a disorienting effect on them that could lead them far astray, even when their destination was in sight, trying to keep the living from entering their territory. Sometimes, however, they might try to drag the living into their realm of undead. Many experience memory loss after meeting one and only know of the encounter because they find themselves wandering where they weren't supposed to be.
One explanation for this myth is the hydrogen sulfide that is sometimes expelled in the arctic from melting ice. This toxic gas can produce heavy disorientation, even when a person would normally navigate easily. The gas and sulfur smoke may also cause a person to see mirages...most often dark images out of the corner of your eye.
The myth of the winter barbegazi comes to us from the French Alps on the border of modern-day Switzerland and France. The Barbegazi is a fairy or little person, in this case a type of dwarf or gnome. They are covered in white fur and have pointed ears and a long white beard from which clumps of icicles hang, which is where they get their name, meaning "frozen beards." But their most distinguishing feature is actually their insanely large feet. This creature is one of my absolute favorite mythical creatures, special to me for a number of reasons: it comes from the land of my ancestors, it is a friendly winter myth (a welcome change of pace), and its favorite pastime is one of my favorite pastimes. You see, the barbegazi will use its large feet to actually ski down mountain slopes! They have even been known to surf avalanches. In their few interactions with people, they are usually kind; they help shepherds find lost sheep and their whistles alert those in the mountains of avalanches. These little beings can tunnel into the snow and, during the warmer months, they live in a vast network of tunnels and caves within the mountains, only emerging when the weather turns cold. Some even say they hibernate through the summer.
I've seen no speculations on the origins of this myth, but little people are imagined the world over, especially in Europe, so it does not surprise me that a group of people would invent a distinct cold weather mountain variety.
I went back and forth on putting this creature so far up the list. To be honest, I'm not as fond of the the yeti compared to other winter myths, namely because it's so over-hyped. The yeti or Abominable Snowman is the mythical creature most people immediately think of when trying to think of winter-themed mythical creatures and so has become a bit boring to me. That said, it's precisely because of this popularity that I must put it high on this list, whatever my feelings. Any creature that captures the popular consciousness deserves to be high on a top 10 list.
One thing, though: pop culture usually depicts it wrong. You may think of this creature as having white fur, but eye-witnesses always say it has dark brown
fur. So I got an accurate yeti picture for you above. If you think it looks like bigfoot...you would be right.
The yeti, whose name means "snow-man" in Nepalese, is a creature said to hail from the Himalayas in Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. It is a tall, upright ape-like creature. The Sherpa people of Nepal claim there's actually three types of these snow-men. One is the meh-teh
, which is likely the creature we think of when we think of the classic yeti: a three-meter-tall ape-like creature that walks upright, is covered in brown hair, and is said to sometimes attack humans. Its name means "man-bear." There's also the teh-lma
, a bipedal, one-meter-tall ape-like creature who lives in the forests and valleys and has light brown, reddish fur and long dangling arms. Finally, the largest is the Dzu-teh
, a creature almost 8 feet tall with a terrible smell. It is often seen walking on all fours and is very dangerous.
Most think the yeti sightings are mis-identifications of other animals, particularly bears, but others think there may yet be an undiscovered large ape species lurking in the snowy mountains. The dzu-teh
may very well be real animals, in fact. Dzu-teh
is actually the Sherpa word for the Himalayan brown bear, and the teh-lma's
description matches that of the Assamese gibbon. However, the true identity of the meh-teh
, the "man-bear," the classic yeti, is still unknown. Some think it not only is a real creature but is the same creature as the classic North American bigfoot.
There were a lot of creatures I wanted to include on this list, but I simply couldn't cover all of them. So here are some honorable mentions.
- Hrimfaxi: The horse of Nott, the goddess of night in Norse mythology, Hrimfaxi's name means "frost mane," and he pulls the moon chariot. The frost from his mane falls to the ground below to make dew. (This is one of my personal favorite icy myths simply because I adore horses, but I left it off the main list simply due to there not being a lot to it.)
