Rusalka – The Slavic “Mermaid”
Rusalka is a water-dwelling nymph who appears in the shape of a beautiful woman. There are many obvious links between the Rusalki and the mermaids of Celtic myths. Both are beautiful, sexually liberated and occasionally dangerous. They are both descended from goddesses of fertility and retain some of their characteristics. Unlike fishtailed mermaids, rusalki have legs and can walk on land. The rusalki live in rivers or lakes, as opposed to mermaids who live in the sea. They come out many times a year to dance and walk around nearby woods, especially in summer. In ancient times, they were linked with fertility, but they somehow became aggressive nymphs which would draw young males to their detriment in the 19th century. We will try to explain that evolution below.
There are many different variations of how one becomes a rusalka, but they are always women, usually virgins, who died near water before their time. They would become rusalki either because they were unclean souls or because they were souls who suffered violent deaths. Unclean souls could be those of unbaptized babies, babies born out of wedlock (and drowned by their mothers), or suicide victims. Souls who suffered a violent death could be those who were murdered or who had committed suicide, and these deaths usually had something to do with the woman being betrayed by her lover.
After their death, they haunt the body of water in which they died, and they lurk in or near it until their deaths are avenged and they are able to finally rest. Unclean spirits typically have to live out a designated amount of time on earth before they can be allowed to rest.
Another group of myths claims that the Rusalka are water nymphs who marry the Wodanoj. The Wodanoj are male water spirits who live in great castles under the water and who can change their shape at will.
Rusalki often come out of the water, climb a tree or sit on a dock, and sing or comb their hair. Sometimes they join together and do a circle dance in a field. A rusalka has either green or golden hair, which always stayed wet, because if it dried out she would die. This is the reason why she could not spend a large amount of time on land. The hair is sometimes green because of the seaweeds to which she has been long exposed. Their pale skin may sometimes be greenish as well.
Rusalki will either be malevolent or very gentle and playful, usually depending on where they are from. People of different areas have assigned different personalities to the rusalki. For example, around the Danube River, where they are called vile (plural) or vila (vila’s are the Slavic near-equivalent of nymphs), they are considered to be gentle, beautiful girls dressed in robes of mist who sing bewitching songs to the passers-by. However, the rusalki of Northern Russia were considered unkempt and hideous, and they in no way would they pass a chance to ambush humans. Rusalki vary greatly from region to region: in Ukraine they were linked with water, but in the adjoining Belarus they were linked with the forest and the field. The reason for that is that people just generally didn’t make a lot of distinction between various mythological beings and often conflated them as ‘harmful scary powerful spirits’.
Since the 19th century, it has been accounted by most stories that the soul of a young woman who had died in or near a river or a lake would come back to haunt that waterway. This undead rusalka would not be invariably malevolent, and would be allowed to die in peace if her death was avenged. Her main purpose was, however, to lure young men and seduce them into the depths of the said waterways either by her looks or by her voice . Then she would entangle their feet with her long red hair and submerge them. Her body would instantly become very slippery and would not allow the victim to cling on to her body in order to reach the surface. She would then wait until the victim had drowned, or, on some occasions, tickle her victims to death while laughing. It is also believed by a few accounts that the rusalki can change their appearance to match the tastes of men they are about to seduce, although a rusalka is generally considered to represent universal beauty, and is therefore highly feared yet utterly respected in the Slavic culture.
The Rusalka week is a week in early June when the rusalki are believed to be at their most dangerous. At this time they leave the water and swing on branches of birch and willow trees at night. They dance in circles and any human who joins them has to dance until they die. Swimming is forbidden during this period because of the danger of a rusalka dragging people into the water and drowning them. A common feature of the celebration of the Rusal’naia week is the ritual banishing or burial of the rusalka at the end of the week. This practice was observed as recently as the 1930s in Russia as a form of entertainment, until it was forbidden by Soviet forces.
In 19th century versions, a rusalka is an unquiet, dangerous being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit. However, the initial Slavic lore suggests that not all rusalki occurrences were linked with death from water. According to Vladimir Propp, the original “rusalka” was an appellation used by pagan Slavic tribes, who linked them with fertility and did not consider rusalki evil (before the 19th century). They would come out of the water in the spring to transfer life-giving moisture to the fields and thus help nurture the crops.
One probable reason for the notorious deadly nature of the rusalki is revenge for the wrongs they had suffered. In other stories, a rusalka may fall in love with a man from the world of the living, but the couple would always end tragically. No good can come from such a love story and there is no happy ending for the poor rusalka’s damned soul – she’ll haunt the river forever with her sorrow and vengeful fury. Even the almighty Slavic gods Perun, Svarog, Veles and many others couldn’t stay indifferent to the beauty of Rusalka.