Even many locals struggle to find the Lousy Oak, entwined in distressing legends. Chronicles of the 15th and 16th century already mention a very large, mature oak-tree where many witches and Devil’s servants were hanged and burnt. During the serfdom, farmers who were driven into desperation used to commit suicide by hanging themselves off the oak branches. Even in the more recent times, this is where people have mysteriously gone missing here. The tree fell in the fall of 2015 after vandals burnt it down, but the place has not lost its peculiar energy.
The sage Māris Zvaunis tells about the oak-tree: “The Lousy Oak (Draņķozols) is growing at the intersection of three underground water streams. To survive in a place like that, you have to become nasty, whether you want it or not. The tree has a massive negative energy. You shiver as you stand near it, claims Ralfs Kokins in his book “Kurzemes vilkaču nostāsti.” But the most interesting place is the ditch right beside it — the dual world border between the positive and negative energy. Nowhere in the nature you can see such a marked borderline — as if carved with a sword.”
The Tale of the Draņķozols Oak
The story I’m about to tell is the most curious tale I have ever heard myself. It is not merely an account of an unusual encounter but also of a strange and mysterious conversation with a werewolf that leads us deeper into the secrets of our existence.
Plenty of folk tales and legends assure that, given certain circumstances, with the help of magic rituals, humans are able to turn into wolves or werewolves. However, the werewolf folklore of Courland introduces us to a different kind of werewolf that must have been like this since the beginning of time — the giant, prehistoric spectres, phantoms, shadows, more resembling the Celtic “great and mighty dark”, or fortibus umbris.
Near Tukums, not far from the Engure highway, right in the middle of an eerie marsh in the Rauda woods, there is a mound. On top of the mound, stands a thick oak tree, centuries old and long since dead. A dark hollow stretches along its trunk about three metres above the ground; its broad, broken, moss and lichen covered branches are stretched towards the sky like veiny arms.
At least five different werewolf myths and thrice as many ghost stories have sprung from the Draņķozols Oak and its oddly beautiful surroundings. The most famous is the tale of the evil spirits that lead travelers astray, with countless accounts of people getting lost while hiking, picking berries or mushrooms. The spirits send them walking in circles till exhaustion, ending up always at the said oak, thus falling gradually into terror and hopelessness.
The Draņķozols Oak is at least six hundred years old, mentioned in the Tukums village papers and local church chronicles as early as in the 15th and 16th centuries as a grand, tall oak where witches and Satan’s servants were burnt and hung.
During feudalism, the local farmers, having been brought to despair, would hang themselves from the tree. The modern history has also reported quite a few mysterious suicides and sudden disappearances around this area. It is all in all an unusually strange place, exuding primal beauty and a peculiar aura.
It seems to be one of the most wonderful and diverse woodlands in Latvia where you will find all types of forests, surprisingly high and steep hills, wood lakes, marshes and brooks. South of the Draņķozols, near the almost unnaturally steep Maijpuķīškalns hillock, on tops of knolls covered in old firs, you will find rare and odd-looking formations; these so-called bubble-springs pull from the depths of the earth and force up ice-cold, crystal-clear water. In places where the water flows onto the surface, under the roots of tall trees, there are oval quicksand “eyes”, so deep that the longest stick would not reach the bottom. Should you try and poke the sand “eye” with a long object, the spring will get furious, swirl it around and push it right back at you. These springs form a vast system of brooks. Like fine, and lively capilares, they meander down towards Lake Melnezers. The locals claim the waters here have beneficial and even healing effects.
As you walk from the oak towards Zirgezers, right behind the big quagmire, you will find a wide hollow stump of an old fir tree, fallen way back when. The hole in the trunk is at least as deep as a good water well. You can hear spooky, muffled echoes coming out of it. The ground near this stump is rich in mushrooms and berries, mainly for the reason that the location scares most hitchhikers away. Some say, the hole connects to a passage that leads to the world of underground gnomes and trolls. Others claim it is a part of a cluster of ancient Celtic sacred sites, which is rather unlikely.
There have been sightings of animals as rare as lynx and wolves, especially as you walk closer to the seaside from the Draņķozols and Āži Mounds.
Being near the Draņķozols, I was often overcome by sudden, animalistic fear without any apparent reason. I felt as if something terrifying was watching me from out of someplace dark. Even during stormy weather, it was peaceful and quiet there; at times there was a chilling fog.
