In Slavic folklore, the rusalka (plural rusalki) (Russian: руса́лка, romanized: rusálka; Polish: rusałka) is a female entity, often malicious toward mankind and frequently associated with water. Folklorists have proposed a variety of origins for the entity, including that they may originally stem from Slavic paganism, where they may have been seen as benevolent spirits. Rusalki appear in a variety of media in modern popular culture, particularly in Slavic language-speaking countries, where they frequently resemble the concept of the mermaid.
Origin and appearance
According to Vladimir Propp, the original “rusalka” was an appellation used by pagan Slavic peoples, who linked them with fertility and did not consider rusalki evil before the 19th century. They came out of the water in the spring to transfer life-giving moisture to the fields and thus helped nurture the crops.
In 19th century versions, a rusalka is an unquiet, dangerous being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit. According to Dmitry Zelenin, young women, who either committed suicide by drowning due to an unhappy marriage (they might have been jilted by their lovers or abused and harassed by their much older husbands) or who were violently drowned against their will (especially after becoming pregnant with unwanted children), must live out their designated time on Earth as rusalki. However, the initial Slavic lore suggests that not all rusalki occurrences were linked with death from water.
It is 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 is not invariably malevolent, and would be allowed to die in peace if her death is avenged. Her main purpose is, however, to lure young men, seduced by either her looks or her voice, into the depths of said waterways where she would entangle their feet with her long red hair and submerge them. Her body would instantly become very slippery and 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 them to death, as she laughed. It is also believed, by a few accounts, that 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, therefore is highly feared yet respected in Slavic culture.
While lore often says that the rusalki could not completely stand out of water, some fiction works tell of rusalki that could climb trees and sing songs, sit on docks with only submerged feet and comb their hair, or even join other rusalki in circle dances in the field. A particular feature of such stories revolves around the fact that this behaviour would be limited to only certain periods of the year, usually the summer.
Specifics pertaining to rusalki differed among regions. Although in most tales they lived without men, in Ukraine they were often linked with water (in Belarus they were linked with the forest and field). Where land was fertile, the maidens appeared naked and beautiful. In Russia, they appeared as women who come out of the water on Kupala night and participate in the festival without harming anyone, and in harsher areas they were pictured as “large breasted amazons”.
In Poland, water rusalki were younger and fair-haired, while the forest ones looked more mature and had black hair – but in both cases, if someone looked up close, their hair turned green, and the faces became distorted. They killed their victims by tickling them to death or forcing them to participate in a frenzied dance. In Polish folklore, the term rusalka could also stand for boginka, dziwożona and various other entities.
The rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during the Rusalka Week (Rusalnaya nedelja) in early June. At this time, they were supposed to have left their watery depths in order to swing on branches of birch and willow trees by night. Swimming during this week was strictly forbidden, lest mermaids would drag a swimmer down to the river floor. A common feature of the celebration of Rusalnaya was the ritual banishment or burial of the rusalki at the end of the week, which remained as entertainment in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine until the 1930s.
Modern popular culture
Regarding representations of the rusalka in modern popular culture, folklorist Natalie Kononenko says, “the currently dominant presents her as something like a mermaid, though she is pictured as having legs rather than a fish tail … The current view of the rusalka as a seductive or seduced woman was probably influenced by written literature. In the past, her image was more complex and she more closely resembled a nature spirit, found not only near water but in fields, forests, and mountains, rather like the vila …”.