I grew up on a staple of rich stories. Well until the age of seven or eight, it was a ritual of sorts, where my mother would read out a bedtime story to my brother and me. The narratives were simple, and the characters soulful. They were tales of hope and possibilities irrespective of their genre: fables, mythology, fairy tales and folktales. Such lores have been around for aeons and the underlying message has remained rooted in a universal truth about the triumph of good over evil.
Every corner of the globe has a library full of stories to offer: myths and legends from ancient ages, passed on orally from generation to generation. Some pop culture mainstays can be traced back a few centuries. (Has anyone really seen Nessie roam the waters of the Scottish Highlands? Do Yetis hide out in the snow-clad Himalayan region? Which castle in Romania did Count Dracula inhabit?) The characters may be fictitious, but the locations are not. Here are seven places shrouded in mysticism that one can visit in real time.
“Be good or Krampus will come to get you.” In Austria, it is fairly common for parents to warn their children against the half-goat, half-demon during Yuletide season. If St. Nicholas rewarded kids with confectioneries, his beastly counterpart would swat misbehaving children, stuff them in a sack, and take them away to his lair in the underworld. A more recent take on the pagan tradition involves drunken men dressed as devils, who chase people through the streets for a Krampuslauf—a Krampus Run of sorts. But it is possible to cross paths with the unpleasant ghost in a more pleasant setting.
The European nation is anchored in folklore of yore and dramatic landscapes that fit the bill. Those who dare to go up the Geisterberg (Ghost Mountain), are likely to encounter a magic castle, an adventure park and numerous imps including the wicked Krampus. The Alpendorf cable car carries passengers atop the mountain, where a forest trail leads off in search of the supernatural. There is even a mountaintop station from where a ghost train pulls up (likely from an unknown destination). The family attraction adds interest to an afternoon hike with an occasional cackling witch or a snoring gnome.
The mind often conjures stills of giant surfs, pristine beaches and Jurassic-era jungles at the mention of Hawaii. But the archipelago is also shrouded in mysticism. The Menehune, or the dwarf-like island dwellers of the forests and valleys are said to hide from human sight. If legend is to be believed, they made home of the land long before the Polynesian settlers laid their claim. They were also skilled craftsmen, who accomplished engineering marvels such as the Menehune Fish Pond and an aqueduct called the Menehune Ditch in Kauai that was built prior to their contact with the Western world. The latter was no mean feat as the rocks—carefully squared and smoothed—not only created a watertight seal, but were also built it in one night.
Supernatural figures have featured in Japanese culture for centuries. It hardly comes as a surprise when in March, as parts of the country declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the countrymen reacted to the crisis by sharing pictures of a mermaid-like being believed to ward off plagues. Amabie, an auspicious yokai (a class of supernatural spirits popularised through Japanese folklore) first documented in 1846, made a resurgence in popular culture.
Legend has it that when a government official took charge of investigating a mysterious green light in the waters in the Kumamoto prefecture (former Higo province) on the island of Kyushu, he spotted a florescent-green creature—which looked like a cross between a long-haired mermaid and an owl—emerge from the sea. Amabie predicted that a rich harvest would bless Japan for the next six years, and a pandemic would raze the country. The solution? People should draw an image of the merperson and share it with as many others as possible. A woodblock print of this encounter made it to the local newspaper and the image soon spread. Amabie may have remained quiescent for much of the past decades, but COVID-19 got #AmabieChallenge to trend on social media in hopes of warding off the virus. One does not have to leave their homes in search of this benevolent creature.