A sinuous ravine leads straight down from the oak and ends in a couple of dozen metres on the edge of a small, black and quaggy marsh. The path is rather wide and never grows over with weeds as if someone was there at all times to clear this strange road to nowhere. Just as spooky is the upwards path that leads from the oak, past the Cīruļpurviņš marsh, up the Lazdas Hillock, and towards the distant Ozoliņi village and the Engure Road. As you climb up, you will be weight down by unusually great weariness and heavy and grim thoughts. If you happen to walk away from the oak alone, it is excruciatingly scary to look back.
A plethora of rare, unseen species of plants and flowers are found in the Draķozols proximity. Trees around here grow very old, massive and branch out far. Three old giants — a fir, a pine, and a birch — have slowly twisted and grown into each other forming a single stem. The woods are home to the remnants of several burial sites or the so called “Devil’s Boats”, as well as weirdly shaped stones with ancient engravings of various symbols. Even in the most recent times, victims of mysterious suicides have been found near these stones. Usually, the story goes something like this: a person comes here to pick berries or mushrooms, ends up cutting his wrists, lies down on the moss-covered stones and bleeds to death. It might be that some hungry sprites dwell here and trick and talk folk into such deeds.
The marshland right next to the Draņķozols is the most horrid place I have ever laid my eyes on. No words can do it justice. Even the uncanny and infamous marshes of the Transylvanian and Bavarian valleys have nothing on this beast up here in Courland.
Once during an autumn recess, I was playing with my friends around the Draņķozols Oak, we met the local forester, as we often would. He was an old, very old man, or so he seemed to us when we were little, with a rather bushy, grey beard. He had a wild appearance and looked nothing like your “regular” folk. He did not speak much, but when he did, his voice was rough and deep; he had a hearty laugh that could make treetops tremble. He overheard us boys joke amongst ourselves that we should go and hunt down some monsters, to which he responded by suggesting with utmost seriousness that we equip ourselves with a silver bullet. He told us you could kill witches and werewolves with those, and then he offered us to tell a story from his own experience. This is when he told us a tale truly frightening and shattering.
It was back in the early 1960s. A local forester owned an old carbine, a gun he inherited from his forefathers. One day, on his way home, he decided to walk the narrow paths that lead past the Draņķozols. It was late in the evening and the forest had sunken into a misty dusk, the moon was full, and the sky full of clouds. As he got closer to the oak, he felt sudden fear. A kind he had never felt before. He was certain something was behind him, watching. The forester turned to look back, and what he saw scared him nearly to death. He was now face to face with this horrific, deeply dark creature, almost four metres tall, human-like. The beast’s bottom half was wide, and the top half was skinny. For a moment, it seemed to the forester to be a giant, burnt and charred man. It had a head of an earless wolf, its eyes were deep and dark, and his teeth unnaturally long, thin and crooked. Its entire body was covered in black and ragged hair.
Suddenly, the air was filled with an unavoidable stench of corpses and deadly silence. Even mother nature had stood still that moment, and not a leaf, not a single blade of grass moved. At first he thought it was his own mind playing mean tricks on him. The forester, being a man of action, grabbed his carbine he had on his shoulder, and loaded with a single silver bullet he had on him. He had wanted to ask the creature, thinking it might be somebody dressed up, just fooling around with the locals, but his tongue had been paralysed with terror and he could not force any sound to come through. As he was about to fire, the beast spoke up, or rather began uttering beastly sounds. Then the strangest thing happened. The man saw himself, as if in a moving picture, put down the gun unfired, and engage in a conversation with the monstrous being who spoke to him in a primeval, dream-like tongue. It explained that it was neither of good, nor of bad nature, and that he was a werewolf.
As soon as the vision was over, the man decided to act according to his instinct and put the gun down. The creature pulled its muzzle into an even more petrifying grimace, so the forester thought he was about to have a heart attack. He wanted to fire his gun, but was unable to lift it up this time, for his arms were numb and weighed down.
Out of the blue, the creature started making low and strange sounds which appeared to be some sort of language. It was both inconceivably frightening and mesmerizing. His voice sounded like the hissing of an enormous oven, the turning of the cogs in a windmill, like wailing from the bowels of the kingdom of the dead. It was nothing close to human speech. Werewolf's register was bizarrely and hideously low, it spoke lengthy passages like a Nordic shaman or an oracle. At times it sounded like an ancient saga that rhymed, at times — almost like a song. It seemed to the forester a timeless song of the earth and its depths, a language older than all animals, older than time, an important song that was our greatest misfortune to have forgotten. It seemed like a distant, irretrievable memory. Petrifying chills ran down the forester's back.