- Nykur: The Icelandic version of a kelpie, the Nykur is a shapeshifting water horse faerie that lures people onto its back only to run into a body of water and drown them. The sound of ice cracking over water bodies is said to be the sound of the Nykur's neighing.
- Snow Wasset: A Canadian myth, the Snow Wasset is a migratory weasel-like animal that hibernates during summer and hunts in the winter.
- Kamaitachi: A Japanese myth, Kamaitachi is a weasel with sickles for claws who attacks the legs of unsuspecting victims in cold weather to suck their blood.
- Wendigo: This is a creature of Algonquian myth similar to a Chenoo, complete with an icy heart and an appetite for human flesh. People who have committed sins are frozen within its heart.
- Wechuge: A giant made of ice that consumed those who committed taboos, this Athabaskan myth is also very similar to the Chenoo and Wendigo.
- Ded Moroz: The Russian version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz or "Old Man Frost" wields a magical frost staff and has a granddaughter helper called the Snow Maiden.
- Nisse: Magical little people of Scandinavian origin, these little bearded elves protect homes in winter and are the "Santa Claus" of Scandinavia, bringing presents to children during Christmas and Yule.
- Krampus: This is the half-goat, half-demon counterpart to Santa Claus who, according to Central European folklore, goes around punishing naughty children at Christmas.
- Boreas: Boreas is the Greek god of the north wind.
- Khione: Daughter of Boreas, Khione is the Greek goddess of snow.
- Pamola: A Penobscot legend, the Pamola is the guardian of Mount Katahdin, the largest mountain in Maine, and causes cold weather. It has the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the wings and feet of an eagle.
- Skadi: Skadi is a Norse giantess associated with winter, wolves, mountains, skiing, and archery.
- Koguhpuk: This Inuit monster lives underground to avoid the rays of the sun and comes out only during winter. Mammoth carcasses are often believed to be this creature and are likely the source of the myth.
- Cailleach: A Gaelic goddess, this mostly malevolent hag is the queen of winter. She herds deer, rides a wolf, fights spring, and freezes the ground with her staff. Some see her as the protector of wild animals.
- Babe the Blue Ox: The ox of Paul Bunyan, an American folk hero, Babe was found by Paul in a freezing cold winter storm, which is why he turned blue. Even after being taken in by Paul, Babe continued to love ice and snow.
- Lausks: An old man winter spirit of Latvian myth, this figure has a role similar to the English Jack Frost.
1. Jack Frost
My number one is probably the most popular winter-based mythical creature in pop culture, but unlike the yeti, this one also happens to be one of my personal favorite legendary figures of all time, too. I want to do a long post on the origins of the Jack Frost legend sometime this winter, but for now, I'll give you the bare bones. Jack Frost is a rather young legend, having likely arose from a British 17th-century turn-of-phrase and kept alive by late 19th and 20th century American pop culture. He is a fairy, sprite, or spirit said to be the personification of frost, snow, ice, and winter, as well as being responsible for changing the colors of the leaves in fall and nipping at your nose, fingers, and toes in the cold weather. He has no clear-cut appearance, but most picture him as being sprite-like with pointed ears and covered in frost. He is said to make beautiful fern-like designs of frost on windowpanes but also do cruel things like shatter jam jars. Jack Frost has been made a hero in some stories, a villain in others, and still neutral in others, but always he seems to be a mischievous figure. Part of my fondness for him comes from the fact that his character may be just about anything you make of it, making each Jack Frost unique from the last.
Today, Jack Frost can be found in numerous books, poetry, cinema, TV and streaming shows, and video and computer games. Some his more popular appearances include the DreamWorks movie Rise of the Guardians
, the movie Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
, the game Runescape
, Bing Cosby's song "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost," Nat King Cole's song "The Christmas Song," and some of the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, including one titled Jack Frost
. My personal favorite Jack Frosts are probably the one from the dark fantasy book trilogy The Veil
by Christopher Golden and the one from the Guardians of Childhood
novels by William Joyce.
And that's my list of top 10 mythical creatures for this coming cold winter. Hope you enjoyed! Let me know what's your favorite among these or if you know of another icy mythical creature you think I should have mentioned. And have a great holiday season with all your mythical fantasies!