Although for some, the idea of going on a foreign holiday might still feel like a fantasy, there’s no harm in indulging in a bit of make-believe. So many destinations across the globe are steeped in mystery and folklore, and learning about the bizarre stories and traditions underpinning communities is an adventure in itself.
If you’re seeking some escapism beyond even the wildest of dreams, try these trips exploring some of the world’s most outlandish fables and beliefs – from mermaids with monkey heads, to elves hiding in rocks.
The myth: during the 18th century, at the peak of the spice trade, the Indian Ocean was awash with pirates waiting to hijack vessels laden with exotic treasures. Sainte-Marie, an island off the northeast coast of Madagascar, became a popular hideout thanks to its strategic position and availability of fresh water.
Scotsman Captain Kidd, who was hired by European royals to attack foreign ships, supposedly stashed his loot in Sainte-Marie, where he also sank his vessel the Adventure Galley – which was rediscovered between 2001 and 2015.
Harz Mountains, Germany
The myth: every year, witches would congregate at the top of Brocken mountain to worship the pagan god and goddess of spring, Wotan and Freya. The ritual of Walpurgisnacht was so dramatic, it captured the attention of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who used the Harz Mountains as a backdrop for scenes in his famous work Faust.
Today, wannabe witches and devils head to surrounding towns and villages on 30 April, transforming the event into a Gothic-themed festival. Harz inhabitants still believe the area is populated by spirits and devils, hence place names such as Einhornhoehle (Unicorn Cave), Hexentanzplatz (Witches Dance Floor) and Teufelsmauer (Devil’s Wall). To date, however, no-one has run into the Mining Monk, a ghost who would haunt miners working in tunnels below the mountain.
The myth: lurking in lava formation tucked into the shadows of mountain folds, ‘hidden people’ can be found all over Iceland. Although these Huldufolk look and behave like humans, they are often invisible and only appear in special circumstances.
Icelanders warn against throwing stones (in case they accidentally hit a hidden person) and it is customary to leave food out for the shape-shifting beings at Christmas. On Midsummer Night (24 June), anyone who happens to be at a crossroads is likely to encounter mischievous elves, who will try to tempt them with food and gifts.
Living in harmony with nature, the Huldufolk also have a reputation for halting the construction of roads or demolition of rocks for new buildings. In 1982, 150 Icelanders marched on the NATO base in Keflavik to look for “elves who might be endangered by jets”.
The myth: not all mermaids have flowing locks and big beautiful eyes. In Japan, the ningyo (meaning human fish or mermaid) has a monkey’s mouth with tiny teeth, a voice like a flute and she cries white pearl tears. A majestic creature, she has the power to bestow eternal youth and beauty on any woman who (bizarrely) manages to take a bite out of her.
But catching the sea nymph has never been easy: a portent of storms and misfortune, she’s always been given a wide berth by fishermen, and villages in Okinawa fear trouble if she’s washed up ashore.
On the plus side, a belief that eating a ningyo will bring bad fortune has partially helped preserve the dugong – a cumbersome sea cow thought to have been mistaken by early sailors for mermaids.
Are any of these destinations on your wish list? What’s your favourite folklore from around the world? Why not share the best overseas myth you’ve heard in the comments section below?
– With PA
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