He had understood not a single word from the beast’s speech, however, while the wolf spoke, the man was experiencing foggy visions of the werewolf among other mythical creatures, many of them winged. They were tearing apart and devouring people. He saw what resembled sewage waters and streams of dregs carrying rotten human and animal corpses. He saw all consuming fires burning myriads of men and women; he saw tall towers wrapped in fog or mist, filled to the brim with dead people, gnawed at by worms; he saw dried up trees, forests devoid of green, a sky full of ash and soot. He tasted something bitter and metallic, and he somehow knew it to be poison. Later on, he translated this premonition as a message about the eminent threat of pollution and violence we impose against mother nature. The kind we are witnessing reach its peak today.
He saw horrid diseases, and a large meteorite falling to Earth. Then came blinding darkness and frost of which the entire humanity perished. There were also catastrophic fires of unfathomable magnitude melting our largest cities to the ground.
This is where the werewolf stopped. One moment, the beast seemed friendly, even grateful; a split second later, he was spewing out curses, preaching misfortune and apocalyptic disasters which meant a total and immediate annihilation to the forester. He tried to force himself to calm down and say something, explain or justify himself to the werewolf by speaking clear and fluent Latvian. Nothing came out of this but the return of the nauseating and paralyzing sense of primal fear and panic. He wanted to introduce himself to the wolf somehow but was soon faced with the fact that he himself had forgotten his real name. The name typed in his passport and used by people back in the human world now felt like an empty sound signifying nothing even to its owner. He came to realize he had to communicate in the language of images, dreams, fantasies and archetypes. It was extremely difficult to muster, but once he managed to do it, he also learned that he knew his real name which was nothing like is like his Latvian one.
The werewolf spoke up once more, wailing and snorting, starting at the Forester several times, as if trying to eat the man or frighten him dead at the very least.
That is when the Forester saw himself lying on the ground with his stomach cut open. It had a big tumor growing out of it, ugly and raw clumps of pus and dark blood pouring out of the wound. The werewolf now became extremely nasty and was raging violently. The forester knew with certainty — he had to find a way to save himself, to escape, take refuge. The forester remembered nothing from that point on until the moment he stopped running. He came to his senses having reached the edge of the Ozoliņi forest on a moonlit night.
What he found most peculiar was that after this horrendous and outlandish encounter, he knew at least two things with utmost certainty.
First, he knew his health was in serious danger. He had been feeling poorly for months now, but he was diagnosed with cancer only after the werewolf had shown it to him. The tumor was still in a stage where it could be removed safely. The surgery was successful and the forester recovered without complications.
The second thing he was certain of was that the beast spoke some universal language anybody was capable of comprehending - humans, birds, and reptiles alike. The werewolf spoke the language of animals, dragons, and all living things. It was the language of indivisible, vast and complete realm gifted by God himself to all his creations.
But the most important was the realization that there is an unknown, inexplicable wonder hidden in plain sight, namely, that it was possible to communicate directly with all imaginable life-forms without using words.
The forester now could see that despite having different voices, all beings, even trees, could speak to each other in a shared language of archetypes, perceptions, dreams, hearts and images. And the the only beings who had forgotten how to speak it where humans. We have lost the track of what the one single truth is. Man is no longer capable of seeing beauty, seeing what truly matters, thus he goes wrecking everything in his way. It is the way of sorrow, misery, and irreversible destruction.
The message we receive from all living things is one of trust and goodwill, and all living things, in return, know perfectly well what we are trying to say. All life either suffers obediently or celebrates in hope joyously along with us. Humankind is growing and evolving, and there hopefully will come a day when we no longer act like the devil who neither sees, nor feels anythink and ruins all things.
(R.Kokins. "Kurzemes vilkaču nostāsti"- R., Zvaigzne, 2007., 19.-30.lpp.)
You can read about the stories of werewolves in Kurzeme in the book "Werewolf Tales of Kurzeme" by the theologian Ralph Kokin, but the stories recorded here - in the Raudas Forest, can be read here.
Contact informationRauda forest, Sēme parish, Tukums region