Rusalka: the history behind mythical Slavic Mermaid5 min read
In Slavic mythology, a rusalka is something like the Celtic mermaids.
They are beautiful young women who live in bodies of water, enjoy enticing men and they originated from a Slavic pagan tradition where the young women were symbols of fertility.
Actually, in ancient times, they did not interfere too much with human life and served above all to provide life-giving moisture to the fields and forests every spring, when they came ashore to dance in the spring moonlight.
The water spirits were believed to help crops grow plentifully and so were generally treated with respect.
However, by the 19th century, the main objective of a rusalka had transformed into harassing humans.
The rusalka has quite varied origin stories.
According to the most popular one, these creatures originated with young women dying violent deaths. Sometimes it is murder, sometimes it is a suicide, but usually it is a death by drowning.
Their tales often revolve around women betrayed by a husband or lover, while some rusalki are young women who jumped into a lake or river because she was pregnant out of wedlock. Other stories say a rusalka is any young woman who dies a virgin, regardless of whether the death was violent or natural while still other myths say that babies who die before being baptized are reborn as water sprites.
Finally, some myths claim that a rusalka is any unclean soul, in other words, anyone who killed himself or herself by jumping into the lake or river.
Either way these souls linger on in water until their allotted time on earth is complete, while others must remain until their death is avenged.
They haunt lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes, swamps, and any other body of water.
Rusalki are often described as being slim with large breasts.
They are pale-skinned and have long, loose hair that is either blonde, light brown, or even green. Their eyes are said to not contain pupils and, if the rusalka is wicked, can be blazing green.
Invariably, the women wear light, sheer robes as though made of mist.
The motivations of a these creatures vary depending on where she is living for example, where plant life is bountiful and crops grow well, such as in Ukraine and areas around the Danube River, they are charming and playful. However, in harsher climes, they are wild and wicked, malevolent spirits who would crawl out from the water in the middle of the night in order to ambush humans, especially men, who they would then drag alive back into the watery depths.
However, unlike fishtailed mermaids, Rusalki have legs and can walk on land, and they enjoy also dancing and climbing in trees.
Every year at the beginning of summer, around the first week of June, Slavic cultures celebrated Rusalki Week. Interestingly, during this time, swimming in any body of water is absolutely forbidden, as it will mean certain death.
The rusalki are believed to come ashore to play in the weeping willow and swing in birch trees, then they gather together to perform circle dances under the moonlight. Any passerby who should have the misfortune of witnessing one of these events is forced to dance with them until death.
At the end of the week, towns and villages near bodies of water held ceremonial burials in order to appease the rusalki and/or banish them back into the water.
These traditions were maintained well into the 1930s until they were stamped out by Soviet forces.
The Rusalki feature in many Russian and Slavic artworks including paintings, operas, and novels. One of the most renowned homages to a rusalka was written by poet Alexander Pushkin. The poem, published posthumously and entitled Rusalka, gives us a good example of how rusalki are imagined in local cultures.
“In lakeside leafy groves a friar
Escaped the world; out there he passed
His summer days in constant prayer,
Deep studies and eternal fast.
Already with a humble shovel
The elder dug himself a grave,
And calling saints to bless his hovel,
Death—nothing other—did he crave.
So once upon a falling night he
Bowed down beside his drooping shack
And meekly prayed to the Almighty.
The grove was turning slowly black;
Above the lake the mist was lifting;
Through milky clouds across the sky
A ruddy moon was softly drifting,
When water drew the friar’s eye –
He looks; his heart is full of trouble,
Of fear he cannot quite explain;
He sees the waves rise more than double
And suddenly grow calm again.
Then, white as first snow of the highlands,
Light-footed as nocturnal shade,
There comes ashore and sits in silence
Upon the bank a naked maid.
She looks at him and brushes gently
The hair and water off her arms.
He shakes with fear and looks intently
At her seductive, luscious charms.
With eager hand she waves and beckons,
Nods quickly, smiling from afar,
And shoots within two flashing seconds
Into still water like a star.
The glum old man slept not an instant
All night. All day not once he prayed;
Before his eyes still hung and glistened
The wondrous girl’s persistent shade.
The grove puts on the gown of nightfall;
The moon walks on the cloudy floor;
And there’s the maiden—young, delightful,
Reclining on the spellbound shore.
She looks at him, her hair she brushes,
Smiles, sends him kisses sweet and wild,
Plays with the waves—caresses, splashes –
Now laughs, now whimpers like a child,
Moans tenderly, calls louder, louder…
“Here, monk, here, monk! To me, to me!”
Then vanishes in limpid water,
And all is silent instantly…
On the third day the ardent hermit
Was sitting on the shore, in love,
Awaiting the voluptuous mermaid,
As shade was lying on the grove.
Night ceded to the sun’s emergence;
By then the monk had disappeared.
It’s said a crowd of local urchins
Saw floating there a wet gray beard.”
Images from web – Google Research