These dark, damp creatures are believed to hide in caves and venture out in frosty winter. They’re notorious with a penchant for human flesh, and have a peculiar aversion to sunlight, lightning, and bells. Before trolls made their way to the big screen in Frozen, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Scandinavia has housed many a legends in Norse mythology and poetry dating back to 12th century Iceland. They are relevant in the region’s literature and tourism. Legend has it that sunlight turns them into stone. Trold-Tintern (troll peaks) in Norway lays claim to this belief. It was the alleged site of a battle between two troll armies so intent on defeating the opponent that they lost track of time well until the crack of dawn, turning into craggy rock formations. For those that fancy a scenic hike, Trolltunga (Troll’s tongue) does not disappoint. The protruding sliver of rock is one of the most spectacular cliffs in Norway, hovering 2,300 feet above Lake Ringedalsvatnet in Odda. Those with an appetite for adventure can make their way to Lillehammer’s Hunderfossen Family Park, where kid-friendly attractions inspired by the stories include a 45-foot-tall troll holding the Trollsalan restaurant.
In Denmark, art and mythology merge to draw people back to nature. Thomas Dambo, a Danish sculptor and self-proclaimed “recycle art activist” known for creating 15- to 21-foot-tall outdoor trolls from salvaged or trashed wood has been preparing for a treasure hunt of sorts. For his latest installation, “The Great Troll Folk Fest,” the artist will assemble, install and hide the colossal giants in lesser-known greenspaces around the country, including tiny islands near Copenhagen and out-of-the-way parks. Over the next few months, he will release clues about their locations on social media. Dambo calls it a gift for families in Denmark, who may feel robbed of a summer vacation this year due to the pandemic.
Some say the love story finds its origins from the Miwok tribe, but there is no way to back this claim as it has been passed down between generations of native tribes.
In one such version, the protagonists—maiden Tisayac and chief Tutokanula—put their hearts on the line almost immediately after meeting. But an overwhelmed Tisayac ran off and Tutokanula wandered across lands far and wide in search of his beloved. Meanwhile, with their chief gone for long, the tribesmen followed suit. When Tisayac eventually returned home, she was horrified at the sight of a barren, abandoned land. She knelt before a mighty dome of rock and called upon the Great Spirit to restore the former glory of the valley. The spirit swooped down from the heaven and struck a mighty blow against the mountains, breaking them apart at a height of 620 feet. The pathway came to be known as Bridalveil Fall (and is often the first waterfall visitors see when entering Yosemite Valley in the U.S.A.). Tisayac’s prayers were answered and the land blossomed with new life. People returned and as did Tutokanula. He is also said to have used his hunting-knife to carve the outline of his face upon a lofty rock, so he would always be remembered. The eponymously named rock can still be viewed from 3,000 feet and stands tall like a guardian at the entrance of the beautiful valley.
Australia is home to the Aborigines and tales as old as time. Legend has it, the Three Sisters Mountain were once three beautiful sisters named “Meehni”, “Wimlah” and “Gunnedoo” from the Katoomba tribe. The siblings fell in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe. But a law forbade marriage between the members of the two clans. In retaliation, the three brothers defied the customs (and consent) and captured the three sisters by force, leading to a bloody battle. As their lives were threatened, a witchdoctor turned the sisters into rock formations in order to protect them. Things took a grim turn when the doctor was sacrificed in the fight and the spell could not be reversed. The three sisters remained beautiful boulders as they are seen today at 3,025 feet, 3,010 feet, and 2,970 feet respectively.
The world’s introduction to ogres has at large been through Shrek. The animated swamp dwelling creature’s portrayal is of a grumpy but a kind-hearted one. Maasai folktales, however, tell a different story. The frightful ogre of the forest in Ngong Hills—near present day Nairobi, Kenya—repeatedly attacked the people of Maasai village, carrying away its inhabitants for food until he fell in love with a beautiful, young maiden. What endured is a story of greed, oppression and valour.
The location in focus, Ngong Hills—whose peak stands at an impressive 8,071 feet above sea level—is ideal for a hike and just a 40-minute drive from the capital city. The rolling landscape, which some might describe as knuckle-shaped, offers panoramic views of the Nairobi National Park from the eastside slopes, and the city of Nairobi off to the north. The west side slopes overlook the Great Rift Valley plummeting 3,281 feet below, where Maasai villages have been developed. The satisfaction of scaling the final peak is best celebrated picnic style. Sprawl out a blanket, pack a sandwich or two and soak in stellar views from the vantage point.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.